the reality of souls absent

Rushing to arrive at an empty space with no deadline or outside force compelling urgency.  The rush comes from within.  Something of the ego-driven desire to be first, to seem omnipresent.

The parking lot outside the office is empty at 6:30 a.m., my most frequent and preferred time of arrival.  Like an empty canvas, filled repeatedly with colorful variety, then whitewashed for another days creation.

I park in the same spot, the farthest from the doors, in spite of the lack of competition – my typical, stubborn desire to avoid the clamoring near the closest or most convenient.

With keys and bag in hand, I climb the small hill to the doors, bend to pick up the daily paper in its plastic sheath and stride over the curb to the double glass doors.  Insert the key, pull the door to me so the latch will turn away, and lock it again behind me.  Locked in, comforted by the temporary barrier, soon to be breached by those also in possession of a key, but pleased with the temporary isolation.  Another door, another lock, then the alarm code, and silence.

This is my favorite part of any day.  It’s the emptiness; not devoid of humanity, but filled with its ghostly, empty presence.  Lives at work, and their evidence fills this space.  Darkness, quiet and the reality of souls absent.

My mind imagines a time lapse of this place as an entity of its own, quiet in darkness, then filling, overflowing, billowing with activity from outside itself, as a flower garden dawning to the swarm of the worker bees, then relishing the reprieve of the sunset, when its fruit can be replenished with vitality for another day.

The comfort, the secret joy of such a space, I imagine, draws its appeal from from my own deep-seated, pastor’s-kid memories of empty church sanctuaries, dark but for light pushing through stained glass.  The walls still dripping with the songs, prayers, sermons, and the silent cries of the human heart, and the aroma of the one to whom they have all been addressed.

a novel idea

Have you ever tried to write a novel?

The trick of it, apparently, has a lot to do with figuring out where to jump into the story, and what to include in the details of the story.

Conventional wisdom (which may be a hideous oxymoron) is that when writing a novel you have to stick to the story and use nary a word that doesn’t participate in moving the story forward.  In addition, a novel-writer should refrain from being overly descriptive, which is only a slightly different principle, I suppose.

All of that, of course, reminds me of the scene from The Princess Bride in which Westley, having just been revived by Miracle Max from being mostly dead, is trying to understand why he, Inigo, and Fezzik are about to storm the castle gate, so that he can come up with the plan (which is the whole reason Inigo had to find Westley and have him revived).  Inigo, in a hurry to storm the castle and find the six-fingered man who killed his father, says to Westley, who is also in a hurry to storm the castle and stop the wedding of Prince Humperdinck and Buttercup, his true love, “Let me explain.”  Then he pauses, shakes his head, and starts again with, “No, it’s too much.  Let me sum up.”

Now, I realize that, as Christians, we’re uncomfortable with the idea of spending valuable time reading, much less writing, novels because we’re serious people about serious business, and novels, being make-believe and all, are hardly serious, unless of course, they are allegories and devoid of profanity and/or sexual references and/or sarcasm.

So, I suppose the same principles can be applied to nonfiction, or even creative nonfiction, based on the evidence presented in the Gospel of St. John, in which John himself confesses to leaving out some elements of the life of Jesus from his account, by saying in the very last verse of his last chapter, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.  Amen.”

I’m not one to criticize Biblical authors, but I have to roll my eyes a bit at John for that exaggeration about the whole world not being able to contain the books.  On the other hand, John’s awareness of the actual size of the whole world may have been a bit misinformed.

Nonetheless, I get his point.  He had to stick to the central story, as he saw it, either for lack of knowledge, lack of parchment, lack of time, or lack of the ability to otherwise keep the interest of readers.

Beyond all of that, though, there’s another point we have to consider, if we have to consider this topic at all.  We have to consider the idea of engaging the readers in the creative process in at least as much as they are translating the symbols we call letters into ideas and mental images of those ideas.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, the reader is going to envision the story based on his or her interpretation of the written words.

This is dangerous, but necessary.

