Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jesus > Batman

Time for a confession.

One week ago, I took part in an activity that I had not done in ages – an activity that took me back fully to my roots of geekhood. While through the course of my life I have taken part in multiple Black Friday Crazy, Insane, Too-Early-Morning runs, attended more than my fair share of midnight movie viewings (like Tim Burton’s BATMAN; the three movies in THE LORD OF THE RINGS; and other cinematic masterpieces, but – thankfully – NEVER for those “prequel” things that laughably claim some affiliation with the STAR WARS franchise), and stood in line for hours in advance to get tickets for and/or to see a concert…at a little past midnight on Tuesday, December 9, 2008, I reclaimed my nerd heritage and once again became one of “those” fans, one of “those” people.

Yes. I stood and waited in a line outside in the blustery Miami weather to get a copy of THE DARK KNIGHT on DVD at midnight at Best Buy.

A number of people have asked me why I took what they perceived as a slight leave of all my senses and went to go get this DVD at this outlandish time of day. Was it a special edition only on sale at midnight? Nope. Did I get some kind of commemorative T-shirt for doing this? Nope. Did I get my copy on Blu-Ray with a signed note of thanks from Christian Bale? Nope and nope. Did I forget that I am now a moderately responsible adult, knock-knock-knocking on 40’s door, with a child on the way, and a job to get to at 8:30 the next morning? Nope, nope, and nope.

I went at midnight to get the standard two-disc edition widescreen DVD. The exact same DVD I could have bought the next day when the store opened at its normal time. No extras, no bells and whistles, no Blu-Ray fanciness.

So the question becomes if there was nothing to physically entice me to get this DVD at midnight, then why in the name of the Justice League DID I go at midnight, ruining my shot at a good night’s sleep? While I want to be all snarky and just say “Because I could,” the answer is actually just about as simple and as nigh-philosophical as my flippant response above: I went for the experience. For the community.

No matter what our personal idiosyncrasies, we draw comfort in knowing we’re not alone. No matter what personality quirk or habit we may possess, when we see someone doing, reading or saying something similar or exactly like what we might do, say or read – something lights up in us. Something sparks a moment of connection with someone who may be a perfect stranger to us but is also in that moment a kindred soul. And we feel – or we remember – we are not alone. No matter the isolation we may have felt for a season, in that instant, we know that there is a shared union with others, even though we may have never seen them before and may never see them again.

As someone who has in the past year and a half lost multiple ties – ties to a community (Athens/the South), ties to a body of believers (the 706), ties to friends who are more family than anything else (those in Auburn and those in Texas), ties to a collection of geeks (Classic City Cards and Comics) – along with not so much ties as they were anchors (my dog and my dad), ANY momentary connection, no matter how ephemeral in nature it may be, does and did cause a heartfelt, sincere moment of “You are not alone” in me.

Now, before anyone asks about Ashley and Unnamed Baby, yes. We are still connected. The bonds between us, quite frankly, have never been stronger (as was evidenced, to me at least, in the Grown-Up Conversation™ we had on the couch yesterday). And I don’t in any way mean to infer that our relationship is in any way lacking – but some people may be able to “get it” when I say that even couples who have each other can’t JUST be isolated and set apart from the rest of the world.

Maybe it’s because I’m still not fully recovered from the events of the past two months. Maybe because it’s the Christmas season and I’m hyper-sensitive to these things (and yes, just like more people in our culture who’d ever care to admit it, I always get a little more melancholy/introspective/bittersweet in my emotions during the holiday season). Whatever the reason – but in many ways especially because this IS the time of year when isolation can and does become such a strong feeling in the forefront of many people’s minds – it did make me think about the pain of loneliness that many people do feel during this time of year, and of the story that is read (and hopefully understood) time and again around fireplaces, living rooms, community groups, and even churches.

In the New Testament, in the book of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8-14. Go on and Google it. I’ll wait here while you open another browser window and do so. In the Message translation of the Bible, this passage even has the subheading “An Event for Everyone.”

Now, if anyone has ever studied the lives of shepherds in turn-of-the-century middle-Eastern/Jewish culture, you know that these people had a shared community; that they were brought together through a shared – well, not so much interest as it was a job, but sometimes we aren’t really afforded the luxury of hand-selecting everyone we’re thrust into a community with. Anyway, these guys (yes, “guys” – it was still a Y-chromosome dominant society at this time) were a community, bound together and brought together through something they shared, and – in many ways like my geek brethren – they were shunned by society. But they still had each other. They even (SPOLER ALERT) traveled as a group to see the newborn Jesus whom these angels were singing about.

I’m not so geeky as to think there is a deep “JESUS AND THE DARK KNIGHT” or “O HOLY DVD” parallel going on here in my finding a feeling of community in the mostly-male crowd encircling Best Buy at some ridiculous hour of the night and the community of shepherds who went in search of the Savior. I went looking for a movie that I saw a few months earlier that I thought was kinda cool; they went in search of the fulfillment of a promise and prophecy about their redemption and salvation that had been a part of their shared culture and heritage extending back for millennia. Jesus > Batman.

But what I did come away from this experience with (and from this posting, which is turning out WAY longer than I anticipated) was a feeling of connection, that I was not alone. And that I am just barely bright enough to know that this connection was based on a perception, that it wasn’t real, but was systemic in its evocation of a longing many of us feel in our hearts for a connection with something, someone, anyone, anything, anywhere if for nothing more than a momentary respite of the sense of being alone in our souls.

We crave a deeper, more truthful (and Truthful) connection. We long for that joy spoken about in Luke 2 when we find that the connection – the community – will last for longer than the 2.5 hours it will take to watch the film, the hour long discussion afterwards, and the 2-3 days of flame wars on message boards that comes next (well, maybe that last bit was just for me, but still…).

And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to read that little passage in Luke 2 and talk about IT with someone for a change. Ultimately, it may lead to a more satisfying discussion about life. But, feel free to bring in the concept of secret or dual identities if you feel so inclined.


Monday, December 01, 2008

A strange interlude...

Yes. The blog has been unnaturally quiet as of late. This is mainly because of one of two reasons:

(1) work has been on the busy side. Whoo ha; and

(2) the unfortunate reality is that I have honestly not felt like writing anything in the last month-plus. When you look at the chain of events that have unfolded and will continue to unfold in the next few weeks (11/8: the day my dad died – 11/17: my birthday – 11/27: Thanksgiving, and the anniversary of the death of my maternal grandmother – 12/9: my dad’s birthday – 12/22: my parents’ wedding anniversary – 12/25: Christmas) I will genuinely be surprised what, if anything, gets posted to this monster before 2009.

Now having typed that, I, of course, will get struck with 38,000 ideas to write about and will need an outlet for them all.

This week was insanely rough on me. Moreso than I could have even imagined. I mean, the 1-2 punch of the loss of my dog and my dad clearly weighs on my heart and mind, but…there were so many little things that just chipped away at my soul this year that I really felt like, at times, the sorrow would just crush me beyond repair.

Like how Ashley and I didn’t have to carry Cricket down the stairs at her mom’s house like we normally do at Thanksgiving. Like how everywhere I look, I see penguins (which was our less-than-flattering nickname for her) or some kind of huge, comfy bed that she would have loved. Like how there was no one to sneak scraps to at Thanksgiving.

Like how everywhere we shopped this weekend, I saw things I wanted to call my dad about. Like how everywhere we went there was an abundance of food I would have normally told him about – and then bought him some kind of sample of to mail him. Like how when we were touring Christmas decorations and lights I could almost hear his voice telling me which side of the car to look out of.

Like how I just wanted to hear my dad’s voice on the phone one more time. Like how I just wanted to pet Cricket and feel her fur one more time.

I give Ashley mad crazy props (and a ridiculous amount of love and admiration) for trying to make my birthday as “normal” as it could be – even going so far as to making me (from scratch!) a caramel cake (from a recipe in The Grit’s cookbook) and buying me an authentic Tom-Baker-era replica Dr. Who scarf as a gift (which, yes, I look great in). She has been an amazing support throughout all this, and in all candor, I have utterly no clue how I would have survived these past few weeks without her. I know that every time she looks at me and sees the pain in my eyes and/or the tell-tale sign of me wiping tears away that it eats at her soul.

And yes, I know intellectually that the holidays – and all the subsequent months and years to come – will get easier after this first year, but in my heart, I just feel like it’s going to be a long time until the end of the year and I have successfully navigated through all the emotional potholes to come.

