Monday, February 27, 2012

February Plea

a re-posting from 2010, couldn't miss this in a leap year (thanks for the reminder paul).

As the second month
February is easy
To forget or ignore
Something about following
January’s celebration
It’s too short
Even when we
Add the “twenty-ninth”
Every fourth year
Optimists herald longer days
The approaching spring
Yet darkness and drizzle
Soon overwhelm their
Heart-felt cries
Ash Wednesday arrives
About mid-month
Begging us to embrace the barren
And retrench for
The weeks of sacrifice
And self-denial
To not rush to spring
To quickly
But to somehow
Enter into the
Lingering death of winter
With hope of again
Discovering a new resurrection

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lent, again -- a poem for Ash Wednesday

I wrote this a few years back and now post it for annually for Ash Wednesday.

Lent, again

Small Baptist church
Edge of the city
Family farms were gone
Ever widening streets
Car lots and early stage
Of strip malls
Good people
Almost "country folk"
My mom's people

They knew the Bible
They loved it
They tried to live it
No creeds of rituals so
They believed

Lent was bad, almost evil
Empty routine of
False religion
Catholics and Lutherans
Maybe some others so
Far from faith

Home is not so distant
Four or five hours down the freeway
Decades later, now about four

Yearly ashes to my forehead
The joy of sorrow
The smudge of death
The touch of some pastor
I hardly know

What was once forbidden
Now is my food, my life

I worry for a moment that I may later see
Someone I know at the
Store who won't understand

Six weeks Wednesday at noon
Sitting with Glenn
Sometimes others join us
A hymn or two
Short sermon
Some good, some not

Lunch in the basement
Church cookbook casserole
Creamy salad
Water or tea
Neither of us drink coffee

Talk of family and sports
Maybe the sermon
Church friends and politics
Work updates
We say our goodbyes

Giving up something, maybe
Remembering, anything to help

Holy Week, the beginning with
Sword ferns posing as palms
Maundy Thursday
It took a long time to
Understand the "Maundy"
Good Friday
It's trite,
But who ever thought to
Call it "good?"
The dark, quiet and waiting

Easter and
It's over
Day of joy
Get my life back, again
Not sure I want it
At this cost
The seasons end

I hope it will come again
Next year
Or maybe, I hope
I'll be here next year
To remember that
It happened
Jesus suffered
And I live

Friday, February 17, 2012

How about a little heresy

On Wednesday mornings at 7:00 a.m. we gather. We began meeting at the hospital cafeteria, then a succession of restaurants before settling in at a church library — one with comfortable furniture and a gas fireplace.
For more than 15 years we’ve gathered. I think four of the current eight members go back that far. The others have joined along the way. Two have left the group, making ten the total number who have been involved. In both cases they moved away. When we started, we were young guys, hitting our stride as local ministry leaders. Nobody was forty yet. Now we’re into mid-life — well into mid-life if statistical averages keep pushing our life expectancies out there.
We’ve all been through a job shift or two. No contract or bylaws have ever been solidified. If you’re in town you make the effort to show up. Then there’s the “Paul” rule. The “Paul” rule states you only get ninety seconds to talk about health concerns. Not because we don’t care for each other, he just wants us to avoid becoming like our parents too soon. Paul not only created the rule, he graciously enforces it.
Over the years we’ve talked about ministry andwork, community ministry updates, family, marriage, parenting, movies, books and baseball. Baseball trumps all other sports for us. I could go on about how we’ve taken it beyond games, innings and standings. There is something so much more in the rhythms and history of the game. We make an annual trip to Safeco Field to, hopefully, watch the Mariner’s win one.
There have been times of deep, honest, supportive listening and heartfelt prayers. The group has been a place of safety and strength for most if not all of us in those near-overwhelming life moments. At other times we can be random and hilarious. Sometimes humor breaks into the circle and all focus is lost, or maybe actually found.
There was one Wednesday morning. The conversation had most likely ebbed and flowed. I do not remember the exact focus of the day. And then Randy asked the following question. “What is the greatest heresy you believe in and that you’re willing to share with your staff team?”  It may have been something he heard in another group setting.
Now remember: at this time all but one of us is employed in professional ministry. We work for a church or para-church. They write our checks.
We all share something of an “I’ve moved beyond fundamentalism” story. We talk about our organizations, families and friends being supportive, that we are in learning communities that allow and encourage growth. But from what I can remember, we never got to an actual conversation. Were we not ready to dissect the difference between what we are supposed to believe and where our hearts and minds settle?
Were we afraid to speak our truth? To have it out there. Or did we not have clarity as to how we would answer. Did we think that by not answering it would go away? Were our minds overloaded by the possibilities or were we embarrassed or worried that in outing ourselves we’d no longer be accepted? Did the conversation die because no one took the risk of going first?
In the years since Randy first voiced the question, I’ve asked some version of it in a number of group settings. Rarely if ever has it ever resulted in an actual discussion. No one seems to want to talk about such sacred, hidden, fear-held ideas and beliefs from within in a group setting.
I’ve been able to push it further with individuals to help them explore a place of honest belief and to encourage refinement of ideas and formulate words that reveal some deep essence.  But I’m guessing they hope or trust their confession ends with me.
In my own life I continue to process the question and try and understand the implications. Maybe the next question for me is: with whom can I share my honest answers?
I think Randy’s question is one of the most profound I have ever encountered. To claim a baseline of faith and not answer seems ignorance, cowardice or foolishness or all three. It forces examination and begs for honesty. I remember words about truth setting us free and something about things in darkness being brought to light.
May God have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

