Monday, December 24, 2007

chocolates, cigarettes, no sales pitch, and no favorites

donald miller, in the chapter "shifts" from his book blue like jazz, tells the story of his friend penny. penny's life had been very hard - drug-addicted and schizophrenic mother, divorced parents. penny meets a friend, nadine, and penny's life changed. but not easily.
"penny wanted nothing to do with religion," don explains. "her perception of christians was that they were narrow-minded people, politically conservative and hypocritical. ... it seemed on every humanitarian issue, she found herself directly opposing the views held by many evangelicals. she also felt that if christianity were a person, ... that human being probably wouldn't like her."
i've been there. still feel that way.
nadine, from a privileged and austere background, genuinely cares about penny, to penny's surprise, and they become close friends. and nadine, a genuinely loving person, tells penny why she's a christian. and penny shifts. penny tells don:
"'nadine and i would sit for hours in her room. mostly we would talk about boys or school, but always, by the end of it, we talked about god. the thing i loved about nadine was that i never felt like she was selling anything. she would talk about god as if she knew him ... she was never ashamed, which is the thing with some christians i had encountered. they felt like they had to sell god, as if he were a soap or a vacuum cleaner, and it's like they really weren't listening to me; they didn't care, they just wanted me to buy their product."
i have felt this. a lot. it's part of why i left organized christianity.
i've worked very, very hard to find a faith in god that is real, for me. no bullshit. no dogma. no systems. no sales pitch. no judgment or hell. no shame. and i've found it.
i've even found that it's true for me. just for me. no shame. no bullshit. nothing except love.
sometimes love is hard. in fact, it's almost always hard, unflinching, demanding. and it's beautiful, overwhelming - because it heals.
that's god, for me. healing. listening. valuing. empowering.
and i have found, as penny did, that there really is a god. not the god that the christian evangelicals sell, or the god that the big religious systems use as their corporate c.e.o., or the god that the arrogant or the (emotionally, politically, or physically) violent claim as their tribal hero.
instead, i have found a god that is at the center of all things good. all things true. all things that require courage and stillness to discover.
penny tells don, "'we would eat chocolates and smoke cigarettes and read the bible, which is the only way to do it, if you ask me. don, the bible is so good with chocolate. i always thought the bible was more of a salad thing, you know, but it isn't. it is a chocolate thing.'"
yes, the god that's best with chocolate and cigarettes and conversation and good friends.
"'i found jesus very disturbing,'" penny tells don, about reading Matthew; "'very straightforward. he wasn't diplomatic, and yet i felt like if i met him, he would really like me. ... i kept identifying with the people he loved, which was really good, because they were all the broken people, you know, the kind of people who are tired of life and want to be done with it, or they are the desperate people, people who are outcasts or pagans. there were others, regular people, but he didn't play favorites at all, which is miraculous in itself. that fact alone may have been the most supernatural thing he did.'"
that's the god i follow, and love, and the god i know loves me. and loves you. and loves. and is love.

may that god - the god of the nadine, and penny, and don, and you, and me, and the pagans and the desperate and the regular people, and chocolate and honest conversation, and friendship, and of the jesus who never played favorites - may that god be with us in blinding and quiet and simple and complicated ways today. tonight. tomorrow.

merry christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

cross roads, caldwell, and ... karaoke

so, the journey men's retreat earlier this month took place at the awesomely peaceful and sweet-spirited cross roads retreat center outside picturesque caldwell, texas. we love the people who own cross roads, and we love the camp. it's quiet. simple. in the woods. big fire pit. great for creativity. it has a gorgeous labyrinth.

this year, driving out to the pristine, beautiful retreat center, leaving caldwell (which, remember, is in the middle of b.f.e.), turning off the highway onto the road through the farms, we all saw a fascinating marquee out front of a tiny building:

i have no response to this other than to say, what a wonderful world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

i ain't gonna work for that voice no more; i don't care what maggie offers you, it ain't worth it

do you ever feel yourself succumbing to that fear? the numbing out? (maybe with you it's anger, or addiction, or busyness.) the sense of responsibility to all that shit just weighs me down sometimes. that's me this week. i'm just worn out. so there's a part of me that's decided to stay afraid. it wants to avoid. it wants to run. it wants to protect me, and i appreciate that. and it's getting easier to recognize it for what it is. but i hired it to protect me decades ago, and i was young, and scared, and they told me to be good and behave or everyone would be angry, and i didn't know how hard it would be to get rid of, and it felt like it'd keep me safe and alive, so i said Yes, i'll work here. protect me? keep me in line? and the recruiter assured me, Yes, this will be a good fit for you.