On a more upbeat note, last night, we were watching THE RETURN OF THE KING, and according to Ashley, our as-of-yet-fully-unnamed-child-to-be was kicking up a storm. So. Let’s see – he kicks when Tolkien is invoked, when Dr. Who is on television, and when she eats chocolate. Yep. That’s my kid, alright.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Eulogy: Words spoken about my dad

One week ago, I spoke at my dad's funeral.  I'm still unsure how I was able to pull this off.  

Since many people have asked for it, here is the unedited, kinda-poorly-worded script of what I said at the funeral. There may have been a few moments when I ad-libbed, but I seriously don't remember them.

--------------------------------------------------------

Unlike any story ever told by my dad, I will try to keep this short. And relatively exaggeration-free.

All of you who have come here today have come to honor the memory of a friend, a co-worker, a brother, and for my sister and me – our dad, and for my mom – her best friend and sometimes-biggest comedic annoyance of the past 40 years. Were he physically able to have been here to see the sheer volume of the people that came last night and today, in typical Henry fashion, he would have been humbled – if not a little tickled on the inside. If he had been able to tell each and every one of you the story of the size of the crowd that came out, whether he told you in person or on the phone (and we all know how much my dad loved to talk on the phone), he’d have said something like “It beat all I’d ever seen,” or “It was the durndest thing,” or my personal favorite: “I’d never seen anything like it in all my born days.”

Regardless of how you knew my dad, there were two things about him that everyone knew: his heart and his spirit. Both were reflected in every interaction he had with everyone – and they were especially evident in his love of talking. Whether it was while he was listening to a story you were telling, or whether he was telling his own, he had this distinct body language that I noticed. As he would talk to you, he would sort of do this weird lean-over thing, with an occasional quick touch to the upper arm or leg, and then he would lean back and motion with that same hand he’d touched you with. By making this connection, he would make you think that YOU were the most important person he was talking to, that you were the most important person he COULD talk to. And then, the way he’d sometimes look from side to side and then lean in to speak with you made you think that you were being let in on a secret that only the two of you would share. And wit us – with me, my sister, y mom – dad would somehow oftentimes mysteriously contract this voluntary selective hearing loss and then cock his head to one side and ask, “Do what now?” - In this and in every interaction, it was always about connecting. About bringing his heart to yours. About bringing his spirit to yours.

I once learned from a movie that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life. For me, I choose to face the death of my father here on earth as how he chose to face life with the Father in heaven he is now reunited with. Reflected in my dad’s heart and spirit was this deep, spiritual foundation. It is in his honor that I would like to share a couple of things with you today. Well, that, and I know how he would not have hesitated to share these anyway.

One of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, wrote in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel that “Death is simply a transition into the one experience worthy of the name life.” To me, that means, “If you think this journey you’ve been on – for my dad, these past 67 years – if you think this has been something, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

John 14:1-4 is a familiar passage read at times like this. In it, Jesus tells His disciples – His friends, the ones that had been on His journey with Him – “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going."

You may have noticed that my dad liked to eat. No, scratch that: he loved to eat. I’ve jokingly remarked that heaven had better have a buffet table, or he’ll think that he got sent somewhere else by accident. Whether there was a buffet line where he got to flash his senior citizen discount card or not, I am certain that God had a smile on His face when He met my dad when he came home and He said, “Food? You ain’t seen nothing yet.” And right now, his spirit is full with love, joy and peace as he transitions into the one experience worthy of the name life.

Psalm 34:18-19 says “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” I love these two verses. To me, they validate the pain you feel, the pain that I feel. But they also contain a promise. You can’t just box off the pain and feel just that. Likewise, you can’t ignore the pain and just focus on the promise. The funny thing about God is that he won’t let you do that. He looks at the emptiness and pain that many of us feel right now and says, “That gulf in your heart? The way you feel like you’ll never feel whole again? You ain’t seen nothing yet. I can make you more whole and compete than you have ever thought possible.” It’s what my dad is experiencing right now – a healthiness and a wholeness, a reunion like nothing you or I can even imagine.

Philippians 1:21 says “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” My dad lived in Christ, and had a full, full life. And – heaven probably blew his mind a little, to be honest, because he thought he had gained it all down here. But he transitioned into life, more abundant than anything he could have ever known. Dad, you finally won the lottery.

It’s important to note that his death takes place in the shadow of new life. Many of you here today, and those of you who came here last night, are old friends who have not seen each other for years, if not decades. You’re reconnecting over old stories and laughter about the humor and kindness of my dad. Some of you are family members who are sharing a hug for the first time in what feels like eternity.

My kid sister and dad shared more laughs and love in these past few months than they did for years, and I need to publicly acknowledge and thank her foe being his rock in the middle of this storm.

I take such immense comfort in knowing that my dad died knowing he was going to be a grandfather – and if you ever spoke with him on the phone, you know how excited he was about the arrival of his grandson.

All the pain that we all feel – all this takes pace in the shadow of new life: of rebirths and of births yet to come. My dad’s final act here on earth of bringing so many people together at one time? If you thought his life reflected Christ and the power of healing, love and forgiveness? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

I ask that you do exactly what my dad would have done, and what he would have wanted all of us to do: when you leave here today, keep the stories going. Keep the connections going. Keep the rebirth going. Let this death be a gain. It is for my dad, that’s for sure. And through this gain, may you come to see and move and live in the love and power of Christ.

And – hey, dad? You finally got to hear me speak live.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Information on my dad's services

All:

I'll just keep this brief.

For those of you in the Tupelo area who want to come, visitation will be today (Sunday) at Pegues Funeral Home from 5:00 pm - 8:00 pm.

Details of the service are being finalized but will be updated/made known at
http://www.djournal.com/pages/obits.asp as soon as my family and I can arrange them all.

In honor of my sister (who was undeniably a saint through this whole ordeal) and in memory of my dad, anyone who would like to make a donation in his memory to Family Crisis Services of Northwest Mississippi (where she works and where dad a did a LOT of volunteer work) can do so at PO Box 1968, Oxford, MS 38655. For more information, please visit
http://www.watervalley.net/users/rcs/default.html for their website.



Saturday, November 08, 2008

IN MEMORIAM: Henry J. Lemmons, Sr., 1940-2008

Henry Joseph Lemmons, Sr.

1940-2008.

I don't know if heaven has a buffet line, but they need one now (those of you who knew him, you'll understand).

My dad passed away this morning - asleep, at peace - at approximately 5:00 am.

I have no other details at this time.

And really, I have no other words.


Friday, November 07, 2008

[insert witty blog title here]

What an amazing time has been had by all these last two weeks. And by “amazing,” I mean utterly, positively insane.

The University of Miami decided I apparently needed neither an email account nor a cell phone, and subsequently deleted them both. I am still in the process of trying to recover all the emails sent/saved from the last six months. And because my UM-funded CrackBerry was tied into my account here, I also have managed to lose e-v-e-r-y email address and phone number saved in my phone. Thanks, UM! Oh – and did I mention that they also shorted my last paycheck by over 25%?

Makes y’kinda think this might be a sign, no?

As if the work-related issues weren’t interesting enough, my personal life has taken on some fun tests as well: finding out about the sex of mine and Ashley’s first kid (and yes, I have begun looking for a baby-sized Tom Baker scarf and a plush Dalek; don’t worry if you don’t get the references) has brought about a slew of new challenges. Key among these new head scratching problems is what to name the critter, but also we’re trying to figure out what the devil we’re going to in terms of decorating the back bedroom and storing all the stuff currently in there. Miami, not surprisingly, isn’t the best location in the world for climate-controlled storage and/or safe places above what one might refer to as a flood zone or somewhere within the “strike zone” of a hurricane.

And then, there’s my dad.

I won’t go in to a lot of details, but tomorrow morning (Saturday, November 8), I am catching the first flight out of Miami to go home. There have been numerous issues with his blood pressure, issues with dehydration, issues with his oxygen levels…I’m not one to be a doomsayer, but I am going home WAY earlier than I thought I would be.

My laptop will me making the venture home with me, so I might be able to update from the airports (hello, Detroit and Memphis!). I might be able to update from home (hello, Tupelo!). I at least hope to be able to get back to covering the remainder of the musings that have been pre-empted by life and that whole need-to-work-for-money-for-food.

And I will do my darndest to make sure the next entry isn’t, like, 47 pages long or something, which I felt I did in my previous post. Sadly, I could have gone on for longer because of what I wanted to write about, but I swerved at the last minute. Partially because if I had, that entry would have been longer than 5/8 of the actual Internet itself (which would have deterred many ADHD readers from getting through the thing – not that I think anyone besides me and maybe Ashley read this blog. I could be totally wrong, and please feel free to email me and tell me so if I am), but also partially because there were two totally different trains of thought that emerged when I was writing my previous post.

