Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Dozen Years Ago: A Poem for Our Anniversary

Me being a writer, I often write Laurie something for our anniversaries, birthdays, and other Holidays. Usually I write prose, but occasionally I venture into something else.  This year, I wrote a poem.  Hardly a literary masterpiece but as I thought about where we are after a dozen years together (wow time flies when you are having fun!),  this was what arose from my heart...
July 5, 2003.  The happy couple beginning our life together...
Since many of you friends on Facebook have been part of some aspect of our journey together, I thought I would share this one:

A Dozen Years Ago
A poem written for our 12th anniversary

A dozen years ago the groom was all smiles,
As his bride and Best Friend walked down the aisle .
At Huntingtown church we had our ceremony,
Where three generations of Ward's have joined in matrimony. 
How many pastors for us to tie the knot you ask?
Six including the bride -- now that's quite a lot!
In the Company of Pastors: [Left to right.] Donna Renn, Sandy Taylor, Mark Derby, my bride Laurie,
Brian McLaren, and Carole Silbaugh.  Gosh!   I was the only layperson on the altar. :)
Our wedding party certainly filled Huntingtown's altar. 
Our family has formed us over the years.
Oh there have been challenges, but we have endured,
Though some of the wounds only eternity will cure.
We resemble our relatives and our children likewise,
The past is redeemed when seen through young lives.
New blessings born from a river of tears.

Good, bad, and ugly -- all part of our story.
Sometimes Divine Presence can be hard to trust.
Joy and sorrow, they've been known to commingle.
Maybe most when we're sad, our hearts feel the tingle.
Even deep pain, if we let it, reminds us:
Every moment we live through laced with God's glory.

A dozen years ago I couldn't imagine my life today.
Through all of its rigors, my vows remain the same,
And my love for you has become deeply engrained.
Two becoming one, made stronger by the Third strand.
Adventuring in marriage, but safe in God's hands,
Becoming fully ourselves while following the Way.

How we look now.  Still smiling 12 years later.  
(Taken at a friend's wedding in June.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Liturgy for Living

Our church is doing a sermon series called Why Worship .  In previous weeks, we covered sacraments and proclamation/prophecy; last week, we looked at liturgy, which means the work of the people—not the work the pastor.  We were reminded that worship requires the participation of the whole community. There is an order of worship we follow.  Each time we gather together, we do things in a certain sequence intended to help lead us into God’s Presence—and then back out into the world carrying that Presence with us. These rituals are meant to bond us to meaning.  If we aren’t “getting anything out of” certain parts of the worship service, we may need to remind ourselves why we do what we do.  

In her message, the pastor reminded us there are two types of time: chronos and kairos.  Chronos is “our time”, the kind of time we keep on our watches and schedule-apps; kairos, on the other hand, is “God’s time”, or eternal time.  It is the "right" or "opportune" moment for us to encounter God. 

We live our days in chronos time but as people created in God’s image, we are created to seek and experience kairos moments. 

When we gather to worship as a community, we intentionally choose to give God some of our chronos, which we can control, in hopes of experiencing kairos, which we cannot.   

The liturgy we use in our worship services provide means that create space for those kairos moments to happen.  They are regular routines that followers of God have used for centuries to point themselves toward the Divine, sort of analogous to how a trellis helps to guide the growth of a tender plant.

The pastor also briefly touched on how we need order in our own personal lives. Although it wasn’t her focus, that was the part that resonated with me the most this week.  I have found myself in recent days feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the busyness of my life.  (How many can relate?) We did a round of spring-cleaning in our house recently.  We literally restored some order in our home—which felt really good after it was done!  But what I am seeking goes deeper than just cleaning up my physical home—I need to reorder my spiritual home.

I often say I need to find balance.  The reasoning goes that if I can just get the right ratio of activities, then I can do it all.  Seeking balance isn’t bad per se; the problem is that it tends to be self-focused.  I am trying to manage all the various “hats” I must where: spouse, parent, employee, church member, etc., and do them all well, so that life is easier and more convenient for me.  Also, when we seek balance, the sectors of life tend to get compartmentalized.  Spiritual life becomes just one of the compartments—when it should encompass all of the others.  Even if I manage to balance all the activities, where does that leave me?  Tired most likely!  But am I really any more certain about where I am headed?  Probably not.

