Friday, November 16, 2012

Retracting from the Cold

The cold changes your skin. It becomes tight and protective. Caulking cracks on fascia in the mile-high altitude air in November, peeling off your 4/3 mil. wetsuit in the parking lot after a mid December surf session. Frosty air or salt water, your skin retracts from the cold. At first it feels good and fresh, even clean, like wiping oily skin with an alcohol swab. But after some more exposure, it wants to keep tightening, shrinking, and soon it has no choice but to split. Like a piece of leather or a new wineskin, it shrivels a bit, and while most of your body won't notice, it's your hands that pay tribute to the cold. There's a dullness that lingers and rises from the finger bones, and the skin begins to crack and split, leaving tiny fissures that sting and pulse in rhythm with your heart. It's the cold season, the time for gloves and Utter cream and hoodies. Because the cold wants to get past your skin and your bones, all the way to your soul.

I wonder how many people really believe they have as soul, because when you talk about the soul, people nod their heads, consenting to the existential truth that they are more than just a complicated mass of intricate matter. When you talk about your soul being alive, energized, tired, or lost, it's the head-nod, the acknowledgement that, yeah, I've got a soul, and it probably has a reason for being here, but let's stay tangible, even practical, O.K.? It's almost embarrassing talking about the inner life. It's soft, flighty, poetic, weak. And this spills into the idea of rest. For many, rest happens later in life, but today is the time for pushing and driving. It's living with the idea that time is short and scarce, and the harder I work, the more time I might have to do the things I really want. And the weeks and years evaporate in the cloud of pushing and driving, because this kind of time (the Greeks called it chronos) is a slave-master who devours stranger, friend, and kin (think of the Greek god Chronos who gorges his own child). But there's another kind of time, the kairos kind, which is time filled with purpose and potential and possibility. And our souls long for this.

 Because scarcity is not our purpose.

"The thief (think chronos) comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that you might have life, and that in abundance." John 10:10.

And it's anything but material abundance or earthly security. Jesus didn't have your 401K in mind when he said that. In fact, he was all about the soul. "Come to me if you're tired and weary and loaded with a heavy burden, and I'll give rest to your soul." Or "Don't bow down to the guy that can hurt your body, but rather bow down to God who, if he wanted to, could destroy your soul." I think Jesus had a less than poetic view of the soul. It is just as obvious as the sky above, and, because it's rugged and wild and beautiful,  it needs care, just like your teeth need brushing and your body needs sleep. And people live their whole lives without sleep and act as if they aren't tired, as if they don't carry a burden that someone else needs to lift because they're just too exhausted to set it down. The cold is setting in, the skin is retracting to protect what's underneath, and the fingers are starting to split and tear.

Sometimes you have to be invited to live differently. This is what Sabbath does. It invites you to stop bowing down to scarcity, to chronos, to your usual way of doing life. It asks you, not to work less and pursue leisure, but to discover the God-ordained rhtymn for your day, to ask the question, what is this time for? It invites you into abundance, to trust the Creator and Giver of time, to give your soul attention, to listen a little more, and to abandon the trajectory that leads to scarcity.

The cold season is here. Our skin retracts to protect, and it's starting to hurt. God says there's a way of life that's better, more restful, more abundant. We'll grow a little as we continue striving, through scarcity, but we'll thrive through God's rest and abundance. It's the place of true strength. "In repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength..." (Isa. 30:15).

Monday, October 1, 2012

Preparing vs. Planning

What's more important, a prepared heart or a planned life? Is it a fair distinction? In the big picture, would I rather have a good plan or a right heart (if I had to choose). Maybe you can have both, maybe they aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they're not. They could go hand in hand, like good friends. Yet it seems that one usually takes the lead over the other, and I'm not sure this is the way it's supposed to be. In this world where most people aren't very secure, myself included, the quest for security, stability, etc. takes front burner. Hence the plan. The goal. The objective to reach the goal. The data to confirm or falsify the hypothesis. The empirical rule. If security were a given, if it were already attained (and I'm thinking financial and job/career, primarily), then there would be room to think about things like preparing my heart for.... whatever. But honestly, most people value planning over preparing. Planning is measurable, tangible, logical, and necessary. I believe in it. I'm not great at it, mostly because I live in the enchanted world of what if's and could/should be's. This is a very misunderstood place, and it's extremely frustrating to live with someone like this. I actually do plan, whether it's hourly or weekly or yearly. It's just that I don't do it as well as my engineering type friends. We need plans, and we need good planners.

A prepared heart is another matter. To prepare the heart is to invite the eternal into the day, to submit to the God-ordained rhythm and to discover, usually by waiting a little, the path that has been prepared (not that there's just one path for you, but some are better than others, and they might not look right at first, but you still take it because you're trusting that God-ordained rhythm). This is why Sabbath is so good, because it steers you back to submission. You work hard, juggling, cramming, producing, generating, stewarding what you've been given for the week, and then you stop and breath again. You give in to the rest. You light a candle and say, "Life is hard and good. God is for me. True rest is from him, and this chunk of time is a gift from him to me." You let go, and that's the hardest part, because it puts your plans back on the alter, and you stay waiting and listening, trying to enjoy the release that comes from letting go and asking God to drive and direct your way.

I've been asking God to prepare my heart. In six weeks I'll be at a forum with people who actively care for church leaders. I'm hoping for clarity for the 10 10 Ministries vision God has evolved in Robyn and me over the last decade and a half. Part of me wants to just give it back to God and get on with my small life, and the other part wants God to release me fully into it. To bless and encourage and strengthen people who are tattered and broken by providing some space and rest and direction. To help people claim their heart and touch and observe and accept their soul, because it's starving to be touched and noticed and befriended. Because the work they're caught up in is strangling them and their spouse, and their children are adjusting again, creating normalcy out of scarcity.

It seems to require faith, and a lot of it, to lay my plans on God's alter as a way of life. It's one thing to think it, but quite another to do it, to say, at 6:00 in the morning, "Dear Lord, what shall we make of today?" Is their a more counter-cultural prayer than that? And then to actually wait for him, to actually believe that he's got a voice that you can hear somewhere inside, a voice that yearns to be heard and wants to lead me each hour of the day. So it's 6:30 am, and you're still waiting. Is that you, God? Try my anxious thoughts, lead me in the way everlasting. Lead me into the next hour. Sometimes God may lead directly, sometimes zig zag. Sometimes he won't answer until later in the morning, when you've committed to your day, your responsibilities. I guess it doesn't really matter when. The point is that you've laid your heart before him, and I think he's preparing it, whether or not you hear his voice or sense his lead. I'm just questioning whether he wants me to work to exhaustion each day. Sure, sometimes that's just what you've got to do. But as a way of life, I'm not so sure. What I know is that my heart teeters on the thin line of breaking from too much weight, and it needs the affirming touch of Jesus who says it's O.K. to stop the pushing, the generating, the producing, for a while. I give my heart back to him again. Repair it. Prepare it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

love, a little

I love my family. I love Robyn, my wife and partner of 19 and half years. I love Clayton, my 11 year old son, who loves professional baseball. I love Maddy, my 8 year old daughter, who loves Justin Bieber and One Direction. This is my inner circle.