So. Please keep me (for travel purposes), Ashley, Unnamed Baby Lemmons, Maggie (who is still grieving the loss of her “sister” a month ago), my dad, mom and sister in your thoughts/prayers. And if so inclined to do so, please feel free to drop a line to the address listed above.

Sometimes, it’s just good to see a friend’s name in your Inbox. Or even the name of a total stranger – well, one who isn’t claiming to be the Emir of Gingivitisalvania and wants me to wire them money or something…



Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tuesday morning quarterback

It's been two weeks since we lost Cricket.  I know that some people might think I harp on her loss too much, but the wound - and her absence - is still real and too painful at times.  Last night, while sitting on the floor with Maggie, I just started crying because I'm still used to having to pet two dogs at once, and having them compete for the title of "No, daddy, I'm the cutest - pay attention to me, and not her!"   

I've had this freaking sinus infection thing in my nose/chest for almost a week and a half solid now.  Normally, were I living in - say - Athens, Jackson, or somewhere where there is a discernable change in the climate which happens during the Fall, I would say it's just a seasonal allergy.  What do you call it and how do you treat it when there ARE no seasons where you live?  I think I'm experiencing ghost pain in my sinus cavity.  My mind is too creative for its own good if it can come up with crap like this.

Since it's been an age since I gave any update on my dad, here's the latest:  he's back in the hospital for the next 48 hours due to - get this - salt deficiency.  Yes.  Salt.  As some of you may know, chemotherapy causes severe nausea.  Well, the medicine the oncologist prescribed for my dad did not mix well with the antibiotics and other chemicals stewing in his body right now, which led to him becoming disoriented to the point of he was acting like he was suffering from a form of dementia.  So, he was admitted back to the hospital where they're dropping a couple of saline packs into him, while encouraging him to eat yogurt, pudding, applesauce and other soft foods instead of just slogging back the Ensure drinks he's been exclusively ingesting as of late.

All the tests that have been run - the MRI's, the CAT scans, the other tests with three letter abbreviations - have all come back negative, which means that he's just had a small hiccup on the road to recovery.  At least, that's the hope/prayer at this time.

I guess all things considered, salt deficiency and the treatment thereof is a comparatively easy problem to lick (yes, that was meant as a pun).  It beats him having had salt deficiency due to running into this (extra geek points to all Trekkies reading this who giggle at this photo):




Now go forth and hug someone.  Show love.  And remember that your smile matters.


Friday, October 17, 2008

October Musings II: "It's like Thursday night at a youth camp."

“It’s like Thursday night at a youth camp.”

For anyone who has ever worked with teenagers – specifically junior and/or high school aged students; in this case, within the structure of a church setting – or anyone who has ever as a teenager attended a summer church camp…you might understand this sentence. If you’ve never worked with, been in this setting, or (like many of my friends) if you may have advanced to the biological age where your own junior of high school hi-jinks are somewhat hazy…allow me to be your guide on your journey with the Way-Back Machine.

First things first, on the backstory of where and why I first thought the above-quoted-sentence: as some of you may know (either through
reading about it or through first-hand experience), for a little over a year now, Ashley and I have hosted a small group/life group/Bible study/thingie called “That Thing @ 8” in our apartment here at UM. Although we do meet weekly during the semester when school is in session, one of the student leaders within the group decided (or, if you prefer, “felt led”) that we should host one night not in our apartment, but just sitting outside, under the stars, and sing. Have a night of singing worship songs. Openly. Unashamedly. And lest we take the human aspect of organizing the night TOO seriously, we decided to call it “That Thing @ Lake,” since we were just going to sit on the banks of the lake on campus and sing.

God blesses me with the presence of Jesus Nerds in my life.

Anyway, the agreed-upon Friday night arrived, and we had two guys with guitars who joined us in sitting out under the smile of God for this time of intimacy. We settled in, sat on the grass (no, unlike almost everyone else, I did not bring a blanket to sit on; I wanted, for me, for this to be as authentic and communal with nature as possible), and began singing. It was a bit of a rough start at first, but soon the music washed over us and – as is apropos for the Spirit to lead some to do – people unaffiliated with our initial group of troubadours began to migrate over. To listen. To ask us questions. All the while, the music and the stories we shared served as a background to life happening around us.

Now, I can honestly and sincerely state with no hesitation that I never considered this night to be any form of witnessing, and I most assuredly did not think about this as a – God forgive me for using this term – “marketing tool” for our little band of miscreants. That people might genuinely be intrigued about us and express an interest in coming one Sunday night to this exploratory group of spiritual seekers, since we don’t really fit any kinda established mold for any affiliated organization, never entered my mind as a reason we were doing this. It was, ultimately, for somewhat “selfish” reasons (we were doing it for us) that God took and turned on its head. We were, thankfully, being unhaughtily selfish, and not seeking our own glory or working in any way to draw attention to us. I believe that this simple idea was honored and turned into something better than what we conceived of it to be.

That was Lesson #1:
Don’t Undersell God. We’re talking about Someone who kinda created all of existence, so I imagine using one night of singing is not outside of His scope of usability.

Now. Why did this night feel, in some ways, like what a Thursday night of a youth camp might parallel?

Typically what happens (and it’s somewhere between comedic and saddening that you can actually plot this out as a template that happens across the country) at these camps is as follows: an assortment of teenagers leaves their home church (or a designated departure site) amid the tears of their biological family at some time on a Sunday afternoon, boarding a church bus or traveling in a fleet of cars to drive to a set destination. After they arrive at this location, there is some kind of goofy opening/welcoming night at the camp that sets the tone for the full week, letting everyone know what the “camp theme” might be, as well as giving them an opportunity to meet/hear from the various speakers for the week. The next four days are something of a blur, spent in small groups during the daylight hours, where all the kids from one church are dispersed into smaller groups (most often with some team motif, designed to inspire cohesion among the individuals within the smaller groups) mixed with all the other students from various geographical regions and other churches. At night, all the students congregate together as a whole, sitting in the groups they arrived in and not the ones they have been broken into, to listen to a speaker address the whole camp, before they collectively spend some time in the group they arrived in and then going back to the barracks/dorms to get hopped up on candy and then completely and utterly ignore ay attempt at a curfew, much to the chagrin and sleep deprivation of the chaperones (who may, in fact, act as bad of not worse than some of the students…or so I’ve heard).

There are traditionally three events that can be marked during this week: (1) the fact that the chaperones [raises hand] will invariably have to go and wake up/find when they skip events/ride herd on the students who are “too cool” for the events of the week, traditionally the students whose parents/guardians forced them to attend in the hope that it would do them some “good;” (2) there will be some kind of crazy outdoor activity held on Thursday afternoon designed to burn off steam as well as to just have some fun. During this time, after the students have spent a good solid four days coming together as a squad, the chaperones [raises hand again] will find themselves the brunt of a water fight/food fight/literal mud slinging or the “victim” of some good-natured prank perpetuated by the students they brought; and (3) the final, tear-filled, Thursday night large-group service, which is ripe with commitments made, rededications spoken, and a plethora of promises to live a better life once they come down from the mountain – be it a literal or metaphorical mountain.

Now, I have been fortunate (so to speak) to see the two sides of the coin of leadership in play at these camps, both from the perspective of a participant (student) and as a leader: the youth leader who respects and rejoices in the aforementioned life changes, and the youth leader who takes a more cynical view, stating (thankfully, not always TO the students) or acting as if they're thinking “We’ll wait and see if this change sticks once camp is done.” Both of these have, to an extent, affected my OWN views, and – as I am coming to realize – potentially have stagnated my growth. And mercifully, God has used them both to teach me, both about how to show grace to myself and to others.  

Looking back to That Thing @ Lake – it was evident, both in retrospect and at the time of the event, that God was there. That there was an almost-tangible feeling of the Spirit moving, seen in the look of peace on the faces of the people singing and listening. Some of the smiles shown could not have been more beautiful. Some of the melodies could not have been more harmonious. And the students there singing were doing so almost oblivious of their surroundings, almost oblivious of the fact that roughly 30 feet or so behind us, people were getting ready to go out clubbing for the night by getting their fill of social lubricants at the campus pub and many would n-e-v-e-r think of doing something so…”spiritual” on a night when they could instead go and
par-tay.

