Monday, August 30, 2010

a rock, hanging
off the edge of a hill, gave me a
place to sit.

There are places people go when life gets rough -- separate places, safe spaces, sanctuary. My mother locks herself in the bathroom. My brother goes on long walks past the library and into the north edges of town. My father rolls down the windows and drives the back roads. My sister used to hide in bed with a book or her journal. I have a rock in the Owyhee Mountains. Just up the hill behind the Catholic church in Silver City, Idaho -- past open mine shafts and sage-brush clumps -- lies a red dirt path. That first time, I followed it because it went up, and I wanted to go to the top. I wanted to see. But I found more than a view. I found a separate place. Hanging halfway off the edge of the mountain, it felt like the top of the world. I climbed up on top and sat at the edge. Sitting there, dangling my legs off the edge of the edge, I could see for miles down the creek to Jordan Valley, up the creek to Silver City, along the road to Murphy. And I was alone.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my whole life looking for that rock, trying to find a place where I can catch my breath, see where I’ve been, and just be alone for awhile. Sometimes I wonder how other people live, people who haven’t found a rock. Sometimes I sense in the story of scripture a collection of people trying to find a rock, trying to talk about their journey and what they discovered along the way, trying to lead others into an experience of sanctuary. Sometimes.

Most of the time, it seems like I’ve missed the boat, lost my head, hands tied behind my back, barking up the wrong tree, washed up. People have stuff to do and places to be. There’s no time for side trips, no room for quiet, no space for space. And the Bible’s just a collection of dusty letters and foreign poems and depressingly inscrutable commands and old-fashioned feel-good stories. And the churches are PC clubs for white people with too much time (or guilt) on their hands. And Jesus is a TV personality who just wants to be friends with your kids and maybe try a little magic trick or two to lighten the mood. And then there’s the joke where Paul Tillich gets a letter from a critic of the faith. It’s filled with the details of a recent archeological find -- coordinates, descriptions, lots and lots of photos. It seems they’ve found the bones of Jesus, and the critic finishes with a mean-spirited postscript, “There goes your resurrection!” Tillich turns over the paper, confused, and breathes -- astonished -- “You mean, he actually lived?”

Do we live in a world that’s moved beyond belief? Are there no longer separate places? Have we been doomed to frantic, fear-fraught lives? to standards un-bending? deadlines pending? stress un-ending? Are we burned out on religion?

I was. But when I first started contemplating leaving my home church, back in 2002, I struggled with the fact that so much of my identity was intertwined with church. I volunteered with the youth, drove the bus, worked on committees, changed the sign board, cooked for potlucks, showed up at business meetings, represented the local church at denominational events. Surrounded by people, busy with ministry, I felt unloved and unappreciated. And I was lonely. But who would I be if I left? What, if anything, would be left of me?

I’d worked for several years on the staff of a local church. But I felt like a foreigner. I didn’t fit. So I resigned my position. And then I stopped attending. That’s when the questions started: was I in conflict with the pastor? was I depressed? did I have secret sin? I wish I could have articulated what was happening. But at the time, I only knew that I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I wish that I could have told them how frustrated I was with church. I wish that I could have told them that so many of the spiritual answers sounded to me like empty promises, platitudes. I wish that I could have pointed out that many of the practices of church speak to a culture that no longer exists. I wish that I could have told them that church as we know it and practice it is dying.

But I couldn’t say any of those things. I didn’t even know why I was unhappy. I was desperate for truth. I wanted to understand reality and learn to live spiritually. I wanted to know God. I wanted to be fully myself rather than just playing a series of parts. I wanted to integrate faith and vocation with community rather than continuing a kind of compartmentalized existence. And I couldn’t find a way to fit all this stuff into church. The box was too small. So I left.

But I kept coming back, kept hanging around and showing up, watching and waiting for others to exhibit some of the same symptoms -- not people who hate church but those who desperately want something bigger, something that transcends our limited notion of what it means to have faith. Today, I’m even on staff at another local church. Why am I still around? Because I know there’s got to be something better than what is. And I’m not smart enough to figure it out on my own. What I do know is that there’s something about places of sanctuary. What I do know is that people need separate spaces -- for quiet, for peace, for perspective. What I do know is that a rock, hanging off the edge of a hill, gave me a place to sit.

After a little while, I stood up, walked down the hill and drove back to town. But I keep coming back to that rock. One of these days -- some day soon -- I’d like to take others there with me.

