life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

My Photo
Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

the trees of California (one)…

I like walking through Capitol Park in Sacramento. Not only is it filled with interesting people (which I should address in another post sometime), but it is also inhabited by trees of many different varieties. Though I don’t know the history of the park itself, I imagine that someone years and years ago decided the park would make a great repository for examples of the wide variety of trees and bushes that grace California’s various landscapes. If I named them all (which I cannot), this would be a very long post.

As I was staring toward the Capitol building during my last trip up there, I noticed something I had never noticed before. There is a row of queen or fan palms along L Street, just inside the sidewalk. They are old trees, these palms. I know this because we used to live in a 100 year-old house in Riverdale that had three 80 year-old fan palms in the front yard. Fan palms of that age are big around for palm trees, tall and solid, not graceful and slender like the coconut palms you see in the movies (or in Florida).

Anyway, it was one particular palm tree that drew my attention. All these trees are the same height except this one. It is about 20 feet shorter than the others. Some kind of pine, probably a coastal Monterey pine, has grown up and around it, providing a kind of protective canopy that has stunted the palm’s growth. Funny that I had never noticed it before. Surrounded by that canopy from every direction except on its northern exposure, it would be very easy to see the world in a different way if one lived atop that palm tree.

I am thinking that this is the way most denominations (I first typed the word “sects” here then replaced it, but I’m still thinking that may be the more appropriate term) in Western Christianity have grown up. We have been surrounded by the enveloping canopy of Western culture unable to see beyond our cultural interpretation of our faith. That’s not said the way I would want to say it exactly. Perhaps, “wedded to our culture” or “woven together with our culture” would be better phrases, but they would ruin the metaphor (smile), and I intend to use the metaphor a little more before I put it down.

What’s happening in my opinion, as I look at our culture, is that our culture is losing branches, is undergoing grafts, is experiencing a change of soil. You can say it many ways.

On the way up to Sacramento on this particular trip, I had read a story in the paper about the turmoil going on at Hollywood First Presbyterian Church. The senior pastor has been relieved of his duties – administrative leave with pay – for some financial mismanagement issues. At least that was the overt reason. But the reporter noted that the church is very divided over worship and direction and class. Yes, I said class, and I’m not talking Sunday School here. It seems the pastor, noticing the ever growing decline in the church’s fate decided to start a new worship time catering to the younger set in Hollywood First Pres’ neighborhood. It was very successful to say the least and brought in all kinds of folks that didn't look like the staid and proper denizens of that historic church. It wasn’t a pipe organ and formal crowd. It was guitar and ancient-future. And it concerned some of the board of elders enough that they put the brakes on the pastor’s work pending an investigation. It made the papers, even the AP wire. One of the elders who was quoted in the paper (and from what the reporter wrote, seemingly the one who was the ringleader of the reactionaries) seemed a nice enough fellow. Mild and measured in his words, I couldn't help but think that actions do indeed speak louder than words.

Culture has changed around the church. We bemoan it. We decry it. We do everything but listen to it and understand it. We even try to paste the branches back on the tree in order to preserve our view of “the way things are.” But they are no longer that way and we find ourselves staring at the world through dead branches with green sunglasses on. I have to wonder. What has happened to the people at Hollywood First Presbyterian who were coming to know Jesus and the in-breaking of his kingdom? How many times has that replayed across US America the past 20 years? How many more times? The suture zone is a rough place to live.

It’s not just Hollywood First Presbyterian. It’s all of us.

“This is our church, and if we want organ (or a cappella or guitar or whatever)....”

When I was growing up that phrase would never have been uttered in my denomination, at least not publicly. It was a point of our church doctrine that the church belonged to Christ. While we weren’t always that great at implementing that belief, it was a strong tenet that we tried to honor. I think we got it right as a tenet. I just think we need to let Jesus direct the church in whatever direction he wants since it belongs to him. We need to let him make it relevant to the culture in which we find ourselves.

As McLaren has noted in various places, this doesn’t mean we let go of Jesus or God or the Holy Spirit or the gospel. But it does mean that all of these may be different and much bigger and more serious than we ever imagined.

Finally, a question…. Could it be that God is the one stripping away the branches of our past culture so that the tree can actually have some sunlight and grow as he wants it to?

What do you think?

Grace and peace!


Friday, May 27, 2005

in the park...

I am beginning five days of rest today. I have been working a lot of long days and weekends for the past month or so and it has been catching up with me. I finally told my boss I just had to take a little rest time off. You might see a few more posts over the next five days as I have a little time to recover and reflect. Hope you have a great weekend! Now, here is in the park...

in the park…

This past Sunday afternoon, our church participated with people from four local churches from other “tribes” and “non-tribes” to hold a day in the park at Central. But it wasn’t church-focused. It was neighborhood focused. Billed as a block party, we had Christian rap artists driven by a whole lot of watts, a low-rider car show, two bouncy houses for the kids, hot dogs, chips and drinks, and an inflated pool with maybe three feet of water in it. The kids loved it. It was a warm day.

I don’t know how many of these were South Chester neighbors, but I have never seen our parking lot so full, and my wife and I came towards the tail end of the party. The crowd certainly reflected the diversity of our neighborhood. Lots of tattoos, lots of machismo, lots of smiles from fellow followers of Jesus representing all races and socio-economic levels, heads and bodies swaying with the strong, vibrating beat of the rap music. Not your usual church gathering.

I never could have dreamed of such a thing when I was younger. A congregation affiliated with the Church of Christ associating with and ministering alongside congregations coming from other perspectives. And all of it focused on our lower-class neighborhood. It was a wondrous thing!

And, we had a kind of merged theology of salvation process and this is where the pool came in handy. I was told some 14 or 15 people were baptized. Music to a Campbellite’s ears (Alexander Campbell was one of the “fathers” who began the American Restoration Movement from which Churches of Christ sprang). Guess I’m not a true Campbellite, though. I was actually fearful, overburdened with the sense that we may be leading these people down a path that promises them all their problems are gone, they’ll live in heaven with Jesus forever when they die and they need no longer suffer with guilt for what has come before. While all of what I said except for my first statement is true (and I’ve heard that first statement way to many times to pretend I am raising up a “straw man”), there is more to the story without which even the true parts of that statement become things that lead away from God and not to him. I’m not arguing for a works-based theology. It is a story of a journey with God, one on which they have taken only the first faltering steps. I fear that these who have responded need someone to walk alongside them on the uncertain path. That the path of discipleship is a difficult one, I’ll not argue. It is not a path for unaccompanied children.

At the same time – and please hear this – I sensed the seeds in this event for the discipleship that needs to come next. Seeds among his people that are ready to sprout. The Jesus-following that people need to be called to. And accompanied along the path with. The unity of his followers was one of those seeds that can make this possible. Encountering where people in our neighborhood truly are and what they truly are. And now from this point, continually encountering the real needs and lives of those in our community, instead of retreating to the safety and calm of our church walls as we think ourselves successful tools in God’s hands, is what he is calling us to, I think. The greater and harder and truer work is ahead. God lead us that way and empower us for the work!

But, even given all of that, thank you, God, for the moment. Now help us and possess us to walk the suture zone with those who surrendered to you last Sunday.

I sensed an awful lot of Jesus in Central Park last Sunday.

