Friday, November 18, 2011

Is It Sticking?

First snow today. A little anticlimactic. First snows usually are. My niece (4) and son (3) and I watched the big puffy flakes falling and whirling around. "Can we make a snowman?" Zac asked. "No, there's not enough snow to make a snowman," I said. "It's not really sticking." "Sticking?" Zac asked-laughed.

We live in a part of the world that is very close to getting loads of snow, but rarely does. Lots of rainy days in the high 30's. Or cold clear nights in the 20's. But the ingredients for snow have to be just right and we are usually just out of reach. As I child my brother Jesse and I became careful students of snow, and paid close attention to whether or not it was sticking. For it to stick the snow needs to be dry enough, and the weather needs to be cold enough. Some surfaces stick better than others. Wet pavement, gravel, grass not so great at the beginning. Car roofs, mailboxes, fallen logs, seem to fair better. The trick is really getting that first layer of snow going, then the accumulation can happen.

In my life there are so many things that I learn about, and so much if it doesn't stick in any meaningful way. This is one of the great frustrations of my life. Sermons, books, classes, conversations, forgotten. I hear you forget 80% of what you learn just by the end of the day! I read a book a few years ago called Made to Stick. The authors studied and presented a compelling case as to why some ideas survive and others die. They had some helpful acronym that I can't quite remember now (ha!). SUCCESS: Simplicity, Unexpected, Concrete, something, something, stories, etc. I try to remember (some of these) when i am writing, preaching, pitching an idea.

On the other hand, there are some things I wish I could unstick. Urban legends, rumors, ways of thinking, that tape playing in my head, an embarrassing moment from middle school, rejections, lies about myself, judgments about others, shallow thinking. Stuck. Mark Twain once famously said, "A lie can get half way around the world before truth has a chance to get its pants on." Or was it boots?

I sometimes wonder if spirituality is more about unlearning that it is about learning. When we unlearn some of the above mentioned, it seems like the environment, the conditions for learning Truth just kind of emerge. What are some other ingredients or conditions that make it possible or impossible to learn and grow and find wholeness? How does God's Spirit begin to break through?

St. Augustine wrote about his dramatic experience in his Confessions
You were within, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. So you called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, and banished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped.

This gasping is what some religious people call a conversion. Sometimes I think it's more about conversion(s), awakening(s), gasp(s), enlightening(s). These moments that not only change us but also change the way we see everything else. Game-Changers. The no-going-back experiences. Most of these transitions are unsettling and uncomfortable in the interim. They feel like being thrown out of the comfort and certainty of the garden. They feel a little like dying. We can't unknow what we learned from the tree of knowledge and we need to go through the flaming sword to eventually find a kind of second simplicity, as Richard Roar calls it. But I digress...

Maybe connecting this back to where I began. Snow. Sticking. Conditions. It seems that we live in a time and place of unprecedented resources and opportunities for learning, but perhaps no culture has been as shallow, empty, neurotic, depressed. Why? (This is where I find the snow metaphor breaking down, so I won't try to stretch it beyond it capability). There is a kind of momentum, an accumulation that can happen at certain points in our lives. Right? I think a radical openness to new possibilities and new ways of thinking is a terrifying, dangerous, and essential ingredient in the life of the Spirit. A second and related ingredient I have found is an utter reliance. When we are in control, we are so busy holding on to that control that anything we do to better ourselves will be ego-driven and doomed to failure. We will be too busy trying to prop up our own agendas and ways of thinking for any real transformation to happen. Which brings me to the last ingredient (certainly there are more), suffering. The discomfort, pain, failing, falling of life that brings with it the potential for real and lasting change.

Like Jesus, the Saints, the Mystics, say over and over again: The way up is down. The way forward is back. The last will be first. The poor are blessed. Those who die will live. The meek will inherit the earth. The way to find it is to lose it. Those who mourn will be comforted. The way to the Kingdom is to become like a child. This is the kind of good, tilled up, soil that Jesus says is needed to produce an abundant crop, to stick.