In the same way that every reader has distinct fingerprints, and DNA, and odors, they will have a distinct interpretation of every element of a story.  They must.  And not only is that a factor for consideration in the writing, it’s a necessity.  You have to stick with the story, using words as economically as possible, knowing that readers will each have unique images of what you’re describing, and in order to keep them engaged in the story, you have to leave out just the right elements to engage their imaginative processes and envision whatever it is that will keep them interested enough to keep reading.

Or, so I’m told.

Too much descriptive information, and they’re sleeping on you.  Too much boring dialogue, and they lose track of the point.  Too many pages, with obscure, ancient maritime references, as I found with my most recent attempt to digest Moby Dick, and they put the books back on their respective shelves, probably in the wrong locations, with disgusted looks on their faces.

But – and that’s a very big but – this is of critical consideration for all of writing, reading, and life.

We are constantly editing in the process of writing, reading, and living.  Constantly.  Always.

Some of us are not good at this.  Others are better.  None of us are perfect.

Take a minute and look around the room in which you’re sitting.  Try to think about how you would describe the room.  Try to think about every detail and imagine putting words to it.

Or, take your experiences today.  Think about describing every detail of every step of everything you’ve done today to someone else who has no contextual reference for your life.

Yep.  I know.  Maybe John was right, after all, about filling the whole world with books, right?

We take a lot for granted.  We filter out a lot of noisy details without ever recognizing we’re doing it.  Our minds do this instinctively – constantly translating data perceived through our senses, imaginations, desires, and abilities of spiritual discernment.  It’s a necessity and we’re better for it.  We don’t, and can’t, consciously process every data point that enters our realms of experience.  Thank God, we don’t.

Of course, and here’s the rub, if we, either acutely or chronically, filter incorrectly, perceive incorrectly, or imagine incorrectly, in this incessant dance between writer and reader, transmitter and receiver, leader and follower, savior and sinner, we may alter the story to something that bears no resemblance to the author’s intent.

Our contribution to the story, even as writers for whom the prerequisite of all writing is reading, in more ways than merely literally, is absolutely critical.

Stick to the story.  Use words economically.  Balance description with room for interpretation.  Do so with precision and skill.

This is a nearly impossible task, which great writers complete with the illusion of ease.  I’m listening to the audiobook version of Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens.  He’s a great writer, and his work is classic for that reason.

John was a great, or at least good, writer, and his subject matter makes up for any of his shortcomings, and that’s why his work is classic, even though he left out so much stuff.  I wish I knew more of that story, more of those unnecessary details.

As a reader, I can get distracted.  I skim, I skip, I rewind, I misunderstand, I misinterpret, I give up, I want less, and I want more.  I am also moved and inspired and enlightened and humbled.

As a writer, I write too many words, trying to convey an idea without risk of misinterpretation because I have difficulty trusting readers to get it right.  Then, I lose the story, and the reader.

See, I did it again.

I have to keep telling myself:  trust the story, trust the reader, trust the heart . . . trust the friend, trust the child, trust the vision, trust the author.

Trust the author.  Let the author tell the story.  That’s a novel idea.

baking in the heat of the moment

The heat necessary
to bake the ingredients of our lives
into something worthwhile
out of all of its well-beaten batter
comes from the friction
created by the moments
flying by us
and pushing past us.

 

We ought to seek to embrace
their slippery substance
more forcefully
to take advantage
of the friction more desperately,
so that we become edifying earlier
rather than living most of our lives,
if not all,
as half-baked messes.

 

Given an adequate awareness
and sense of desperation for life,
we are supremely capable
of having well-baked,
warm, and nutritious offerings
harvested from the ovens of our hearts
not just once in our lives,
as if only some grand opus
were all that mattered,
but several times a day;
here a little, there a little,
but always good
and comforting
and nourishing.

 

These thoughts were inspired by a conversation in an orange-vinyl-covered booth in a diner over a table covered with eggs, pancakes, gyros, french toast, sausage, coffee, and little pitchers of syrup surrounded by foil-wrapped rectangles of real butter with my friends Seth and Max, who happen to be wonderfully tasty treats of inspiration, of whose substance the world is scarcely worthy.

