Friday, May 18, 2018

...cold turkey on the banks of the Shenandoah

The campground has no internet. Not even a neighbor’s unsecured WiFi. Not even one bar of connectivity. Nothing. If I’d known that I would have contacted everyone I love while I was still in Front Royal. Just to say goodbye you know. And to let folks know that, for the moment, anyway, I was still alive and thinking of them with my last breath.

OK. It sounds like the beginning of a tired and worn horror novel. It was a dark and stormy night, right? Truth is though that I was unprepared for my involuntary internet fast. I didn’t realize how utterly cut off from the world I would feel.

Which makes me a little uncomfortable. I had no idea how addicted I had become to being connected. It’s not as if I were constantly texting or direct messaging or tweeting or even posting on Facebook. I don’t do any of those things all that much.

But I lurk. I look in on others quite a bit. I am more than a little interested in the thoughts, opinions, judgments of others. And I have become so used to their thoughts, opinions, and judgments that when I am cut off suddenly from my ever present stream of information, I feel bereft. Weird, a little pathetic even, to be sitting by a pine fire, cold beer in hand, in the middle of some of the loveliest scenery in America and find myself jonesing for the snark on @realDonaldTrump’s latest tweet.

Weird. Pathetic. And scary. Because without the internet, I might actually have to face the blank screen in front of me. Social media is a great way to avoid pretty much everything, in case you have been hanging out on the banks of the Shenandoah River for the last fifteen years and haven’t noticed. It’s in a class by itself when it comes to distracting a student from his books, a parent from her children, a writer from the page. It takes serious will to resist the siren song of the best friend’s Paris vacation pics, or the neighbor’s student of the month, or the office mate’s promotion to CEO of the world. Hold on while I refresh my Twitter feed. Oh. Right. No internet.

Weird. Pathetic. Scary. And freeing, once I conquer my social media separation anxiety, anyway. The thing is I don’t need any encouragement in judging myself and finding myself lacking. I can find everyone and everything far more worthy than I without any help at all. Turning off social media for a season, even for an hour or two, turns off, or at least turns down the volume on the endless internal judging and comparing and competing that, for me, social media feeds.

Master chef Julia Childs has famously said, “All things in moderation.” Put another way—butter’s not the problem. You are. She’s not wrong. Social media isn’t the problem. I am.

Which is good news. I don't have to be controlled by social media. I can turn it off. And so can you. Try it and see what happens, for an hour, a day, a season, or cold turkey on the banks of the Shenandoah.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Counting my blessings

My friend Emma had a tough life. She lost her husband to an accident when her four boys were young. Never having expected to be the sole support of her family, she leveraged her skill as a seamstress into a living income that kept a roof over her kids’ heads, food in their bellies, and eventually helped send all four through college. It wasn’t easy, but it worked. And so did Emma, every day of her life.

Emma was one of the most consistently cheerful people I have ever known. Although the first time I met her, she had one of the boys in her Sunday School class in a headlock, (trust me on this, it was the compassionate response to the problem at hand) Emma was a kind, accepting, peaceful woman of her generation, a person who got up every morning, put on her big girl support stockings and sallied forth to meet the day on her terms.

Her secret? She lived by the words that she taught every single kid who came through her Sunday School class:

            Count your blessings, name them one by one,
            Count your blessings, see what God has done!
            Count your blessings, name them one by one,
            And it will surprise what the Lord has done![1]

I think of Emma often these days, and wonder what she would have made of the constant barrage of bad news that fills the newspapers, cable TV, Twitter, and Facebook. I don't know about you, but it weighs me down. I woke up the morning after the Super Bowl, feeling so good and wondering why. It hit me that I had spent a full six hours having a great time (sorry, Patriots fans) not worrying for a moment about nuclear proliferation, race relations, sexual misconduct and assault, gun violence, and the general miserable state of the Union.
I know I could turn off the news, not read the paper, disconnect from Twitter and Facebook. And I do, sometimes.

