Sunday, October 15, 2017

Great Quote



Dear Blogpost readers,

I wanted to let you know that my family and I are all taking about 10 days to get some R&R while the girls are on Fall-break, for a bit of a family vacation.  I will write again in this space on Oct. 30.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a great quote from C.S Lewis I found tonight while reading to Haley before bed.  I was reading, "The Horse and His Boy" from, "The Chronicles of Narnia", to Haley, and this quote came along;

[Of the main character - Shasta]; "He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed, your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one." (p. 155)

From this great quote I take the idea that God gives challenges to us commensurate with the good work that we have already done.  If a person hasn't done anything particularly good, God won't give that person more.  However, if a person has done good things, more is coming...

All For Now,

GB

Monday, October 2, 2017

Spiritual Day

Last week, at the Christian private elementary school where my two youngest daughters attend, there were a series of theme based days where the pupils were encouraged to dress up according to the fashion ascribed for that day.  So, Wednesday was "Wacky Day", and Friday was "Sports Day" (I can't remember what Monday and Tuesday were, possibly "Normal Day" and "Mix and Match Day").  However, I do remember what Thursday was - "Spiritual Day".

Now, you would think that because I am a "man of the cloth" that helping my kids to figure out what to wear on "Spiritual Day" would be easy.  It wasn't.  What does a person wear on "Spiritual Day?"  What do "Spiritual Clothes" look like?  In earnest I checked my closet for possibilities.  They could wear one of my clerical stoles that I sometimes wear in church...I suggested helpfully.  No way!  Smart girls.  They could wear the clerical collar that I wore when I first started the ministry (sometimes known as a "dickey" or a "tabs").  Not on your life!  Very smart girls.  They could wear the tartan Yarmulke that I was given by my cousin when I helped perform the ceremony at her Jewish/Christian wedding.  Nope.

Wisely my two daughters opted for something much more understated - a simple gold cross on Haley, and a skirt featuring the "flowers of the heavens" by Sheena.

But the arrival of "Spiritual Day" did make me think about what it means to dress spiritually in a modern context.  As Protestants, we have mostly seen the garb that we wear on the outside as less important than the clothes we wear in our hearts.  But not always.  On the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther's posting of the "Complaints" on Wittenberg's All Saints Church Door, we should remember that Luther dressed as a monk, even after he broke from the Catholic Church.  Shakers women, an off-shoot of the Quakers in England, were known to wear white head coverings and white triangle shaped fabric around their necks.

The Puritans, who basically founded America, probably were the Protestant group who embodied the need to dress-up in a spiritual way more than any other.  Puritans emphasized moderation in all things.  They emphasized "inward ornamentation of the soul".  In 1634, Massachusetts General Court banned the use of lace and some other adornments such as beaver hats.  Interestingly, the color black is often associated with the Puritans, but most did not actually wear black, because of the expense of the black dye.

As I kid, I can still remember looking forward to getting dressed up to go to church.  Before we left the house, my brother and sister and I would put on sports jackets and ties and Laura Ashley dresses. For us, "Spiritual Day" meant looking forward to looking our best.

Today, most people who attend church see it as a time when, on their day off, they want to wear whatever is comfortable.  And good for them.  For as the book of Proverbs says, "Those who do not study, are only cattle dressed up in men's clothes" (Prov. 94).  Moo!

All For Now,

GB




Monday, September 25, 2017

The Church Bells of Cholula


For over 500 years, the city skyline of the city of Cholula (pronounced "chilula") in Mexico's state of Puebla, has been silhouetted by a series of tall church steeples.  From the top of the ancient pyramids at the center of town, the spires look like spindled Christmas trees that rise up, from the base of an ominously perched volcano.  Many of these steeples were built around the time of the Spanish conquistador, Cortez, who, as legend has it, ordered that 365 churches be built, one for each day of the year.  The truth is there are probably only around 150 churches in this historically rural peasant city.  However, it isn't the steeples that will be missed after last week's 7.1 ricter scale earthquake hit that country.  It is the church bells.  What will be missed will be;

The Church Bells of Cholula

One resident, while reflecting on the loss of the bells themselves this past week said, "Without church bells, Cholula just isn't the same."  Because of the earthquake, all but ten of Cholula's churches have been closed.  Parishioners have been forced to meet outside in city squares or in public parks until the churches can be safely inspected.  Hand held harmoniums have taken the place of pipe organs, card tables have replaced church altars.

In ancient times church bells served more of a function than simply offering music to residents of the city.  The church bells would ring during times of natural disaster, to warn residents to find shelter.  Church bells would be "peeled", as the English would say, to announce the wedding of a local couple, or "tolled" when a member of the church had died (Hemingway most likely got the idea of the title of his famous novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" from the church bells that he heard in Spain, during the Spanish Revolutionary War).  Church bells would offer joyful "bings" and "bangs" and "bongs" on Christmas day, to announce the birth of the newborn Savior to the world.  I will never forget hearing the tolling of the church bells of Notre Dame in Paris, ring for the death of Pope John Paul II.  Not anymore.

The Church Bells of Cholula...

...do not ring.

In her book, "The Nine Tailors", novelist Dorothy Sayers (a friend of C.S. Lewis) used the bells of a local British congregation to determine the perpetrator of a murder, discovered by the Lord Peter Whimsey.  The bells, in this case, were rung in an English fashion by a talented handful of local residents who saw their duty to ring the bells as important a job as bringing in the wheat sheaves during the harvest.  The same ardent attention to the ringing of bells in Cholula must have been carried out by generations of local farmers.

It is difficult to say when the church bells of Cholula might eventually be refurbished and deemed safe once again to ring out in that city center.  There are, surely more important tasks at hand in the rebuilding of all of Mexico's infrastructure once again.  Schools have to be rebuilt, workplaces have to be renovated, and most sadly of all, the 300 people who died in that earthquake have to be laid to rest.  For those who have died in this tragedy, however, no church bells will mark the toll of their death.  Because,

The Church Bells of Cholula

have, for the moment, gone silent...

All For Now,

GB

(background research for this blog has been provided by Carrie Kahn of NPR news)

Monday, September 18, 2017

That I Would Be Good


Sometimes the best Christian songs are not intentionally Christian at all.  This is a truth that I recently rediscovered when I was speaking at a church in San Luis Obispo (Midstate California), and had to drive home to Oxnard where I live (essentially the north rim of LA).  Normally this driving trip would only take three hours, but because of traffic and other factors, it took me five to six hours to drive home.  However, none of these hours were in the least bit wasted or unpleasant.  The reason is because of a song I heard by one of my favorite popular singers, Alanis Morrisette.  I played this song, and this is no hyperbole, repeatedly during this trip at least 100 times in a row.  The tune is mesmerizing.  But what I am most transfixed by are the lyrics of this song.  Here they are:

That I would be good even if I did nothing
That I would be good even if I got the thumbs down
That I would be good if I got and stayed sick
That I would be good even if I gained ten pounds

That I would be fine even if I went bankrupt
That I would be good if I lost my hair and my youth
That I would be great if I was no longer queen
That I would be grand even if I was not all knowing

That I would be loved even when I numb myself
That I would be good even when I am overwhelmed
That I would be loved even when I was fuming
That I would be good even if I was clingy

That I would be good even if I lost sanity
That I would be good
Whether with or without you

For me, this song embodies a central truth of the Christian faith.  And, tempted as I am to not try to explain the lyrics in Christian terms, because all great pieces of art should speak for themselves, let me offer a few examples of the Biblical parallels.

At the beginning of creation, God creates the heavens and the earth, He separates the water from the dry land, He creates all living things, and God calls them all, "good".  And then, God creates Adam and Eve in His own image, that is, God puts a little bit of himself in all human beings, and He calls them, "very good".  So, this song lifts up the intrinsic "goodness" of all people.