I love my older sister, who lives in San Luis Obispo with her amazing husband Wade and her two children, Alex and Scotty. I love my mom and dad, even though I'm still angry because they divorced after 45 years of marriage. This is the next circle.

I love my wife's side of the family too. Sue, my mother-in-law, Traci, Marc, Arden, Emye, Scott and Collen, Brad, Joy. The list goes on a bit. The next circle.

And then there's the friend circles. John and Sandy, Dan Deeble, Dom and Kym, Mark and Julie, Scott and Sarah, Scott and Wendy. I love these people. I have some shared history. We've gone really deep at times. These are the close friends circle. And there's the more recent friendships, the ones covering the last few years. Balin and Judy, Kip and Kelly, Jeff and Kelli, Bob and Sheri. I know I'm forgetting some. These are people we hang out with occasionally.

All of these circles are the easy-to-love people (well, sometimes it's hard, but only sometimes). And if I'm honest, I don't really put out that much for most of them. If our paths cross, it's good. But I don't actively seek out how I can love them better (the exception being Robyn and Clayton and Maddy--I actually do sacrifice for them and try to love them in tangible and lasting ways. I know more baseball stats than most dads. I have Justin Bieber and One Direction songs all over my iTunes library. I vacuum sometimes.).  It's easier to love my closest family. It's a little less easy to love the next circle (in the initiating sort of way; my love for my extended family is always constant. I'm talking practical, like calling more often or getting together and hanging out). And then the friendships. Our times come and go, we love in the sense of "Love you, bro" (although a few of the above-mentioned go super deep, almost to the inner circle!).

So here's my quandary: there are two orders I'm supposed to follow when it comes to love. These orders originate in eternity somewhere, and they've made there way to this planet, to the species I'm a part of. I've accepted them as truth, they're a lot bigger than I am, and they're tried, tested, and proven. "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." And this second one is equal to the first in importance. That's the one that gets me. Loving people. I wish it would have been more specific, like "love your wife and kids as yourself." That would be manageable. Love God and love Robyn, Clayton, and Maddy. But the command is broad. It goes well beyond the first circle. It goes beyond all the circles, in fact. Love people. And not "love humanity." That's easy. It sounds real good, but it's and idea, and abstract. You can say you love humanity but it implies a distance. It's much more honest to love individuals than humanity. And that's why it's so hard, and few do it.

Sometimes, when I slow down and remember I have a soul that needs attention and I recalibrate and find God's rhythm for my day, I sense the joy and pleasure of loving others. Compassion and a yearning to see people heal and grow and thrive start to well up inside. But most of the time it's not that.  Most of time I am baffled to even consider the thought of loving others practically and honestly. There's just not time, and loving takes time. And it can be costly. I literally weigh it out. If I take the time to talk with or meet up with someone, even one of the easy-to-loves, it will cost me money. I'm self-employed, so every minute away from my job is a dollar lost, or put on hold till I get it done. I barely stay in the black each month, even with an extremely frugal wife who manages the budget. I know it's an illusion, but it's one that I buy into, and it's this: If I had more money, if things weren't so desperate each week and month when it comes to generating income for myself and my guys and then producing on time  the work I generated, if the margins weren't paper thin, then I would have space for the love to happen. I'd say to you, "hey, how you doin'? Sure, let's grab some lunch. You need help with a project this weekend? Yeah, I've got plenty of time. I'll be there at 8:00 with donuts." It's not like that. It has been, at times, it's just not now. Now it's like "Hello? Yeah? Uh, I can't really talk right now.Why? Because I'm on a 28 foot ladder on unstable ground leaning into the fascia with a 10,000 speed grinder squinting and inhaling fine toxins before it gets any windier. Why isn't this a good time, again?  Oh, because the migrane that I woke up with at 4:00 is only getting worse despite the 2400 mgs of ibuprofen that are ripping my stomach lining and leaving blood in the stools. Yeah, migranes, or migrane-like, what's the difference. Sure, I'll just take some time off from painting, from my weekly dose of toxin injections so my head can clear and my liver can do it's job." I suppose if you had a fixed income, you could entertain that thought, that you could have a sick day or vacation day and your budget wouldn't become fussy. But most of us in the contracting industry, especially the subcontracting, work until we're exhausted because it's sink or swim. And if you try to do it honest, like paying payroll taxes and comp and liability  and sales tax, your margins stay slim, because you can't keep passing on those costs to the homeowner or the other guys will get the jobs. So you work. And your body pays the toll over the years. Like prostitution. You sacrifice your body for money.

So to stop and take time for others (something I really want to do and try to do, because I actually do have some love in me), is not easy. I can't believe how selfish all this is sounding. I want to be known for someone who loves selflessly, who goes beyond the norm. But I'm depleted from providing and from the anxiety of generating, and so people usually experience me as someone on the emptier side and in need of more rest. So back to the illusion. If I had more money, I'd have more space, I'd have more time to actively love the people in my life. I'd be rested and filled and postured to give. I'd even stumble into that arena of loving my neighbor, the down-and-out guy whom no one gives the time of day to. "You will know them by their love..." Jesus challenges me, not in the shaming kind of way, but the curious, come check this out way. "We love, because he first loved us..." My little paradigm is about getting financial relief and space so I can love. But there's a bigger one, probably more tested over the centuries than my 40 years of experience, that says loving well doesn't start with preferable circumstances, but simply with God's love to me. Another risk. Another step of faith. I have to risk stopping the treading of water a bit so I can get some of that love. I have to believe that it's worth it, even if I sink a little (or a lot?). It is worth it. Just taking the time a few mornings a week to have a cup of good coffee downtown and blog out some thoughts before I jump through the hoops of the day. I push back the thoughts that say I'm losing two hours of productivity and generating income, and instead I listen for the Voice that says today is a gift, take it, let it change you, take my yoke, my rhythm, my love first. For me, taking love and giving love is such a real, practical, sometimes painful act of faith. They go hand in hand.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

lower like Jesus

I wonder if Jesus wore the same clothes as a carpenter and a traveling minister guy. His Nazareth neighbors knew him as one of the wood workers who scraped by for years under the security of his dad's local business. Calloused hands, an eye for detail, at home with wood shavings and dusty shop floors. That's what they saw. That's what they knew. Did this twenty-something construction worker ever yearn to tell them he's more than what they see, that he has ideas born from another world, abilities to change lives? That he has desires to help people? That he longs to heal? That he has an "in" with the Creator of the world? That he knows people are really lost and hurting, and that he can join up with them and lead them back to the right path? That he knows that the role you play isn't always the same as who you really are? The humility and restraint not to expose and correct and prove. The faith to let it come out in due time.

