i’ve been here before.

I’ve been here before, this lounge and lobby in Manila.  New World Hotel in Makati City is likely the most exotic hotel I’ve ever stayed at. I wish you could see the leather-covered elevator walls, the marble floors, the chocolate buffet or the saunas.  My imagination is captured by every foreign accent, every business suit and every man who walks in with his hired escort.  I create stories in my mind of who these people are and what they do for a living.  They are all James Bond in disguise and I am a secret observer recording their international mysteries.

Fresh mango juice is at my side.  Fresh mango juice from the Philippines is a much sweeter, smoother version of almost any other juice I’ve ever had.  The tropical climate here allows the mangos to grow year round and always within arms reach, whether from a street vendor or a world-class restaurant.  There are no forced flavors, nothing reconstituted or dehydrated for a thousand miles to travel.  Pulp clings to the glass as I taste colors and health in this tall cup of God’s juice.

It’s the Chinese New Year here.  Neighboring China overshadows the Philippines economically and in this way, culturally.  A small dragon parade snakes its way through a local market.  The celebrants who inhabit this elaborate, kaleidoscopic puppet sit on each other’s shoulders to make the dragon’s head reach well into the sky.  The vendors peddling their wares wait earnestly for the dragon to stop at their booth and bless them with another year of luck.  Fortune, for good or ill, might be as much a vehicle for civil religion as the Catholicism planted by the Spanish colonizers.

I passed miles of rice paddies Sunday on the way to Pampanga, a province in the Central Luzon region.  Water buffalo tilled the earth as their owners drudge the plows behind them.  The fields are intentionally flooded from the local waterways so the young seedlings can set without fear of pests or weeds.  Rice will feed this country more than any other crop.  McDonald’s won’t accompany their nuggets with french fries as much as they will a large ball of sticky rice.

My Saturday morning started in a slum.  Tall skyscrapers overshadow the squatters and there has never been a starker contrast between poor and prosperous.  Haircuts, eye exams, prescription meds are rationed.  Inside the adjacent 200 square foot Catholic mission, dead teeth are being pulled from their vacuous sockets.  Thankfully, Novocaine is administered earlier.  Inside of two minutes in this shanty town I am desperately fighting the tears back.  I tell myself ‘be strong’ but I don’t know for who or what really.  A man bathes in front of me, a little boy urinates beside me and a little girl plays by the constant flow of water that is washing it all down the street.  I argue in my head about the role of choice in socio-economic status.  Perhaps it’s just to distract my conscience though.

Large existential questions loom over me in these moments.  In such a large world it is easy to feel so awfully small.  I make meaning of these adventures one day, one feeling and one person at a time.  My heart is full and I long for home.  My tiny corner of the world beckons and 24 hours of flying is all that separates me from those people who I am desperately in love with.  I’ve carried each one of you with me.  I have had make-believe conversations in my head of how you might experience such things.  I’ve thought of how you would tamper my cynicism, laugh at my silliness or just be a comforting presence in fleeting moments of loneliness.

I’ve been here before, this lounge and lobby in Manila.  Her sights, smells and sounds inform my exploits.  It is almost time to go.  I’m closing the computer lid now.  I’m now going to go walking and see if I can find somewhere I’ve never been before.

Advertisements

…and God is still good.

Has life ever felt like one brand new experience after another, some experiences you have asked for and some that you haven’t?

Personally, I think that we are often prepared only for those enterprises in life that are familiar and rote.  Rarely are we prepared for those experiences and times that hurt, that would offer us growth as a person.

A recent example is an outdoor adventure involving refugee kids from a local community here in Charlotte.  Our church partnered with Camp Canaan to bus in about 50 kids to experience a sand island in the Catawba River, complete with hiking, soccer and a zip-line.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

As I approached this zip-line with its platform approaching the lower canopy of leaves, I already began to feel a little shaky.  The wooden planks forming this veranda in the sky seemed to me to be a bit too small.  Yet, what better motivation for a new adventure than watching 6 year olds scale this ladder of wood and bark, leaving only their fear behind to taunt me upward too.