And it was glorious!

Grace and peace!


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

the great I AM (two)...

I have been struggling of late to get my arms around this concept of relational theology. I know that’s a great way to begin a blog post and it has you salivating to see what other pearls lay further into this tome. (That last sentence was written with a bit of self-deprecating sarcasm, if you can’t tell.) But relational theology is completely different than the systematic variety on which I was raised. Thus it is difficult to navigate. “So what’s new on the suture zone?” you may be asking.

If you are wondering what I mean by relational theology, I am speaking of the Story. Brian McLaren calls it The Story We Find Ourselves In (see his trilogy with that as one of the titles). That’s an appropriate description from my point of view. God has involved himself in the lives of people and we’ve been in an ongoing wrestling match ever since. The point of the narratives (and even the instruction portions of the Bible) is to describe the ongoing Story of God as he relates to humankind. There are all kinds of touch points in this ongoing saga. The one I would like to focus on is the call of Moses.

If you don’t know the story, Moses has left a privileged position in the royal court of the Pharaoh of Egypt to become a hunted murderer. He has spent 40 years in the desert tending sheep, finding a couple of wives, having children and basically forgetting his past life as royalty. In a strange God-encounter event, he spies a bush that burns but is not consumed. As he approaches the bush to investigate, he hears a voice claiming to be God. There follows an interchange between the two, some negotiating, some attempts at control and a call to mission. As often happens with these God-man wrestling matches, Moses ends up negotiating himself into a somewhat worse position than where he started out with God’s first request. This bargaining ends up plaguing him the rest of his life. (There’s a lesson just in that, I think.)

Then he (and his brother Aaron) lead God’s chosen people out of Egyptian slavery and toward the “Promised Land.”

That’s the story.

In the interchange between God and Moses at the bush, Moses asks God for his name. My understanding of that ancient culture in regard to gods and such, is that if you had the name of the god in question, you had at least some kind of leverage or power over the decisions that particular god would make and the interventions on your behalf that the god would perform.

Aside from the infinite claim of God’s name as I AM THAT I AM, is the recognition that this phrase could equally be translated “I will be what I will be.” In other words, God is making fun of Moses’ cheap attempt to gain an advantage over this God who calls Moses to this lifetime task. In short, God refuses to be manipulated. That, IMHO, is at least one of the things going on in this story.

How long has man been trying to define and manipulate God?

“Bless me and I will let you go,” Jacob told God at Peniel. Jacob lost the wrestling match that day and limped the rest of his life. (But he wouldn’t let go, to his credit. Nor did God choose to leave him. That’s relational theology.) Following up on the name thing, Jacob admits defeat by giving God his name, Jacob. He gets a new name out of it, one who wrestles or contends with God.

What does it mean that you cannot manipulate God? How many times have we tried? “If you will (fill in the blank), then I will (fill in the blank).” If you make sense to me, God, in my world, if you will act as I think you acted back then, then I will put my trust in you. It is the same as saying, “God, I want you to be this way because it suits me and my situation best.” For the most part, as I read the story, God is resistant to such attempts.

If you have been reading the comments to my posts, you may remember that Marshall reflected on his daughter’s struggle with the question as to why God appears to be different in the Bible than he is in her experience. She asks a very perceptive question. I have the same one. And I don’t have a satisfactory answer. I know that the miracles and other signs I read about there are less than evident in my experience. (That may be more a comment on me than on God, admittedly.)

But it appears to me that what God desired back then and desires still is to walk along side of us in the same continuing story, being who he will be despite our misunderstandings, our attempts to control him and our narrow focus on the outcome of our world. He keeps walking there, wanting the relationship even if it is one of struggle. Probably one of the most defining things about Christianity is its claim that God’s Holy Spirit is one who walks alongside his people, even entering them, cohabiting with them on the journey as the Story unfolds.

God who walks alongside us still, even in us, being who he will be, not necessarily who we want or expect him to be. Hard to get your arms around that one. (My arms are just not big enough.) Not real predictable, nor is it very comfortable. I’m afraid it’s all we get, though, other than exploring, “How does God interact in this story as reflected in the Bible? How is his character demonstrated, especially in the way Jesus interacts with people in the Story? How does his rescuing us through Jesus change us? How does it change the world?”

I know I’m no Moses. And I have yet to encounter any burning bushes out in Last Chance Canyon in the Mojave Desert. I could no doubt be accused at times of trying to manipulate him. The bush wasn’t Moses’ last attempt. Yet, as the story played out, God walked with Moses. Moses walked with God. In so doing, he grew and changed and became more humble and his face more and more reflected the presence of the living God. He stopped calling fire down on the heads of others quite as often as well.

Even Peter, James and John -- Jesus' closest associates -- were different men by the time they died. They walked a long time with God, who knocked off the rough edges. Hmmmm.....

May God in Jesus walk the same way with us, no matter where it leads.

Grace and peace!


Monday, May 23, 2005

just a note...

Hi, all --

Just a note to let you know I haven't dropped off the end of the world or anything. (Of course, upon reading what precedes this post, some of you may have thought I have lost my mind, my faith or both. Neither is true.) I had to work this weekend and have been trying to recover from an overly busy schedule and too little sleep. Check back tomorrow or Wednesday and you will find another post or two. I do have some things in the works but have had little time or mental focus to bring posts to completion.

Thanks for your patience!

Grace and peace!

Friday, May 20, 2005

café dolce (two): competition...

There are probably a half-dozen restaurants within shouting distance of Café Dulce. Of those, the Broiler is the swankiest. All the power lobbyists take their clients and the government officials they are lobbying there for lunch or dinner. I’ve eaten there before for lunch meetings and it’s a veritable who’s who of Sacramento (except for the governor).

The Broiler serves high quality concoctions with prices to match. Café Dulce is different. There is a variety of food available, but it is relatively plain compared to the Broiler. So they largely attract a different clientele.

The Joy of Cookies next door to Café Dulce has closed down since I was last in Sacramento. Looks to me like the Chinese place, Stix, several doors to the west, may do the same soon, if lack of crowds is any indication. Across from Sacramento Convention Center is another up-and-coming restaurant like The Broiler that has begun competing for market share.

We should not be surprised, I guess, by that. It is, after all, the American way of business. Our economy thrives on competition.

A guy I work with spent most of his life working in the newspaper business. He has a mind like a steel trap and smells a story 10 miles away. He is cast in the old-fashioned journalistic mold with language and demeanor to match. And he has some interesting views of life reflected in pithy “sayings” that he often holds forth with. One is germane to this discussion, and it’s one I can actually print here. (Some are not printable in such a blog.) “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and I’m wearing Milk Bone™ underwear!” I’m sure it’s not original with him, but it pretty clearly reflects the competition we find ourselves in. Economically, we’re all trying to make a buck. There are only so many bucks to be made. The buck I make is a buck you didn’t. It’s a kind of economic Darwinism… survival of the fittest.

This is a bald generalization admittedly. I have observed a lot of compassion for especially older employees in some circumstances. (This unfortunately is becoming more rare.) Now, I’m not saying capitalism is a bad economic system at all or arguing for something different. It seems to survive better than most. My question is whether the church of Jesus Christ in its various institutional forms has sold out to this competitive drive so characteristic of our economic system? I think it has.

