Monday, January 29, 2007

humility

What to write? Sitting here in my secondary office, fireplace to the left, commuters on the right, rushing by the window, destined to catch a bus to a brand new week, and the song of espresso in the air, I’m trying to answer that question. I’m determined to make the best use of my time. After all, that’s the driving force of the economy isn’t it? It establishes rules of engagement for everything social, political, economic, and even religious if you think honestly about it. What I mean is, time is money, time is season, time is change, time is connective and restrictive and liberating all at the same time. Time is the great equalizer. It’s very humbling if you think seriously about it.
The acceptance of time and all of its influences can’t help but lead one to a state of humility that helps us realize that we are not as strong as we think we are. We are not as wise, and we’re certainly not as wealthy. This type of humility leads us all to conclusions that can be at best disconcerting and at worst terrifying and debilitating. I’m of the humble opinion that humility is the key to a balanced life. Time certainly helps with that if you let it. Time helps us all realize that we are not as smart as we thought we were.
When I consider all that I didn’t know about life and death and grace and consequence, even 22 years ago when I was married, it’s staggering. It’s humbling, and it certainly leads me to tread more lightly into the future. What I know now was not gleaned through books, seminars, or even timely advice from trusted friends. It came from experience and experience came with time. Dealing with the obnoxiousness of teenagers who constantly declare “I KNOW” also has the ability to draw me back humbly to the possibility that I could have been that way. Of course I don’t remember that. Time has a way of whitewashing our history and making us seem, in our memories at least, like the last great generation. Humbly I must acknowledge this form of mental delusion.
Even though I began my faith journey as a, nearly adult, teenager, it is very humbling to acknowledge the depth of my ignorance back then. And consequently, as I look to the beginnings of my life’s work as a pastor, I cringe at the shallowness of the pool from which I began. It’s not that I’m currently swimming in the deep end to be sure. I’m probably only waist deep. It‘s the place where they still have “no diving” stenciled on the wall. Rather, it’s a reality check. I know that I don’t know now what I will know then, just as I didn’t know then, what I do know now….if you know what I mean.
Between my own life story and those who I encounter nearly daily, I can honestly tell you that the greatest hindrance to spiritual journey, at least the only journey worthwhile and leading to where we’d all hope to be in the end, is humility. I’m referring to the Christian journey. In order to follow Christ, humility is everything. Humility is needed in the beginning, it’s needed along the way, and eventually it becomes a way of living if followed far enough. If you live it truly long enough, you become it, or it becomes you, sort of. You never really get there, but after a time of being immersed in it, you come by it more naturally. I don’t know this by experience of course, only through observation. The paradox is this; When you think that you’ve achieved it, then you haven’t.
To proceed beyond the shallow end of the pool, assuming one desires to do so, requires a great deal of humility. There’s obedience involved which takes humility. We’re asked to “obey” everything that Jesus commanded. I don’t like obey. It’s a hard word. It communicates to me that I have to do something that I didn’t realize was important, or at least didn’t recognize as important. After all, I’d like to think that if I knew it was important then I would have done it without asking, right? When I look at the example of the teenagers in my life I realize that this may be a false assumption. I’m learning everyday that I’ve missed something. I don’t want to think that I was wrong. That’s a harder word than obey. I rest in the fact that time brought me to this point. Time brings experience. There is also serving involved. That’s a hard concept too, because, for me, serving means time. It means my time. It means time that I think that I need for me and my things of life. Humility can overcome this too. Humility gleaned through time has taught me that most of what I saw as my time was in fact wasted time which didn’t live much beyond the moment that it was lived. Time invested in serving in His name though, with a humble spirit, lives far beyond my initial effort and sometimes even beyond my own time here on earth.
In all of this, I wish desperately that I knew then much more of what I know now. It leads me to wish beyond wishing that I know more now of what I will eventually know then, years down the road. It will save a great deal of frustration and heartache and bruised relationships. I could be a better leader. I could be a better friend, a better husband, and a better father. All I have is the knowledge that this can only be realized with time, and that’s a very humbling thought.

