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Monday, July 15, 2013

Separated Together: Thoughts From A Boardwalk Pericope.

I live in the small city of Northampton, Massachusetts, Noho prides itself on it's diversity and progressive sensibilities. So I see all manner of people on Main Street. When I lived at the Center For Renewal in Simsbury, Connecticut the culture in which I was embedded was substantially more homogeneous; Noho's heterogeneity took a bit of getting used to mostly because the folks I spent most of my time with were very much like me. After five years, I've gotten very used to the Paradise City's people; those living there for many years, or living there for a time (such as students at Smith), or just passing through.

For most summers of my married life which just happens to be a little less than 2/3rds of my life so far, we've vacationed in Ventnor, New Jersey at the summer home of Tricia's family just a block away from the Boardwalk and beach. In fact, our kids remember it more than any other summer vacation spot we visited, although there weren't that many.

My purpose for writing relates to an experience Tricia and I had on our the late afternoon walk heading north to Atlantic City. Depending which direction you take and how far you want to go, the walk can be anywhere from 2 miles to 10 miles round-trip. We decided to go to up to the Boat Mall in AC, a round-trip of 4.5 miles. It's a trek we've made daily for years.

As we got nearer AC proper the number of people increased. We weren't sure if there'd be a crowd because it was the end of the 4th of July weekend when many weekenders head home after a final day at the beach.When we got to the first casino there was quite a crowd and the diversity was a melting pot of humanity. There were black folks (many from AC), white folks (casino patrons or walkers up from Ventnor and Margate), Latinos from Mexico, Central and South America, Asians from Korea, Vietnam, Japan and China) and Arabs, the men wearing white caps called taqiyahs, and the women wearing scarfs or hajibs. They gathered in families, couples, singles, groups of teens, old people, gays and straights, poor and wealthy, addicts, street performers, police and casino workers.

You could hear more than one language being spoken openly as people strolled on the Boardwalk together. There were street performers, one of them playing Jesus Loves Me on tenor saxophone, people sitting at outdoor restaurants on the Boardwalk, or at outdoor bars on the beach. Some, like us, were strolling through the results of a sandcastle competition; others were coming onto the Boardwalk from the AC Beach still in bathing suits, and with dripping kids in tow. There were people everywhere.

I take note of it first because in my view was a Sunday afternoon melting pot snapshot of humanity. Everyone there sharing a common space and experience. It felt a little like bazaar scenes I've seen in movies. I know such scenes go on all over the world, but I was struck in the moment at God's creation of peoples, cultures, languages, and traditions. I was also struck that we were together in proximity, but far apart from relating to one another other than walking the same Boardwalk. We all kept to ourselves and what we were doing. We were separate together.

I realize it's a common experience to gather in places for an event or stroll, and not really engage people other than who you're with. For some reason it just stood out to me to me our different cultures mixed together with little or no interacting beyond a look, if that. And we are separated by more than just proximity or race.  For instance, pundits and commentators have observed it's becoming more common for immigrants in the US to speak their native language here as much, or more than English (if they learn it at all). I've experienced seeing that too. When it happens, we it feels to me become another degree separated; I don't know what you're saying, nor you me. We can't really connect in any substantial way even if we wanted.

So we gradually settle further into being strangers together. Conversely, being able to talk and share points of view builds a bridge between people. Yeah, I know we're becoming more contentious and distrusting as we navigate through really tough times of emotionally strong and competing worldviews, but unless we find and share a common language through which we can hear one another's hearts, we're in deep trouble. Not talking honestly and listening well works to foment untested suspicion and foolhardy anger. They naturally build on themselves through hearsay, even willful deceit.

Perhaps I wouldn't have noticed the separation so much except for the fact I'm taking more notice of the deepening social divisions (and anger) occurring in our country. I'm more troubled by it than ever before. Our widening socioeconomic inequities fueling some of this are real. But our American culture seems to be coarsening, in general. You know I lived as a participant through the socio-political turmoil of the 60's, but  I now view much of that era as the opening of a social Pandora's Box resulting in horrors. I know that's a strong statement, but for decades I've had to pick up the pieces of lives shattered by the drug culture, sexual "freedom," the unholy trinity of "me, myself and I,"and the dreary entitlement ethos. There's a dark side to what's occurring as we divide more and more over morality, politics, race, and rights. Something quite menacing is afoot.

