and and and and and and and and

This morning, right as I was waking up, I was texting someone.

I actually only typed maybe 5 letters or so.  The word prediction did the rest.  Sort-of.

I was only half awake.  What I wanted to say wasn’t very sophisticated.  And tapping the screen at the bottom, where my phone’s best guess about what I wanted to say pops up…  that is awfully easy.

I suspect the text I sent was less unique than it would have been, if I had typed out all the words.  How could it be anything but  beige, boring, homogenized?  All the technology can possibly do is look at the things that I have said before, and formulate a guess that this sort-of combination will serve me well today.

There is an easy experiment that can be done.  Maybe you’ll want to do this with me.  If you begin a text, and rely on nothing but word prediction, you end up with some telling results.  (Tapping the central suggestion is useful for the way many of these programs are made.)

Here’s what my phone says, “I am going to be a good day to you and your family and and and and and and and and and and…”

Presumably, the ‘ands’ would continue on.

I have been learning this stuff about the spiritual power of living in the moment.   There is something in me that is like this word prediction software in my phone.  There is something that responds automatically.  It refuses to take account of the reality of when and where I am.  It basis responses on what has happened before.

And when I live in this way, my life is beige, boring and homogenized.  There are these formulaic television shows that I have wasted precious hours of my life on.  It is bad enough that I would watch them first time through.  But I have watched reruns of them, too.  And sometimes life feels this way: A safe and comfortable fufilling of a format that a seven year old could figure out.

Living this way is as easy as sending a text formulated entirely by the word prediction software.  On the surface, it makes sense in the begininng.  But absurdity soon pops up, (I am pretty sure I am not ever going to be a good day.)  and soon after, it spirals into nothingness.  (and and and and and and…)

So…  how do we do this?  What are some ways to stay in the here and now?  Leave a comment below, would you?

 

 

 

Race, The Third Way, and Blueberry Pancakes

There are some things that we mix together until all the differences are resolved.  We might swirl together black paint with white until it is mixed just right, to get the shade of grey we are shooting for.  We keep mixing the sugar into the coffee until it is fully absorbed.  The results, in these cases, end up swallowing up the sources: Neither color can be found; once-bitter coffee is transformed.

When I was younger, this was my way of carrying truth.  It is a consistent thing to do.  It leaves you with a way of expressing your views of the world that are coherent.

But if the painter always mixed all her colors and just slathered them on the canvas, visual art wouldn’t be much different than painting a wall.  If a cook mixed everything into a homogenous mess, then we would not have awesome melty chocolate morsels just hanging out in biscuit-y cookies… blueberries would have to be thrown into the blender with the rest of the mix, and we would lose something.

As I grow older, I realize that sometimes the truth does not resolve, it does not average itself out.  Sometimes, it is not helpful to find some sort of compromise between conflicting claims.  Sometimes, I think, the right thing to do, is to carry them both: explore the boundaries between them, ponder the differences, wrestle with ways that we can do better than just find some middle ground but maybe find a way to incorporate the strengths of both positions.

A few weeks ago, my awesome church featured this great message about the third way.  In this context, the third way is this attempt at including people who come down on a different side of the issue.  Today, in place of a message, we had this great follow up to last week.  We are exploring issues around race, discrimination, and privilige.

A few weeks ago, we thought about ways to include people we don’t agree with.  Today, some wise people spoke in an impassioned way about how unreasonable it is to expect somebody who is opressed to patiently and emotionlessly express themselves:  There is a burden on those in positions of power to work things out for themselves.

When I was younger, I would have wanted to jump right to a simple resolution.  That would have been a bit like pureeing blueberries and mixing them fully into pancake batter.  In the end, maybe that will work.  But then again, maybe it is going to be best to just hold both of these things, attentively, carefully.

At least for now, I am going to sit with this apparent conflict.  I wonder if you’ve got some thoughts on working this all out.  There are all kinds of ways this plays out, but maybe one of the main questions is this: How do we balance being open to dialogue with others with not enabling abusers to continue in their destructive ways?