and it tried, for years, to cover up the gnawing, the knowing. But, as Emily Dickinson said, “narcotics cannot still the tooth that nibbles at the soul.” in my case, it's nibbling at me from deep within my soul. my soul says, HEY, it's okay, we can come out now - it's just fear. and there' s nothing to be afraid of. even if everyone on earth thinks you fucked up, it's okay. god is here. and besides, you didn't fuck up. you're just a person. you cant' make everyone happy. just breathe. that's the knowing. and it sure enough does gnaw in me. "you SURE this is how you want to live?" and i think - hey, no, you're right - this isn't me - is it?

but that fear, that sense of inadequacy, that worry that i've got to do more for everyone and for journey and for my family or else i'll disappoint everyone and everything will fall apart - it's a hard taskmaster. sometimes i forget that that's not what i serve anymore.

bob dylan wrote a song about the bullshit of working in the recording/starmaker machinery (as joni mitchell called it). but for me, that song is a reminder for me; it doesn't have anything to do, btw, with the church or whatever else i do or don't work at; it's about what voice inside me drives me. dylan called it "maggie's farm."

this song is a declaration of independence - to nobody else but just myself, and that fear that no longer is much use in protecting me. turns out, i don't need protecting. I ain't gonna work for my fears no more. I ain't gonna work for anybody ELSE’S fears no more. I ain't gonna work for my own sense of inadequacy no more. there's those moments when i remember: Wait – I remember – I don’t live here. I’m a free man. come to your senses, return to yourself. you're a rich man's son.

I’m gonna walk the road beyond any farm or any rules or any powers that be, and be with anyone who comes walking or struggling or skipping or stumbling along. There'll be plenty to eat, places to stay, folks to be with. It’s better than living and working on Maggie's farm – it wasn’t worth rolling around with Maggie in the hay and getting to sit on her porch, to have to stay there and work for those people and their bullshit. she's not worth it. her father's a dictator/ceo/slaveowner/headmaster/preacher/nazi, her brother's a sadist, her mother's a witch. it's a slave farm. it's a concentration camp. it keeps you in line. it makes you behave. it keeps you weak. it feeds you scraps and says you're a good boy.

fuck that.

sometimes it just takes me a while to remember. thank you god that you keep talking.

I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
No, I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more
Well, I wake up in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin' me insane
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain't gonna work on, naw
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more
naw, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
And he hands you a dime
And he asks you with a grin
If you're havin' a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain't gonna work for, naw
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more

I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more
No, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more
Well, he puts his cigar
Out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window
It is made out of bricks
The National Guard stands around his door
I ain't gonna work, naw
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more

I ain't gonna work for Maggie's ma no more
No, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
And everybody says
She's the brains behind pa
She's sixty-eight, but she says she's twenty-four
I ain't gonna work for, naw
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's ma no more

I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more
No, I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more
Well I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They sing while they slave and just get bored
I ain't gonna work on, naw
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more

ps check out the version of this as covered by rage against the machine ... it will SET YOU FREE!!!

Monday, December 17, 2007

yes yes yes ... this is what it would look like if

you can go to this website and put in a few pics and they morph the pics.

Keira Knightley and Rick had a baby and that baby grew up. and became ... a boy? girl? other?

theological worldview unpacked, sort of

so, i saw on his blog that dave madden had taken this quiz, and i took it. i knew i wasn't a fundamentalist. i don't know the difference between a "classical liberal" and a "modern liberal," so i'm not too concerned about that. i do think the questions on the quiz are incomplete - because i am also deeply orthodox; i believe deeply and passionately in what i believe jesus' message and purpose were. i don't actually think that's particularly new; i think it's really old. but maybe it's new in that not many church models in the last few hundred years have been focused that way. no wonder i didn't feel at home in The Church.

What's your theological worldview?
created with
You scored as Emergent/Postmodern

You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.



