Monday, August 22, 2016

Two Churches and a Boat

A few days ago I was in Brussels, Belgium, being a tourist. It was a California-swimming-pool-blue sky day and I walked the city with my wife and her mother. We stopped in cafés and shops and museums and experienced the city as much as one can in two days.

We walked to a cathedral at the top of a hill, a massive building with twin column towers reaching to the sky. Flags lazily flapped in the breeze at the cathedrals highest point. I was sure the inside of this building would be as impressive as the outside. Having seen the cathedral in Cologne several times, I was anticipating a similar feeling of dumbfoundness when I walked inside the sanctuary.
I was disappointed when we couldn't find a single door that would open. We walked all the way around it. I tugged on a door with St. Peter carefully engraved on it, nothing. St George's door? Nope.

I was upset. And not just because St. George gets to be a Saint because he killed a dragon when we know there aren't such things as dragons. I was upset because I hate the idea of locked doors on churches. The only thing I hate more than locked churches are churches that charge admission, looking at you St. Mark's in Venice.

Later that evening we walked after dinner. I love to walk after dinner. It makes me feel like Woody Allen, but not like weirdo-maybe-pervert Woody Allen, but like cool-artist Woody Allen. Really more like a character in a Woody Allen movie. I love having a delicious meal with people I like and then walking with them, talking mostly about how good the meal was. It's one of the few distinctly urban experiences I enjoy. So we walked. We meandered through the skinny streets of the old town and then came upon a small square with cafés and bars (Brussels ain't running out of cafés or bars anytime soon) and there was a church in the middle of the square.

This church was old, sure, but not special. The outside of it looked like any number of churches in Europe. It could have been a small Catholic church in about 20 countries. Its door, however, was open. We walked up to it and were shocked. The inside was jammed with stuff. Just tons of things. This tiny church had paintings in gold frames all over the walls, a crucifix ten feet tall hanging in the entryway, and not one empty space. Individually, each piece of art was beautiful. Piled together with ninety other things and a giant shrine holding the bones of thirty or so martyrs, it just looked busy. We took off, overwhelmed.

Sometimes we can be closed off. Maybe full of truth and beauty, but unavailable to anyone. We have a lot of good ideas about God but don't ever share them. Or maybe we like our people, but don't want to be open to those people, whoever they are. We can be closed up cathedrals.

We can also be so full of stuff. We can let people in, only to show them everything we have immediately, scaring them off. We can be "vulnerable" but really all we mean is we are OK sharing a ton in small group or praying out loud. We over-share in an attempt to be more pious or to cover up what is really wrong. We pile religious things up in our lives, like they will help us.

I saw a refugee boat in the entryway of the Cologne cathedral a week ago. It was an actual boat, about 6 yards long, that had held 100 refugees on their quest for a new life. Many of those people had died on the journey, suffocated to death by the bodies of other refugees. Scared people looking for hope. Projected on the floor in front of the boat, it said "Christ sits in the refugee boat." Nothing in any church has moved me as swiftly and deeply as that image. I needed a moment. An empty boat tells a story of hope and loss and suffering and need. It asks for compassion and understanding and Love. Christ is there in it and in me. He is in the boat, and He is in me, so maybe I can see myself in the boat.

Not a closed cathedral, not a church full of religious trinkets, but a refugee boat might be the best image of Christ's love inspiring us to participate in His work. Let it be so.

Monday, July 11, 2016

We're All Guilty, We're All Crazy, We're All Wrong, We're Alright.

The world is on fire. Maybe not on the surface, and it may not be visible all the time, but there is a spinning and burning tornado of flame under the surface and anything that gets close to it has a chance of burning. The smallest step, the slightest wrong, the wrong turn of phrase will ignite and burn up as the world's furnace gets hotter and hotter. We have done this to ourselves, as we are seemingly unable to coexist with other human beings who look, believe, act, or feel differently than we do. It's a shame.

