Maybe. Maybe Not.

"And Lord, thank you that there's a chance that Dad's check will come tomorrow. In Jesus' name, Amen."

I've been waiting on a check for some writing work I've done. During this time, I promised my son a new video game when I got paid. He's doing really well in school and reading some difficult books; I'm very proud of him and want to bless him in that way. I had hoped the check would come Friday afternoon, we'd go out to eat as a family and celebrate, and stop in and get his video game on the way home. That's the t.v. version; real life didn't pan out that way. The disappointment was thick when I walked in the door - "no, it didn't come, Dad." "I'm so sorry, Will. Believe me, I'm as disappointed as you, buddy."

I felt our family needed some fresh air, so we did find enough to go out and get something to eat to numb the pain. I asked Will to pray over our Mexican food and he agreed. The quote above was how he finished his picante petition. We managed to avert a total evening disaster and ended up enjoying one another and some enchiladas. But I appreciated his prayer of honesty - thanks that there's a "chance" it'll come tomorrow. His faith was still afloat, verbalized in the word "chance." And isn't that what faith is anyway? Sure, I know the Hebrew definition - unseen...hoped for. For some folks, the word "chance" conjures up gambling or rolling the dice; they'd never use that word in conjunction with the word "faith." But why? There's a chance my check would come today, there's a chance our friend's mother will survive her cancer surgery, there's a chance I may have a steady job soon, there's a chance...And I have faith in every one of those scenarios, but I know they may not turn out as I'd prefer. I fear most of us (I'll take the spot at the head of the line) live with a "chancey faith" in real life; however, we talk and preach about faith in a t.v. version. Do I trust God's heart for me and my son and the fact that I want to bless him with a video game, not to mention groceries for the rest of us? I do.

But my check didn't come today...we took a chance, hoped for the best, prayed for it alongside chips and salsa, and it didn't happen. What'll we do now? Keep on faith-ing it, chancing it? We can talk all we want about knowing "the rest of the story" and go through life as a bunch of smiley Paul Harveys...I think we're gamblers; gambling on God and Jesus and the Bible and miracles that happened God-only-knows-how-long-ago and communion and forgiveness of sin and the kingdom and the power and the glory, amen. The fact that the word "chance" rarely dances with the word "faith" may reveal how scared we really are; we're terrified. We truly work out our salvation with FEAR and TREMBLING.

There's a chance it'll come Monday...

Colored People

"The great risk is not that we will fail to qualify to be reunited with God. The risk is that we will somehow fail to understand why we are here." - Robert Benson

I have felt that statement for many years, but never was it articulated until I read Benson's book "Between the Dreaming and the Coming True." Why am I here? What is it that God is wanting to show me while I'm here? I feel like the usual approach we take is "What is it that God wants me to DO?" There's always a heavy emphasis on doing/action. That's fine and I believe there is some merit to that perspective. However, what if it's not such much what he wants me to DO as what he wants me to SEE/EXPERIENCE/LEARN?

I was blessed the other evening to be able to attend a lecture series led by the poet David Whyte. If you're not familiar with Whyte's work, acquaint thyself. A constant thread through his poetry and prose writing is the art of paying attention - what you'd expect from a poet. But Whyte speaks of it in a way that is so compelling, so empowering, so imperative. He bangs the drum of paying attention because if we do not, we may miss the reason why we are here. And that's a risk David Whyte does not want to take. And his earnest plea is that you and I won't take that risk either. Being alert, paying attention, looking and asking and seeking and knocking - all of these phrases describe the life rhythms of someone who wants to understand why he or she is here. But talk about a narrow road - I mean, how many people do you know, including yourself, that you would describe as someone who pays attention? Someone who is alert?

