Friday, July 30, 2010

Theology on Tap

The other night after my wife came home from work, she decreed that  - given the look of stress upon my face thanks to having spent 10 consecutive hours in our house (due to inclement weather) with our teething  toddler - I needed to get out and take a break. I politely and gallantly took her up on the offer, and with notebook and pen in hand, I  decided to visit the local brew pub to sit, grab a drink, and possibly strike up a conversation. Although, I was secretly hoping that no one would speak to me, since all day long I'd had thoughts running through my mind that I wanted get down.

And, of course, what I ended up observing in the bar and eventually writing about was absolutely not what I had come there with the hope of writing about. Thanks for the curve ball, God.

I think I’ve figured out why many in the Christian faith take a dim or judgmental view of bars. I believe they are simply jealous of the naturally occurring community that takes place within a bar.

Consider this: we’re talking about a group of individuals who willingly and intentionally congregate with one another once a week or more, oblivious of social strata or racial boundaries, to come together for a common purpose. They laugh. They mourn losses.  They dance. They deeply discuss life, love, and liberty without walls, false faces, or pretenses. Additionally, how often has the conversation within one small group sometimes bled over into the group sitting beside them (“Sorry; I couldn’t help overhearing what you just said about…”)? They honestly face one another to carry on these talks, both literally and metaphorically.

People in bars celebrate life. Even in the midst of sorrow, they face life instead of denying it or acting like everything is alright. They embrace both the pain and pleasure of what it mean to be in community. Unfortunately, this sums up what is more often than not sadly, painfully lacking in the one place which is supposed to celebrate life and foster true community: the local church.

If you frequent the same house of brews (or church), you begin to notice the faces of the ones who show up only for Happy Hour (or only for Sunday morning). If you attend this house with somewhat regularity, especially more than just once a week, you begin gain a deeper understanding of what it is that you’re taking in. You may develop an interest in how it was made, and you might start to get more involved in the lives of those who, like you, come by to savor the brews (or volunteer/take a leadership role in church), taking this experience of what was once for you "just someplace to go" to the next level. You begin to understand the difference between the people who come to enjoy a quality craft beer as opposed to the ones who come by simply for cheap drinks.

No one expects a first-time visitor at a bar to be “tagged” or conquered or over-welcomed by the other patrons or by the bartender. There is no welcome gift given to try and entice or bribe the patron to come back: the service, the atmosphere of the bar and the quality of the drinks offered stand or fall on their own merit. The bartender expects and anticipates there to be a new face at the bar with regularity, and he or she will welcome them in a way that meets them where they are, not “Hey, this is what we have to offer – isn’t our bar cool? Isn’t it better than all the other watering holes you’ve visited? And your drinking theology had better match up with exactly what we have to offer. Otherwise, we can't serve you."

The servers at both locations are paid to be there. It’s easy to see who is fueled by a desire to be there – either from a passion in their heart to share the Way or a need to make rent payments – and those which have been there for too long and are now just going through the motions, burnt out by being stiffed one too may times, and now only serve by rote, with no love for what they do.

And, it turns out that more often than not, each location receives about ten percent of some people’s paychecks…

Many of us in our faith have a shared history, whether we want to admit it or not, in that we were raised with a fear of the shadowy things that go on in these dins of iniquity, and that the fermented nectar perfected by monks is indeed the Devil’s brew. My observation does not stem from a strict fundamentalist perspective condemning alcohol or the “debauchery” that occurs in bars. Conversely, neither is it from the other end of the pendulum where the emergent/emerging/flavor of the week variety of faith sits with the perspective that bars are “kewl” places to go and can be used as an opportunity for outreach. Both schools of thought have some merit in them, although taking either of them - just like taking drinking - to excess is dangerous, can numb you to reality, impair your judgment, and it turns out is actually what is spoken against Biblically.

Some may be offended at the outset by the basis of the analogy, to say nothing of what it implies. Some may laugh uncomfortably, as it strikes too close to home. Some may offer up a resounding “amen” while reading this. Others may scoff and think I had too much to drink while writing.

