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Laughter

My blogging hiatus has come and gone. I’ve visited family and spent a signifiant amount of time not doing much of anything. In fact, I haven’t even read very much. Instead, I’ve done a lot of hiking, sleeping, and sitting. I’ve gotten the rest that I’ve so desperately needed. In fact, this past weekend I had dinner with a few friends I hadn’t seen since the spring. After a few minutes they remarked about how I seemed so much calmer. And I feel like it.

A couple of years ago I got an unexpected call from my grandfather. My extended family and I had just celebrated his 90th birthday over the Christmas holiday and he was in the midst of planning his funeral. He asked me to give the eulogy and help one of my uncles with the service. In his words, “You’re good at speaking in front of people.” But he failed to take into account that I will probably be balling my eyes out. Again, over this past Christmas holiday, my extended family got together to celebrate his 92nd birthday and after it I started thinking about the reality that he will die. I’ve written parts of his eulogy in my head but the rapidity of doing so has increased with his quickly deteriorating health. This was especially true on Tuesday.

Tuesday he went in for back surgery and I was preparing myself for a phone call that said he didn’t make it. The cardiologist told my family that “If he were my father I would NOT allow him to have this surgery.” All morning I waited, with a couple of e-mail updates from my brother, and only when evening came would I allow myself to believe that he was going to be ok. And he’s ok.

When I think of my grandpa I have many wonderful memories. Smoking cigars together, a family vacation to Disneyland when I was young, sitting at his table listening to stories about farming, WWII, and the Great Depression. But my best memories are of hearing him laugh. He has the kind of laugh that comes from his gut. A laugh that doesn’t allow him to breath at the same time. His face gets red. The veins in his head take on a life of their own. His laughter is what I’ll always remember and I’m thankful for that.

Laughter is such a powerful thing. I remember one particular night in Charlotte, NC visiting Scott and Tami several years ago when we sat on the deck and laughed. I remember Christmas with my immediate family and looking over to the couch to see my mom and my sister laughing so hard that they couldn’t speak. I remember my brother hiding behind a door a few weeks ago to scare me (which he did) and the goofy smile on his face when i nearly hit the cathedral ceilings in his living room. Those are the images that stick with me when I remember my friends and family.

I can’t help but think that there’s an aspect of shalom that inextricably linked to laughter. There seems to be a kind of healing and harmony that occurs when people laugh together. My thoughts are probably premature but I can’t help but think that shalom is about living and laughter is an amazing part of our lives. What would our lives be without laughter? In my 32 years on earth I’ve never thought of that question. Laughter is an important part of the human experience, of the Christian experience. Does the Bible talk about laughter? I really don’t have any idea and would LOVE to hear about it! On another note, do you have any stories about laughter?

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Have you ever ran straight toward two coyotes who were in pursuit of dinner? Well, I did a few weeks ago on the ranch I was taking care of for nine days. I was sitting outside one evening and Bianca, the dog, had been wandering around the 60 acres, as she so frequently does in the afternoon and evenings. The view from the patio is of a few acres of grass with woods surrounding three sides. It’s a beautiful view. All of the sudden, Bianca was running faster than I had ever seen her run. I noticed, through the grass, that there were two dogs chasing her. At first I thought these were neighbor dogs and they were playing. Then I noticed the tail on these other animals and I knew exactly what they were: coyotes. Growing up in South Dakota I had a few experiences with coyotes, and these were not the kind of experiences that instilled a love or, at the very least, toleration.

The next thing I know, with cat-like reflexes, I jump a wooden fence four feet high and find myself running straight toward the coyotes. Bianca was only about three feet in front of these wily wolves of the prairie and the only thing going through my mind was something to the effect of “Oh no, you are NOT going to kill my professor’s dog!” Given my past experiences, I assumed that the coyotes would, at some point, decide that I’m too big to fight and run away, but part of me wondered what my first move would be. Kick them with my boots, hoping that Bianca could handle herself well enough to take care of one of them. As I got about ten feet away, the coyotes stopped and ran in the other direction. Then the unthinkable happened. Bianca turned around and began chasing the coyotes. oy.

After I got back to the house, with Bianca by my side and the coyotes out of view, I couldn’t help but begin to laugh. What in the world was I thinking?! The past few days I’ve been doing a bit of reading and writing but mainly watching movies that have come out not so recently. So, I went to Blockbuster video for the first time since living in this town, only to find out that it costs $5 to rent of movie! Thankfully, they had a special going and I could spend $15 for a week of as many movies as I’d like. Nice.

