Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricanes, Control, and Frailty

Hurricanes remind me of our frailty and that as much as we like to think otherwise that we don’t control everything.  They also remind me that when compared to the majority of humanity that as a nation we exercise a good deal of control over our immediate environment. Perhaps this is one reason why 9/11 was so shocking, our space was invaded, our control was shattered. In other regions of the world the loss of so many people at one time would have been yet another sad but true chapter in a world of uncertainty. Loss upon loss is the way of much of the world, we forget this.

As Sandy approaches our shores we are prepared and we are preparing; we have the knowledge to prepare, we have the means to prepare, and if we aren’t prepared it is our own fault. Much of the world does not have this advance knowledge (I’m speaking of the masses), and if it does have advance warning it does not have the means to prepare as we prepare. Living in our American cocoon it is easy to forget how others live.

But even with our advance warning and preparation hurricanes can kill us, after we control everything we can control we can still be killed, we can still die; whether by a hurricane or tornado or drunk driver or cancer – at our strongest we are frail – a falling tree can kill us – a tree that we can cut down with a chain saw can kill us; a virus which the naked eye cannot see can invade our bodies and bring this life to an end. Much of the world lives daily with the tenuousness of life, death is a part of life; for us death is an intrusion, an alien – since it challenges our frailty we  give it a quick nod and then get back to our lives of control. An argument for cemeteries and mausoleums is that they remind us of what we need to be reminded of – that death awaits us all and that we should live for eternity – that we are fools if we don’t think the amusement park ride will stop and we’ll have to get off.

Hurricanes are a reminder that we just can’t control everything, a reminder that life is frail and fragile, and a reminder that much of the world lives in conditions far different from that of North America.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

David and Sally’s Bowls

I think we’re down to two of them, and the two that are left are worn and have chips around the rims; we started with four of these bowls and now we have two. Until now Vickie and I are the only ones who know the memory associated with these bowls, and once you know it you may think it no big thing, but it’s a sweet memory to us.

The bowls are 3 inches deep and almost 7 inches across which makes them quite functional for chili and stews and soups and some pastas – I’m not likely to drip or spill using these bowls. They are white with pink and light-blue rings at the top and bottom and between the rings are floral designs 6 inches apart. We first used the bowls in 1989 for beef stew, a few days ago we used them again for the same beef stew recipe. I don’t know what the recipe is; I know it’s baked in the oven, that is has beef and mushrooms and carrots and a thick thick broth – it’s basic in content but it’s one of my favorite dishes.

These are “David and Sally’s bowls” because not long after that first home-meeting at Alice and Gordon’s we invited David and Sally over for dinner and that was the first time we used the bowls. Vickie decided to make beef stew (it was winter) and we needed some good beef-stew bowls, after Vickie made a trip to Pier One we had four new bowls for dinner.

David and Sally were the first guests we had in our home after our move from Baltimore to Richmond; there is no way to count the many meals we’ve shared with each other since that night, and I have no idea what the various meals have been – though it’s been a wide range – but I remember what we had that first night and I think of that night when I see the bowls.

To many of us a meal is just a meal, but to others a meal is an event with meaning. The Middle-Eastern friends and acquaintances we’ve had over the years still know the significance of eating a meal with others, especially in a home; eating with others is a big deal to me, even if it is limited to bread and drink. Perhaps the more basic the meal the deeper the meaning? (I’m thinking of a meal of pinto beans and cornbread with a couple in Nashville as I write this.)

Is there anything in life as precious as friendship? Abraham was called “the friend of God”, Jesus tells us that we are His friends, and the Scriptures so closely weave our relationship with God and others that we can’t separate the two – we can’t say we love God and hate our brother – if we do the Bible tells us that we are liars.

Friendship forms its own character, just like those bowls or a well-worn shoe. Friendship isn’t out to impress anyone and it isn’t perfect, but you stick with it and you realize that the imperfections are part of the package, they are part of this human pilgrimage. You aren’t going to find friendship at Pier One or in a self-help program, you can’t buy it, you can’t force someone into it, you can’t make it happen; but if you are faithful in relationships you’ll find it, if you pan for gold you’ll discover it, and when you do find it rise to the challenge of taking care of it for it won’t take care of itself.