Brian McLaren pointed this out last October at a lecture I attended. We may talk evangelism and winning souls and saving the lost and such. But what we are really after is more of the church pie. “Fill these pews, Lord!” is an oft-uttered prayer isn’t it? (Or fill these chairs or bean bag chairs or floor or whatever.) We’re bent on institutional survival. Reflect on this for a moment.

The church in Ephesus is no longer there. (Neither is Ephesus as a living city, by the way.)

How does that make you feel? Are you asking questions such as, “Were they unfaithful? Did God remove their candlestick?” (See The Revelation of John chapters 2 and 3 in the Christian Bible if you are looking for a context to what I just wrote.) Are you thinking, “Dear God, don’t let us go that same direction?” Let me ask this: Is God still at work in the world around you? Yes, sometimes even in the institutional church. Sometimes.

The survival of God’s church doesn’t depend on the survival of your institution.

Oh, God, if you could only get that into our heads and our hearts, how different the world might be!

Back to Café Dulce for a moment in order to make the point for which I have spilled all this electronic ink. At the risk of seeming to identify another potential market share or interest group, let me ask this question: what about the people who have chosen to bring their lunch to work?

When you look at things from a spiritual perspective, there are a lot more of these folks than anyone else. And they will never attend your church. They are not interested in your institutional survival. What happens within your walls on Sunday morning (or Saturday night or whenever) interests them not one bit. The language you speak is foreign and the view of the world you have chosen to take doesn’t correspond with theirs.

What about those people?

Are they searching for God? Many are, sometimes many more of them than others.

I guess this is a plea. Let’s drop the “what works to get people to church” (or at least what we call “church”) and begin taking the view that forming spiritual apprentices of Jesus (and being one ourselves) is probably the most important work we can do. I call it Kingdom of God work. We can do it anywhere. We can’t do it without the direction and empowerment of God’s Spirit. And, I am convinced, we cannot do it if we are spending all of our efforts to save the institutional church.

Now you may disagree with me about that. I could be wrong. Maybe you want to have a discussion about how we define “church”. Maybe that would be profitable. For us. Perhaps, though, we ought to focus on our mission of spiritually forming disciples and then this other discussion will take care of itself.

“Go and spiritually form apprentices…” words of Jesus, Matthew 28:19, my paraphrase (under influence of McLaren).

Wishing you grace and peace today, and just a small foxtail stuck in your sock…


Thursday, May 19, 2005

a short note...

Just to add a short note to today's post....

life in the suture zone has just passed its one month point. I appreciate all of you who have visited. You are free to remain anonymous, but you are also free to post comments any time. All are welcome.

If my ramblings have blessed you, please feel free to talk about and share the blog address with anyone. If you would like to link to this blog from yours, please feel free. Sometime soon, I plan to figure out how to put links in my margin, too, so if you have a blog or read someone else's blog that has been especially helpful to you, respond to this post with a comment and let me know the address. I'll take a look.

Now, if my ramblings have cursed you, I apologize. I'm not trying to create earthquakes for anyone. I fear, though, as my blog's title suggests, that we live in the land of earthquakes today, no matter where we live.

Marshall posted a very thoughtful and challenging comment to the "locked in Manzanar" post. You might want to read that. It will give you something else to chew on.

café dolce (one): diversity...

As mentioned a few days ago, I spent time in Sacramento again this week. It’s a pretty amazing and diverse city. I had a little extra time before my meeting, so I walked by Church of the Blessed Sacrament (that I thought was the Church of the Resurrection – did they change the name on me or am I that unobservant?) I think I may have already mentioned this in my post “stuff from on high,” but the porta-potty is gone. Guess no one needs it now way up high. But there was a sign hanging from the scaffolding catwalk. “Habemus Papem” it proclaimed. Right across the street is a microbrewery. I don’t know if the Holy Father drinks beer or not. (He’s from Germany – I think they disown you there if you don’t.) But I reflected that Jesus would probably think that was pretty cool, not meaning any offense to anyone who thinks otherwise. I would also remark that the church is only one block from California’s capitol building. This is good. California needs prayer right now.

I walked from the church down the mall that used to be K Street to Café Dolce. It is a small breakfast and lunch place frequented by lobbyists, support staff, business people, tourists from the Hyatt Hotel nearby, and a number of very interesting folks that daily make their way through the mall. I observe a great deal of diversity when I sit at Café Dolce. There are actually two parts to the restaurant. One is the line you go through to order whatever it is you want to eat. That’s farther back in the café, and is the line that you use if you are going to sit at one of the tables in the restaurant and eat. Most of the deep conversations go on at those tables. Then there is a register up front just inside the door where they sell espressos and fruit and other quick things to eat.

There is no physical wall between the two. But there is very definitely a wall.

What I noticed this time was how some folks only come in far enough to get a quick latte inside the door and then are off. The socio-economic and ethnic background of these people varies widely. While I was sitting there I saw three upscale lobbyist types stop for Café Dolce’s version of Starbucks – you know, where you have to link about seven or eight words to describe what you want? Triple-grande mocha with soy milk and no whip. They wore expensive business suits and assumed an air of self-importance with little thought for anyone else in the restaurant except to demonstrate that importance. Then there were the two women of color who ordered a banana, obviously on their way to work. They wore loose-fitting sweats. No “putting on airs” or anything with them. They were real. Not unpleasant at all. But it wasn’t hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be too comfortable going much farther than the first register.

There are tables outside Café Dolce, too, for people who don’t like the close atmosphere inside its depths. They need the open air. That’s where the smokers sit. I imagine the conversations out there are sometimes a bit saltier. I’ve seen the occasional street person sitting at one of those tables as I’ve walked by, sipping his coffee, hair unkempt, unwashed, sitting alone and not really bothering those around him, focused on the coffee cup, the table, locked inside his own world.. A completely different world.

And I wonder.

I wonder about the incredible diversity in our world. I wonder at the hit-and-miss flyby visits we in churches get from people who are so diverse from us.

Perhaps it is an innate characteristic of humankind. We like people who look like us, talk like us, smell like us and think like us. We’re not too tolerant as a species. Like bees from a particular hive we’ll even attack other bees that look exactly like us but are from a different hive. God help the beetle that walks by on accident.

Anyway, there are a lot of people who don’t want to sit inside in the “holy of holies” at Café Dolce. Occasionally someone might venture in and sit who is different. But they are just visitors. Like the older Japanese couple last Monday. They sat at one of the tables closest to the door and they appeared to feel quite uncomfortable. Or at least they were very quiet about things.

My friend Miller often remarks on the failure of the attractional church model. We assume that if people don’t want to come in and be a part of us that they don’t like what’s on the menu. So we change the menu. And we post signs outside the “café” that herald the new menu… or the new management… or whatever, hoping to attract more “clients”, people who will come in and consume our offerings. And they don’t. Or not many. And they don’t stay when they do come in and consume. And we worry about the future of our “café”. Will it survive? And we redouble our efforts to attract more.

Perhaps the issue isn’t menu at all, or at least not mostly. I’m thinking we’ve overdone the attractional component a bit.

