God in the InBox

"Miracles do happen."

Opening line of an email I received this morning. It was a correspondence from a wonderful friend who does a horrible job at writing. I am usually the initiator and he responds, but this time, this day, a miracle happened - and he wrote first. It was truly a gift to hear from him. I miss him so. If you don't really appreciate the use of the word "miracle" for this experience, then fine. I understand the need to keep the word pure. But this time, this day, I'm o.k. calling his note miraculous.

I guess the miraculous thing about it is that he was thinking about me. He's halfway around the world on a vision-quest of sorts. Much has and is going on in his life, his work, his marriage. There is much he has to sort through and wrestle with and figure out and talk over before he comes "home." So, for me to cross his mind and then for him to act on that prompting by writing a note? Miracle.

God's got a lot going on too. He's all over the world, and in it, and through it. Much is going on. Wars and rumors of wars. President Bush has got colon tests. The Harry Potter book is out. Missionaries held hostage over there. School'll be starting soon. My vision of God is not one of a nervous Nellie, though; wringing his eternal hands in anxiety over all that's to be done. I really believe he's in charge - pulling the wagon (E. Peterson). But in all of that, he's thinking about me. What is man (John) that you are mindful of him? It's a day that I feel very small in the scheme of things; humbled, if you will. But God has me on his mind. I've wondered lately if he remembered me. And he sees me. It's felt like his face has been hidden a little. And he knows. And he cares. He prompted me with that truth by way of a friend's email this morning. I'm not planning on walking on water today, but I'll leave the house shortly walking on air. The medium for the miracle concerns me not. Just that it happens. Today, this is my story, this is my song.

OUR Father...

Our Father who is always near, Emmanuel - God with us,
Hallowed/Holy/Healing is Your name.
Your kingdom come, Your will be done
Here on earth, in our lives, in my life, as in heaven.
Give us bread for the day. And the eyes to see it and the courage to take and eat.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have, are, and will sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the one who seeks to steal, kill, and destroy.
Your's is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.

If you've ever wondered what you were signing up for in this thing called the Christian life, well, there it is. The Lord's Prayer. The disciples said, "Lord, teach us to pray," which really means, "Lord, teach us to live." And Jesus responds with these words. I believe Jesus said, "Huddle up, boys. Here's what the journey into God is. This doesn't cover all the details of the trip, but it gives you a framework for what "following Me" is going to look like. Can you pray it? Can you live it?"

The very first word in Jesus’ prayer is OUR - that little three letter word that always filled that lower spot on the right-hand side of the grammar grid we learned in school. There is me, my, and mine and then there is we, us and our. The kingdom life is an invitation to a journey among plurals – OUR.

Jesus has no interest in a single man; he wants men and women and boys and girls and uncles and cousins and engineers and dental assistants and Harry Potter fans and people who still love the Dixie Chicks. His choosing of the disciples is illustrative of this. He needed Peter, who would display rock-like faith, the kind you build churches on. He also displayed a cowardice that would have to later be redeemed by taking up the bucket and feeding the sheep. Jesus wanted John, who would one day care for the heart-broken mother of God. But a sweet, almost feminine John this was not; no, he and his brother were known as "sons of thunder" for a reason. Jesus desired Thomas, whose eyes would see the wounds and hand would touch the pierced side of the risen Lord. Thomas, usually looked down on as a "doubter" but who actually stood with a courage most of us covet: "Show me." You cannot get past the first word in Christ’s prayer without being clearly notified that the Christian life is an our/we/us adventure. Any view to the contrary reveals that we may be praying a prayer, but it’s not the Lord’s; we may be living some version of religion, but it’s not the Christ-life. And it won't be a group of sinless, smiling folks singing praise choruses. No, it'll look more like the vanload in Little Miss Sunshine.

True, there are some moments when we'll make solo jaunts. And those are necessary. But the journey is we/us/our...


I contacted a mentor of mine the other day. We hadn't talked in over a year. He responded and informed me that he lost his wife to ovarian cancer three months ago. She was 58. She had been sick for some time and about a year ago, they began asking God to let her live until this spring so she could see her daughter graduate from college. This humble, strong, godly, loving mother missed her little girl's graduation by a month. Instead of accepting her diploma and running into her mother's arms, this young lady clutched a photograph of "mom." A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it doesn't hold a candle to a hug from the one who birthed you into this world.

My mentor friend has been writing through his grief. I read some of his notes today and was deeply moved by the depth of his emotional honesty in the presence of God and the assembled witnesses. Some of his friends are concerned about him. They're wondering if he's really doing o.k. And they're unsettled by some of his questions and feelings. He just misses the rose of his heart like the dickens.