Those bowls are not much to look at with the natural eye, but with the eye of the heart they evoke a treasury of friendship.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lance Armstrong and All the Rest of Us

Rosie Ruiz and Lance Armstrong and me…not sure about you but I’m certain about me.

Rosie Ruiz won the New York Marathon a few years ago, at least everyone but her thought she did, maybe even she convinced herself she did; but it didn’t last long. After all, how could someone win a marathon without breaking a sweat? What about the fact that other runners didn’t recall seeing her? She was soon stripped of her title and all but forgotten; unless used as an example of cheating to win a race that she didn’t win – unlike Armstrong (if the testimony and evidence in his case are true) her deception lasted only a couple of days, not years.

But Armstrong, after years of rumors, allegations, and denials – now there will be seven years in the annals of the Tour de France in which no winner is listed; did Mr. Armstrong create his own little world in which he actually believed he won? Is a win obtained by deceit still a win? Many would say so, most of us act like it in one way or another.

As I wrote my Mind on Fire reflections on Psalm 1 I thought of Lance Armstrong; there were two ways to race the Tour de France just as there are two ways of life in the Psalm, there is the way of honesty, a way which is maintained no matter where we are in the standings, and there is the way of deceit and cheating; Mr. Armstrong apparently chose to be someone he is not. But is he all that different from us? I know I have kept him company and I know I’ve worn yellow jerseys I have not fairly worn.

Anyone who puts a mask on pedals beside Lance Armstrong.

The pressure is intense to wear the mask, to act the part, to rationalize that the end justifies the means. But what is the end? The end is standing before God to account for the way we ran (or pedaled) the race. Psalm 1 speaks of this end. There are professing Christians who somehow think they have a free pass to live as they want without accountability, forgetting that passages such as 1 Corinthians Chapter 3 and 2 Corinthians Chapter 5 make it clear that while our relationship with Christ is sealed and certain, that we are all accountable for the things we do and the way we do them – all bogus wins will be exposed before the judgment seat of Christ – no fake wins make it into heaven.

This morning in my devotions in 1 John I read, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” When we rationalize deceit we choose to forget who God is.

At another level, how often do we engage in Christian ministry using the drugs of this world? That is, how often do we justify our use of strategies that are no different from those of Wal-Mart or Lexus or Apple in order to achieve success in ministry? Lance Armstrong chose not to rely on his natural body alone, he chose to put drugs into his body. How often do we choose to supplement the Holy Spirit? We profess to follow Jesus Christ, the One who says, “I do nothing of Myself.” He also says, “Without Me you can do nothing.” We nod and think, “That sounds nice, but we need to produce some numbers and excitement.”

I don’t know about you but I want to cross the finish line of life clean – no matter where others think I am in the standings.

Lance Armstrong isn’t like the rest of us? Who are we kidding?

Psalm 139:23-24.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How We Met David and Sally - II

The night that Alice and Gordon Jenkins invited us to a gathering in their home was the first night we met David and Sally. Ann Nichols (I’ve written about Ann in earlier posts) was there as were a few other local folks, and then there was Frank.

As I mentioned in the previous past, I had been acquainted with Frank for a few years, having been around him in various home-group meetings. Frank was associated with a group based in Oklahoma that I considered beyond the pale of Christianity in both practice and doctrine; however, when I last saw Frank in Baltimore he indicated that he had left the group – I took him at his word.

Finding weirdness in the house-church movement or in other non-traditional forms of Christianity is about as easy as finding carrots in the produce section of a grocery store. Identifying areas of warped development and immature teaching, and areas of over-emphasized doctrine in non-traditional forms of Christianity is also easy. The thing that is forgotten is that the same can be said for Christianity in its traditional forms; the difference is that poor doctrine, even heretical doctrine, and non-Biblical practices are provided respectable garb in traditional settings whereas in non-traditional settings they can seem just plain weird – the substance can be the same. Most over-emphasized doctrine or practice that I’ve witnessed in home settings has at least been in the context of believing Jesus Christ is Lord and God, and that the Bible is God’s Word; one is more likely to find outright heresy in traditional forms of Christianity, such as denial of the Resurrection, denial of the Bible, denial of the divinity of Jesus.