And, then, of course was the Fall.  And because of things we have done, or things that have been done to us, or because of things that are left undone, all of us is "Fallen".  All people feel, as Alanis Morissette does in this song, that somehow we are not "good".  Whether because of, as the song goes, "gaining ten pounds," or "bankruptcy", or, "not being all knowing," or "numbing ourselves" with any number of the panoply of the world's body numbers, we do not feel "good".

And yet, "goodness" is the promise of the cross.  What we believe is that Christ returns "goodness" (and I like the word "goodness" better than "greatness") to all who believe in Christ's "goodness".  That by believing in Christ's great sacrifice, we can all, once again, become "good", no matter what happens to us.  We believe that we can, once again, call ourselves even better than "good", but "children of God".  

But, as I said, better to let the song speak for itself.

All For Now,

GB

Monday, September 11, 2017

When 9/11 Becomes 1066


It would be hard to mark the exact moment when a current event becomes a piece of ancient history.  However, this morning, at the Christian school where my two daughters were celebrating "Patriot Day" (the picture above is of my 5 year old daughter Sheena wearing red, white and blue on "Patriot Day") I think I recognized that juncture regarding 9/11.  Sept. 11, 2001 is, of course the day when, 16 years ago, two planes were intentionally steered by a handful of religious extremists into two of the tallest buildings in the world, killing 3,000 people.  For those of us who are middle age - I am 45 - this date will always be seen as a current event.  But for anyone born on or after 2001, all of my kids for example, 9/11 is ancient history.

When I asked my daughter's excellent kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Graham (no family relation, that I know of:-), how she would explain the events of 9/11 to her class, she smiled and said, "I think I will stick to the story of Cain and Abel this morning, that will be easier to explain."  Fair enough, they are only kindergarteners!?!  And are the two stories really all that different?

Recognizing this rubicon of 9/11 moving from a current event to ancient history has made me think about the number of other important dates in history, either tragic or victorious, that have made similar transitions.

On Oct. 14, 1066, the Norman-French leader, William - the Duke of Normandy (known to every English prep school student as "William the Conquerer"), vanquished the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson at the famous battle of Hastings.  That date will, to paraphrase the American President FDR, "live on in infamy".  But here's my question for the morning.  What about 16 years after the battle of Hastings in 1082, did children who lived in England still remember the battle of Hastings as a current event, or did it become ancient history?

On May 8, 1945, as returning GI's to the United States stood in the streets of New York, kissing their war-brides in a moment of joy and elation, the West officially celebrated the end of World II in Europe.  For those who were there on that day, and there are still some people alive today to tell the story, it was a current event, and always will be.  But what about 16 years later, in 1961, did the children of war survivors still feel the same elation, or had the moment passed into ancient history? My own father, who was in high school at the time, remembers his friends all beginning to grow their hair long, and wear bell-bottomed pants, and listen to music of Joan Baez - all whipping up a head of steam about another looming American war - the Vietnam War.

On May 28, 1972, the day and year I was born, my mother still remembers watching the Nixon Watergate trials on their Sony black-and-white TV in Laguna Beach, California.  The fall of the Nixon administration under the weight of corruption and scandal of that epoch will always be, for her, a current event.  For me, however, I see Watergate as ancient history.  I was just a baby.  And, 16 years later, I was sophomore in High School, in 1988, listening to Bobbie McFerrin sing, "Don't Worry, Be Happy", on my walkman cassette radio.

When does a current event become ancient history?

When does 9/11 become 1066?

The answer is simple!  The moment the next generation comes along.  And that, as the poets would say, is a good thing.  Each generation defines for itself what its focus will be.  In this way, the movement of history, from one event to the next,  has a kind of healing and palliative effect.  Today for my kids is just a day when they wear "red, white and blue to school" on - Patriot Day.

For for me, and I suspect most of those reading this blogpost, this will always be...

9/11...

All For Now,

GB

Monday, September 4, 2017

When Information Requires Action


The other day my wife Star was heading out the door to work when she said to me, "By the way, the dishes in the dishwasher are clean.  Love you, Have a good day."  After I dropped the girls and Ewan off at their respective schools, I continued to mull the information that Star had given me before she had left the house that morning.  "By the way, the dishes in the dishwasher are clean..."  Was Star telling me that the dishes were clean as a kind of practical bit of data for the day (like, the weather's going to be sunny and overcast, the 101 freeway is closed)?  No, not likely.  Was she telling me the dishes were clean because she didn't want me to put new dirty dishes in the dishwasher?  Possibly, but there seemed more to it than that.  Finally, it came to me.  She was telling me the dishes were clean because she wanted me to unload the dishes in the dishwasher.  It may have taken me 17 years (we just celebrated our 17 year wedding anniversary on Friday), but I have finally begun to understand the subtle codes that define a healthy marriage.  Star was giving me;

Information that Required Action

After I unloaded the dishwasher, I began to wonder how many of the statements of Jesus were possibly also examples of:

Information Requiring Action

Most of Jesus' large proclamations are, on their face, just informational tidbits.  "I am the light of the world," "You are the vine and I am the branches," "I am the resurrection,""The kingdom of God is like a mustard-seed,".  These can be read simply as descriptions of the nature of Jesus as God or the nature of the kingdom.  But what if Jesus was saying them to require a sort of action in anyone who heard them?  What if when Jesus said, "I am the light of the world," He was really saying, "and so go spread my light, and your light to the rest of the world."  What if when Jesus said, "I am the resurrection," He was not just giving us information about who He was, but that He expected all who listened to Him to go and live resurrection lives?  Sometimes;

Information Requires Action

To add to my theory that most of Jesus' informational statements were calls to action, think about the often repeated phrase that Jesus says again and again after he makes these informational proclamations.  After making pronouncements, He almost always would say; "He who has ears, let him hear."  The word HEAR in Hebrew is an essential component of faith.  It comes from the word SHEMA, which refers to the most important text for the Hebrew people, "HEAR (Shema), O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." (Debt. 6:4-5).  The word HEAR (Shema) is directly connected to the command to love.  Hearing is a call to action to love.  The person who hears acts!

So then the question in my mind becomes, why do we sometimes give other people information when we are really just requesting action.  Why, in Star's case, didn't she say, "Hey, would you please unload the dishwasher?"  One thought is that it is a kinder more subtle more dignifying way of asking for help or action.  Rather than saying just, "Do it!", by offering information it allows the person hearing it to have the option of acting or not acting.  It gives the one who is being requested the action a sense of autonomy.  When Star gets home later today, I might just say, "Hey, I didn't know if you wanted me to or not, but I unloaded the dishwasher."  And she just might say, "Wow, thanks, you read my mind (wink, wink)."

And God does the same for us.  When on a cross, Jesus looked down upon the world and said, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they are doing," Jesus was also making one last informational call to action for all of us.  We are also supposed to forgive.  But it is up to us.  God won't make us take action.  But He will give us the information.

All For Now,

GB

Monday, August 21, 2017

As the World Turns


Like many of the rest of you, I have been captivated for the last couple of hours at the partial solar eclipse.  From our house in Oxnard, California, which is usually overcast with coastal fog in the morning, there has been a rare break in the clouds so we have been able to see the intergalactic wonder with all of its "finger-nailed" splendor.   What I have been equally interested in is the split/screen television coverage that has taken place simultaneous to the 99 year annual event.  On all of news stations covering the event are other news stories that are taking place that seem of equal, if not greater importance (an Afghanistan troop buildup, a US Navy ship that has broadsided an oil tanker, a terrorist in Barcelona has been shot, an American Presidency that seems to be in peril).  And so, the world turns...

The message seems to be that as the skies have a miraculous event taking place, as a once in a life time event occurs, so does life move on.

As the World Turns

Of course it wouldn't be the first time that people on earth are more caught up in the regular day to day events, than the spectacles that have lit up the skies.