If you want to sit and talk a bit about it, the first round's on me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

This one goes to Three (with all apologies to Spinal Tap)

If you’re looking for a light read, pick up a copy of FORGOTTEN GOD: REVERSING THE TRAGIC NEGLECT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT by Francis Chan. No, I’m not intentionally trying to be sarcastic or facetious by calling it a “light read;” I added up the amount of time it took for me to read this book cover to cover, and it came to about five hours total reading time. While that may be a sizable time commitment for some, given some of the other books I have read, five hours is a comparative walk in the park. Additionally, the contents of the book itself is kind of…light…given the subject matter. Granted, the author stated time and again that he was not going to take a polarizing or intentionally controversial stance one way or the other regarding the interpretation of the Holy Spirit (which, for some, may in fact be polarizing or intentionally controversial) but instead to give a broad interpretation of Who and What the Holy Spirit is.

Right now, I’m sure that someone’s head is spinning as they try to internalize or even diagram the above sentence. Trust me: to some people, it’ll make sense. If it doesn’t to you, just relax, take a sip of hot cocoa, and chill.

Anyway, I came not to praise or to bury FORGOTTEN GOD. It is what it is (and yes: it does contain some pretty cool ideas and original thoughts). Instead, I just wanted to make note of some moderately cool synchronicity on the part of this “God” individual.

I’ve been recently transcribing, going through, and editing quite a bit of what I have written down in the various journals scattered throughout the house, prepping them for…something…to come. I was making note of the subjects covered, the rants contained, and the deep-ish thoughts buried beneath the scribbles when I noted that – funny enough – this particular entry struck a moderately resonate chord with FORGOTTEN GOD…even though it was written almost four and half years ago. What on earth precipitated me writing this on New Year’s Eve in 2005, I couldn’t tell ya. But, here’s the original content, unedited version.

When we talk about “the presence of God,” do we really know or understand that the Presence we are referring to is the omnipresent Spirit of God?

I don’t think that I ever did – at least, not until early this morning.

We always associate God’s presence with something positive; we will comment on how God’s Presence, His Spirit, is with us when we worship at church, when we’re in prayer, or in times of trouble. When we need comfort, just as Jesus promised, there is a Great Comforter available.

As for me, I sometimes think of the Holy Spirit as a totally separate (yet still undescribed or vague) part of the Trinity. That It is here to report back TO God, or to be some kind of glue that holds believers together, but have I ever really wrapped my mind around the fact that this is Spirit of God? That this is not some undefined “spirit” that is nothing but ethereal and has no real great place in the food chain of heaven?

This is God’s Holy Spirit. God’s Just as Christ and God are One, so is the Spirit: the three are truly One. One thought. One insight. One mind. One everything.

When David asked “Where can I go from Your Spirit,” this was not a question of someone asking out of shame HOW to hide, but instead is it even possible TO hide?

And if God is indeed omnipresent, then that means He is here, via His Spirit, at all times.

Even when we sin. In the midst of the sin, God is there.

For example: when you start to tell a lie, even as the lie is formulating in your mind, God is there: in your mind, your mouth, heart, and even standing between you and the person you are lying to.

God is always there, permeating through you as you commit any and all acts. You may not be aware of Him, or more likely, you may consciously choose to ignore Him, but He is there.

It’s not as if when you confess a sin that burns your soul that God is surprised by what you’re telling Him. He already knows about it, because He was there. You’re not confessing to Him to tell him ABOUT the act, but instead to own up to it. To tell Him, “Yes: I am aware of what I have done against me, against You, and probably against quite a few other people.”

No barriers ever exist between you and God. None. Ever. It is the ultimate in an open and honest relationship. God wasn’t surprised by the acts committed in the Garden of Eden: He was there, physically and spiritually, communing and in relationship with Adam and Eve just as He is today.