I am fairly convinced that writing and storytelling are part of my calling; I've known that for a while.  In some ways, I already do these things.  I am a writer, editor, and “storyteller” for NASA.  Likewise, I’ve written many spiritual essays similar to the one you are reading right now over the past decade or so, and published them online and/or in print. I’ve also tried my hand in more recent years at creative nonfiction writing, taking several online courses, and producing some "really good first drafts".  All of these are partial expressions of who I am, but none of them are the complete picture.  I am fairly certain there is “more” I am meant to do, but struggling to discover it—and do it.

I think the “next step” involves a grand synthesis bringing together the writing I have done to date: a spiritual memoir perhaps?  A fuzzy vision emerges of what might be, but it quickly vanishes in the fog of uncertainty that seems to surround my life. Besides, having the time and energy to seriously pursue writing just doesn’t seem practical at this stage of my life.  I get discouraged and dismiss it as impossible.

I think the spiritual progress that I seek toward living more fully into my calling requires more than balance.   To get back on track toward the “bigger picture” that God sees for me, I need a firm sense of direction—I need order.

I was reminded this week of a time-honored spiritual practice that can help me if I would choose to pursue it.  It’s called a rule of life[1].  In light of our discussion of the role liturgy in worship, we might think of this practice as liturgy for living.  For centuries, these “rules” provided frameworks (like the trellis) that have helped followers of Jesus more intentionally pursue personal rhythms and guidelines that draw them closer to God and one another[2].  Developing a personal rule requires taking an honest inventory of who we are and what we really desire in life and then coming up with a rule (or if you prefer, a rhythm) that works for us. 

For example, if I really want to move forward as a writer, it likely won’t “just happen”; I will need to make a plan.  That is, I need to be clear about my goal, and then decide what specific and intentional actions I will take in the next month, year, etc., to move toward that goal.  For some reason, I resist making such plans like the plague. Why?  It’s a complicated answer but I think it’s because once I make a plan it has the potential of failing, and I hate failure so much that I resist even starting.  I figure I will just wait for the memoir to “just happen” and if it doesn’t it must not have been “meant to be”.

But I have come to believe that “meant to be” is a joint endeavor between us and God.  Until I am willing to do my part, my dream is likely to remain elusive—and I am likely to remain frustrated.

The liturgy that shapes your life will be different from mine.  It will be as unique as the individual God has created you to be, but as Christ followers there will be common themes that weave together, harmonies that join to make beautiful music. God’s hopeful and compelling vision of the Kingdom of God will begin to (re)order our hearts (Proverbs 4:23) and provide the impetus we need to overcome our human tendency toward self-centeredness and motivate us to take action toward the noble pursuit of loving God and loving our neighbors as we work together toward the common good of creation. 

[1] Two excellent resources are the section on “Rule of Life” in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, by Adele Calhoun, pp. 35–39, and “A Well Ordered Heart,” Chapter 12 of The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, by John Ortberg.  Ortberg discusses the difference between balance and order in more detail.
[2] An example of an ancient rule of life still in use today is the Rule of St. Benedict.

Speaking With a Prophetic Voice

At my church during May we have been considering:  Why Worship?  Thus far, we have covered sacraments and proclamation; next week is liturgy.  When we considered proclamation, we looked at Jeremiah's call (Jeremiah 1:4-9) and our call as Christ followers to have a prophetic voice.   Our task, in the words of Walter Bruggeman is not to ask whether an alternative is possible or viable—but rather to ask if is it is imaginable. Our pastor challenged us to be prophets wherever we find ourselves. Our call is to imagine a better world, to confront the status quo wherever there is injustice, and to work toward making our hopeful vision (i.e., God’s vision) a reality.

Surely the voice of Martin Luther King is that of a modern prophet.  King's words, first preached over half a century ago, often seem like they could just as easily be commentary on today's world.  Some of the specific issues may have changed since the early 1960s, but the core human issues King confronted in his writing and speaking remain essentially the same.

In one of his sermons, King speaks of the need to have both a tough mind and a tender heart as a follower of Christ.  Certainly, any who would seek to speak with a prophetic voice must strike that delicate balance. 