*  One wonders if in 1,500 BC, in the land of Egypt, as frogs were leaping out of people's bathrooms, and locusts covered the skies, and blood ran red in the Nile River, if there weren't people at beauty parlors getting their hair done for an evening dinner party that would take place.  People had things to do, and places to be.

*  In 3AD when an odd, and out of the ordinary "star" appeared on the horizon in the small town of Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, historians tell us that the emperor of Rome, Octavian (Augustus), was vexed by Germanic troops (terrorists) that were coalescing on the northern edge of the empire, in the Teutoburg Forest.  Augustus was, at that moment, of Jesus' birth and the star's shining, planning for a Roman troop buildup in an unruly part of the world

As the World Turns...

*  In 79AD (though Tacitus records the event as having happened in 63AD) when people in the small town of Pompeii, at the base of Mount Vesuvius, were finishing their morning breakfasts, plooms of smoke and ash began to emerge from the huge summit that dwarfed the city, and later covered it with molten lava.  People had things to do, places to be.

As the World Turns...

No matter what the cosmic events of our lives, the main theme from those who live on the planet earth has always seemed to be that life moves on, events continue, time moves forward, the activities of our lives commence.  But will they?  But do they really?

I do not think, as some of my religious friends do, that the full solar eclipse is an omen of the end of all things.  Eclipses have come and eclipses have gone.  But who knows?

As Robert Schuller, the late pastor of the Crystal Cathedral once said, "I always bet a million dollars with my friends who say that the world will end.  If I win, the world goes on and I am a million dollars richer, if they win, the world comes to an end, and who cares, I am in heaven!"

But for now, the world continues to turn!

As the World Turns

All For Now,

GB






Monday, August 14, 2017

The Seeds of White Supremacy


Like many of you, my family and I have been watching our television screens about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia with a mixture of grief, anger and outrage.  It simply boggles the imagination how anybody could espouse the kind of hatred and evil that the White Supremacists who are marching there, and marauding there, have within them.  Most of the television news coverage of this event has boiled down to political analysis.  This problem in our country does have political dimensions, but the roots of it, the seeds of White Supremacy, are much more nuanced.  What has been missing from this national conversation so far, has been the recognition that this kind of evil (White Supremacy) exists all around us, and how we as a society and a country must address it and stamp it out whenever it emerges.  To this end, I wanted to share in my blogpost today about one young man who got caught-up in the White Supremacy movement in one of the churches that I grew up in.

In the late 1970's my father was a pastor of a wonderful church in Boise, Idaho.  The church was an incredible family of faith and body of Christ, and one of the most Holy Spirit-filled church experiences of my life.  To this day, I still look fondly back on my years growing up in Boise and attending that church.  Church Potlucks, Bible Studies, Family Camps and All Church Barbecues were the mainstays of that church.

Like most churches, the church had some of the most amazing and Godly people in its membership.  Also, like most churches, it also had one or two of the attendees occasionally had some emotional challenges, and mental problems.  One of the young men, who had emotional challenges, and mental problems, and who sometimes attended that church, was a teenager named David Charles Tate.  "David only occasionally attended", my Dad told me once, and "often when he did, would sit at the back, by himself".  He was a loner.

Around ten years later, (and it should be said, nobody knows the exact chain of events) David moved to Northern Idaho, near Hayden Lake, and got caught up in a very sinister group of people known as "The Order" [The picture above is of young men doing a Nazi salute in Hayden Lake, Idaho in 1989].  The Order was a group of "Christian Identity" followers who were led by a very nefarious man by the name of Richard Butler.  The Order's so-called theological underpinnings stemmed from a very twisted, evil, and wrong-headed view that, "white Americans and Canadians are the real tribes of Israel", and that, "Jews are descended from an Asiatic tribe of people known as the Khazars". (from researcher Nicole Nichols, an expert on far right racist groups in America - 2003).  David, it is assumed, found a personal-identity in a group of equally emotionally deviant and mentally challenged people.  Soon, David found himself the subject of a national manhunt and on April 15, 1985, after he and a handful of members of his cult killed a fellow member of "The Order".  David  found himself in a stand-off with two Missouri State Troopers, who were conducting a random vehicle and license plate check.  David killed one of the troopers and critically wounded the other.  The state trooper, Jimmie Linnegar, only 31 at the time, was one of those killed by David.  Tate was later convicted of assault and murder and sentenced to life without parole.  One silver lining to this very sad story,  is that, "Federal authorities used the Tate incident, and Tate's testimony, to arrest many other members of the White Supremacist cult in Hayden Lake."

News reports of the profile of the young man who is being charged with the crimes in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Fields, sound similar to the accounts I heard of David Tate.  He was confused, misdirected, had mental health issues, deep-seeded misplaced hatred, and perhaps most of all, found a group of equally broken and misguided people, to affiliate who were members of a religious cult.  A medical health professional recently told me that many of the patients that he sees, have personal associations with hate groups.  This is not to say that all people who face mental health challenges are racist, but that psychological stability is one important component to understanding this form of evil.

I am sure that as the weeks and months emerge, more information will come out about this very sad incident in Charlottesville.  Suffice it to say, though, on this Monday morning, after the weekend of violence in Virginia, that White Supremacy exists, it is very sinister, very dangerous and very evil.  And right-minded people in an advanced society like ours must stand against it at all costs!

All For Now,

GB






Monday, August 7, 2017

When Everything Seems To Totter


I am reading a lot of Karl Barth for my doctoral dissertation.  Wait!  Before you close the link to this blogpost, let me try to convince you that Karl Barth may not be the preaching dogmatist that you have considered him to be (if you consider him at all:-).  I grew up with a father/pastor who clung to the theological mainstays of Barth's theology like a dryer sheet clings to laundry.  "Karl Barth saved Christianity against the Nazis", I grew up to think.  And then, when I went to seminary, Barth was taught by so many theological hardliners in classes with titles like, "Church Dogmatics", and "Systematic Semiotics" that it nearly drove me away from his writings entirely.  But I have just rediscovered what a poetic person that he was, and also, frankly, a non-systematic thinker in many ways.  Here are some of his great poetical phrases;

"At some point, the fellowship of those who hear Scripture's voice, again finds itself on solid ground, WHEN EVERYTHING SEEMS TO TOTTER." (Church Dogmatics, IV, part 2, p. 673).

Is that not a good definition of our world today?  A place where everything around us is seeming to totter?

Here's another;

"The Bible will become more and more mysterious to real exegetes.  They will see all the depths and distances.  They will constantly run up against the mystery before which THEOLOGY IS LIKE TRYING TO DRAIN THE OCEAN WITH A SPOON." (Homiletics, p. 128)

I love this!  The Bible is a mystery, not meant to be understood fully or dissected entirely.  And theology, I have always thought, had the tendency to systematize ("mathematicalize") the most vast concepts in the universe.  The God's truth is an ocean, deep, mysterious, complex and vast.

One of my favorite pictures of Barth is the one above with the late great Martin Luther King Jr.  MLK actually criticized Barth, in his own doctoral studies, about Barth's view that, "God is the unknowable and indescribably God."  But MLK loved the idea that, "man is not sufficient unto himself for life."  The above picture was taken in 1962 at Princeton University just six years before MLK's assassination.

This past week I emailed my friend, Will Willimon, writer of one of the best books on Barth, Conversations With Barth on Preaching, to ask if he thought that Barth was a kind of Samuel Johnson (Dr. Johnson) of his era.  Both thinkers were so widely read, ubiquitous in their thinking.  Willimon had never heard this formulation about Barth, but agreed that, "it fits".

So, the next time you hear Barth's name spoken from a church pulpit, think of him less as an old religious stalwart, and more of a poet, and imaginative genius. He was less the man that modern theologians have wanted to create, and more of the man that he really was.