 

 

Here

I am here.

Those words?  Perhaps the most powerful words in the English language.

I am here.

They are more powerful, I am learning, than “I love you.”  They may just be more fundamental to who we are than ideas of home, or even of mother, and father.  I suspect it is written into our deepest history.

I think that this is what the story of Adam and Eve is about.  We began with this connection to our maker, to each other, and to ourselves.  At that time, we could truthfully and fully say, “I am here.”  We were naked and unashamed.  We entered into the created world in this attempt to name things, to understand it.  It was all good.

There is something different about the interaction at the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  I suspect that the knowledge offered by this tree is something inferior to the learning that was happening elsewhere in the garden.  Suddenly there is this hair-splitting and debate, going on.  They are no longer in that moment, present.  In their imagination they are comparing a future where they have eaten the fruit with a future where they have not eaten the fruit.  To do this, in their memories, they are thinking about what the past has been like.

There are so many ways to not be here.  There are so many forms of absence.  So many ways to fail to be present.

 

I think ‘being here’ must mean a lot of things.  I just barely have words for some of them.  At the minimum,  being here means stepping back into the present.  There is so much of me that lives in the past, and this part of me projects that past into my future.  I am so rarely experiencing what is happening now with fresh eyes.  I am so often putting happenings in these little boxes, “This is how it happened before, this must be how it will happen again.”

 

This is my goal today.  To experience some of those brief little moments, that stretch out on their sides into eternity.  I think they are echoes of the life we lived before we ate the fruit.

I Have Been Spending an Hour a Day on Things I Don’t Understand and That I Can Barely Explain

I have been waking up an hour early to go to my awesome church, where they have all installed this giant dry erase board.  I have been sitting there, for an hour, almost all every day, with dear friends, great people.  We have been praying for all the requests on that board, and for each other.  There is music, sometimes, and there is only a few of us, sometimes, and there is a dozen, or more, of us, other times.   We have pray out loud, we pray silently, we cry, and we laugh, and yes, sometimes we are bored.

But not nearly as often as I would have thought.

There are so many things about prayer that don’t make any sense.  It is a thing I have struggled with a lot, an area I have grown in, I think, since coming to the place I worship in.  But it’s not that anybody has really explained things to me in a new way.  I still don’t get why God just does things with out prayer some times.  And why he does things only after we pray for them other times.  And why he doesn’t seem to budge toward our prayer other times.

I have a few guesses and metaphors around these things.  But they aren’t the part that really bugs me.  The part that really bugs me is the idea that the world might operate like some sort of Prom-king election, where the cool kids, with lots of people praying/voting, that makes me sick.

And yet I wake up when it is still dark, stumble out of bed and to church before heading off into my job and life.  I am comitted to doing this until Easter, at least.  And the crazy thing is that it does not feel like a chore.  It does not feel like work.  Please believe this is me confessing, and not bragging.  I am not very disciplined or good at time management.  (In truth, I ought to confess that I am a morning person; perhaps that part is easier for me than it would be for you.)

It is not that it is fun.  And it is not that is easy, either.  Sometimes, the weight of those desires ways me down: people suffering from cancer, and depression, and lonliness.  Requests for comfort, support, material things and spiritual realities.  Prayers for the writer, prayers for the people they love, prayers for the church.

People talk about how Jesus took on the sins of the whole world.  I think there is something to that.  While I don’t think that is the whole picture, I do think that in praying for this tiny little sliver of the things that a tiny little population dared to write… this gives me just the tiniest glimpse of some of the things it meant, for Jesus to take all this on.

Somehow, while this brings me out of myself, it also brings me back, to the deepest part of me.  God meets us when we pray, and I have this sense that he emerges from within us as much as he does outside of us.  And as I suffer with people, feeling their pain, it connects to my own.