And I thought back to the many, many mountaintop experiences I have had as both as a participant and as a guide (leader). And I remembered the – sorry for the God-slang – “spiritual high” that you can feel on those nights, both in yourself and in the others that you guide and mentor. And I thought about the peace that I felt at that moment sitting by the lake, a peace that I knew was God talking to me about what kind of an example, what kind of a leader I was being to these kids, and to others.

See – I believe that one of the problems with “mountaintop moments” (or “lakeside life-changes,” to keep the alliteration going) is that we can both oversell AND undersell them. It’s easy to take either road: we can discount the sincere, intense, and heart-rending moments on the mountain when they don’t happen to us (and I’m looking at YOU, leaders) because we’ve seen the ones who DO fall – either by the wayside or totally off the cliff – post-mountain, and we’ve become jaded by what we may THINK are half-sincere promises; or, we can – in ignorance – think that “that” moment, the divine instant of a heart becoming open, can and should be enough for some, and we just let it go.

Maybe it’s about both. Maybe we should not be so quick to attempt to intellectualize or just discount the “high” as something brought about by group-think. Maybe we should weigh in to the discussion in the life that has been altered, however big or however small, by reveling in the peace, the beauty, the grace, the redemption of the soul that has just been changed (or at the very least, impacted) by the mountain. 

Maybe we need to celebrate it instead of putting it to a litmus test (as was my cynical thought at the lake to think “Would anyone here, myself included, be doing this exact thing while just sitting outside of a coffee house on any given Thursday if they weren’t surrounded by a veritable cloud of witnesses?”). Maybe we need to demark the moments of these victories just as that – as times when there was a victory, when it is something we can look back to (and not throw in the face of) someone when they DO fall or trip.

And maybe we (collectively) need to better educate the mountain-highers that not every moment in life WILL be or feel this easy, this pure, this close and that we need to remember what this, the high, DOES feel like so when the dark times come (and come they will), that we will have something to draw COMFORT from, and we will not instead try and CONFORM the circumstances or internal mechanisms of our life to mimic the same high we had. That moment is gone, but the memory and the strength we felt at the time can be drawn from, and can be used to draw us closer to God. Kinda like that whole “in our weaknesses” thing that a certain Book speaks to.

Every mountain, every road has mile-markers. They’re there to show you how far you’ve come, as well as far you have yet to go. And in some cases, to show how far you may have to climb back up. No matter in what circumstance they’re being used, they’re being used as a tool to help, not to hinder.

What we did in the dark that Friday night, by the shimmer of the lake and the under the moonlight, did indeed cast forth something into the Light. It cast my mind out of a rut of cynicism. It made me look, and smile, at the assembled lives around me. It helped to inspire me to be more transparent, more real, more acknowledging of my own mile markers, and to not be the cynic that I know I can be.

Just as a caveat:  a number of people WAY more educated than I have written (or spoken) at length about mountains, valleys, hills, faith…and I don’t want to reiterate what they have said. I'm not
that articulate or good of a writer, anyway.  I can only speak to the allegory of what God showed me that night by the water. And to how a follow-up conversation with my beautiful wife has reminded me of it. I owe you, Ash.  This is one conversation destined for a late-night pot of coffee.  For me. Not you. You're pregnant.  


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

We be Podcastin', yo

I've just spent the last two days interviewing students for the Fulbright Grant.  While I have a sinus infection.  

You just know I'm in a great mood right now, don't you?

Anyway - in case anyone out there on the world wide interwebnet gives a heck and a half, if you go to iTunes, type in "Mosaic Miami" under the search engine thingie they have there (I'm too tired to get technical with my terminology), you'll find a podcast will pop up.

Two of my sermons are now on-line and free to anyone who wants to hear them.

Be gentle...


Friday, October 10, 2008

October Musings I: Growing In/Going Out

Sometimes, I think God just likes messing with me. 

This is, of course, my all-too human response (filtered through my natural lens of sarcasm and sardonic humor) to the feeling I have that there are times in my life when God spends a bit of “prep time” on my spirit, getting me ready for some of the trials that I will face in my life. Like, for instance, how I got to have a sabbatical of sorts to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the blow to the gut I received when I got the news my dad had cancer (this has been covered in depth in an earlier blog – make with the clicking on the link to read if you’re so inclined). Unknown to me at the time, God was also giving me an extended season to spend with Cricket in what I could never have surmised were the last few months of her life.

With this in mind, God’s been teaching me a lot about balance lately. – no, not in terms of time management (oh, come on; everyone and their momma already likes talking about this through a spiritual framework) nor in terms of the plummeting world market (I can barely pay attention these days let alone pay for stocks).

The lesson in spiritual balance that I’ve been seeing and feeling does not come in terms of how many people codify the duality of some aspects of life (or, to put it in simpler terms: the Newtonian viewpoint of how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). Rather, the balance the Spirit’s been showing me and leading me to see comes more in the idea of bookends instead of an “A=B” or “A to Z” mentality.

Mistakes. And redemption.

Love. And apathy.

Mercy. And selfishness.

Birth.

And rebirth.

Not death.

Case in point: there is something that is undoubtedly amazingly significant about the fact that it was at the beginning of the summer (or, rather, at the end of the Spring semester of college) that my dad was first diagnosed with lung cancer. My employment had come to a fermata (which is to say an extended pause, not an ending; you’re welcome, music majors) at this time, and although the growth had undoubtedly been in his lungs for some time, this was the first time that it was noticed that he had something growing inside him.

Jump ahead a few weeks. Roughly five to six of them. Ashley and I travel to Tupelo to visit my family. While we are there, we decide that it is necessary to go to the local drug store to procure a small plastic stick to determine if Ashley is pregnant or not. Although the thing in her had been there for some time (say, a few weeks), this was the first time that it was noticed (okay: confirmed) that she had something growing inside her.

Balance.

Soon after we left Tupelo, my dad started undergoing chemotherapy. He began seeing a physician to help him take the necessary steps to remove the thing growing inside of him, which could lead to his eventual death.

Soon after we arrived back in Miami, Ashley started seeing a physician to help her with nurturing the thing growing inside of her, which could lead to an eventual life.

Balance.

The radiation treatments and the chemotherapy my dad has been undergoing has caused him to become weaker physically and much more tired every day. However, at the same time, these treatments have been causing the growth inside of him to methodically, progressively become substantially smaller, reducing the probability of this blackness in his body leading to death.

The treatments (food; including the cravings) and medication (pre-natal vitamins) that Ashley has been taking have been shoring up her strength, giving her the strength to go on every day. Additionally, these things she’s been ingesting have been helping the growth inside of her to methodically, progressively become bigger, increasing the probability that the little spark of life in her will lead to a healthy birth.

Balance.

Birth.

And rebirth.

The eventual birth of my child.

The rebirth of my dad’s physical, emotional, and mental health.

Not that one cannot exist without the other; there are – sadly – many people who live their lives with no mercy for others, but instead only seek the things that edify themselves. Likewise, many people spend all their days without the grace of redemption embracing and cleansing their lives.

The balance is there, like redemption, waiting to be found. And accepted.

This doesn’t mean by any stretch that Ashley became pregnant because my dad has cancer, or vice versa. It just means that there are balances – bookends – that can be found as signposts of God moving and shaping our lives in ways we may not fully comprehend.

For me, I love the idea of synchronicity. Or what others might refer to as the “close a door/open a window” idea.

Birth.

And rebirth.

Not death.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

They've taken their toll, these latter days.

Where…how…do I begin?

Cricket Lemmons.  1993-2008.  Rest in peace, little one.  One more angel called home to make heaven a bit more of a dog-friendly place.

The last four days have been four of the hardest, most emotionally turbulent days of my life. Today has seriously been the first day that my emotions have not been so volatile that I actually almost made it out the door this morning without crying.

Almost.

I had forgotten how much pain…hurts.

Not the rip across your soul that leaves a scar that may never heal. Not the wracking sobs that cause you to not be able to stand on your own, not the fact that you cannot sleep, cannot eat, cannot think, cannot breathe…but the physical pain that manifests itself in and on your body.

I cried for almost 24 hours straight. I cried so hard and for so long that numerous blood vessels burst on my face and on my eyelids…I could not close my eyes because they were so tender and hurt so much that I wound up crying with my eyes open for hours on end…because try as I might, I could not stop. For anything. The fact I have been able to go to work for two days is just a testament to the fact that I know I cannot solely focus on my grief; that “life goes on even after life.”

It just makes it all the more ironic that I do not feel alive in my heart at this time.