All For Now,

GB

Monday, July 31, 2017

Embracing and Separating


Recently, I heard a podcast that has caused me to do some major thinking.  The podcaster, and I can't remember who it was right now, said that the basic philosophy of all good parenting has two basic parts.  Ironically, these two parts of parenting would seem antithetical to one another, but they are actually inter-related, and sometimes inter-twined.  All good parenting involves two basic actions:

Embracing and Separating

From the moment a child is born a parent does everything they can to provide a child with as much nurture, love, encouragement, tenderness and compassion as possible.  This is the embracing side of parenting.  Sometimes this embracing takes the form of encouraging a child when they fall down or get discouraged; "Come on, you can do it, Mommy is here to catch you.  Try it again."  Other times this embracing is more basic.  My own kids say to me almost every day, at some point in the day, "Daddy, I love you."  And, of course, I say, "I love you too."  I take these gestures of love to be both a sense of how they are feeling at the moment, sometimes a desire to get something from me (like a snack), but most of all to simply check-in; "I'm here Daddy, are you here too?"  It is Embracing at its best.

And yet, at a certain point in a child's upbringing, a healthy parent must prepare every child for separation.  Some day, the child will grow up, and move on.  In most cases, and especially in the millennial generation, this moving on happens in stages (college, move back, first job, move back, second job, move back, marriage...hopefully not move back:-), but you never know!).  A healthy parent needs to offer children the opportunity to do things on their own - take walks, do sleepovers, go to summer camp, take jobs, have girl friends or boyfriends - have autonomy in particular areas of their life.  This is all preparation for separation.  An unhealthy parent, obviously, does not prepare a child for this stage of separation, and then when the time comes, there is sometimes an unhelpful attachment or "enmeshment".

What I have been thinking about is how leading a church also has a similar;

Embracing and Separating...

dynamic.  A healthy pastor embraces a congregation as much as possible.  When a congregation is in a time of crisis, like Goleta Presbyterian Church has been recently, where I now serve, in the midst of a major forest fire, a healthy pastor embraces them, prays for them, makes visits with them, loves them.  When a congregation experiences a joy within a community, like a wedding or a baptism, or a member accomplishes something fantastic, there needs to be an embrace; "Great job!  I'm so proud of you.  You are incredible!  I love you!"

And yet, a healthy pastor must also prepare a congregation, at a certain point of maturity, for separation.  Sometimes this separation occurs when staff members come and go from a church.  Sometimes separation occurs when members decide to leave a church and go to another church, for whatever reason.  Other times the separation is about sending people out into the world, to serve where they live, from week to week.  Churches that offer constant mid-week programming for members sometimes do not prepare their members for an adequate level of separation.  Still other times this separation takes the form of a member deciding to go into full time mission ministry in a foreign mission field.  Some of my best leaders over the years have gone on to great ministries of their own.

Jesus epitomizes this embracing and separating dynamic in his last official pronouncement before ascending into heaven;

"Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!'" John 20:19 - (Embracing)

"As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." John 20:21 - (Separating)

"And with that, he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." John 20:22 (Embracing)

"Therefore, go an make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Matthew 28:19 - (Separating)

"And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:20 (Embracing)

This double bind of embracing and separating is such a hard balance to keep.  For parents, it is so hard to have children who they have embraced for nearly 20 years leave the house.  For pastors, who have invested so much love into a congregation, it is so hard when they leave for various reasons.  And yet, that is what is necessary, in the end, to be both a healthy parent and a healthy pastor.

Embracing and Separating

But for now, speaking for just myself, I am going to go give my kids one more hug for the morning!

All For Now,

GB









Monday, July 24, 2017

Livingston's One Regret


Recently I discovered a book that was given to me by my fourth grade Sunday School teacher named Mrs. Richlin in Boise, Idaho.  To be honest, I had never read it before, and it has remained on my shelf, and in packing boxes for the better part of 40 years.  The book is entitled, Heroes of the Cross and is a story of the great 19th century missionaries in Africa.  In a frantic search for something to read to my own budding fourth grader, Haley, I found it, and have been reading the stories within it about the great adventurers of faith.  One of these stories is about the great Scottish missionary - David Livingston.  By an interesting twist, I also happen to be reading about David Livingston at the moment for my Doctoral dissertation.

You remember David Livingston, I presume?!?  He was the pith-helmeted missionary who worked for the London Missionary Society in eighteen hundreds.  He was the one who, "opened" the continent to Africa to the west.  He was the one who pushed further north on the continent of Africa than any other white person.  His writings journals have been the thing of legend since they were written.  Who can beat lines like; "The great God had an only Son and He was sent to the earth as a Missionary-Physician."  Livingston discovered the mammoth waterfalls on the Zambezi river, and named them after his queen - Victoria Falls.  His most famous exploit was a conquest of the origins of the Nile river.  It was on this trek that he was feared to have died, and where H.M. Stanley found him in 1873 and declared, with a stiff British upper-lip; "Dr. Livingston, I presume?"  Livingston did all of this.  And yet, did you know, that Livingston also lived with a deep and abiding personal regret. This was;

Livingston's One Regret

Livingston confessed to his dying day that his one regret was that he had not taken an hour a day to play with his children!  A wikipedia article on Livingston's family says it best, "While Livingston had a great impact on British imperialism, he did so at a tremendous cost to his family."  Livingston had six children, Robert (who died in the American Civil War), Agnes, Thomas, Elizabeth (who died at two months), William Oswell and Anna Mary.  For whatever reason, Livingston sent his family home to live with his wife Mary, for most of his missionary career, even though the family could easily have stayed with him in Africa.

Having been the product of many previous pastors, I can say that not spending time with kids can be seen as an occupational hazard.  My great-grandpa, Jesse, who did so many great things (moderator of General Assembly, president of a seminary, many books), never spent much time with his kids.  My grandpa, a church builder and denominational leader also never spent much time with his kids.  I can remember my dad saying wistfully to me once that, "My dad never even came to one of my swim meets."  My own dad was considerably better than his progenitors and did spend time with us.  But he still did attend a lot of night meetings.

It is probably unfair to lay the blame for dads not hanging out with kids solely at the feet of pastors and missionaries.  A recent Pew Research Poll found that most dads today spend less than an hour a day with their kids, and less than seven hours a week in total.  This is actually a positive trend, since similar statistics from the 1940's show that most dads spent less than four hours a day with their kids.

My own ministerial career has recently taken a bit of an unexpected turn in trajectory since I stepped down as senior pastor of The First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs.  While I was pastor of that church, however, I can say that I almost never saw my kids throughout the week.  The first year of my daughter's life are an erasable blur to me.  My previous call of founder of Highlands Church in Paso Robles was better on the daddy front, as I spent more time with Haley.  But not much more!  In my current call, I have been able to spend more, "quality time" with my kids than ever before.  And the blessing has been all mine.  I have learned that it is possible to both be a good pastor and to be a good dad - simultaneously.  But it does require several hours a day in commitment to my kids.

Garrison Keillor, the great writer and story teller, who has also, often been obsessed with his career to the detriment of his family, has said, "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted."  Livingston, if he were alive today, would surely agree with this sentiment.  And perhaps, at the end of his life, he might not only have been able to point to a great water-fall as his primary legacy, but rather to an even deeper reservoir of love, connection and relationship.  Who knows for sure.  All I can say for certainty is that;

Livingston's One Regret

Will not be my own:-)

What about you?