This is a diverse world. US America is probably the most diverse place on the planet. We’ve thrown together people from every culture and language group known to humankind. And everyone we pass every day has a story of how they became the person they are. All the stories are unfinished. The stories told in the back of the café are remarkably similar. But all you have to do is look out the open door to see people whose stories vary widely. Some people are walking by with purpose, some meandering, often with coffee. I saw one guy in very casual clothing in a state of very minor disarray with a leatherbound Bible stuffed with papers under his arm. He walked toward the capitol, staring at the gutter on 12th Street as he walked along as if looking for something. He wore dirty athletic shoes. His eyes looked up as he neared L Street and he bounded across the street to Capitol Park, as with purpose. I passed two older women strolling down the mall holding up Watchtower publications.

How diverse are our ideas of God. And life. How rich and tragic and varied and human are our stories.

Perhaps McLaren and his friends are right. Perhaps the greatest valid currency today is not the church menu or the American dollar. Perhaps it is a pair of listening ears and hushed lips as we discover the diversity of the world that God has called us into. The people whom God has called us to love. And not judge as worthless by our apathy and inattention. Or to totally miss because we’re clustered and cloistered in the back of Café Dolce staring out the door praying that people will come in.

Maybe the best charge I could give all of us today is get out of the “sweet” café, and go forth and listen.

Grace and peace!


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

drink coffee...

I saw a sign on a drive-through espresso place that said “Drink coffee!” Please understand that I have some sympathy with the sign writer. I got up at 4 a.m. yesterday for another early flight to Sacramento. It took about five cups of strong coffee and two triple-grande mochas to keep me at least semi-comatose through the day. So “drink coffee” is an admonition that I understand.

But it reminded me of the cartoon character in vintage 1940s Warner Brothers offerings. A guy, obviously affected by the depression, walks around with a sandwich sign that says “Eat at Joe’s”. It’s sort of a direct attempt at influencing behaviors, I guess. We’ve gotten better since then. We have million dollar commercials, pop-up ads, licensed products displayed in movies. We’ve even used subliminal advertising to try to influence behavior.

I wonder. Is this the same as our “come to church” and “come to Jesus” messages? The little games we play to get people to come so we can blast them with the message? Or?

Maybe I don’t want to drink coffee or eat at Joe’s or go to church. Maybe I’m mad at God sometimes. His arms may be open but I may not be in the hugging kind of mood. Maybe I refuse to be manipulated. Maybe I don’t want to cut my hair. Or, more accurately, I don’t want to cut my hair because you want me to cut my hair. (Those who know me know what a ridiculous argument this is since I have no hair. But you get the point, right?) It’s a control issue. It’s manipulation. The modern church is very much into that kind of thing. “Do this,” we say, “or God is going to do that to you.”

Randy, our preaching pastor, talked about this on Sunday. He made the point that God, being God, has a right to demand certain responses from us. Randy wasn’t being mean at all. He was just saying that kings such as God have a reasonable expectation of being obeyed. I wouldn’t argue with that. But, though that may be true, that’s not how I’ve seen God work. God has often been more subtle than that. If he wasn’t, we would live in a world filled with thunder as God reacted to our constant missteps. And zap would be a more common word in our vocabulary, I think.

The great Christian thinker (and writer) of last century, C.S. Lewis, experienced this with God. The more he tried to run away as a committed atheist, the more God confronted him, until in the end he describes himself as the most reluctant convert in all of Great Britain. It was as if, he says, he and God stood facing each other with guns drawn and God said, “Put your guns down. Let’s talk.”

I’m afraid the church has told the world to “Drink coffee!” Then when the world has not responded, we have followed up with the words of the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s fairy tale. “Off with their heads!” I know that’s an overstatement. But is it really that much of an overstatement?

Maybe, instead of “Drink coffee!” God simply wants to look the world in the eye and say, “Hey, wanna go to Starbucks?”

It’s worth a thought.

Grace and peace!


Monday, May 16, 2005

journey (five): just where exactly are we going...

When I reflect on my life, it hasn’t exactly turned out as I expected. Despite the expectations of an idealistic college graduate, life has been somewhat of a mixed bag. First of all, it took me until I was about 35 to discover what I wanted to do when I grew up. So now I know. All I have to figure out is how to get somebody to pay me to do it. For another thing, I know God has a sense of humor. Once when we lived in Riverdale we were passing through Bakersfield and saw a sign that said “Greenacres – 4 miles”. I looked at my wife and said, “At least we don’t live in Green Acres… ba dum ba dum dum… dump dump.” Guess what church he called me to next? We called it Rosedale, but we really, truly lived in Greenacres. (There are a lot of nice people living in Greenacres, by the way. And a number of methamphetamine dealers if the sheriff’s helicopter is any indication.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m usually not depressed about how my life has gone. Dorothy and I are celebrating 30 years of marriage this summer. (We were married as infants.) As difficult as some of the life experiences we have shared have been, I wouldn’t trade sharing them with her for anything. But things haven’t really turned out quite as I expected.

The senior class at my high school named me “Most Likely to Succeed”. I think I’ve been living under that curse ever since. So, where’s the target? What’s the goal? How do I know I have arrived?

My faith has been no different. Now, could I live during the time of the Great Revival? No. Could God call me into a time when things are stable in terms of faith? No. Where do I find myself? Atop the suture zone between two ages. Tones is convinced that I’m a post-modern. Maybe. But I grew up in a modern world. None of this faith stuff has been easy!.

Think about the examples.

God called Abraham. “Follow me,” he told him. “Leave your home behind and I’ll show you where to go.” Abraham’s response to God’s call was to follow. No wonder he was called father of the faithful. I don’t know if I could have done it. He lived as a foreigner in the land God said he was going to give this guy for most of his life. In and out, in and out, in and out. And he died hundreds of years before the deed was delivered.

Jesus’ call isn’t much different. “Follow me,” he tells us. Then he heads for an executioner’s cross. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence at times.

Don’t know about you, but I like to know where I’m going. I used to have a five-year plan... back in the 80s. I got rid of it after a year or two. Nothing ever turned out quite like I expected. Usually, when I tried to follow the plan it only messed things up for me. I know there are people who are different than me. There are some warped personalities who know they want to be a doctor when they grow up. And they know it in sixth grade or so. They have the horses to do it, too. So they pursue their dream and go to med school and graduate with honors and do heart surgery at UCLA’s teaching hospital. They save the world or the President or something really tremendous. Then there are others. Like me.

I talked to a doctor once who, after he achieved his goal and went into practice, regretted ever having gone that direction. He didn’t like the kind of person he was turning into. He didn’t like that he couldn’t just spend time home with his wife and kids. But he couldn’t stop. His college loans were astronomical. He had to pay for that choice. Someone told me (and this may have no statistical validity at all), that the highest rates of suicide by profession come with dentists. I can imagine why. Sometime in their career, they realize that the only way they are going to survive is to have their hands in someone’s mouth for the rest of their lives. Sometimes you get where you are going and you wonder what possessed you to make the journey.

Me? I just wake up somewhere new every day, and like some kid that went to sleep in El Paso, I wake up in Los Angeles hours later and wonder what happened.