I've been reading a host of book proposals these days. Many of them have to do with the church. How the church is screwed up. How the church is consumer driven. How the church has hijacked Jesus and missed his core message, substituting it with some kind of something else. How Western Christians are self-absorbed and shallow. Most of these accusations are fair. I'm not the biggest fan of church these days either. But I find myself put off by these proposals. Maybe I'm getting older and crankier. Maybe. But it seems to me that the work of helping one another be born, grow, live and die is the stuff that life is made of. And when some of that "stuff" goes south, as in a 58-year-old mom missing her daughter's college graduation, we're there to sit and listen and cry and groan and pray and hope and trust and cry a little more. And not be unsettled by questions or doubts or if someone is o.k. If I can find someone to do that with, I'm not sure I give a flying fig whether they're consumer driven or not. Or if they've got all their theological ducks in a row or not. Or if they're a little self-absorbed. Just a little.

The point is that the church is screwed up, always has been. It's made up of flesh and blood who live in a screwed up world. Flesh and blood who keep coming together on some level to look to the skies for The Day; the time when he will come again and reunite daughters who graduated and mothers who died. And sons and fathers and friends and mentors. And he will wipe away all tears. The shallow ones and the deep ones. And on that day we will see him as he is. We see through a glass darkly now; we've always hijacked the holy one. But on that day, the brilliance of his glory will set us aright. Until then, we groan. And go on to graduate school with mom's photo in our hands. And go to bed alone on a mattress made for two. And wait for him.

Multiple Conversion Personality

"The last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God. We make an absolute out of it and use it to strengthen our ego, to self-aggrandize and self-congratulate. Then, of course, nothing more happens. That's why Jesus repeats the admonition to conversion. We need to be converted again and again. We aren't born again. We are born again and again and again." - Richard Rohr

I grew up in a faith tradition that stressed the doctrine of "once saved, always saved." The core of that doctrine emphasizes the trusting stance that Jesus' grip on me is stronger than my grip on him. But I now see this doctrine as possibly being an impediment to my spiritual growth. "Impediment" - good grief, who uses that word? I now see this as possibly screwing up my journey to God. If I've done it once, then I'm good - right? Or could I need to be, as Rohr suggests, saved again?

I also grew up in a tradition that stressed the rehearsal of one's testimony, that place and time when you met the Lord. And, if you were a reprobate prior to that, you would share the pit out of which Jesus pulled you. I was six when Jesus whispered my name. Wetting my pants every once in a while was my only vice. I still believe holding onto that spot and minute to be a beneficial thing; a landmark of sorts. However, I also now see it as keeping God boxed into whatever form it was when I first experienced him. If I'm always trying to get back that lovin' feeling, I'm cutting myself off from the other feelings that God wants to introduce or convert me to. How about that suffering feeling? Or that liberated feeling? There's always that gratitude feeling and that hot-blooded feeling and that scared-to-death feeling...

I used to look down on folks who were constantly going down the aisle and getting saved again. And again. And again. Couldn't they get it right, just believe and move on? I'm sorry for those feelings. I now wonder if those multiple-conversion-personalities might not have had it right? Maybe they kept bumping into new experiences of or with God and they wanted everyone to know about it. I used to think their testimonies shallow and flighty. I now see that they were really deep and wide. Deep and wide. Unless you're born again...

Where I've Been and What I've Seen

I just returned from the International Christian Retailing Show (ICRS) in Atlanta, GA. It's an annual event where the entire spectrum of christian wares are peddled. Everything from the latest book by that grinning preacher from Houston to socks and ties with Hebrew writing on them to something called "the oil of gladness" in Alice-in-Wonderland bottles. I kept thinking that Jesus would storm in at any moment, knock all the oil of gladness onto the floor, and cry out, "A house of prayer is what my Father had in mind!" But Jesus never showed. Maybe he was waiting for me to do it.

I don't ever want to poopoo on something that Jesus might use to awaken someone to the beautiful light of grace. But venues like that make me nervous; something about that just isn't right.

I did have two wonderful experiences which actually took place before the ICRS began. Sunday afternoon was spent listening to and riding back to the airport with Brennan Manning. The ragamuffin did a stellar job of taking oil-of-gladness theology and pouring it down the drain. If you've never heard Brennan speak, you've missed out. He hands out grace, pure and simple. And you can either drink it down straight or cross your arms and huff. The room I was in drank it down straight. After the event, I escorted him back to the airport in a limo - with the Lord as my witness, a limo. A coupla' boys that Jesus loves to pieces, riding in a big shiny grace tank complete with leather seats and surround sound, just soaking in the mercy.