All For Now,

GB






Monday, July 17, 2017

The Power of a Spot


A few weeks ago, NASA's spacecraft named Juno did a quick fly-by, from 2,000 miles away, of the largest planet in the solar system - the planet Jupiter.  Jupiter being 89,000 miles in diameter is over 1,000 times larger than the planet earth.  Most scientists think Jupiter is more of a swirl of gas than it is a solid planet.  But the size of Jupiter is not what Juno's cameras were focussed on, nor was its gaseous nature.  What Juno was focussed on was the iconic and ever-famous "Giant Red Spot" that swirls upon the surface of that planet like a gargantuan, red Christmas tree ornament.  "For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter's Giant Red Spot," said Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.  In my own elementary school studies of the solar system, I can still remember my teacher discussing the "Giant Red Spot," and I remember wondering in my own developing young mind what that spot exactly consisted of.  I remember my teachers telling me that "The Spot" as it became known is 10,159 miles wide and 1.3 times larger than the earth.

But the question I want to ask in this morning's blogpost is more basic than the dimensions of this planetary anomaly.  What I want to know is, why does anybody care about the spot?  What is it that attracts us to the spot?  Why are we obsessed with the spot?  There are other spots in the universe, "bullions and bullions of them," in the innimicable words of the late astronomer Karl Sagan.   What is it about the Giant Red Spot that caused NASA, with its dwindling federal financial support, to send one of its spacecraft a long way out of the way to see the SPOT?   And what I have concluded is that there is an obsession in the human consciousness with SPOTS.  It is;

The Power of a Spot

Yesterday after church I was eating at my favorite restaurant in Santa Barbara, Via Maestra 47, a tiny but delicious Italian eatery on State Street.  My oldest daughter loves the homemade spaghetti and marinara sauce.  As I hoisted a forkful of the glorious stuff into my mouth, by some happenstance, and it always happens, a flick of red marinara sauce landed on my best Sunday shirt.  For the rest of the afternoon I was obsessed with the red spot.  It may not have been planetary in dimension, but it occupied a "Jupiteresque" space in my own mind.  Whenever I looked down, it was staring me right in the face.  No body else seemed to notice it much.  But I saw it.  I knew it was there.  The rest of my shirt was pristine with perfection, but all I could focus on was the SPOT.  Again, it is,

The Power of the Spot

For my Doctorate I have been reading a lot of theology lately, trying to determine how some of the great people of the faith (John Wesley, George Whitfield, CS Lewis, Augustine) came to the Christian faith.  For many of them it was an understanding of God's "prevenient Grace".  God's free gift of eternal life.  But before the discovery of eternal life through Jesus Christ, there was always the SPOT.  For John Bunyan, writer of the great book, Pilgrim's Progress, "Wherefore I began with all seriousness to examine any former comfort, and to consider one that had SINNED as I had done, might with confidence trust upon the faithfulness of God."  There it was, the SPOT.  Almost every one of the great people of faith have been consumed with focus on the blot, the sot, the sin, the SPOT.

The Power of the Spot

What's really interesting about the Giant Red Spot on Jupiter is that at least in cosmic terms, it really isn't that big.  At 10,000 miles wide, it is only 10% of the size of the entire planet.  And, of course, Jupiter is a tiny spec of dust when compared to other planets in other galaxies...far, far away...

Who knows what draws the human eye to the things which aren't perfect over the things that are?  Why do we enjoy the evening news?  It seems often to be a highlight of all that is wrong with the world?  Why does our eye and focus go to the tiny bit of marinara sauce on an otherwise white shirt.  Perhaps, that is really the power of sin, to make large the things in our own own minds, that are really not that large at all.  And, perhaps that, in the end, is one of the great powers of the cross.  To wash clean all the SPOTS of our lives.  The prophet Isaiah said, "Though your sins are like scarlet (GIANT RED SPOTS), they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool." (Isaiah 1:18).

All For Now,

GB








Monday, July 10, 2017

The Gospel of Nadal


I want to take a break from my usual blog that focusses on theological topics, to write about a person who embodies so many of the great attributes of strong character.  He is a person who is easily one of the most exciting professional athletes in the history of athletics.  I want to write about Rafael Nadal, or "Rafa" as he is called, tennis player extraordinaire!

Just moments ago, Rafael Nadal was in the "Final 16" of Wimbledon (the famed grass, tennis -tournament set in Great Britain, the birthplace of sport).  The game that Nadal and Muller played against one another lasted for over 4 hours, and it went five sets.  The match went on so long that the next match that was scheduled to follow it (Djokovic), had to be cancelled.  The final set, being played as the evening sun cast an orange glow on the beleaguered green court, and even more beleaguered players, was won by Gilles Muller, a 36 year old left hander from Luxembourg.

Not to belabor the point (no pun intended), but the overall set score for the match was:

Nadal 3, 4, 6, 6, 13
Muller 6, 6, 3, 4, 15

If you don't play tennis, you may not know that the usual match lasts just 4 sets.  Rarely does a match go to the 5th set, and if it does, it almost never goes 28 extra games!  As you can see from the score, Nadal was behind by two whole sets to begin the match.  But, one of the keys to Nadal's success has been the simple fact that he:

Never Gives Up
If Nadal is behind, he seems to be able to dig down deep and find some source of inner strength which tells him that even though he is behind, he can still win the match.  It's not over till its over!

One of Nadal's mantras is: "Playing well or playing bad, I have to play aggressive.  I must play aggressive."

Plays With Passion
Nadal is one of the most passionate players in the history of tennis.  His tennis stroke is famous for its wild swing, and his loudly audible grunts as he hits the ball.  When Rafa wins, he pumps his fist, when he loses, his face has a grimace upon it.

Of his own passion, Nadal has said, "I play each point like my life depends upon it."

Plays With Courage
There were so many times in this match, and many others that he has played before, where Nadal was about to lose the match if he made one bad tennis stroke.  This game, like many others that Nadal has played, went to 5 match points (that means that 5 times during the match, Muller was about to beat him),  But Nadal would come through with a huge, strong courageous shot, nonetheless.

With regard to his personal courage during tennis matches, Nadal has said; "Losing is not my enemy...fear of losing is my enemy."

Coolness Under Pressure
When large matches are played, the game is, of course, not the same as if it were two people batting  a ball around on a neighborhood court together.  There his huge pressure.  And this pressure increases all the more when there is a big point.  Again and again, Nadal would run to the ball, and hit it with total poise, when he was under pressure.

Again, Nadal has said of his coolness; "The only way of finding a solution is to fight back, to move, to run and to control that under pressure."

Of course, in the end, Nadal lost the match.  And he wasn't around afterward to comment on his play, which is already being dissected by the back bench tennis literati as I write this post.  But the truth must be faced - Nadal lost!  And that is just the point.  He will be back.  He never gives up.  In Nadal's own words; "When one player is better than you, at this moment, the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and try to wait a little bit for your time.  I'm going to wait and I'm going to try a sixth time.  And if the sixth doesn't happen, a seventh.  It's going to be like this.  That's the spirit of the sport."

And that's the Gospel of Nadal!

All For Now,

GB



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My Favorite Thing About America


Today is July 4th, and I want to tell you...

My Favorite Thing About America

We just moved into our new house in Oxnard, California (Oxnard has been described as being a "little LA" with almost every culture and ethnic group under the sun).  We had been here about two weeks, and still I had not yet met my neighbors.  To be honest, I had felt a little bit guilty about it.  Today being "Independence Day", it seemed like the ideal opportunity to rectify this wrong.  Plus, my neighbors were sending incredible smells wafting over the small dividing wall that separates our two houses.  They had a bounce house for the kids, and around 25 people just lounging around the lawn.  American flags wafted in the wind, as their miniature poles stood proudly around the back yard, saluting forward as if honoring the country by their presence.  So, I ventured over to meet my neighbors.  Plus, my own flank steak preparations, having been marinated since 10:00 this morning, were looking a bit tired and worn, even before they hit the grill.