Related Posts by Brad
Advent and Pregnancy
Dreaming of a Quaker Christmas

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thinksgiving: Some Thoughts Loosely Related to Thanksgiving (Part 1)

"The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank." -Dante Gabriel Rossetti, English painter & poet (1828 - 1882)

Let's start off with a Quiz question...
What percentage of the 45 million turkeys eaten this thanksgiving were conceived by artificial insemination? Any guesses? Basically, close to one hundred percent. Apparently the Broad Breasted Turkeys that we like to eat so much, have been bred for larger breasts and cannot...errr... procreate. Our favorite white meat makes it impossible for the male turkeys to, well, do it. A little food for thought while your gobbling down next week.

Moving on...
Every Thanksgiving there is an unspoken competition with the brothers and my dad. Who can consume the most food. Every year my dad wins. This man will finish three heaping plates of food without breaking a sweat and still have room for dessert. If you have never eaten competitively before, you might not know that there is something, we in the biz, like to call "Hitting The Wall." This is when your body tells your brain, you need to stop eating or else! Most sane people know to stop before reaching the wall... But, for me, if you don't at least approach the wall, thanksgiving never happened! For the past five years or so, I stand in the food line and critique my brothers' food choices. When they load up on the mashed potatoes, I tell them, "Don't underestimate the potatoes!" And every year they tell me, "You always say that." I shake my head and say things like, "Rookie move." "Amateur." To my credit they do always underestimate those potatoes. But I can't blame em.

Thanksgiving is such a funny thing. The way we give thanks to God or the cosmos or whatever is to glutton ourselves with as much food as humanly possible. (Insert lengthy social commentary here). Don't get me wrong, I love it. Can you imagine a Thanksgiving where everyone had to ration themselves to make sure there was enough to go around? There is something great about basking in an economy of abundance. It just feels good, celebratory, right.

Going Deeper...
Giving thanks is such an important spiritual discipline for me. One that I don't practice often enough. Giving thanks helps to ground me in the here and now. Helps me to be present. Helps me to experience a deep and abiding sense of gratitude. The greatest joy comes when I am surprised by gratitude the moment it happens. No expectations. Just some simple moment that I am present to and my experience and my awareness of gratitude collide. I guess this is what artists call beauty, the religious call holiness, the mystics call oneness, psychologists call wholeness. But mostly the trend is, not being aware. Not being thankful. This poem I came across really resonated with me. It seems to express a similar sentiment:

The Day Beauty Divorced Meaning
Their friends looked shocked — said not possible, said how sad. The trees carried on with their treeish lives — stately except when they shed their silly dandruff of birds. And the ocean did what oceans mostly do — suspended almost everything, dropped one small ship, or two. The day beauty divorced meaning, someone picked a flower, a fight, a flight. Someone got on a boat. A closet lost its suitcases. Someone was snowed in, someone else on. The sun went down and all it was, was night. -Leslie Harrison

Giving thanks helps me to slow down, to be aware, to be present to not take for granted the simple and profound gifts of life. It keeps me from believing the myths of... If only... Someday... If they would just... If I could... These myths are frightfully powerful to keep me away from experiencing the depths of joy or pain. These myths numb me from experiencing reality. But giving thanks, especially in the moment, helps me reconcile beauty and meaning...for the moment.

Related Posts From Brad
Food: A Tasteful Theology
Food: A Tasteful Theology (part 2)
Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What Makes Home, Home?

I'm a part of a book group right now that's reading a book called Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr. Roar's premise is that in the first half of life we create the containers of who we are, our sense of self, our identities. In the second half of life (if we have done the first half well), we begin to find the meaningful contents that the container is meant to hold.

The question our facilitator asked last week was, "What is home?" People shared about their own homes growing up - the weather and landscape and geography. Is that home? The physical descriptions? Maybe in part. I come from the fairly small town of Woodland, Wa...well actually we grew up in the rural territory 15 miles East of Woodland known by those who live there (and only those) as Ariel. So physically speaking that is kind of home to me. The Cedars and Douglas Fir, the relentless green. Black Berries Briers and Ivy crawling over everything. I can't seem to get it out of my system. When I lived in Alaska, and Central Washington, and Idaho, I couldn't seem to get that relentless green out of my system. It is beauty and comfort and it just feels right. It is a measuring rod and a point of reference. I might find other landscapes beautiful, occasionally even more beautiful, but almost always with the caveat, "in their own way." Like, the desert is beautiful... in it's own way.