I was the adult there.  As in, I have responsibilities like…breathing and…my legs…but that didn’t stop me (or my pride rather) from tracing the steps of many brave souls gone before.  Maybe the platform was about 30 feet up but then again, it could have been 100 feet up.  It didn’t matter because I was there and people are watching and I may not ever be here again.

So I climbed…

…and God is still good.  But what makes Him good isn’t my understanding of the word “good” because I often ascribe a definition of goodness that would benefit my current state of being, or doing or thinking…

…and I climbed…

…because you see I have a rather small definition of goodness.  This definition of God’s goodness generally revolves around me getting something positive or feeling a certain way.  The inverse of this small definition, or rather, the risk of this small definition is that if things aren’t going my way or if don’t feel a certain way then perhaps God isn’t quite as good as I think He should be…

…and I stood on the edge of that platform…

…realizing that the problem for me isn’t that the Lord is good but that I often put Him in a box of ‘goodness’ that is just too small…kind of like the platform I was standing on.

“God, you are good while I’m here on the ground.  You are good while gravity is my friend and while I’m looking up instead of looking down.  God, you are good when I have a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear, family and friends to love.”

There’s only one way off this platform that allows me to keep my dignity.  Of course that’s just my pride talking because I can climb back down.  The deeper issue is that there is only one way off this platform that lets me leave all the questions behind…questions like, ‘what if I had just jumped’ or ‘what does it feel like to fly’?

Shaking, nervous, scared, unknown…God is still good.  There’s only way to know that goodness and leave the questions behind: to trust Him and jump.  The Lord was good way down there on the ground, safe and comforted.  Up here…my definition of goodness has to expand.

There’s only way to know that God is still good despite the hurt, pain, confusion or anger and that is to trust His goodness in spite of it.  There’s only one way off this platform that redeems every aching, scary step up to it and that is to let go and jump.

“God, you are good while I am way up here on this platform.  You are good while gravity is vengeful and while I’m looking down instead of looking up.  God, you are good when I don’t have a bed to sleep in, naked and ashamed having lost all family or friends.”

God, you are good and we leap…

…and we laugh, breath taken, loving deeply this wind in our hair and this view so magnificent and we laugh…

…because You are still good, so very good to us.  Not because we jumped but because that’s just who You are.  A different experience, another stretch, a bigger definition and the box I’ve kept You and my heart in is slowly crumbling.

Hey, look back there…do you see that?  That platform isn’t quite as high anymore.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

A Birchcroft kid coming down after the long zip!

political conventions and permission to doubt.

As I write these words, Ann Romney stands at the podium admonishing the nature of love in a Republican-Mormon family.  This week the Republican National Convention is taking place in Tampa, FL.  Next week, in my hometown of Charlotte, NC the Democratic National Convention will meet.  There will be political maneuvering behind the scenes, back-slapping and high-fives on both sides of the political aisle.  2016 is already in the sights of many ambitious politicians.

Name dropping is the vernacular.  You don’t actually talk to other people at the convention, you simply look at them and say a name.  They in turn say another name, you both nod and then walk away.

Seriously though, these types of events represent the pinnacle of American political idealism.  The real question is, “Who can be the most optimistic about America’s future?”  Which political party can paint the most vivid picture of a dream that we all want to be a part of?  Promises like “not failing and not being let down” get thrown around so lightly that they are almost believable.  Please don’t interpret my cynicism as opposition to a particular ideology.  Rather, read my cynicism as a set-up for a deeper truth…

The staff at Renovatus has recently read Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  In it, he writes, “It is common sense that some situations call for pessimism, but as a culture Americans have strangely decided to endow optimism with unqualified favor.  Politicians today compete to be the most optimistic, and accuse their opponents of pessimism, as it if were a defect.

If optimism is seen as an asset to a political agenda then pessimism is a liability.  If joy and happiness are the obvious outcomes to voting one way, then depression and melancholy must be the outcomes of voting another.  What provokes my thoughts about these political conventions are questions like, ‘How much of a liability is it to be authentic’ or ‘What would happen to my political career if I was to doubt something?’  It seems to me that building a platform around having all the right answers is flawed from the beginning.