The format of home meetings is often: singing, praying, open sharing, and then someone bringing a message, and then more praying and singing. As I recall that night the singing was sweet, the praying was sincere, and the sharing was relaxed and intimate – done in the context of friendship. Then Frank began speaking and the longer he spoke the more I sensed that the cake had hot sauce in it – the message didn’t taste right. I am a simple person, and I mean that sincerely – I didn’t say I am humble, I’ve got an ego, but I do think I’m simple. I’m simple because I am both stupid and desperate. I’m stupid vis-à-vis smart people I know, people who can scale theological heights and mine theological depths and weave tapestries of theological intricacies – I like listening to those people; I’m desperate because I know I need Jesus. It seems the older I get that the dumber and more desperate I become. So because I’m both simple and desperate there is one thing I look for as the main and dominant ingredient in any cake – the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ – the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ.

Frank’s message degraded Jesus Christ, bringing Him down and bringing us up – making Jesus no more than one of us; Frank was dethroning Jesus. I realized that Frank had not disassociated himself from the Oklahoma group, nor had he been honest with me. Once I was certain of what Frank was saying I spoke up, sharing the Lordship of Jesus Christ – and I spoke up strongly. That was the end of Frank’s talk – in fact it was soon the end of the meeting.

As we left the Jenkins’s home that night Vickie and I wondered if we’d hear from anyone again; after all, it was Frank who had given us Gordon and Alice’s phone number, perhaps they subscribed to Frank’s thinking. What a way to first meet people – interrupting a “speaker” in their home and putting an end to his nonsense.

We need not have worried, the next day David called to say, “We all agreed with what you said.” That was the last time we saw Frank (and now you know why I haven’t used his real name) but it was not the last time we saw David and Sally.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How We Met David and Sally

We moved from the Zuck homestead the weekend of September 21. Little did we know in February or March 1989, when first driving down the Zuck lane, that in 2009 we’d know that lane as the drive to our home. Little did we know that in twenty years we’d spend three restorative years on land that has been in David’s family for generations.

When Vickie and I moved to the Richmond area in 1989 we didn’t know anyone and we didn’t have jobs. A short time before our move from Baltimore an acquaintance visited us in our home, someone who I had been around occasionally over the years, I’ll call him Frank; you’ll see why I’m not using his real name in a future post.

“Frank, we’re moving to Richmond,” we told him.

“I know some people in Richmond, let me give you their names and phone number.” Thankfully Frank had his address book with him and he gave us the names of Gordon and Alice Jenkins and their phone number.

Prior to the move Vickie made an appointment with a real estate agent to show us some houses (even though we didn’t know anyone or have jobs we did have enough sense to know we needed a place to live), as it turned out the agent was located in the Brandermill – Hull Street Road area of Chesterfield County. We looked at a few houses before we called it a day with the agent, and then we called an owner who was renting her house with an option to purchase, this house was in the general area in which we’d been looking at houses with the agent. Jan the owner told Vickie that she was getting ready to leave but that if we came right then we could see the house. We came, we saw, we rented, and we eventually purchased the house.

Now remember, we didn’t know anyone in Richmond. We didn’t know where Alice and Gordon Jenkins lived, and we’d never heard of David and Sally Zuck. We didn’t know the difference between Chester and Chesterfield and Midlothian and Hanover and Henrico and the Fan or Carytown – we had no regional orientation whatsoever.

After we moved we called Gordon and Alice and introduced ourselves, telling them that Frank had given us their contact information. They invited us to their home for a “meeting”, friends were coming over for fellowship…and guess what? Frank was going to be there. For lack of a better short description, Frank was a teacher in one stream of the house-church movement, which is how I first met him. Alice and Gordon had been involved in the charismatic – house church – alternative Christianity movement for years and often hosted meetings in their home.