At the same time, I think the churches of the missional way have extraordinary opportunities to cross divides as peacemakers, ambassadors for civility, and champions of the Gospel of True Freedom and Community. We should avoid any impulse to bury our heads in our sub-cultures so that we fail to be what Christ summons us to. Hatred and self-absorbed ignorance will grow like a cancer if we remain sequestered in our safe zones merely content to pray, sing, and be fed by bible study and Sunday worship. What if we started being courageous citizens of the Kingdom who are also gracious servant citizens of our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces? And what if we crossed the divide to where the chronic poor and broken among us stay ghettoed downtown or a few blocks over? Could we break down walls and weaken the separation with kindness, compassion, and understanding?

Shouldn't we? If not the Church and other like-minded servant hearts, then who?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Thoughts On A Spiritual Discipline of Gardening.

While on vacation in Ventnor this week I've been given a second and unexpected opportunity to do more gardening. The first opportunity has been helping care for the first imagine plot at the Community Garden in Florence. In that garden, the idea of growing food for needy folks who most likely will not be able to put much fresh, organic produce on their table is a pure blessing to me. I just feel good being able to play a small role in that this summer.

The small flower and ornamental gardens around Tricia's mother's summer house in Ventnor gives me another blessing, but for different reasons. Let me step back a bit. I've mentioned before Tricia planted and cultivated 6 gardens at the Center For Renewal Retreat House over our 20 years there. She loved to design and plant them. She's never more alive than when doing so. She'd do some initial prep and weeding each spring with others at the all-church workday when it was time to get them ready, but I loved the job of weeding the plots throughout the summer. The task was a contemplative activity for me: maintaining the intended design established from the placement of plants, and retarding the chaos possible from weeds taking over as is their maddening way.

When we arrived here in Ventnor a few days ago, we noticed some of the front-step flower boxes were overgrowing, and the perennials in the north and east plots next to the house were going to seed. The worst issue to address was a wild rosebush overtaking a tree in the back of the house and actually choking out its life slowly, but surely. So there was maintenance gardening to do. Right up my alley!
I began Wednesday morning by clearing out and trimming the front-step flower pots, getting rid of rotting deadfall underneath the plants, and trimming overgrown shoots to create order and spur growth. Then, I cut back all the spent flower stalks, pinched back spent flowers on plants still producing flowers, including rose bushes, pulled some weeds, and began to attack the rogue rosebush in the back. As it turns out, that'll be a two-day job as we need to get to the root. Roses fight back as well, so care was needed.

As I reflected on Wednesday's task I realized if I looked at it a certain way, the work brings me to a contemplative place. Restoring order by removing weeds, and deadfall, and trimming plants so they're healthy and show forth their individual character and beauty has a deep peace to it. As I worked, I'm quiet internally. Within the internal quiet and peace, I'm also focused. I notice design and can see where the design is being pushed out of balance or obscuring internal harmony because its becoming misshapen by invading plants, or spent flowers and dead leaves. To restore shape and order is enlivening and brings a spacious well-being. Balance, harmony and right shape (fittingness) are regained in the plant and where its located with other plants or bushes. The garden "community of living things" is clean, not cluttered; visually consonant, not discordant; elegant not chaotic.

To spend time gardening can be a vibrant spiritual discipline. Simply defined spiritual disciplines for the Christian: "are not the desired end product of spiritual life  but rather they are a means to an end. They are the intentional development of authentic spiritual life and intimacy with God."  They provide ways to connect with the Holy Spirit and be open to his transforming work that we might learn to think and act like Jesus. They help draw our hearts and minds toward Christ who is our life and purpose if we say we are his followers. We learn to see, hear and know him intimately. He becomes "Christ with us (me)," because we've come to notice his presence in the ordinary and the special. He becomes more than an idea or an "unseen hand."