Later that evening, I shared a meal with Robert Benson. I had seen where Robert was going to do some signing at the ICRS and so I wrote and invited him to dinner. He wrote back and said, "Love to." And so we did. I immediately felt affection for this man due to his wiry beard and pony-tailed hair. It just got better from there. We talked of books and food and kids and Buechner and lovely wives and idiots who think they can write books on raising children. We dined at the South City Kitchen in Atlanta. If you ever have the opportunity to eat there, please do. It was splendid. I'm pretty sure Robert and I were suckled by the same she-wolf and separated soon after birth. It's good to be reunited to family.

The other experience I'll share happened on the last day of the ICRS. I don't know that it was wonderful, but it definitely made me stop and think. We were meeting in the Georgia Convention Center. As I walked into the building on Wednesday, I immediately noticed people who did not look like ICRS-ers. ICRS-ers, well, let me describe the men at least. The males either had on suits and ties (with Hebrew writing on them) or they had on those starched camp shirts, untucked and accompanied by pleated khakis with nifty leather shoes. Conformity with a capital C. The people I saw on Wednesday did not conform to those dress codes. These men, women and children had on all the trappings of the Middle East. Oh, there were a few suits to be seen, but most everyone had on beautiful robes and headwear. Their skin was that dark-olive skin like Jesus must've had. Their hair and eyes and eyebrows above were crayola-black. And they were everywhere.

I stopped at the info desk and said, "Just out of curiosity, what event are all these people here for?" The nice info-lady said, "They're here for a celebration of the Muslim faith. You're about the 5000th person to ask me." As I continued to walk cross-stream to those about to celebrate the Muslim faith, I looked to see if anybody with an untucked camp shirt whose hair was sprinkled with the oil of gladness was stopping to talk to these beautiful Muslim people. I didn't see any encounters of such a close kind. The ICRS-ers just kept walking one direction and the Muslim people just kept walking the other, exchanging nothing more than glances. I wasn't hoping to find anybody sharing the four spiritual laws; in fact, I was praying nobody was doing that. But I hoped to find at least one who was saying, "hello" or "hey, be sure and eat at the South City Kitchen while you're here." Since Jesus hadn't emerged on the show floor to kick over the tables, maybe he had walked upstairs and was sitting in the common area. And maybe he was watching all of us Christians walk right past the Muslims and was wondering why that was so awkward for us. And maybe he was crying because we wouldn't stop and speak or at least grin and wave. All that Jesus-stuff down the escalators created to bring glory to his name and share the good news with the nations and when the nations (at least one) showed up, we had nothing but silence. And ties with Hebrew writing on them. And smiley preachers from Texas. And bottles of gladness with spill proof caps. Then again, maybe I never saw Jesus on the floor of the ICRS because he hadn't arrived yet. He came in on Wednesday for the Muslim celebration of faith. Then again, maybe my scripture socks are too tight. I'm sure a little oil of gladness will loosen them right up, eh?

Spiritual Experiences

So I'm driving on I-40 today on my way back to CO and I notice an exit sign for Groom, Texas. I had never heard of this place before. Immediately after the town-exit-sign, there is a big white billboard announcing the presence of the largest cross in the northern hemisphere. The billboard invites you to exit and have a most significant "spiritual experience." The photo I've attached shows you the big cross. Well, I didn't take the exit, but I did slow enough to see a parking lot full of cars and trucks and their drivers walking around the base of the big cross in a "stations" type arrangement. Although I was quite some distance away, the best I could make out is that they were having a spiritual experience.

A little further down the road, I come upon a feed lot. This photo is not the greatest, but hey - whaddya expect at 75mph? This was a fairly significant enterprise with cows everywhere and white-pipe fencing keeping them, well, fenced in. And if you weren't certain whether or not it was feed lot, then rolling down the window would confirm your intuitions. Cows walking around, bumping into each other, probably performing cow-apologies: "Hey, I didn't see you there standing there making a cowpatty. Sorry for walking right into you." "Look, no problem. The way everybody acts 'round here, you'd think it was a feed lot or something."

These two images stayed with me for miles - the northern hemisphere's largest cross and the feed lot. One promising a spiritual experience and the other promising your cows are fed. I've gotta tell you that the feed lot won out over the big cross for sheer spiritual experience. Why? Well, I believe that anything truly spiritual, as in Jesusy-spiritual, is going to have an earthy element to it - in other words, it'll be incarnational.