Our senses have just dulled to His Presence. God has been reduced to the white noise in the background of everyday life. And we let it happen. He has promised that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His presence, his communal nature, hasn’t changed since the time he first welcomed us as a species to the planet.

We’ve changed. It’s the most extreme example of “It’s not You; it’s me” in a bad relationship that could ever be presented.

This is one of the reasons why the act of redemption feels so cool. When your sin is forgiven, you reconnect with God’s Spirit in such an open manner that it defies words. Nothing separates us, just as is stated in the Bible. You do not repent and then the Spirit is invited in; you acknowledge the presence of God that you have ignored or brushed aside, and recognize where He is at work in your life. And in that moment, your soul remembers this divine joy, this divine connection, this communion with the Creator.

It is the reason why it extends beyond an emotional high, why you feel grounded when it happens, and why you feel a welcoming, as if you’re not leaving behind anything but instead coming home.

It is the ultimate shared experience.

It is the ultimate racial memory.

It is. It simply is. Just as God is I AM, this simply…is.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Chernobyl of the heart and mind

[Note from Sonny: no, you don't have to read anything deeper into this other than what I wrote. There are no underlying "Holy-crap-is-he-okay?" messages contained herein. This was simply written by me during our final week in Miami. I'm just now getting around to transcribing it from my notebook.]

We oftentimes try to bury or suppress our memories and pain like so much nuclear waste: we bury them deep, encasing them in our concrete before dropping them into the depths of our hearts and minds. Unfortunately, more times than not, the pain…those memories…begin to resurface. They seep into the groundwater of our soul, polluting us from the inside out.

No matter what we try to plant over these pains, no matter how much we resurface ourselves, we know that they are still there, lingering and festering below. They weigh us down like an anchor. These memories, so toxic and dangerous, will not break down on their own. Their half-life extends beyond our lifetime.

It’s only by turning over, by giving over, this pain to God that healing can begin. It’s only by admitting that yes, I made a mistake in the lab of my life and crafted something dangerous all on my own. I didn’t observe the posted safety precautions. I didn’t think I would get this chemical burn.

I didn’t think this could happen to me.

Only the restorative power found through Christ can transform this, something thought of only as waste, into something useful. Only through healing and forgiveness can the burning sting of this memory be rendered inert.

We can allow God to use this, to use our actions, to use our lives as a signpost, a radiation or warning sign that this way lies danger. We can help to divert others from going down the same path we found ourselves on.

The test area, the landscape of our lives can not go back to the pristine state it was in before this bomb went off. Yes: the radiation may be absorbed, the danger to our lives may have passed, the toxic memory rendered inert…but it still happened. No matter what, we can not change the past. We can not erase what went before us. We can not act as if this nuclear holocaust never happened. It did.

But we can be restored.

We can be made new.

To ignore the miscalculations that led to this catastrophe in the first place only invites the probability that it may happen again.

Or, as I tried to state three years ago - God can and will make all things now; maybe not make all new things, but instead make all things new.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

DARE YOU TO MOVE (PART 2): home is where the fair-trade, locally roasted, shade-grown organic coffee is

Nothing but nothing will ever topple Athens, GA in my heart as my favorite place I have ever lived (sorry, Tupelo), but Columbia keeps giving me reasons to make it #1…

The move from FL to SC was relatively, mercifully uneventful. Yes, Kai did not really appreciate the length of the drive all that much; however, in his defense, we did ask for him to be strapped into a car seat for at least eight hours. He did a good job of sleeping as best he could, but he got understandably frustrated and started to cry when he simply couldn’t turn over like he wanted to. I mean – back in the day when I was not much older than he is now (somewhere around 657 BCE), the laws of traveling with a kid were much more lax. I probably used to sleep lying down in the back window of the Mercury and thought it fun when my dad would hit the brakes and I’d come flying down and land in the backseat.

