From House to Shack

I attended the National House Church conference this weekend. One of the authors I work with was speaking and it's always good to support someone like that in the flesh. So, I flew out of DIA Friday morning along with all the folks coming off the Obama Rocky Mountain high.

I flew into Dallas/Foat Wuth; home of The Cowboys and the seminary I graduated from and folks who say "thaynks" and endless sunsets. The conference was o.k. My author friend did a good job and I could tell folks appreciated his words. However, the bulk of the conference seemed just a little off. Well, maybe a lot off.

If I heard someone say, it's about relationship, not religion once, I heard them say it a zillion times; as if it's either/or. I believe it's both/and. Trust me - I know about religion; son of a preacher man, and preached myself for quite some time. But the deep meaning of the word "religion" speaks of something being healed or restored, like a broken bone. That sounds an awful lot like the kind of "relationship" I want and need. Anyway, that soap-boxin' got old fast. I understand it's where a lot of those folks are on the path/journey/highway/rock-strewn trail, but nobody ever tempered that mindset with, well, what if it's both/and?

I also got the distinct impression that the house church folks believed they had found the promised land, freedom; this "gathering like they did in the New Testament" was the holy grail itself. I'm sure not everyone there felt that way, but I smelled it in the room.

The author I work with was one of the speakers on the ticket, but the big daddy speaker for the weekend was William Young, author of that little phenom The Shack. I'd never heard him in person; hell, I ain't even finished his book. I thought about reading it this weekend in preparation for the conference, but I found Annie Dillard's latest in paperback (The Maytrees) at the airport and sorry, Shack-man, but Annie hung the moon.

William Young did a good job. I appreciated his candor and ease. His story comes out of a truckload of pain and he's been a good steward of it. But at some point, I felt the House Church conference became The Shack Conference. All the speakers started referring to God as Papa and phrases like we all have our shacks started jumping out like Texas jackalopes and that got even older than the religion/relationship smackdown. It was fair; it's hard not to let something like that eclipse the party, such is its force right now.

This from Annie Dillard, describing her main character, Toby Maytree:
So he added his playful bits to the world perceived. How much better to heal and prevent disease; feed and inoculate and teach kids; provide sturdy breeds of animals and seeds! But poetry seemed to be his task...

I guess that's who I would have loved to have seen or heard at the conference this weekend: a poet. But I didn't. At one point, a speaker asked everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes for prayer. I pray eyes wide open, have for years now. Later, in a conversation with several folks, I mentioned looking around during the prayer, watching body language and such. One of the guys said, So you didn't close your eyes? He wasn't joshing me; he was dead serious. I said, No, that's not the way I pray. He said, Oh.

Maybe that sounds harsh. Maybe it is. It just seems we trade one thing for another, but still retain some of the other, but if there's enough people in the room we feel empowered and so we go with it and stand and raise our hands and take jabs at the folks we left and we have our gurus and we hang on their every word and this stuff is just as evident in the house church movement as it is in the institutional church movement. Sure, I've got my gurus too, like Annie Dillard; she taught me to pray eyes-wide-open.

I finished Dillard's book yesterday. Very good. I also caught the middle of Harry Potter's The Order of the Phoenix on the hotel's movie channel. Wow, I loved what I saw. I didn't get to finish it though because I had a relationship session to attend. Did you know some say it's not about religion? And then I caught those first snippets of Sarah Palin. My wife told me someone asked her about her favorite designer; she said, The North Face. Ah, a poet. I like that.

My writer friend, Winn Collier, brings another facet of the soul of this post. He does it in much more eloquent prose though. His name is in my Blogs of Note; just click and read. He's a poet too.

Hungry Jack...and John

The Beagle started whining at 1:05am. With the exception of my son, no one else in our home hears that sound in the middle of the night. But even he assumes the mercy of the father and so he stays still; dad'll get it. I let the Beagle out, then let the Beagle in, then stand there as the Beagle eats an entire bowl of food. Hungry Jack? As the Beagle wolfs down the kibble, he looks at me from time to time, as if to say, "Do you want to sit down or anything? I'm gonna be a minute here." My frustration faded minutes ago; now I'm thankful for this dog. Again.

A lot of folks have written books about their dogs and what all they've learned from them; Lessons from Jack or titles like that. I could write one as well, although mine probably wouldn't sell a million because sometimes my language would slip and such. Still, Jack the Beagle teaches me. If I'm listening.

Our dog was hungry early this morning. I'm hungry too; not for kibble, but for other things that I believe are needs, not wants, but are probably a combination of the two. Hungry Jack did what he knew to do; he started crying out for the merciful father. I've been crying out too, to the merciful father. Have mercy, O Lord. In a way, I really need the good Lord to get out of bed and traipse down here and let me out, then let me in, then stand there while I eat and drink my fill. I'm not trying to be a bother; I'm just hungry and to whom else can I turn, where else can I go if not to Thee, O Lord? I know its early, Lord, but my stomach is growling and I'm panting like a deer. Everyone else is asleep and I've it on good authority that you don't sleep or slumber. Just one bowl's all I need and a little water. And maybe a belly rub? I'll go right back to bed, honest.