The church of my youth has done a dis-service here because the emphasis was always on something that needed to be done (accepting Christ) and then you were going to heaven; you'd be reunited one day with God. And once you had this (salvation) you could not lose it. There were other churches in my youth that stressed the possibility of losing said salvation; so, you always had to be on your guard, lest you lose it. But maybe there's a middle road here that both groups missed? Maybe it is vitally important to take Christ's hand, a hand that will one day lead you into re-union. This is not something you can lose, like car keys or an eraser; it is something assured. But what Christ wants to do in this life is take a brush to the canvas of salvation, fill it in with colors and shading, textures and subtle nuances of light. He wants to complete what he started; but if I'm not paying attention, being alert, staying on guard, then I'll enter that re-union one day quite possibly a few shades shy. He wanted to add some magenta to my life, but I was basically asleep, so I'll enter heaven magenta-less. An aspect of my life would have been marvelous with a little cornflower blue, but I had my head in the sand. Oh, I'll still be there, just not as colorful. I know - the theological ice gets pretty thin there; what, is God not omnipotent? Will his plans or desires not come to pass? They're all decent questions, but they're just decent enough to keep me worried about finding some set of answers or resting on my salvific laurels rather than living into my magenta-ness; fully embracing my cornflower blue. If nothing else, this perspective involves me in the story; I'm not some passive telephone pole who's just hanging around until the bell rings. No, I have some part to play in this drama; I matter, I contribute...I hope.


I've been trying to listen this know, listen for what God may be saying or doing in and around my life. The word that I've consistently heard has been "lost." My wife and I love the television series LOST and have been catching up on season 2 by way of dvd. The show is wonderfully written and keeps the thread of lost-ness alive in each episode. It is a vice, I know, but all nice and no vice makes John a dullard.

I received a phone call from an old friend on Wednesday morning. She was a church member from bygone days and wanted to update me on her husband. They've had significant problems over the years, but in her description, she clearly said, "John, he's lost." And she wasn't using the word in the traditional church "lost or saved, in or out" manner. He has distanced himself from her, church, old friends and he's essentially existing in a separate reality.

Then I was working on a fundraising letter for a church that thinks too highly of itself, and I was flipping through Scripture for some fundraising verses (Lord, have mercy) and I happened to flip to Luke 15 - the lost chapter. It's filled with three parables, all dealing with something lost being found - sheep, a coin, and a son. Now I have no need to try and wrap all this up in some kind of blog-sermon bow-tie; here is what I'm feeling and you can take and make and shake and bake yourself.

The beauty of the LOST t.v. show is that the characters on the mysterious island are continually being found. Oh, they're still lost in a literal sense, but their souls are being found as they interact and experience one another. They are being found together. And although there are individual, personal moments, the overall story line continues to bang the gong of community - the only place where we can really be found. As to my old church friend, he's evidently trying to find himself apart from anyone else. Now I've no problem with him stepping away from church or religion as he's known it, but he's stepped into a vacuum of me, myself and I. And I fear he's really lost. Maybe he'll have one of those eureka moments out there somewhere, but I'm not sure. It's the error of the Ansel Adams photographs - no people, just nature. And as for Luke 15, each parable has a "together" aspect to it; someone searches for the lost sheep and then everybody celebrates, the woman finds the coin and the whole house parties, the prodigal returns and finds himself found in the arms of the father and the smell of steak on the grill.

Maybe (what a beautiful word) the only hope of us being found is being found together, with one another. Yes, some valleys must be crossed alone, but there's always a coming back to the camp or returning from the far country. And if we stick together, we might discover along the way that we're not as lost as we thought we were. If we can just stay together. And there's the rub. Sheep wander, coins fall between the cushions, and we're all prodigals in some sense. Many days, our tendency is to isolate ourselves; we're convinced nobody knows de truble I seen. But how arrogant is that? Ole' sweet, syrupy Robert Fulghum said all he needed to know he learned in kindergarten - one of those lessons being: holds hands when you're crossing the street, a.k.a., stay together. Losing our grip on one another and existing alone somehow, somewhere is truly the definition of lost; quite possibly just a stone's throw away from the definition of hell.

Where were you?

I've been pondering all weekend the events of 9/11. By way of newspaper articles and news reports on t.v., I've remembered where I was when the world stopped turnin', that September day. Almost all of the words I've heard concerning that time five years ago have indicated that "we are a people changed forever." I agree. And one of the consistent questions over the weekend has been, "Are we safer five years later?" The predominant answer has been "no."

But I had totally forgotten where I was two years ago, on that September day, when my world stopped turnin'; my wife reminded me. I was resigning from a church. A friend and I had co-pastored for a year, hoping to really create something different ministry-wise. But then the towers began to fall and to try and preserve the friendship and avoid some falling debris, I left. My friend continued on there, but me and my family woke up the next day to ground zero - internal injuries (heart), no job, no insurance, no idea as to what in the world we would do, where we were. Or who we might be.

