Monday, March 31, 2014

Lessons from a Jar

I wrote some of my deepest secrets on a piece of notebook paper, carefully folded the sheet, placed it in an empty Mason jar, and screwed the lid on tight. I then dug a hole about a foot deep out behind my father’s utility house, placed the jar in the hole, and filled the hole with dirt. My plan was to return to it at some unspecified time in the future to see if my fears had come to pass and if my dreams had come true.

Being ten years old and having homework to do, baseball games to play, clover to lie in, a creek to play in, books to read, baseball cards to collect, Braves games to listen to, a dog to pass the time with, and a bike to ride, I soon forgot all about the jar that was buried in our backyard.

Until one day some months (maybe even a couple of years) later the memory of the jar hit me out of nowhere and I rushed outside, retrieved a shovel—and walked around the yard trying to remember exactly where I had hidden my treasure, since the falling pine straw had made one spot indistinguishable from another. After a few false starts, I finally found the spot—I knew it was the spot when the shovel broke the glass jar.

I knelt down and pulled the broken jar from the hole and retrieved the carefully folded piece of paper that held all the hopes and fears that had been in me just a few months before, only to find that it was damp, that the layers were stuck together, and that the blue ink in which I had written my precious words had run and faded. When I tried to unfold the paper, it came apart in my hands; I was not able to read a single word that I had written.

I was disappointed. But the thing that really struck me was that I could not remember a single thing I had written on that piece of paper. Just months before I had committed my greatest fears and my fondest hopes to that blue-lined sheet—all the things on which my young world seemed on that day to hinge—and now I had no idea what those fears and dreams had been. I had, of course, moved on to new ones or perhaps to more highly developed versions of the old ones. I had put away childish things and moved on to slightly more mature childish things.

There were things I could have done to preserve the record of my dreams and fears; I could have, for example, wrapped the jar in layers of aluminum foil before burying it. We make such efforts sometimes; we take every possible step to preserve and to hold on to what was and to what might have been. Maybe we are better off if we let them go; the truth is that even had I been able to read what I had written I would have thrown it away and would soon have forgotten it all anyway.

Such forgetting is a gift of the childhood experience. It’s harder for adults.

It’s bad math, but here is how I’ve come to look at it: we should spend 5% of our time and energy looking backward (because that’s where we came from), 95% of our time and energy looking forward (because that’s where we’re going), and 100% of our time and energy living in the moment (because that’s where we are). That’s the way, I believe, that God would have us live because God is the God of our past and of our future, but it is in this moment that we experience God and that we live the life that God has given us to live.

After all, the lesson I learned from the jar I learned not in the retrospective and prospective thoughts I placed in it but rather in the act of digging it up…

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Headwaters of the Tobesofkee

I recently spent a day with Wade Rooks, an old friend from my hometown; at the end of the day we realized that we had spent more time together in that one day than we had in the previous thirty-five years combined. It was a good day.

We were driving on a short bypass north of town that connects Highway 41 to Highway 341 and that, compared to most roads in Barnesville, has not been there very long; on the side of the road was a sign telling us that we were crossing Tobesofkee Creek. I said, “You know, until they built this road I had no idea that Tobesofkee Creek ran through Lamar County. I cross it all the time on I-75 and I-475 south of Macon but I didn’t know it came this far.” “If I’m not mistaken,” my friend said, “the headwaters of Tobesofkee Creek are here. Do you remember that creek we used to go to? I think the headwaters are around there.”

I was dumbfounded. I’ve crossed Tobesofkee Creek in Bibb County hundreds of times but didn’t know that the stream originated in my home county. So, to all you folks who live around Lake Tobesofkee and who boat, swim, and fish in the lake, I say “You’re welcome.”

And just like that, the Tobesofkee became for me a metaphor for the way life goes.

Wade has lived in Lamar County for all of his life; he stayed near our headwaters, near the source of everything for both of us—faith, friendship, family, and a fair amount of foolishness. He has made his life there; it is there that he has found his career, his interests, his gains, his losses, his struggles, his relationships, and—most importantly, he would say—his daughter and his grandchildren.