Woof (amen).


We slow down to 20mph in front of the middle school. I drop him off every morning now, 7:15am. We pull into a lot full of shiny SUVs, giants in the land. I'm the only parent driving a '97 Stratus with a cracked windshield and a check engine light that's been on for almost a year. My son doesn't seem to care about shiny SUVs. I like that about my son. Adolescent pine trees border the steps that he walks down, down, into his sixth grade day.

I love you, bud.

I love you, too, Dad.

Hillary's crowd rousing speech can't hold a candle to hearing those 5 words from your 11 yr old son.

As I pull out of the parking lot, I always look back, like Lot's wife did. I want to get one last glimpse of my son, my strength, before driving away. That "pause-glance" usually upsets the lady in the shiny SUV behind me who is talking on her cell phone with the surety that God died and left her the queen of the world and she's late for a very important date. I guess it's tough being queen of the world, never having the time to look back on what matters most.

An allergy's runny nose woke her up this morning about 4am. I heard her stir then reach for the tissue and blow. Then a whisper:

I love you.

I love you, too.

Why this lady loves me I do not know. I've disappointed her more times than there are shiny SUVs in that middle school parking lot. And as sure as Mr. Obama will be moving into the White House, I'll disappoint her today. But still, I love you.

For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, 'till death do us part. We had no idea what those words meant when we spoke them as kids eighteen years ago. No idea. I hope I can buy her a shiny SUV one of these days; she's the queen of my world.

One of her friends from high school was riding his bike the other day in Arkansas and a truck hit him, just about killing this young husband and father and friend. I wonder if, before he headed out for his ride, he and his wife exchanged I love you? I bet they will from now on.

The story goes that as Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife drove off to the hospital after their oldest son had just run over their daughter, that he had the presence of mind to yell out the window, Your father loves you. Well done, Steven. Well done. The veil between this world and the next is fragile indeed. It pays to consider what our "last words" might be.

I realize those three words are abused every day. Folks say them when they don't mean them or use them as leverage to get what they want. Still, I'm inclined to believe that those three words may constitute the threads that often hold our world together, keep us from coming completely unraveled. Even when they're said with less than pure motives, there's something about those words, these vehicles for meaning, which have a power over us and in us and through us. As if, even if we don't fully believe them in the moment, we're gonna' say them anyway because they represent what matters most about us and this world we're a'spinnin' on or the parking lots we're pulling out of or the sheets we're turning over in.

This Present World

2 Tim. 4.10 - "for Demas, having loved this present world..."

The book of Colossians indicates that Demas was traveling with Paul, everything good-to-go. But by the time this second letter to Timothy rolls off the parchment, Demas has deserted Paul, having loved this present world. There's not a lot more to the story of Demas. His scriptural epitaph, sorta like Judas, is that of deserter; he's an sermon illustration of who not to emulate. Nobody ever preaches sermons on how hard it was for Paul to keep friends.

Having the laptop on the blitz for almost a month afforded me early mornings to sit and be. They're usually filled with blogging, such is your demand for my prose. On more than one morning, in the half-light of an oven bulb, and accompanied by a cup of coffee, I had the distinct feeling that I love this present world.

I love the way my youngest daughter always comes outside to walk me in after a hard day's work. I love the way my wife cries when Americans are on the medal stand at the Olympics. I love the way my son sleeps in a sleeping bag beside his dog every night; his bed hasn't been slept in for months. I love the way my coffee maker sputters to life each morning. I love tuning to the easy listening AM radio station on the commute to work, maybe even catching a Glen Campbell song on lucky days. I love it that our Beagle awakes each day, wagging his tail like there's no tomorrow, whacking everything from my legs to furniture. I love the way at least some of our Olympic medal-winners actually sang the words to the national anthem when it was played, instead of just standing there. I love watching my kids talk to their grandparents on the phone while standing on top of the dog house. I love rain. And the sound of lawnmowers.

I love getting emails from friends throughout the week. I love going to the library. I love dusk, always have. I love going to the ice cream shop in a little town nearby. I love looking at photo albums my wife has created over the years. I love blue jeans. And cowboy boots. I love reading books, my latest good-read being A Death In The Family by James Agee. I love the smell of cedar. I love feeling the presence of my wife beside me at night. I love that old train that rumbles by at 2:30 am tooting his horn to alert all that potential traffic on the tracks at 2:30am. I love the geese that fly over our house quite often, honking praises for this present world. I love coming to a stop as that crosswalk guard courageously leads those kids safely across harm's way. And I love the way those kids walk across without a care in the world, such is their trust in the defender of crosswalks. I love chocolate.

Sure, there's plenty of things I don't like. It doesn't take much smarts too find what's wrong. But there is much, my friends, to love in this present world. We miss far too much of it, careening down the interstate at ungodly speeds or scrolling across our blackberrys while someone else is talking or being so heavenly-occupied that we're not earthly aware or blogging every morning instead of being still once in a while.

