Monday, August 24, 2009

Honest Worship

This past Sunday, we attended the chapel service at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Cindy will be leading some of those services this year as part of her responsibilities there, and, for obvious reasons, it is recommended that you attend a service before you lead one. We went as a family, and the service was both what I expected and not what I expected.

As the children and their caregivers came in the room, they represented every race, medical condition, and age of children. Some were in the 3-4 year old range. Some were 18 or older. Some were apparently dealing with some form of cancer. Some were dealing with paralysis. Some were dealing with burns. Everyone was dealing with something. I could tell our boys weren't exactly sure how to process all these kids coming to church in wheelchairs and IVs. That was something I expected.

What I didn't expect was how deeply affected by the service I would be. In truth, I wasn't sure exactly why. The chaplain's homily was fine, nothing spectacular. The music was fine. The children lighting the candles was nice, but not really tear-jerking. It was a wholly unremarkable service. So, I kept searching for why I was so affected.

The next day it occurred to me today that what struck me most about the service was that this was an honest worship service. All of us coming together with our obvious infirmities—our caregivers next to us with others helping if need be. Some were there just to help others be able to be there. Some were there out of a deep sense of need. Some were there out of obligation. Those there with emotional need wore it on their faces. All were there in obvious need. The needs were obvious. The prayers were genuine.

I once asked Cindy what she loved so much about being a chaplain. She said that it was the honesty of it all. In an Emergency Room, an ICU, a NICU, or even in a hospital room, the pious façade we are so good at putting up is stripped away. People are real. Sometimes, real grief and real anger. And sometimes, real joy and real peace. It reminded me of the honesty we find in the psalms, where psalmists have no reservations about confronting the divine about their life situation.

Contrast that with what I see when I look around at faces on Sunday mornings in church. I know that every one of us is in need, but, of course, our needs are far easier to conceal. So, we go through life without contentment and without a real place for the divine in our lives. How hard it seems to have humility and worship through our infirmities instead of trying to hide them. We are masters at pretending that everything is alright. And too often, while we are pretending everything is alright, we are feeling sorry for ourselves. We lament our situation and wish things were different. With all the energy we expend trying to convince the world we have it all together while at the same time being consumed within with our needs, we miss the needs of the world all around. We don't love our neighbor because we don't love ourselves.

The chapel service had a wonderful teacher for that as well. When the chaplain asked for prayer requests, there was so much human need in the room, I remember thinking, "I imagine this will take some time. " To my surprise, no one asked for prayer for themselves. The most poignant request, though, was from an eight or nine year-old girl who was apparently dealing with some form of cancer sitting at the front of the chapel. This little girl with patches of hair on her head from chemo sat in her wheelchair and raised her hand (the one without the IV). She said in a weak voice, "I want to pray that God will help my Daddy stop smoking." A little girl so accepting of her need and position, she could focus on the needs of others. I heard the voice of Christ in her voice –while nailed to the cross in pain and agony, he voiced this prayer, "Forgive them, they don't know what they are doing."

Maybe I can strive to be more like the divine. Maybe I can learn that lesson even more clearly from this little saint.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Planting season & Marathons

The beginnings of semesters are always interesting. I am lucky in that my vocation is one that still has seasons, and August is the planting time. A new crop of freshman comes to college with their dreams and expectations. Some expect to show those professors a thing or two. Some are so overwhelmed they can barely function. But, all are excited and optimistic as they move forward into a new part of life.

Unfortunately, in a month or two, the dreams of August have faded. They no longer are idealistic. In fact, many have become cynical. Half of them change their major. A third of them will change their major twice. College isn't what they expected. Some, I never see again. They give up coming to class in favor of doing other things. But, there are those who tough it out. There are those who revise their dreams and expectations and do the work it takes to get to the end. They work with others. They plug into the student community. They get involved in BCM or a local church. They do well in their classes and really excel at the college experience.

It reminds me of the parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1-9), and I think it is an interesting metaphor for the Christian life. So many individuals have an experience with the divine and are excited and optimistic for the future. Then, they go and live in this world, and it turns out that being a Christian is hard. Family may not care. Co-workers or fellow students make it hard to be the person they need to be. Some become cynical. Some give up in favor of doing other things.

I suppose it is just another way to say that college/farming/Christianity is a marathon and not a sprint. It is showing up every day and doing everything you can to be better today than yesterday. Of course, we don't usually glamorize the marathon runner. We like the 100m or the 200m. We like "fastest man alive" or "fastest woman alive." I suppose it is harder to market "fastest man alive over a distance of 26.2 miles." That is kinda hard to put on a t-shirt. Neither is the Christian life very glamorous.