Is it the the quiet people who are more misunderstood, or the ones who talk a lot? Jesus is probably the best model of someone whom people didn't get. I picture him on the quieter side than the noisier one. I wonder what went on in his mind when he was walking alone. He had lots of compassion, but compassion wears you out after a while. Did he ever just long to go back to the shop and rip some Lebanese cedar planks? To get lost in work, the kind you do by yourself with your hands? To make something and see it completed, unlike the work of ministry?

I used to think he was of such a single mind, so seared to his purpose of being the bridge to eternity, that he couldn't get distracted while he walked through the Middle East. And this left me with the familiar feeling of not measuring up. I try, but my mind isn't like that. It's not that single. It drifts from the long-term goals of financial security to the immediate needs of daily work and provision to the planning of rest with my family to the frustrations and challenges of waiting and knowing with more certainty the eternal purpose for my life. I wished Jesus was more human like me. But maybe he was. Distractions were, in fact, his norm. People were always touching him and bumping into him and bothering him with questions and pleas, even traps. And he just rolled with it. He was casual but unwavering. And that just attracted more people, more demands, more distractions, more compassion. People still didn't get it, but that didn't seem to throw him off. In fact, he just lowered himself more to meet them in their obscurities and misunderstandings. He came from heaven, from somewhere in eternity, to the earth, but once here, he didn't stop descending. He kept descending so people could have a chance to see and hope for that eternal connection with their Creator. He lowered himself into people's lives all the way till he died, and then he reversed things.

I wonder if I could, or should, try to copy that way of life, the lowering kind, the descending kind, the kind that steers away from upward mobility and climbing for security and gathering more stuff and trying to be significant and noticed. Maybe that's where the true treasure is, in the deeper parts of life, the parts you have to descend into to genuinely connect with people in those gray places of pain and hope and relief from the burdens of trying to make it all the time. Maybe that's where God's currents of grace run less hindered, even wilder, in those places under the surface a bit. Maybe there's more room for me down there than up here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Chaplain Intern

It was January 1999. I was in the final stretch of finishing a Masters program. All 144 units of  academics were checked off. I just had one final semester of a CEU to complete, off campus. Methodist Hospital in Arcadia, CA would be my daily destination for the next 12 weeks. After three years of classroom study (actually five for me doing it part-time...I was working to avoid the loans), the higher-ups at Fuller wanted you to take some time to get practical with all that cognitive wisdom. Take a practicum. Challenge yourself. Make it real. I chose to work as a chaplain in the hospital. Not really sure what I was doing.

I was part of a group of graduate students who were also looking to finish their degree. Over the weeks we bonded, not in the lifetime sense of bff's, but in a unique way that only raw experience with death and sickness can create. I would spend half my time visiting patients, letting them know that no, I'm not the doctor, I'm the guy you didn't request who's supposed to talk to you about God or faith or religion. The other half of the internship was reflective, process-based. I and my fellow chaplains would meet together with our supervisor and discuss spiritual care or journal our thoughts and experiences. The first few weeks I felt like a fish out of water. Little did I know of the land mines that would have to be crossed before Spring.

The first day on the job we were informed about proper attire. I don't know if they meant hospital attire, or ministry attire, or "you  pseudo-religious cadets who think you know about life now that you've almost got a degree in something" attire. I had expected (three words that will mess up your life if you're not careful) that we could wear clothes that were nice/casual, clothes that didn't make us look like a doctor or nurse or administrator or priest. Just nice jeans and a buttoned shirt, maybe untucked, probably not flip-flops so as not to contract scary diseases that might ooze on the floor, but just regular clothes that say I'm not guarded, I'm casual but deep, I'm good-looking. Instead, we had to wear slacks, long-sleeve polyester shirts, ties, and even jackets. Really? This is not a 1950's prom, nor is it grandpa's funeral. I already felt like I was in someone else's skin, and now I've got to walk around with this formal camaflauge and pretend I feel natural talking and listening to the sick and dying.

So I walk up to the nurses' station, hoping one of these elite and seasoned helpers of the sick can point me to the starting gate of my rounds. After about two and half minutes of gossip with her fellow RN's and scribbling in notebooks, she raises her eyes with obvious disdain for the interruption. "Yeah?" she says, communicating to me in a short tone that she's a 24 year old female who doesn't have time to digress from her social and professional space, that she and her co-workers don't need some newbie chaplain to supplement their more-than-adequate care of patients, and that the patients, doctors, janitors, everyone in the hospital, don't want any religious interns walking the halls of this institution.  She points me away down the hall, but then her eyes move to my name tag. "Joey?? Is your name Joey? Isn't that a little boy's name?" The RN crew behind her look up from behind the counter and glance at me, then back at her, then back down to their notes, cracking smiles and smirks, another casualty, another victory. I walk away in my suit, feeling the stares pushing me into my first room. I thought I'd feel more prepared for my first patient visit.

Dagmar was my supervisor for the next 12 weeks. Her English was fair, a bit broken. She would have preferred to speak in her native German. As we all sat in a circle sharing tid bits of our life the first day, I learned that Dagmar was raised in a small Protestant town steeped in old German piety. I wondered if she was related to Martin Luther. Somewhere along the way she broke off from the tradition. She was now a graduate student at Claremont studying process theology and living life with her partner and serving as a woman chaplain in the hospital. My mind is starting to drift. This is my new boss. My supervisor. My pastor, sort of. The pieces don't fit. And after a few days (well maybe the first two weeks), I was so grateful they didn't fit. Dagmar became a friend, a mentor. And I was becoming someone more. So many people with strong convictions are afraid of a slippery slope. And to me, this just shows that their convictions aren't all that strong. You can stretch and grow without abandoning or compromising your core beliefs. In fact you should. If you have a Rock foundation, then the storms and challenges and uncertainties and puzzle pieces that don't fit are only going to make you more humble and interesting and Jesus-like. Because of Dagmar's leadership and pastoral care to her students, I became a better chaplain, a better pastor, able to stand in the gray and hold more uncertainties (welcome to hospice ministry), strengthened in my faith and my somewhat conservative biblical convictions. And I grew stronger, not in a reactionary way to Dagmar, but precisely because she was not reactionary. She simply guided us to integrate our theology, faith, and ministry in this unglamorous institution of death and dying and suffering, a place that most people, including professional ministry people, tend to will off their radar. Dagmar wasn't over-confident either. She was still searching, still unsettled somewhere inside. But she showed me how to be Jesus, tender, compassionate, non-anxious, uncompromising, to hurting people.
We all took communion together in the stain-glassed chapel. And all my red flags were flying. Can I do this? With her? Does she believe in the infallibility of Scripture, especially Romans and 1st Timothy? Where is she with the Trinity? Atonement? Are there Christians at Claremont? We passed the juice and we broke bread together. "The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you, for forgiveness of your sins." A year before I was strangely and wonderfully aware of God's presence, almost tangible, while visiting an AA meeting in the basement of a church for a class assignment, with all the coffee and smoke and shared stories of daily setbacks and victories. True confession with and among others is a shortcut to touching the Creator. Here in this closet of a chapel at Methodist hospital at 10:00 on a Tues. morning it happened again. Our Creator was visiting. Two or more were gathered...Inhabiting the praises....Sweet communion with our Lord. Somewhere inside I was breaking and rebuilding. Jesus was getting bigger. I was getting smaller. Probably better suited for ministry.
"Here, put this tea bag inside your mask. If you feel like you're gonna faint, just walk out that door. Don't talk. Just observe." This wasn't chaplain protocol, but an opportunity presented itself to the director (Dagmar's boss), and she was in to unique, off-the-wall experiences.  I'm pretty sure this qualified. In the lowest chambers of the hospital, a cadaver was scheduled to be opened up, and what chaplain intern can say they ever got to witness an autopsy bedside, next to the doctors and scissors and plastic sheets. It was a 65 year old woman. She lay lifeless, literally, under some florescent lights, while the two doctors began the process of incisions and organ removal, all within feet of my face. We  watched with some curiosity and some horror. This wasn't a movie.  It was real, but strangely ironic. The two surgeons, a male and female, were chit chatting the whole time about anything other than body parts. The conversation was well-paced, weaving from Starbuck's lattes to home remodeling to summer vacations with the kids, all the while marking and cutting skin methodically and professionally.