 

These thoughts were written in an email message to my lovely, soon-to-be-seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah, who happens to be someone I aspire to be like, someday, of whose substance the world shall surely never be worthy, in which I apologized for the pitiful and grievous mistake of squandering moments which were offering opportunities to hear the overflow of her heart’s music.

 

I could write a thousand words, or two, more and hardly exhaust my longing to relate all that stirs here, but I think I’ll go home instead.

some things I need to say to you

From: Dale Pratt <papaprattsboy@yahoo.com>
To: a friend
Sent: Wed, January 12, 2011 11:35:26 AM
Subject: Re: Happy Thursday

So, as I’m rehashing (as I always do) the blur of conversations over the last week and our recent faith discussions, I’m concluding there’s some things I need to say to you:
 
I want to be sure you understand that I’m not dismissing the significance of that event and its impact on your life, as well as your family.  Sometimes, in an effort to add humor to a discussion and ease the discomfort, my sense of humor, loaded with excess sarcasm, may lend itself to the impression that such matters are just trivial object lessons in the path of life.  That’s not the case – an inclination to dismiss.
 
Those events in many ways are object lessons, valuable for our growth and development, but they are by no means trivial.
 
We all have myriad daily moments which subtly but certainly serve to develop our behavior patterns and routines and perspectives and faith applications.  In addition to those, though, God seems to add a mix a heavy ingredients (whether by direct cause or passive allowance, a theological quagmire we’ll avoid for this conversation) – icons in our experiences which become major shocks to our systems, causing wild changes in direction, perspective, attitude, physical capability, and all of that is directed at our faith application.
 
As we look back over our life stories, these icons are the defining elements of the landscape, both circumstantially and emotionally.  In the future, we should certainly expect more of those, but not spend unbalanced energy worrying about them or preparing defenses against them.  They will come.  We should be prudent but not obsessive.
 
For you, of course, this event is a defining, iconic moment, added to a few others in your life.
 
It is not trivial, and not a ploy in God’s game of life for you to invoke some simple, object lesson that can be easily defined or articulated.  God doesn’t fit well into platitudes.  This is not trite or playful, and the message is not “stop whining!”
 
What he is doing now, in you, through this, cannot be discerned clearly in the midst of the experience, if ever – though I’m sure you’ll have better perspective as your distance from it grows.
 
You will gradually assimilate this tragic, defining experience into your life, taking years potentially to get over the bad taste left behind and the indigestion it brings so violently.
 
It will, even more than it has already, become part of you completely – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  There are no aspects of it which will be entirely pleasant, and there are none that should be avoided.  In other words, you should not isolate part of the experience and its potential impact on you into some desolate corner of your soul and bind it to evade its influence.  Not all today, but eventually, all of it must be allowed to roam freely among your spaces.  You have to become friends with it.  You have to examine it from every vantage point, appreciate its subtle bouquet, break it down into small, applicable pieces and rehearse the responses it evokes from within you, then break those down and examine those.  Thankfully, not all of that requires conscious effort, but all of it is required.
 
This is the essence of trust.  Naked and not ashamed.  Not afraid.  Not destroyed.  Not debilitated.  Not diminished, but enhanced.
 
That does not require you to determine whether, much less to say that, God caused such calamity, but it does require you to have the trust and confidence that he’s redeeming it and making it valuable in you.
 
That’s the point.  That’s why this is perfect.
 
From him to whom much is given, much is required.
 
The evidence of trust is not known by the life without trouble.  The evidence and practice of trust is known in the life lived abundantly – in all dimensions of the human experience:  heights of joy and depths of sorrow.  In such territory, trust is developed, challenged, proven, and found legitimate.
 
I don’t want you to ever think I’m dismissing your concerns.  I can’t do it, though I’ll try.  I can’t know every element and detail, as you do, but I’m with you.
 
Happy Wednesday!
Dale

improve your neighborhood – send me to Peru

I have a dilemma.

I’ve exerted a great deal of effort getting God to coerce me into doing what I know he wants me to do (“know”, that is, at least to the degree that any of us could know such a thing).

