I gave up coffee for Lent this year. A little context…I have 2 Keurig machines. One at home and one 2 steps from my chair beside my desk at work. On an average day I drink 5 large cups of black dark roast coffee. I prefer French roast or Italian roast. No added cream or sugar…that would be unhealthy.
I say that not to pat myself on the back or for you to think of me as some sort of sainted spiritual ascetic. It’s more of an acknowledgment of the first of the 12 steps…I admit that I am powerless over caffeine. Who knew there were actual withdrawal symptoms?!? Irritability? Insomnia? Depression? Leg pains? Check. Check. Check. Check.
I’m getting past these. A couple of Aleve and a sleep aid tablet the second night of my little adventure got me 8+ hours of sleep and I’ve been almost back to normal since. It’s more the habit I miss anyway. Well…that and the taste…and the smell…the warm cup in my hand…the steam rising from the rim on a cool morning on my porch…STEP 2! STEP2!
This Lent thing wasn’t part of my small town, conservative Southern Baptist tradition growing up. But it has become an important part of my faith. Each morning, I walk into the kitchen by the light of the coffee maker that has switched on in anticipation of my first cup of the day. For the next few weeks, rather than stick in a coffee pod, I switch off the machine, grab a glass of juice and head out to the screen porch and think about this practice.
I would love to have something profound to write here in this place. God parting the caffeine free fog with some glorious Lenten wisdom. Not yet. Still waiting. That is probably the point. Waiting. Trusting. Anticipating. The God who made all of this is meeting me here in this spot each and every morning. In silence. I’m wondering if that in itself might be point.
We take stuff for granted every day. We flip the light switch and expect the darkness to disappear. We turn the faucet and water comes out of the tap. We turn the key and the car starts.
It hit me this morning how much I take my parents for granted. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It speaks to their love and character. It speaks to their presence. It speaks to the family they raised. It speaks to their marriage.
Yesterday was a busy day here for me and my family. All of us ran out the door in the morning off to jobs or school. We came home and ate something quickly and then were out the door for meetings, chaperoning a middle school dance, and band practice. I slipped into my bed at 11pm and tried to rest so I could get up and do it all again this morning.
Meanwhile, yesterday, my parents quietly celebrated 60 years of marriage. 60 years! It completely slipped my mind. Completely taken for granted. I’m more than a little ashamed that I didn’t call them yesterday (I did talk to them this morning…but…). An anniversary is a time to stop and count one’s blessings. And I’m am so insanely blessed to have hit the birth lottery and to have been born the son of Dick and Enola Young.
The cover was pretty striking. The image to the right with the headline: “The Fall of Aleppo: Putin’s victory, the West’s failure”. I tried to imagine what it would be like to care for this child in such a place. Then, what was maybe the most disturbing point about this issue…I turned the page. 3 times.
First page: 2 page ad for “Rolex, The Cellini”: retail value $15,200. “It doesn’t just tell time. It tells history.”
Second page: 2 page ad for BMW 750Li xDrive: beginning MRSP $98,000. “Sheer Driving Pleasure”. Has a remote control key to park the car for you into tight spaces. So you don’t have to actually drive it yourself.
Third page: Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator: retail value $3500 (had interior cameras for “food management and direct grocery ordering). Comes with app for your phone so you might look in your refrigerator from your phone…rather than the annoying practice of opening the door.
The tragedy, and the irony printed in the first 6 pages of this magazine was a gut shot for me this morning. And it will haunt my Christmas. This isn’t a guilt trip post for the holidays. It’s not intended as a political statement per se. But, for me anyway, its my morning meditation on the closing of Advent 2016…the coming of the Christ…the hope and savior of the world. Where have we who call ourselves the “Christian West” gone wrong? How do we return to be the light the Christ showed us how to be to this hurting world? We are chosen by God not to be singled out and special. We are chosen to be witnesses to this light.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. —John 1:5 (NRSV)
“…Whenever dissent is scattered and unfocused, and whenever mutual suspicion and hostility rule, the only way forward or back to communal solidarity…is to pick a joint enemy and to unite forces in an act of joint atrocity aimed at a common target. It is solely the community of accomplices which provides (as long as it lasts) a guarantee against the crime being named a crime and being punished accordingly. What the community will therefore not suffer lightly are such people as refuse to join the hue and cry, who by their refusal cast doubt on the righteousness of the act.”
