Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Here's the Church, Here's the Steeple. Open the Doors...and something is missing.

If the Sonny who grew up in the church youth group and was there every time the doors were opened (and sometimes, quite illegally, when they weren't) on every day of the week could see the Sonny who is now more than twice his biological age, he'd be aghast. Besides the fact Youth Group Sonny would demand to know of Way Older Sonny if he owned a razor or had forgotten how to shave, what's the deal with all the coffee he drinks, and whatinthefreakngworldhappenedtoourhair, Youth Group Sonny would want to know what church we go to, what our level of involvement is, how many groups we lead, and so on.

And Way Older Sonny would have to smile, offer Youth Group Sonny a mug of said coffee to steady his nerves, and break the news to him that his church attendance has been spotty at best since 2009; and that in many ways, he's okay with that. Way Older Sonny would then need to be prepared for the look of shock and horror on Youth Group Sonny's face, and the inevitable question of "Why?"

Way Older Sonny can only hope Youth Group Sonny will be willing to listen and not judge as he replies. It's a futile hope, in many ways, as Youth Group Sonny will have cookie-cutter, tract-worthy pithy "Biblical" retorts to everything Way Older Sonny says.

Because as Way Older Sonny, I know Youth Group Sonny and I know how his mind works.

Lightning in a Bottle

Ashley and I consistently hold our time living in Athens, Georgia up as some kind of residential litmus test to what the best of the best could be like. We had friends, jobs that we liked more than disliked, and a church that was our home. I find it humorous that for as much as we loved this place of our church home, we simultaneously and constantly roll our eyes about a great many of the problems that were there (problems I have written on before). But ultimately, that's what made this church and its' identity feel so family-like: we could speak of the bad and yet still love it. We weren't in denial, and we strove to make it a better place. When we moved, it broke apart the nucleus of our world. We left friends who had become family, a church that sustained us, and a culture that felt like home.

In Miami, we...almost...got "it" a second time; "it" being a solid church home. Stylistically and based on the attendees of the church, it was on the opposite end of the spectrum from our church in Athens. But good grief, did it feel good, and the right fit for us during that season in our lives. Again: we made friends and got involved in the life of the congregation (so much so to the point that this was the first church I ever preached in), but the addressing of problems voiced by the members of the church took on a role of being judged, at least in the perception of the pastor. That in a number of ways broke our fellowship more than moving away yet again did.

Having now lived in South Carolina for four-plus years, I find it interesting that we have yet to land in a church again. But in many ways, I think this was a needed break.

Two Pulpits Forward, One Stone Back

Although we aren't members of a church here in town, that hasn't stopped us from attending - albeit with pathetic frequency. There's the church I have spoken in over two dozen times, where we feel welcomed and loved. There's the other church I served for almost a full calendar year as Interim Youth Pastor, where on so many levels a life-long dream of working in ministry came true. There's the first church we visited, and started going somewhat regularly, where at the end of the day we realized we didn't fit because of theological issues.

We have well-meaning friends and family members who quasi-lovingly ask/judge us about our attendance, and why we don't go. I've had people tell me that no matter what - if you have a sick kid who's had an asthma attack; a spouse who's worked the entire night before due to an emergency on campus; or any other plausible and probable scenario we encounter routinely - we should be in the church, any church, on Sunday mornings. Because it's the standard we set as parents that will anchor our kids in a faith for their future.

Ashley and I have debated at length about churches who leave fliers in coffee shops, on our windshields, run local commercials (which are unintentionally hilarious more often than not), and the innumerable variations thereof - because we want to go. For our collective sake, both as a couple and as a family. For the boys' sake, so they learn and are socialized. For our own individual sakes, so we don't lose the love of faith we held once as teenagers and in our twenties.

But we have grown, changed, and have in many ways become completely different people from the ones who went on mission trips, proselytized our friends, and consumed the writings of the preacher du jour who was hot.