Monday, January 22, 2007

furnishings

So yesterday Joanne and I decided to live large and go through an open house in a nearby, newly constructed, “luxury” condominium complex. Months or strolling by the continued construction process led to a curiosity about what existed inside the promised “rooms with a view”. Not wanting to destroy the illusion that we could actually hope to afford residence in such a dwelling, we chose to walk rather than arrive in our 1989 Honda. Knowing that appearance is everything, we strolled confidently into the foyer, complete with gas fireplace and realtors, and proceeded directly to the elevators, nonchalantly grabbing a listing on our way through, looking as though we’d been through this formality numerous times. We had to concentrate on not giving away expressions that would in any way signal that we were impressed or, worse yet, overwhelmed. We began our journey at the top of course. It was top floor and the top priced unit at slightly less than a million dollars.
You get quite a bit for a million dollars, although not as much as I’d expected. You get a view, of course, of the water and the mountains, from many different vantage points. You get gas fireplaces with built in plasma screens mounted directly over them in both the living room and the master bedroom. You get a toilet for each of you practically. You can actually, if you work it right, have a toilet that you never ever have to share with the backsides of your guests. It’s not that I mind, but some might, especially the million dollar condo types. You get a walk in closet that is the size of our current master bedroom. You also get digitally controlled climate in each and every room. It would be quite a life I would imagine. A bit of reality crept in and we decided to go to a slightly lower floor with a slightly lower lifestyle. A one bedroom with one bathroom was next on our itinerary, not because we could fit there, but because that was the only one within our price range and we wanted to see how our type would live within the walls of this community. It wasn’t very impressive. Actually it looked like the place was an afterthought. It was as if they had completed all of the real units and had this space left over without any plan whatsoever. Some over ambitious contractor then obviously used it for all of the extra paint, carpet, tile, fixtures, and before he knew it, I imagined that it looked partially liveable. What I mean is, this unit, despite its lower status, had the same carpeting, same paint scheme, same fixtures, although for some reason, the gas stove, fireplace and the plasma screens had all disappeared. Why is it that those things are provided to the ones who could obviously have afforded to purchase them extra in the first place.
I have to admit, it was encouraging to think that we could actually afford to buy something in that building. We’d never be able to live in it, but it was nice of the builders to throw a “bone” to those of us who have actually lived and worked and spent in that community for the past several years. It was encouraging although as I think about that experience this morning, practical guy thoughts permeate my brain waves. My mind drifts to practical questions like, “How would one get all of one’s furniture up to that place anyway?” I mean the elevator was a decent size and all, but we have a lot of stuff. I can’t imagine loading the only elevator up for two hundred trips worth of boxes, mattresses, couches, lamps and the like. Especially while, million dollar condo people are trying to get to their million dollar condo type business appointments. As I was contemplating all this it hit me. Even if I could afford it and even if I could get it all on the elevators, what would happen when we got our “stuff” in a million dollar condo? I’m not really sure, but I’d bet that it wouldn’t look all that “million dollar-ish” any longer. Our furniture is “well loved”, otherwise known as used. In fact much of it has been acquired along the way, more often than not, through friends and front yards. Don’t get me wrong, its generally nice stuff and my wife is a magician with what we’ve accumulated through our nomadic existence. However, I’m pretty sure that we’d be written out of the next edition of “Northwest Living”, once we were actually living in the space. I think many people, at least most that I know of, would be in that same predicament. Our reality would mess up our illusion within the first 24 hours. The only people I know of who that might not apply to are the people who would have hired others to move their stuff up the elevators anyway. It didn’t really seem the place where you invite a few friends with pick-ups and grab some pizza and just muscle it up there.
I think that this can be much like the picture of people who are struggling with their faith because they are struggling with the place they’re trying to live it out in. There is an illusion of grandeur that sometimes comes with how people view a church community. Before we get “into” one, there is an illusion. It looks shiny. It seems new. You don’t see catches in the carpet and stains on the couch. You might even picture yourself there. You imagine life with a view, greeting the neighbors on a ceramic tiled elevator after a long day, and coffee on a balcony watching the sunset on your life. That might be possible, except that you haven’t really moved in yet. When you really “move in” you discover that the colors of your stuff that looked fabulous in one place are actually a bit faded and even clash with some of the fixtures. You realize that the gas fireplace costs money to run 24 hours a day and the plasma screen still has 150 channels of “nothing on”. Your neighbors are consumed with life and not very open to neighborly things and every month you actually have to pay for all of this. A church community is like that. It’s a wonderful place until we move in and bring all of “us” with us. It is what it is. In many cases, it’s not the community that is as flawed as our expectations. I think that in the future, this realization is going to be very beneficial to me. I think that I won’t try as hard to change my surroundings as I do to work on the “furniture” that I bring with me.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Absolutely