This is dangerous talk for me to engage in. I’m not innocent in all of this. I have one foot planted solidly in my professional “promised land” (though it wasn’t my chosen profession – truthfully, I resisted it as long as I could!). With a good retirement and lifetime health benefits beckoning (after the kids college loans are paid off when I’m 90), perhaps I’m a bit too settled. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m on a journey with God. The path has almost never led where I thought it should. I haven’t always been too impressed with the landscape, frankly. He hasn’t paid a lot of attention to where I’ve wanted to go. And when I’ve headed out on my own... yikes! Those times have been corrective experiences, shall we say.

I don’t have all this figured out. If I could give you a recipe for determining God’s will in five easy steps, I would. But I can’t. (I’ll talk about this aspect of God’s character in a later post.) God won’t be manipulated that way.

This uncertainty goes beyond questions of career and marriage and those kinds of everyday life things. It extends to questions like, “Who is this God?” and “What does he want from me?” or “Hey, are you there or what?” and sometimes listening to the echo.

If you can’t tell from this blog, I’m going through a time of particular spiritual ferment. I seem to wake up in a new city every morning. Or at least once a week. I keep reading writers like McLaren and Sweet and Lamott and Miller, and God keeps messing with my head. My friend, Tim, said in the comment section of my second post that all this talk gave him a headache. I know how he feels. It seems to be the way I’m living my life.

But I have to press on. (Isn’t that what we say at times like this?)

I didn’t ask to be born into this time of tremendous Christian religious upheaval, but here I am. What are you going to do?

So just where exactly are we going, God?

Follow me, comes the answer.

If you’ve ever watched The Visual Bible’s movie of The Gospel of Matthew, at the very end, Jesus is heading away from the camera. But he turns at the last moment with a twinkle in his eye and beckons me to follow. What you might not recognize if you don’t look closely is that he is heading out onto deep water again. Suture zone stuff.

So here we go….

Grace and peace!


Thursday, May 12, 2005

locked in Manzanar...

Early in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It ordered all Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans to internment camps located throughout the U.S. for the duration of the war. It happened on what would later become the day of my birth, February 19, not something with which I am proud to share a birthday. Much of this was at the prodding of then California Attorney General Earl Warren (who later became Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court – go figure!) and several others including the Los Angeles Times, who stirred up the public hysteria regarding invasion, especially among the west coast population who were very afraid after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the era of yellow journalism. (Have we ever left it?)

This was a very tragic event in our country’s history, an action that as early as a year after the war was recognized by historians and other observers of our society not to have been necessary at all, not to mention the violation of constitutional liberties it represented on such a massive scale. One can only hope that we have learned something from this regarding our current circumstances

I travel by one of these camps at least twice a year on my way up Hwy 395 on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Called Manzanar and now a National Historic Landmark, the camp was one square mile of barb-wired Japanese society in the middle of the cold, high desert of eastern California. Tens of thousands of Japanese nationals and Japanese-American citizens were housed there… against their will. I have often wanted to stop. Late this last March I finally had enough time to visit for a few moments.

The day I visited the wind was blowing hard. Please understand, the wind always blows hard on the eastern side of the Sierras. But even the National Weather Service had noted that these winds would be exceptionally strong. They were. Though there was only wind on the valley floor, you could see it snowing on the peaks. The snow was blowing nearly sideways, eastward toward me. So hard was the wind that you could not see the clouds from which the snow was coming. Gusts were predicted to be 50 mph where I was, and had to be much stronger on the peaks. The snow blurred and obscured the edges of the clouds that dropped it.

Though some of the Japanese children housed there it remember it as a happy place, much of that is probably attributable to the efforts of the community to protect the children, to make their lives as normal as possible in such a remote and desolate place. For the adults, it was different. And so the mood of the place now is somber. I sat and watched the mountain peaks from the high desert valley below, looking into the heart of Manzanar framed by the peaks behind it. I imagined the barbed wire, the machine-gun equipped guard towers, the armed soldiers, the sad funerals. The cemetery is still there. And I remembered a huge wrong perpetrated on many innocent people of Japanese descent. I remembered wondering if there were any Italian or German war relocation centers. That’s what they were officially called. Roosevelt privately called them what they were: concentration camps.

As I sat there, I became sad.

After awhile, my thoughts turned to the church. Without any disrespect for the Japanese people who suffered this injustice, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is a kind of picture for today’s evangelical and fundamentalist churches.

Born in modernity, our churches, many at least, have circled the wagons. The winds of change are upon us. Today’s new paradigm cracks and roars and shifts like the snow in an avalanche and grinds into small pieces whatever is set before it. As the threatening snows of post-modernity or post-colonialism tumble toward us, driven by 50 mph gusts, we had to do something. We had to protect ourselves some way.

“Come out and be separate,” we quoted to our neighbors and each other. “Remove yourselves from this evil generation.” And just as surely as the Desert Fathers did so long ago, we’ve chosen to cloister ourselves in a world of our making that makes sense to few besides us. We’ve raised up the barbed wire of intellectual elitism as protection. We have concocted intellectual schemes to deny what is readily observable to those not coming from our faith perspective, all in an attempt to protect the Bible. We have turned God into a capricious Greek character whose heart would deceive rather than love. When challenged, we have raised our voices louder than those who question, drowning out the issues that plague our children and teens. We have vilified anyone who dares question our orthodoxy and brandished our Sword menacingly. And little by little, we’ve watched our numbers dissipate.

Not only that, the machine guns of the church have pointed inward. The Japanese children were told that Manzanar was for their safety, to protect them from the angry hoards who were upset by Pearl Harbor. They, however, were very bright and very observant and very honest, as most children are. They asked their parents, “If we are here for our protection, why are the machine guns in the guard towers pointed at us instead of outside?” The church, too, has self-appointed protectors of the faith that would just as soon “shoot their own” if they stray outside the barbed wire of evangelical or fundamentalist orthodoxy.

Is our orthodoxy so precious, so critical, so fragile that it cannot endure the test of questions and thought and challenging dialogue? And what about the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached? Does it bear much resemblance to what has become our orthodoxy? Or to him? Do we treat people like he did?

These are some of my thoughts as I sat there and observed. Ironically the driving snow leaves the eastern Sierra breathtakingly beautiful. It will soon turn to water in the snow melt. Will come down the canyons and valleys to the river. It will help slake the thirst of Los Angeles further south. Even the camp will come to depend on it.

I know. Being trapped in those mountains in that wind and snow would not be a good thing. But looking at it from a distance, getting a broader perspective, there is a rugged beauty to it. And honesty. And most of all, future hope. Even though you can’t see the clouds behind the snow. True, not all of what comes with post-modernity is good or harmless. But might there be something about it that causes us to question our modern view of being Christian to our health (and the health of the world God says he loves)? Might we not ask questions of ourselves – and be asked by others – that will turn us from assenters to dogmas and mere practicers of rituals into something better? Like Jesus followers?

Interesting thing. Much of the compound has been taken over by some kind of yellow wild flower whose stalks are just about to burst open. There are thousands upon thousands of these stalks. They cover the ground in places. They are spreading beyond the confines of the barbed wire and guard towers. In fact, there are many more beyond its borders. Ready to explode into bloom.

It’s going to be a glorious blooming!

Grace and peace!


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

the great I AM....

Just a short post tonight.

I took a preaching class at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno many years ago. You know, one of those where you practiced preaching to each other? I was already preaching twice every Sunday, so it was easier for me than the others I think.