After a short while, the aroma from an open dead body will overtake you. It will make your stomach hurt and your head dazed. I was leaning now. Swaying. The tea-bag wasn't cutting it. I needed something stronger, like a large splash of Polo in my face. The pleasant tones of the doctors' words were receding quickly, as were the lights and the masked tea-bag faces of my fellow interns. I made it to a chair in the other room, dry land from a week at high seas, and I sat until it was time to take the elevator back to our station, back to the place where the alive patients were. And I was aware of the final, tiny margin of space in their lives. Some would get better and be discharged, but most would find themselves in a large elevator descending to the basement, prepared to be shipped to the local mortuary, or perhaps opened up by two friendly doctors.
Mark was a fireman friend of mine. When I lived in Pasadena, we would hang out, eat lunch sometimes, talk about work, God, faith, sex, our wives, carne asada. Just typical stuff. Because he was a fireman, he had time. And one Wednesday we decided to meet at Baja Fresh for some burritos at noon. It was one of his days off, and although I was committed to visiting patients and their families all morning, I had planned to take an hour lunch to meet up. About 9:00 am I was called into a dying patient's room to be with the patient and the family as they pulled the plug. The woman was 92 years old, she had suffered a stroke which affected her brain among other things. In fact, the only thing working was her heart. The doctors said she would pass shortly after they unhooked her. At about 9:15, in the midst of quiet sobs and hugs from children and grandchildren, the nurse turned off all machines, leaving the patient to herself. "It won't be much longer," said the nurse quietly as she exited the room, leaving the extended family with me in a tense silence in the shade-drawn room. "Chaplain, would you hold mom's hand...I think she'd like that.""Um, of course," I said, as I gently grasped the 92 year old bony fingers wrapped in wrinkled, mottled skin. "Say a prayer, Chaplain." I looked over my shoulder. "O.K." I mumbled out some words of gratitude for the wonderful and pleasant years shared together as family, presuming this clan was the exception to the family rules governing the human race, and asked that God would comfort each person as they grieved their loss. "Thanks Chaplain." I still held her hand, staring at her face, the lines from the recently-removed oxygen mask still indented around her mouth and nose. After a few minutes, I noticed the absence of whispers and crying. I turned over my shoulder again, never letting go of the jaundice-stained hand, and half the room had left. Grandchildren, nieces, nephews, now gone, back to work, back to somewhere else but here. Only the the 67 year old son and his wife remained. But at 10:30, they looked at their watch, at each other, then at me, and eased their way to the door. "Thanks Chaplain. You did good. Just fine. We, uh, we'll be back to arrange things.... thanks." I watched the door close. "Yeah, O.K." I was alone with the 92 year old. Her hand in mine. Her brain was dead, she was gone, I think, except for her heart, which, according to the monitor, was beating like a track star's. It was now 11:30am. I'd been in here over two hours, and I had a lunch appointment for some Mexican food in 30 minutes. The nurse popped in. "Wow. She got a good ticker, don't she?  Shouldn't be long now," and she left the room. It was getting harder to ignore my growling stomach, and I knew Mark was punctual. Now the guilt was setting in. All I could focus on was the solid beep and the flat line that was supposed to have been here a couple hours ago. 11:50am. A quiet, still room, but inside my head and chest the stress was multiplying. What kind of chaplain am I? "I know. You're the loser kind." The voices in me awakened. "The kind that values punctuality and a steak Baja burrito over a life passing into eternity. You're the kind that pretty nurses make fun of because of your stupid suit and baby boy's name. Joeyeee." But from somewhere deeper another voice emerged. Maybe my subconscious, my soul... probably not. Probably God's voice, because it was so much more sure and solid than my taunting conscious. "A non-anxious presence. That's what you are to be. That's me, God, showing up through you. You can let go of her hand now. She's been with me for the last hour and half. But I appreciate you being calm and thorough.  Go have some lunch. And by the way, I don't like the suit either, but it's just for a few more weeks. And I love your name. Joey. It's perfect."
Dagmar wanted us to fill out an evaluation and then trade it for hers. It was the last week of the internship. I checked the usual high marks without giving them much thought. A couple sentences saying thank you for the experience. We traded papers. She handed me two paragraphs of well-articulated thoughts personalized to me, mostly encouraging with one particular challenge: "You've got a good heart and you've been a good pastor to many families and patients. But I'd like to see you spend more time pastoring yourself. Jesus took the time. So should you." Sometimes we spend so much energy balancing and walking the course as straight as we can, like a train fixed on the metal tracks. And being derailed is something to avoid or correct if it happens. Dagmar derailed me with that. She put a crack in my theological paradigm. She threw me a square and said to make it fit in my circle. It was knowledge being hit with wisdom. It was color splashing on my black and gray pages. It was a chisel splitting the years of cured concrete, and my foundation was shifting. Because if you pastor yourself, that means you're putting yourself first, above others, above things that are urgent and important, above things that matter, above worthy things. Worthy things. The crack just got really deep. Oh, the pursuit of downward mobility, as  Henri Nouwen penned it. Soul excavating. And here come the voices... "Gosh, you are gifted. And look at all the needs. In the community, in your church. There's so much to do. Remember the leaders that invited you to join up with them. You're needed. There's a lot of ministry opportunities. You gotta do it." Or "Seriously? You're that narcasistic to think that your needs come before others? Pastor yourself? What's that? You're supposed to sacrifice for others, bear the burdens of others, deny yourself, everyday. That's how you grow." Or "Taking time for yourself sounds good and fine, but you already do that. You don't work that hard where you don't have time for yourself. You have down time all the time. Your drive home, your weekends in the yard, your occassional lunches with friends. And if you actually got intentional with pastoring yourself, it's gonna get messy. There's no way to measure it. It's a weird structure, if any. Just keep doing what you're doing. You're a fast-moving train. Just get back on the tracks." Dagmar told me to pastor myself, and I had no idea what that meant. But I longed for it. I longed for the feeling you get when someone recognizes something deep in you and tells you it's O.K. to let it out. Like finally being picked for kickball after years of recess alone leaning on the chain link. I wanted to take the time to figure out how to do this, but even more, I wanted to believe that I was worth it. Could my supervisor be right? Could she have enough insight to alter my course? Was I just overthinking again?

