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.

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 tangle of limbs and polka dots

A two-year-old girl in a navy, polka-dot dress with white tights, and cool Converse sneakers, which in her pronunciation become “cul cumbers”, happily irresponsible on a sunny Sunday morning, as she skips and trots along the sidewalk, absent-mindedly leading her family to the church entrance, trips over a menacing crack in the unforgiving walkway and tumbles forward in a tangle of limbs and polka dots, scraping small spaces of tender, poorly protected skin against the abrasive reality of a gravity-empowered earth.

Her father, walking a few steps behind her with another little girl in his arms, a scowl on his face, and an offended cloud of stormy emotions – self-imposed by the suffering of disappointed, unreasonable, selfishly designed, and entirely unnecessary expectations – brooding invisibly over his mind, while wishing for escape from the frustrating bonds and simultaneously demanding retribution and grovelling from his offenders, watches the two-year-old bundle of the best sunshine the world can offer fall violently and pitiably, pushing the stake of disappointment and anger all the further into his enshrouded heart.

As the inevitable screams, and horrified wails of “owie” begin to flow, inspired more by the shock and offense of such an unfair and so grievously perpetrated surprise attack than the very real sting of the scraped skin, the girl’s father says to her, as he grabs her arm and coerces her flailing, injured limbs and body from the embrace of the concrete, “Okay, okay!  You’re fine!  You can stop with the drama queen act.  We need to keep moving.  Come on!”

meeting notes

Something worth fighting for
Something worth fighting for

Cogitations in lieu of active participation in Demand Forecast meeting from 7:30 – 9:00 this morning, and since:

The power:

  • is it real?
  • what difference does it make?
  • ideas?
  • illusion of control?
  • Waste!
  • Fight!
  • Stand!

“For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.” 1 Cor. 4:20

  • Is it real?
  • Is it apparent?
  • Should it be?

South Bronx:

Poorest congressional district in the U.S., walking distance (running distance) from the 7th wealthiest district. 

Children:

  • POVERTY
  • ABUSE
  • AIDS
  • DRUGS
  • ALONE
  • DE-VALUED
  • NO ROLE MODELS/LEADERS
  • UNLOVED
  • HOPELESS
  • ORPHANED

Budget Inputs for 2009:

  • Headcount changes
  • Travel – non-billable
  • Outside services
  • Capital expenditures

Desire frustrated, passion unfulfilled, anguish, restrained.

Limited?

Focused?

Held at bay.

Confused.

Certain.

There is a physical substance to this anguish manifest in an ache in my bosom reminiscent of the groaning of a broken heart, unfulfilled longing, and fervent resolve.

So, I ask you, how does the power manifest itself in our worlds?  Does it continue to have tangible expression?  Does seeking first the kingdom and His righteousness have practical implications?  Does it even have relevant spiritual implications, beyond modern, post-modern, emergent theology and contemporary Christianity?  Is it possible for those of us in middle-class, American suburbia, to engage the power of the spirit while simultaneously engaging the need to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, give hope to the hopeless, compassion to the prisoner?  Can we make a difference?  Can we really make things better?  If we give all we have to the poor, but have not love, does it matter?  If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound?  If a church exists in the world, and doesn’t have the power of God, does it make a difference?  Do we care?

What should we do?  Will we do it?  When?

saturday

Sometimes people are curious about what our days are like with such a large family.  The following is a sample of a typical Saturday from my perspective – I don’t know exactly what Renee did all day – with the added excitement of a birthday (we have at least one family birthday in each month except April and October, and yes, we hope to fill those soon):

5:23 – I stumble out of bed after snoozing 4 times, kiss Renee, and head to the bathroom to make myself as beautiful as possible in 10 minutes or less.

5:32 (5:42) – On my way to wake Ben for his turn at Starbucks, which he’s especially excited about for his 10th birthday, I realize the clock I’ve been looking at has stopped and it’s actually 5:42.  “Get up, Ben!  Hurry! We’re late!”

5:45 – Out the door, after another goodbye kiss for Renee, and Ayda, as well, who has decided it’s a good time for she and her mother to get up and get started for the day.

5:48 – Ben and I stop in front of our friends’ house to pick up Mia.  She has to be at her job in the bakery at Wal-Mart by 6:00, but their family car died a few weeks ago, so friends have been happily volunteering to get them where they need to be until a replacement can be found.