I suspect, even if I wasn’t praying for others, if I was just sitting, awake but inactive, I would have this sense of something deep within me… stirring.  I am waking up to the reality that so much of what we do is running away from our baggage, our hurts, and our pain.

Our crazy-busy schedules, our constant multi-tasking, our incessant longing for entertainments… I am always running.  Maybe you are too.  I remember when I was little, we used to have these water fights.  They would begin with water balloons but inevitably devolve to using the hose to go after each other.

My older, larger brother is better at being a male than I am.  On those rare occasions when I would briefly gain control of the hose, he would manage to puff himself up, and loudly charge at me, and inevitably I would run away.

I remember when I figured out that when I held the hose, I had the power.  I did not have to run away.  It was an act of will, maybe the bravest thing I ever had to do, standing my ground.  But it paid off.

My fears and brokeness, they are like my brother was, then.  In the act of standing where I am, choosing not to run through business, or noisiness, or activity, in the act of allowing myself quiet and stillness, I make my stand.

Despite my reservations, hesitations, and objections: it works.  After all, it does not make sense to me that the wind holds up an airplane, either.  And yet… it works.

 

A sowing

I am thinking of the empty spaces.

They will spring up when I die.

I am thinking that this one only life of mine.

It is a sowing.

 

I am thinking that someday someone will reap this harvest

of emptiness that will follow in my wake.

The crop will consist of a basket of desert fruit, I think.

With tough skin: work to crack open.

 

But I have finally reached this peace now.

Finally, I am able to summon this hope

that the nectar within might be sweet

nourishing, even.

Luscious, even.

 

Lovely, and anonymous

future-farmer.

May that nectar run down your bearded chin.

I wish to wish that you would discard the spent rind when it is done.

I hope that I hope you then get back to your Work.

It is, after all, the only thing that we can do:

 

Reach inside our one only lonely self

Take that small thing from the heart-center

And place it here, in this fertile ground.

 

 

Alone

I am growing old, now.

And if you are not here yet.

Perhaps it will surprise you.

 

I remember being so small, still.

I remember a world that was indecipherable.

I did not know if I feared it.

 

But I did know that there was this bubble of safety

and it was near my mother’s skirts.

When my orbit would take me away from her…

 

In a store, a drug store, perhaps,

The gravity of our connection would pull me in

toward her safety.

 

I am growing old, now.

And yet I still remember

the horror of it.

 

Reaching out for her hand,

to discover it was not her hand.

Betrayed by the gravity, and unsure of the world.

 

Eternal seconds, the layers of embarassment

and terror

The not-mother’s smile of sympathy.

 

Mom, you called my name, then.

And in that moment returned order and sanity to my universe.

But in that chaos, I think, that was when I learned that things die.

 

I am growing old, now.

And you have died now, mom.

And sometimes, in my dreams

 

I am little again and I am wondering in a grocery store

alone.

You are not there.

Ashes, Ashes… We all fall down!

So, I ended up helping shape the Ash Wednesday service at church.  This is the first part of what I had to say:

Thanks, so much for being here tonight.  My name is Jeff, and I am so honored to celebrate and mourn this day with you.  I have been here at the woo for six months or so, now, and I have kind of fallen in love with this place and this community.   A guy who is one of my favorite people, a personI have been deeply sharing my life with, came to the woo at pretty much the same time as me.  He has the extraordinary honor of also being named Geoff.   As we have gotten to know some of you, we have had this sense of not only how open and kind and loving you all are, but also of the idea that there is some pain in this place, some hurts that are being carried around. It was when we shared these observations with Lucas that he asked us if we would be interested in taking a roll in shaping tonight’s Ash Wednesday service.  And so here we are, together, on Ash Wednesday.  I am going to ask you to permit me a story to explore just what this means:

 

I’d like to bring you back to the year 1991.  I had just graduated high school and I realized that I could do all these adult kind-of things, like arrange a camping trip.  It was going to be me, and my girl friend, and another couple who would show around ten on the evening.

