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September Fifteenth

Today is September fifteenth and I am reminded that we used to eat fried chicken gizzards on Sunday nights . Normally the house smelled like popcorn at night, but occasionally, on Sundays, it was about gizzards. Dad would fry them up. I was convinced they were a delicacy.

It is September fifteenth, this is Dad’s birthday. I am reminded of a day when he came home talking about Johnny Cash and a song he had heard on the radio. He was cracking himself up while talking about “A Boy Named Sue.” Dad loved Johnny Cash. Occasionally, without warning, he would say something like “Hello, my name is Johnny Cash.” He liked picking up a guitar and playing the only lick he knew, that part of Orange Blossom Special where the lyrics went “I don’t care if I do-die-do-die-do-die-do…”

It is Dad’s birthday and I am reminded how he liked to stuff the grandchildren into the mailbox so he could photograph them looking like they were just delivered by the U. S. Postal Service. He never stuffed me into a mailbox but he did once put me under the water and pull me out again in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

Today is Dad’s eightieth birthday. I suspect if he were here he would probably be on the deck at Teaberry Lane with a cup of coffee and watching the birdfeeders. I suspect he would have his camera in his hand and a bb gun at his side. He would be taking pictures of anything that moved. If nothing was moving, I suspect he would have photographed his cup of coffee. He once took a picture of a plane flying overhead with his zoom lens and was very pleased that you could see the pilot. I suspect if things were real slow he would lay the bb gun across his lap and act as if he was keeping some outlaw off the property.

On his birthday he sometimes went for a bike ride just to say he did it. I suppose he would take credit for teaching me to ride a bike. He bought me a bike. I remember him being there while I was trying to ride. I remember his advice sounding something like “if you want to learn to ride a bike you have to get on it.”

He did teach me to bait a hook and cast it into the lake. I remember on one of those trips he was bloodied by a catfish. It prompted me to be very careful when removing a catfish from the hook. My earliest hunting memory included Dad shooting a squirrel and giving it to my uncle Gale who claimed he would make soup out of it. I remember days when he would throw a ball high into the air and tell me to catch it. I remember when we went out at night and threw a ball into the air just to watch the bats swoop at it. Dad was the kind of guy that would stop the car to pick up a turtle alongside the road. I am pretty sure I did not learn my letters at school but from Dad.

Dad would salt his tomatoes and salt his cantaloupe. I remember how excited he became when there was Maple Walnut or Butter Pecan ice cream in the house. Probably the reason I like Maple Walnut and Butter Pecan ice cream. Dad enjoyed making a breading for frying things. One day when talking about frying fish and green tomatoes and mushrooms and chicken gizzards, I remember telling him I was raised to think chicken gizzards were a delicacy. He assured me they were.

Happy Birthday Dad!

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Last Sunday, the Patriot News shared an article citing the American Academy of Pediatrics and the recommendation for playing outside. Here is a list of benefits for children;

*Better school performance. Time spent in nature and increased fitness improve cognitive function.

*More creativity. Outdoor play uses and nurtures the imagination.

*Much higher levels of fitness. Kids are more active when they are outdoors.

*More friends. Children who organize their own games and participate in unstructured group activities are less solitary and learn to interact with their peers.

*Less depression and hyperactivity. Time in nature is soothing, improves mood and reduces stress. It can also increase kids’ attention span, because things move at a slower pace than they do on the screen.

*Stronger bones. Exposure to natural light helps prevent vitamin D deficiency, making outdoorsy children less vulnerable to bone problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues.

*Improved eyesight. Time spent outdoors can help combat increasing diagnoses of nearsightedness.

*Better sleep. Exposure to natural light, and lots of physical activity, help reset a child’s natural sleep rhythms.

*A longer life span and healthier adult life. Active kids are more likely to grow into active adults.

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My times of solitude must be in balance with corporate responsibilities. It will not do to try and convince myself I am growing spiritually if I am not among the people of God and not in service to the world God so loved. So I must look for ways to grow alongside my sisters and brothers in Christ. Perhaps even spending time with others who do not come from my own faith tradition that we might become acquainted with the strengths of one another’s church. We want to walk together in this adventure called church. This is a corporate adventure and I want to take seriously what happens when two or three of us gather together in His name.

I will participate in corporate life and enjoy that I belong to a large family. I will pursue balance in Christian living. I will be reminded that I am to love God AND love my neighbor. Worship will be an enactment that spills over into everyday life. This will help me to shape my responses toward others. I will carefully deal with those who have different opinions than I do. I will attempt to reconcile those who do not get along on account of political persuasion and remind them that our relationship with one another is stronger than partisan views. I will bless my sisters and brothers, bless those who do not deserve blessing, and I will recognize that I have been blessed.

