Red Flags and Tiny Yellow Flowers


Snowy Range-1-45

I didn’t plan it, but this year my vacation turned into an epic road trip that will probably keep me smiling for the rest of my life.  The only plan I made was to drive my kids back to Colorado, and then visit family in Wyoming.  The rest of the adventure was completely spontaneous; every single day experienced with no preconceived plan, or agenda – just my camera, a cooler full of bottled water, and my trusty little GPS.

After all the visiting was done, I struck out on my own, dead set on reaching the top of the nearest mountain.  It sounded so simple – only 20 miles away – but then I noticed that my GPS had projected an arrival time of 3 hours in the future.

Have you ever made up your mind so completely to do something that you fail to notice those little red flags that start popping up?  Now I’ll admit, this is not the first time I’ve done that.  I’m a boundary-pusher by nature so I’ll ignore the red flags until I can’t ignore them anymore.  And there have indeed been times when I wished I hadn’t; but more often than not, what I end up discovering is that the boundaries are actually quite a bit further out than what I had first supposed.

Well, it took almost 5 hours to make it to the top of the mountain.  After spending 2 hours on a particularly crude logging road, it abruptly stopped – blocked by fallen trees, and I had to turn around and go back.  And what was really intimidating was the complete absence of other people.  (As an aside, this is why I stick with Jeep products)  But I did make it to the top of the mountain.  After several hours of intense off-road driving, I made it.  And that kind of set the tone for the remainder of the trip.

After that, it seemed every place I went, I somehow had to earn it, but then the rewards would be huge.  I sat on top of the world, alone, the only human for miles, and while it took some pretty big risks to get there, it was the most humbling and soul-clutching experience imaginable.

On another mountaintop, 4 more hours away, I stood next to a field of snow that was surrounded by tiny little yellow flowers.  Snow, in the hot July sun, surrounded by millions of tiny little yellow flowers.  And the snow was untouched.  There was not one single foot print in that snow.  It wasn’t mandated; there were no signs saying “keep off the snow,” yet everyone who made it to that spot agreed, this snow-covered ground was sacred.  I immediately thought of Moses on the mountaintop, standing before God, who said to him, take off your sandals you fool; can’t you see you are standing on Holy ground?

As I made my way across the jagged and raw beauty of the landscape, I noticed how boundaries expanded and barriers seemed to melt in the desert heat.  Without the protective padding of civilization, one learns the cooperative ways of nature.  Atoms and cells working together to form rocks, rocks and soil working together to form ground, ground and vegetation working together to form mountains…trees protecting birds, cool holes protecting prairie dogs and rattlesnakes…

Humans are the only species to cut themselves off from the flow of life.  We seal ourselves up in cities and towns, homes and cars, creating boundaries and erecting barriers, all in an effort to forget that we are fragile creatures, leading a fragile existence.

Sometimes we have to push boundaries and climb mountains in order to remember that like the tiny little yellow flowers surrounding the snow –

we are here now;

we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,”

and it’s all Holy ground,

all the time,

everywhere.

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A Time to Lament and a Time to Disarm


LS190-Peace-Dove-Bumper-Sticker

In October of 1998, a young man named Matthew Shepard was driven to a remote, rural area, where he was robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured, and then tied to a fence and left to die.  Significant media coverage was given to what role Shepard’s sexual orientation played in the killing; Matthew Shepard was gay, and during the trial it was disclosed that the killers had pretended to be gay in order to gain his trust so that they could rob him.

I remember how awful I felt about this incident; I couldn’t get it out of my mind, mental images of this poor kid hanging from that fence, hurt, alone and dying.  It haunted me for a long time, and I would scour the newspapers hoping that the killers would be brought to justice quickly.  In 1998 the internet was new; it was not a source for news, and it didn’t explode every time something happened.  People read the newspaper or listened to the news, and would then talk about things openly.  It might seem rather primitive now, but I clearly recall that empathy and compassion still meant something, and most folks were decent enough to allow a space for grieving before arguing and debating over the fallout from such horrible acts of violence.

In April of 1999, two teens went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 13 people and wounding more than 20 others before turning their guns on themselves and committing suicide.  At the time I was living in Colorado, and I worked less than 15 miles from the high school where the shooting occurred.  For many weeks, the shooting was on the front page of the newspapers, and all of the major television networks covered every aspect of the shooting through the last funeral of the last victim.  We were in mourning – all of us – together.  The crime was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history and prompted a national debate on gun control and school safety, but we mourned first, and saved our fighting for later.