I thought about talking specifically of movies that I’ve seen but I don’t want you to hate me by giving away the endings. One of the things that I noticed today is how many of the recent movies are about sacrifice and redemption. There are a couple of movies in particular where a person sacrifices themselves for the redemption of a community. These beautiful stories, while different, are so very similar because they tell a story of personal loss that leads to bitterness and hatred of the community. Then, after personal encounters with those around them, they are reborn into a position that allows them to choose to sacrifice for the good of that community. These endings always make me a bit sappy.

I wish I could say that this is a trend in American culture, where someone so selfless would be willing to run straight at two coyotes to save a poor helpless dog. Oh wait, that was me. But then I began thinking about all of the movies that I really enjoy; you know, the movies that I watch over and over again. Movies like Finding Forester, Remember the Titans, Die Hard, Armageddon, Braveheart, and all of those other awesomely bad movies that make me feel good. This isn’t something new but something that goes back to movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. But this theme goes back even further in American literature to The Great Gatsby and Sister Carrie. The idea of sacrifice and redemption is a powerful theme that gets me every time because it is so wonderfully human, yet there is something else about it that attracts me to it.

I am attracted to the narrative of sacrifice because I hope that I would act the same way. I would like to think of myself as someone who would take action that would better my community, even if it meant personal harm. When I told my brother the story of the coyotes he laughed at me. He did a bit of research and informed me that coyotes have killed the same number of people as Cocker Spaniels since 1980: 1. He then made fun of me because I was in no real danger, rather I just thought I was in danger. Then I asked him a simple question: What would you have done? His response: “I think that is something you only know when you’re confronted with that situation.” And I completely agree.

In life we never know what will come our way until we face it. We can imagine all sorts of scenarios where we do what people do in the movies or books, putting ourself in the position of sacrifice. The difference is that we never know what we will really do until we confront that situation. But isn’t that how it is in all things? We see who we really are, rather than how we would like to think of ourselves, when confronted with choices? What we choose to do and how we choose to act tells us more about ourselves than how we think or want to act. While this revelation may not be all that profound to you, it is to me. The question, then, is how do I put myself in a position to choose appropriately when faced with a choice. I feel another blog ruminating …

Whenever I think about patience I hear a friend of mine singing in the background: “Have patience/Have patience/ Don’t be in such a hurry/When you get, impatient, you only start to worry.” Growing up, Nate would sing this song in particularly tense situations, which led to unspeakable laughter because he is tone deaf. There’s something about hearing someone who is tone deaf, and knows it, belt out a song in a public place to ease the tension. So, this kids song has remained a part of my everyday litany of internal song options thanks to Nate.

Today at the post office, this song came rushing back to me as I waited to get to the counter, with ten people separating me from the rest of my day. The postal worker was doing her best taking care of the person standing in front of her without rushing. But I wanted her to rush. At this moment the children’s song came rushing back to me and I couldn’t help but laugh. The man standing in front of me gave a little glance backwards and as I kept laughing a smile crept across his face too.

As I completed all the things on my list, driving around town, this song kept going through my head. Then I asked myself if I’m a patient person. Of course, I’d like to think that I’m patient. That I’m not in a rush or willing to wait. Then I thought about all of those situations where I am infinitely patient: teaching, airports, conversations. Then I thought about all of those situations where I have little patience: bad drivers, check-out lines, relationships, ignorant people. As I thought about different areas of my life I realized that I am patient and impatient all at the same time. It’s amazing to me how, for so long, I’ve always thought of myself as a patient person, only to realize that there are areas of my life where my impatience can only be described as like a petulant child.

Patience and waiting are two-sides of a similar coin. Scott’s last blog talked about the longer view, which is a view that I have when it comes to most of the important things in my life. Yet, at the same time, it is a view that I often fail at achieving. I can’t help but ask myself why it is that I sometimes don’t have this longer view, a view that embodies patience when I want something and I want it now. When I got home I searched for a verse that came to mind and found it in Psalms 38:15: “I wait/hope for you O Lord! You will respond, O my God!” I’m not a Hebrew genius, like Scott, but “wait” and “hope” are both used, depending on your translation. I think it’s interesting how wait and hope are used in similar ways but, when taken together, we get an idea of expectation. To wait is to hope in expectation. At least this is how my untrained perspective sees it.