I finished the ten weeks and graduated with a degree. I didn't know what to do with it, so I kept my little painting business going. But I did know what it feels like when someone gets you and sees something in you that's worth paying attention to. I wanted others to know what this is like. Maybe being authentic with yourself was the key to healthier relationships. Maybe families and churches and work places move too fast, like freeways. I learned to slow down a little and I liked it. It was good. I just wished it would have lasted longer.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

forgive, sort of

Forgiveness can rattle your world. I'm the kind of guy who does forgiveness posturing pretty well. I can talk about grace and how healing it can be when you open up the darker places in your soul to someone who will listen with few words and stand with you in your shame, allowing God's Spirit to gently heal and nurture you back, where you find yourself more humble and grateful and awake to life with its mixture of suffering, shame, and joy. But looking like someone who forgives and being a forgiver are different. Love, wisdom, humility, grace, forgiveness, patience...the idea of these is so attractive but safe. There's hardly a cost to an idea. You can read about them, hear about them, study them, be inspired at the coffee house with friends who talk about them. And hopefully this will be a launch pad. But for me, I've become comfortable being busy. Loving my three loves. Wearing the banner of tiredness to justify non-action. By the way, this is a good way to lose good friends and keep yourself from having to make new ones. Most of the time I don't want to step it up and abandon my pride so I might actually do some forgiving and loving. I'm too tired. This person won't change anyway- they qualify for at at least five DSM IV diagnoses. So why bother? I give out way more than I receive already. Do you know how much time it will take, the kind of conversations I will have to endure, the misperceptions, the ad hominem accusations? I just don't know if it's worth it. The cost-benefit analysis in my head doesn't add up. And yet I know this is scarcity thinking. I'm assuming that I have such limited resources, that once I expend them, once I make the call (or receive the call) and go through the exhaustion of listening and restraining and attempting to forgive, that I will be so depleted and angry that I won't see it as being worth it. If I had more faith, I would believe that God can give me unlimited resources at the exact moments I need so that I can be a genuine person, one who forgives and loves and extends the time of day to people who tend to deplete me. I guess I just don't want to live by faith as much as by what I can see and do and manipulate.

 I wonder if it makes a difference if the person you need to forgive actually wants to be forgiven, or if they just don't see it. They have done nothing wrong in their own eyes. There's been no ethical violation, no emotional trespass, no half-truth, no crime, no wake of destruction for the decisions in their life. This is the person for whom forgiveness seems impossible. They don't want it. They're not asking for it. They're just asking for acceptance and endorsement of their lifestyle, and they're pretty blind to the effect of their choices. And they just can't understand why you won't accept them. But the one who says I'm really sorry for what I've done, that I've hurt a lot of people, that I was wrong, even selfish, that I can't imagine how this has affected you and others, and that I want to live different, I'm going to try, and if you need space from me, take it, I am learning to respect space, and I hope we can meet again on healthier terms when I'm ready and you're ready. I can much more readily forgive this person. And it actually makes me look at myself and see where I might need to confess and change and grow. God's rules are hard to follow. Forgiving someone multiple times when they offend repeatedly. I'm more of a one-time forgiver than a multiple forgiver. And even then, it's usually when I feel like the person is genuinely sorry and showing some change. Otherwise, I count the cost and usually conclude that it's probably too much. Relational cut-offs are easier. But when is something a cut-off or just a healthy and strong boundary? Do I have to be in relationship with someone after I forgive them? If not, then did I really forgive them? How do you know when real forgiveness happens?  There is so much to consider and sort through. Cheap forgiveness, like the students who make banners saying"We forgive you" to the guy who shot and killed 15 kids in their classrooms the day before. That's hollow. That's cheating. There's no cost to their "forgiveness," but it's a nice banner and it's newsworthy. I've heard of people forgiving the perpetrator after he's dead, and the freedom that finally comes to the forgiver. I guess I just don't know if forgiveness is supposed to be unconditional, or if it is, how that really works.

What I do know is that I need to ditch the scarcity thinking, the world of ideas alone, and trust that God will provide the means, the strength, the stuff, the whatever it is, to get out and forgive and love and become the person that I'm not yet.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dutch Role Model

Sometimes I think about the people who shaped me, whether or not I knew it at the time. The role models. Or the others. One "other" was the philosophy prof. at Long Beach City College whose outspoken agenda was to dismantle the faith of his students, should they believe in anything transcendent, by carefully and systematically, using the best philosophical arguments, exposing the weaknesses in any and every belief system. But primarily the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its archaic myths and internal inconsistencies. He wanted to show, without emotion and prejudice, the supremacy of science and reason, and, in turn, the foolishness of believing in the unseen. So when he stood up on his desk during one late Fall lecture and shook his fist at the ceiling, shouting "I can't wait till the day of judgement...that's when I will judge God!!" I began to wonder about all the preceding stoic, "unbiased" lectures. And there was a hush that fell on the classroom over the deists and atheists alike and everyone in between. I learned something valuable that morning. There is a strong psychological and emotional drive or undercurrent behind every belief. Worldviews don't exist in vacuums, and the rational and emotional are somehow interwoven. What you believe is fueled by more than just facts. Experiences, your emotional wiring, your fears, all of that, is part of the mix. I asked my instructor after class if Socrates really existed, or was he just a figment of Plato's imagination, and that led to a ten minute rabbit trail ending in the horrors of the Depression and his family and growing up with nothing and the fear of loss and where the hell was God when I was a kid starving in the mid-1930's.

I didn't know it then, but that semester was a springboard for further philosophical inquiry in my college and graduate years. I realized that even good teachers are biased despite the banner of objectivity that supposedly governs the classroom. I taught for a few years as an adjunct, and I was biased, although I tried to make that clear at the outset so the students would learn how to think more than what to think. And at the end of the the eight-week intensive, after all the teaching about Kant and non-consequentialist ethical theories and the Modern anti-thesis mixed with the Pre-Modern thesis creates the Post-Modern synthesis, where meaning trumps fact as the way to ascertain Truth, because Truth is just language, afterall.... the students would fill out a written evaluation. And there was one recurring comment that surfaced more than others during every quarter: "the instructor asked us about our posture toward I defending the truth or pursuing it?" (ironically I first heard that question, not in a classroom, but over a coffee break on the roof with my boss painting a house in Simi Valley after the Northridge earthquake in the mid 90's). I didn't want them to leave my class with simply a new package or twist on what they ultimately believe. I didn't want them to be content with the recycling of doctrine and theology that you get from the latest sermon-series or well-intentioned Christian radio or forwarded emails or youth group curriculum. I wanted them to dig deeper than the familiar, to get dirty and sweat. There's nothing more satisfying than holding the piece of gold with blistered hands.