I take long walks. I meditate. I pray. I read murder mysteries where the good guys always win. I watch Chip and Jo fix up Waco, Texas, like it’s my job.

But this Lenten season, I am adding something else. I’m taking a page out of Emma’s book and starting my day counting my blessings. As it turns out, I have so many to pick from. Maybe you do, too.

[1] Johnson Oatman, Jr., 1897. Listen to it here:

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

For the love of Ash Wednesday

This year, Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday. Put another way, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. It presents a conundrum. If you’re Catholic, a rather peculiar conundrum as both are holy days in the church calendar—one pretty a much a secular holiday, one, well, decidedly not. Let’s just say that if, like a good Catholic, you’ve eaten all your chocolate on Shrove Tuesday, the traditional day for clearing all the good stuff out of the pantry in preparation for the fasting that accompanies Lent, your beloved is going to find it pretty slim pickin’s on February 14.

But it’s not just our Catholic sisters and brothers who are searching for a solution to this year’s church calendar. One pastor I know stood up in the pulpit last week and asked her affluent, mostly Boomer generation congregation to cancel any dinner reservations that had been made for February 14 and come to Ash Wednesday services instead. It didn’t go well. Boomers, as it turns out, don’t want to talk about death, focus on death, contemplate their own death, listen to a sermon about death, or attend any kind of a worship service that includes the words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Valentine’s Day gives them any number of great excuses to avoid the ashes. “My wife would never forgive me.” “This is my partner’s big chance to prove she’s a romantic. It would break her heart not to take me out.” “I made reservations. They’ll charge me anyway if I don’t show up.”

My guess is that Ash Wednesday makes us Boomers just a little nervous, uncomfortable even. We’re the generation that could barely imagine life after 30. We’re the generation that wondered if Valentine’s Day love would even exist when we were 64. Who wouldn’t rather eat chocolate on Wednesday?

The truth is that we Boomers are a lot closer to dust than we used to be. As are we all.

Which is why, when we have a choice, we should go all in on Ash Wednesday and take our beloved out to dinner next weekend.  Ash Wednesday is a gift to each one of us, old and young, a gift from the church, a gift of our Christian tradition, the ashes a reminder that we are finite creatures, small, limited, dependent, broken, a reminder that God is God and we are not, that God is in charge, and we are not.

I find myself every now and then laboring under the burden of the  fiction that I am all that and a bag of chips, that the universe is defined by what I can know of it, that with effort and intention and the appropriate resources, there is nothing that I cannot control. Intellectually, theoretically, up here in my head, I do know that I am a creature and that I have a limited lifespan. But in my heart and in my gut, my monkey brain, if you will, I haven’t quit accepted that I, in all my glory, am one of the created, rather than the creator.

We have pushed our mortality out the door, removing any signs of death from our daily lives. My mother lived on a farm, where death was a part of life. When her grandmother died, her mom and her aunts laid grandma out in the farmhouse’s front parlor. And each of them took a turn keeping vigil over the body, including my eight year old mother. Now, to hear my friends at the funeral home down the street tell it, death is too often hidden, as if dad just went out to the Wawa and didn’t come home.

Ash Wednesday is a gift of the church to the church, a reminder that we are mortal, created, finite, that we are, in fact, not all that and a bag of chips. For the good times, the days when everything goes just right and the world is our oyster, Ash Wednesday reminds us that all that we have and all that we are is a gift of our Creator, that we are dust and God is not.

And for the hard days, the bad days, the really, really sad days, Ash Wednesday reminds us that God holds even our grief, our loss, our end in his hands. To face our own deaths, or the deaths of those whom we love, is unthinkable without the assurance that, although our lives are grass, soon forgotten, the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. We are held in the hands of the One who created us out of dust. And as we return to dust, we are held in the hands of the One who loves us enough to give for us his own life.

Celebrate Ash Wednesday this year. Come to church. Receive the ashes. Drink from the cup of salvation. Eat from the bread of life. Celebrate Ash Wednesday this year. Celebrate true love.

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.