An example of a simple spiritual discipline would be while working in a garden, take time to look, reflect on and pray from what is being created, developed, nurtured, maintained, and then set to rest until next season. Notice how each stage of the gardening process can point to realities of the spiritual life in Christ. Every step of the way might reveal spiritual equivalents. Or think about how the Holy Spirit has worked to "fertilize" and "prune" you over the years that you can become spiritually mature and fruitful.

Contemplating eternal themes of birth and rebirth, death and resurrection come to the forefront. Looking deep into the heart of our Triune God Who Creates and Sustains springs from seeing the seed grow to the plant which produces the fruit and then dies to fertilize the soil. All it takes is the ability to notice, to pay attention to what God reveals in each step of the gardening.

I became aware later that cutting through the entwined clutter, especially the overgrown rosebush, hearkened to how God often needed to cut away much that entangled my heart and deadened my growth toward him. Sin and self-love choke the redeemed heart's yielding resonance for God. All sorts attitudes, thoughts and behaviors had to be pruned over the years, and I'm not near finished yet.

As Tricia and I cut through the thick tangle, carefully avoiding the plentiful thorns guarding each branch, we could see how much of the bush had been withered because the sun did not reach lower branches.God's nurturing light was blocked by the aggressive intruder lusting for all the light. Similarly, assiduously practicing the spiritual disciplines cuts through our clutter and opens us to God's heart, God's truth, and God's ways as he steadily conforms (including pruning) us to his image in the midst of sin's lusting for dominance. If we learn the discerning way, we yield to the Lord of Life by seeking him in the disciplines, and he responds full of grace and love by deftly shaping us toward holiness.

As soon as the day after we pruned, we were delighted to see the redeemed bush seeming to stand taller in the sunlight with a vitality that had been all but obscured by the interloper. It just looked different, more alive in the full light; freer without having to carry the load of the overwhelming tangle draped over it.

This summer has had two unforeseen re-introductions to gardening for me. This summer God also invited me to go further into practicing the spiritual disciplines which cause my heart to resonate with him. My experience with planting a church has more than once crowded out what once was the normal Christian spiritual life for me. I'm pretty sure he wants me to marry the two in a way I haven't. I'm a contemplative at heart who happens to have experience being a church planter. I can see how the two work together to create depth and breadth. I want both.

In sum, a spiritual discipline of gardening is a doorway into understanding the Master Gardener. The physical tasks and materials of gardening offer rich meaning around the necessary cycles of the spiritual life for followers of Jesus seeking to know and follow him more closely. Gardening can be both physical and contemplative: real soil, real potential; real seed; real fruit; real life, death and rebirth; real redemption and restoration; real preparation and harvest; real sacrifice and salvation: real feeding the people and replenishing the soil; real reverence and feasting.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Encountering Two Men Of God

The first man is in his 40's. It happened this week. His build is stocky. He has a brilliant smile which lights his face. He tears up often, but laughs heartily just as often. There's an ease about him which invites approach and conversation. No guile appears in his demeanor or carriage. If you spied him on the street nothing remarkable would detain your eye.

I met him recently and heard his story. After our meeting I was struck by the palpable reality I'd been in the presence of a man of God. If I told him that's my take after meeting he would've been shocked and uncomfortable. He is humble.

I don't use the term "man of God" often or carelessly. In fact, I'm pretty confident I've only met a few in my lifetime who truly fit the definition I hold. A man of God to me is unself-consciously saturated with the love for God and the love of God for others, especially for sinners, outcasts, the oppressed, the unruly, offensive, and invisible ones. Such a man is overwhelmed with the astounding idea of the love of Jesus "for someone like me." a selfish sinner who needs grace and mercy continually.  He is easily and regularly enthralled with the reality that Jesus would do for him what he did. I've also noticed such men are dedicated, and I mean persistently, to the desperate need of everyone to know the Savior Jesus Christ. They somehow grasp the Unseen REAL beyond what most others do, and they take no credit for it. It's just present to them all the time, and very compelling.

In our conversation, we talked of many things and I discovered, because of his love for God and for people, he spends much of his day as he goes about his business watching and praying. It's normal to him. He notices people and talked about a gift of discernment where if he engages someone, which he does even at his work (especially the difficult folks), he sees something about who they are including what's troubling them. He's not afraid to stop what he's doing and goes right up to the person to introduce himself. He said that often in minutes the person is either in tears and telling him, a stranger, of deep pain, or is opening to the Gospel. When he told me each story he'd laugh, slap his leg, or cry, and talk of how much he loved the person he was talking to. Remarkably, the place where he works is not Christian, but he's won favor with the owners because the folks who come by love him and show it.