There was a lot to manage, yet I felt like I had it under control:  time off of work, the reservations of the camp site, packing the groceries,  clothes, and equipment we needed.

We found where we are going, which was a pretty big deal in the world before gps’s.  We chose a site, pitched the tent, arranged our meager things around.  everything went off with out a hitch as the sun began to set.

 Both tired and exhilerated, we sat down in our little folding chairs.  As I stared into that fire pit, the first little flaw in my plan began to emerge.  Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a great idea to have given the responsibility of bringing fire wood to the people who weren’t supposed to be there for another four hours.

I was young and determined, and back then, I was stupid enough to think that being young and determined was enough.  We were, after all, in the middle of nature.  We could gather our own wood.

I started with the fallen twigs.  I quickly realized that was going to ammount to much.  It is bad etiquette, against the rules, and also not easy to burn the green wood that is still alive on trees.  In desperation, I looked around and started to break the branches off the trees around me.   The thing about Southern California is that it is basically a desert with irrigation.  It is not known for thick forests populated with old trees.   As darkness fully fell we had a pretty pathetic harvest.

 

As I look back,  I think what I did next is hard wired into us.  It is part of the human condition.  It is the first step toward a tragic ending.  Like so many people, in so many different ways, I saw that it was getting colder and dark, and   so I tried to convince myself  that we had enough.

We put away fears sometimes because there is nothing else we can do.  If you are anything like me, you can become really, really good at locking your sense of doom away.  It still lives in some little place, way down deep, and it steals some of the joy that I might have had.  Mostly, though I am unaware of it.  Sometimes, I fool myself into thinking that in fact, things are going great.

The sun set and I arranged the kindling into a teepee shape, feeling the call of my inner cave man.   Lighting a  Fire  resonates with some deep place within me..  Even though I had done little more than pile up twigs and and strike a match, it brings this sense of mahoismo, and provision, this bringing heat, light and warmth.  When the twigs ignited I placed some of the medium-sized branches on the growing fire and felt more than competent, I felt like I could handle whatever life was going to throw at me. I think I must have decided that I would be a millionaire in my adulthood, or maybe the president.  Me?  I would be able to do anything.

 

We were happy for a while.  But it was with something like dread that I watched how quickly the flames ate the wood.  I began to hope that my friends would arrive early.  It soon became clear that our little wood pile wasn’t going to make it.

It got colder and darker.  We were away from the comforts and convience of home.  We couldn’t nudge up the thermostat, dig into an endless supply of blankets, or seek electronic distractions.  This was before the advent of cell phones.  We couldn’t distract ourselves with apps or even call them to get an eta.

I still remember watching those last few flames on those last few branches die.   I had been rationing the fire for some time; at this point it had been nothing but a pathetic few flames.  

 

As pathetic as they were, when it is cold, and you are away from city lights, there is a world of difference between a few flames and zero flames.   As  the last of the embers died  we sat there looking into the smoky pile of ash. I felt like a failure.  I had been deluding myself.  President?  At that moment we were more like homeless people, cut off from our possessions and families and everything.  Going to bed would have been the wisest thing.  But that would have been admitting defeat.  And our friends would be getting there.  In two hours.  Assuming  they were on time.

Two hours is the blink of an eye when you have things to do.  It isn’t much time when you are feeling good about yourself.  It is an eternity to spend two hours feeling like a lonely failure in the cold.   And I think I was connected with our ancestors in a sudden realization.

Fire is this profound symbol of things that we want and need in life.  To somebody thousands of years ago, though, more than just pride and comfort were on the line, if the fire went out.  If there was not enough fuel, injury and death were what resulted.  It’s no wonder that God is described in the bible as a fire.

Ashes, though.  Ashes are what is left when we no longer have the things we want and need.  They are the reminders of warmth, light, and love that we no longer have.

