Thursday, November 16, 2017

Someplace in Montana

My friend Jerry unfriends everyone who disagrees with him. Jerry’s Facebook wall is for Jerry’s truth. Post your own obviously false truth on your own wall, if you must. But, post it on Jerry’s wall and you’re gone. 

To be fair to Jerry, he’s put his time and his energy and his money where his mouth is. He’s studied the issues, read widely, sought out the silenced and listened to their stories. He has a right to his passion.

Given how much Jerry cares, you might think he would actively seek out conversation with those who weren’t yet on the same page. You might think that he would look for opportunities to persuade, to teach, to open someone’s foolishly closed mind.

But Jerry’s tired of all that. Fair enough. It’s Jerry’s wall.

David Brooks, in a recent New York Times editorial (11/13/17), says that Jerry, like a whole lot of us, is held in the grip of a siege mentality where the culture is seen as irredeemably hostile to one’s deepest held convictions. Everyone else is wrong. It’s us against the world.

Useful, Brooks admits, as a way to motivate people to get with the team, but in the end, self-destructive. “Groups smitten with the siege mentality filter out discordant facts and become more extreme versions of themselves…displacing whatever creed they started with.” Including servant leadership, Brooks says. Including, I would add, any kind of a Sermon on the Mount Christian ethos of humility, righteousness, mercy, and compassion.

And the ironic piece of all this is that the social media that the culture at large and the church, too, have wholeheartedly embraced, Facebook, Twitter and the like, tools designed ostensibly to increase communication, facilitate far-flung conversations, and, in the church’s case, to proclaim gospel truth to those who might otherwise never hear it, make it so easy to be viciously partisan, to dig in to our bubbles and filter out discordant facts and uncomfortable people. Disagree with Jerry—and you’re gone.

Two Jews, an Amishman, and an atheist walk into a bar.

Sounds like the beginning of a bad Henny Youngman joke.

But somewhere across the high plains of eastern Montana aboard Amtrak’s signature train, The Empire Builder, this happened. Two college age Jewish kids mysteriously wearing corn on the cob costumes on the day after Halloween, an young Amishman bound with his family of ten for East Glacier, Montana, and a new future, and an atheist Ph.D. in Economics biker dude heading for Seattle and a job as a barista sat down in the lounge car over three beers and a cup of tea.

And they talked.

About religion and the Bible and the end times and why Amish people drive buggies and don’t drink beer. About secular Jews and what they believe and don’t believe and why atheists and conservative Christians can’t seem to get along. About good coffee and bad college and horse ranching in Montana. About the possibility or not that the Amish guy and his family could build a house in three weeks like they planned. (That conversation included a phone-in with the atheist biker dude’s African-American carpenter buddy in Chicago.)

 We can do this, too, you know. Maybe it takes being locked in a confined space for three days with no internet, no cable, no decent food, and nothing to do but look out the window. But we can do this. We can talk to each and more importantly we can listen. We can sit down with people face to face, people who are visibly different than we are. We can listen to their stories.

Will it challenge us? Will it be deeply uncomfortable? Will we agree with everything we hear—or anything? Yes, yes, and no, most likely.

But we can do this. If two guys wearing corn cob costumes can do it, surely we can, too, we who claim to follow a savior who went to the far country to hang out with outcasts and oddballs and people no one else wanted to bother with. We can seek out the other, the stranger, the alien, the one who we disagree with completely, and we can talk. We can listen like it’s our job.

Because we might learn something. Because we might share something worthwhile. Because we might grow as human beings, as neighbors, as persons of faith. Because it’s what Jesus asked us to do.

Two Jews, an Amishman, and an atheist walked into a bar. And they walked out friends.

What a concept.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Of squirrels and steadfast love

Dog joy. That’s the only word for it. When I pull out his harness and clip on the leash, pure unadulterated joy.

Which is remarkable because I pull out the harness and clip on the leash every day. Part of my sabbatical discipline has been the daily dog walk.

And, for T-Bone, it's always new. It doesn’t matter that we take exactly the same route every day, past the same telephone poles that he peed on yesterday. He sniffs each one as if it were brand new, as if it were the first time. It doesn’t matter how often we’ve passed the house with the barking Bichon tied out in the front yard. I may wish that, just once, they’d keep that poor pup inside, but I would swear that it’s the highlight of T-Bone’s day, every day. Every squirrel we meet holds the potential of victory, never mind the leash. Every pine cone is a waiting adventure, every leaf swirling in the wind an invitation and a challenge.