I don’t think the speechwriters will work in the phrase ‘I’m not sure what we should do about the budget deficit.’  If a candidate approached the podium and began their speech with, “This is a crazy world, I don’t have the answers and frankly I’m a little doubtful”, that candidate would lose their platform instantly.  While I’m not saying anyone should start a speech that way it will always be easier to start a political diatribe with the ‘answers’ rather than authentic questions or doubt.  As valuable as optimism is to the American ideal, so is quick access to solutions for all that ails us emotionally, physically, spiritually or mentally.

Shenk continues:

Over the past few decades, a stigma in politics against emotional health treatment has extended to any display of unscripted emotion…Somehow, anything short of constant cheer has come to be perceived as a violation of the American religion.  Even as we practically drown in the information about politicians’ predilections – from snack foods to underwear – a kind of supposition of infallibility keeps us from a real discussion of character, because the real things human beings actually experience are considered taboo.  We all know that our presidents, as Bob Dylan sang, “sometimes must have to stand naked.”  Yet anyone who dared to be nakedly emotional would face death by a thousand cuts.

I think there’s an alternative model to having all the answers often seen in politics.  Let’s take a quick look at man called John the Baptist.  John wasn’t running for political office.  If he was running for office he wouldn’t have publicly called out the local king, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife as his own.  It landed him in jail and it ultimately cost him his life.

While in prison, John heard of the miracles that Christ was doing and he sent two disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah or should we be looking for someone else?”  This wouldn’t be so awkward if John himself hadn’t been the one to baptize Christ, subsequently watching the heavens open up and hearing a voice from heaven declare, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  There’s not exactly a lot of ambiguity here.  It sounds like this might be the Son of God you baptized, John.

I don’t know why John doubted Christ while in prison.  Maybe it was prison that did it.  Regardless, when John’s disciples found Christ and asked Him that question, He didn’t get angry.  He didn’t rear back and declare, “Why, that no-good, ungrateful low down, dirty…”  He told the disciples to run back and tell John of all the miracles that were taking place.  He then turned to the gathered crowd and he declared, “Among those born of women, there has not been one greater than John the Baptist.”

Christ didn’t chastise John or his disciples…instead, He praised John.  Jesus didn’t get offended by John’s authentic doubt, he praised John as more than a prophet!  It sounds like Christ is comfortable enough in Himself to encourage an authentic answer over a religious answer.  It sounds like God honors authentic doubt when that doubt is fostered in an authentic search.

It’s hard to imagine what religious tradition would be,” says scholar Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, “if there weren’t people looking up and saying that they disagreed with what had come before.”  Maybe this is why John the Baptist felt so comfortable challenging the traditions of the Pharisees and religious teachers.

While American politics and civil religion may not lend themselves to doubt or authenticity, I find it encouraging to know that Christ values my authenticity and vulnerability far above my struggle to be eternally optimistic.  I would rather be in prison with John than in the throne room with Herod.  Christ praised the former over the latter and eventually elected to identify with death as well.  Like John, He knew what was worth dying for.  Perhaps a better understanding of reality would help us to know that truth as well.

I hope I’ve encouraged your doubting and your authenticity a little.  Thank you for reading this and as always, God bless you and God bless…wait, there’s a better ending to this speech.  How about, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

what the 80’s taught me about manhood.

I’m a fairly typical guy when it comes to action movies from the 1980’s.  I’m literally a “Die Hard” fan of the genre.  Give me some Predator or Aliens to watch and I’m good to go.  The prototypical tough guy served well as my stereotypical hero.  I loved these guys and I wanted to emulate them.  Mostly brawn, little brains and cheesy catch-phrases was the tried and true way to finding and rescuing a girl on the big screen, so why not real life?

Unfortunately, this recipe for “success” helped carry me into a high school social scene that was frankly devoid of girls.  What was up with that?  Not that I had big muscles or great hair.  In fact, my ears stuck out like antennae and my buzz-cut did little but attract the local Marine recruiter.

The idea was planted and germinated that if I look tough, act tough and speak tough then everything is just going to magically go right.  I took a “Boyz in tha Hood” approach to respect: if you want it, you have to give it.