As it “happened” Alice and Gordon lived about twenty minutes from us, off Midlothian Turnpike; as it also “happened” David and Sally Zuck, who we met that first night at Alice and Gordon’s, lived about ten minutes from us. We could have moved to Hanover or Henrico or Chester or the Fan or Carytown but we didn’t – we moved to the area where the Jenkins and Zucks lived – we didn’t know anyone when we first moved to the Richmond area but God designed our move so that friends were waiting for us, and He ensured that we moved close to the couple whose contact information we had been given, and even closer to the couple with whom we would become lifelong friends. Of course, after that first meeting at the Jenkins’s we wondered if we’d ever hear from them (or anyone else who was at the meeting) again – but that story is for the next post.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

One Last Turtle

One day this past week I stopped by our former home on the Zuck Homestead to pick up some things to move and check the mail; as I was driving down the lane back to North Spring Run Road I saw a terrapin crossing the lane; I stopped, got out, picked him (or her – I’m uneducated on these things) up and carried him to the grass on the other side of the gravel lane. “Now you take care of yourself and don’t cross this lane again.” 

There was poetry in that turtle encounter for me. I’ve always loved turtles, especially terrapins, ground turtles. Being from Maryland I’ve never though twice about the University of Maryland’s mascot being a terrapin – I grew up with terrapins and have always been fascinated by them. There are plenty of schools that have tigers or lions or Trojans as mascots, but terrapins?

Patrick always had a thing for turtles, water or land, it made no difference. Alice also has an affinity for turtles. While I do not share the Revere family’s affinity for snakes, we do have common ground when it comes to turtles. We have often shared our turtle rescue experiences – some probably foolhardy considering the traffic involved – we aren’t likely to pick up hitchhikers but we are prone to stop and rescue turtles.

The turtle strikes me as being thoughtful, minding his own business (unless enjoying the fruits of my garden), and generally going through life without fanfare and without demands on others. He is unobtrusive and has yet to succumb to materialism in that unlike cars on a NASCAR track, he will not sell his shell to Madison Avenue. I imagine that a turtle and one of Tolkien’s Ents would probably enjoy each other’s company. 

Well, here’s to turtles, the Reveres, and to friendship – to affinity with our Father’s creation, to stewardship however we are able to express it; here’s to a brief moment of poetry on a gravel lane.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Nature Boy and Gromit

A few months ago Nature Boy died and went to Narnia; not long after that Gromit followed him. Nature Boy was Patrick’s Catahoula Leopard Dog, Gromit was Patrick’s Boston terrier. I realize that they were Alice’s and Seth’s and Silas’s dogs too, but having said that…they were Patrick’s. Nature Boy was an old man; he walked old, he spoke old, he eyed you with the eye of old. Nature Boy associated me with food, Gromit associated me with stick throwing – I really didn’t have much of a relationship with Gromit because he was a bit temperamental. If Gromit was in Patrick’s pickup truck and the window was down and you ventured close he bit you. He was okay in the yard on in the house but when he was in that pickup truck he was on guard duty and he didn’t bother to ask, “Who goes there? What’s the password?” He’d shoot first and didn’t bother about questions.

When Gromit saw me outside the truck he’d bring a stick and insist that I throw it, not taking “no” for an answer and without an apology for the last time he shot me from the truck’s window. When Nature Boy saw me he came to see if I had food for him, he was the “leftovers go-to guy” of our home.

We’ve been moving from the Homestead over the past three weekends. Our time at the Zuck Homestead was a journey through a wardrobe in many respects, a place of respite and reflection and renewal; and a place of grappling with internal Calormenes. The house we lived in is a house we passed numerous times in years gone by; first we knew it as the house where David’s aunt Catherine lived; after Catherine died David and Sally purchased it from David’s cousins for Sally’s parents, Sal and Wanda. Wanda died in that house, it was her last home. Once when we were visiting from Massachusetts we slept in an upstairs bedroom that would one day be my office, a room lined with books and also a room where we rolled up the carpet to practice ballroom dancing.