College professors are often role models, especially to kids who don't know what they want or where they're going. That's where I found myself in the early 1990's. Philosophy, theology, biblical studies. Not really marketable degrees unless you want to teach. And I was never sure what I wanted, other than owning a shack on an Indonesian white-sand beach and taking tourists out for a coastal cruise in my Boston Whaler. This was before the Corona commercials. So, what else to do than teach like Dr. So and So? Better get some more education. But the more you study something, the larger that particular world gets, and you realize there's so much you'll never know, so you have to specialize in something. I finally stopped this pursuit when I realized that it would take some years to become a specialist in Second Temple Judaism where I would discern the importance of Siniaticus Codus A and the Qumran findings.  And it didn't exactly pay too well either. I was making more money painting houses in Pasadena than some of the tenured profs at APU. When you have a house payment and a wife and a child, you don't worry so much about college professor role models. Life is more simple and hard and real, and you get on with it.

But one role model keeps coming to my mind. I was 14 or 15 years old. It was the late 80's in Long Beach, CA. I was a high-school kid who surfed and skated, got A's and B's, played soccer, and got a job with my mom's business partner in the rougher areas of downtown. His name was Dick Dekreek, and he owned a lot of duplexes and small buildings. I went to work for him for a few dollars an hour, mostly picking weeds among beer cans and cigarette stubs in the ghetto. I worked hard and advanced to hosing off balconies and courtyards, and eventually learned to paint, frame, pour concrete, and look gang-bangers in the eye while loading up the broken lath and plaster in the back of the truck. I drove the diesel to the Paramount dump off the 91 freeway,  and I mixed with the bulldozers and loaders and smells of sweet trash as I offloaded and swept out the bed. Long Beach Blvd., North Atlantic Blvd., the 710, 4th street, these were my backroads. And Dick worked. He taught me work. I knew a crow bar and a push broom and a dust mask. Dick came from Holland to Canada to the U.S. few decades before he hired me, and he had nothing. He was one of those Dutch immigrant stories that inspire you. And he told me stories over a good hamburger and fries in the hood. He lived on an acre in Diamond Bar (an equestrian community about 40 miles away from downtown Long Beach) with a jaguar in the garage. Every morning he got up early and drove his old diesel GMC an hour to his properties where he'd fix up and collect rent, and I was the grunt worker who knocked out concrete porches with a sledge hammer and gutted old duplexes wearing used leather gloves. Those were hard days, unglamorous, and part of me longs for them again. I remember one time he called me to come downtown to help him board up the windows of the properties during the riots. Hammer and nails, plywood, and people setting their businesses on fire hoping to blend in with the riot damage and collect insurance money. Exciting times. I learned some things about real life, stuff you don't get in school. I learned that you don't give up, that you can't,  just because something doesn't fit right or make sense. You push and you make it work. Another guy started doing what Dick was doing, buying properties, fixing them up, renting them or selling them. He was a lot younger, and he had an eye for design. He put more colors on the outside of his houses, and he looked at Dick with condescension for being rough and less polished. But style wasn't the main thing that separated these two. Jim collected rent from two or three doors; Dick had over 70. Jim lasted a few years. Dick, a few decades. Where Jim would hire something out, Dick would do it himself. If he didn't know it, he would learn it, usually trial and error. It seemed like a long time when I was in it, but it was just a few years. I wish I stayed longer. There was so much I could have learned about business and property and investing and the downtown community. But I got a good taste those years, and the grit and drive to work hard has stayed with me.  He wasn't perfect, but he was a good role model. Different paths lead you to where you are, and I'm grateful for those downtown years with Dick.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Call

Sometimes I think the wandering life wouldn't be so bad. Trade in my truck for a four-wheel drive, put a Lance camper on the bed, outfit it with all the things you need to survive off the grid, like the solar panel, generator, electric jack stands, electric sky vent, wireless remote camera for backing up, ac unit (25000 btu's--whatever that stands for), the micro-convection combo, and upgraded shocks to handle the weight, and maybe the slide-out dinette. With a custom surfboard rack on top, my Taylor 410 acoustic on the queen bed with pillows to keep it wedged, I'd be off somewhere, maybe the outskirts of Moab for a few days, and then Northwest to the Oregon coast, maybe Seaside or something. I'd drive into Portland for a day or two, drink Seattle's Best with Donald Miller and talk about narrative theology. I'd ask him why he's not married yet, and how the speaking circuit is going for him. Then I'd cruise the streets in my lifted non-diesel Bear Grills survival vehicle and pretend I'm John Steinbeck in Travels With Charlie, the soft rain on my windshield, about to head north to Alaska, now dripping with inspiration for the novel I'm going to write. When I reach Seattle, I realize that the time has come for the next vessel. I take a deliberate detour to the local boat building yard, and here I meet the owner/craftsman/nautical sage of the Northwest. He's an old man who lives in a floating shack next to his boat yard and invites me to help him finish his 42 foot wooden schooner. He tells me his name is Herman M. jr.   Like me, he's grizzly, misunderstood, and on the verge of something great. Because he's wise and therefore generous, he gives me the boat at no cost.  I tell him that I can't do the sailing thing, that I tend to get sick on the open ocean, that I've got to get to Alaska soon and don't have time to tack. So we rebuild a twin engine and install it, making this the ultimate hybrid sea craft. He says he'll keep my Lance 4x4 at his yard for when I return one day. And the next morning, early dawn, I'm motoring through the Pugent Sound on my way to open water in my yellow slicker. The seas are heavy at times, the storms fierce, but I sleep like Jesus in the bottom of my boat, knowing, as a seasoned sailor, that the journey is the destination, and my GPS auto-pilot will get me to Anchorage before long. After three weeks alone on the Pacific, the morning clouds part as Natalia (I named my boat) and I cruise into the harbor, coffee brewing in the galley, a few local fisherman waving me in. I get a text from my wife and kids, who flew in the night before, and we're meeting at the wharf for fish and chips in about an hour. The children eat quietly, displaying a deep contentment that is bred from both a self-imposed restraint to electronic portable devices and an exposure to natural beauty. Their mother, sitting mermaid-like next to me, expresses that same deep contentment, saying that the rational life really is overrated, that she's grateful for marrying a real man who thirsts for adventure, who values the immediate over the long-term, who feels before he thinks. And now my path is confirmed. I stayed true, like a martyr, resisting the warnings of many, the naysayers who casted doubt on my calling. Though tattered and weathered, like Natalia, I've come home to my harbor. I, too, am weathered and scarred, but I've earned the respect of my new town. I will live the rest of my days with my family in this seaside village, eating French bread, sipping Merlot from my organic vineyard, retelling the stories of my travels to entertain children and inspire the young men who will carry the torch to the next generation.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