And Youth Group Sonny needs to get this. He won't, of course, because he has his own journey and path to walk on, own huge bleeping mistakes to make, and seasons of doubt and rejection of his faith to go through. But at the end of it all, someone will emerge, someone new and different. Someone who will look at Youth Group Sonny with eyes of compassion, smiling at the energy and passion he holds, and wish that Youth Group Sonny would only have incorporated one small component of his faith at an earlier age:

It's more about loving people than it is being right.

Way Older Sonny gets that now.

Buildings come and go. You move from locations.

But you carry church in your heart.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Brussels Sprouts

I grew up immersed in the protestant church (baptism pun fully intended). More to the point, I grew up in a cycle of attending Southern Baptist-Charismatic-Full Gospel-back to Southern Baptist-Quasi Pentecostal-Non-denominational protestant churches. My parents would change church ideologies with the ease some might change the box of baking soda in the fridge: it's been hanging around a while, it's probably stale, and so we need a new box. And while the varying styles of worship and teaching methods were about as different as humanly possible, throughout the children's ministries replete with Felt Board Jesus (TM) to the youth groups with Music Your Parents Won't Like (TM), there was one consistent resounding idea that clung like a tick to my heart through all these years:

Quiet Time (TM).

Alumni of church youth groups will probably feel this scenario resonate with them: you go off to camp/weekend retreat and you're given a notebook or floppy, thin book. It has a catchy title, pages illustrated with what appears to be Word clip art, and paragraphs or questions with blanks to fill in. Like a Highlights for Children magazine, but about Jesus. Your group leaders - adults and college students alike - share their seemingly endless stories about What You Need (TM) to grow in the Lord. And you're taught a pattern to emulate: go into a Quiet Place (TM), have your Quiet Time (TM), read the Bible, fill in the blanks, pray, and you're set for the day. Do this for 10-15 minutes every day, and you're basically taking a spiritual multivitamin that will shore you up against what ills you.

My description may sound a bit snarky, but the sincere idea behind it isn't: it's supposed to be a practice that will stick through adulthood, grounding and centering you on reading the Bible. The issue comes in that, with rare exception, this practice is presented as less a discipline to enjoy and more of a repetitive necessity you GOTTA do.

Like eating vegetables.

As a child/teenager, I choked down ridiculously small portions of green beans, black eyed peas, and other sundry foodstuffs that came from the ground because I was told it was good for me. And I was forbidden from leaving the table until I did. Honestly, I hated the taste of vegetables back then. They always felt bland (no matter how my parents or grandparents seasoned them), some had a texture that put me off, and I didn't get why eating them was important for me. Nor did I really understand how any why my parents - especially my dad - could cook and eat an entire legion of vegetables, complete with cornbread on the side, and consider that a meal. I mean, who does that?

I'm still not a huge vegetable eater. I've grown to like some vegetables while others stay firmly out of my preferences of consumption. The thing is, no matter how much my parents may have wanted me to eat them, the fact is I didn't want to. I cognitively understood the idea that they were good for me (mainly because they droned on and on about it), but I had to grow and mature before I understood that this was something I wanted and craved, not something I had to eat because it was The Right Thing To Do (TM).

For years, I tried to choke down the idea of reading the Bible in a morning Quiet Time (TM) because it was The Right Thing To Do (TM). And yes: there was some lingering benefit to it despite my hesitation or reluctance at doing so. But I treated it as a ritual that must be endured instead of an opportunity to grow and enjoy what I was doing.

Like how I looked at many of the rituals at church: you endure them without celebrating them and what they signify.

Like how I looked at vegetables.

Sometimes, you just have to eat the vegetables, no matter if you want to or not (Kai? Eli? If you read this one day, that sentence was for you). Sometimes, you go to church and feel nothing. That's life. That's what happens. Neither your physical nor spiritual taste buds are just not feeling it.