I, on the other hand, left home to go to college and, except for visits, have never (at least, not yet) moved back. Interestingly enough, my life in its outline has followed the course of the Tobesofkee. I first went to Macon, where at Mercer University I was blessed with an education, a worldview, a mentor, and a partner that together proved to be the most formative realities in my life. I got my start, like the creek, in Lamar County but it was in Bibb County where I, like the creek, got dammed up and built up and developed; it was in Macon that I became a little more useful. And the Tobesofkee empties into the Ocmulgee River which runs through Ben Hill County where I now live and work. It is in those places that I have made my life; there I found my career, my interests, my gains, my losses, my struggles, and—most importantly, I would say—my wife and my children.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have along the way wandered off the Tobesofkee path and sojourned in lands where other rivers flow: Louisville, Kentucky and the Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee and the Cumberland; Augusta, Georgia and the Savannah; and Adel, Georgia and the Little, the New, and the Withlacoochee.)

When we got together the other day, though, Wade and I found ourselves catching each other up on what’s been happening over the past three and a half decades while at the same time celebrating our mutual roots. We spoke of how our faith has developed in different ways, largely because of the different paths we’ve taken, but also of how our faith was birthed, nurtured, and blessed by our families and by our older sisters and brothers at the Midway Baptist Church.

Wade and I easily fell back into our friendship; that was largely because of the project on which we had gotten together to work, a project that involves something we both love, though his love has been life-long while mine has been of more recent origin. (As to the nature of that project, let me just say “Watch out, Nashville!”) At a deeper level, though, we fell easily back into our friendship because, while he stayed there and I left there, we are both from there. While lots of things have changed, that is one thing that has not and will not—because it cannot.

Spending the day with my old friend Wade reminded me of the importance both of our roots and of our journey. We start where we start and we go where we go; our beginnings define us but so do the paths we choose to take and the circumstances that are thrust upon us. Wade and I have both done a lot of living and we’ve both in our own ways gone a long way from where we started.

Yes, we’re both a long way downstream now. But it was good—it is good—to return to the headwaters …

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Be Still

Everybody’s talking about meditation (wait, is “talking about meditation” an oxymoron?). Well, not everybody—but I have been hearing about it from fairly
disparate sources.

Russell Simmons has a new book entitled Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple. Simmons is a very successful businessman who has found meditation helpful and believes that the practice can make anyone more successful. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have not read the book. I did, however, hear Simmons being interviewed about the book on Morning Joe and I read an article on Huffington Post that Simmons wrote about his book (he was also interviewed about it on FOX News, so it’s a bipartisan subject).

Simmons maintains that sitting quietly for twenty minutes twice each day will make you a better person. In the Huffington Post article, he said that meditation will make you better balanced, less anxious, more connected, more productive, and healthier. His points are all valid. While Simmons came to meditation through the practice of yoga and apparently comes at it from no particular religious perspective, he does say that an emphasis on stillness is found in all religions.

The irony in Russell Simmons promoting the stillness and quiet of meditation is that he made his professional mark promoting noise and activity; he was one of the founders of Def Jam Recordings, a record label that for thirty years has promoted and produced mainly hip hop music, most fans of which play it very loud, much like I do my beloved rock & roll. Who ever thought that self-inflicted deafness would promote inter-generational and cross-cultural cohesion?

While I have no doubt that meditation is of benefit to anyone who practices it, I want to advocate for a particularly Christian practice of meditation.

In the March 5, 2014 issue of Christian Century, pastor Peter Traben Haas has an article entitled “Contemplative Congregation: An Invitation to Silence” in which he writes about how he has been leading the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Waterloo, Iowa toward adopting contemplative practices. Haas sounds like Russell Simmons when he writes, “Pastors are apprehensive about how to ‘be Christian’ and ‘do church.’ I am certain that this apprehension dissipates with a twice-a-day meditative prayer practice”; mediation, then, will make pastors less anxious and more effective in their work. While Haas in those sentences focuses on the value of meditation for pastors, his article is really about its value for all Christians.