It's nice when the scaffolding is properly tied off to the side of the house. Especially with the wind. I'm doing a house now that's, well, irregular. Boulders, slopes, decent roof pitches. You bet your life on these metal match sticks that someone else propped up, looking down three or more stories at the small rock shims that serve as your foundation. And then there's the scratchy wood plank, stretching 10 to 12 feet. You ignore the drop in your stomach as it sways and sags each time you cross. But sometimes the planks and poles aren't enough. You can't reach that peak to caulk the joints in the fascia, so you have to haul up your six or eight foot step ladder and try to balance it somewhere on the wobbly platform, usually with an inch or two margin, and then climb. It would be nice if people didn't care about voids, especially the ones you'll never see,  but they're there, and you do your best to fill them. It's here that you're grateful for a piece of twisted wire that's been looped around a cross-bar pole and nailed to the side of the house. Scaffolding tends to be top heavy, and you can enjoy the panoramic views a lot better knowing you're somewhat tied down.

A couple years ago, on another job, the GC didn't think he needed to enforce the straps, and so the whole structure tended to sway a bit more than was comfortable. And the stucco foreman, an arrogant white kid of about 22, thought it might score some points with the GC to grab hold of the base and shake the three story platforms with "all those Mexican stucco monkeys" who were applying the scratch coat. Just give 'em a good scare. I'm not sure why people try humor to form an alliance with someone they hardly know, and, as best as I could observe, the humor and the racist comments evaporated with the dust from the stucco hopper. In the end, no one fell off, the stucco guys finished the job with the foreman calling the shots from the ground, and we climbed the unstable structure and did our paint job a few weeks later.  So here, on this job, I'm grateful for wired ties.

I went 38 years assuming my structure was tied down properly. And by properly, I mean it passed code. There was a wedding ring on each of their fingers, which meant there was a wedding before I was born, and that meant there was a code that would be followed so the structures would withstand the wind and the shaking. And maybe it was solid. Maybe there's a lot I never saw or just assumed. Maybe I never felt the earthquakes. But they were surely there, because the house didn't last. I really thought it would. They went 45 years and then ended it. If there's damage from a storm, you've got to fix it. You can't keep shimming it up, hoping the upper rooms won't someday topple. Did they really try everything? Can the deep holes in two people ever be filled by each other? I've got my own life, and  it's good, it's pretty honest. I've got some fears, I'm over-sentimental, but I'm trying to stay connected with God and get less selfish. I always thought my life was good because of a strong family in the early years. But I'm in this in-between place. I don't know. I don't know if it was all a charade, or just partly, or not at all. I don't know if the scaffolding was ever properly tied down. The fact is that the house got built despite the code not lasting. I'm trying to be grateful for the good, and there was a lot of it. It's just that the memory is so tainted now. Were they unhappy back then but just faked it in front of my sister and me? Was there integrity in their marriage? I'm not hoping for or asking for perfection. I get that we're human. I just wonder how close they were or how far gone they were during the redwoods camping trips and the super-eight movies on the living room wall and the trak ball in the street. Did they stay together because of the kids, and what are you supposed to do with that? Is that supposed to make you feel worth it, or worthy? In some ways, the past really can be undone, or at least edited. Like walking back and forth on that sagging plank, I feel angry and then compassionate. They were an abused neglected daughter and an over-indulged son devoid of a father's adoration who stumbled on to each other and went for it. They built something pretty good, and it lasted a pretty long time. More than most. I just wish it could have gone a few more years. You think you're unaffected by things when you get older, but it's not that way. You're never unaffected. You move forward, you wonder at it all, you feel it sometimes. You get busy building and tying things down and making it as strong and lasting as you can.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Bay

Sittin' on a dock at the bay. Had to say it. I'm looking out at Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, the morning silhouette of the city under some broken gray clouds. Who knew how many free wi fi networks you can get on the edge of a dock in Sausalito? Makes me want to sing. Not really.

So I've started this blog thing. I like it because I don't have to open a Word or Pages program to start writing. And I don't feel the expectation to compose and edit, because it doesn't really matter if any of it is read. It's like I have this unruly permission to throw out some thoughts, and throwing up, I mean out, my thoughts feels kind of good. Maybe I'll have less lower back pain. Fewer headaches. Or not.

One of my fears is the failure to appear, or actually be, consistent in my living and thinking. And this blog thing, as I'm reflecting this last few days, is sure to expose my inconsistencies. Already I'm second-guessing some of the stuff I wrote about dreams. Not that I disagree with myself (yet); it's just that the thoughts aren't finished. There's a lot more to it. Dreams shouldn't be abandoned for common work. A lot character and growth happens while you pursue a dream, and, in fact, you've got to roll up your sleeves and get bruised up along the journey, because this is what the dream will demand. It never comes easy. And in the end, you may never see its fruition. You make work and push and grind your whole life to make your dream real, but it may still lie a few years beyond your last day. All you did was prepare and pursue. But I think the preparing and pursuing can breed wisdom, just as much as the dream itself. Don't let the need to accomplish and arrive be the ultimate goal. (All this can be found in your dentist's office on a rectangular framed portrait of the ocean at dusk with the slogan "Life's about the journey, not the destination.") Thank God for some brevity. Let's go eat.

 Wait, one last thought on dreams (for now). If you're forcing the dream, or trying to find one or latch on to one because a twenty-something hamburger flipper just won a singing award and gave what he thought was an original and inspiring yak about following your dream, then go back to work and do good. But if you can't shake the calling because it's a burden on your back (think Pilgrim from Pilgrim's Progress), then maybe you should get on your knees and ask God for the humility to receive more.

I'm still at the bay. I can't believe it. The white coast guard boat (looks just like my son's lego). the red barge getting smaller beyond the bridge, Guiradelli's chocolate ice cream in a waffle cone (can't see that yet, but I will in a bit), and the Giant's game tonight. Maybe another coffee from Sausalito before I go wake up the family. Yeah, it's vacation.

Friday, June 22, 2012

no more dreams

I used to think my dreams were right around the corner. If I just hold out, just work harder, just surround myself with wiser people, I can make it. Yeah, no. Sometimes you've got to ditch your dream. Or better yet, don't get started with one. I read a sign today saying "it's easier to stay well than to get well." That's wisdom. It's about prevention. There are better things to pursue than your dreams. Dreams may not kill you, but they'll keep you in prison your whole life until you realize that everyone close to you has ridden this roller coaster long enough and it's led to nowhere.

Try something old, like common work, which has much better odds at forming character than the sickened heart from hope deferred. Get rid of the romantic notion that dreams will fulfill you. They won't. In fact, most things in this world won't, not because they aren't things of worth and beauty and such, but because the human heart simply won't allow itself to be satisfied by anything less than the eternal. The heart was created, not to be attached to its quests, but to be inhabited by its Creator. This is the only way it can know true and lasting fulfillment.