Classical Liberal


Modern Liberal




Roman Catholic


Neo orthodox


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Reformed Evangelical




the meaning of his brief life

"that was the meaning of her brief life" - from the short story "Gimpel the Fool" by Isaac Bashevis Singer

we watched "It's A Wonderful Life" saturday night at journey movie night, and the 20 or so of us there talked afterward about the movie, about george as a christ-figure, about how mr. potter never gets punished, about the deep question in the darkness of the film, which is, do our lives matter? do they have meaning?
IAWL's writer-director Frank Capra seems to suggest, in the last message of the film, that "no man is a failure who has friends." the angel Clarence also says, "strange, isn't it? each man's life touches so many other lives.when he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
george, the hero of the film, wants desperately for his life to matter. he wants to get out of the little town he has always lived in, and do something important. see the world. explore. build. i would say that he's completely infected with Young Man's Disease, but there's a difference in george: he helps people. he's not selfish. he is willing to sacrifice his own desires for the greater good. so, he's caught.
stay and help others in small ways in the crummy little town? or go out into the world, and do things that feel important, and escape? george wants to "build things" - so, build a family, and a small business that builds houses for common people, or go out and build skyscrapers and bridges and fame and fortune?
it has occurred to me lately that what jesus was doing was really, really small. i know, it spread all over the place, but at first he had a couple dozen people whom he influenced and knew, and then a few hundred more who were around him, and that's it. and it was the hard work of being in relationship with other human beings. sometimes he stood up to evil powers that be - like george saying No to mr. potter - but mostly with jesus, as with george, it's just about showing up every day, and loving people, and serving, and raising kids, and running errands, and hoping that what he's doing with his life matters.
i think jesus hoped the same thing about his own life. i think he hoped that what he was choosing was the right thing. he had distilled some ideas about what the jewish messiah was predicted to be, but he'd left out some other ones - not a military leader, not a political leader, not a revolutionary, not a heavenly warrior with hosts of angels flanking his fiery chariot. he chose, instead, love, and patience, and healing - with a few people, here and there. it was a big gamble.
he knew something george bailey doesn't realize until the end of "iawl": that the way the world defines a man or woman has nothing to do with whether that man or woman is of value. jesus is willing literally to give his life for his belief that god is love and that god's love is in meaningful sacrifice.
it's nice that at the end of "iawl" the people all come and affirm george, and thank him, for his decades of service to them. i always wonder whether in the days and years to come, the citizens of bedford falls secretly keep score, and passive-aggressively remind him of that night, and ask each other questions about what happened to that $8,000. but then that's me, after eleven years of working in the often toxic world of organized religion. (it's almost out of my system after three and a half years of working in the much healthier world of following jesus with a group of friends.) i've accepted that that's part of the bargain. people are just people. george has already gotten pretty tough; he'll just have to continue to swallow his pride and know that he has done and is doing the right thing, not just for himself, but for his community, his wife, his children, his family.
there will be crucifixions along the way. loss, sadness, pain. despair. a dark bridge at night. tears. how could there not? nothing good comes without pain. but when the gift is given with a pure heart, or even because it's just the right thing to do and it's chosen freely, the gift and the suffering that comes with it it become transformative. redemptive. resurrected. holy.
and, when that gift is given, as with george, and jesus, and you, and me, it is (as dave madden sang yesterday)
holy, holy, holy, holy,
everything and everybody.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

byzantium now

so, it turns out that the phrase "no country for old men" comes from a poem called "Sailing to Byzantium" by William Butler Yeats. a great irish poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. . the poem starts:

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

the young who play and love in each other's arms, and the birds that sing, and the salmon swimming upstream to spawn - they're all about life, and fullness, and joy. old men don't belong there. it's not their world anymore.
Yeats wrote the poem in 1927, when he was in his 60s. an "old man," especially a hundred years ago. so, what do you do? just check out? or find some other possibility? Yeats writes,

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,

what if that's what we did? we clapped our hands, and sang, to celebrate every tatter, every wound, every seeming mistake, every moment of loss, every place where our bodies and minds carry the marks of our life and aging and path? then an aged man - or any man - won't be small, paltry, empty, but loud and full and beautiful.