 

I sat there, at the end of a line of thousands of generations.  Every single one of them was faced with the same reality that I was: sometimes there is not enough.  On the most literal level, there had been  Not enough planning.  Not enough wood on the ground.  Not enough daylight to find it.    Not enough fire. Not enough heat, not enough light.

On a broader level, for as long as there have been humans, there has been not enough:  Not enough sense of God.  Not enough love.  Not enough  food.  Not enough friends.  Not enough money.  Not enough creativity, not enough joy.

 All of have huddled around all manner of fires, we have watched our ability to keep them going slowly fade.  We have been in these places, where once everything was good; we have set in the wreckage, wishing we still had flames, when all we can do is breathe the smoke and look at the burned-out logs where our fire used to be.

 

Today is ash Wednesday.  For centuries, Jesus followers have entered into a season of preparing for the reality that death is not the end of the story.  This played out when Jesus died and then came back from  death.  And death, it can be so much more than just when our life functions stop.  There are so many kinds of death…

And this is the brilliance of the Jesus story, this is the importance of Ash Wednesday:

It faces, head on, the fact that life can be really hard.  Death is a real and powerful thing.  In everyday life,

It is so tempting for me to want to deal with the hard stuff by not dealing with it.  It is tempting to try to talk myself into believing that it just isn’t that bad.  Or to spend some energy just not thinking about these things at all.  

To an extent, this is probably n helpful.  We can’t carry  the full wieght of the hurts we have suffered, the parts of us that died– if we held that every day and all the time, we probably would not be able to keep completing our job responsibilities, our family responsibility, our friendships.

But we can’t put these things away for ever.    Through out Christian history, this day has been seen as a day to agnowledge the full reality of these deaths: the death of Jesus, the death of our hopes and dreams, the deaths of the people that we love.  Perhaps our spiritual mothers and fathers had an easier time with ashes as a stand in for the reality that things die.  Sometimes it is so hard to see how anything good can spring back up where our hopes used to be.

This day takes it’s names from the ashes used in those ceremonies: Ashes  sprinkled on believers hair and  placed in the sign of a cross on their foreheads.  These ashes are an agnowlodgement of our mortal lives, they are a recognition of our losses and our failures.

 

  Tonight, we are going to ask you to begin by thinking about one of the deaths that you have suffered.  Perhaps you want to think about the last year.  Maybe you are ready to face something that is really hard.  Maybe it is not the right time for that very difficult loss, and perhaps there is something that is less raw that you can think about.  Whatever it is, we hope that this next hour or so can be a step out of ordinary life and into something sacred, and safe, where we can agnowledge the reality of these losses…  losses in relationships with other people, with God, with the church; losses at work or at home; losses in our beliefs about the world or our belief in ourselves.

 

I believe in a God who will guide you into wisdom and safety.  Perhaps there will be things tonight that you should not participate in.  That’s totally fine.  Maybe you will need some support, or something a little different.  

In the prayer room tonight, Colleen and Kaylee are waiting.  If you need prayer, or would like somebody to help you discern for yourself what God might want, she would really like to help you for that.  As tonight goes, if you would like to step away, to take some space for yourself in the lobby, or to have her pray for you, I hope you will.

And so, as we begin with this song, I am going to ask you, if you want, to find the paper, and the pen, that were on the seat when you got here.  If you would care to participate, we are going to ask you to call up to your own mind a loss, death and grief that you are experiencing..  On the front side of this page, there are guiding questions for you to consider.  The backside is blank.  Maybe it is better for just to write it out in open ended kind of way, without being limited by the questions we asked.  Either way, perhaps you would care to participate by expressing a loss, pain, or struggle you are experiencing.

So lets take some time to feel God’s love in the music, and the lyrics, and the people around us.  Let’s sit back, and prayer, or meditate, or just think.

They are going to be singing about a safe space, and the hope that we have is that this really is a safe space for you tonight.