I want to bridge the gap between those of differing political persuasions. I desire to be a gentle reminder that the kingdom of God is bigger than the current political landscape, the Good News is better than the current political rhetoric, and that King Jesus rules no matter who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue. I desire to be a flesh and blood reminder of the living Jesus.

Living among others is one of the struggles of being human; this is the reality of the matter. Humans come in all different sizes and shapes and shades. Some sound like me, others do not. We have an assortment of eye colors, hairstyles and adorn ourselves in multiple ways. Some of us are noisy, some are quiet. We all think differently, have different levels of hope, and get excited about different things. In fact, something that excites one may infuriate another. So many of us, all different, yet all created in the image of God. May I recognize that these “two leggers”, these hominids created with the dust of Eden and filled with the breath of God, all wear the mark of their Maker.

I want to keep incarnation in the forefront. What a mystery that God became one like us. Heaven came to earth and God became earthling. If this does nothing else, it surely adds some dignity to the rest of us earthlings. I only hope that I am wise enough to step out of the way often enough to learn from others in the Body who think differently. I desire to bless those of like mind and those who aren’t. To be a blessing sounds easy enough. But Barbara Brown Taylor claims that the world needs us to do this, because “there is a real shortage of people” willing to do it. To bless another, whether we are authorized or not, is evidence we ourselves have been blessed. She goes on “That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars.” I pray for a spirit of hospitality toward those who are difficult for me to spend time with. I want to be intentional at understanding the people whose opinions differ from my own. I want to develop a posture of humility instead of one that is defensive. I desire to “stagger the stars.”

In the coming season of my spiritual journey, I will ask questions that matter. Are there relationships that I should nurture? Would new relationships spark my spirituality? Should I initiate more interaction with non-believers? Should I look for new places of service? Can I support the community where I am called to serve in new ways? Is there something that may stretch me a little? Is there a conference I should attend? Questions like these will help keep me from stagnation. I will ask them often. I want to consider such questions with seriousness, remembering I do not wish to crowd my schedule with more to do unless it has spiritual benefit. Otherwise, I defeat my purpose. I have already been shedding obligations deemed less necessary that were crowding my spiritual formation.

Thomas Merton writes that he entered the monastery and a writer walked in behind him. It makes me wonder, who is following me around? What identities do I carry with me that are unnecessary? If I identify myself as democrat or republican how does that strengthen my spiritual formation? What things are neutral, good, or bad depending on the way I choose to implement them? What things enslave me? Am I asking for stones when God is trying to give me bread? Are there things to be pruned so that I might be more fruitful?

This rule of life is not intended to be a guilt producing exercise, but a guide to help keep me on a path of growth. It is not intended to give me something more to do, but an assistant to help me focus on spiritual formation. It is not designed for me to master anything or figure God out. In fact, it does quite the opposite. The rule of life is intended to keep reminding me that  my role in relationship with Jesus is to follow.

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I will make time for solitude and will practice paying attention. Walking will slow me down and I will take time to notice what is there with me. I will explore the forests and other contexts of creation. As with reading, walking often gives me new energy. I have learned there is a great deal of similarity to exploring a neighborhood, a forest, or the printed page. A healthy spirituality for a preacher does include an exegesis of the text, but it is also helpful to exegete our surroundings. One becomes practice for the other. God is active in the text and in the neighborhood. I desire to be faithful to both as contexts for me to be with God.

I hope to continue developing the skill of attentiveness. May I be attentive to birdsong and plant life. May I discover the holy in the particular. Thomas Merton saw a collie with a feathery tail and the blank side of a frame house and found beauty. He listened as all day long the frogs sing and stated it might be the one of the best days he has ever known. The sun, dead grass, snowflakes, fire, soup, toast, hills, pines, and books prompt for him holy thoughts. I desire to become more attentive and to recognize the presence of the holy.

Wendell Berry practices attentiveness. He has a knack of starting with what is obvious. He might be talking about trees or birds or a farmer’s field. Suddenly these things become windows to other things like love, amazement, and blessing. Perhaps I should schedule a retreat. Or schedule a regular practice of retreat. Perhaps I should spend more time in the forest, perhaps an overnight or a series of hikes. How can I distinguish what I do for pleasure and what I do to feed my soul?