Demas: Hey, Paul, did you hear those geese?

Paul: What? What are you talking about? 'Cmon, we've got to a missionary journey to complete.

Demas: That may be the most beautiful sound in the world.

Paul: Man, wake up.

Demas: You know what? You go ahead, Paul. I'm gonna climb this sycamore tree and listen to the geese. Then I might go get a milkshake and watch Shawn Johnson.

Theography of Hope

It seems to me significant that one of the distinct downturns in our churches from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier of the local church came to an end, in the 80s and 90s, when the way of the American church had begun to turn more global and less local. The more relevant it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our faith, and I believe, our people, have become. For myself, I grew up in the small, local Baptist churches of the South, and I put a very high valuation on what those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically renew myself on those hard-edged pews and in the Vacation Bible schools of southern summers, I would be very nearly bereft. Even as I am far from those places today, the voices of Wednesday night prayer meetings or the reassurance of deacons taking up the offering are a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me. But as these small, local churches are progressively exploited or “improved,” as the beautiful distinctives of local give way to the deadening sameness of the world is flat theory, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.

I do not expect that the preservation of our small, local churches is going to cure our condition. But the mere example that we as the people of God could apply some other criteria than relevancy or exploitive considerations would be heartening to many Americans, and even those abroad. We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the local, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being local can produce. And one of the best places for us to get that is in the local, weekly gathering of the saints, where there are no satellite feeds from mother churches and the commute to worship is measured in blocks, not miles.

For all the usual evaluative purposes, the large and global churches are obviously the most important. But for deep spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, the small, local church serves every bit as well. Perhaps, they serve even better. In my history of small, local gatherings, the rooms were full of characters – divorced bankers, cantankerous physicians, drama queen choir members, faithful janitors. Characters. I have never been able to look upon people in any other way since. I hope I learned something from praying with the same lady who taught me English, from singing with the same man who bagged our groceries, from listening to the same preacher who also tucked me in at night. A small church like that, one big enough to house the people that you meet each day, can be both lonely and grand and simple. It is as good a place as any for the experience of learning to be content in any and every circumstance. Save a piece of locality like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a couple of hundred people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value; a theography of hope.

*(letter based on Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” in The Sound of Mountain Water (1969).

What's Up

The four of you who read this blog may have been wondering what's up. Well, what's up is our home computer has a sickness, possibly unto death. She, our Macbook, nicknamed little whitey, is essentially in the ICU. A hard-drive transplant may be necessary. So, until then, which we hope is a time in the very near future, please be patient. Just know there are hordes of posts running through my noggin', clamoring to be given to Blogger's light of day.

You've probably been glued to the Olympics anyway. I know we have.

Sounds Messed Up

"I believe Mr. Crealock had people in the Flint Hills," he remarked.
"Who's Crealock?" Hood asked.
"Preacher I knew once. Not a regular preacher - he had no church is what I'm saying. He'd had two or three but kept losing them. He'd drink too much, or forget himself and go to a dance, or play cards. I owe a lot to Crealock," Glendon added.
"Sounds messed up," came Hood's voice from under the car.
"I suppose he was," said Glendon. "He was kind to me, though, and taught me to read - that's worth something, I think."

- Leif Enger, So Brave, Young, and Handsome

I don't know if I ever was or ever will be a regular preacher. Not sure I ever even aspired to such a descriptor. I still believe God has something in the cards for me in regard to writing. Now there are days when that seems like a full-blown mirage and that Greek chorus in my head sings Crazy. But then there are also days when a gaunt figure on an old nag rides through the middle of those Greeks and belts out: and the world will be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star. Such is the drama in my noggin'. Not a trace of "regular."

But, I started out a preacher; that's how my fabric was cut. One man told me, "John, even if you're baking cakes, you'll do it pastorally." If I remember correctly, someone told Thomas Moore the same thing and he puttered around until he was almost broke and then wrote Care of the Soul which gained him a little exposure and he "preaches" his gospel nowadays. But more than a few folks (a Greek chorus) thought that book was "messed up" - the implication being so is Thomas Moore. I liked that book. It helped me fight more than one windmill.

So, maybe if I'll keep writing, keep being faithful to string words together into sentences that make paragraphs that lead to chapters that sometimes grow into books, I might yet get the opportunity to preach a little. Then again, maybe that's an impossible dream. Still, I wonder sometimes if someone like Glendon Hale will say something like this about me:

"I believe Mr. Blase had people in Arkansas."
"Who's Blase?"
"Preacher I knew once. Not a regular preacher - he had no church is what I'm saying. He had three, but walked away from them for one reason or another. He'd doubt too much, or forget himself and spout poetry from the pulpit like it was scripture, or hint at maybe Grace trumping all cards in the end. I owe a lot to Blase," Glendon added.
"Sounds messed up."
"I suppose he was," said Glendon. "He was kind to me, though, and always reminded me of old Quixote - that's worth something, I think."