At Barclay Press

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Parable of a Bridge-Jumper

Am I more likely to
sacrifice for a neighbor
in need? or take pictures?

Idaho's 486-foot-high Perrine Bridge is one of the world's most-frequented sites for parachutists who jump from fixed objects. But when Tamara Judkins and her daughter, Rebekah, drove through on a summer day in 2008, they noticed that the man "sobbing and leaning over the railing" didn't have a parachute.

Judkins recounted to the Times News of Twin Falls how she circled back, parked, and told her daughter to call for help. Then Judkins did something that none of the 20 or so bystanders had thought to do: "I took off towards him, wrapped my arms around him and held onto him."

Judkins later said that as she tried to talk the man into coming into town with her for a cup of coffee, the gathering crowd just watched, "many of them snapping photos."

Eventually, Twin Falls County sheriff's deputies were able to grab the man, whose name was not released, and pull him back over the railing.

For weeks after I read of the incident, there was one detail that I couldn't get out of my mind -- those people in the crowd, watching and snapping photos.

It reminds me of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Plenty of passers-by saw the man at the side of the road, obviously suffering from his injuries, naked and close to death. But most of them were too busy to stop.

In this newspaper account -- a parable for our age -- the issue isn't one of busy-ness. No, we are a society of gawkers, eavesdroppers and peeping Toms; and we have plenty of time. The problem is that suffering -- a potential suicide, a televised hanging, tortured prisoners half a world away -- too easily excites prurience instead of sympathy . . . leaving me to question my character (and my motives):

Am I more likely to sacrifice for a neighbor in need?

Or take pictures?

Monday, August 09, 2010

A day in the life . . .

We rose in the dark and
showered in silence.

We shaved in our cars,
waited at red lights,

We burned our mouths on hot coffee.

We zipped.

We zoomed.

We slid down on-ramps,
weaved across lanes,
darting, dashing --
more darting.

We turned up the volume
"By the power of Grayskull!"

We were the new Speed Racer.

We started each day -- a crusade -- and

we cursed
the harsh glare of new sun,
the inevitable red glow of brakes,
the insidious ineptitude of the deliberately slow.

We power-walked the centers of hallways.

We answered our phones
with loud laughter,
with tense murmurings,
with a hand on our ear and a dirty look at our loud neighbors.

We hauled paper stacks and portfolios.

We ate ham sandwiches,
ordered Chinese,
crowded into that new sushi bar and
ran (oh, did we run!)

We whistled in restrooms and
sang the national anthem as

we slammed down our phones
on the rockets red glare
and the home of the brave, and

we put aside thoughts of another day as

we jingled our keys
and raced for the elevators.

We were heroes.

We were villains.

We were done, and
the night was still young.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Broken Promises

He promised
cool-running waters, washed stone, sun-brushed blossoms --
blushing --
delicious grass-green vistas, petal-strewn, shadow-dappled;
candy-apple sunsets, marshmallow clouds,
the sound of bluebirds, songbirds, lovebirds
and laughter --
so much laughter.

She lost herself in a dream.

When he left, she couldn't wake up.
Pinching, slapping, biting the insides of her cheeks
did no good --
nothing but a dreamscape, a moonscape, no escape from
brown-powdered footsteps on the edge of a crater
and silence
under a panther-black sky with sparkling white teeth.
It filled fiery-orange each morning
and glared blood-red each night
as she cried.

Monday, August 02, 2010

a point will come
at which some people will get
squeezed out

For hundreds of years, churches have been like rubber bands. Their focus has been on getting as many people as possible inside the circle (of tradition, of polity, of community, of doctrine). The bands only stretch so far, however, making it inevitable that a point will come at which some people will get squeezed out unless the old band is replaced with something newer, larger and less restrictive in each of the senses listed above.

This model isn't working the way it used to. Southern Baptists — the nation's largest protestant denomination — reported in 2008 that new baptisms were down to the lowest level since 1987 and that membership had dropped by about 40,000 people this year. These numbers are generally in line with downward trends among all mainline protestant denominations.

How should Christians respond? Maybe it's time to reconsider the model. Who says the world should be knocking on our door (let alone sitting in our pews)? After all, Jesus didn't tell his followers to sit in an upstairs room—door locked—counting down the days to His return. He sent them out to be his witnesses "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Read more at Barclay Press.