Patience requires a willingness to wait. But I find my ability to be patient completely dependent on the situation and circumstance. It’s hard to be patient when you are expecting something. This is where the train comes off the rails for me, like at the post office: I know what I am expecting but I just want to get there faster. At the post office, I knew exactly what I wanted and was impatient waiting for it. In relationships, I know exactly what I want and am impatient waiting for it. My willingness to wait, to have patience, goes out the window when I know what to expect. What’s funny about expectations is they are rarely in reality.

My thought process over the last few hours has led me to think that my expectations have nothing to do with waiting. To be able to rest in the fact that I don’t know what to expect is freeing and allows me to wait with confidence and contentment. Confidence and contentment are two things that I have more of than I should most of the time. But there are always those things that make us impatient. Those things that others don’t struggle with but I do. Things that make me wonder if I’m an impatient person rather than a person who can be impatient. However, shalom helps me to think about patience, hope, and expectation in a very different way. To be content with any situation, as Paul implored the Philippians, requires one to rest in the knowledge that I am waiting because I trust. And remembering how important it is to trust our Father has added a dimension to my rest that gives me hope that an uncertain future is beautiful and full of possibility.

A Longer View

A while back a group of friends and I were talking about our hopes and dreams for the future.  One friend was lamenting the fact that, due to their present circumstances, they wouldn’t be able to work toward one of their particular dreams for the conceivable future.  I tried to encourage them by urging them to take a long view of life, to consider its many stages, but I was quickly cut off by another friend trying to be equally encouraging by urging a positive attitude and immediate action despite the circumstances.

This conversation has stuck with me.  What is our fascination with doing everything now? The older I get, the more I seem to take comfort in the fact that life is long, that there will be time for many many things, but that maybe some of those things will have to wait a long time.  Certainly this line of thinking can be problematic, but the principle is sound.  I have found this longer view to be so freeing and frankly, so sustainable.  It helps me to focus on what is most important for me to do now and that is where I expend my efforts.  So many people seem hurried all the time and while there are times for that for sure, I try to pace myself and have made it a point to live in an unhurried way.

I have lots of friends who are busier than I am and for someone who wants to do good things in this world, that is sometimes hard for me.  But I will be damned if I wake up five years from now burnt out or off track or both.  Not that my friends will, this isn’t an indictment at all; I am just pondering why we don’t think within a longer horizon.  Last week a former professor who I respect very much, a man who works many hours, told me I was being very productive for a young father.  This has meant a lot to me and that tells me that I am a bit insecure about how much I get done.  So please don’t take this as a “Look at me, I am great” sort of post.  This theme has just been on my mind and I am puzzled at our culture’s almost neurotic refusal to consider a perspective other than the short term.

I seem to be alternating between two threads in this post: hurriedness and a thinking within a longer view.  Clearly there are lots of reasons for business, but I have a feeling that these two strands are related.  I think a short term view lends itself toward being harried.  And, not that productivity is an end in itself, but my hunch is that a longer view helps us be more productive when it is all said and done.  Think tortoise and the hare.

Last night I was reading my favorite new author, Wendell Berry, and he spoke to this issue.  He was comparing the “orthodox” agribusiness emphasis on profit, production and expansion to the agricultural focus on health, skill, care, relationships, etc.  I will leave off with this (don’t let the simplistic gender language distract you):

“Production, some would say, is the male principle in isolation from the female principle.  Thus isolated, the male principle wants to exert itself absolutely; it wants to “do everything at once” –which is, of course, what doomsday will do.  But reproduction, which is the male and female principles in union, is nurturing, patient, resigned to the pace of seasons and lives, respectful always of the nature of things.  Production’s tendency is to go “all out”; it always aims to set a new record.  Reproduction is more conservative and more modest; its aim is not to happen once, but to happened again and again and again, and so it seeks a balance between saving and spending.”

Who was I kidding?  Since the days leading up to Bella’s birth, I have cracked my “daily office prayer book” (I am using Celebrating Common Prayer) a mere handful of times.  I should have seen this coming.  It’s not as much that I don’t have the time- it really doesn’t take that long- but it is more that I just can’t seem to muster the effort necessary to attend to that kind of practice.  New babies tend to demand some attention themselves!  I am hoping to get started again in the near future.  I had a feeling the other day that I was actually missing those times of daily rest, of a brief space to re-center, of reconnecting with God and putting Him and His ways before my attention regularly in this way.  It was fleeting- and I will have to nurture it soon or it will die- but it’s appearance was hopeful to me.  It took over 5 weeks before I felt that way.