It turns out that my new neighbors are Vietnamese.  This is their story:

Forty-two years ago, they were living in Vietnam, near the border of Thailand.  The country had already weathered a long series of wars in previous decades (the French, the British...).  And now, they were living in the wake of the American police action there.  Then, in 1975, Vietnam came under the control of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRVN).  The capital was, of course, Ha Noi,  the government was communist, and the regime was quite brutal to its citizens.  Some of those who were brutalized were my next door neighbors.  My neighbors were, by a miracle of God, able to flee Vietnam in 1978.  From Vietnam, they absconded to neighboring Thailand, but because of similarly oppressive forces in that country, were forced to move to Malaysia.  There in Malaysia they were interned as refugees for three long years.

Finally, in the early 1980's, because the United States was open to accepting "victims of foreign wars", and refugees from many different countries, my next door neighbors were allowed to come to the United States, under an amnesty program set up by the Reagan Administration.  Today, all four children and parents live within a short distance from one another in Oxnard, California.  Today, they are mostly all successful business people, and all of the family (totaling around 200) live in the northern Los Angeles city rim.

This family's story definitely has many more avenues of interest and intrigue.  The grandfather, who I also met, named Lee, worked at one time for the FBI, as an undercover agent for the West against the communists.

Here's the thing that will remain with me.  They told me that the biggest holiday of the year for their family will always be the Fourth of July.  Let me just repeat that.  The biggest holiday of the year for their family will always be the Fourth of July.  The reason for their love of Independence Day is because, and I quote, "This is the holiday that celebrates the country that allowed us to begin again with our lives, and to start anew."

[The picture above is of my 5 year old daughter and her new friend who is a third generation Vietnamese American who goes to elementary school in Ventura].

So, My Favorite Thing About America....

Is the way that our country continually remakes itself.  That, through acceptance and openness towards people from other cultures around the world, we find new ways of being "American".  And what I most love is the way that our country improves when it is enriched by others - when the freedoms that we all enjoy - are extended to those who are deeply in need of them.

That's the American Dream!

All For Now,

GB

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jesus of Narcissus


I have been thinking lately about how most people tend to see God as a kind of a reflection of themselves.  This "self reflection" of God takes many forms.  It ranges in everything from the image that we have of Christ, when we think of the person of Jesus (I used to live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and many of my friends who are from the major religion of that city used to see Christ as a blond haired, blue eyed super model), to the clothes that God wears (There is a cathedral in France that I visited once that features a statue of Christ wearing a full suit of medieval armor and carries a sword).  But most of all this tendency can be seen in the way that we sometimes see the challenges that we face as not just a mere hurdle that we must overcome, but a challenge to God - the creator of the universe.

I have a friend who often tells me that he is, "under spiritual attack."  Because I believe in spiritual attack, and that there are many other spirits in the universe (small "s" spirit), and in this world, that are other than the Holy Spirit, I often listen.  The conversation usually goes something like this.  "I believe I am under spiritual attack."  "Tell me about it."  "Well, I came into late work yesterday, and my boss told me that if I keep coming in late, he will fire me."  "I see, well how do you think this is an example of spiritual attack?"  "Well, because my boss knows I am a Christian, so I think he is just singling me out because of my belief system."  "Do other employees have the same problem?"  "I don't know, they never come in late."  "Ok....let me ask you a question.  Have you tried to come to work on time, and see if that changes anything?"  "Oh, so you are just like my boss - you are attacking me now too!!!"  (ugh:-).

You can also see this tendency in the names that people use to address God.  When I hear people pray to God with the phrase, "Jesus, we JUST want to thank you...", I often think that there is an attempt to bring Jesus down to be JUST a pal or a friend.  When I hear people pray, "Dear God," I sometimes wonder if there isn't a small part of them that wants to sanitize God, or antiquate God a bit.  As in, I wouldn't say to my wife, Star, "Dear Star, can I ask you something?".  If I did that she would think that I had done something really wrong.  All names for God, of course, fall short.  I often pray to "Father", which I am sure means that at a deeper level, I am in need of a comforting, strong, steady (and sometimes severe) figure who is God.

In Greek mythology, the figure of Narcissus, was, of course, a great hunter who was known for his beauty.  Greek myth tells us that Narcissus was the son of the river god named Cephissus, and a nymph named Liriope.  Narcissus was full of pride, and he shunned those who tried to love him.  Another god named Nemesis (and that is where we get the word for an arch-enemy - "nemesis") noticed how Narcissus pushed away all the people in his life who tried to love him.  So, Nemesis attracted Narcissus to a pool where, while looking into the water, he saw his face in the reflection, and instantly fell in love with that image.  Narcissus did not realize that what he was looking at was really only a reflection, and not a real person.  So entranced was Narcissus by his own image, that he was unable to leave the water's edge.  Eventually, so the myth goes, Narcissus lost his will to live.  He kept staring at his own reflection until the day he died.  And, of course, Narcissus is where we get the psychological term, "narcissism", which is a fixation with oneself, and ones appearance.

Where am I going with this blogpost?  Just this - the hardest thing for humans to do is to get beyond ourselves.  While we may not be so obsessed with ourselves that we decide to die beside the reflection of our own image, like Narcissus, most of us just have a very hard time moving beyond ourselves.  As Christians, we believe that the only way past ourselves, is not to say, "I'm not going to think about myself today."  That is an impossibility.  The moment we say this, we are thinking about ourselves, and it makes the problem worse.  The only way is to know and love a God who is different from us, who is bigger than us, who is stronger than us, and most of all is not - US.  If we make God into an alter-image of ourselves, we can find no ultimate salvation beyond ourselves.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote the lines, "Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us" (from,  "To a Louse").  What we believe as Christians is that our God has the power to not only see ourselves as others see us, but more importantly, to see ourselves as we see ourselves.  And to see beyond that.  And to love beyond that.

Every Sunday, I close the worship services that I lead in Goleta with a simple Benediction; "Go in the name of the God who loves you, even more than you could ever love yourself.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

And, at least in my own case, that is sometimes saying something:-)

What about you?

Reflectively!

All For Now,

GB






Monday, June 19, 2017

20 Minutes at a...Time


This morning, as the family was rushing off to their sundry summer activities, I was given the job of keeping an eye on Ewan, our 11 month old son [pictured above].  In case you haven't spent much time with toddlers lately, let me tell you, this is no small feat.  The moment Ewan is engaged with one project (the overtipping of a dog bowl, for example), he is off to another activity (the eating of dog food, for another example).  Basically, my goal as a parent is to keep Ewan engaged in some kind of activity for;

20 Minutes at a...Time

And so the morning goes.  One activity after the next.  20 minutes of block time.  20 minutes of crawl time, 20 minutes of eating time, 20 minutes of door stopper inspection time.  In a way, breaking the day up into smaller segments makes the whole thing easier.  If you are watching an 11 month old for 9 hours, all you have to do is come up with 24 different activities.

20 Minutes at a...Time

I have been reading a book on preaching by Will Willimon entitled, Undone By Easter.    In it, Willimon gives extensive thought about the ramifications of being human and the implications of living within a world that is bound up in small increments of time.  In his lecture delivered at Duke University,  Willimon reminded me that the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said that; "everything in life is only for a moment."  After that moment passes, everything is simply, "it was", and no longer, "it is".  The fleeting moment alone is "real", everything else passes away.  Willimon also observed that the Gospel of Mark's favorite word is, "immediately" (Euthys - in Greek).  In the writing of the book of Mark, and it should be noted that that took place around 40 years after the resurrection of Jesus, John-Mark (the author of Mark), seems to think that everything to do with God is immediate.  Everything to do with Jesus is instantaneous.  Everything is momentary.  With Jesus, it was also;

20 Minutes at a...Time

One of my favorite commentators and speech writers, David Gergen, who served as an assistant to four President's of the United States, said that the most ideal length for a speech is 20 minutes.  "People's minds begin to wander after 20 minutes," said Gergen.  "And usually, that wandering of the mind goes to thoughts of [dare I say it]...sex".  This chestnut of wisdom from Gergen has really helped me to try to pair my Sunday sermons down to a more manageable length.  I would hate to cause people to sin, by the mere preaching of a longer sermon than necessary:-).  The human mind seems to be able to focus best in increment of;

20 Minutes at a...Time

The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that; "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens... a time to plant, a time to uproot, a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance."   And perhaps, in the larger scheme of things, those activities only last for a short season.