Still, he’s relentless in his coercion, just as I need him to be, and wish he weren’t.  God can be so stubborn sometimes.

I need your money, but I’m loath to ask for it.  God wants me to join a group from our local church on a trip to a tiny village in the mountains near Villa Rica, Peru in which a group of 25 of us from Greeley will be seeking to establish a long-term, and beautifully meaningful relationship with a coffee farmer and his neighboring community.  (More on that later.  I’m still whining building suspense, here.)

When it comes to begging, borrowing and stealing,  I’m definitely a fan of the borrowing and stealing ideas.  The begging:  not so much.

But, my wife and friends, along with many towering life experiences, tell me that the economy of God works in ways that are contrary to the typical ideas of men.

Go figure.

God relishes the acknowledgement of need.  Self-sufficiency: not so much.  Apparently, God wants us to ask for help, and he wants us to help.  Somehow, this makes sense to him, giving everyone an opportunity to participate and reap the benefits of possessions and pride held loosely.  (Personally, I think it’s unnecessarily complicated, but God didn’t really ask for my opinion.)

So, this is me begging.  Sorry, I’m not so good at it.

I need $1,300 to make this trip, and of course, the deadline for the deposit is in 3 days because I’ve wasted so much time making God coerce me.

Please support me in this endeavor.  I think it’s a good idea and worth the value of a few of your dollars.  If 1300 people give $1 each, we’re there.  Or, if 1 person gives $1300, we’re there.  Either way, we’re there!

Please?!

Oh, yeah, and Katie, my beautiful 19-year-old daughter, and long-time, passionate Zoe’s volunteer, is also going on this trip!  I’m excited to experience this with her.  She’s raising her support separately, so I’m not really asking for that here, but if you’re in the mood . . .

Now, if you hate me, and have just committed to never read this blog again, much less speak to me – first of all, “Wow!”, we really need to talk, but second – don’t bother reading any more of this – trust me, it will only make you feel guilty for reacting so poorly.  Really.

On the other hand, if you feel that tiny little pea-picking pull on your heart right now (and your wallet), go ahead and read a few lines of what follows here, just to cinch the deal.

Please?!

Here’s the deal:  For nine days in March, beginning the 12th, a group of 25 or so of the kind of folks you’d love to call “friend”, and me, will be heading to a small coffee farm, near a small village, in a small corner, of the small country of Peru.

The group will come from Zoe’s Cafe, our church home and one of the many fantastic expressions of community service extended by Christ Community Church here in Greeley.

Zoe’s opened a little over a year ago as a full-service coffee shop and events center, staffed entirely by volunteers (including some of my children), in a worn-out building, that has been lovingly refurbished, in a worn-out part of the downtown area of Greeley, which has been invigorated by the influx of life and light that has grown around Zoe’s.

During the week, Zoe’s is a coffee shop, hosting a cross-section of folks of all ages, cultures, and circumstances, including loads of students from the local university, providing a great-atmosphere and great coffee.  Saturdays at Zoe’s are typically consumed by private events, including weddings, receptions, funerals, exhibits, conferences, and loads of other activities sponsored by all sorts of individuals and organizations.  On Sundays, Zoe’s hosts our worship service experience as the downtown campus of Christ Community Church.

It’s pretty fantastic, if you think about it, and you should do so, as you peruse the website:  www.allaboutzoes.com

But, back to the trip . . .

Zoe’s has committed to serving direct-trade coffee, which is purchased directly from the farm where it is grown.  This practice cuts out the layers of middlemen typically required to get coffee from farm to market, and allows the farmer, who is typically the lowest paid party to the coffee-trade, to earn a living wage for his efforts.  The premium value to the farm is even better than a fair-trade arrangement.

The particular farmers we’ll be visiting in the area of Villa Rica, Peru, struggle consistently to make ends meet.  They’re too small to demand a competitive market-price, and combining their crops into co-ops simply cuts their share of the small pie even smaller.  Zoe’s wants to make a commitment to purchase their full crops directly, at a premium price, providing tangible changes in the circumstances of the farmers.