On one hand, prophets have to possess a tough (or disciplined) mind.  They must have strong conviction—and thick skin.  A prophet is often called to challenge the status quo in his/her time, and that's never an easy road to walk.  It's much easier to acquiesce and go with the flow.  Because he/she typically challenges people to move from what is familiar and comfortable to them, the prophetic voice is often not a popular one.  The most vehement opposition typically comes from those who have the most to lose if things change.  By their words and actions these persons make it clear: We are comfortable where we are, thank you very much; we don't care much for your so-called vision.  If a prophet doesn't have a tough mind; if he/she isn't possessed by a compelling vision of what God longs to see that drives all that they say and do, they will likely lose heart and give up hope. 

Likewise, a prophet also needs to have a tender (or disciplined) heart—one that is able to hear the still small voice of God even in the midst of hardship and suffering. Prophets often speak words of hope amidst circumstances that seem hopeless. No, the hopeful vision will not come to pass immediately; it will not come without effort—without blood, sweat, tears, sometimes even death—but "one day", proclaims the steadfast prophetic voice, it will come. 

Jeremiah is a good biblical example of the balance the prophet must strike between tough mind and tender heart.  When God calls Jeremiah as a young man (perhaps only a child) to go and deliver ominous warnings to the people of Judah, he resolves himself, despite his youth, to obey to the best of his ability.   Jeremiah surely felt inadequate to the task before him but God reassured him:  you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command.  In other words: I am going with you.  My voice will come out of your mouth.
The message God delivers through Jeremiah is not pleasant.  Jerusalem is about to be overrun by the Babylonian Empire and the temple will be destroyed.  Many will die; the lucky ones will be taken off into exile.  Judah is about to be displaced from everything that is familiar to them.  No wonder Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. 

God’s message is a hard one for Jeremiah to deliver, but, even in the face of brutal opposition, he does not waver.  Jeremiah has both a tough mind and a tender heart

The leaders did not heed Jeremiah's tough words.  One might therefore expect him to gloat when disaster befalls Jerusalem.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Jerusalem is Jeremiah's home too.  Despite being ignored and despised by the very people he tried to warn, they are still his people, and when they hurt he hurts.  Jeremiah weeps with them; he feels compassion for them—and so does God. 

Through Jeremiah, God speaks some of the most hopeful words in all of scripture.  He reassures the people that though they are in exile far from home, God is still with them—and will never leave them.  In the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Jeremiah promises the people a future with hopeJeremiah 29:11.  For the time being, they must settle down in Babylon and make a life for themselves in exile—but "one day" a remnant will return.  As a sign of his faith in that future—and in the God who will bring it to pass—Jeremiah does something most unusual.  Even as the Babylonian siege ramps advance on Jerusalem, Jeremiah purchases a field the city—Jeremiah 32

Such an act would take both a tough mind, to go through with a real estate deal as an invading army advances upon the city, and a tender heart, to follow through and do what God asks even though it seems like sheer folly.

I don't know about you but most days my voice doesn't seem very prophetic. Many days, it is all I can do to get my kids to listen to me, much less speak challenging words that confront injustice in the world and offer hope for the future.  It's hard to imagine a better future when just getting through the "to do" list each day seems to take every bit of energy I have.  I feel very unfocused most of the time; pulled in many directions, I do not speak or act decisively.  I feel like most days I fear my voice sounds more pathetic than it does prophetic

Proverbs 29:18 says that without vision the people perish, and many days I feel like that describes my life

I am not sure what prevents me from seeing more clearly the future that God wants for me, my family, my church, or my world. I suspect we each have our own unique “vision impediments”, and we have to discern them for ourselves and take action to eliminate them.

Until a compelling vision of the future fills our sails, we risk continuing to drift in no particular direction, easily swayed by the ever-changing winds of this world, trying to escape the doldrums of double-minded indecisiveness.

Prophets likes Martin Luther King and Jeremiah (and also Jesus[1]) show us the value of having a clear vision of the future God desires to focus our lives and motivate us to take decisive action. I for one need to be reminded of these examples right now.  They challenge me to get off the snide and seek to discern the “next step” toward becoming the person God created me to be—and then step out in faith and take it…  Lord let it be so for me—and for all of us.

[1] I believe Jesus’ commitment to pursue God’s vision (which the Gospel writers call the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven) was the impetus for all he said and did—and ultimately the reason he was willing to face death on the cross. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Rebecca May Is Seven Years Old Today

It seems hard to believe that this little girl is seven years old today.  It seems just yesterday we were going to the hospital to bring her into the world.  She'll always be daddy's little girl but she sure is growing up into a beautiful young lady.  (I shall have my hands full in a few years...)
Rebecca Spring 2015

The creative genius at work. :)

Vintage Rebecca. Living life to the full!