A few days ago a black man was killed by a police officer in Minnesota. His name was Philando Castile and he was shot when a policeman overreacted to his possession of a firearm at a routine traffic stop. In America, his possession of a firearm was completely legal and within his rights. The police officer made a terrible mistake, or was a terrible person. In a world on fire, you don't get to make mistakes. Especially the kind that cost someone his life.

Conclusions were jumped to, lines were drawn, sides were taken, photos were found to prove Castile was this or that type of person--as if any type of person deserves to be shot at point-blank range in front of his girlfriend.

The very next day a peaceful protest of the police killings of black men in America was taking place in Dallas, one of my home towns. The world is on fire, and peaceful protests rarely stay that way when they get too close to the flames. A madman opened fire into the crowd, targeting police officers as some sort of retribution for the killings of black men in America.

There's a myth called Redemptive Violence. It is as old as humanity and is deeply rooted in even the earliest stories we told ourselves around ancient campfires. If there is chaos or suffering, then violence can solve the problem. The hero can knock enough heads in to free the princess or the bad guys will always be beaten by the good guy whose guns are super cool. We even name our missiles Peacemakers. We truly believe, down to our core, that violence can bring about peace and justice. We believe that fire can be fought with fire.

Any progress made at the peaceful protest--any brotherhood or forgiveness made possible by the selfies with cops and handholding street songs sung by the protesters was eliminated faster than a speeding bullet. The protest was hiding the fire, but fire burns everything eventually.

Empathy is impossible when we're yelling. When the fire is burning, we can't see the Other for who he or she is. We can't see that even when we are not at fault directly, we are at fault. Life is not black and white, Us and Them, because the world isn't that way. Living dualistically will only lead you to become more judgmental, more angry, and more convinced you are right and those people are wrong.

In the book of John, Jesus in confronted by some people who are convinced they are right. They have caught a woman in adultery (it isn't clear what happened to the man she was caught with, but it's likely not much because life stunk for women back then) and have the right to execute her. She was wrong. She made a mistake. The world was on fire and she got too close. These men were going to show her and everyone else what happens when you aren't right enough.

Jesus starts writing in the dirt.

Some say he was writing scriptures, or listing the sins of the accusers, some say he was writing the names of the women they committed adultery with. No matter what he wrote, his next statement is enough to instantly extinguish the fire. "Let anyone who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her." Immediately he injected empathy into the situation. He allowed the men to see themselves and their sin in her. They were the woman caught in adultery and they couldn't condemn themselves to death.

What empathy does is it allows you to understand how infinitely capable you are of wrong. You can hate with the best of them. A few decisions separate you from the worst person in prison. The difference between having an impulse and acting on it is the difference between many of us and many of the people behind bars today. Understanding and embracing that is how empathy can begin working itself into the system of the world, putting out the fires.

Empathy only happens effectively when we listen to stories different from our own. When we understand people aren't making up their shared experiences. There is a problem in race-relations in the United States. There is a problem in policing in the United States. There is a problem with Hate in the United States. There is a we and them problem and we see how connected we are to them, and how connected our happiness is to theirs, we will begin to see the flames die down around us.

I am Philando Castile, and I am the cop who killed him. I am the cops shot in Dallas, and I am the murderer who killed them. We are connected because we are all human. Empathy has to rule the day, or we will all be burned up in the fire. We are all guilty and we are all crazy and we are all wrong and, because of the merciful Love at the center of all things, we are alright. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Daily Devotional: May 17

The Gospel According to Mark, Chapter 10

Perhaps the greatest sermon ever preached on Mark Chapter 10 was given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on February 4, 1968. This sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct," (please listen to it here) masterfully expounds on not only Mark 10, but also a unique darkness that exists in each and every one of us.