In just about every context I find myself of late, when the issue of politics comes up, my friends and I are for once in a long while united. For the most part, people in my circles, be they conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans, are decrying the rise of Donald Trump. However, looking at his numbers and at the delegates he has apparently “won”, chances are many of my friends and acquaintances are choosing Trump as their mode of choice to “make America great again.” Somebody, somewhere, is in fact voting for “The Donald”.
What was darkly humorous just a few short months ago has become a dawning awareness. A vulgar reality television personality whose accomplishments are nothing more than turning his name into a brand representing gaudy irresponsible opulence is about to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America. How can this be?
This question sent me to my book shelf to retrieve Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics—a book I purchased several years ago as assigned reading for a course I was taking at Fuller Theological Seminary. It has been a challenging read but also timely and helpful. In a section of chapter one entitled, A Prowler Around the House, Bauman recounts the story of Sidney Cooke, a paedophile, who had been released from prison and was returning home. He quotes a reporter from The Guardian who perceptively writes:
“If there’s one thing guaranteed to get people out on the streets today, it is the whispered arrival of a paedophile. The helpfulness of such protests is increasingly being questioned. What we haven’t asked, however, is whether these protests actually have anything to do with paedophiles.”
Bauman says that the reporter focuses on one particular town in which “the variegated crowd of grandmothers, teenagers, and businesswoman who had seldom, if ever, expressed any previous wish to engage in a public action had now laid protracted siege to the local police station, being not even sure that Cooke did indeed hide in the besieged building. Their ignorance concerning the facts of the matter took second place only to their determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it; and their determination gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
While there is no paedophile in this particular election, there is a strong perception by many, if not most, of the electorate that their government and the political process has failed them. And while, in my humble opinion, most of what Trump throws up against the walls of public opinion is simply false, unworkable testosterone fueled bravado, he has tapped into this “unfocused and scattered” dissent and channeled it into a wave he is about to surf right down the center aisle of the Republican National Convention.
As I process what Bauman has written, I recognize that our biggest enemy in this election isn’t Donald Trump. And it isn’t Bernie Sanders. Or Ted Cruse. Or Hillary Clinton. And it isn’t congress. Or Barack Obama. Yes, those ARE the enemies we all perceive to be “hiding in the besieged building”. Those are the ones we have all labeled as the prowlers around our neighborhoods. These political figures have all of us, regardless of party affiliation, riled up and angry and active. And, to paraphrase Bauman, our “ignorance concerning the facts of the matter [take] second place only to [our] determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it [mostly on our social media feeds]; and [our] determination [has] gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
I’m starting to suspect that what’s hiding in the buildings we have all besieged is actually a figment of our imaginations. What’s actually hiding in the building is our caricatures of the people we deem to represent all of our fears. We’ve reduced ourselves to labeling “the other” as “the problem” rather than placing the actual problem on the table between us and examining it with all of the tools we have available. Rather than solving anything, we have resorted to creating a boogeyman, and then we take to the streets (or our social media feeds) to call it names. I’m just beginning to read what I’m finding to be a profound book by Dr. David Dark, a professor at Belmont University in Nashville. Of labels, he says:
“When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. …Calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is to largely deal in curse words. It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it speaks in shorthand. When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body. In the face of a perhaps beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.” —David Dark, from Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
Some of the most useful and powerful tools at our disposal to tackle the huge problems we face in our world today might very well be the perspective of someone other than ourselves. The tools at our disposal include all of us. All of our values. All of our beliefs. All of our perspectives. All of our creativity. I’m reminded of a great line from an Indigo Girls song: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” A little collective humility might be just what the doctor ordered.
Would some of these tools be more effective in solving our problem than others? Absolutely. Do I disagree with some of the propositions being proposed? Adamantly! I’m NOT simplistically saying, “It’s all good.” But what I am saying is that we’re all human beings. And the God I attempt to follow values all of these human beings — in fact my understanding of God holds they are ALL created in God’s image.