With her BFF Sky

With her big brother and friend, Brady

From Christmas 2012.  

 I am very thankful for the gift of Rebecca May.  She has such so much life and creativity within her that its hard to contain -- and sometimes hard to clean up after.  I've often said she carries the "spirit of two" within her -- and of course we also remember Hope Marie today as well, who would have looked just like her, but been her own unique person.  

There was another whose birthday is today.
Happy Birthday Hope Marie
These birthdays and other milestones in life are always bittersweet for mom and dad.  There was indeed another who does not get the chance to grow up and that will always be part of our story.  We will never forget—never stop talking about her and keeping her memory alive.  Nor should we.  On May 4, the day she passed from life support to life eternal, we always pause to remember Hope and visit her grave. 

For today, however, we focus on and celebrate Rebeca's life.  We thank God for our daughter.  I am very proud of the girl she is and can't wait to see the woman she becomes.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Searching for Moses Moments

For the past year or so, I have been running a couple times a week.  It’s a win-win activity; the dogs get exercise and so do I.  I like the paths I run because even though the lakes I run around are manmade, they have attracted a great deal of wildlife right in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.  From Canada geese to great blue herons, from hawks to squirrels to beavers; I’ve seen quite a variety out there.   Over the course of a year, I have also watched the landscape progress through the seasons:  Spring… summer… fall… winter… and now back to spring.  The scene is slightly different each day, but I confess that I don’t always notice. I can be pretty focused on “getting my run done” and miss the subtle changes going on around me.

I can be so absorbed in Alan’s world—my thoughts, worries, and concerns—that I am virtually blind to God’s world.   

Sometimes I wonder, if the Risen Lord himself were to approach me on the path, like he did the disciples on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) would I recognize him?   I might just as likely smile politely at the stranger passing by, tell the dogs to “leave the nice man alone,” and keep right on running.

I feel solidarity with Jacob. God is always on my path but some days I scarcely recognize him. 

Moses "saw" God in a burning bush. —Exodus 3:1–4:23
But occasionally I have what I might describe as Moses-moment.  A moment when, “It’s burning there, what can I do but see?”  

I had one such “moment” this week as I ran. Perhaps it was because we had just celebrated Easter, and my mind was more keenly focused to notice “signs of new life”.  Or maybe it was because spring is springing where I live in Maryland, and colorful blossoms seemed to be exploding everywhere along the path. The trail was teeming with life at every turn—rabbits, squirrels, ducks, geese, herons, hawks, and several times along the way, the flutter of doves wings…  The sound of the Spirit passing by perhaps? I think one might have to literally be blind to “miss the resurrection” that morning. 

Once Jacob’s eyes were open and he “saw” that God was present with him, he was never the same again.  His encounter changed him entirely; God even changed his name.  Likewise, the disciples on the Road to Emmaus had their own Moses-moment when the Risen Christ broke bread with them.  After Christ left them, they recognized the burning that had been there all along while Jesus was with them on the road. 

My prayer is that as time goes on I too might have more Moses-moments—moments when I realize the Risen Lord is with me, to the point where my heart burns; moments when I “see” resurrection beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

My praises will rise
As I come to recognize
Jesus is near.
Glory is here!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Holy Saturday: Dwelling in the Space Between...

Every fall in temperate regions around the world, old life dies off so that new life can emerge in the spring.  Winter is the "season in between", when all looks dead on the surface.  Sometimes when we are in the midst of a particularly harsh winter, we might despair, wondering if spring will "ever come".  This year in Maryland, the season in between seems to have lasted a long time; spring seems "behind schedule".   This is one of the latest years on record for the Cherry Blossoms  to bloom.  Our human calendar says it's spring, so of course we expect the weather to behave accordingly.

The moral of the story is that we don't set the timetable for how long the passage from death to resurrection will take.

Today is the day in our liturgical calendar when we remember when Jesus passed from death to resurrection -- when he dwelled the "space between" the Cross and the Empty Tomb.  No one is sure quite what happened on Saturday.  In fact, it's so mysterious that only one Gospel writer mentions it, and even then only in vague terms.  Nevertheless, that it happened is a core part of our faith.  Holy Saturday is a part of the story that tends to get overlooked as we rush from the cross on Good Friday to the resurrection on Easter Sunday -- but without it there would be no Easter.   We lose something important if we never take time to ponder the mystery of Holy Saturday.