James and John are walking with Jesus as they did almost every day during His ministry on earth. I've done a few group hikes in my life, and funny conversations and arguments can help pass the time on tedious parts of the trail. Jesus and his posse walked everywhere. I can imagine how boring it would be to be walking for hours a day, and can imagine how my mind would cook up bizarre theories and ideas as it looked for ways to keep itself occupied. James and John are walking with Jesus, and they ask Him an innocent enough question:

"Hey, when this is all done, can we sit on either side of your throne in Heaven?"

Dr. King's sermon identifies the single driving force behind human activity is the Drum Major Instinct. This instinct, this desire to be recognized, is the gas in our engines. We want people to think we are important, we want people to desire us, we want people to listen to us. Dr. King points out that our very first cries as infants were cries for attention and affection, and it never stops as old as we get. James and John were acting out of their Drum Major Instinct because all of us do. All of us want to be the greatest. 

Jesus in one of the few instances where He gives specific instructions for living, tells His followers exactly what is needed to be first among them. Be last. If you want to be great you must be a servant to all.  Using Himself as an example, as we all should, Jesus says He did not come into the world to be served, but to serve. 

I'm not a nice person when I get stressed, cold, or hungry (or am in an airport). I become even more selfish and needy than I usually am. My selfishness is born out of my Drum Major Instinct to be served. I deserve speedy service and good food. I deserve recognition for the good things I do. 

Our desire to be recognized, to be in the lead of the parade, isn't inherently evil. It is easily corrupted by our hearts, but is also something we can use for good. We can be drum majors for Love. We canbe drum majors for Hope. We can lead by serving. At the end of the sermon, Dr. King gives his hopes for what people would say about him when he dies. 
"I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.  I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he's traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.
Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side,  not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world."

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Flour & Yeast & Salt & Water & Grace & Peace

There's cheese and then there's cheese. The former comes in a resealable bag and the latter usually has a funny french name and funnier smell. The earliest records of cheese being made by our ancestors is from 8000 years before Jesus would have been dipping bread into oil and fresh goat-cheese.

There's bread and then there's bread. The former comes from a plastic bag with a twist-tie and the latter comes from an oven. The former has tons of funny sounding ingredients, the latter usually has about four. Humankind had been baking wheat flour into bread for up to 30,000 years before Jesus said he was bread.

Most evolutionary biologists say homo sapiens acquiring the ability to cook food is what allowed us to grow our big brains and earn our place at the top of the food chain. Our ability to make milk and heads of grain into things like cheese and bread allowed us to develop agricultural societies, and civilization itself.

But we didn't have to make good cheese. We didn't have to bake good bread.

There really isn't a reason, from a strictly evolutionary perspective, for our desire to constantly innovate and create good food for our families. The ancient Egyptians cooking bread in ovens in 8000BC probably wouldn't immediately recognize the need for the five dollar red velvet cupcake at Sprinkles in Dallas, but they would find it delicious.

Something in us drives us to create. Something in us drives us to enjoy delicious food, and to share it with the people we love. We aren't just creators, we are--by our very nature--sharers of our creations. Tonight I baked a loaf of whole-wheat bread from scratch, dipped it into balsamic vinegar, placed a slice of chèvre and three slices of cherry tomatoes on top, and took a big bite. I don't deserve food to taste that good.

I mushed some ingredients together and shoved them into an oven, but then something else took over and made it into bread. At the most I put seeds into the ground and watered them, but something else took over to make tomatoes. I just bought the cheese at the store! I did next to nothing and was given a gift of a delicious bite of food. The next bite was my wife's, as I ran and made her try this delicious bread.

About 2000 years ago, Jesus was speaking to a large crowd of people next to the shores of a lake. Many of the people in this crowd had been present when He performed a miracle, feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread and some fish. He made an allusion to that miracle, then to the feeding of the Israelites in the desert by God, and then made a declaration.

"I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

As important as bread is in our lives, in Jesus' day it was even more important. One of the Aramaic (language Jesus spoke) words for bread was the same as the word for life. Jesus was saying "I am the life of life."