I have never felt my age before this moment. Now, I feel nothing but the weight of every hour spent on this planet.

I have been touched (if not slightly overwhelmed, but in a good and uplifting way) by the massive outpouring of condolences from so many people who knew Cricket, me, Ashley or any combination of us. Students, colleagues, friends from all over – from every school I have worked for – it’s been almost incomprehensible how many lives this tiny, little, lopsided, waddling dog touched.

I always joked that the day I adopted Cricket from the Humane Society that it was the best $25 I ever spent in my life. Indeed – no investment possible could have ever yielded such an immeasurable return in love, friendship, or laughter. Her life was truly invaluable.

Ashley and I have been silent in our grief, mourning in only the way a parent can after the passing of a child. And I DEFY anyone to EVER argue to my face that Cricket was not my/our child. Our silence echoes the vacuum in our apartment – never knowing how much we had come to anticipate and expect the sound of Cricket walking from room to room, her collar jingling the whole way…or how soothing the sound of her breathing (okay: snoring) was at night, when we prepared to drift off. How much we had come to expect t see her “dancing” all the time (pretty much just bouncing from one paw to the next) in the kitchen, or when we came home from work…

It’s as if all the joy in the world has been momentarily suspended. There is no need or cause for dancing anywhere.

Maggie has been confused by the ordeal – wondering where Cricket is, confused by the fact we left with her and she did not come back, wondering if we would do the same to her…and she, in her own way, has paid tribute to her memory by not sleeping where she slept, and by not barking at every slight noise outside like she used to. I doubt that this has made Mags more sociable – but it’s almost as if she feels the gulf that needs to be filled and so she is trying to be like the sister she had. For a season, at least.

I can not conceivably be more thankful that I took Friday off to rest at home, and that we got to spend that day together goofing off…nor that on Saturday, we – as a family – spent the day at home, playing and laughing together…and that on Sunday, Ashley got to spend an hour in private playing with Cricket in the back room, and that she (much to my eye-rolling) fed her table scraps – steak, no less, from a leftover burrito – as her last treat. It was an almost perfect scenario for a sendoff she would have appreciated.

Her final hours were spent surrounded by new people and other strange, new animals. Given how much she loved to meet people – the social little penguin that she was (butterflies float, penguins waddle; ergo, she was a penguin) – and how enraptured by the idea of making new friends with other dogs (and, God help us, cats) she was encircled by what to her had to have been a playground of possibilities.

The last time I saw her was at the Pet Emergency Room when she was in the oxygen tent, and in a beautiful, poetic instant…she never looked more like her puppy self than she did at that moment in time. As a puppy, she did not quite comprehend the fact that you do not stand in your water or food dish, so she always had something (water, most likely) dripping from her face. This night was no exception – she was so thirsty that she all but face-planted in her water bowl. I remember that the last thing I told her was she was a good girl, that I loved her, and that she looked utterly ridiculous. Her eyes never dimmed – she smiled in love at me and Ashley as we walked out.

The attending vet said she simply closed her eyes, fell asleep and never woke up. She died with the warm, compassionate hands of the vet on her, assuring her in some ways she was not alone in her journey home.

The one soul-crushing regret I will live with all my life is that Cricket did not live to see her sibling born. Ashley and I time and again laughed about how we could not wait to watch Cricket interact with a baby, seeing the unparalleled joy on her face as the baby laughed at the brush of her fur on the baby’s skin – how Cricket, who always had a toe fetish, would have been enraptured at the feel of the soft skin of the baby’s feet and would have just covered her in oodles of kisses – and how would Cricket have been as a big sister, protective of the baby, uttering that low, completely non-threatening growl of hers, to anyone who dared to disturb the life she would protect…what would she have done the first time she felt the baby kick while laying on mommy’s lap?...would she have tried to steal away with one of the baby’s toys? Or would she nap beneath the crib, staying as alert as needed for the little life above her?

The day she died, I thanked her for teaching me how to be a good daddy. That I felt more prepared to welcome her sibling into our lives since I had 14 years of discovering what pure love looked and felt like, of learning what it was like to have a life that was joyfully and appreciatively dependent on me, of keeping my child-like heart alive and full of life.

I have not truly smiled in four days. I wonder when I will again. I wonder how I will again.

“There’s a tiny spirit in the world above, cradled so sweetly in our Father’s love…” Thank you, Derri. Thank you, Steve. I’ve carried that song lyric with me for almost 20 years, and now I understand it. And I draw some peace and consolation from it.

Healing will come. Healing has to come.

Until then…



Tuesday, October 07, 2008

My apartment has never been quieter...


Cricket Lemmons. 1993-2008.  Passed away unexpectedly and suddenly...but mercifully quietly and peacefully...Monday morning, at approximately 1:30 am.  

My best friend and companion for 14 years.  My baby girl.  My comic relief and my partner in mischief.  



Rest in peace, little one.  

More to come once I wipe away the tears.   

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Shovel go deep, heart be true...

Okay, peeps; here’s the deal…

I have been writing legitimate work-related things for the last week, and in all honest, I’ve been too written-out to even THINK about posting on this monster for the past week. I have 1-2 more days worth of work-related writing (all the while reminding my boss that he should be INSANELY thankful he does not pay me by the word), and after that? It’s back to the cool ideas/themes that have been dropping into my mind during the past week or so.

As a teaser trailer, here’s a smattering of the themes/topics I’ll be journaling about, to eventually translate to the Windshield. The final product may vary, but these ideas will at least be evident in some way:

  • Why Amos is my new favorite prophet
  • The fear of worship
  • “It’s like Thursday night at a youth camp.”
  • Pink Floyd and Egypt
  • Growing in/going out

Yes, If you read correctly, that’s at least five deep thoughts to be explored in the month of October.  Odds are at least one of 'em will find their way into a sermon-ish thing the next time I speak at Mosaic, so I might hold one of them off on the blogging front.  

But the other four?

Yep. This is gonna be fun.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Symmetry and carpentry

Pendulums. Teeter-totters. Tennis. Ping-pong.

Windows and doors.

Recently (say, in the last 48 hours or so), a slightly noteworthy metaphor came pouring into my mind. Since there has been a substantial increase in the “foot traffic” coming to the my little blog, I’ve been asked quite a bit about the name of it (Looking Through the Windshield), the rather confusing URL chosen by me for this thing (“Chase the Kangaroo”), and the significance contained therein. Or even IF there is any significance, or am I just crazy (the answer to both questions is “yes,” but not really important at this time). Both these names do hold meaning in their respective ways, and I will get around to writing about them…sometime…but while I was thinking about kangaroos and windshields, another little light went off in my noggin. And since I am just bright enough to know that I didn’t have this thought, I knew that if was something that apparently God wanted me to write about and slam all over the Internet.

Many of you know the travails of my journey last year, in terms of my employment. I’m not going to go over all that mess again (especially when it can be read about here and here, among other places), but one of the many, many struggles within my heart and mind was the fact that I was laving behind a field – Student Affairs – that I had dedicated 14 years of my professional life to. To be certain, the whole “striking out into the unknown” bit was a bit intimidating, but THIS? Dropping everything I’d known as a career – from Admissions and Enrollment Management to Residence Life to Student Activities to Student Union Administration to Volunteer Services and Leadership Development – and going into something else entirely? Had I won the lottery or had an unknown benefactor show up to support me (why can you never find a Magwitch when you need one?) and I could have just spent my days writin’ and readin’, I would have felt much better about life. But I knew that – eventually – I would have to learn a new trade and start a new life, in many ways.

My pendulum would have to swing to the other side of the clock to see what all was being marked in time over there.

Now that I’m much smarter and able to be all introspect-y (since I can look back on this time and not be caught up in the freak-out of the moments), I realize that part of my fear (and let’s be frank here: lack of faith) can best be summed up by looking at windows and doors.

See – my (professional) life, the Student Affairs side, can best be looked at using a little window analogy. All I knew was what I was able to look through at the time. And that view – the scenery, the landscape, the people in it – was familiar and comfortable. Something I knew and was acquainted with. And even though the view through that window was at times smudged from fingerprints or faces being pressed to it, covered with dirt from the storms that would blow against it, or showed signs of where the little birds had flown into the window, slightly cracked it and then fell to the ground broken if not dead…I was always told that this view was the best, to not look away from it, because other windows were not as good, didn’t have the same view, and that this was as good as it gets. Now, to be frank, at times the view was breathtaking, beautiful, and full of utter joy.