In hindsight we know that Jesus' passage through death to resurrection took three days -- from Friday night to Sunday morning.  Remember, however, that the disciples don't know that yet.  Hard as it might be, try to imagine how they felt.  All of the hope they mustered these past three years has been crushed under the heel of harsh Roman rule.  Their teacher and friend has been tortured and humiliated; Pilate meant for his death to be a public reminder of what will happen to anyone who opposes the will of Caesar.  Make no mistake, when these men and women go to bed late that Friday night, Winter has come and there is no hint that Spring is only three days away...  

Low in the ground he lay, Jesus my savior.
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord....

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Failing Jesus

Tonight is Holy Thursday, when many followers of Jesus remember the Last Supper, when Jesus bought his disciples together for a final meal together in the Upper Room prior to his arrest and crucifixion...

The meal probably began like any other Passover meal, but by the time the night was over the disciples slowly began to realize that nothing would ever be the same.   No one expects Jesus to kneel and wash his disciples feet.  Make no mistake, this is a task that even the lowest servants tried to avoid.  But Jesus voluntarily strips down, takes up towel and washbasin, and washes the feet of his followers.  He is giving them an example of the kind of Messiah he is.  They experience it firsthand… and yet, as the night plays out, it is clear they have missed the point entirely.

Jesus and his disciples at the "Last Supper"
Later, Jesus takes the bread and wine, elements that the Jewish people had used for centuries as part of their Passover ritual, and somehow in his Presence, the common becomes the Divine, and they take on new meaning. 

The New Covenant does not replace the Old Covenant; it expands it.  Passover reminds the Jewish people of when God saved them from Egyptian slavery, when Moses led them to freedom across the Red Sea.  Through Jesus, the concept of salvation is no longer simply about liberation from a place, it is about liberation from a life of bondage to the powers—the domination systems—of this world.

Jesus comes declaring that the realm of God is present and available to everyone—now.  He offers access to a completely different type of “kingdom” than any that has ever been or ever will be on this Earth.  God’s Kingdom transcends all human boundaries and “travels with” individual believers, wherever they find themselves. 

Salvation is a life found through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

A time will come in the near future when the disciples (later known as the Apostles) come to embrace and recognize the theological reality embodied in the Eucharist and proclaim it boldly to all they meet—but not this night.   On Holy Thursday, even after all they have experienced with Jesus over the past three years, even after all they have heard him say and seen him do since arriving in Jerusalem on Sunday, they are still sadly oblivious to what is going on.  Despite the fact that they ought to know better by now, the events that play out on Holy Thursday show that they do not "get it".  They seem to be caught completely off guard.  There is much symbolism in the fact that the disciples are asleep in the Garden when Jesus pleads with them several times to keep watch—to be alert of what is going on. It seems that, try as they might, they simply can’t wrap their minds around the reality that their Messiah must suffer and die.

And Scripture would suggest that this is how it had to be.  For on this night the darkness had to prevail; evil had to win the battle; the Servant had to suffer—in every way a person can suffer, even unto death. 

And so Judas betrays Jesus in the garden; Peter denies him not once, not twice, but three times, in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house.  Before the night is over, every single disciple will flee and abandon him in his greatest hour of need.  Not one is willing to stand beside him as he faces his darkest hour.  As the Prophet Isaiah predicted, the Servant suffers alone. 

As this drama unfolds each year, we tend to feel sad for Jesus and the abuse and humiliation he suffers unjustly, but we also are disturbed because see ourselves in the drama, and we don’t always like what we see. 

We realize that, in a very real sense, we are Judas, we are Peter, we are the disciples. 

We all have the capacity to deny, to betray, to abandon Jesus when he needs us most—not just on Holy Thursday but any day of the year.  

  • Find yourself in the events of Holy Thursday.  Picture yourself in the Upper Room, the Garden, the Courtyard of the High Priest.  How do you respond to Jesus in those critical moments? 
  • ConsiderWhere have you have failed Jesus recently?  Where have you betrayed, denied, or abandoned him when he needed you?
  • Dwell on the darkness within you—and on the human capacity to do wrong and justify it as “right”. Stay there for a while; don’t rush to resurrection.  Easter will come in due time, but for this night, try to let the darkness linger and do its work within you.