On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners crashing two of them into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and the fourth in a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers tried to overcome the hijackers.  In total, the attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people.   Everyone knew about it; TV news repeatedly showed live footage of the crashes across the world.  I remember being at work where we were all huddled around the radio listening in horror.  It was nearly impossible to accomplish anything that day…we were worried if more strikes would occur – and if so, where.  Friends and relatives from all over the country were calling each other to check in and try to process together what was going on.  I remember the phone lines were jammed and it was tough to get a call out.  We were a country in deep mourning, but everyone came together and hugged and cried and consoled each other.  Strangers, from all over the world, lamented together, wanting to know how something so awful could be done.

A week after the attack, I was wrung out and bone weary.  My vacation had already been scheduled, and I felt myself being called to the Grand Canyon.  I drove there with a friend, and we arrived at the south rim just as the sun was setting.  I will never forget seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time at sunset.  A lot of other people were present.  We were all quiet and deeply reflective, but suddenly someone started singing: “all we are saying, is give peace a chance.”  We all stood there quietly, together, singing as the sun slowly faded away.  It was one of the most spontaneous and holy moments of my life.

In this decade alone, the acts of violence and mayhem have piled on top of each other.  The rate of acceleration is overwhelming to the point where we seem to be losing our capacity for feeling horror. So far this year, there have been 134 mass shootings with four or more victims, and this is only June.  Shootings, hate-crimes, acts of terrorism – this is our American nightmare.  We still mourn and we still lament, but I can’t help but notice how visibly eroded our ability to feel compassion for each other has become.  Our ability to feel deeply one another’s pain seems to be disappearing only to be replaced with a growing hatred and mistrust for each other, and blame has become America’s drug of choice.

I no longer read the newspaper.  Like most people, I get my news from the internet.  The first page I see when I open my browser is NPR.  Today it is possible to track updates anytime, from any news source, using devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops.  What is even more amazing is that we now have the ability to weigh in on stories as they break.

On Sunday when I got home from church, I opened my browser for the first time that day.  The NPR headlines were about the mass-shooting in Orlando.  Very little was known at that time other than the nightclub where the shooting occurred was a gay bar, and the shooter was thought to be a Muslim terrorist.  A lot of labels for such a small amount of information. Knowing better, I scrolled down to the comments.  There were already close to 800, and no one was talking about the terror and the anguish the victims and their families were going through; no one even seemed particularly grieved about what had just happened and how another hole had been punched in the heart of our society.  The argument began with the first comment and was about gun rights with each side casting blame on the other for their particular positions in the matter.  The comments were snarky and hateful – full of assumptions and completely nonsensical.  The entire endeavor was a complete waste of everyone’s time – including my own.  Like I said, I should have known better.

But on the flip-side of that came the outpouring of love as people came together all over the world to mourn the victims, support one another and fight back against homophobia with bold displays of love.  Thousands lined up to give blood just hours after the attack.  Cities all over the world took to the streets in crowded vigils.  World landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade center were lit up to let international pride shine through.  It is interesting to note how physical presence is more apt to bring out love, while digital anonymity leans more toward hate.

Over the years I have come to see that when we show up for each other; when we reach out to each other; when we talk to each other by using our voices, our natural tendency to show empathy, compassion, and love comes gushing out.  We bring it out in each other.  We bring out the best in ourselves through each other.  But we also bring out the worst in each other when we are cowering and sneaky, hiding ourselves behind white sheets or electronic screens that give us the courage to do things we wouldn’t dare do openly.

I don’t think anyone will argue that there are a lot of things that need fixing in this country.  We are a shattered and broken society, and we can’t seem to solve even the simplest of problems because we are so busy hating each other.  We distract ourselves by arguing electronically over petty things like who can pee in which bathroom, or how offensive red cups are, while people are being gunned down in movie theaters, schools, shopping malls, churches, and bars.   The problem begins with each and every one of us – individually, and can only be solved by all of us together.  I came across a quote today, and I think it expresses it better than anything else I have heard so far:

“Many people today agree that we need to reduce violence in our society. If we are truly serious about this, we must deal with the roots of violence, particularly those that exist within each of us. We need to embrace ‘inner disarmament,’ reducing our own emotions of suspicion, hatred and hostility toward our brothers and sisters.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

Inner disarmament – in all our talk of disarmament, has anyone ever mentioned that?  When we come together to lament and show empathy and compassion, we are disarming.  When we lay down our weapons of suspicion, mistrust and hostility, others are inclined to do likewise.  Physical presence, vulnerability, tears blending together, bodies embraced, these things disarm us all and lead to real conversations, and real solutions.  If we truly want this country to be great, then inner disarmament and genuine sorrow for our sins against each other is the only way to get there.  We are going to have to learn how to lay down our weapons of fear and hate and learn to trust each other.  We are all members of the same human family, who all have the same desire to live in peace and harmony.  This is how we were created to be, and unless we disarm ourselves, our violence is only going to grow until we have nothing left to destroy.