For Connie, #39 & counting

An early summer afternoon,
Maybe Late Spring
That first glance
Across the way
Later a kiss
Awkward, yet exhilarating
Waiting and wondering
Which led to more
Times together, most apart
Calls and Letters
Visits, when possible
Engagement, marriage,
Jobs, kids,
Vacations, transitions,
Traditions, gatherings
Sustenance and surprises
Moments of understanding
And some with a lack thereof
Crises survived and joys shared
Cancer whispered a possible
Too soon end
But that is now old news
Grandkids, proof of passing
Time and certain future
Hard goodbyes with a finality
That hollows the soul
A few decades and a few more
And still those moments
And those smiles
And trust beyond words
And still more

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Making friends with books

I had something of a rocky start with books.
Sometime in the spring of my second or third year of elementary school, my Mom informed me I could go to summer reading or be held back in the fall (nobody wanted to say the flunk word). I went with the summer reading.  This involved spending mornings in a classroom with floor to ceiling windows, hot summer sun, no air conditioning and eight or ten other similarly challenged kids.  I would read stories in cardboard folders held by a machine making a grinding, whirring sound while sliding a metal plate over the page, covering words, to set my pace. After I finished the story there would be a quiz, the outcome of which would determine what story to read next.  I am uncertain of my actual accomplishments, but thankfully I was promoted to the next grade with my class in the fall.
By fifth grade I hit another wall. I was in Miss Jacobs’ reading group. She was the young teacher who wore white go-go boots and short skirts. She should have been cool but she was determined to be in charge and she was STRICT. Our assignment was to read one library book a week. Being a mature ten year old, I decided to express my concerns to her. I told her I was a slow reader and didn’t think I could keep up with the assignment. I was hoping that through negotiation we could agree on more manageable number. She told me to do the assignment or get an F. I then made the mature decision to protest and read nothing. I got an F. My parents were not impressed with my story of negotiation and civil disobedience.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the books. I was a collector and books could be collected. I loved the idea of having books, owning them. I always got my Scholastic order in on time and intended to read all I purchased. On rare occasions, I did.  By high school I had learned that if I listened well in class I could fake my way through most tests and earn passing grades without reading the books. This was a skill I carried through most of my college years.
Sometime near the end of college, or soon thereafter, I started actually reading books. And things changed. Books began to shape my ideas. Books became my friends. I marked them, shared them, talked about them and treasured them.  I believe my wife was a guide opening the world of books for me.  She devours them. Reading books always seemed to be more about “wanting to” than “having to” for her.
In my twenties and thirties, I primarily read lay theology and it fueled my passion for faith and ministry. I was hooked on almost anything from InterVarsity Press. These books became a significant part of my shift (some might say drift) from fundamentalism to a more middle-ground, mainline place of faith connections. I often said that I loved a book because it confirmed my prejudices. Thankfully that was becoming more of a joke than an ongoing reality.
By my forties, I had branched out. My reading was no longer held in the world of Christian publishing, but included novels, action stuff, biographies, sports, history and more. Choosing to no longer focus my reading on books about faith and spirituality, I shifted to a broader range of books and found food for my soul.  Baseball stories and war histories were full of the stuff of life and leadership. Biographies and novels had some of the same draw. These stories of life and living were teaching me how to live. I continue to be fascinated by Negro League Baseball and the way that racial realities are central to the American story.  I love to look for a whisper of God in biographies and novels. I think most of us are either trying to find the Holy or get as far away as possible, and I think it is very difficult to tell a story that excludes a thread of grace, whether the author wants or intends such is irrelevant.
I think it is fair to say that most of my deep friendships include connections with and through books. There are those who share a love for certain authors or genres. There is the fire of discovery or the knowing that comes from a knowing a common story.  For some fifteen years I’ve had a weekly early morning gathering with a group of men. We are close in age and have employment or significant involvement in local ministries. One member’s wife dubbed us the RATS (Readers And ThinkerS). We joke about whether we deserve the name. But in reality we frequently talk about what we are reading and occasionally will read and discuss a book together. The group has been a safe place of strength and stability for each of us at crucial life moments.
I am still a slow reader, working not to say each word mentally. I read in spurts. A book hooks me and I’m obsessed. Summer camping trips, travelling and other times are my favorites. I need to be able to concentrate to read. It is difficult when I have projects hovering or schedule pressures. I find it interesting how many of the “supposed” to read books I’ve never touched. Don’t really care. I scrutinize book recommendations very carefully. You need to sell it or be someone I highly trust and respect before I’ll commit to your suggestion.
I’m not ready for an electronic reader yet. It may be my age, and I can accept that. I still like the individuality of books. Hardback, paperback, weight of paper, new, used, typestyle. I mean, how does an author sign a tablet?  I enjoy the library, borrowing and buying used books. There are some books I know from the start I want to own. With most others I prefer to keep them moving. At times I buy a keeper copy, one for me to own, after reading one borrowed. I also have books I treasure. While I would show them to many, I’d only cautiously lend them to any. Some have author’s signatures. I have been fortunate in my work life to meet many and make friendships with a few.  
Then there’s the question of writing a book. Many have encouraged me to give it a try. For a long time, it has vacillated between being a dream and a goal. I’ve started a few and outlined many on paper and more in my head.
Let’s face it. I’ll never read all the books I want to read. I certainly won’t read all the books others expect me to read. Schlock and trash will abound. But when I find a one of those just right books, at the just right time, the reading of it, no the very living into it makes all of life something more.
May God have mercy on us all (and help us to find a few more “perfect” books along the way).