20 Minutes at a...Time

I would, of course, write a few more paragraphs here about the nature of time, except that it has already exceeded my 20 minute framework, and Ewan is onto another activity.

Immediately, EUTHYS!

All For Now,

GB

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Story of Grace


Dear Fellow Blogpost Readers,

Its been a couple of weeks since I wrote a blog post.  Sorry about that!

I've been juggling many things lately, not the least of which is a move to another house which our family now finds ourselves in the middle of.  Also, I'm beginning the writing of my dissertation for my Doctoral project, and my book proposal (WITH) has now been submitted to the publishers.  Oh, and did I mention that school is now out for the summer.  To say that we are busy, in the Baird household, would be an understatement.

I was thinking about taking a couple of weeks away from my blog, but decided, that I missed not writing it, and several of you have contacted me that you have missed not reading my post.  Also, I did want to take a moment in the middle of all of this bustle to relate a real story of grace and kindness that happened to me recently.

**

So, it was a Monday morning, and my job for the day was to pack up several boxes and to take care of Ewan (my 10 month old for the day), before picking up the two girls from school.  Our garbage gets taken away every Monday, so I took the cans to the curb the night before.

About 10:00 in the morning I heard a knock on the front door.  I wasn't expecting any visitors, Ewan had just gone down for his morning nap, and so the knock on the door was a bit of a surprise.  When I answered the door, a man in a green jump suit with a patch that said, "City Sanitation Services" was standing there.  "Do you live here?" he asked.  "Yes, I do."  "Did you lose your wallet?"  I quickly frisked the outsides of my pockets and found that my wallet was, in fact, not there.

"Oh my goodness, yes I did," I said in a concerned voice.  "Well, here it is!" said the man standing in the door.  "I found it right next to the garbage cans outside, on the street and I wanted to bring it up to you."  The man in the green jump suit extended his huge, dirty, mitt-sized hand with my black wallet inside of it.  "Thank you SOO much," I said.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  Instinctively, I reached inside my wallet to offer the man a tip for his kindness.  "Oh, no, that's fine," he said,  "I'm just glad you got wallet back.  I've got to run!  I'm late in picking up the garbage cans today."  As the garbage man ran back to his truck which was idling on the curb, I yelled; "Ok, well thank you again, I can't thank you enough."

I was dumbfounded at this man's, this - "garbage man's"- kindness to me.  In a move of caution I quickly looked in my wallet to see that everything was still there.  Now, here's the thing.  As a child of my generation, I never carry cash.  But because I did a funeral the weekend before, and a generous parishioner had given me $100 for a funeral that I conducted, I was carrying a very large bill.  Incredibly, all of the money, my credit cards, and other personal items were still there.

Ever since the occurrence, what I am now calling "wallet-gate", I have been thinking about the immensity of the act of kindness that this kind garbage man had bestowed upon me.  Here is a man, I thought to myself, who was behind the ball in his morning duties.  He probably doesn't get paid more than $10 an hour.  And yet he took time out of his schedule to bring a wallet to the door of a person he had never met.  How easy it would have been for him to just take the $100 bill, and throw the wallet back on the ground.  How easy it would have been for him to ring the doorbell, leave the wallet, but not wait for me to answer.

And I confess that I have sometimes looked at people who perform the more menial tasks in our society with a slight heir of condescension and superiority.  But no more!  Whenever I see a "Sanitation Engineer" working hard at what he does in another setting, I will remember the extreme act of kindness that this perfect stranger showed me.

And I will also remember that no matter how busy I get, I should always have time to offer a simple and graceful act of kindness!

All For Now,

GB


Monday, May 15, 2017

WITH - 12



For the past six months I have been working on a personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding.  It has been my sojourn to try and unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now.  More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.  And so, I have been writing a book.

The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them".  Over the next several weeks, I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book.  I want to invite you into the conversation.  I want to get your help in writing this book.  If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know.  If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together.  What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true".  And so now, if you are still WITH me...here is installment #11.

***

The American Cultural Identity

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the country of Canada on July 1 – “Canada Day”.  I was vacationing in Victoria, British Columbia, and I had splurged on a one night stay at the famed Empress, hotel.  The truth of the matter was, though, that I had made vacation plans to visit Canada many months before, and I did not know that I would be arriving on Canada’s national holiday.  As you might expect, red maple leafs could be seen on everything.  And I mean everything!  There were red maple leafs on the boats in the harbor, there were maple leafs on long strings hanging between houses.  There was even a big red maple leaf painted on the very bare and very pregnant belly of a young woman who was walking down the street.  But aside from the red leafs emblazoned on everything imaginable, there was no other noticeable or decipherable signs or displays of rampant Canadian patriotism.  When I checked in at the front desk, there were already around 1,000 people luxuriating on the lawn outside, waiting for the annual Canada Day parade.  By the evening, this crowd would swell to around 30,000 people who were gathering for a rock concert.  “Guess I won’t be getting any sleep tonight,” I told myself.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  What was so remarkable was how peaceful and how quiet and how demure the crowds were who gathered on this occasion.  Canada Day was a very calm and very collected affair.  Even the rock concert was quiet!  There was something deeply “Going With” in the totality of the Canadian personality and character set.

By contrast, not long thereafter, on July 4, I was back in the United States on the Central Coast of California, where I now live, gathered with my family to celebrate our own national holiday – The Fourth of July.  At 3:30 on a Friday afternoon, I was sitting in an alcove of the Ventura harbor, hotel room, overlooking the Ventura flotilla of boats that were about to be launched in patriotic fashion.  However, a completely different scene, from the one I experienced just days before in Canada, stretched out before me.  Though there were far less people gathered, the crowds were much noisier.  There were bursts of home-purchased fireworks going off everywhere.  Kids were loudly screaming and playing pick-up football games.  Boom boxes were bellowing rap songs, and a seeming unending supply of cheap beer was emerging from blue igloo coolers around the park.  It was loud, very loud.  Shouts and yells of aggressive independence jubilation rang out from the people here, there and everywhere.  As the evening festivities commenced, a nearby sound system boomed the lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s famous song, “I’m Proud To Be An American”.  A somewhat inebriated middle aged guy held a Coors in one hand and belted out the lyrics so all could hear;

And I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I gladly stand up
Next to you and defend her still today
Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land
God bless the USA!!!

Why were the two country’s national celebrations so different from one another, I asked myself?  Though the two country’s, Canada and the United States, are so close to one another geographically, they could not be more different in terms of temperament – at least in terms of the outward expression of their national holidays.  Why were they so different?

I recently put this question to a North American historian who explained to me, “Oh that’s an easy one.  Canada never really had an independence movement, or fought a war, or declared their allegiance to a flag, and their negation of a crown.  America has defined itself, historically, not in terms of what it is for, but what it stands against.”  And it’s true.  It is practically a mainstay of the American cultural patchwork and mystique to go AGAINST anything and everything that stands in our way.  It is a full-blown part of the American psyche to stand up for what we believe in and to stand for the values and against that we consider to be wrong.  Since our very inception as a country, our heroes and our founders were people who, against all odds, and to the very possible end of their very survival, stood against the forces that thwarted them.  Whether it is Henry Ford, who, by standing up against his agrarian roots single handedly brought about an entire transportation revolution in America, and a subsequent philosophy of individualism to go along with it (see the enclosed quote above), or Robert Frost, who penned the aforementioned great work of poetry – The Mending Wall – standing against is definitely a mainstay of the American cultural tradition.