Now, two years later, we are a changed people. I am a changed man. Forever. Are we safer? Better off? I don't know. There have been days when I would quickly say, "yes" - I are alive, free, living out some dreams, loosed from some shackles that had bound me for years, I can see a horizon now that I could not before. And some days I would say, "no" - I grieve for the man I was and what I did and who I knew; in fact, I still look for him sometimes in crowds. All I can do now is light candles for that man and pray and remember. Because the reality (the only place spiritual change occurs) is that the towers fell and lives were lost, ended. And there were outside forces working against me, but I also had a hand in it - if not two. There is nothing to go back to because there is nothing there; it's gone. Rebuild? No. A memorial feels to be the only appropriate response. And so I remember; I must remember. And (apologies to Alan Jackson) I have been and I am reminded that I'm just a thinker of simple thoughts, I'm not a real political man. I watch LOST on dvd but I still don't know if I could tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran. But I know Jesus and I pray to God and I remember it from when I was young - faith, hope and love and some good things He's given. And the greatest is love.

Am I a changed man? Yes. Humbled. Hopefully forever. Safer? That's a category that doesn't exist for me anymore, at least not in pre 9/11 terms. The world felt like it stopped turnin, but it didn't. For here I am, two years later; a survivor, a witness.

A glass darkly

The righteous cry, and the LORD hears them and delivers them from all their troubles. Psalm 34.17

My youngest daughter began vomiting Monday morning around 8 o'clock. At 8pm, she was still vomiting, unable to keep anything down. We debated between taking her to the ER and trying to ride out the night, hoping it would stop. We prayed and opted to wait and see if things got better. We went to bed and nothing stopped; in fact, it seemed to grow worse. Probably twice an hour, every hour, my four year old little girl would begin to cough up hell itself, we'd sit her up, and her body would heave in painful contractions until the episode would fade. We had been praying for her all day long and had amped up our efforts when night fell. "God, please see us. See Abbey. Make the vomiting stop, LORD. She cannot take much more of this; if not already, she'll be severely dehydrated soon. God, give it to me, pass it over to my stomach and my throat and my lungs. She is so small. We are crying out to you, O God. Deliver her from this..." We prayed this and more at least twice an hour, every hour, all night long. And nothing changed. No deliverance, no nothing. We took her to the hospital the next morning and sure enough, she was severely dehydrated and required an overnight stay and several bags of IV fluid. I must confess that I was really not on speaking terms with God that morning. The righteous cried and prayed and prayed and cried and... a singular petition and nothing happened - no earthquake, whirlwind or even a whisper from a still, small voice. No clouds by day or fire by night. No baskets left over. Nothing. There was no deliverance from trouble; just more trouble.

I relieved my wife around one o'clock the next day. I sat in what a hospital calls a "chair" and read while Abbey slept and a clear tube refilled her tanks. I was reading Buechner talk about listening to your life and how if you want to hear God speaking, you should listen to your life and what's going on and what you're feeling or thinking or doing. I said, "O.k. Fine. Here we go." I listened to the life I had lived the past 48 hours. I listened and watched while the tears of a mother ran down her cheeks like fast rain. I listened and heard the silence of my youngest daughter, who normally has no use for the discipline of silence. I listened and felt the one eye open/one eye shut mode of sleeping that we had participated in all night long. I listened and saw a brother and sister hold back their sister's long, auburn hair so it wouldn't get in "it."

"Well, maybe you weren't praying hard enough?" - That's bullshit. We knocked, knocked, knocked on heaven's door.
"Well, is there any unconfessed sin in your life; stuff that might clog up the communication lines?" What, so God won't move unless the line is clear? If that were the prerequisite, nothing would ever happen.
"Well, maybe it was a faith know, God won't put more on you than you can handle." It sure didn't look like Abbey was able to handle it; in fact, it seemed to handle her. And am I to believe that God would allow pain to accompany her in order to teach me some lesson?
"Could it be a lack of faith?" On whose part? Abbey's? Mine? So if I wasn't such a faithless mouse, my little girl wouldn't have had to suffer?
"Well, I'm sure someone, somewhere was suffering more." You know, I think that's one of the most worthless collection of nouns and verbs in our current lingo. You can only play the people-are-starving-in-China, so-eat-your-beans card so many times; eventually the bluff gets called. When my daughter was vomiting her head off the other night, I never once thought - hmmn, at least this is not the Holocaust or 9/11 or...
"It must've been God's will..." Please, don't get me started.