Because there's cheese and then there's cheese. There's bread and then there's bread. There's life and then there's life. 

The understanding of how little I deserve and how much I get anyway comes only from the understanding of what life is. Humility isn't thinking less of myself, it's thinking of everything around me in proper perspective with respect to my needs. It's understanding the entirety of my life is contained within Christ's energy moving through the world. In Him there are miracles everywhere I look. In Him I live, move, and bake my bread. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Past Few Weeks

The daily blog posts have died, but I will be resurrecting them soon. In the mean-time, let me fill you in on what has been going on in my life. 

 The entirety of the human experience can be summed up in the anxiety, frustration, and nervous laughter of a man about to see his bride come down the aisle. You're anxious because you've been planning this moment since you got engaged--or at least you know she has, and you can't screw it up. You're frustrated because you had to be engaged for so long, and you're just ready to be married. You're nervous because you're in front of a bunch of people, most of whom you barely know, and you are trying to keep it all together. Something great is about to happen, and you can't wait, but you already wish it was over. That's the human experience. 

Our wedding was gorgeous, or at least the pictures tell me it was. I don't really remember most of it, because I was navigating a fog of nerves and handshakes. There was one moment that I remember clearly. Just before I walked down the aisle with my mother, she asked me if I was nervous. I told her I felt like I was having an out of body experience. 

I was floating three feet above myself, looking at me from behind and watching me prepare to walk down the aisle. I am certain that's what was happening. As certain as I am that I am currently holding a computer typing. I was both outside of the moment and in the moment. I think that might be what transfiguration is like, but I'm not sure. I just know I've never felt more present at any event in my life than I felt in that singular moment. It was beautiful and terrifying, the things that make a moment memorable.

Leaving Denver with Sarah is one of my favorite moments. So many times in our relationship one of us has dropped the other off at an airport. I've boarded too many planes without her, and it was such a feeling of accomplishment to board that one with her, knowing our days of crying goodbyes in terminals had come to an end.

We spent a few nights in Casablanca, as far away mentally and physically and spiritually as can be from Denver. We loved it there. Sarah is amazing at finding her niche in new cultures and places. She travels well. We found dirty sandwich shops in the locals' area of town that we loved, ate fancy seafood dinners overlooking the sea, and got swindled by souvenir dealers. It was a great start to the honeymoon.

In Tangier we fell further in love, both with the city and with each other. I have never immediately loved a new place as much as I loved that place. The smells and sounds are completely foreign and somehow comforting. The people are friendly, talkative, and funny. They are glad you are there, as if they have a secret they've been dying to share with someone. 

You can drink your weight in mint tea in Tangier, and we did. Its syrupy sweetness is attractive both to good conversations and swarms of bees. We sipped mint tea in cafés once frequented by Tennessee Williams, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. We stayed in a hotel decorated by a famous French decorator I hadn't heard of. We took our breakfast each morning on the roof, where we could watch the city come to life. 

Traveling is the only way to guarantee a week will change who you are. Get away from everything you find familiar and become the person you want to be. Once you find this new identity, you can go home. A honeymoon is a great place to do this. Sarah and I left on our honeymoon as newlyweds, and came home a real couple, with real habits and new connections. I think that's the point. Plus I'm always in favor of people finding an excuse to travel to someplace warm.

Now we are settling in our home in Germany. There isn't any of Denver's snow or Morocco's tea. No one drives a Subaru here like Denver and they don't sit for hours everyday at cafés watching people walk by quite like they do in Tangier. This is our home now. We are having fun making it our home now. I am thrilled to have someone else at home, now.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Daily Devotional: March 24

The Gospel according to Mark, Chapter nine

Doubt is not the absence of faith. Too often we are told we either have faith or we don't--we either are "strong" in faith or we are are weak. This isn't the case. Many people who we would consider spiritual giants have wrestled with doubt. Every journey of faith will encounter unbelief, and it is time we acknowledge doubt's role in our lives.