But the best part is this:  We’ll spend a week engaging in life with the farmers, playing with their children, praying with them, serving their needs, endeavoring to shower the family and community with abundant blessings in a million minor ways, and establishing relationships with them that will reap even greater rewards for everyone involved.

We’ll work along-side them, shoring up their operations the best we can, and encouraging them in ways that can only come from a direct relationship.  In the years ahead, we pray the relationship and influence will grow into something eternally meaningful not just for these specific farms, but also for the surrounding communities.

Back home, here in Greeley, the coffee will become a tangible representation of the Peruvian people whose faces and names will be dear to us, and they will become a beacon in this community.  That’s the prayer.  That’s the promise.

So, bless your little heart for getting through all of that to this point.  You’re good people.  Thanks.

If you can help me make this happen, and you don’t already know my address, send me a private note by clicking that link at the top of this page, and I’ll return your message with my mailing info.

Make checks to Christ Community Church, with only “Peru Missions” in the memo line, enclose a note indicating it’s a contribution for my trip costs, and send them to my home address.

Your donations are tax-deductible, but for people as generous as you are, that probably doesn’t matter.  However, if you are making a donation, please read this info from the church to be sure you get the whole picture about the tax-deductible part:  click here.  Wow, this giving is complicated, huh?

Thanks.

Please?!

I love you, too.

they come hoping

A gathering of what could loosely be called friends sits in an awkward, incomplete circle in the dimly lit corner of a large room, closed for business but quietly open for more meaningful transactions, on a cold, blustery autumn night.

They come individually and in pairs, cautiously, clumsily, waiting for confirmation they have been expected, welcomed, recognized, and they join the circle in what they hope, by careful selection, will be the safest of the all-risky locations, deflecting insecurity with timid chuckles and lukewarm teasing.

They come, driven by uncertain, nearly skeptical hope, from the corners of the body collective, at least the corners of this local manifestation of that many-membered conglomeration, having each borne the wounds of their individual, yet eerily common, trials and travails to arrive at this destination.

They come hoping.  They bring desperation and the weak coercion by which it forces them to hope, and to stand.

They bring various flavors of the profound, crippling weakness we all bear, on the interminable verge of profound, world-changing power.

They bring the evidence of things not seen, the substance of things hoped for, the inexpressible and perpetually embattled assurance of ancient promises written indelibly in the hidden crevices of their hearts.

In weakness.  In desperation.  Hoping against hope.

They come in union with, but lacking conscious awareness of, innumerable companies of pilgrims joining dimly hopeful, yet persistently confident, awkward circles of desperation in small, covert spaces in every corner of every country and every community in this small world.

Hoping.  Praying.

They bring reports of hardships suffered in dark places, and struggles and strife born in agonies which cannot be adequately uttered.  They speak of brokenness and weakness, of sacrifice and steadfastness in the ever-imposing face of adversity.

They speak of hope, overcoming power, and deeply running, pure waters of life.

They recognize they are unable to meet the needs.

They recognize that in weakness and poverty, they are unable to fix the broken, persistent manifestation of pervasive depravity.

They pray.  They weep.  They worship, with unmerited certitude, proclaiming an unworldly confidence in a power considered too good to be true, yet thoroughly true in the nearly tangible testimonies of their own hearts.

In weakness individually, but powerful in unity, they come.

Cast down, but not destroyed.

Perplexed, but not in despair.

Having nothing, yet possessing all things.

a little man in a little house in a little town with a little family

Earlier this week, I was struck (not literally, but figuratively slapped, you might say) by the thought of my insignificance.

Maybe it’s just a guy thing, but I’m more inclined to believe it’s just a general human thing, to consider ourselves fairly significant from the deeply rooted perspective of ourselves.

But, forget about all of you; I’m talking about me.

You have to understand, that in my mind, I’m of paramount importance.  I’m a big deal to me.  No kidding.

I earnestly care about everything that matters to me, and sincerely believe that what matters to me is of great importance, in general.

I’m fairly well convinced that my opinions are right because as soon as I think they might not be right, I change them to what is right, so they’re always up to date in terms of what’s right.