Haas’s approach to meditation differs from that of Simmons, which is not surprising given that Simmons writes to a general audience and Haas to a Christian one. The form of meditation recommended by Haas is centering prayer. While Simmons encourages us to focus on the silence, Haas says, “In other forms of meditation we focus on a word or on the silence, while in centering prayer we consent to God’s presence. Our goal is not to have no thoughts or to continuously say a certain word but to consent to the presence of the Spirit of God in the silence.” In centering prayer we still sit in silence but whenever our thoughts wander from God we repeat a chosen word such as “Jesus,” “grace,” “love,” or “Abba” until we are focused again.

As Haas points out, being alone, still, and silent in the presence of God is encouraged in the Bible: See, for examples, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).

The point of Christian meditation in the form of centering prayer is not to give us an escape from the world; it is rather to cultivate within us a place where we are always aware of the presence of God as we go about living our lives. Writer Ronald Rolheiser puts it well:

Solitude … is a form of awareness. It’s a way of being present and perceptive within all of life. It’s having a dimension of reflectiveness in our daily lives that brings with it a sense of gratitude, appreciation, peacefulness, enjoyment, and prayer. It’s the sense, within ordinary life, that life is precious, sacred, and enough.
How do we foster solitude? How do we get a handle on life so it doesn’t just suck us through? How do we begin to lay a foundation for prayer in our lives?
The first step is to “put out into the deep” by remaining quietly in God’s presence in solitude, in silence, in prayer.
[Prayer: Our Deepest Longing (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013)]

The goal of the Christian life is to walk humbly with our God. In preparing for last Sunday’s sermon, I rediscovered the fact that in the biblical story of Noah, the great ark-builder never says a word. Noah was the great person of faith that he was because he listened to God and, when he heard from God, he obeyed God.

Taking a couple of times a day to practice Christian meditation in the form of centering prayer is a wonderful way to learn to listen; as we learn to be still in God’s presence and to listen to God in those moments of silence, we will become more and more able to be still and to listen all the time …

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Bridge Called Lent

We are anticipating another blast of cold air here in Fitzgerald, Georgia this week; it’s supposed to get all the way down to 39° one morning. “Cold” is relative, though. One day during one of our really cold snaps I sent a text to our son in Madison, Wisconsin telling him that it was cold in Fitzgerald; the low here was 29° that day. His response to me was that I should not talk to him about cold, given that the high in Madison that day was 12° below zero.

How cold has it been in Madison, Wisconsin this year? Well, Madison had twenty-three consecutive days of sub-freezing weather this winter. Madison has had almost ninety consecutive days—from early December until now—with at least one inch of snow on the ground.

Joshua is right—I shouldn’t talk to him about cold.

Still, it has been winter here, one effect of which is that aside from the pines and the evergreens, everything outside has looked pretty dead. Not long ago, my Good Wife and I were sitting in the den sipping coffee on a “cold” Saturday morning when I said that I needed to do some yard work but really didn’t want to do it. She replied that she wasn’t surprised because in the winter, no matter how much work you do, things aren’t going to look good when you finish.

That’s a wise woman I have there.

I have managed, though, to get out there the past couple of Saturdays to do some pruning and weeding and preparing. After all, the daffodils are blooming and the hydrangeas are budding and everything else won’t be far behind. It’s time to trim things back to make way for new growth, to dig up and discard dead things, and to prepare the ground for fresh planting—which brings me to Lent.

Lent, the forty-day period leading to Easter, is a time to pay some attention to ourselves, to reflect on our humanness and to repent of our sins. It’s a time, personally and spiritually speaking, to prune, to dig, and to prepare. Lent very appropriately bridges the seasons of winter and spring, the seasons of death and new life. Lent gives us the chance to deal with what is dying in us in the natural way of things as we move toward everlasting life and with what needs to die in us as we grow in the newness of life we have in Christ.

During Lent we have special opportunities to reflect, to repent, and to respond. It is helpful to adopt a daily discipline of prayerful Bible reading and reflection during which we open our lives up to God, asking for insight into the ways in which the Spirit would like to help us grow.

Soon, all the plants and trees that have been dormant will spring back to life.

We might as well join them …