One of the things it convinced me of was to shave off my mustache and beard. I'm bald. When they videotaped my sermon, I noticed that as I looked down at my notes, my face disappeared. There was hair above and hair below but a totally blank face -- no eyes, nose, mouth. So... off went the beard and mustache.

What is redemptive about a preaching class, you ask? Well, surprisingly, I remember vividly part of one of my classmate's actual sermons. I think it was his main point. If it wasn't it should have been. He said, "I don't believe in the great I WAS, I belive in the great I AM."

While I know that God's name indicates eternal being--past, present and future, this has had a profound impact on my life and outlook. In modernity, we conservatives have believed too long in a God who acted in the past, but who is totally absent (or nearly so) in the present day.

So what do you think?

Grace and peace!


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

journey (part four): the moveable feast...

Hemingway wrote a book called A Moveable Feast, published posthumously several years after his death. I’m not sure if he invented the title or if it was the clever scheme of some early marketing maven associated with his publisher. (Or was it Shakespeare’s title first? I tried to find the answer on the web and couldn’t.) I suspect he titled it for it is a clever word picture. Accordingly, I have borrowed the picture from his excellent title. Other than that, though I admire his terse writing style (and obviously fail to emulate it), this post has nothing to do with his story.

I am in the air between Los Angeles and Dallas as I begin to write this, on my way to Abilene, Texas, to help my son drive home from university for the summer. As I mentioned in the last post, that’s a long road trip, somewhere between 1400 and 1500 miles. I imagine on the way we will stop several times because of the very human need for food. Whether you are on the road or at home, you pretty much always need to eat. At least I do. And when you are on the road these days, you have a number of choices.

My son, for instance, is looking forward very much to stopping at the first available In-N-Out hamburger restaurant. (If you don’t know about In-N-Out, it’s mostly a California/West Coast thing.) We’ll hit the first one around Phoenix. One of his across-the-hall dorm neighbors, probably someone from California, had an In-N-Out bumper sticker on the door of his room when I visited last January. It has been a constant reminder of what he is looking forward to on the trip home. While they may not be all that healthy, a double-double burger with fresh-cut fries and a drink is an addictive meal. And he has been without one since the first of the year.

Fast food is great for a quick meal. But most need and long for something a bit more than fast food. They want food that reminds them of home. Not only that, they want food they can share with someone else. Even though I find solitude and silence more and more attractive the older I get, I still hate to eat alone. Many people these days are eating alone in a lot of ways…

…which is why I believe there is a terrible hunger today for table.

I am using “table” in a very general sense for what happens when people spend time together in close community. It stands for the communication that goes on while together, for the shared sense of acceptance of mutual weakness, for the need for community that we all experience, and more. Being “at table” recognizes and helps build the interdependent relationship that we all need. It can happen in many ways and doesn’t always involve food. It can be healthy or unhealthy. But, with the exception of some who have become bitter, curmudgeonly and disillusioned, it is one of the necessities of life.

First of all, let’s look at what table is not. Table is not just about technology. Whatever you think of the movie, The Passion of the Christ, there is a scene that to me is totally out of place. It is the flashback of the young carpenter Jesus who has just formed what is very obviously a modern day table with long legs. He pantomimes sitting in a chair. I have no idea why Gibson would think that appropriate in such a movie. Perhaps he thought such a scene would connect us with this strange Aramaic-speaking Jesus he portrays in the film. I don’t know. The point I’m trying to make is that using table simply as a meal-taking aid is to totally miss what table is about. The same is true of our technological ability to communicate and form community. Table as I am conceiving of it can happen online, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you are online, it happens.

There are and have been many kinds of “table”. I suppose that nomads crossing the desert used some kind of animal skin stretched out on the ground on which they spread their food. Tones and Zee just escaped from their boys for several days to take a backpacking trip on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California. It’s hard to drag along a table in a backpack. But I know they enjoyed their meals together.

While it may be difficult to unscrew the legs from your modern kitchen table, haul it up on your back and head on the road, the concept of table is fairly portable. I can imagine some of the discussion as Israel prepared to leave Egypt.

“I don’t care how heavy it is. That table was a gift from my great-grandmother, God rest her soul, and if we eat Passover next year in Jerusalem, it will be on that table!”

“Yes, dear.”

David envisions table in Psalm 23 in common nomadic style. We may be mortal enemies, but when it comes to table, we lay down arms and eat together. There is something sacred about table, especially what I would call “Kingdom table”. Don’t confuse this with the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist or Communion or whatever you call it in your tradition (if you do). Though one can find table in that ritual, one does not always find table there in the way we practice it today.

Jesus seemed to enjoy table. For him it was a celebration of the redemptive nature of God. So the folks at his table were sometimes the kind you wouldn’t ordinarily invite if you were in the “in” religious community. He was sharply criticized for his selection of table companions, and he evidently spent enough time at table that it made an impression. (He was also very good at inviting himself over for dinner – Zaccheus and Matthew come to mind here, as well as Lazarus in Bethany.)

In the days of Jesus, the traditional way to eat meals was to recline in the same direction around a low table, leaning on one elbow and eating with the free hand, feet stuck out at an angle in a kind of pinwheel effect with the table at center. It was a relaxed posture that enabled deep, and at times intimate, conversation, and from all evidence that I’ve seen, people took their time. (Personally, I don’t know how they kept their leaning arms from going to sleep, but that’s just me, I guess.) In other words, eating was a social event. But Jesus made it more than that. It was a celebration of the coming of the presence of God to everyone, collectively, no matter their caste or religious status.

I think it is safe to say that Jesus endorsed “table” in that sense. In fact, I think he presented it as essential to the journey, a place where we can constantly remind ourselves that God is present among us, in each other and in us collectively. The Kingdom of God is here, Jesus said, and shared table evidenced that presence. We need such moments on our journey atop the suture zone. This world is dizzying and perplexing enough even when times are not changing. But when we have huge upheaval as we do these days, table is critical.

Consider how removed we all are in the world today. In all of this isolation and silence and independence from group, a terrible and holy hunger is growing. I may not be able to relate to the thousands of people I encounter every day, whether personally or on the television. I may find myself in sensory and relationship overload. But I need the companionship of at least a few. Table may be about eating, but it is more. It is about companionship and listening and sharing and valuing and .grieving and laughing and celebrating all of the other very human characteristics we share, all in the environment of common human need and weakness. We all need to eat. We would die if we did not eat. And in companionship, we tacitly share in our admission of weakness, we share with each other our stories, our food and ourselves.

Why all of this rambling? IMHO, table will be one of the more important metaphors for our future. Perhaps as this blog wends its way into that future, we will explore this more. For now, simply imagine what it would be like to spend a little time at table with those whom God has called you into community. And once you’ve envisioned it, type out an email invitation, pick up your cell phone. Life is too short to miss out on table. By the way, don’t forget to invite Jesus. He loves it!

Grace and peace!


Monday, May 09, 2005

back in California...

Hey, everyone...

I've made it back home safely with my son. Give me a day or so, and you'll see some new posts being added to the site. Sorry for the lull here, but I've been involved in important family things.

Thanks to all who have commented on and read these offerings.