To those freshmen that start this fall, "Welcome!" and "Pace yourself! Plan on doing all the little things every day to succeed. To Christians, my prayer for each of us is "Pace yourself! Plan on doing all the little things every day to succeed." I pray we have the strength it takes to do whatever it takes to persevere, to be like Christ each day that we live. It isn't always easy. It is hard to keep our optimism and idealism when we look at this world. But, I know that with Christ and his gift of each other, we can walk forward with him—even when life doesn't turn out the way we thought it should.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Perfect Heroes & Imperfect Singers

I have discovered an interesting thing about myself. It seems I really like my heroes to be perfect. Cindy and I were having a conversation recently, and in the course of discussing what we liked and didn't like, I was forced to admit that I just don't care much for flawed heroes. I like William Wallace in Braveheart. I like William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace. I like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings. One of my complaints with the movie adaption of Lord of the Rings is the portrayal of Faramir (Peter Jackson admitted that he characterized Faramir like he did because it was hard enough for him to conceive of one perfect hero [Aragorn], two was right out). As much as I enjoyed the new Battlestar Galactica (and I did), I did miss the original Apollo and Adama—people who were idealistic and incorruptible. Luke Skywalker is still a better hero than Anakin.

Don't get me wrong. Heroes who overcome their failings are important. I liked Han Solo, I was just a Luke guy. Robert the Bruce was great, but William Wallace's only flaw was his faith in humanity. Captain Jack Harkness is an interesting fellow, but the Doctor is more my style.

So, with the revelation in hand, I began to psycho-analyze myself wondering what dark and sinister thing this said about me. Then, as I was thinking about it, a song came on my iPod that I really enjoyed, Kate Campbell's "Prayer of Thomas Merton." Kate Campbell comes from Alabama—a fact that is no secret when listening to her sing. I thought of her twang and how distinct her voice is, and how "imperfect" her singing is compared to the expectation of the voice instructors I saw Cindy learn from. That moved my mind to other artists I like to listen to. I thought of Bob Dylan, Sam Cook, Jimmy Buffett, Rich Mullins, Alan Levi—all singers with unusual diction, lisps, gravelly voices, and they are some of my favorites. Of course, I love Andrea Bocelli, Harry Conick, Michael Bublé. I love singers who have been taught to sing well and sing right, and I have a deep appreciation for them. But, when push comes to shove, I like Peter O'Toole's "Impossible Dream" more than I do Placido Domingo.

So, why perfect heroes and imperfect singers? I am still not so sure that it doesn't say something dark and sinister about me. But, I also have decided it is probably the same reason the Bible tells us about Peter and about Jesus. We have a very human Peter who reminds us that even the best of us will make mistakes. Even the ones with the answers close at hand will have crises of faith and deny the Lord. Jesus, on the other hand, reminds us that we can aspire to much more. The perfect humanity of Jesus joined with the perfect divinity of Jesus paints a picture of what our lives can be if we are willing to join our lives with a perfect God. The mystery of incarnation brings as much challenge as it does hope. It not only shows us the way to the divine, it confronts us with just how far we are from what we were created to be.

So, I will go on connecting with my imperfect singers and aspiring to my perfect heroes—seeing myself in Peter and trying to be more like Jesus.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The World as Best as I Can Remember It

Rich Mullins had two albums in the late 80s entitled "The World as Best as I Can Remember It, Vols. 1 & 2." I never really understood the titles, even after listening to Rich explain them in an interview. He said, "It is like when you go on a camping trip, and it rains the whole time. You think you are having a terrible time, and then years later you look back on it, and it wasn't so bad. It's like that."

Though I tried, I never really understood, but I am starting to.

A few weekends ago, we went camping and canoeing as a family for the very first time. When we got on the creek to canoe, it turns out that we had unknowingly picked a creek that requires closer to intermediate canoeing skills than beginner. The current was pretty fast. The rocks were around every bend. Each of our canoes capsized at one point causing stress and concern (on a side note, why is it that canoes always capsize so that the rushing water pins them to the rocks you just hit making it impossible to move them without super-human strength? Probably, the same invisible force that makes the toast fall jelly side down). By the end of the trip, we were all tired. We all had matching 3 inch sunburns on our legs (NOTE: shorts ride up when sitting. When applying sunscreen, take this into account). We all were praying that we would see the campsite around the next bend. I was teaching my summer class, "Faith and Suffering," and all I could think about was the choice I had made to go canoeing to bring this suffering on myself.

Finally, hot, wet, tired, sweaty, and sore, we all got into the van to drive home. Then, we started telling stories of the day. We started with Thomas' apparent spider-like super powers that allowed him to leap and climb on a capsized canoe. Then moved on to the cow that was standing in the creek, and Cindy's insecurity about whether it is proper etiquette to canoe behind a cow or in front. Then we moved on to the time Daniel's paddle got stuck in a rock. When I yelled for Cindy to grab it as she went by, the current had her moving so fast, she only had time to yell, "No!" as she went past us. Daniel swatting at wasps with his paddle and almost capsizing us. Having to limbo in a canoe to avoid the fallen tree.