I did have to laugh at myself several times during the whole process, because between boxing up all our crap, lugging it into the moving van, packing it into the moving van, and later unloading all the furniture caused me to believe that I was engaging in a multitude of age-inappropriate behavior. No man in their right mind who is pushing 40 (!?!?!??!) should be seen unshaven for two weeks, lifting and carting insanely heavy packages (note to self: PURGE THAT FRIGGING DVD AND CD COLLECTION) and furniture, and later drinking only Gatorade and water. I think that if I retook my fitness test on the Wii right now, I might have shaved a good decade off my results. All in all, I only walked away with a few sore muscles, and no “oh-my-aching-back” feelings.

It’s taken us the better part of the past two weeks (with the assistance of Ash’s dad) to get our house “settled.” There are still some bare walls, still some boxes that might as well have “PANDORA” stamped on them because we’re just not motivated to open or unpack them, and there are a few aesthetic tweaks left to give the place, but for the most part, it’s looking good. It’s been painted, cleaned, reinforced, and spruced up to the point that I almost think I’d feel comfortable having guests.

We still have yet to find everything in Columbia that we’d like to (like, for example, a church) but we’re starting to manage to get around the city fairly well, even without the aid of the TomTom GPS that was our lifeline in Miami. Getting to Ashley’s office (roughly 2 miles from our house) isn’t that bad a journey from our house, whether one chooses to travel by car, bike or foot. Yes. We’ve both walked there and back again. I have even been insane enough to push a baby cart all Lone Wolf-style up and down the hills of Columbia. Thankfully, living in Coral Gables prepped me for this somewhat. Not for the journey over hill and dale, because south Florida is nothing but FLAT; all the time I spent walking Kai and/or Maggie during my tenure in Miami must have given me back the lung capacity I used to have when I was an indentured servant to the THS and later MUW music programs. That, or the continual humidity in Coral Gables caused me to grow gills behind my ears so that I could actually breathe outside, and the comparatively light humidity and heat here in SC rarely causes me to even get winded while walking.

The one comment that Ashley and I keep making time and again is “This [fill in the blank] just makes sense.” Case in point: TRAFFIC. Now to be fair, the roads around Columbia contain enough hills and rises to make Six Flags seem like a cakewalk, but the comparative amount of cars on the roads? US1, thou art dead to me. Even when driving on the interstate and highways surrounding Columbia, it’s almost an alien experience to encounter drivers that are not friendly, will not allow you to merge over when your ignorant self didn’t note that – oh yeah – that turn right there is the one you need to take, and or who will honk at you if your car isn’t already on the other side of the intersection within .473 seconds of the light turning green.

But there are other things that just make sense and make this place feel like a home we’ve never known: the clerks and other customers in the stores you visit who talk to you, who smile a genuine smile, and don’t act like you’ve just offended them to the very core of their being by daring to make a purchase from them; the fact that Ashley went into a drugstore without a refill available for her inhaler and the pharmacist, who saw she was clearly in distress while struggling to breathe, allowed her to get one anyway (I told her the pharmacists at the CVS across the street from UM would have allowed her to just pass out and suffocate on the floor of their store, and that’s probably not too far from the truth); the local, kitschy, quirky stores that sell unique little nick-knacks and not high-end designer stuff; seeing students drive the type of cars that you’d expect an undergrad or graduate student to drive instead of brand new ones that cost more than your annual salary; and restaurants and stores that cater to beer snobs like myself.

But for me, the most telling moment came when – yes, the morning of the first day we were here – I drove three quarters of a mile down the street to a locally-owned coffee shop. Stepping into this eclectic mish-mash of refurbished furniture and paintings by local artists, I felt as if my soul began to sing. This just felt right. And after striking up a conversation with the owner/manager, I decided to be brave and drop the Job Bomb that left many people speechless, uncomfortable or confused every time I mentioned it in Miami:

HIM: “So, what do you do for a living, Sonny?”

ME: “…well, I’m a stay-at-home dad.”


A smile spreads across HIS face.

HIM: “Dude, that is awesome. Good for you. Great for your kid.”