Doubt can keep us humble. There's nothing anti-Christian about remaining humble in our faith. To acknowledge that our entire system of belief is, in fact, belief, and not knowledge is a good thing. It keeps us from starting religious wars. 

In Mark nine, we find Jesus meeting a dad whose son needs help. There can be no more miserable feeling than being unable to help someone you love. This father is desperate for his son to be made healthy again. He will do anything to help him, so he has come to Jesus.

If you can do anything, take pity on us

It takes a lot of humility to ask someone else to take pity on you. It takes a firm grasp of reality, which is the true meaning of humility. To be humble is to be aware of your place in the world and your status compared to all others around you. This father knew where he stood. He knew Jesus' disciples were unable to help him, but he believed Jesus might.

Jesus assures the boy's father that He can do anything. More importantly, "all things are possible for those who believe." 

The father believes.  

Just like those of us who have chosen to follow this homeless Palestinian carpenter's teachings.

We are like this father. We need Jesus' help, but sometimes we aren't sure. We have tried other things and nothing else seems to fill the void. We have made a mess of so much and just need a re-do. We are scared of admitting we still don't feel like our faith is where it needs to be. 

I believe. Help me with my unbelief.

Two lines. Let them be our prayer as we dance between faith and doubt with a God who has mercy on us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Daily Devotional: March 15

Week 8, Day 1, The Gospel according to Mark, Chapter Eight

Suffering is one of the most constant facts of the human condition. We will all encounter suffering in our lives and will all seek to deal with suffering in our own ways. Every spiritual teacher, guru, or leader must at some point come to terms with how we are to deal with suffering. Who do we turn to, what do we do, how should our attitude be?

Jesus is more than a magician. In this chapter we see Him making calculated steps towards distancing Himself from the teachings of the Pharisees and the Zealots (a group that wanted to overthrow Rome). He wasn't doing things their way. He wasn't their to clarify a rule book. He wasn't there to usher in a political revolution. Jesus was there to teach them, and us by proxy, how to live. 

Deny yourself

We each have some deep suffering in our lives. Whether it's an illness or grief or disappointment, we each have some burden we are carrying. Many people would try to tell us to put those burdens down, to blame them on someone else, or to find ways to not think about them. What Jesus says here is fascinating. He says to deny yourself. Some of us need to stop there with this command and ponder it deeply. What does it mean to deny ourselves? 

Sometimes a fast or a cleanse is a good way to deny ourselves of temporal things. Sometimes it just means doing something for someone else, and thinking of ourselves less. It means to think of making life easier for others before you worry about yourself. Denying our selves runs completely counter to a culture of indulgence and comfort. We have an extremely hard time denying ourselves things that make us more comfortable, especially when we feel we have "earned" them.

Take up your cross

The problems in our lives--our suffering--are not to be avoided. We are not trying to put an end to suffering by forgetting about it when we come across it. Instead, Jesus says to take up our cross--to pick up the thing that makes us suffer and carry it with us. We are to go through our suffering. 

Many counselors will tell you that avoiding your problems will never solve them. If we choose to deny the existence of our suffering, or to blame our mistakes on others, we will never grow through them. The only way to resolve conflict, suffering, or pain in our lives is to first deal with it head-on. We have to carry it for a while. 

Follow me

This is a remarkable statement. The image I chose for today's meditation is the way I picture this statement. We are carrying our crosses, but Jesus is carrying His too. He knows what we are going through and is sympathetic to us. We have a leader who knows how we feel. He's not telling us to do anything He hasn't already done. He is in front of us, always our example, carrying His burdens and ours. 

In following Him, in denying our selves, and in taking up our crosses, we will find true life. Not "heaven" because that's not what He is talking about here, but real life right now. Our lives are better when used for others. Our lives are better when we deal with suffering in positive ways. Most importantly, our lives are better when we follow the example of Christ.

About Drew

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A follower of Jesus, trying to build myself and others up from the inside out.