And keep a lookout for updates on this site very soon....

Grace and peace!


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

journey (part three): enduring the silence...

I am about to fly back to Abilene, Texas, to help my son drive home from his first year at university. There are somewhere between 1400 and 1500 miles of asphalt between Abilene and home. That’s a lot of time to be together. A lot of conversation. And a lot of silence for purposes of reflection, sleep (not the driver!) and just a sense of needing some mental space. I miss my son and I’m looking forward to it. I treasure these times.

I don’t think he’ll mind me sharing this (I hope). But when he was younger, he used to talk a lot. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I often didn’t hear what he said back then as he explored his way through his imagination by means of these one-sided conversations. My son creates wonderful fantasy stories in his head. And back stories. And languages. And environments and cultures and such. (And, as you may have noticed if you read his comment earlier, he’s a deep thinker and well-spoken. An honest assessment, I think!) It’s a wonderful gift that I hope will allow him some means of income in the future. But it was hard to listen. And he knew that. But he would say, “That’s okay, Dad. I know you’re not listening but I just have to say this.”

I thought of this last Sunday afternoon as Tone’s oldest son, Griffin, still a preschooler, manipulated his Power Ranger action figure through flips and various other gyrations from chair to chair in our worship center. And Griffin is an imaginative talker, too. He came up and explained all of what was going on to Tones and me. I lost the last half of the conversation. Didn’t understand his words and his thought process either one.

As he double-back-flipped his Power Ranger off on another adventure, Tones turned to me and asked something like, “Do you think God ever feels this way with us?”

We are a society that cannot stand silence. We even use noise to counteract other noise. If ever you doubt this, reassess your position the next time you pull up to a traffic signal next to some punk kid with head banger music blaring and with the bass rattling your lungs (and his trunk lid) through the $500 sub-woofer he’s mounted in his trunk. Tell me you don't turn up your stereo louder! Uh-huh....

Have you seen the new ad for Bose headphones? They were developed for those who spend time on airplanes who want to escape from a talkative neighbor and the sound of jet noise and the yipping lap dog whose owner keeps trying to set it down in her carry-on kennel during the red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale. They use sound to cancel out other sounds, usually background noise. But the escape is usually into loud music or some droning lecture recorded for posterity and burned onto a CD. Or, it’s books-on-CD where you can listen to your favorite author as you travel through the air or down the highway. Then there’s the iPod, complete with unassuming ear buds with the distinctive white wires hanging down and connecting with that technological marvel, a hard drive on steroids. Full of music or pictures or video clips or whatever you want to take with you. It’s big enough to hold a complete CD library. A big one.

It’s wonderful for long car trips. You never run out of something to listen to. Put it on shuffle mode and you’re set for a cross-the-USAmerica roundtrip. You’ll never be bored. And you’ll never hear the same song twice. It is the smallest and most impenetrable wall ever created. A wall of sound that holds people at a universe’s length.

Isn’t this true, also, of DVD players in minivans? No offense, parents. Just asking…..

Whatever happened to silence?

This is one reason I like the remote outdoors. When my son and I were in Alaska two summers back, we took the bus into Denali National Park where Mt. McKinley is located. (The locals call the mountain Denali, it’s native name.) The guidebook I read suggested that one get off the bus on the return trip, out in the middle of nowhere, and wait for half an hour for the next bus to arrive. During the 30 minutes of waiting, you could enjoy the sounds of silence that you can find nearly nowhere else in the world. I went up there expecting to do that, but I chickened out. When we got to Eilson Visitor’s Center some 60 miles into the park, the silence was still incredible. And frightening. Enough to convince me not to follow the guidebook's suggestion. (In part, I was afraid of not having room on the next bus. No way did I want to spend the night in Denali, stranded with the bears and moose and caribou and wolves!) All you heard was nature. No ambient sound of cars on freeways or trains screeching into town or forklifts moving pallets from this place to that… no unloading of trucks or train cars… no whine of electric transformers or fluorescent light bulbs… no sound of the refrigerator compressor kicking on and off… no sound of the automatic ice-maker dropping ice cubes into the nearly empty reservoir… or any of the rest of the 24-hour per day dull roar that dampens our existence.

Did you know that silence is an ancient Christian discipline? It is seldom practiced, however, in these days of frenetic searches for something to fill the time and sound and activity void. Because silence is hard to take.

I just spent a week in Bishop, California, on business. Stayed in a hotel. Did you know I didn’t even turn the television on? True, at night I fired up iTunes on my Powerbook as I was drifting off to sleep (City on a Hill songs, folks… good stuff!). But much of the time I spent with no radio, no television, no CD or iTunes music – nothing but silence. I am growing to love silence. Very much.

The truth is that often there is silence on the journey with God. Not our choice, but his. And often we fill it with chatter, non-stop chatter, about this care and that concern and this Power Ranger chasing Spiderman. And I have to wonder if Tones’ question isn’t very appropriate for us. Perhaps God is saying, “My child, if you would just shut up long enough, we could enjoy some silence together. Then, finally, you just might be able to hear me. Really! I’ve been waiting for you to shut up for a long time, to relieve yourself from the chatter addiction to the noise of life and Bible text systems and systematic theologies... and simply be with me in my presence.”

Do you think God may ever think that about us?

Anyone who has done any kind of backpacking knows that one does not have conversations with one’s neighbors when hiking up switchbacks on an uphill climb. Let’s face it. Much of our Christian walk is uphill. (Anyone want to dispute that?) Silence is preferred. But it's good to do the journey with someone else. And, hopefully, your journey is conducted with other Christians and other kinds of God-seekers. May you at least hear the collective crunch of your companions' footsteps on gravel.

But what do you do when you can hear an echo? When your voice is all you hear echoing off the ceiling, chattering away as you try to scatter the fearful ghosts of abandonment, loneliness and total irrelevance, as you hum (or more likely sing at the top of your lungs) a chase-the-ghosts-away graveyard song. Comedians call that silence “walking the room,” a euphemism for being so bad that people get up and leave. In cartoons it’s characterized by the sound of crickets. No one is listening, they say. That’s the conventional wisdom.

Perhaps Someone is listening. Perhaps Someone just wants us to shut up long enough to hear the echoes of God.

Our journey is not always on level ground, is it? If you’re traveling uphill right now, even with a group, perhaps it’s time to hear the rhythm of your collective footsteps… and God. In the silence.

On your journey this week, this month, this year, may God bless you with times of good, uncomfortable silence.

Grace and peace!


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

journey (part two): navigating the fog...

I live in Central California in the San Joaquin Valley, the land of Tule fog (pronounced TUU-lee). Some of you that read this blog have lived in it all your lives, so you understand the metaphor in the title very well.

We rather fondly call the San Joaquin “THE valley”. We do have some justification for that pride in that it is one of the largest and certainly the most fertile of valleys in the United States, stretching for several hundred miles on a northwest-southeast line through the heart of California. THE valley meets the great Sacramento River Valley at its northern terminus. Between the two, most of the almonds, most of the table grapes (at least in the heart of the summer), pistachios, walnuts, cotton, kiwi and literally hundreds of other fruits, nuts and vegetables that you eat come from these two valleys. In Kern County alone where I live, most of the carrots, especially the packaged “baby carrots” sold in stores all over the United States and throughout the Pacific Rim countries come from two processing facilities less than 10 miles from my home. (Look on the back of the package for Grimmway Farms or Bolthouse Farms. Grimmway produces seven of the eight juices that Campbell uses to make V-8 for all V-8 sold west of the Rockies.)