In our tradition it is common to raise our hands as a hallelujah. It is not unusual to say it out loud. Can a hike serve as a hallelujah? Can one step become Hallelujah and the next Amen? Can a journey through the forest be a celebration of praise? Annie Dillard seems to think so. “I go my way, and my left foot says Glory and my right foot says Amen; in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”

Can creation’s grandeur make my soul sing? Can I be attentive enough to see the handiwork of God for what it is? Am I able to recognize creation as gift? Perhaps the forest canopy is a good place to listen to Genesis 1 or to Job 38. Perhaps a mountain stream is a place where I can practice seeing? I want to put myself in places where I can see and hear what is going on around me. I want to wake in the forest to the dawn chorus. Even though I may not recognize every singer, I can enjoy every song. Interestingly, the morning song of birds is sometimes referred to as matins, the same word used for the first prayer of the day. Even when seeking solitude one is never alone and I will join creation for morning prayers.

In order to become more attentive, I will pick up field guides and take them into the wild in order to learn to identify berries and trees by sight, birds and insects by sound. Perhaps this will help me to slow down and enjoy creation’s goodness. Will I ever be alert enough to hear the moment that cicadas sing the last notes of their day time song as katydids begin their evening chorus? Will I ever hear that moment when they overlap in harmony together?

I have come to realize that spiritual growth does not occur only in activities labeled as “spiritual.” I admit the wilderness has a tug on me. It is always pulling me in its direction. I have a natural preference to wade in streams, stare at sky, and hike the forests. However, I often find myself surrounded by tall buildings, concrete sidewalks, and asphalt lots. No matter the different places we find ourselves, it is important to keep our eyes open in order to capture the stories that may be found there. We cannot stop looking when walking alleys, sitting in coffee shops, talking on the street. We are always exploring beauty, searching for wonder, and looking for ways that God is at work. No matter the context, whether wading through creeks or concrete, whether surrounded by humans or other wildlife, may I recognize them all as gift.

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In some ways a rule of life is a personal protest against the way things are. A rule of life is a statement that status quo is not the goal. It is a step toward growth in spirituality that serves as a mild rebellion against the dominant spirituality’s of culture. I like things to be as convenient as the next person, but I recognize that ease is not always progress. Perhaps we would do well to slow down and make an effort to simplify. Perhaps a rule of life ought to include ways to create space in order to allow the presence of God to be more recognizable.

I desire to be a counter to the majority, a one man resistance movement who is constantly inviting others to sign up. This will occur by an intentional slowing down. This will allow activities that help me to see process without rushing straight to conclusions. I intend to do this by practicing Sabbath and participating in activities that cannot be rushed. Therefore, my rule of life tries to slow things down and to accept that efficiency will not be my religion of choice. I brew my own tea, make my own soup, bake my own bread, and grow my own vegetables. These things take time but something becomes clear in the process. For example, as I have discovered before, “Soup making is worthwhile activity. It provides time to play, experiment, talk, listen, laugh, taste, and smell. Soup making reminds us that meal preparation is not simply the prelude to putting food into your mouth. It is a valuable part of the whole experience of eating.”

Gardening slows us down. What you plant today cannot be harvested tomorrow. It requires time in the soil. Time in the soil is not only beneficial for those of us trying to slow down, it connects us with our beginnings. “I roll up my sleeves. I breath in the smell. I reach into the earth. It gets under my nails. In my hair. It’s caked on my knees. I call it dirt. But I think about the sixth day when God first formed a human from this stuff and all I can say is ‘wow.’”

I will practice Sabbath. Sabbath is a gift for those who are tired. Sabbath is a gift that reminds us we are not in control. Sabbath reminds us we can take the day off and still wake the next day with everything we need. Sabbath reminds us that God has provided, still provides, and will continue to provide. We do not have to collect manna again on Sabbath; God has already blessed us with enough to make it through another day.

Practicing Sabbath is rebellion. Practicing Sabbath is what people of the resistance do to protest the rhythms of culture that drive us to do more, get more, and nurture the lie that we must take care of ourselves. To practice Sabbath is to promote that God is in charge around here. Silence is a mini Sabbath, and we are reminded there is a time and place for quiet and listening.

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Perhaps any conversation about spiritual formation includes prayer. My personal prayer life has been influenced by my faith tradition. We have encouraged prayer while seated, while standing, and while kneeling. Prayer is encouraged as both an individual act and as a corporate act. Of course, sometimes prayer seems to break out unexpectedly and during unlikely activities. However it occurs, I hope to view my daily schedule as a context for prayer. While some space is specifically set aside for the purpose of prayer, I hope for prayer to become as natural as walking or breathing. Perhaps this is what the apostle had in mind when he writes to “pray without ceasing.”