As I continue into the dark and cynical hole that is this election season, I’m going to attempt to ask a couple of things of myself:
To recognize that I’m not a cold, objective (and correct) observer. I have a bias.
To give myself and others a break. For the most part, we’re all trying to make sense of something extremely complicated that no one really understands. We’re all doing the best we can.
To, with the best of my ability, lean into the space between myself and others with grace and peace…with love.
Can I be so bold as to ask the same of you? I don’t mean to preach. I just happen to think the boogeyman is actually a collective “us”. While there are a lot of things out of our control, we actually do have choices. We can decide how we respond to our neighbors. We can decide the words we use. We can decide that a label doesn’t define anyone any more that it defines me. And ultimately, WE can solve these problems we’re facing. We have before. I’m confident we will again. Seems to be a better way to live than being afraid of the boogeyman. Especially when the boogeyman has probably been me the whole time.
“Scared for health, afraid of death, bored, dissatisfied, vengeful, greedy, ignorant, and gullible—these are the qualities of the ideal consumer.
—Wendell Berry, from Our Only World
My wife and I spent much of a recent weekend going through boxes with the goal of reducing the pile down to a point we can actually use our garage for our cars rather than storing stuff. We had really good intentions to have this done before we moved. But you know about that particular road to hell and the intentions with which it’s paved. So the boxes were stacked high. They are filled with things we at some time or another felt we would need or use again. To be fair, much of the contents are sentimental…things to remind us of days gone by when children were babies and family members were still living.
However, if I dig a bit deeper into the archeology of our little garage excavation project, I come to the striking realization that there was a point in time that someone was faced with a decision: Do I buy this particular item or not? Every single item now cluttering my brand new garage and now taking up my precious day off…EVERY ITEM…was the result of someone answering that question with a “YES”.
Wendell Berry’s sobering description of the “ideal consumer” is a mirror that provides clear and precise reflection of our affliction. We, western consumers, are easily manipulated. That, and we’re addicted to the purchase.
I’d like to challenge you to a little experiment. Take the Wendell Berry quote with you and go pick up something you’ve purchased recently. Touch it. Handle it. What was the motivation for buying that? Does it spark joy? How long before this item finds itself in a box in your garage? Go to your garage and look at the things you have stored there. Do you remember why you bought them?
I realize I’m getting a bit preachy. So I’ll stop. However, today is “Black Friday Eve.” Black Friday to me is the most vulgar of our American Holidays. It’s unbridled and unapologetic consumption. The picture above was taken at our local Kmart. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, taking up huge amounts of valuable shelf space in the “holiday section” are rows and stacks of storage bins. The irony is obvious. Lets buy some bins to store the crap we bought before so we can make room for some new crap that we’ll need to store next year to make room for still more crap. I’ve heard so many people complaining about the stores decorating for Christmas before Halloween, completely skipping Thanksgiving. I don’t think retailers do this is because they are evil people with a corrupted agenda. It seems that we all are skipping Thanksgiving. The stores are only giving us what we think we want.
Today is actually Thanksgiving. A day we’ve set aside for giving thanks. Gratitude. I’m particularly thankful for family today. My gang all slept under my roof last night. Other extended family are here for the holiday weekend to share food and memories and create new ones. Others extended family members will be gathering around other tables doing the same. There is much to be thankful for. I wish all of you a joyous and very Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you will be able to spend it with people you love.
And about this Black Friday thing looming tomorrow. Skip it. Extend your Thanksgiving. And when you do go out shopping this Christmas, enjoy it! (But stick a copy of that Wendell Berry quote in your pocket before you go…and maybe a picture of your garage.)
I’ve rebooted this blog so many times. (One attempt was this post.) I started Jon Acuff’s latest book, “Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck ” the other day. I went all in…pre-ordered…received the free e-books, the Do Over sticker, and the signed book plate. It was going to happen. And then…
I had to actually write something. Something people would actually see. Yeah…I know. It seemed a little pretentious to me too. That’s why 10 days into my “10 Day Do Over Challenge”, I’m ironically stuck on day 3: Reach Out. The task was to send a quick email to someone asking them to check in with me in 10 days to see how my “do over” was coming. I sent that little note to my nephew and proceeded to NOT proceed. I got my nephew’s check-in email yesterday. He did his part! But Uncle Mike is still floundering.