Fog is of great benefit to our valley. I’m told by farmers that fog, in part, is what enables our fruit and nut trees to produce so well. I’m not an arborist so I don’t understand the mechanism involved, but we do produce a lot of good food.

Good food is one thing. But if you’ve ever driven in Tule fog, you know how hazardous that can be.

I remember one especially foggy Sunday evening when we lived in Riverdale, a tiny agricultural community in the heart of the valley. I had preached for the evening service at our church and wasn’t feeling very well. (Sermons sometimes make me sick.) By the time we were ready to leave, the fog was incredibly thick. It was the Sunday before Christmas and the Methodist Church in town was performing their Christmas cantata. Our neighbors were involved, plus I love choirs, remember? (see earlier post) Dorothy drove the few blocks to the Methodist Church in fog so thick that by the time we were halfway there we discovered we were on the wrong side of the street. That was only two or three blocks into the trip!

We couldn’t imagine it any thicker. We were wrong. That night as we caravanned home from the cantata with neighbors (we lived two miles outside of town on a dairy inhabited by an extended family—wonderful people!), we stayed maybe five or ten feet from the bumper of the car in front of us, close enough so that we didn’t lose sight of their tail lights. We were traveling five miles an hour, maybe a little faster. I have no idea how Parke Halvorsen, who was in the lead car, knew where we were going. Once we made it into the long driveway and split off toward our house, we drove right by our neighbor’s Christmas lights that had to be no more than 15 feet away. You couldn’t see them. And, yes, they were on.

That’s thick fog.

To use this as a metaphor, that feels like what it’s like to navigate on the suture zone. It’s not just that there are no familiar landmarks around. In some cases you can’t see even those things that are nearby.

Have you ever thrown a rock into the fog? It just swallows the rock. Or seems to. Unless, of course, there is a window hidden behind the fog you threw your rock into. Then you hear the sound of breaking glass. Sometimes when you’re in the fog, somebody hidden out there in the dimness is the one throwing the rocks at you. Rocks hurt. So do telephone poles. When you are driving, an unseen telephone pole is as real as a seen one if you run into it, fog or no fog. When the fog is thick, you worry about what you can’t see, because what you can’t see can hurt you. And sometimes does.

Funny thing, though. If your points of reference keep disappearing, pretty soon you are focused on the only ones that remain. You can’t afford to worry about anything else. Shoulders tense up, your head begins to throb and your hands are welded to the steering wheel. And your eyes? Your eyes literally hurt from staring so hard at things that are barely there. If at all.

Once on the way to Fresno, I couldn’t see the telephone poles. All I could see was one yellow stripe in the middle of the road. Occasionally I had to stop and open my driver-side door to see the stripe. When that one disappeared I could just see the next one coming up a few feet in front of the car. I used the stripe to orient myself. To point the way.

How does one navigate in the kingdom of God in the midst of this foggy transition period from modernity to whatever is coming next? Where is the cloud? Where is the flame?

Perhaps we’re in the cloud.

I’ve always pictured the children of Israel marching through the desert with the cloud and flame well ahead, leading the way. What if the cloud and flame were much closer? What if they wanted to watch the horizon instead, but God was just right next to them? All around them. Blocking the view of anything but the cloud. Would it have been frustrating? Would there have been a tendency to want to “just get on with it!” Build a golden calf that we can get our eyes and hands on? Or to retreat back to the comfort of a warm clear house and just stay home?

Perhaps the God of the cloud says, “Trust me. I’m going to remove all the signposts but me. You don’t need the distraction, children.” Perhaps he only shows us where to put the next footstep. Perhaps he shows us only the next yellow stripe on the road. Perhaps all we are given are the taillights of his car just in front of us. And we have to keep up lest the dim taillight disappear altogether and we be tempted to turn around and go home where all appears so much safer, but isn’t.

I think, at least in some ways, this is us. Cold, uncomfortable, fearful, staring and listening as hard as we can in the Cloud of God. So that we can take one more step.

More later in Journey (part three)…

In the meantime,

Grace and peace!


Sunday, May 01, 2005

journey (part one): following the flame...

Do you fantasize about being with Moses and the children of Israel in the wilderness? I do. Yeah, I know. We’re wimps today compared with what they had to put up with. But still. Can you imagine waking up every morning not knowing which direction you are going, and there before you is a cloud leading the way? Or at night when you are dead tired and can hardly put one foot in front of the other, you look up and there is a bright orange flame out ahead of you beckoning you forward?

It’s a comforting thing to be led by the Spirit of God. It’s exciting! It's frightening and challenging, too. In fact, I would say it is absolutely essential, especially when you find yourself journeying on the suture zone.

Perhaps one of the things that has handicapped God’s people is the feeling that we are not on a journey. Instead, we have felt that we have arrived in the promised land. That has not always been true of my particular heritage. Early on there was a real sense of being pilgrims in a foreign land on the way somewhere. But somehow having gained a sense of respectability in the world (not to mention a higher socio-economic level denomination-wide), we lost that sense.

Moses warned the people when they were about to enter the promised land that they would have a tendency to forget how they got there and where all these milk and honey blessings came from. I wonder if we haven’t experienced the same thing in the modern church and are now suffering from the souring of the milk and the spoiling of the honey that Israel did. I know the promised land had to be a good thing. After all, God was leading them there on purpose. Somehow, though, it always appears the good that God leads us to eventually sours in our own hands. Perhaps it is better to always be pilgrims, always on the journey. I don’t know. But I get the distinct impression that Christians today are being called on a journey into the future, not to a comfortable place on the homestead. In fact, I don’t think we have much choice in the matter. God is on the move. Either we follow or....

Now, I’m not trying to romanticize wandering around in the desert. I’ve just driven through Death Valley this week for the first time. I know it is not someplace I want to be wandering around in any time, much less during the summer months. And I’ve been on some pretty long hikes when I was (much) younger. I’ve gotten my share of blisters and sore backs. The older I get, the less appealing sleeping on the ground appears to me. But like I said, I believe that God is on the move.

So where is the cloud and flame?

I believe that question is very much worth exploring for those of us who have ventured out, however gingerly, onto the suture zone. Personally, I’m not satisfied with the answers of my modern heritage. “The Bible is our guide. The Spirit speaks through the word. Just obey the word.” Well.... I’m not denigrating God’s ability to speak through what has been written down. I just don’t trust my ability to clearly see exactly what is being said. Nor do I trust the mechanistic means that my modern colleagues and forbears have used to "decipher" the text. And the word bears witness to the fact that God doesn’t abandon people who are looking to him and willing to follow. It says he's actively involved In their lives.

So where do we go? Where do we head next? Into what is Jesus leading us? How do we know how to follow?

Do we find God and his direction in the disciplines? Silence? Lectio divina? Centering prayer? Do we find it alone or in community? Do we seek the "still, small voice"?

More on the next post, with navigating the fog...

But feel free to share any ideas you have in the meantime.

Grace and peace!