But when you want to. When you want to eat. When you find joy in what you're consuming. It all changes. These days, I find myself more receptive to what I read in the Bible...when I read the Bible...because I'm looking not so much for a blank to fill in as an entire paragraph to incorporate into how I live and love in the world around me. It's an acquired taste, one that has taken me more than a few years to develop.

And as Ashley can attest, I even find joy in cooking veggies these days.

Because I make the recipe my own.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

1-2-3

1.

Teething sucks. This was one of the many things I apparently blocked out of my memory in the intervening years between kids. I really don't recall dealing with Kai's teething on such a prolonged and drawn-out level like I am doing with Elias. Not content to be able to simply gnaw on an apple slice until it is softened, Eli has decided he wants to cut his bottom molars. Like, now. He's already cut his top molars and to be fair, he currently only has two teeth on the bottom. He probably wants a few more down there to be able to rip into a strip steak or something. Yet for as much as he may want more teeth, neither of us wants the byproduct of his teething: restless sleep, constantly fussing, rolling, hitting, pushing away - all be because he's unable to settle. We've tried almost every (legal and safe) method of calming him at nights, but nothing works.

2.

I suffer from depression. There are deep-seeded feelings and emotions at play, struggles I have dealt with for years. I've spent over two decades of my life feeling at times like the world would be better without me, like I have little to no intrinsic value or worth at all. Most days, I'm okay. The darkness stays at bay and my heart stays light. But for whatever reason, today was not one of those days. It was a bad day. One of the days where I want to withdraw inward and just be alone, but I had to step up, wear my Dad Hat, and take Kai to a birthday party. A loud birthday party, complete with dozens of kids hopped up on cake, sugar, and fruit juice, running about like crazed weasels. I smiled as best as I could, and I genuinely loved watching him with his friends. But given my druthers, I'd have just as soon not spoken to anyone at the party.

3.

After first being awoken after only two to three hours of sleep, I have just spent an hour and a half being hit and having my chest hair and arm hair alternately pulled by a cranky, teething toddler. But then, something happens. It happens. I had three failed attempts at getting him rested and settled, but he finally gave in. Nights like this where he just won't stand for being rocked or held, he likes to lay on the floor. Here he has the room to roll and flail his arms, but I make a pillow nest to give him boundaries. Because God knows the last thing I want him to do is "sleepwalk" to his toy chest and cut something on.

But his falling asleep - and STAYING asleep - wasn't the moment that struck me. It was somewhere around 1:15 AM. It happens. One moment. One brief, fleeting moment in the quiet and dark of Eli's room. He sits up, eyes still closed, and crawls over to where I am resting my back against his currently not-in-use crib. I'm sitting not more than one foot from him, and he by instinct navigates towards me, and lays his head in my lap.

Me. Despite the physical abuse he inflicted on me not five minutes earlier, he wanted me. He wanted to hear my breathing, wanted my to hold my hand, wanted me. His daddy. He scooted his shoulder deeper into my lap, heaved a deep sigh, and fell into a contented, relaxed sleep. And I swear that in the moonlight, I could almost make out a smile on his face.

At one point earlier that evening, I joked to myself - in dark humor - that I couldn't feel my heart beat, thinking maybe I didn't have a useable heart.

But ultimately, maybe I don't have to feel it. Others do. Others draw comfort from my heart. Kai. Eli. Ashley. I have friends who don't so much as rely on me; instead, they simply love me.

My family helps me find a life where sometimes I instead find a void in my own existence.

There is something indescribable about holding your child as they sleep, and feeling the rhythm and cadence of their breath, their heartbeat. To this day, I fight wanting to hold Kai all night long if he happens to fall asleep in my arms. I regularly sit and just watch him for a few minutes every night after he falls asleep from my reading to him.

Maybe I don't have to feel my own heart beating. Maybe others feel it for me.

If nothing else, this thought helps to settle my mind for a few hours.

Like I hope my heartbeat settles Eli's mind.

Until breakfast time, hopefully.

