Side-By-Side

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you. ~ A. A. Milne

Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.(Genesis 29:11 | NRSV)

Side-by-side they reclined, distinct yet coupled by choice. This was not the beginning of time but still another in a stream of days enlightened by understanding and shaded by the comfort of knowing and being known. He had worked for her; she had waited for him. This was life the way God intended–not Edenic perfection, but tiptoeing to the edge of it and peeking over hand-in-hand. She completed him; not in the sense of losing track of where she ended and he began, but a far deeper vein of filling what was absent before her. To say a higher power brought them together would be gross understatement–neither stars aligning nor happenstance, this was the handiwork of God. What led her to him and him to her were choices forged on the harsh anvil of unyielding existence and resilience born of a hard journey, but like the Star of Bethlehem that blooms despite the onslaught of summer, the desert did not extinguish the flame.

They could not know what lay in store–ceaseless wandering, prosperity and poverty, peace and war, childbirth and life ending labor, but here they were, together. Oneness is sacred trust. “When it’s gone, you’ll know what a gift love was. You’ll suffer like this. So go back and fight to keep it” (Ian McEwen). He squeezed her hand but said nothing; what passed between them was eloquence enough. He loved her, and that was all there was to it and all there would ever be.

So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. (Genesis 35:19-20 | NRSV)

Breaking of Day


And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
(Poem by Minnie Louise Haskins published in 1908. The words are engraved on stone plaques and fixed to the gates of the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle, England.)

Peace

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” ~Mother Teresa

Peace is a commodity short in supply, but great in demand. My long held understanding of it was challenged standing near a dying woman. We had gathered in the bedroom of the frail and fading parishioner because that’s what church does best. Ours is what many might term a “house church,” although we assemble most often in the recording studio owned by one of our members. I prefer the term “portable church,” because we frequently gather in other locations, depending on the needs of our congregants at any given point in time. We meet wherever we are needed most. Church, by definition, is intended to be incarnational. This particular Sunday evening found some of us standing and others seated near Laura who had been slipping away for more than a year and was now about to cross over. We intoned hymns and choruses of grace and love and life on the other side. We laughed and sang through moistened eyes and damp cheeks. Then I stood, placed my hand on Laura’s unresponsive ones, and prayed for peace. Instead of seeking the absence of anything, we pleaded for the Creator and Lord of life to invade our presence with His own.

We are acquainted with the Western version that peace is the absence of conflict, but the biblical portrayal is quite different. Shalom is the Hebrew word. In English, the word “peace” conjures up a passive picture, one revealing an absence of civil disturbance or hostilities, or a personality free from internal and external strife. The biblical concept of peace is larger than that and means “to be complete” or “to be sound.” Instead of something vacating, it is an ushering in of something greater, more desireable. The noun had many nuances, but can be grouped into four categories: shalom as wholeness of life or body (i.e., health); as right relationship or harmony between two parties or people, often established by a covenant; prosperity, success, or fulfillment; and victory over one’s enemies resulting in the cessation of conflict. Shalom was used in both greetings and farewells and was meant to act as a blessing on the one to whom it was spoken: “May your life be filled with health, prosperity, and victory.” I have good friends who have named their Kenyan residence “Pa Amani,” which literally translates as “Place of Peace.” Amani is Swahili for the Hebrew concept of shalom. The word is of Arabic origin, relating primarily to the concept of desire and aspiration; the act of coming together in harmony. Both shalom and Amani mean much more than the cessation of violence and hostility.

Jesus said: “Peace I give you. Peace I leave with you. Let not your hearts be troubled…” (John 14)

There is a considerable difference between peace and a truce. Peace is the deepest desire and need of the human heart, but usually enters as the result of great effort and even conflict. We will never know peace until we comprehend Peace as verb rather than noun. It acts, rather than receives action. Shalom is not the absence of something, but is instead its preferred replacement. Peace is not absence of fear, conflict, violence, anxiety, etc. It is the presence of someone who brings with her or him positive reinforcements–confidence, joy, resolution, love. Jesus declared as blessed those he termed “peace-makers.” Peace is not rhetoric, shalom pushes to the forefront of unrest as we actively seek to better those around us. To be a peacemaker is to “live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it, but . . . to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness” (Frederick Buechner). Peace never happens on its own.