Why do bad vomiting episodes happen to good little four year olds? I don't know. I'm open to the response the disciples got when they asked Jesus why a man was born blind: "so that the glory of God might be revealed." But if I recall the story correctly, the blind man received his sight. He was delivered. Me, I'm still blind, not knowing what in the hell went on those few days. We asked for bread and felt like we got stones and serpents. Some weeks don't make a lick of sense.

Peace Like A River

I checked the clock - it read 1:30am. The kids were all sleeping in their own beds - just cause to give God a big shout-out. Meredith was wrapped up like a taco in clean sheets and a comforter with a 40 degree wind tickling the curtains in the bedroom. And I was propped up on a pillow, participating in anticipatory grief. You know, that sadness that comes when you know something is coming and you don't really want it to come.

A few months ago, a good-hearted man placed a copy of Leif Enger's "Peace Like A River" in my hand and said, "Take. Read." Well, it was a little more elaborately handed off, but that was the essence of the exchange. I struck up a conversation with a lady at a writer's conference about three years ago now who had Enger's book in her hands; she couldn't say enough about it. I've seen it since then in book stores, used and new. There was always a draw, but always a, "No. Not yet." Hard to describe those things, unless you live with an awareness of an Infinitely, Tender Hand which holds our lives. In the fullness of my time, the book found its way to my hands. I began reading it and was instantly wooed by the aching beauty of the language and the landscape. And I finished it last night.

There are all kinds of writing out there these days, from the technical and tedious to the syrupy and banal. And then there are those stories that surface in these days of fear that reorient us to that which is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. And when they are finished, at least for the first time, there is a tangible grief that overtakes you, or at least it does me. It's 1:40 am on a Saturday night and I'm propped up in bed with tears streaming down my cheeks, grieving at the beauty I'm participating in and also at the fact that there are only a few more pages until the story ends. Can't we just go a few more chapters, Enger? Please, tell me more about Rube and Swede and Davy and Jeremiah and...but a story has an ending and it must follow its course to the last sentence. And so I said, "Uncle," and kept reading the last few pages. I won't say more about the book other than, "Go. Buy. Haggle. Steal even. And read." If you steal, don't tell me about it.

But that experience has followed me like a lost puppy throughout my life; the experience of beauty, fleeting beauty. Noble things which don't last but a season, pure and lovely people who touch my life for a time and then go, admirable and excellent work that endures for a time and then passes, and praiseworthy breezes which tickle my curtains but eventually turn to snow and rain. Why would the apostle Paul tell us to dwell on those things when they are so fleeting? Well, I'm not Paul and I don't play him on t.v., but I feel down deep in my guts that when Paul wrote those words at 1:40am on a Saturday night in Palestine, that he had tears streaming down his cheeks. For he knew all too well of the quickly passing nature of the pure and lovely, the noble and excellent colors of autumn that quickly drop from the trees and float down the stream. It was that knowledge that kept him pressing ahead to the goal in front of him - the goal of lasting beauty, unfleeting nobility, and everlasting life. And so he said, "Think about such things. Dwell on them. Ponder them. For in them, you'll discover that which will keep you moving, keep you getting out of bed each morning, keep you doing the do and paying the bills and brushing your teeth and so on."

There will come a day..."Is it fair to say that country is more real than ours? That its stone is harder, its water more drenching - that the weather itself is alert and not just background? Can you endure a witness to its tactile presence? We attained a pass where the stream sang louder than ever, for it swelled with depth and energy the farther it rose. Dad reached it first; I saw him mount a shelf of spraysoaked stone and stand waiting for me, backlit, silverlined, as though the sky had a sun after all and it was just beyond this mountain. But it wasn't a sun. It was a city. Joining Dad on the rock, I saw it, at a farther distance than any yet conceived; still it threw light and warmth our sun could only covet. And unlike the sun, you could look straight into it - in fact, you wished to, you had to - and the longer you looked, the more you saw. Turrets! I exclaimed. I couldn't wait to get there, you see. Then Dad pointed to the plains below, at movement I took at first to be rivers - winding, flowing, light coming off them. They came from all directions, streaming toward the city, and dust rose in places along their banks. They're people, Dad said..." There will be peace, my friends...peace like river. Amen.