So try it out. Lay down your dreams, your quests for happiness, even for a little while. If the dream comes back someday to find you, great. Deal with it then. After all, if it's really a dream, then it's a lot bigger than you, so it's not your call when it comes to pass. In the meantime, don't follow your heart, just check in with it. See if it's trying to attach to something or someone, or if it has some space to spare for its Creator. Fulfillment might be right around the corner.

More thoughts from Medocino

I grew up in Belmont Shore, a small division of East Long Beach in California. We lived in a house with hardwood floors built in the 1920's just a few skips from the wall that divided Ocean Blvd. from the sand. Concrete alleys divided the one-way streets in this former salt marsh, and the smell of charcoal  barbecues wafted in the late afternoon as we'd dig up shells in our postage stamp front yard. It was the mid-1970's and it was simple and I was loved and I wasn't afraid. But sooner or later you grow up, go to college, get responsible, and embrace the joys and trials that await.
Some people don't think twice about the trajectories of their life, or maybe even once. They take things as they come, realign, readjust, achieve some goals, do good to themselves and their families. They live a pretty balanced life. But I can never wrap my mind around balance, at least the kind that lasts more than a few days. And here's the reason: it's just not enough. Balance doesn't satisfy. If it does, then you've succumbed to distractions and substitutes, like fake coffees and artificial grass. Balance tends to insulate, but the soul is too wonderful and wild and stubborn and can't settle for balance. It's much to restless for that, because it's created to pursue and rest in its Creator, and anything less is fake coffee and artificial grass.

After college, my wife and I moved inland to pursue graduate work in theology and psychology. That's when I started painting houses so we could pay the school bills along the way and avoid an avalanche of delayed debt. It was supposed to be temporary, living away from the ocean, just until we finished getting the academic requirements and enough CEU's to start our professional life. That was 18 years ago. I've realigned, readjusted, achieved some goals, done some good, and, quite honestly, I am filled with deep gratitude and joy at the gifts of my life, my family, the way we live. I can sleep tonight knowing I am richly blessed.  And yet my soul is not completely satisfied. I'm not sure it ever will be, or should be in this life. But here's the thing. When I'm lingering somewhere on a foggy coast long enough to see the waterline along the rocks change with the tides, I'm at peace. I realize I don't need much of anything, just the basics. Kind of like Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift of the Sea.  I'm back to the trajectory that began in the salty days of seagulls and clanking masts and shells on the kitchen window sill. It's the peace of deep aligned with deep. It's a pretty good place to be.

 But it's not the norm. We've lived away from this place for 18 years now, and I want to be back. Not just a vacation or visit, but a way of life, again. Think of a kid who grew up on a 10,000 acre ranch in Montana. His life was about long days raising cattle and setting fences. Whether he spent his time working the land or working in the local small town, he knew his place. This is where he belonged. He might visit relatives in Miami for a week, but this could never be his home. He has a primitive need, a hard-wiring, to live and breath the mountains and pastures. It's his way of life, no matter what trade or career he embraces.  On a soul level, the value of place supersedes the value of vocation, and if he trades them out, his soul will stay restless, waiting to return home, resisting the insulating pursuit of balance.

The soul can not acclimate, only tolerate. I've learned this over the last 18 years, trying to make my home away from the coast, away from the place that defines me. And that's the key assumption, that place defines a man more than vocation. That's the way I see it. I want to live in that rugged coastal place where the deepest parts of my being can rest and rejuvenate. I've tried acclimating, adjusting, finding some balance. It just doesn't work. It doesn't satisfy in the long run. The best the soul can do is tolerate until it returns. As T.S. Eliot said, "we shall never cease from exploring. And the end of all our exploring will be to find the place from which we began, but to know it for the first time."

It's about coming home. Living undivided. It's the hard work of deep rest.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mendocino, June 2012

I studied languages in school, twenty years ago. They were never meant as objects, or ends, but rather as tools for delving deeper into truth. Like buying a shovel or pick axe, they were supposed to help dig deep for some treasure that God had buried, and if I had the tools, I could find what other people couldn't. Knowing Greek, Hebrew, and cutting-edge theology were the tools that would allow my mind to probe the Scriptures and give me an angle of understanding that might get me on a good path. Formal education, for me, was the way to spiritual and lifestyle security. If I dug deep enough, I'd find something of worth, and surely God or a wealthy investor would wrap his arms of benevolence around me and pay me to keep uncovering the hidden gems. 

Education is overrated, at least the liberal arts kind. 

Twenty years later, my hands are wrinkled from making manual labor a business. I'm not as interesting as I thought, and I'm one of the last to know. I've used those theology tools some, dug holes along the way, discovered some blessings, but mostly it's been about making ends meet week to week. I run a small painting operation. I've ventured out on side paths, hoping they would be the bridge from this temporary setback to the right career, or calling, or purpose, or whatever the latest reframe the experts are using to name the thing you're doing, but they seem to be short lived. I was an adjunct professor at APU teaching ethics and world views. I was a hospice counselor and chaplain. I was a worship pastor. I was an unanswered applicant at the local college for teaching philosophy. So I kept painting. I still paint. What began as a temporary means to sustain my family while attending graduate school has followed me like a shadow for twenty years.

And now, as I look back, I'm grateful. I no longer have to prove that I am more than what you see. I've been at this manual labor thing long enough to realize that hard, blistering work can shape a man in ways that sedentary academic or church work can not. I'm tired in the deep places of the soul as well as my hands. My head hurts a lot of the time. But in those deeper places there's a longing for rest that even the best and most current education can't satisfy. And here's what I've come to know: the one with a weary soul and a broken body needs to find rest. I might have said this twenty years ago, but it would have been cheap. What do you know when you're twenty? Like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon gets called out by Robin Williams about Michael Angelo's Sisteen Chapel painting. He knows all about it, but not really, because he's never left Boston. He's never crossed the Atlantic. He's never gazed at the arched ceilings and felt small in the iconic magnitude of that chapel in Italy. He's just read articles.  Twenty years ago I had just read articles and heard sermons on hard work and the soul's craving for rest, beauty, connection. Since then my journey, in large part, has been unwelcomed, and yet I'm strangely grateful for it. I have a deeper appreciation for the struggle in life and for the yearning to rest, to take a breather. And I respect those who have labored longer because they've had to, like my late father-in-law, who didn't have time to tinker, as do so many in my generation, with finding his path, or his purpose. He just worked, provided, endured, and tried his best to believe in God like a child would, despite the onslaught of injustices. He gave credibility to character, and I only wish he had more moments of rest along the way. 

So I believe in work and in rest. I don't balance the two very well. But I've acquired a new language that's taken a lot of years to learn. It's still very rough, inarticulate, offensive at times, even reactive, but it's real, at least it's becoming more real to me. It's what I've lived. It's a tool I won't waste or put on a shelf.