Is that home? A reference point. A place to leave and return to. A place that shapes us, nurtures us. A place that you can't get out of your system, even if you want to. For me, home wasn't always a happy place, but as a kid, I did what all kids do, I survived. I edited my own little world, to create a safe place. One escape that I loved was TV. From ages 4-6 I folded my clothes and put them under my pillow every night before I went to bed so that I could get up at 6am, get ready in 5 minutes and watch as many morning cartoons as I could. We only got about 3 channels, and one of the channels had morning cartoons from 6am-8am. This was before Cartoon Network and Disney Channel. Oh, how I would have filled my days with hours of blissful cartoon watching... But Alas, when Perry Mason, or The News or whatever came on, I knew that I would need to find another activity. Another safe little world for me was found in nature. My brother Jesse and I would spend hours of unsupervised time, exploring creeks, climbing trees, playing in the cow pasture. One such time ending with a cow pie fight that I got the worst of. In the Summer, we would look for snakes and lizards all afternoon and evening, lifting up boards and tires and shaking the tall grass in the field behind our house. It was usually a catch a release program, but sometimes we would keep them and "train" them. I still believe that we really did train a few. The red-racers and rubber boas were especially amiable (not sure if those are the scientific names).

What is home? Is it something that is predictable, stable, permanent. I know that for many, when their parents move, they feel really angry and bitter. Like, How dare you. I don't care that I've moved out and live in another state! You can't just move. Because there is something comforting to know that home is there for us whenever we want it. And if we can't, we feel dis-placed and un-settled. Holidays capture this sense of home, perhaps better than anything. The rituals (we live in a ritual-starved culture!) bring us comfort and a sense of security. When my wife and I got married this was one of the big stresses on our marriage - Whose traditions do we continue? Where do we celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter?

I think that many, especially from my generation, suffer from a kind of perpetual home-sickness. Having never really established a sense of home, we struggle to ever establish a sense of identity. We are like lost children in the desert (which is kind of beautiful, in its own kind of way). We seek to define ourselves with this desperate and exhausting pursuit of proving ourselves to the world through our branding, our Facebook stati, our jobs, our cars, our homes, our education, our gadgets. Endless striving, trying to prove our worth, and never quite feeling "at home" in our own skin. We are so ready to leave home, make our own way, discover ourselves, but we don't even have a sense of what home is. And we struggle to know how to then create that sense of place for our children.

Where does this home-sickness come from? A think a big part of this, is that we never established a sense of home. As much as young people often want to reject rituals, traditions, permanence, and structures they are probably really healthy and necessary. They may feel stifling or restrictive, at the time, but later (just like my parents warned me) I'll thank them. However, another part of home-sickness is natural and necessary. we learn from almost every great story, every myth - that the hero must ultimately leave home - The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Fievel Goes West, Finding Nemo, The Predator, Home Alone 2... In every story the Hero must leave home and go on his quest. Must leave home, go on a quest, and return home or establish a new home, a new community. This tension between the home/community and the leaving/quest/adventure is something I think many (young) people feel. We leave, we explore, we have our adventure, but all the while feeling an inescapable pull back to the familiar, the nostalgic...Home. Where you feel safe and accepted, in your element and wholly yourself.

I hope to create a sense of home for my sons (even though we have moved a lot). A place of ritual, rules, structure, nurture, predictability, safety. I want to raise them in a church tradition that can give them the language and container to help them make sense of this world. And I know that someday they will resent and rebel and reject much of what we have created for them. They will want to leave, to go on their own Odyssey to discover what they are made of. And that is good.

I guess this realization gives me more sympathy for God, who is always getting accused of one or the other extreme: Either a God who just wants us to be happy and have whatever we want and doesn't really care what we do or don't do. Or a God who is a ridged, moralist, rule stickler who doesn't want us to have any fun. But maybe God actually gets it. Maybe God gets that we need rules and structure and law and order in order to establish a sense of place, home, identity. And maybe God gets that we will eat the apple, leave the garden, struggle, return, suffer, love, hate, suffer more, succeed, fail, hope, despair, desire, on and on...and this is good. Maybe this is how we find our way. Maybe This is just how it goes on this big, messy, beautiful world that we call Home.