Columbia may not have The Grit, Jittery Joe’s, a local music scene (this is yet to be determined), or the bohemia of Athens, but it’s got some people who apparently have heart.

And even I will take that over a double espresso any day of the week.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

DARE YOU TO MOVE (PART 1): of leaving and loss

A journey of almost 1000 miles begins with a single roll of packaging tape…

I know that I have joked about this with a few people, but the move from Miami to South Carolina was probably one of the first real stress tests of my marriage. While moving in and of itself can be stressful (and believe me, IT IS), Ashley and I also had the added factors of (a) Ash being off work for a month (meaning we saw each all day, every day, seven days a week for a month), (b) trying to pack with a 15-month-old, and (c) the start/stop issue we encountered because our move was delayed by about two weeks – we started to pack the apartment up, had to stop about a fourth of the way through it, and then spend two weeks surrounded by a cardboard city of half-empty boxes. When we moved from Georgia to Miami, it was not NEARLY as taxing on us emotionally or physically: we had just gotten married, we still had two separate apartments (Ash had moved in with me but all her furnishings were still in her on-campus apartment at UGA), and UM paid for professional movers to come pack all our junk up from our respective places and cart it away. Ah, the halcyon days of Pre-Recession Spending…

While the pre-moving time did get intense at times, there were only a couple of times this past month when Ashley and I came close to baring our teeth to one another in a gesture of territorial and packaging rights. The hardest part of leaving Miami was simply in the leaving. It was definitely harder on Ash to leave UM itself than it was for me; I had said my farewell to and made my peace with the institution over a year ago when I quit my job, and so leaving the physical property in Coral Gables – to say nothing of leaving my employment history there – was comparatively much less emotionally taxing on me.

And honestly, for me, there wasn’t that much emotional duress in saying goodbye to the people we were leaving behind. Maybe it’s because of the transitory nature of the field. Maybe it’s because of the fact that technology keeps people more closely connected these days than at any other time in history. Maybe it’s because of the fact that (in my case) after you suffer the loss of family members, you don’t want to or feel comfortable with saying “goodbye” anymore. The friends we left in Miami, we will see again. That is a given. It’s not conjecture, nor is it wishful thinking. It is a fact, plain and simple. It was not a goodbye, so much as it was a “see you soon,” although “soon” could be a relative term.

Yes – we wish we had had more time with some people. Yes – we regret not being able to say farewell to all the people we wanted to. Yes – there were words left unsaid…although in some instances, it’s perhaps better they were left unsaid. But to be fair, even if we had been able to manipulate time and space to the point of where we got to spend all the time we wanted to with everyone, we still would have wanted more. It’s the nature of love.

My emotional breaking point came just about 48 hours before we left Miami. And the two contributing factors to me almost losing it were a plant and a car.

Before we fled “north,” I sold my Jetta (Serenity) to one of Ash’s RAs. Ash & I had debated for some time the logic in having two cars, especially since my unemployed self was not contributing anything to the financial upkeep of said vehicles (gas, insurance, etc.). I finally relented to the fact that she was (like most times) correct in her argument. That two cars – while nice – wasn’t a necessity. Since we both knew that this RA would need transportation, didn’t have a plethora of cash to throw about, and was someone who we both felt a vested emotional interest in, I sold her Serenity for a song and a dance. I felt…okay…in selling her, because I knew she was getting a good home, with someone who needed her. It wasn’t as if I was selling the car for scrap, and that some cold, uncaring mechanic was going to plunder her for her parts. I was simply paying (driving?) her forward.

Now, as anyone who has ever driven a Jetta before can attest to, these things have mad trunk space. Seriously. It’s like a TARDIS. You can just keep stuffing crap in there and never feel like you’re going to fill it up. Ash’s trunk space in the RAV4, on the other hand, has good vertical clearance, but lacks the depth associated with the Jetta. This is good if you’re trying to transport a basketball goal, but not so much if you’re trying to pack the belongings of a family of 2.75 (two adults, one kid and a pooch). There were a number of things we simply could not put onto the moving van (the laptop, personal papers, and the 83 metric tons of stuff needed for a toddler) that had to be force-stuffed into the RAV4. This meant that we had to start looking to edit down what we going with us.