What happened over time was that this idea infected more than my notion of respect but eventually my notion of manhood.  I needed to have an answer for everything.  I should be able to fix every problem and if I didn’t have an answer to a problem, I would get one.  The idea of being comfortable with the “unknown” was entirely foreign to me.  Why trust in others when I can do it myself?  Why not be like Jean-Claude Van Damme who could train a little harder, run a little faster and do crazy nasty splits to prove how much of a man he could be?  Believe me, I tried to do those splits and let’s just say my manhood wasn’t cool with that.

I eventually left Mr. Miyagi’s waxing techniques behind as I grew up but I didn’t leave behind the idea that being tough was surely the key to success.  The directorial vision of my post-adolescent life was more characteristic of the late Tony Scott, rather than his brother, Ridley: a “Top Gun” Tom Cruise versus a “Legend” Tom Cruise, if you will.

This isn’t to say that the 80’s lacked balance.  Who can forget John Hughes’ ‘Breakfast Club’?  In fact, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson portrayed a transformation in two hours that is taking me 31 years.  They initially conveyed an exterior toughness.  That kind of toughness which helps to preserve a rather frail masculinity.  That kind of toughness which makes your eyes and mind wander from insecurity to insecurity.  That kind of toughness which demands far more energy than the human heart can afford to spend.  At the end of the movie Estevez and Nelson are like two different people, emotionally vulnerable and empathetic to their peers.  Good grief, it’s at this cathartic point in the movie that I wish art imitated life…my life!

I have learned, indeed am learning that my toughness, my emotional insecurities, my need to always have an answer is a poor excuse for masculinity.  Who wants to be around that person anyways?  Those women in the 80’s action movies were paid to portray a helplessness that didn’t reflect reality.  I don’t think that women are looking to be rescued, I think they are looking to be respected.  That respect doesn’t come at the end of a demand but rather at the end of a sacrifice.

My role model for masculinity didn’t get paid $20 million to star in a blockbuster action movie.  He didn’t drive a 1961 Ferrari GT California like Hughes’ other 80’s star, Ferris Bueller.

Rather, my role model for masculinity submitted himself to death, even death on a cross.  He hung between sky and earth, dejected and without fanfare.  His vulnerability knew no end.  His masculinity was submissive and without category, peer or demand.  His eyes didn’t wander from insecurity to insecurity.  He was meek but not frail.  He knew his own belovedness and could expend that energy without fail.  He was and is Christ.

For too long, I’ve allowed a definition of masculinity derived from popular culture to dictate my thoughts and actions.  Who knows where that definition was first formed and cultivated, whether nature or nurture?  Who knows and who cares?  80’s movies aren’t exactly the most relevant topic for today’s increasing eclecticism in media saturation.  However, emotional vulnerability, selflessness and humility are relevant and increasingly so.

I’m convinced and have decided to define my masculinity apart from the glow of the TV screen or the lights of Time Square.  I’m convinced and have decided that my masculinity will be shaped by the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table, both broken and poured out.  I’m convinced and have decided that I am most masculine hidden in the lap of my Heavenly Father, letting him speak that same belovedness to me that He does to His Son.

In the Breakfast Club, Estevez’ character tells everyone “We’re all pretty bizarre.  Some of us are just better at hiding it.”  I completely agree.  It’s just that I don’t want to hide it anymore.  There is the beginning of masculinity and there is the beginning of it all.

confessions of a formerly-retired children’s pastor.

I came out of retirement this year.  Jonathan Stone helped to remind me of that, although I would argue that ‘retirement’ is a bit of a misnomer in that I did have intentions of returning to ‘work’.  That work, in the words of Frederick Buechner, is to “tell the truth of the Gospel, as tragedy, comedy and fairy tale.”

Telling that truth as a professional requires (or should require) degrees of pathos, ethos and logos and in our tradition, a piece of paper.  When the Gospel unfolded in my life as tragedy more than comedy or fairy tale, I surrendered that piece of paper and various pieces of myself in the process.

That was over two and a half years ago now.  My battles with cynicism volleyed my thoughts between returning to ministry as a professional and remaining hidden in the bulwarks of history.  Shame can do that to a man.  At the behest of wise counsel I stuck my big toe in the waters of ministry and rapidly found myself again swimming in the deep end.