5:58 – The usual from McDonald’s drive-thru and Karen, our friend in the window.

6:09 – It’s good to see Jim waiting for us at Starbucks, and Luke and Melanie behind the counter.  I decided to try a french press brew for the first time, then David had to copy me.  Tony showed up late again, but by 6:30, we were on track with some great conversations about the culinary delights that are sausage mcmuffins, the incarnation of Jesus, the subtle spiritual dimensions that surround us and affect our lives, the pre-fall human nature vs. the redeemed human nature, and whether Jesus could still walk on water after the resurrection when he had holes in his feet.

8:35 – Off to Bittersweet park, where Ben waits eagerly in the car for me and counts my laps as I run around the path.  4 laps = 4.8 miles and lots of pain for an old man.

9:29 – Safeway stop to get bacon.  Renee calls to say our friend, Aaron, is already at the house starting the biscuits and gravy for Ben’s breakfast, and to remind me that I need to hurry home.

9:50 – Back at home, and after a quick shower, I try to help Aaron and protect him from the swarm of children trying to “help” fry sausage and bacon, and stir the dough for biscuits.  A total of 19 people with our family and two others, spends the next couple of hours cooking, eating, talking and herding children.  Breakfast included 2 pounds of bacon, 2 pounds of sausage, 12 fried eggs, 15 scrambled eggs, about 4 dozen biscuits, 2 gallons of juice, muffins, crumb cake and a pot of coffee.

11:45 – Renee and I are leaving as our guests do, and going our separate ways.  Renee’s headed to a friend’s son’s birthday party with our 5 smallest kids, while I take Ben and his brothers, Will and Noah, and pick up 4 other boys from 3 homes for an afternoon of birthday celebrating.

12:30 – 7 cold and wet boys strapped into rented skates go sliding, falling, skidding, skating, and laughing around the ice rink.  On Renee’s orders, I’m the photographer for the day, which gives me a great excuse to stay off the ice.  Charis, Renee’s younger sister, meets us at the rink to deliver a gift for Ben and visit.

1:30 – Packing 7 boys back into the van for a trip across town to drop Will at a friend’s house for another birthday party.

2:15 – Pizza slices and blue raspberry Icees to wash them down – a birthday meal fit for kings – served with smiles from our friend Amanda at the food court in the mall.

3:00 – 1 adult and 6 children for the matinee of Alvin and the Chipmunks.  No popcorn or candy!  Don’t even think about it!  (Yes, the movie was fun – I actually laughed out loud several times – and those chipmunks are cute!  Awwww!)

5:05 – Ben opens gifts as we drive around dropping off friends.  We offer a rousing, noisy, completely off-tune rendition of “Happy Birthday” then discuss the reasons why we didn’t get to have birthday cake.

5:25 – Home for a few minutes where Renee reminds me that I have 20 minutes before I have to pick up 2 nephews and a niece and get them, along with 6 of our children and another nephew who is already with us, to church by 6:00.  Renee’s picking up Will at 6:00 then meeting me at church with the rest of our kids.  We have several minutes of tense discussion, narrowly avoiding an argument over the schedule and miscommunication, with our weary bodies playing a major role.  Although I did manage to make Renee cry, again, a kiss and a hug before I left put the world back together and assured us both everything would be fine.

6:10 – With everybody but Ethan, our 3-year-old who would rather be with Dad, in their classes, and a cup of coffee in hand, we get to my favorite part of the day:  a quiet hour and fifteen minutes in the back row of the church with good preaching, and doodles of tigers and lions.

7:05 – Renee joins us in the back row with Will, Ayda, and Meghan, who I gladly get to hold for the worship and singing.  She claps and sings along in her own language.

7:30 – Renee and I go our separate ways again through the church to retrieve kids from their classes and visit with friends.  As usual, we’re the last to leave, except for Jim – the same Starbucks Jim – who gets to lock the doors and spend a couple of hours getting the building ready for the following morning.  Renee and I just figure that whoever is left in the building by that time must be ours, so we load them up and take them home.