Reflecting back on the experience of praying the office through Lent, there is one thing that is worth mentioning- at least it is somewhat related to Jeff’s post and his hope that I would say something about meditation.  Throughout Lent (or any season in the church calendar) the daily office has some parts that you repeat every single day and since I was praying the office twice a day, there were parts I was visiting twice.  One of those things was the closing prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God,

you hate nothing that you have made

and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:

create and make in us new and contrite hearts

that we, worthily lamenting our sins

and acknowledging our wretchedness,

may receive from you, the God of all mercy,

perfect remission and forgiveness;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I don’t know how that strikes you.  I like it, so I eventually memorized it.  (Other parts of the office, repeated just as often, I didn’t like, nor memorize, nor get much out of).  Praying this prayer became like breathing to me; receiving life and letting go, resting.  There is something about returning to and soaking your consciousness in a phrase or a refrain that grabs you- I think we humans are wired that way; unfortunately in this digital age we don’t have to remember anything and we think we know something just because we can locate information about it.  These kinds of disciplines help us stop, fully enter into something and revisit it again and again until it becomes comforting in ways that I am grasping at explaining (kind of like the difference between old friends and new friends, but now I am being cheesy, calling these phrases old friends!).

The one thing that I found particularly helpful about this prayer is that it helped me with one of the main thrusts of Lent: repentance.  Repentance isn’t something I am good at.  Generally, it isn’t the asking of forgiveness that is the problem for me, it’s simply the recognition of the evil in me (which seems to me to be the more serious of the two).  I think the simple praying of that prayer over and over, asking for a new and contrite heart twice a day, actually was a bit of a self-fulfilling prayer.  It softened my heart, opened my awareness and at the very least humbled me.

I really hope there is a Part III to this blog; that will mean I started up doing the office again!

Rest

I’m a perpetual fidgeter. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this affliction as I know that Scott fidgets at least as much as I do. I’ve never looked up “fidget” in the dictionary, well, until about thirty seconds ago. Evidently “fidget” means to make small movements through nervousness or impatience. I’ve been this way my entire life. I could write about how the circumstances of my life have made me this way, but all the rationalizations I could muster would not be unique to my experiences as a human being living in a fast-paced world. Why I fidget isn’t important. When I fidget isn’t important. Where I fidget isn’t important. Rather, the fact that I am a perpetual fidgeter leads me to a realization that a friend of mine recently told me: You need rest.

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about rest. I’ve been realizing how I am in desperate need of rest. All the things that have consumed me are good things but don’t lend themselves to rest, just like most things in life. For so long I’ve been chasing an educational goal, which now lurks at my doorstep. My PhD dissertation has been submitted and my oral defense is eleven days away. I’m not anxious about my oral defense, understanding that I will get beaten up by my review committee for a couple of hours but resting in the fact that my advisor thinks it is good and will pass without a problem. My education is coming to a permanent end and, after six years, I have the ability to slow down without the constant pull of all the things that I should be doing. Compounding the problem is the reality that I’ve been teaching while writing. Students demanding my time just to talk or grade or read essay drafts or write letters of recommendation or the multitude of other things students require. Teaching at a college, I’m required to attend numerous meetings a week, most of which seem pointless to everyone except the administrators who require them. The pull of friends and the circumstances of life pull me in so many different directions that I have developed a “what’s next” attitude of divide and conquer.  In graduate school that seems to be an attitude of survival, not domination. To survive you must constantly be moving from one project to the next, from one e-mail to the next, from one lecture to the next. Survival requires one to constantly and consistently ask, “what’s next?”

Two days ago the first verse of Psalm 57 came to my mind: “Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, For my soul takes refuge in Thee; And in the shadow of Thy wings I will take refuge.” One of the things Scott has challenged me to do over the past several years has been to participate in regular meditation. I do hope he will talk about meditation in the relatively near future. This is a topic I know little about other than the obvious, common sense understanding. But the last two days I’ve been meditating on the first line: Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me.

This verse positions me on my knees before my Father in an attitude of trust. I was in Colorado this past week and yesterday, on the plane flying back to Indiana, a little boy and his father were sitting in front of me. Throughout the flight the little boy and I were entertaining one another. I was making funny faces and playing peek-a-boo with him as his big smile helped me to stop and see the beauty in the passing clouds and the carefree spirit only a child can possess. As we were about to get off the plane, the boy exclaimed, “Daddy! I have buggers in my nose!” His tone was one of desperation and his father responded, “Just wait a bit longer.” In that moment the boy gave his well-being to his father. Something so banal as buggers had been frustrating and annoying him for so long that he just wanted relief. And he turned to his Father for that relief. “Be gracious to me, O God, Be gracious to me.”