T-Bone and I walk pretty much the same route every day, the same bushes, the same barking dogs, the same people on the street, the same squirrels. But you’d never know that by my dog.

Of course, you might think I’ve missed the kicker here. T-Bone, you might say, is a dog, And it’s just not that hard to be optimistic and positive when you’re a dog. Especially one who lives in sure and certain hope that, sometime around 8am and again at approximately 5pm, your food dish will magically appear filled with kibble. It’s not that hard to turn your face into the wind on purpose when you’re a dog who has been delivered from the jaws of death in a Tennessee shelter and transferred to the kingdom of dog heaven in Lawrenceville where you are loved unconditionally. Even in that moment when you do, and you will, steal the pork chops off the kitchen cupboard. It’s not that hard to be bold and adventurous when it’s never occurred to your doggy brain that your humans don’t have the whole world in their hands.

When you think about it, it should be just that easy for me, too. I’m a child of the God who provides, who saves, who I believe in faith has the whole world in his hands. But the world is a mess. And confidence and optimism and an adventurous spirit are hard to come by.

They found Nick Pratico’s body this week. My heart breaks for his family and his friends, many of whom are kids in our church community who are again struggling to understand why such pain and sorrow afflicts good people whom they love. My heart breaks for the illness and hopelessness that bring any child to such a place. My heart breaks for the dreams and the future that won’t be.

And then there’s the rest of the week.

Our national conversation and civic life have grown more bitter and broken and useless by the day. Our political leaders spent this week tweeting insults at one another while Puerto Ricans die for lack of clean water and electricity. And people who claim the name of Jesus Christ jumped right in with both feet, defending sexual abusers, providing scriptural cover for bigots and anti-Semites, heaping scorn and derision upon those who would exercise their right to disagree. Not gonna lie. I’m a little overwhelmed by it all and my soul is weary.  

The author of the Old Testament book of Lamentations wrote into the darkness and desperation of his time: The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” Lamentations 3:19-24

A big part of my sabbatical discipline has been the daily dog walk. And for T-Bone, no matter how often we do it, it never gets old. I think that, in a doggy sort of way, T-Bone knows instinctively something that I, with my capacity to imagine disaster, too often forget. God has the whole world in his hands. Love never ceases. Mercy never comes to an end.  In the grace of God, life is new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness.

T-Bone and I are going for a walk. There will be squirrels.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


You can’t argue with the wind, shrugged the ferryman, as he posted the “Ferry Not Running” sign. Well, I guess you can, he smiled, but you’re gonna lose.

So Jim and I didn’t go to Iona. The remnants of the hurricane winds which had devastated the Caribbean roared through the North Atlantic, pushing record swells onto the west coast of Scotland, and closed down the ferries that run between Oban and Mull and Iona. For four days in a row. You can’t argue with the wind. No ferries. No Iona.
My 12-step friends tell me that one of the keys to the whole and healthy life most of us want is knowing when to argue with the wind and when to go with it, knowing and changing what you can change and knowing and accepting what you can’t. As my Facebook feed fills up with women posting #metoo, I am coming to realize that I have over the years accepted as unchangeable attitudes, biases, and behaviors which can be changed, which have to be changed.

I wanted to get a job, you see, to get ahead, to live into my call. And I was strong and smart. I had people who believed in me. I could handle it. Arguing with the wind seemed a fight I was destined to lose. People can be mean, sometimes vicious, violent, and cruel. Why not just work harder to be better than the abuser and move on?

My 12-step friends tell me that accepting what you can’t change and changing what you can is a big part of living a healthy and whole life. They also tell me that the trick is discerning the difference. I was wrong in acting as if the harassment and abuse I experience(d) was my problem, primarily about me, and something that I had to live with. It’s not. I’ve come to see that. It’s systemic, it’s widespread, it’s extraordinarily damaging and painful. And it can be changed.

So here’s my #metoo.

And my prayers for my sisters—and my brothers.