8:30 – Renee takes 9 kids in the big bus, drops off 6 at our sister-in-law’s house for a sleepover.  I take 4 kids and head for the barn.  (By the way, if you’re counting, that’s nine of ours, and four cousins, and Katie, our oldest, was away with her youth group for the weekend.  Yes, we count frequently.  Yes, it’s hard.)

8:45 – Parked in front of our house, I yell at Ben, the birthday boy, because he isn’t being as diligent as I want him to be in trying to find Meghan’s socks, which I presume, as usual, she has just removed and thrown on the floor.  Ben cries and tries harder.  Then, I realize Meghan must not have been wearing socks.  Outside the car, I give a weak apology to Ben, along with more lecture.  He cries more and tries to understand.  My heart finally takes over for my tired brain, and I give Ben a hug and real apology.

9:20 – Renee is home with the remainder of the bus load.  PB&J and turkey sandwiches are dinner for whoever has a stomach while Ben finishes opening his gifts and lays them out for me to see.

10:10 – 7 kids brushed, washed, and changed for bed.  Renee and I spend a few minutes “alone” with Meghan and Ayda, while watching part of a movie and having a late snack/dinner.

10:45 – I’m tucked into bed with Meghan snoozing next to me, and I fall asleep while trying to listen to Renee talk about the day, as she simultaneously tries to negotiate with Ayda regarding a reasonable night’s sleep.

1:00am – Renee and Ayda finally reach a sleepy agreement, but I’m entirely unaware. 

overcoming our weaknesses

It seems to me that those of us who call ourselves Christians have a tendency to do things and say things which are inconsistent with the label and faith we’ve chosen. In the process, we’ve created significant and unnecessary confusion about the meaning of Christianity, and the character of the one upon whom our faith is based.

It’s interesting that, if the things we profess regarding the basics of our faith are true – the divinity and character of Jesus and the authority of the Bible – we have to acknowledge that we are intended to be representatives of Jesus, and that he expects his message to be delivered to everyone through our words and actions.

Frankly, we mess this up fairly often, and I think it’s done some damage to the good name of Jesus, not to mention the diminished credibility of those of us who wear the label. In fact, if you do a little research, you can easily find survey statistics indicating that people like Jesus, although they are confused about who he is and what he’s done. He’s made a good impression on history as an individual. The same surveys will also tell you that people generally do not think very highly of us Christians, or the churches we attend.

I could probably cite a volume of examples here from my own experience to confirm this point, but specific examples tend to become the focus of defensive efforts. If specific issues can be defended successfully, countless others stand in line behind them, and surely we would exhaust ourselves trying to defend them all.

Suffice it to say that we seem to be misguided – not all of us all of the time, but all of us at some time or another. Frequently, our own self-centered agendas and small-world perspectives distract us from the real value of our lives, both for the sake of Christ and those we have the potential to influence. We are likely to be selective about the scriptural principles we emphasize, accentuating those that highlight our strengths and ignoring those that would risk exposing weaknesses.

We expend enormous effort, and the money to support it, to expound on the ideas that are lofty, comforting, and self-exalting, while self-sacrifice, humility, and generosity are discussed as if they are necessary evils. We preach and apply Jesus’ words cautiously, seeking interpretive loopholes to free ourselves from the sharpest points. We often follow those expressions with simplistic answers to complex questions, sidestepping the counterpoints with boisterous calls for faith without questioning.

It’s funny to me that while I write these thoughts, I’m reluctant to continue, knowing that people will believe I’ve become a cynic. They’ll say that things are not so bad; that we’re not so bad; that I just need to get out from under whatever has me down. I’ll be bold enough to protest those voices I’m imagining by saying that I really think it’s probably worse than I’ve described, and I think that if we’re all honest we can be unanimous on this point. I’m not losing hope at all, and I don’t really believe I’m cynical, but I want to be objective and honest.

It will be interesting to see how Jesus overcomes our weaknesses, how he repairs any damage we’ve done or will do, and how he makes good on promises and commitments that often seem broken and forgotten. We can be sure he will.

I am a Christian. I love Jesus and desire to follow him well. I love Christians. I love people who don’t like, much less love, Jesus or Christians. I’m sorry for what we’ve done wrong in the name of Jesus. Yes, please consider this an apology and let me know if I can do anything to express that tangibly toward you. I have hope that Jesus will overcome and make things right, and I’m trying to commit myself to help him.