But it’s kind of like wearing glasses. Those of you who are my visually impeded kin will understand: you can’t use the same prescription your entire life. You can’t wear the same frame at age, say, 38 that you had at age 24. Styles change. Eyes strengthen (or weaken). And with each change in style or prescription comes a new view. A new framework to see through, both literally and figuratively.

To be sure (again now that I am able to see this in retrospect) God had been trying to show me that it the era of that window was done and it was time to draw it to a close, but I was tempted time and again to prop the window open, to show that it was still usable. Funny – if you look at the end of I Corinthians 12, a chapter on spiritual gifts, it ends with the phrase “Now I will show you the more excellent way” (or some version of that) before it spills into the next chapter, which talks about love. Keeping with that window analogy, God wanted to SHOW me a more excellent way…and once I stepped back and made the conscious decision to let the window be closed (but not nailed shut – you never know when God might decide that that window can be used to let stale air out and fresh air in), man. Man, oh man.

I’m fairly certain that some of you may be familiar with the whole catchphrase of how when God closes a door, he opens a window, but what if the inverse is true as well? What if we allow God to close – or even just pull the blinds down – on what we see and what we’ve allowed ourselves to view life through? Shouldn’t there be a door that opens somewhere? And when you couple that idea with the promise Jesus gave in John 14 where He speaks about trusting in Him, and how in his Father’s house there are many rooms…and unless Jesus (who was, after all, a carpenter) can somehow manage to construct a house with no passageways, this house that God wants to lead us to has many, many rooms, each with a door that we can walk through. And into a new area, or areas, of blessing.

For me, this came to life yesterday when I attended the first Academic Deans Administrative Council Meeting, which is only slightly less narcolepsy inducing than it sounds. See – again, all my professional career, there have been people in my life who’ve expressed and lived an US VS THEM mentality, of Student Affairs VS Academic Affairs. We (the softies in student affairs) cared about the student as a whole, while they (academics) only cared about the student as a grade sheet, as a number. But to see the passion, the hear the care, to learn that my worldview had been so skewed for so many years…

And to know that I work with people who care about ME, who care about my professional goals, and who see such potential in me that they want me to succeed…

I thought that first door I walked through in my new job was cool enough. But now that I see down the hallway at the other doors, and see the exponential potential for blessings in my career...yeah, there are some doors I need to avoid (sadly, they’re not all marked with a warning like “BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD” or something), but still.

This house has got some cool rooms. God’s a great designer.

Monday, September 22, 2008

MOSAIC MIAMI notes for 9-21-08: THE SHAPE OF GRACE

Been involved in a multi-week study on GRACE SO AMAZING, and what it means - how to express it - how to define it - how to live it. Funny enough - God was able to use me a little this week to learn about expressing grace (Kevin’s technical problems - provide him the grace of a breather). When thinking about how best to start off illustrating what I plan on talking about today, I came up with this example to show.

Every time that I have spoken here at Mosaic, Ashley has reminded me that I’m not speaking to a youth group and that object lessons aren’t necessary - but they’re still kinda fun.

Need two volunteers - speak your names so we’ll know when we get the lawsuits for emotional trauma we’ll know exactly who and why we’re being sued and what for.

Please take your tube of toothpaste, and at the count of three, squeeze it out on to the plate in front of you as fast as you can.

Now, take this toothpick, and try to put all the toothpaste back in to the tube.

What was the point of that? Other than - let’s be honest - it was kinda fun?

I don’t think that people randomly run around all the time tooth-pasting total strangers. So, let’s make this fluoride-laden analogy into something that you might actually be able to relate to: have you ever spoken against someone or spoken to someone in anger, or intentionally ignored the request, plea, or phone call of someone else that you immediately regretted?

When brushing your teeth, have you ever squeezed just a little bit too much toothpaste out, and it drips and gets on you while you’re getting ready for work - class - date - and suddenly you have this blight on your clothes or counter top?

Think about how you felt - sometimes almost immediately afterwards - once you said or did something you regretted saying or doing. Or that hissing noise you make once you spill the toothpaste on you. Once you let something out, it makes about as much sense to try and put the toothpaste back in the tube as it does to try and take back the words spoken or actions done against someone. Ever clasp your hands against your mouth, almost thinking you can trap the words that have already escaped? [First time you said a dirty word in front of your parents?] And it’s just as futile as trying to put toothpaste back in to a tube with a toothpick.

This illustrates that our words and actions have consequences - sometimes it’s unintentional (accidentally squeeze a little too much out of the tube - have become so numb to the world around us that we don’t hear the cries of others - we have forgotten) sometimes it’s intentional (whether it’s using more toothpaste to equal a way to make up for poor dental hygiene - or yes, you did mean to say that).

Matthew 12:34 -
For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (NIV)

One of the things that struck me when I started to think about grace in my own life, how I have seen grace expressed to others (and not necessarily by me), and how I have been used for and by grace - while we’ve been exploring how amazing grace can be, today, I want us to take a little bit of a closer look at the shape of grace.

[PRAY - “Almighty God”]

Anyone here old enough to remember Grranimals? Or am I just totally out of my culture element and age bracket? For the young among you - this was an ingenious clothing idea for kids: it was a system based totally on the idea of matching animals. You take the shirt that has a hippo or the lion on it and you match it to the hippo or the lion bottom. For some people this meant it was a no-brainer, totally easy way to get your clothes to match, and to teach kids that some things do go together.

For me - when I hear the word grace, I’ve never been able to think about it as an isolated idea. To me, grace always goes with something else. It can’t be singular. Grace can not act alone. There are other words that I associate with grace, because they really can’t go alone either: words like mercy; peace; forgiveness.

In addition to looking at these words and how they correlate to one another, we’re going to study one example from a Bible chapter that I’ve not been able to get away from for almost a year now (turns up in almost every book I’ve read for months now): Matthew 5, so if you have a Bible, go ahead and turn there. If not, the verses will come up on the screen.

Little bit of history here: this was Christ’s first mass public teaching. If you look at Matthew 4:17 when it states that Jesus began to preach “
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (NIV),” this - what we now call the Sermon on the Mount - was the first talk of His based on that idea and of the theme of grace that would permeate though everything when He would speak and act. The Message translation of Matthew 4:17 actually says the message (duh) Christ would spread is “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Looking at the time frame when Jesus began this theme, the nation of Israel had been undergoing a few problems for quite some time: when Christ began his ministry on earth, Israel as a nation had been experiencing God as remote and distant for close to two centuries by this point.

Unlike earlier in the history of Israel (from tribe to country), when there were times of intimacy between God and Israel, by this point the prophets - the Daniels, the Isaiahs, the Elijahs - had been decreasing both in number OF prophets appearing and in frequency OF prophecies being spoken. This was due in part to the collective whole of the nation of Israel experiencing:
  • continued moral and ethical corruption within the leadership of the Temple (taxes, rituals upon rituals, segregation of the congregation)
  • dealing with foreign occupation from Rome and how an “unclean” culture was beginning to supplant and infiltrate the Jewish culture 
  • and there was just gross injustice - social and moral - permeating the whole of the country, with a lack of peace.

Without that prophet/priest - that heart/voice of God to speak to the people, they grew distant from Him.

If you’ve ever studied or read any of the Psalms, you might note that close to, if not over half of them, are in fact laments. The authors of the Psalms were crying out for - you guessed it: grace. Mercy. Forgiveness. Shaped within these words was a plea in single for a person (“Have mercy on me, Oh God”) as well as for a culture, a country as a whole. This to me just cements the idea that we serve a God who - just like it says and is backed up with actions - is acquainted with sorrow - with oppression.

This to me means we serve a God stands with, sympathizes and understands the oppressed and not with those who conquer the oppressed.

You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more. Psalm 10:17-18 (NIV)

He upholds the cause of the oppressed. Psalm 146:7 (NIV)

Naturally, when someone is being oppressed, they look to get OUT from under the oppression. The verb used in Psalm 146 is mishpat, which relates to the shape of deliverance Israel was looking for: a verdict, a righting, and not necessarily grace or a restoration. They were looking for grace to take the shape of vindication.

This theme of oppression is one of the reasons why Jewish culture then (and still today to a degree) has a great deal of its text and songs - to say nothing of the scripture - speaking so heavily to deliverance - to the coming of Messiah - to the one who would bring them out of their historical, social, and even religious oppression.

It wasn’t by accident that Paul began four of his letters (Galatans-Ephesians-Phillipians-Colossians) with the phrase “grace and peace” to the churches he was writing to. He understood the historical and cultural significance of showing those two concepts as an integrated whole to the people he was writing to.