I don’t think that I have really appreciated the depth of life change that has accompanied my career change of seventeen years ago. Seventeen…just writing that makes me wonder where the time went. Even the reality of a child getting married this Spring hasn’t effected me as much as the realization that, what I have affectionately referred to all along as my second life, my ministry life, has really consumed the majority of my adult life. For some odd reason, in my own little universe, I have been lulled into the illusion that my engineering life was primary and this pastoral thing has been a relatively new experience. In fact, it’s only recently surfaced in my consciousness that true reality is totally opposite to my perceived reality. I’m sure that others close to me and some that I’ve dragged along can distinguish the difference quite easily and never would have made that mistake.
On thinking about this particularly vexing turn of events, I’m realizing more about myself and, for that matter, the role that I was called to seventeen years ago. I’ve always been wired for a sense of engineering I think. I was blessed, or cursed depending on how you look at it, with a strong mechanical aptitude. That means that I can build, or learn to build almost anything. As hard as I might have tried to stray, I’ve always found my way back to absolutes. I like to be creative, but even in my creativity my default setting is in order and absolutes. Apparently I carried that inner reality into ministry, even without being conscious of it. I learned to study. I learned to interpret. I’ve learned to throw myself into trying to figure out the absolutes of God. In my pursuit of faith and leading others along their own journeys I’ve even found places where I can stop off and plot and plan and strategize to build and improve and all that I was wired to do. It worked well for me for a great deal of time, even seamlessly at times, as I made the transition from mechanical engineer to spiritual engineer. That’s why I missed the reality of the change. It’s only within the past few years that I’ve begun to realize that absolutes don’t matter as much as they once did. Don’t get me wrong. What I mean is that I still hold to the reality that there are absolutes to my faith. The Bible is absolutely God’s word to His people. As such, it is absolutely true. There is absolutely a chance for every person to have an eternally secure relationship with Him and there is absolutely an alternative for those who choose otherwise. I think that there are principles that are absolutely valuable, not even because the Bible says it’s so, but also because I’ve been doing this long enough to have witnessed to many consequences for choices to not follow them. But in and through it all, its apparent to me that all of this is not absolutely essential to what I now do for my life’s work. It’s apparently more about who I am than what I know or have studied.
That’s a huge revelation. As Adam Sandler already indicated in “The Wedding Singer”, “That’s information that I could have used YESTERDAY!” I’m pretty uncomfortable with this new reality. People don’t care what I know. They don’t necessarily care what I’ve discovered or studied or contemplated, unless I can put it in a relatively interesting 30 minute presentation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that they’re shallow, it’s just that my presence is more important than my knowledge. People care more about character and community and compassion. It’s very unsettling. I wish that someone would have shared this bit of reality with me before I followed. I can work more readily on my knowledge than I can my personality. There’s too much of a temptation to be sarcastic, pessimistic, and a lot of other –ics too numerous to mention. In other words it’s to easy to become an ass, in the biblical sense of course.
Knowledge I can work on in private, while I’m being caffeinated, just me and a laptop or a few books. Personality and presence have to be lived out amongst people, friends and the not so friendly. Could it be that maybe God has delivered me to this state of being for me and my own formation and not to save the world? It’s a humbling possibility and, to be honest, not all that comforting. This is relatively uncharted waters for me. I’ve never really had to concentrate, not that I shouldn’t have, on my presence until recently. It’s not that I don’t hold to absolutes. I absolutely do, in the essentials of my faith. It’s just that my list of essentials is not what it used to be. I’m sure that some of this is good, but it’s a bit harder to hold on to.

Monday, January 08, 2007

listening

I’m at a loss for words lately. Let me clarify that. Actually I’m just at a loss for words to write coherently into sentences on a screen. It’s been two weeks since I’ve been here and I still have nothing. At the same time, I’m rarely at a loss for spoken words. Sometimes that gets me into difficulty needlessly. Somehow I’ve become wired so that, as far as writing goes, if I don’t have something to say worth saying or an idea bursting forth from my insides, then I don’t write anything. I wonder how life would look if I had a matching philosophy for the spoken word. My sermons would most certainly be shorter. I remember, once upon a time, when I struggled to put together a 20 minute message and now I struggle to keep it less than 40. I wonder sometimes how much of it is added wisdom, how much of it is God’s voice, how much of it is mine. It’s a humbling exercise when it occurs.
I’m at the point in life where, if I choose to say nothing, people will pull, prod, and even bait me to weigh in on an issue. I’ve said so much through the years that I guess they just can’t believe that I’d have nothing to say. I used to avoid those kinds of people. You know the type, the ones who know everything that there is to know about every subject from Aardvarks to Zoology. I’ve come very close to being those people. I can have an out of body experience where I picture myself running from myself as my mouth careens, avalanche like, out of control, taking everything with it. The truth is that there do exist subjects within the sphere of my life to which I have little or no interest. So with that in mind, I wonder even more why I wouldn’t stay quiet and let people more experienced than me wax eloquently on those subjects in question. I used to be that way. The irony is that in doing so, I actually tended to learn valuable information on said subjects and in doing so, inadvertently, I became an amateur expert myself, and then the mouth would reopen. And the cycle continues.
It has begun to occur to me lately, once again, that my spiritual journey often mirrors my physical existence and there are some valuable lessons to learn with this. What I mean is, If I would simply listen more and talk less in my interaction with my creator, I would once again learn valuable insights and possibly even deeper truths. And said insights, if applied appropriately, might just translate into wisdom that is far beyond me.
I have to deal, on a daily basis, with delicately created lives. They’re lives created in the image of the creator and redeemed by a sacrifice greater than I can comprehend. They’re lives sometimes caught in the muck of life circumstances and even possibly poor choices and sometimes I rely too much on my own insight and not enough on His. Less talking and more listening would certainly improve the odds that any interaction with me would be influenced by my interaction with Him. It also might just fill that 40 minutes with something worth saying.