Enter Jonathan #3.  Good grief, this literal giant of a man saw fit to make his church a home for my redemption as a man and a minister.  Renovatus, a church for people under renovation, is aptly titled via Latin, meaning “renovation, renewal, change“.  Jonathan Martin, of anyone I know, believes that the Gospel is told best through the tapestry of our lives be it tragic, comedic or ridiculous.

That being said, I must provide the caveat that returning to ministry (or any vocation) depends greatly upon the context of where one lands.  I publicly confess that Renovatus has largely restored my faith in an organized, evangelical, pentecostal community.  Thus, my learned lessons/confessions have a bent that are different from Jonathan’s Stone’s confessions or anyone else who might be reading this.

Alright Stone, so what have I learned since “coming out of retirement”?  I’ll pick three things than can be summarized in a blog post:

  1. My ministry, the summary power, manifestation and credibility thereof is directly correlated to how I treat and relate to my wife.  While I believe this to be true to all married ministers, in my case it’s especially important.  My betrayal of her trust was the capstone of my dis-integration.  If I am to be a whole, integrated “teller of the truth” then my soul is to be naked before her.  This has affected the time I spend at the office, the time I spend answering e-mails and making phone calls.  It’s affected how I spend my time off.  It’s also affected the integration of my ministry.  We don’t just meet with parents, we meet with couples.  Our volunteers are no longer commodities, a means to an end.  They are the end themselves. 
  2. I’ve started listening to the flock.  I had a mentor, Herschell Baker, who helped me understand that the voice of God can be discerned by the laity as much as the clergy.  Stone, you alluded to this when you said “I have come to realize that the things that build me up and feed me in church have very little to do with church service programming and sermon content.”  I used to drive to mega-churches and meet with their staff, go to their conferences and soak up their methods.  I’ve since learned that those churches (for better or for worse) are largely a mix of big personalities, large coffers and right-place/right-timeI’m not as interested as I once was in forcing “big-church” programming on people, especially those in exodus from “Egypt”.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an ideological discourse against the big churches of Charlotte.  I love their excellence.  I’ve simply become more interested in the voices right here vs. over there.  Bonus: It’s made me a tad more bearable to be around too.
  3. If I can plant any seed in a child, I want it to be a love for scripture.  Children learn best in play and they also learn best from a narrative.  The bible provides a context for children to read their own story into and from.  While “retired”, I spent my time working for Target, a corporation very good at what it does.  They are helping to define the next generation of children as mini-consumers.  Disney does a great job with this too.  If I see my job as anything now, it’s not to compete with the YMCA or Disney.  It’s to help families value liturgy, sacraments, worship and the beauty of scripture.  I want to affect a generation of children in a “new way to be human”.  If I can somehow hide any attempt at my legacy behind the story of reconciliation, then I’ve done well.

I completely resonate with Jonathan Stone’s confessions pre-, mid-, and post-retirement.  Going into and out of retirement under my terms, however, has me reflecting more introspectively than his questions originally warranted.  I know he’ll indulge me though.

Finally, Beuchner also said that if the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.  It is with the same hand that God uses to chastise his beloved sons and daughters, that he uses to usher them sweetly into his lap and embrace.  As you read these words, know that this fool is currently resting with bruised hips in the lap of his Lord.

how are you using your voice?

Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, here is one of my favorite TED talks.  Eric Whitacre is a composer who used the medium of the internet to conduct a choir of 2,000 voices from around the world.  This project and its resulting song is one of the most moving I’ve ever heard.  Listen to what he learned from it:

“So two things struck me deeply about this. The first is that human beings will go to any lengths necessary to find and connect with each other. It doesn’t matter the technology. And the second is that people seem to be experiencing an actual connection. It wasn’t a virtual choir. There are people now online that are friends; they’ve never met. But, I know myself too, I feel this virtual esprit de corps, if you will, with all of them. I feel a closeness to this choir — almost like a family.”

The beauty of a choir is in its celebration of each unique voice.  A great question to ask is, “How are you using your voice?”  Are you using it to give to and build something greater than you?