It begins with me; it begins with you; it begins with all of us – individually and together.

“All we are saying, is give peace a chance…”

Why Christian?


 

I entered the universe through the Christian portal by luck of the draw. I was born into my time, place and circumstances, and to the best of my knowledge I had no say in the matter. I left the Christian path as soon as I did have a say in the matter, and believed that was the end of the story. Yet, despite my best intentions, my baptism left its mark on me; it sort of gave me an address that I could always return to if I wanted, and know that I was home.

Christianity is perhaps the most treacherous road to travel by; it is peppered with land mines that are filled with the shrapnel of false certainties, buried and waiting for the unsuspecting traveler. After reaching a certain level of familiarity with the practice, I have come to both fear and treasure it’s teachings, some of which honor creator and creation, while others hold in contempt the wisdom of the very messiah that they profess to follow. I have experienced both the agony and the ecstasy of Christianity – sometimes simultaneously –  convincing me that the two reside in equal measure as part of the one great whole where I too, often stand in contrast to myself.

As a pastor, I am called to interpret and teach two millennia of our best theological thinking that is sadly mixed in with our worst theological thinking. I am not a rock star theologian.  I have not been gifted with the capacity for eloquent expression to draw in or captivate my audience. Sometimes I manage to strike a chord, but as God is my witness, I do not possess the elasticity my ego would require in order to contain my ambition. I do not seek to be a star, although I do spend a lot of time trying.  For nearly 20 years, I held Christianity and all things Christian in contempt.  I do not have a lifetime of wisdom to draw on – at least not Christian wisdom.  Nevertheless, despite my recalcitrance, there came a day when God showed me a level of grace that brought me to my knees, captivated me, and permanently changed me forever. I have spent all of my remaining years seeking the face of this gracious and loving entity which led me to the ministry where I hoped to be able to live up to the story of my own salvation.

While I have learned a great deal about Christianity, and I have somewhat honed my ability to think theologically, I still have yet to stand unflinching in the presence of the great I AM. You see, I always flinch, and my thinking takes over, and I end up worshipping my own thoughts rather than experiencing the divine presence of a love so pure that I don’t believe I could possibly be worthy of it. That’s hard stuff and it is so much easier to rationalize than it is to just be who I am, full of flaws, yet loved so purely and deeply that nothing else matters. Life doesn’t work that way, so how could eternity? And that is exactly how we regulate and control each other from realizing our true potential. While I cannot speak for other religions, or other people for that matter, I can see that the inhibitions and shame imposed in some Christian circles have become shackles on the human ability to connect with creator. It is human nature to want to be the best and the brightest; the disciples even argued over it. We truly don’t want equality; we each want to stand out – to be special. But if I am to be special then that means you cannot be special. So now we need rules to define who is special and who is not. Who’s in and who’s out, because we can’t all be special. And that is the same pitfall we all eventually land in – every religion – every person.

So with that in mind the question still remains, why Christian?  Well why not?  It is my destiny.  I did not choose it, it chose me.  Yet at the same time, it is not my destination, it is my transport. It is flawed beyond belief. The motor is rusty and the vehicle is so old that replacement parts are hard to come by. Sure, I could change rides, go for a newer, slicker model; but it’s just a ride and there are no guarantees regardless of which model you hop on board. I follow Christ because I am compelled by the one who said “blessed are the poor in Spirit for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” You see, I am the poor in spirit – we all are. There is no such thing as special because we are all so incredibly special it cancels itself out. From the scant knowledge I have of Jesus, I hear the truth. I hear his voice beckoning, saying “come and see.”  I keep moving forward, hoping that what lies around the next bend will be the one I seek. It always is; the tricky part is my capacity to recognize it.

Christianity has as many flaws as it has followers who are filled with flaws of their own. How could it be anything else?  The trick is to stop kicking the tires and searching for the right vehicle, and just get in and go. Seek first the kingdom of God and the rest will follow. I have no idea where it’s going, no one does…but I’d rather be on the road seeking than not.  That’s just me, and that’s why Christian.