As a man of prayer he'll often pray for the town and for each home or business he passes. Notable  to me also is the fact God has placed him where he is doing damage to Satan's strongholds. He is helping free captives of darkness. He said he's just drawn to such people. He's not afraid of anyone and will engage them no matter. Because of that he encounters substantial and increasing spiritual warfare. He knows he's in a fight, but the gift of salvation he's been given in Jesus compels him to go after folks spiritually blind and chronically adrift. He wants the lost, found and liberated.

Near the end of our conversation, he began to sob as he talked of the state of the church in America, especially the intolerance he sees coming from churches which would never reach out to certain categories of sinners.  With tears streaming from his eyes, he blurted out "I just love those people so much and they need to know God loves them too.Why is the church doing this?" It was naked and powerful, coming  from deep inside a transformed heart full of grace and love. The unadorned honesty was stunning to me. When he left, I knew immediately I'd been in the presence of a man of God. There was no mistaking it.

I hope to see him again. My soul is lifted and my is heart refreshed in such unexpected encounters.They inspire me to pray for the charity and freedom he has to love others no matter who they are, or if they respond or not. Also, the passionate love for and loyalty to God he radiates with no guile moves me to change and free up too. If you think about it, pray Jesus would be so kind to grant me such passion and liberation.


The second encounter with a man of God came to mind as I thought about writing this post. It was precipitated by the fact he recently went home to God. I haven't seen him in at least 15 years, maybe more. I met him in Connecticut as we were part of a new member's small group at church. I heard of his passing from a member of his family.

This man was also a man of God to me because, although he had a very different personality than the man above, he had the same uncompromising and persistent love for God with the fire to make him known to others, especially non-believers. The difference between him and the man I just wrote about is he had a very difficult personality which could be easily off-putting to folks, especially his Christian brethren. He told it like he saw it, often without filtering, or considering how it might be received. More than once,  folks would get mad at him or remove themselves from his company.

What drew me to him was his unabashed love of Christ and the Gospel. This man had struggled with a very serious addiction and knew God had helped him overcome it. His dedication to Christ who delivered him was deep and tenacious.He was what has been termed a "true believer." He lived and breathed it every day as his prime directive.

For me, with a few notable exceptions, most of the Christians I was around didn't manifest the same raging fire in their bellies for Jesus, or a driving passion to open others to him, especially for the outcasts and chronically troubled ones in our midst. My brother's difficult personalty enabled him to get below deflecting BS from folks used to lying or posing to maintain their destructive lifestyle. His love was fierce, unsentimental and aimed at confronting the powers of evil which kept people entrapped in their own dangerous delusions. He was a "storm the gates" kinda guy - a "what'er we waitin' for," Kingdom fighter who went after souls others would be afraid of or dismiss as too much trouble. His was a tough love, but a deep and genuine love no less.

My brother is dancing in the courts of the King now. His passion and commitment were like a mirror to me, reflecting my own hesitation and immature, self-absorbed cowardice. I admired him for his authenticity. He challenged, even scared me a little by his example, and I knew he was a man of God because of his sheer dedication and fierce love for Christ. He wasn't a man of tears; he was a man of bull-headed conviction which drove him to be counter-cultural, often going only with his Lord and his drive to seek and liberate the bent and broken. His joy was being in the thick of a rescue mission, down in the dirt, and deep in the struggle. He was saturated with the love of God and knew how far God had reached into his addicted heart to pull him toward true love. He wanted that reality for others and went often to go get them

I don't how many other men of God I'll get to encounter in the days ahead, but hope there will be many more. When I do, I know the Kingdom way is real, the love of God is beautiful beyond containing, and there is no life or worldly pleasure worth pursuing from the depths of our hearts other than being servants of the Most High.

If you have stories of the men or women of God you've had the great pleasure of knowing in your life, send them to me and maybe I'll put them on this blog.