With each story, we laughed harder and harder. By the time we got home, the pain in my shoulders was matched by the pain in my sides from laughing. It turns out that it wasn't a "suffering" that we were enduring. It was just hard. It was the good kind of hard that is necessary for any kind of achievement. It is the hard that is required to be a good parent. It is the hard that is required to be a good husband. It is very similar to the hard that is required for academic achievement. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

We don't have a lot of people these days willing to do the "hard." It gets hard, and they get out. When I look back at my grandparents, I see people who were willing to do the "hard" whatever it was—whatever it took to succeed when the world was difficult. I pray that I have a little more of that. I pray that I am more able to do the hard work it takes for great achievement . . . and not just want to win the lottery. Then when my kids are grown, I can look back and be proud of my work as a father. I can look back on my job and be proud of the things I achieved. I can look at who I am and be proud that I was someone who was willing to do the hard and not mind remembering it. Maybe I can get there.

And, that is the world as best as I can remember it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ordinary Days

December 1, 1955. By all accounts, an ordinary day. People went to work. They worried about feeding their families. Everyone was just trying to live their life as they did every day. Nothing special. But, on that day Rosa Parks decided not to obey a bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white man. That act of defiance became the symbolic beginning to the civil rights movement.

An ordinary day in 1632. People went to work. They worried about feeding their families. Everyone was just trying to live their life as they did every day. Nothing special. One ordinary day in that year, Galileo published "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems." Though warned by the Roman church, Galileo published this work which accepted Copernicus' premise that the Earth was NOT the center of the universe. Galileo was convicted of heresy and punished by the Inquisition. But, his work laid the foundations for scientific study and the scientific method.

October 31, 1517. By all accounts, an ordinary day. People went to work. They worried about feeding their families. Everyone was just trying to live their life as they did every day. Nothing special. But, on that day, Martin Luther decided that the church had gone too far. He felt they had perverted the gospel for money. So, on that day, he nailed 95 theses for public notice on the door of the church in Wittenberg. That act of conscience became the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Walt Pavlo joined communications giant MCI in 1992. He went to work. He was worried about feeding his family. He was just trying to live his life every day. Struggling to reach the performance objectives—on an ordinary day—he was advised by a colleague to hide the debts of some of his worst–performing customers to maintain an exceptional productivity record. Pavlo was soon in the middle of a money-laundering operation that resulted in $6 million in deposits to a Grand Cayman bank account. Pavlo made a full admission and was sentenced to three years in prison.

I hear those stories and countless others and I wonder, "Did they know?" Did they know it was THAT day? That was the day they would be asked to take a stand. That was the day they would make a decision that would affect the rest of their life. Was there theme music? Did they hear the soundtrack of their life switch to a minor key? Did they jump to commercial right after the decision time presented itself? Was it during sweeps week?

I bet it wasn't.

Our lives are made up of ordinary days. We go to work. We worry about family. We just try to life our lives every day the best we can. And, every day we face the challenge of being like Jesus. When drivers cut us off. When bosses treat us rudely. When people we love are hurt.

I pray we never take a day off because we consider it "insignificant" or "ordinary." The call of Christ compels us to live extraordinary/loving/counter-cultural lives. The difference between living extraordinary lives every day and living ordinary lives of subtle compromise is the difference between Martin Luther and Walt Pavlo.

Friday, March 27, 2009

What a difference “Shukron” makes

Sometimes it is the little things that can have the most profound impact on you. I was on my way to a meeting at a conference in Boston, MA when I stopped off at a Dunkin' Donuts. One of the great sacrifices that moving to Rome, GA cost my family was a really good doughnut place. So, when I saw that big sign calling my name, I had to slip in.

While standing in line, I didn't have to think too much about my order (I judge a doughnut shop based on how well they do the simple glazed yeast—if they can't do that right, I don't have hope for much else). So, I turned my attention to the people working there. I noticed that all the individuals—male and female—seemed to be of Middle Eastern descent. When I got to the counter, my suspicions were confirmed. I noticed that "Muhammad" was taking my order, and on the other register was "Fatima." Since I traveled to Jordan last year, I am always happy for a chance to use the Arabic I learned (I am particularly proud of my Arabic rendition of "I don't speak Arabic"). Muhammad gave me my doughnut and my change, so I gratefully uttered "Shukron" ["Thank you"].