Tell me, what to do with this beating heart?
While I bleed alone tonight
And it's alright if you don't say a word
Or make it all work right

Oh, and I can wait
It's enough to know you can hear me now
Oh, I can wait
It's enough to feel so near you now
And when answers don't come easy
I can wait

(c) 1987 Leslie Phillips. "Answers Don't Come Easy." The Turning





Tuesday, September 09, 2014

SEChurch

The beginning of the fall semester is always a fun time at our house. It's a season when everything holds a component of something fresh and exciting, from the T-shirts Ashley gets for free from campus (to replace the ones I wore out during the previous year), to the hours-old leftover pizza she brings in from hall programs celebrating the start of the year. We may have to cut the crust with an acetylene torch, but hey - it's free. And it means I don't have to cook. So. Win-win.

We reside in the land where college football rules all. The Southeastern Conference. The SEC. Since the beginning of the fall athletic season coincides with the beginning of the academic year, students take this opportunity to demonstratively set their fashion tone for the year by showing forth their spirit and pride. From the placement of stickers and decals on vehicles to the wearing of shirts and hats adorned with logos and names, legions of energetic, frenzied, and passionate 18-to-20-something year olds take to the residence halls, academic buildings, and city to serve as a witness and walking billboard...

...for their church.

"And on the third down, he rose again."

Having spent more than half of my life living in towns where August means extended traffic delays and seeing aluminum beer cans pop up in yards overnight like so many recyclable mushrooms, I'm used to the fun, kinetic mania, and genuine joy to be found in what a new beginning represents. Fresh academic (re)starts, reconnecting with friends they haven't seen all summer, and meeting new faces and learning new perspectives about life from that new kid in the residence hall.

Restaurants, bars, shopping centers - pretty much every establishment you can name that lies within the city limits and is within walking distance of the football stadium will come up with a sports-related theme to start the academic year off, showing fully where their loyalties lie.

And so will the churches. Because as the Bible teaches us, clearly the Son of God came to serve...the home team.

First United Marketing Church

It always makes me laugh a little when churches use the start of the school year as a launch pad for a series or new teaching lesson. I get that the influx of new first-year and transfer students into a community is a great opportunity to reach out to them - both from a legitimate concern for their spiritual well-being and development, as well as a chance to "hook" them into their respective fellowships. Far too many people find that without the rhythm and cadence of "Sunday morning - Wednesday night - plus small group" for Spiritual growth that was monitored both by their parents and peers, once they enter the promised land of college, they begin to cease attending any kind of function that doesn't come with free food and/or cute people attending.

I've been a part of too many churches where the leadership tries to brand their fellowship as something it's not - namely, a place for college students. Because while they want to students to attend (Nothing looks good to the Conference like an influx of fresh and young faces! And they're photogenic!) they want to do so on their terms. At their times. In their place. And they want their church's sanctuary to be THE place of sanctuary for them.

Oh, those campus ministries are okay in their own right, but let's not forsake the assembling together of one another...here.

It's Bigger on the Inside

I have been fortunate to be a part of some killer small groups in the past - in Athens, Miami, and even back in Mississippi. And it was the friendship, the camaraderie, the love felt between us all that held us together. Moreso than the church as a whole ever did.

One could argue the small groups could not function without the larger church, or vice-versa. But one thing was for sure: we didn't have bumper stickers for our small group. We lived a life that spoke more than hoping that if we wore a shirt for our church, someone might ask us about it.

We marketed love to each other. And to compete strangers. We didn't try to proselytize for our team. We let our lives speak more than our stats ever could.

And in many ways, it made those seasons never end.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Journey to the Center of the Colon

A few weeks ago, at the suggestion of my GP, I underwent a colonoscopy about seven years ahead of schedule. Since my doctor stated I had a "pronounced genetic predisposition" to potentially have colon cancer myself (thanks to it running in my family), I contacted my insurance to make sure it was covered, and then went ahead and scheduled my Very Special Camera Time.