But they were looking for Messiah to come and rule against the oppressors and not against them - for themselves, they ask for grace, and punishment for the ones who have been against them. It’s a little amazing to me that in terms of grace, we sometimes look to see grace given to US and not others (enemies).

When we look for or pray for grace in our own lives, we look for (and pray for) that grace of deliverance, because - to use the illustration of Israel again - we have clearly suffered enough. We are looking for this grace to come in and supplant the pain. And while we can, do and should pray for this type of grace, there is so much more.

Let’s look at a slightly familiar passage to some of us found in Matthew 5, starting with verse 38:

You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

This passage - or as it is most often called, the Sermon on the Mount - is what’s been popping up in books for me for a while now. Not just this specific passage.

Now, a lot of times we look at part of this passage without all the verses in it in context, or we “cherry pick” the ideas and themes we want out of it. But, if we look a little deeper, we’ll find that there’s a really cool triad - triangle of ideas - that emerges here as well as throughout the rest of the Sermon (and therein lies your homework: go read this on your own and discuss what you find in it over coffee with someone).

Jesus starts by taking something that is familiar in Jewish culture (eye for an eye) and comments about the traditional righteousness within it (this command was within the context of the Law, and therefore “permissible”). Next He talks about the vicious cycle (retaliating violently - “resisting a fool”) we can get caught in when we see the Law as something outside of grace. Finally, he illustrates the transformative initiative seen in the closing of the passage (give - go).

That triad - and there are other instances of three being a prime number in the Bible. Trinity, anyone?

When you look at not only the Sermon on the Mount but also the life example Christ gave us - I mean, He was struck on the face, and His garments taken form Him, and He went so far as to give His life - it’s glaringly obvious to me at least that the shape of this grace comes not only in deliverance but also in transforming. Grace is deliverance and transformation.

[start playing with Play-Doh]

Does grace to you mean forgiveness alone? There is, of course, grace found in forgiveness. Mercy found in forgiveness. This is why for me it’s so hard to just think about grace as a singular concept. It’s never alone, and for me, it’s never found without evidence of other transforming initiatives of God: peace. Mercy. Forgiveness. Grace to me includes an empowerment to live life through the grace of the Spirit of God transforming me.

Grace includes an acceptance of the forgiveness in my life and a willingness and desire to act upon that grace and forgiveness.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21 (NIV)

Water a thirsty enemy. Feed a hungry one. Transforming grace. Can you imagine what this world would look like if we just on a small scale attempted this?
This does not mean you have to go to the Gaza Strip armed with nothing but Chic-Fil-A (nothing says “grace and peace” more than a chicken sandwich and lemonade) - but what if you offered to get a drink for someone the next time you went to a coffee shop - grabbed a candy bar from a vending machine - took a tray in the dining hall (those at UM know what a sacrifice that could be because that conveyor belt can be nasty).

But part of that transforming initiative of grace is not just being the recipient of grace, but the giver as well.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Luke 6:37 (NIV)

Just as grace does not come easy for us to express in our own lives to someone that we dislike (and we all, if we’re honest, have at least one person like that in our lives: a family member, someone at work, or someone in our past that we have never let go of in terms of a wrong against us), it’s even harder for us to express it in terms of discipleship to God.

Receiving grace from God - forgiveness, mercy - inherently implies that that there should, at a minimum, be a transformation in the shape of our heart (Sting) in how we act to others.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer referred to this non-transformative grace that some people live their lives under as “cheap grace” - grace that we accept from God but do not act upon as a transformed child of the Kingdom.

Think about this Play-Doh. It can be made into any shape imaginable. But until I act upon it, until I do something with it - it’s still Play-Doh, there’s no denying that.
But what good is Play-Doh that’s not used? What good is my grace until I show it to someone else?

Grace includes discipleship and doing the will of God - not just a passive taking of the grace bestowed upon you (the water - the food) from God. Not just a thought of “there but for the grace of God go I”

Grace without repentance - grace without a concrete change in the way we relate to others, to the community we live in - this is grace with no cost to us (cheap grace) and flies in the face of the grace illustrated in a plethora of words by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount - be reconciled; love enemies; seek first God’s reign and strive to act in justice; remove the plank from your own eye

[Matthew 5 again]

Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie: the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?” "Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” John 5:2-10 (NIV)

Let’s look at this: this guy who had evidence of a transformed part of his life was being chastised for carrying a mat.

I wasn’t there (I’m not THAT old) so I can’t testify as to what the theological implications of his healing was, and I’m not going to talk in depth about the stirring of the water. But if you simply look at this passage from the standpoint that grace was shown to him, that he performed an action following having grace come into his life, and that he didn’t just sit there and think “cool - I’ve been healed. That’s neat.” then there is so much that is amazing about the grace shown in this miracle.

And this goes back to speak to the traditional righteousness illustrated by the calling of the Jews when they said that it was forbidden for him to take up his mat (do work) on the Sabbath and how some of us are slaves to these ideas instead of being wiling to look to the transforming initiative that was shown in the shape of grace right in front of their - our - own eyes.

Story goes on to later talk about how this guy was found in the Temple, talking about the grace shown him. For 38 years, he had been an invalid (as the Bible says) - it would have been so much easier to just go back to being a lump of Play-Doh (got food - alms) but instead chose to act upon the grace shown to him, and go forth and talk about what had happened to him.

Let’s think back to the toothpaste illustration for a minute. More specifically, the toothpick. Now, it would have been easier to choose another instrument to try and put the toothpaste back in with. But this was the instrument given to you (volunteers) to use. Something so seemingly insignificant was the tool that could be used for action. Now, think about that in terms of - as Christ said - watering or feeding an enemy. Going that extra mile. Turning that cheek.

Do you think the shapes of grace that God uses might not make a lot of sense to anyone?

Sometimes when we think of grace given to us, we expect that shape to take the form of favor. Or of a blessing. Let’s be honest [TWO TUBES OF PLAY-DOH]: we all know people in our lives who have been shown grace just as we have been shown (forgiveness - mercy), but their grace begins to take on a different shape than ours (blessing after blessing in our eyes).

Only makes sense that what they make or what they are made into is something we want to make or be made into (ill: kids playing with Play-Doh: “I want to make that, too,”).

Here’s a cool idea: the grace - the mercy, the forgiveness - that Christ shows is not amorphic meaning it has no specific shape. That grace is Christomorphic - a specific shape, a shape revealed in Christ.

What action that takes - what shape that takes - is evident in your life as specific for you. The end result of that grace is the same for all of us, but how it is expressed in you is how it is reflected in what you NEED grace in, what you need to be transformed in.

There’s an example in the book of Luke about what that specific Christomorphic grace could have been shown in:

A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother. "All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Luke 18:18-23 (NIV)

Grace comes from repentance - Grace includes discipleship and doing the will of God. Christ asked the guy at Bethesda a simple question “Do you want to get well?” which seems an idiotic question on the surface (“Naw, I’m good. You go and just feed the 5000 plus and I’ll be just fine here”) and gave the rich young ruler a simple solution to his question - yet both answers to both problems required an action for the grace to become evident in their respective lives.

Peter denied Christ three times, but still managed to receive the grace incorporated in an action (feed my sheep). This does not mean that grace comes from actions, but the transformative initiative that we will want to act on the grace given to us. Don’t just say it - do it. Don’t just say you love me, act on it.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, 
to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked. Luke 4:14-22 (NIV)

The term for “gracious words” in verse 22 is charis (KARE-ees) - it means joyful - a kindness granted - absolute freeness in the lovingkindness of God. Now, think not so much about what that says, but think about it in the tone, the manner in which Christ read this passage. It is in preparation for grace to be shown in action and deed to the people who have cried out of redemption that Christ read this passage - about Himself - to a people under oppression who are seeking grace.

The shape of grace for them came in the form of a Man who was not what they were expecting.

It’s kind of like Play-Doh. Using a tool (toothpick) no one expected.

Band I listened to growing up - maybe only 1-2 more people here have ever heard of - 77’s - one of their earliest albums (only format available in - not retro) - PING PONG OVER THE ABYSS - reminds me of the dualistic cycle we find ourselves in sp many times: sin-repent - sin-repent - anger-retaliate - anger-retaliate

Need to add the third component into the cycle: sin-repent-act

Move from the old pattern (under the Law) to the new pattern (Christ) - more excellent way

May you come to see the shape of grace in your life - expressed in a way that people see the grace given to you - expressed through your unique, distinct shape - acting in discipleship and not just being all lumpy - and may we all come to show grace, mercy, forgiveness, love to others as grace, mercy, forgiveness, love has been shown to us.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Six one way, half a dozen the other...