I’m not saying I’m always right.  I’m just saying that as soon as I realize that I might be slightly wrong, I change my mind and become right again, at least until the next rare moment when I’m notified of an error in my thinking.  I mean, I do know that I’m not perfect because no one is perfect, except Jesus, right?

Furthermore, the things that worry me from time to time are truly important things to me.  I think others should be worried about them, too.  The problem is that other people have minds of their own, and they think their own worries are also important, even when they conflict with mine.  So, I’m on a life-long mission to help people see the light and get all of us on the same worry page:  mine.

They just don’t get it – those people.

But beyond all that, I’m relatively positive that the purpose that God has intended for my life – the reason that I’m here – is for the benefit of a great many people.  For certain, it’s intended for the benefit of far more people than those who currently realize my value.  So, I’m always recruiting converts to my value-recognition project.  People need to know.  They need to know that I’m available – even sent – to help them, and that I can help, if only given the opportunity (under terms and conditions that are acceptable to me, of course.)

If people could only realize how much closer I am to having everything right than say almost everyone else, then they would come seeking my help.  But people can be so self-centered sometimes that it’s just sickening, isn’t it?  Sheesh!

So, what I’m trying to say is that I’m always carrying around this expectancy for something big to happen that will change my stars and exalt me to the position in society which God has always intended me to have, in his perfect timing, of course.  When he does that, I’ll be able to exert the positive influence in the world – not the whole world, of course, but the portion in which he’s destined me to have sway, a portion which I’ve always been certain is much greater than the current portion in which my potential has been only slightly realized – for which I’ve been destined.

It’s kind of like knowing you’re going to win the lottery, but not being completely sure which week the numbers will come together.

I wake up every morning with anticipation.  Any day could be the day!  Any day could be the day I break out and become all that I can be.

The mailman could bring the letter to my mailbox.  My boss could ask for an urgent meeting.  The perfect idea for that book or movie or business could pop unexpectedly into my head.  A friend could call and need me to talk to another friend that is having trouble, and that friend could be famous, like the President, or some celebrity.

Any day, it could happen.  Someday, it will.  I’m sure of it.

At least, I was sure of it.

Then, earlier this week, as I said before, I was struck by a deviant thought.  I was hit by a metaphorical bolt of lightning, if you will.  The lightbulb of clarity flickered on just long enough for me to see my surroundings, and impose its haunting vision upon me.

I was just innocently driving along my typical route home from work, amidst a throng of thousands of other cars carrying what I suddenly realized were thousands of equally important people on their various ways to equally important places to do equally important things, while waiting for their equally important and eagerly awaited ships to come in.

I’m only one of 6-billion people on this planet.  I’m a middle-aged male who lives in an insignificant American, declining, middle-class suburban neighborhood in an obscure town in a rural part of a middle state.  I have a low-profile job in a giant corporation.  I have a circle of friends who are pretty cool, but are not celebrities and not likely to become famous any time soon.  I do some good things, occasionally, and some less good things more often, but generally, I don’t do much that’s extraordinary.

All this time, I’ve considered myself as a sort of covert operator in some grand scheme to save the world.  An unknown, sacrificially biding my time and developing critical experience and societal tools, waiting in obscurity for the call to the bull-pen of my life, from the dugout where the General Manager of the world is looking for some relief in the bottom of the eighth.

Then that thought struck me.  That heinous thought invaded me violently and vehemently.

I’m a little man, living in a little house, in a little town with a little family.

And the world is very big.  Very, very big.

I’m like a drop of water falling into the ocean.  Like drool dripping from the lips of a sassy five-year-old boy leaning over the railing of a cruise ship on the Pacific, making a tiny, inconsequential splash.  Or something like that.

My potential impact will likely only ever be realized in my immediate surroundings and upon the people who are very close to me now – those within hugging, texting, phoning, emailing, blogging, praying distance.

The second thought that struck me, then, was that I should probably be more attentive to those folks:  more caring, more compassionate, more of a servant, more humble, more willing.  A little less focus on me, maybe.

The truth is: I think I need them more than they need me.

Ouch.  That’ll leave a mark.