It is not enough to carve space for prayer. Prayer itself is not the goal, but a tool to help us grow in God. An activity that often unexpectedly becomes prayer for me is reading. Sometimes this is the reading of scripture but not always. I often find myself in dialogue with an author and God becomes part of the conversation. Currently, my reading tends to include an assortment of theology, nature, and some classics. As I write, I am thinking that reading authors who are more contemplative might benefit me on my journey. I can benefit from those who have walked with God and have shared their experience about intimacy with the divine. I have already made plans to read more from Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr. I plan to acquaint myself with Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. I would also benefit from re visiting some of the works that have shaped my spiritual life in the past. I am intrigued that John Wesley in “Letter to a Friend” emphasizes reading as a means of nurturing the soul. “Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily… Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”

Eugene Peterson suggests that we have been given an old prayer book known as Psalms. In fact, he claims these are the best tools for working on our faith. Just as a gardener picks up a rake or a hoe on the way to the vegetable garden, he claims people of faith should pick up the Psalms. I will read the Psalms multiple times in multiple translations during the coming year, all the while listening for the voice of God. I will be open to prayer in new ways by listening to these old prayers.

But my reading of scripture shall not be limited to the Psalms. I shall read from the whole canon.  I will read texts from the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. I will read the New Testament narratives and the Letters. I will read them to be caught up in the ongoing story of God. This is not only to strengthen preaching and exegesis, but to listen to the voice of God and find my role in that story. We have tendencies to try to fit God into our stories; it is time to start looking for ourselves in God’s story.

It is easy to become content driven, what J. K. A. Smith calls “brains on a stick.” It is even easy for worship to become a cognitive exercise. But, it is not enough to articulate a position; I want to taste the sweet word of God even when it leaves me with a sour stomach (Revelation 10.9-10). Systematic statements may smooth out some rough edges, but we are a people who live on the edge. We want to acknowledge the rough parts and embrace them as important parts of the story. I will listen to the biblical writers talk about walking with Jesus. I will read out loud in order to hear differently. I benefit when I read scripture not as a scavenger for practical purposes, but in order to listen for the voice of God.

This conversation about prayer is only a beginning. I desire that prayer become something more, something like Robert Mulholland once described “prayer is not what we do, it is what we be.” It is important to know that prayer is more about becoming than it is about getting. Again, I am reminded of Mulholland who said, “it is one thing to be in the world for God, it is quite another thing to be in God for the world.” The former seems so “activist” while the latter takes us into unknown territory. My prayer is that I will follow Jesus into the unknown whatever we find out there.

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Marjorie Thompson suggests a structure is necessary because not all growth is equal. Without structure, we are likely to grow in undesired directions. I enjoy the way she points out that “The fruit of the Spirit in us gets tangled and is susceptible to corruption, and the beauty of our lives is diminished.” Hers is a helpful illustration that suggests that structure allows for maximum fruit. In light of this, perhaps one of the most spiritual things we can do is to arrange our schedules to include space for growth. I will utilize the calendar to order and prioritize activities of spiritual importance.

My calendar will reflect the plan for this particular soul, in this particular skin, and in this particular place. That is how God works in us. I would be different if I lived anywhere else. I would not be the same if I were raised anyplace but where I was raised. If I would have belonged to a different bio family, hung around with different people, and worked in different vocations, I would not be who I am today. God meets us on the path we are on.

I am reminded that Jacob set out and found himself in the middle of nowhere. One night, Jacob laid his head on a rock and met God. He called this place Bethel. In that place, Jacob realized his life was part of a bigger story. We can begin to understand what the psalmist meant when he sang “where can I go from your presence?” Perhaps we should not be surprised that Moses came across a burning bush. Perhaps we should have expected disciples to meet the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus and for Saul to meet Jesus on the Damascus road. There is no such place as nowhere, it’s all Bethel. Earth is crammed with heaven and every bush is a fire with God.

Making my schedule with spiritual formation in mind will help me to become more aware of the ways God is at work in the places I find myself. Putting this into print helps me realize I am unable to do too many things at once. I want to realistically enter a new season with specific goals. This does not grant permission to neglect other areas, but helps me become more intentional in some. While some things are deliberately added to the schedule for the purpose of spiritual formation, I hope I begin to see everything on my schedule as a way to know God.

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