And my promise to do what I can to change what I can.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Last Tuesday, I hiked the Ballycotton Cliff Walk. To be more accurate, I hiked the Ballycotton Cliff Walk and half of the Ballycotton bird walk too. I didn’t intend to walk nearly 5 miles one way with the necessity to turn around at some point and walk all the way back. But. It was a little hard to tell where one walk ended and the other began. And at the time, it seemed imperative to FINISH the Cliff Walk. 

And the beauty was extraordinary. I grew up in Northern California. The Coastal Highway and Big Sur were beloved next door neighbors. Nearly every summer, my dad would drive the family up the coast to Oregon with plenty of picture stops along the way. It never, ever got old.

Still the beauty of what the Irish call the Wild Atlantic Way is extraordinary. Partly I think because it is so up close, personal, and unspoiled. Miles of glorious cliffs topped by emerald green fields (yes, a cliché but a cliché because it’s true.) Jagged fingers of red sandstone rising out of a sea the exact color of my granddaughter’s eyes. Foaming water below, glorious windswept skies above.

And not a house in sight. Not a luxury apartment. Not a $10 million condo. Not a gated community. Not a golf course, or tennis court, or swimming pool. Not even a handicapped accessible bike/jogging path. In fact, bikes and horses are expressly forbidden. ATV’s are unthinkable. As my mother used to say, it’s shank’s mare, baby, all the way. 

Extraordinary. Otherworldly, really. A land out of time.

And quite unremarked by the residents of this beautiful little village. It is the backdrop of their lives. They are as much a part of the landscape as the gorse on the cliffs. And the landscape is part of them, the crashing waves a heartbeat as real as their own. Not something to be admired and photographed and ooh-ed and ahh-ed over. Simply there.

It’s different for me. Here, far from home, my senses are on high alert. In a land where a rainbow lies around every corner, I don’t want to miss a thing. I smell the peat smoke in the air. I taste the salt on the wind. I feel the ground under my feet, the mist and the sun on my face. 

And I wonder how much of my own life goes unnoticed, unremarked. I wonder how much of the world around me I miss for lack of focus and attention. After one particularly long night in the desert, Jacob exclaimed: God was in this place and I didn’t even know it. How often do I see and not perceive, or hear and not listen or understand? 

Last Tuesday, I hiked the Ballycotton Cliff Walk. It didn’t take much to see there the fingerprints of a loving God. The work is to keep my eyes open when I get home.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Packing light

Jesus told his disciples: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.” Nowadays you get 50 pounds.

Which is both a lot and practically nothing. For instance, a person could take unlimited underwear. But you don’t need to take unlimited underwear because underwear’s easy to wash in the hotel sink. Jeans, sweaters, not so much. It can be done, but it’s not pretty. So one pair of jeans for three weeks and hope against hope for a coin-op laundry?

Similarly, socks pack real well. They fill in the cracks between everything else and can even be packed inside shoes. But shoes take up a lot of room and weight. So, the question becomes, how many shoes do I need for all those socks?

The truth is I have too much stuff. Because I like stuff. Stuff is my security blanket. Stuff grants the illusion that I am in control. I like to have the right stuff for whatever comes and that translates into a whole lot of stuff for a three week trip, stuff for rainy weather, stuff in case it’s warm, stuff for the almost certainty that it won’t be warm, stuff for hiking, stuff for the beach, stuff for the pub, stuff for the remote possibility that we eat somewhere other than a pub, stuff for church, stuff for country, stuff for town, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff.

And then of course, there’s the camera, the iPad, the portable, packable keyboard, and books, guidebooks, prayer books, the latest Janet Evanovich. My friend gave me a beautiful Bible for my sabbatical. I love it. It feels so good in my hands. The leather cover, the glorious paper, the beautiful typeset inside. I don’t want to leave it home.  

It’s a lot of stuff, which I don’t have the room or the weight to pack.

Jesus said take nothing for the journey. I’m not there yet—probably won’t ever be. But in the spirit and discipline of sabbatical, this time I’m letting go and traveling light. The shoes on my feet and a pair in the suitcase. The iPad loaded with books in my purse; the Bible stays home. 

Which leaves room in my suitcase for my pillow.

Dude—get serious. I’m not traveling that light. The pillow goes.