Since a number of my friends are younger that I am (jerks), I felt it beneficial to comedically document via words and not images what they, too, can expect once they cross the 50 year age threshold and have to enjoy the same uplifting procedure I did.

So, let's try and laugh our butts off, shall we?

TWO DAYS BEFORE THE PROCEDURE

9:00 am - The instructions say I am to cut out vegetables and fruit. Basically, I'm supposed to eat like my five year old. Awesome. I can do this.

11:17 am - Why on earth I keep seeing commercials for Strawberry Poppyseed Salads is beyond me. And just cruel.

ONE DAY BEFORE THE PROCEDURE

6:00 am - Thus begins my "clear liquid" diet. No meat, no dairy, nothing but broth, gelatin, and popsicles. I can do this.

They allow coffee. Black coffee. Thankfully. Otherwise I'd have to be seen for my blood pressure as well as my colon.

I asked about domestic beer. It's pretty translucent. However, the AMA and I have a difference of opinion on it being classified as a clear liquid though. My fellow craft beer enthusiasts would stand with me on this.

9:14 am - Is it physically possible to eat one's own body weight in flavored gelatin? I'm pretty sure I'm about to find out. 

11:30 am - Lunch is water and a popsicle. My one year old is looking at me like I've gone mad. Not because I'm eating dessert and no lunch, but because I have nothings discernible as food in front of me. This is a heresy in his eyes. 

5:00 pm - Time to start the MoviPrep (WORST NAME EVER).

5:01 pm - Hunh. For everyone who said this was the worst thing they've ever tasted, they've obviously never been to a homebrew competition. Tastes like warm, salty lemonade. Not something I'd drink voluntarily, but I don't see what the big deal is.

5:22 pm - Please kill me. I now see what the big deal is.

8:04 pm - I may have sped-read through Kai's bedtime story tonight. And wiggled a bit more than normal.

11:17 pm - Liquified hell. My body and soul are now completely emptied.

11:18 pm - ...or so I thought...

THE DAY OF THE PROCEDURE

7:00 am - My last chance to drink coffee (because a diarrhetic is REALLY what I need right about now) and have a popsicle.

8:48 am - Make note to self to purchase stock in all manufacturers of toilet paper.

12:00 pm - Time to go in for the procedure. I had to get Ashley to take the afternoon off, since they say I can't drive home on my own. Pfft. I've survived Brewvival. What's the worst thing an anesthetic can do to me?

1:30 pm - They finally wheel me back. After waiting for an hour and a half. I've had an IV in my hand keeping me filled with fluid, and I had to get undressed behind an ugly printed sheet suspended on a metal pole. Worst of all, I could't  have my phone with me. Some crap about privacy issues and the like. Hard to have privacy when everyone's privates are only one paper-thin sheet away. Was going to "Live Tweet" my colonoscopy. Can't let Kaite Couric win all the battles.

2:00 pm - My anesthesiologist looks like Bellatrix Lestrange. I'm slightly concerned.

3:00 pm (or thereabouts) - I'm awake. Ish. After the procedure, they wheeled me back to the holding area with beautiful sheet walls. Because I haven't had enough happy memories in this place.

Apparently in addition to a colonoscopy, they spliced in some genetic materials to make me part Slitheen. (If you're a Doctor Who fan, you'll understand.) 

I'm surprisingly awake and alert (according to Ashley, who was secretly hoping I would emerge in some drugged stupor declaring myself the King of the Potato People or something). No polyps. Perfect colon (as far as such things are measured).

4:00 pm - At Five Guys. Ordered a bacon double cheeseburger. May get another one.

For as after-the-fact humorous as my nerves were about the procedure (minus the MoviPrep - again: WORST NAME EVER), I was genuinely concerned about what might be found. Cancer is something to not be taken lightly or to be lived in with ignorance. Get yourself and your loved ones checked out.


You get enjoy more bacon double cheeseburgers that way.   

Because you'll get to enjoy them with family and friends.