So, turns out this coming Sunday (9-21), I will again be speaking at Mosaic.  This makes for an even half-dozen times I've spoken there.  

The theme? Grace.

So far, I gots me a cool little analogy thing going with forgiveness and toothpaste.  Don't ask.  Just come hear me speak, check back later next week for the notes, or if you're REALLY nice, you can email me and ask for an audio copy of the thing.  No, neither I nor Mosaic podcast.  We kick it old school and use CD-R's, yo.   

Life's funny, no?


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Let's just call this "Reason #3"

I apologize for the mass emailing/cross-posting/blog-clogging content of this message, but because I felt it needed to get posted and sent out in a timely manner, this information is being uploaded at various places simultaneously.

Some of you have already gotten a call from me or Ashley about this. Some of you may, in fact, need to read this at several places in order for the reality of it all to sink in.

The news is this: basically – sometime between now and mid-March, I will need to learn how to change diapers.

(Wait for it…let it sink in…and suddenly, all across the country eyes begin widen…sharp intakes of breath begin to occur…jaws start to drop from sea to shining sea…and…the screams commence…)

Yes. Ashley is pregnant, and we are expecting the arrival of the little pooper sometime in March. Mid-to-late March, depending. We wanted to wait until we were past week 12 (or 13) before we let EVERYONE know in order to make sure that it was much more – well – not really “safer,” but more sure that the pregnancy might come to full term. And you have NO clue how hard it’s been to not just tell people, or to try and not confirm the suspicions of SOME people (who, if they will think about it – I never outright stated that Ashley was NOT pregnant; I just did everything I could to try and convince them they were crazy for thinking so).

Now. Before anyone asks: (1) no, we don’t know the sex yet; we just past the first trimester mark, and for those of you who either have your own bundle of liability or have a friend who’s had one, you know that we won’t know the sex for several more weeks. Patience. We will post when we know; (2) was this planned? Well…sorta. I’m going to avoid the crass statement that could easily follow this question (we’re married; do the math), but in a way the answer is “yes” in that we had promised one another that we wouldn’t even mention the word “baby” for one solid year after we got married. Having passed that milestone back in May, we decided to enter into negotiations about having a kid. But the answer to the “was this planned” question is also “no” in that while it was planned, the timetable of the plan has happened a LOT faster than either of us expected; (3) no, if it’s a male, “Sonny, Jr.” will not be the name given it. I’ve lived under that private torment for a lifetime now. I shan’t pass the burden to my offspring; (4) no, the nursery will not be coffee, comic book, Lord of the Rings, Dr. Who, MST3K, Lost, 24, Star Trek, Star Wars, Buffy, Angel, or Firefly themed. It will, in fact, be all of the above (just kidding); and (5) yes. We are insanely excited and simultaneously frightened to death.

So. There ya have it. I’m gonna be a daddy. BIOLOGICAL this time, and not just to four-legged critters and/or various and sundry teenagers I work with (hi, 706), students (THAT THING @ 8), or other constituents.

Thankfully, I have had – oh – about fifteen years of experience working with high school and college students. Not that this easily or readily translates to teaching a wobbly little infant to walk or to not set daddy’s comic books on fire, but for those of you who have had the benefit (*snicker*) of being under my tutelage as a mentor, guide, and/or proxy big brother or father figure…thank you for helping to teach me how to love unconditionally. Ashley is teaching me how to love fully and without restrictions. While I worry about me and my ability to raise a kid, I at least know that I have a good foundation.

Now. Discuss amongst yourselves the ramifications of me having a kid. Feel free to drink if needed. :)

(NOTE: this has been cross posted at my blog (http://chase-the-kangaroo.blogspot.com), MySpace, Facebook, the IMN, the THS Alum page, and at Comic Bloc. Just so you know you’re not going crazy if you see it in multiple locations.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

TT@8? OMG! LOL!

Well, while I await the inevitable bombshell that will strike the University of Miami in seven days (how’s THAT for a FOX-style cryptic tease? I learned a little from the marketing stylings of LOST…), let’s fill up some valuable bandwidth with a few discussions about life.

COFFEE, JESUS, AND THE WAY THEY CATCH MONKEYS IN BRAZIL: almost a year ago, I was approached by a student here at UM about the prospect of starting up a – for lack of a better term – “small group” or “Bible study” in mine and Ashley’s apartment. This would be a meeting place for people to come together to talk about life, spirituality, and whatever else was hitting people between the valves of their heart, all within a VERY safe and non-judgmental or denominationally specific space. Someone even unknowingly coined the name of the gathering simply because he didn’t know what else to call it; he referred to it as “That Thing at Eight.” - which is exactly what it is: a time of fellowship that does not meet any definable standards, and does not automatically come with the baggage (both good and bad) of having the label of a specific affiliation.

It started off as a group of student ragamuffins from insanely different walks of life (yet many with shared touchstone moments) who bonded, grew, and shared many a laugh with one another. While moderately inbred (since the majority of them did live in the same building), it was still the single most amazing thing to watch it grow – to morph – and to begin to solidify into this tight-knit group of spiritual seekers who all share a passion for a sincere, genuine and love-filled expression of God, grace and restoration here at Miami and in the world.

…and if all the above sounded a little too “emergent” for some folks, please rest easy in the fact that we also take communion. And we study the Bible.  And we watch Rob Bell NOOMA DVD's.  Best of both worlds, people. Consider it fundamentally evangelically emergent. Last time I checked, Jesus wasn’t exclusive.

Anyway, this past Sunday we held our first TT@8-08 (translation: That Thing at Eight: 2008). Like most “first club meetings” of the semester at any college or university anywhere in the nation, it was populated by some first-timers, some returners, and then…me. Hugs were given, greeting one another with a culturally-poignant-yet-somehow-spiritually-applicable kiss abounded, and there was a ton of snack food. Then, something…odd…happened. Something I really didn’t expect:

As some of the kids were going around talking about why they came, either initially or why they returned to this motley little crew that ate up time on their Sunday nights, the phrase “I talked with Sonny…” “Sonny and I went out for coffee…” or “When Sonny and I were talking…” was used a lot. Not just by a few, but by…several. But what was the most telling to me was not the frequency of how often my name was being said, but how I heard it. It would have been easy – understandable, even – had I heard this strictly through my ears, noting “yeah, I rock. They love me,” or “Man – these kids need me.” But, mercifully, God let me hear this, hear my name being said through my heart more than through my ego.

Let me explain: I know of more than a few people – both in ministry and those who work in higher education – who feed off of the need for validation through the work that they do. They believe (in error, in my opinion) that they exist to be validated by the expressions of love and admiration given by those they are called to serve, or else they have no purpose. They feel a need to be seen as THE authority, THE one, and they fill a void that only THEY can fill. These are the people who I have found who – in ministry – tend to have churches, entire ministries, and/or websites named after themselves.

Now, for those of you who know me and know the almost-daily struggle inherent in my heart (between ministry as a vocation and ministry as a calling) and those of you who have the same fight – you know the danger of being in a situation like I found myself on Sunday night, standing on the precipice and thinking “This is what I have been called to,” with the emphasis on the “I” part of that sentence. But for whatever reason – be it God (who I tend to give credit for such things) or whatever – I didn’t so much think to myself that it was what I was called to, as it was what I heard God saying “This is what I have called you to.”

“This is what I have been called to.”

“This is what I have called you to.”

One sentence screams of the importance of me; one sentence speaks in a in a still, small, powerful Voice of the importance of Someone bigger than me.

Thankfully, God has given me the wisdom to know which is which, and which one I needed to hear.

I say all that to state that I am insanely blessed to work WITH this group of growing souls, that I am honored and humbled that any of them find any bit of sanity or depth in the sometimes inane ramblings that spew forth from my mouth (or, in this case, keyboard), and that if I have been used in any way to spur on the spiritual growth of any of these kids (and I use that term in love) or that God has used me to allow some of them to find refuge or find a way to connect back to their Creator…

It ain’t me at all. I'm just the Charlie-Brown-looking goofball that God uses.  

And I get a little misty-eyed when I think about how I have seen some of them grow, some of them mature, and how they see one another as a support – both in terms of a spiritual family and as one of the fellow walking wounded – and how they always welcome new seekers to the couch.

I just feel honored to have been used, and to have the potential to keep being used.