Our church, New Venture Christian Fellowship, held a Sunday morning worship service around Christmas 2005 in that home. I led Wanda’s memorial service in the house. Little did Vickie and I know that one day we’d be back not to visit but to live. Little did we know that the very room where we prayed and sang songs was a room where we would build a fire, entertain friends, and contemplate the present and future and the mercies of God.

When we went through the wardrobe in the fall of 2009 Nature Boy came down just about everyday to check things out. Lily, our Border Collie, was just a puppy then and Nature Boy was pretty intimidating with his large size and commanding bark, not that he would hurt her, but since Lina, our Basset mix, didn’t know Nature Boy she made sure she was around Lily to protect her during Nature’s forays.

It has been strange walking the Homestead these past few months without seeing and hearing Nature Boy on patrol; it is strange to go to the Revere house and not have an excited Gromit dart at me with a stick. Watching Alice and Seth and Silas on a walk down the lane without their dogs is a vision not quite right. Nature Boy and Gromit stayed on a while after Patrick left us, then I suppose they felt they’d done all they could do and went through their own wardrobe to be with Patrick.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bird Feeders

This evening I put up four poles; two are topped with hopper feeders with a bird-seed mix, one supports a niger-seed tube feeder and a safflower-seed tube feeder, the other supports a suet feeder and a tube feeder with a bird-seed mix; all four poles have baffles to discourage squirrels and other critters from ascending to the feeders. This was a big deal to me; a big deal to Vickie. We’ve moved, and in moving we’ve left one bird community and are now inviting another bird community into our yard. Did I mention this is a big deal to us?

Two or three days ago I took the feeders down from the Zuck Homestead, a place of rest and renewal for us for three years, and a place where we’ve entertained a bird community; wrens and titmice and cardinals and blue birds and cow birds and pileated woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers and red-breasted woodpeckers and red-headed woodpeckers and nut hatches and chickadees and blue jays and thrushes and…well the list goes on. I didn’t want to take the feeders down, even though they were mostly empty due to the fact that we’d moved almost two weeks ago. If you’ve never fed birds, never watched them, never really watched them, never watched the fledglings trying to figure out their new world, you might think I’m even weirder than you thought. But if you have known the joy and amazement of focusing on an aspect of creation, whether birds or not, then you understand in some measure what I mean.

I think back to our house in Strasburg, to the dozens of cardinals who frequented our feeders and grove of cedar trees and wonder how they are doing; or I think even further back to a Christmas morning on Physic Hill Road in Chesterfield when a Scarlet Tanager made a special appearance at our feeder; or think still further back to our home in Becket, MA when a group of turkeys put on a dance around our feeders that rivaled anything the Rocketts have performed. On Physic Hill Road I used to watch one tree by our feeders for 30 minutes at a time and marvel at the interplay of creation that unfolded – birds and squirrels running and flying to and fro; I could write a book about a day in the life of that one tree. Then there was the Saturday in Beverly, MA when while visiting a friend in Beverly Farms I saw my first Baltimore Oriole; when I got home and told Vickie she told me that she had seen one in our neighbor’s backyard that morning too, one that we had the pleasure of seeing off and on for weeks in our neighborhood. I’ll take a Baltimore Oriole over a Lexus or BMW or Mercedes any day, or even over a gallon of banana ice cream…and I love banana ice cream.

Our bird friends on the Zuck Homestead have been with us for three years; they’ve given us pleasure and delight; their habits have fascinated us; their company has comforted us. I suppose that sounds strange, those words “comforted us”. But when we behold creation we know there is a Creator, and while we humans may be poor at praising our Creator it seems that the birds generally do that pretty well – even the predatory hawks and owls play their role on a fractured planet. I wish we could leave a forwarding address for the birds on the Homestead but we can’t. They won’t know why the feeders are no longer there; there were some birds still there this week even thought the feeders were empty. The good news is that the eye of their Creator, the eye of our Father, is on the sparrow; and being on the sparrow His eye is also on us, on Vickie and me and on you. I can trust our Father to care for the birds on the Zuck Homestead and I can also look forward to a new community of creation in our home in Chesterfield.