i'm for celebrating now - and not waiting til i'm an old man.
this past weekend i was with 35 or so other journey men at a retreat in the woods. we celebrated our whole stories - tatters, joys - our souls clapped hands and sang, and louder still, for every tatter in this life - and we remembered that each of us is a son of god. not just "even with" all the tatters - but especially with what we think are the tatters. all of it is sacred.
that's what Yeats calls "Byzantium," a city where he can go and be recreated once he's left this life and is "out of nature." he talks about going there after he dies.
we experienced byzantium this past weekend.
when have you? in the sunset? in the stars? in the face of another human being? in your own suffering? or joy? in prayer? in great (or not that great) art? in cooking? in singing? in quiet? in gardening? in just be-ing?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

no country for old men

go see this movie. but only if you're feeling particularly brave. it is not an easy ride. it's perfect, however. i mean, it's incredibly beautiful to look at ... and it's harrowing ... and intense ... and quiet ... and it goes deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep into the question of the human condition. the human soul. it's a godless universe. so where is meaning? how do we figure out what our lives are about?
javier bardem plays a villain that i can't make sense of. i would say he's the devil - but he's not. he's a man. i would say he's crazy, and he is, but not in a cartoony way - the person he embodies, Anton Chigurh, is ... possible. probable.
and in a world in which things have a certain right and wrong, and meaning - the country of old men, who have a sense of history and coherence and order - what do you do when a man who has principles, but not compassion, appears and takes whatever lives he thinks he must? he sees human beings as cattle. and yet he sees the world with what, for him, is clarity.
what does a man, in this case Tommy Lee Jones' character, Sheriff Bell, choose in the face of such amorality? no, amorality isn't the right word. that suggests that there are morals, and a lack of them.
in the country that isn't for old men, there are no morals from which to divert. there's just who chooses what when.
that's the question the movie explores.

it's a question the bible explores, too - as do all the great spiritual traditions.
go see it. and then lemme know what you think.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

god kicks ass

you have to read this hilarious, hilarious blog/essay.
no, i don't believe that this is what god is like. but it's just so damn funny. and a great take on the old testament sense of the god of wrath ...
see?? i keep telling you, the only way to have children read the bible is to read the bible WITH CHILDREN! help em out! it's bloody and weird!

o christmas twist

we go every year to a christmas tree farm in east texas, the day after thanksgiving. we've done this ever since our kids were tiny. the place we go has hayrides and hot cider and popcorn and a fire and a wood stove and a reindeer obstacle course and a couple of treasure hunt trails in the forest. it's wonderful.
here are some pictures from the tree farm's website. it's so cute!

i thought we had a pretty good tree this year. we looked and looked through the rows in the field - longer than we usually do. we always go with my wife's parents, and our daughter had brought her best friend from back where she grew up, and we brought a family friend we love - the awesome calla - so, we had a good crew. we all loved it. it's fat and really beautifully shaped. tall. my son cut it down and we all cheered. drove home to austin the next day with it tied to the top of the minivan. set it up in the tree stand.
it's crooked.
like, really crooked. the middle goes
bronk. or werp. or some other bendy word.
the tree fell down three times the first week i had it up. my really good christmas tree stand can't hold it up. the tree's just too twisted around. i was SO pissed off. the 2nd time it happened was on monday morning. that's just wrong.
i finally got it to stay standing. i added plywood to the bottom of the tree stand, and used thick wire to anchor the back of the tree to the window lock. and then for a few days i kept running into the wire with my head as i was watering the tree.
the angel this year leaned over so far i had to tie some black sewing thread around one hand and pull her back over a bit.
and yet ... last night, we decorated the tree with our zillions of ornaments, most of which are movie or cartoon characters or keepsakes from when the kids were young or my wife and i were young, and lots of little clear lights. we had a blast, played christmas music (nat king cole, frank sinatra, charlie brown christmas, leon redbone, etc.), enjoyed getting into the christmas spirit.
christmas is all about the impossible happening. just like all the christmas stories - the unlikely thing turns out to be sacred. the loser turns out changing everything.
george bailey in "it's a wonderful life,"
buddy in "elf,"
rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
natalie wood and kris in "miracle on 34th street,"
charlie brown,
and that little poor, shotgun-wedding couple in a cruddy little town who have a baby who'll grow up to be executed as a guy threatening the authorities.
so, this is christmas. at least, part of it.
there's also the gross consumerism part of it, but that's a different blog entry.

i want to pray, Please, god, don't let the christmas tree fall down again. i swear i'll have a breakdown.
to which god says, Oh, breakdowns are good for you. they can help you get over yourself. eventually. see? a crooked christmas tree didn't hurt so bad.

oh, god, you just crack me up! ha ha haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa ..............

bronk ......