The big cross was all white and purty and huge. It reached up toward the heavens and towered over all the little people at it's base having a supposed spiritual experience. It reminded me of a missle, about to take off for, well...heaven, I guess. It was so out of place along the highway there. Now sure, I believe that the cross never "fits" but this thing had no desire to fit; it was totally other by design. On the other hand, the feed lot make me think about earthy things - cows, fence, hay, feed troughs, watering tanks, and manure. It fit the landscape hand-in-glove and had no aspirations of pretense. No, this was cows, a bunch of 'em, just cowing around. Seeing those cows and smelling their aroma caused me to remember my granddad, which caused me to think about my dad, and that made me tear up and thank God for his goodness toward my life. Seeing that cross didn't make me feel any of those things. I just kept wondering how high it was and who constructed it and who would get sued should it fall over and crush those folks below having spiritual experiences. The whole thing miffed me, to say the least, because it perpetuates this crazy notion of spiritual experiences always being big and transcendent and otherworldly and nice and white. I believe most spiritual experiences take place among stinkin' cows and crying babies and struggling to pay your bills and getting teary-eyed over fireworks on the fourth of July and paying over $3 for a gallon of gas and kissing your wife goodnight and sleeping in your socks during the winter months and hugging your parents good-bye after a brief visit and kids farting in the minivan, forcing you to roll down the window and then lo and behold, you smell the feed lot and thank God your kids aren't cows. That big, shiny cross didn't make me think of any of those things.


After two nights in a mountain cabin, doing absolutely nothing productive, Meredith and I finished up our anniversary weekend with a hike to The Crags - it's listed as one of the top 10 hikes in Colorado. She clicked this photo of me sitting atop the trail contemplating something...probably the holiness of the rocks around me. As we went back down the trail, you could hear folks in the distance. One young man's voice was clearly heard talking about the ancient practices of the Celtic people; however, he was pronouncing it "seltic" - like that basketball team from Boston. "Yes, the Seltics even honored groves of trees as sacred and holy," he said. I about laughed up a lung. And he just kept on yapping. A few minutes later, this young linguistics professor passed us, with a wife and baby in tow, still talking. The missus was intensely plodding ahead like some Indian scout, while ole' Prof had junior in one of those nifty, seltic backpacks with a lid on the top to prevent extreme exposure to the sun above pop's head. This guy had a hiking pole in each hand and an intensity on his face that made this Anglo nervous and would probably have unsettled most Selts. The poor kid was strapped or better yet, trapped, in and had no choice but to go along and listen. Professor Druid, Mama Bustamove, and Little St. Pat strode by on a mission, single-minded and determined to reach the peak and discuss Seltic mythology along the way. I can only hope that the Prof reached the peak and sat down on the same rock I was perched on, put down his poles, told mama to let down her hair, liberated his son from pack-tivity, and shut the hell up. If the people will be quiet, the very rocks will cry out of the holiness of God. That's something even the Seltics knew.

Survival Training

I finished up Elizabeth Gilbert's The Last American Man. The main character, Eustace Conway, is this magnetic personality in buckskin and beard and muscle. He has gradually purchased over 1000 acres of pristine Appalachian forest and turned it into Turtle Island - a primitive working farm and learning environment for folks of all ages. About 90% of the people who apply for apprenticeships or intern-stints drop out. About 10% hang in there. The reason for the crazy percentages? Eustace Conway. For all of his mythic masculine stature, he's also a task-master in the truest sense of the word. There is usually one way to do things and it's Eustace's way. His justification? He's earned the right to authority - his wisdom and relationship to the land has been hard-won. And he doesn't expect anything from his workers that he doesn't expect from himself. The only problem is Eustace Conway is this archetypal man; they don't make very many like him.

One of his 10%-hang-in-there, star pupils was a kid named Christian Kaltrider. How did this kid survive? I'll let him speak:
"It was my intention to learn, and that was all. Eustace would teach me something, and I'd go off and do it. I didn't spend any time talking - just listening and watching and doing what I was told. Of course, he had control over me all the time, but I didn't let that frustrate me. I told myself, 'I am letting him have this control for the purpose of my education. And he is in control only of my education, not of my identity.' That's a subtle distinction. Are you giving yourself to Eustace, or are you letting him take you? I made the decision to give myself over as a student, and that's why my experience was so different from the experiences of many others who come here...not mindless obedience, but mindful obedience."

Did you catch that "subtle" distinction? Eustace was in control of Christian's education, but not his identity. The book's a good read, but that paragraph alone is worth the price on the cover. Letting or allowing someone to have control over you for a purpose; however, that purpose is not connected in the least to identity. About 90% of the other teens, college kids, and young adults dropped out of Eustace's program because they let him define their identity. He told most of them they sucked, they started crying, and they quickly caught the next bus home.

Identity. Hold that tightly within yourself and you can submit yourself to horrendous indignities - dumpster diving for food or picking up roadkill for dinner (such you would experience at Eustace's place). But you can keep your "self" intact. But if you hold your identity out there for someone else to define? Well, life may be nothing more than continually catching the next bus to the next place for the next person to say, "You suck." Of course, they could say, "You're the best thing since sliced bread." But the chances are just as great they'll tell you, "You suck." If you want to roll those dice thru life, go ahead. But in that game, the house usually wins. Better to nail that identity thing down. You'll be in the top 10% of the class.