In that moment, something happened. The serious, "whose-next," not unfriendly, but all business look on Muhammad's face melted away. It was a remarkable transformation. His face warmed into a smile as he shared, "Afwan." As I left, I responded with "salam alaykum." And, he responded "alaykum salam."

I fully don't know all that happened in that moment. I do know that what started as a chance for me to show off 90% of my Arabic, turned into something much more profound. I can't begin to understand what life is like for a minority in this country. I can't begin to understand how difficult it would be to be a person of Middle Eastern descent in this country. Perhaps, some can live life without any issues whatsoever. Perhaps, many live life with a skeptical eye toward the world around them because of negative experiences they or their loved ones have had.

But, in that simple moment over a doughnut—what started out as me trying to show off—turned into Muhammad knowing that there was at least one white guy from the south who thought he was important enough to use his native language to thank him. It was amazing (though it shouldn't be surprising) what happens when you treat someone with respect. It was amazing what happens when the golden rule occurs right in front of you—"I know everyone in line expects you to speak their language, I just wanted to take a moment to speak some of yours."

I wish that I could earnestly say that I meant for that to happen. But, I imagine it is a greater testimony to the power of God that the divine can transform my rather simple motive, i.e., a chance to use some Arabic, into a profound statement of the worth of another human being. My prayer is that I am more sensitive too all people in all circumstances—that I can always take the time and spend the effort to learn the "language" of people wherever they are and witness the miracle of Pentecost when they hear that they are worth something.

Friday, February 6, 2009

25 Things about Me

My Chinese New Year resolution is to blog better.

This was such a popular (and kinda fun) facebook exercise . . . I thought I would add it to my blog. . .

  1. I love all kinds of music. Currently on my computer one would find . . . Instrumental Southern Gospel Hymns on Hammered Dulcimer . . . David Crowder . . . Jimmy Buffett . . . Beethoven . . . Blind Willie Johnson . . . Paul Simon . . . Chris Tomlin . . . Weird Al . . . Andrea Bocelli . . . Jackie Wilson . . . Sam Cook . . . et. al.
  2. I once drove 2 hours through Eastern Kentucky mountains in a thick fog with my best friend Mike hanging out the passenger window screaming "LEFT!" or "RIGHT!" based on the edge of the road because I couldn't see the road out the windshield. Yeah, it was stupid, but it has given me a great object lesson for what faith really is.
  3. All of my best stories start, "This one time, Mike and I. . ."
  4. I love quality satirical comedy.
  5. I love people who can make me laugh. They are more precious than gold.
  6. I was a DJ for a Christian rock hour in high school.
  7. In connection with #5, I once interviewed DeGarmo & Key on their bus after a concert. Doesn't mean much to a lot of people, but I thought it was my finest moment.
  8. I once stayed up for 54 straight hours (you guessed it . . . with Mike).
  9. I wanted to be a Nuclear Engineer when I left high school. I finished college with a B.A. in Religion. God is funny sometimes.
  10. I love to hear my wife sing.
  11. I think I have learned more about God from my relationship with my children.
  12. I was born in Detroit and walked to school nine blocks 4 times a day (at 10 blocks, I could have brought my lunch, but rules are rules, so I had to walk home for lunch and back to school).
  13. I have had a variety of jobs. I have worked in retail electronics. I have detasseled corn. I have worked midnight stock. I have worked in the produce dept of a grocery store. I have set cams in car transmissions on an assembly line. I have been a janitor. Now, I am a professor.
  14. When I was a kid I thought Ultraman and Speed Racer were the coolest shows on my 5 channels (in Detroit we picked up more than the traditional 3 . . . there were two local stations).
  15. I never actually passed chapel when I attended William Carey College (we were required to attend, but it didn't figure in the GPA and wasn't required for graduation so I was one of the 50% of Religion majors who never passed).
  16. I once almost knocked over Benjamin Netanyahu (after my mentor knocked him into me).
  17. I celebrated Palm Sunday 2008 standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem with a bunch of great students from Shorter College.
  18. I was a pastor of a small, rural Texas church while I was finishing my Ph.D.
  19. When I was high school, I told my mother that I didn't want to be a lawyer because I didn't want to go to school that long. Three years later, I then changed my major (my school and my state) and promptly continued in grad school for another 10 years.
  20. I love to cook.
  21. I love to buy unusual ties. It doesn't seem to be a rational thing. My ratio of ties to shirts is problem about 10 to 1.
  22. It is difficult for me to buy things for me. It is VERY easy for me to buy things for others.
  23. I am a pacifist—not because I think it is more effective or because it is countercultural--mainly because Jesus said to be, and when push came to shove, Jesus was.
  24. I love meat. However, I am confident, if I had to kill my own meat, I would be a vegetarian.
  25. I love animals, and if I had another life to live, I would be a marine biologist.