In addition to a vehicle, we left SEVERAL items behind in Miami – 99% of which was given to a friend to help her decorate her apartment. Everything from glassware to a coffee table to a huge friggin’ entertainment center as well as multiple runs to Goodwill to donate clothes and other items they could use – we decreased our carbon footprint by about six feet of moving van space (which in real language means about a room and a half of crap).

There was one item that became THE questionable item. The “stay or go” item. The “is it worth it to take everything out of the back of the car, rearrange it all, and hope that it fits” item.

A plant. A peace lily. A peace lily that had been with me since my grandfather died.

In a moment of utter frustration, I decided to just give the bloody thing away. I felt as if trying to make it fit wasn’t going to be worth it. Ashley, bless her heart, kept trying to tell me that it was going to be okay, that we would find a way to make it fit. I on the other hand kept telling her to stop saying this to me; that if I was going to be able to actually give the plant away, I needed to stop holding on to hope and be able to let it go.

And that was when it hit me.

All the inner monologues I’d been holding in. All the discussions in my head I’d been having. All the debates, the justifications, and the questions.

Maybe it’s what Ashley calls a “guy” thing. Maybe it’s something that only collectors can understand. Maybe it’s something that is uniquely me. But whatever it may be, or wherever it stems from, when the reality of getting rid of this plant became a very distinct probability, I was just hit with this overwhelming sense of loss. Not from the standpoint of I was losing a physical item; the fact that before we moved I sold a ton of books, CDs, DVDs and other collectibles on eBay as well as that we gave away so much..stuff…attested to the fact that to wasn’t the “thing” I was interested in holding on to.

I began to feel a loss of identity. Of my own history. Of my storyline.

Using a somewhat inappropriate choice of words – I don’t want to beat a dead horse by talking at length about the losses, both personal and professional, that I experienced while living in Miami. To me, it became more of the idea that I was losing yet another touchstone to my own past. It felt as if I was losing the markers that I could look back and see as I remembered my life.

The Jetta? Please; cars are a dime a dozen, and I know we’re going to get rid of the RAV4 soon-ish and get another vehicle. But the memories of seeing Cricket sleeping on the floorboard as we went on roadtrips? The coffee stains on the driver’s seat (sorry, Marie) that came when I drove to summer camp? The pings, the idiosyncrasies of Serenity that gave her the feeling we had a connection? That was what I was mourning the loss of, even though I wasn’t even aware that was what I was doing.

The plant? Okay – the thing almost died when we moved to Miami, and I know it won’t live forever. But the smell of the soil and how it reminds me of my grandmother and my grandfather on their back patio as they planted flowers? The way I talked to it after Jay died, thinking in some weird way I was talking to him? That was what I was mourning the loss of, even though I wasn’t even aware that was what I was doing.

And although I know that there’s a very real probability that had I been able to hold on to them both I would not even have the Jetta or the plant when Kai gets old enough to actually care to hear my stories, the fact that they’re part of my tapestry, a part of my history, and they both hold good and bad stories, positive and negative aspects of my life, and symbolize in some ways pieces of who I am.

Ashley, God love her, managed to refinagle the trunk area so that the plant could come with us. I am happy to say that not only did it survive the trip, but the freaking thing has almost doubled in size (seriously!) since we got here. Yeah, the backseat was a little…snug…what with a carseat, a squirmy baby and all the other stuff jammed in the car – but from my perspective, the discomfort in the ride was well worth it. And her tenacity in finding a way for the plant to make it is just one more thing I owe my wife.

Just as Ashley and I carried from Miami the love of friends who became family, I was able to carry that big friggin’ plant with me.

The Jetta? She has a good home. Her story will continue in another chapter with someone new who will care for her.

And this story of the move will continue later…