I last posted in this blog over a year ago. The post was about my second Facebook Fast for Lent 2014. That fast actually only lasted a matter of days. However, my undeclared “fast” from writing in my blog was fabulously successful. What developed during ensuing months was a fear of writing my thoughts down anywhere someone could actually read them. I’ve filled a notebook or so with words. But I wasn’t going to be posting anything.
But, Jared has held me accountable. I’m going to start posting again. I’m not sure yet what I’ll be writing about. The writing muscle has atrophied a bit…sort of noodle like. And, confidence, that most effective of motivators, its pretty much gone as well. Limp writing muscles and empty confidence tank…not the best way to start a “do over.” But…I posted the damn picture Acuff instructed me to post in his damn “Do Over Book”. I’m about to click the pretentious little “publish” button at the bottom of this page. (My blog muscle is sore but there are some fumes in the confidence tank. We’ll see how this goes.)
In her Acknowledgments at the end of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass says, “These pages are my long-considered answers to questions a book and a teacher raised during my senior year in college.” Christianity After Religion is one of those books that took me a long time to read. Not because it was difficult, but because it required me to look at questions that have lingered around my faith and life for years.
Raised in a very religious home, faith has always been an integral part of my everyday life. It was not merely a program to be consumed a couple times a week at our local church. It was giving thanks at every meal. It was hearing the Bible read each night as we gathered in my parents’ bedroom. Those readings closed with us all kneeling beside the bed and expressing prayers to God. The church of my youth taught me that when some tenet of that faith was challenged by culture or science or another doctrine, the first response was defensive because the challenge seemed to attack the very foundations of all the provided meaning and purpose for every aspect of my life. Religion had been framed as a no-holds-barred death-match…winner-take-all.
There was a point about 12 years into my vocational ministry that this framework made absolutely no sense to me. My denomination had been embroiled in religious/theological/cultural battles for 20 years and the lines that were drawn between the sides didn’t seem to be significant or substantial enough to justify the carnage being wrought between good and faithful people (Diana Butler Bass has a wonderfully succinct description of this battle on page 233). It was for damn sure draining my very soul. A journal entry I made during that time simply said, “God, if you’re there, cool. If you’re not, cool.” I had had enough.
During that time, my family was a part of a community of faith that seemed to be a refuge from the battles…a spiritual DMZ so to speak. No doubt, our congregation was labeled by those in the fight, but my pastor, Dr. Larry Taylor, and the good people of that community had remained true. There was something different for me about that place. These people were not sheltered by any means and if pressed for a position on the issues of the day, whether religious or political, you would get an impassioned and well reasoned opinion from anywhere on the continuum of possibilities. But, we were ultimately followers of Jesus in a place called Emmanuel Baptist Church and that community was more important and life giving than any one political/theological position.
When looking back, I recognized that I had experienced this same type of community in a couple of places before. In the Baptist Student Union at LSU led by Frank Horton, and in the college department of First Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, led by Anne and Jack Lord. Rather than soul-sucking battles for “truth”, I found life-giving and transformative spiritual community. It was in these communities of my college days that I felt a call to vocational ministry. And it was Emmanuel Baptist Church that helped salvage that call from the hubris of denominational leaders seeking to tear apart such communities in the name of their particular versions of truth.
By the time I reached Chapter 7 and read Diana Butler Bass’ description of The Great Reversal, I recognized she was describing those communities from my past. These were not utopian by any stretch. But when taken as a whole, my experiences in those places were lived examples of belonging, behaving, believing (in that order). Butler Bass’ connecting this vision of community with spiritual awakening was exactly the appropriate link to make and her practical actions of “prepare, practice, play & participate” placed the lofty aspirations of such an awakening on the solid ground of experience and tangible action.
Christianity After Religion has become a foundational book for me. I’ll read it again and, with difficulty, will attempt to find more space for notes and thoughts in it’s margins. I recommend it very highly. And I recommend you take your time. It’s not a “page-turner” and I mean that in the absolute best sense of that term.