Consider the words of another recent hit single from a group of major country western stars named the “Highwaymen”.  Should I mention that the “Highwaymen” are made up of some of the most muscular and visceral examples of male bravado that our country has produced in the music industry: Kris Krisofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings (served prison time), and Willie Nelson (also served prison time on a lesser charge of possession of narcotics).  Together they cut a hit album that made it platinum two years running with the American Academy of Country Western Singers, and remains an integral part of the American hallmark of music Americana.  The song is entitled, “Against the Wind”;
Against the wind
A little something against the wind
I found myself seeking shelter against the wind
Against the wind
I’m still runnin’ against the wind
I’m older now but still runnin’ against the wind
Well I’m older now and still runnin’
See the young man run (against the wind)
Watch the young man run (against the wind)
Watch the young man runnin’ (against the wind)
He’ll be runnin’ against the wind (against the wind)
Let the cowboys ride (against the wind)
Oh (against the wind)
Let the cowboys ride (against the wind)
They’ll be ridin’ against the wind (against the wind)
Against the wind (against the wind)
Ridin’ against the wind (against the wind)
Against the wind

Many books, and much thought has been given to the topic of exactly why it is that Americans have a certain proclivity towards going against those around them, rather than going with them.  One of the most articulate of these voices is a Columbia University Business School professor named Sheena Iyengar, who speculates that the national character trait boils down to a nationalistic proclivity towards  “individualism” and “choice”.  Most everything in American history is defined by the individual right to choose what a person feels is the right thing.  To choose the right political party, the correct stance on an issue.  To choose which denomination or religion that we will be a part of.  We choose what our positions are on particular issues (pro-choice, pro-life, gay-rights, transgender, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms).  Iyengar observes that; “You could argue that the unique history of this country allows it to have choice more than any other country.  In 1776 our forefathers began to look at what a political democratic institution might look like, but at the same time you have Adam Smith, and capitalism, the idea of the independent consumer, and then pretty soon thereafter you have Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his ideas about self-reliance.”  When you think about it, the very notion of making a choice about something is the process of standing against one idea, and standing for another.  People who aren’t forced to make decisions or choices are people who don’t feel compelled to stand against this idea or that.  This is human nature.  However, somehow, as Americans, we have developed not just a sense of a right to make decisions that usually benefit ourselves or our own groups.  This aggressive stand, may create an inherent sense of “againstness” as a culture.  


All For Now,

GB

Sunday, May 7, 2017

WITH - 11



For the past six months I have been working on a personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding.  It has been my sojourn to try and unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now.  More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.  And so, I have been writing a book.

The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them".  Over the next several weeks, I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book.  I want to invite you into the conversation.  I want to get your help in writing this book.  If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know.  If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together.  What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true".  And so now, if you are still WITH me...here is installment #11.

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Going With Is Often About Giving Up Control

            Most relationships in our world are not completely parallel.  What do I mean by a parallel relationship?  If you think about two lines that are parallel, they are right next to each other, they are right beside one other.  The parallel bars in gymnastics are, for example, two pieces of wood that are at the same height, that are right at the same level.  Neither bar is higher or lower than the other than the other one.  So, a parallel relationship is one in which both people in the relationship are at the same level.  In a parallel relationship, there is no degree of hierarchy or superiority.  Both people are at the same level of power.  This level of equanimity can occur at the financial level, at the physical strength level, on an emotional level, on a spiritual level, or in terms of authority.  An example of a parallel relationship might be a married couple (at least this is the case in most healthy marriagesJ).  A healthy marriage is one in which neither the wife nor the husband has a level of superiority.[1]  Both are at the same level.  Both people in the marriage may have different areas of strength from one another, but on balance there is a parallel relationship.  Another example of a parallel relationship might be two students who go to school together.  Both students are at the same level.  They are both students.  One student may get “A’s” while the other student gets “C’s” but, in the end, they are both students.  An example of an un-parallel relationship might be a boss and a worker, or a powerful political leader and a common citizen.  The boss always has power over worker, and the politician always has power over the common citizen.  These power differentials can often be used to take advantage of the person who is not in power.

Going With another person is often about the simple process of either reversing the power dynamic in a relationship, or at the very least making an effort to cause the relationship to be as parallel as possible.  This role-reversal requires that the person “in charge” make a conscientious decision to allow the person who is not “in charge” to have some level of control in the relationship.  This role reversal, or power reversal, almost never occurs on its own.  It almost always requires a certain level of self-awareness and a desire for equanimity between two people.  However, when one person decides to give up a level of power or authority or control over another person, great examples healing and transformation can occur.

            Simon Sinek is author of the best-selling book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  He is a motivational speaker and marketing and business consultant.  Sinek’s 2009 TED talk entitled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” is listed as the third most popular TED presentation of all time.  I recently met up with Sinek in the South Kensington, a suburb of London, to discuss with him an extremely innovative approach that he recently took with a person that he was counseling who was “in trouble” in several aspects of her life.  Sinek had been counseling this woman for about three or four months and nothing was helping.  No amount of talk-therapy was assisting her in any way.  She continued to have the same set of problems week in and week out.  It was always the same story: her relationships were failing, her job wasn’t working out, and her life was a mess.  Then, Sinek decided to try a new counseling approach with her.  It was an experiment.  He decided to do a role reversal, in-order-to give his client a higher level of control.   One day, out of the blue, he said; “Going forward, I to try something new.  I want you to start to counsel me, rather than me counseling you.  I will become your patient.  You will become my counselor.”  His patient was initially totally surprised, but then decided to go along with the idea.  To his amazement, Sinek and his patient noticed an immediate difference.  His client’s problems and life difficulties were slowly but surely going away.  Her relationships were coming back together, her job situation had improved, and she felt healthier, and all-around, more grounded.  Sinek chalks this transformation up to allowing his client to be more in control of her life. 

            What is even more incredible is that Sinek noticed that the therapy and the counseling that his client was giving him was extremely helpful advice.  Sinek said; “The thoughts she had about my life, and the solutions she had to my problems were extremely helpful, and right on the mark.”  He said, “I talked to her just this morning, and she gave me incredibly good advice for the particular problem that I was dealing with.” Sinek pointed out that he looked forward to conversations with his client every single week, and that, to his own shock and surprise, he had benefited as much from the power reversal as his client had. 

            When I asked Sinek for what he thought the reason for his success was, he said that; “The key was that I took the role reversal very seriously.”  He said, “It wouldn’t have worked if we had just been pretending or if we both didn’t see this as a serious dynamic.  We both treated the new arrangement as if it was the real thing, and in a way, it was.”  In the role of a counselor and not the counselee, “She has given me lots of new ideas.  She offers me very good advice.  most of all, it worked because she became in control of her life.  And she no longer thought of herself as a victim”.  Finally, Sinek added; “We are all works in progress.”

            A healthy Go With relationship can often be as simple as allowing the person who you are in relationship with to have more control and power, and, correlatively, for you to have less control power.  The arrangement can be out in the open and talked about (as Sinek did), or it can be more hidden, by simply one person deciding to allow the other person to be in charge.  Going With someone else is often simply a matter of allowing someone else to be in the driver’s seat and you to be in the passenger seat.  Ironically, it may seem that being the “receiver” in a relationship setting is less of a joyful experience than being in the “giver” position.  However, in most cases when a person is allowed to feel the experience of being “in charge”, and when the person who was in charge can experience the sensation of being “out of control” – great transformation can begin to happen!


All For Now,

GB



[1] The non-parallel aspect of a marriage relationship has often been incorrectly viewed from a Biblical standpoint – making the husband superior to the wife.  More about the incorrect Biblical translational reasons for this tendency have been written about in Chapter 7; “Why Going With Is Hard For Men.”