Meditating on these ten words has turned from a screaming prayer for relief, to a peaceful whisper of rest. My gratitude comes from an ability to trust; to lay all that I have and all that I am at my Father’s feet, knowing that my rest will come … if I wait a bit longer. To rest is to trust; and slowly, very slowly, my rest is overtaking me in a way I haven’t experienced since I began this PhD. I don’t expect rest to come quickly but I know it will come. But I must rest. I must look to the heavens and simply be.

The kind of trust I’m talking about only comes when I’m comfortable to lay all that I am at the feet of another. To have the kind of openness and honesty about who I am and who I want to be requires an irrational trust that regardless of who I am, I can always rest in His arms when I’m weak and don’t have the strength to stand. But what’s funny about rest is that we rarely get to a point where we can see that we are lying flat on our back, not standing any longer. For so long we’ve had to be strong that we don’t even see our weakness, our need to rest, our need to surrender all that we are to our Father. Rest doesn’t come easy for me because I’ve always had to immediately move on. Complete trust doesn’t come easy for me because I’ve had to depend on myself for so long. Surrender seems like an impossibility because to survive graduate school I’ve had to conquer all that comes in my path. But my prayer will continue to be one that seeks rest in spite of myself. To find rest is to find peace in whatever comes; to trust that God’s timing is perfect; to trust that my humanity will one day be made whole; to surrender all that I am because I know redemption will come. To seek rest is to find peace; to find peace is to live redemption and reconciliation; to live shalom is to rest in the healing arms of a Father who works in and through us in spite of yet because of myself and who I’ve become.

“Be gracious to me, O God, Be gracious to me.”

For the past six weeks or so I have prayed the daily office twice a day- well, at least on weekdays! The daily office- as it is called in the Anglican tradition- is a service of recited prayers, psalms and Scripture readings that change with and reflect the seasons of the Christian calendar. Think monks. But not only monks; many have found it a helpful way to stop and refocus a few times throughout the day- there are quite a few “services” you could pray as you go through the day, though the morning and evening ones are most common. I have dabbled in this sort of spiritual discipline before and am doing so again a little more rigorously for Lent. I plan to write a Part 2 to this blog looking back on Lent, but for now, below are some melodramatic thoughts culled from a little reflection I did when I tried this 4x/day for a week or for a class…

This activity of the heart is compared, not inappropriately, to that of a     mill which is activated by the circular motion of water. The mill cannot cease operations at all so long as it is driven round by the pressure of the water and it, then, becomes quite feasible for the persons in charge to decide whether he prefers wheat or barley or darnel to be ground. And one thing is clear. Only that will be ground which is fed in by the one who is in charge.” John Cassian, Conferences

For the past week and a half I have prayed through the daily office using Venite: A Book of Daily Prayer, by Robert Benson…The office became a metaphor for me, in that, as it was a challenge to map the office onto my life and as it was a challenge to attend to God through lengthy written prayers, so the life of faith is a challenge. Trite as it sounds, this is hard work, but it is a work of faith. Still, as the days went by I found that the yoke fit better and better. The office became a time of security, a time of rest. By end of the week, I began to long for the re-centering of the office and to return to the space it created in me.

How about a few ironies… Certainly, the power of the daily office is its ability to shape one’s spirit. This is ironic considering how severely one must shape one’s life in order to pray the office four times a day. The office, it seems, shapes back. The office confronts me with my weakness as I struggle to mean what I say. And the office strengthens me as I begin to become, bit by bit, what I have been saying. Thus, I am shaped by being continually reminded of who I am and compelled to become who I am invited to be.

Again, it is ironic that as I add more to my full life, the office shows me the emptiness that was there. By taking time out of my “life” to focus my attention on God through the office, I can recognize how infrequently my attention is focused before God during the rest of the day. As I work to be sincere while I am “away” praying the office, I learn to be fully present during the rest of my life.

It is not quite ironic, but it is unexpected nonetheless, that a set book of prayers would end up grounding one in a Reality much deeper than the rest of life. Perhaps it is knowing that I follow the footsteps of many thousands from over the centuries. Perhaps it is coming before God throughout the day with more than a short sentence shout-out.

These reflections feel a bit melodramatic to me. I am grasping at something I have barely begun to experience. It is a bit like describing marriage a few months after the wedding. Without question, soaking in these prayers- before God and alongside the Church- must have a profound effect on one’s soul, not least because Scripture is the best grist for the mill.