Thankless Courage

(Photo from LA Times)
“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”~Maya Angelou

I hurt for the families of officers down for no other reason than doing the thankless job citizens demand of them with far too little compensation. I pray for the men and women in blue who don their uniform daily knowing the danger in doing so, but choose to wear it still with a sense of pride and responsibility that few of us, including myself, will ever understand. The Blue Line may at times be thin, but is never broken; we owe our security to the courage of these who persevere in harm’s way for no other reason than a prevailing sense of calling and duty. 

He may not have been thinking of law enforcement when he penned it, but the statement certainly fits: “The best way out is always through” (Robert Frost). Thankfully, the stalwart men and women in blue continue to perform their duty through harassment, legal malaise, misunderstanding, hatred, and scorn. They ask nothing in return; we may never understand their duty, at the very least we should offer our respect. 

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” ~Soren Kierkegaard

Going or Coming?

“According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.”
~G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy)

I am not a traveling salesman, but my vocation lends itself to a goodly measure of mobility. My most recent journey included the small West Texas town of Anson in Jones County. Having spent my childhood on the Gulf Coast, driving through the vast expanse of West Texas feels like journeying to a foreign land, stepping back through time, returning to my travels across the Kaisut Desert of northern Kenya. Dust regularly rises and settles, turning back on itself like flour vapors migrating this way and that as chef tosses and flattens pizza dough into the desired consistency. I once saw so many towering dust devils on the lonesome stretch from Pecos to Fort Davis that I lost count of them. At times it seems like one drives great distances simply to go from one furnace blast to the next. Approaching Anson, the parched landscape gradually gave way to a smattering of paved streets and correspondingly few mottled buildings situated around an aged courthouse. The town, originally called Jones City, was built in anticipation of the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Investments were made and stores and hotels opened, but the railroad went further south. Jones City was declared the county seat in 1881, but the name was changed to Anson in 1882 without much opposition since Anson and Jones were the same man. A physician, San Jacinto veteran, publisher, founding member of the first Masonic Lodge in Texas, Jones was President of the Republic of Texas and Texas’ Ambassador to the United States. He is buried in Houston and there is no record of him ever traveling near the county that bears his name.

I arrived 45 minutes early for my appointment, so I crisscrossed the small town, more or less to kill time. I came across a couple of second-hand shops that looked like they contained third or fourth-hand items, a post office, two churches, a Dollar General store, and a weathered billboard advertising the Cowboy Christmas Ball at Anson’s historic Pioneer Hall, but the images that held my attention comprised a large set of murals on the south side of one of the buildings southwest of the Courthouse Square. Large painted letters below the murals indicated that they were provided by a grant from a foundation in Wichita Falls. I sat and studied through my driver’s side window what promised to one day be an incredible array of paintings. Each separate section contained distinct figures depicting the history of cotton industry in the area. While the outlines were distinct, there was very little color on the whitewashed wall, only a pale patch here and there. Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was time to move to my meeting, and I decided to ask the man I had come to see about the status of the paintings. I navigated the one way streets to the east side of the square, parked, and walked inside. I shook hands with my new acquaintance and accepted his offer to sit near his desk. We engaged in the usual small talk between strangers meeting for the first time, which included references to weather and current events. Somewhat in passing I mentioned the murals-in-process and stated that I hoped to return to see the finished product. My host smiled and told me that what I had seen actually was the finished product. He explained that the outdoor paintings were completed a decade earlier, but unlike the well preserved Post Office mural “Cowboy Dance,” the exposed pigments had fallen victim to the West Texas sun and what I saw was the faded remainder of the vanishing artistic depiction of Jones County history. Other murals in Anson were in much better condition, one paying homage to cattle brands and another to Dr. Pepper. While I had initially thought the murals held promise, they would soon be nothing but a footnote to a small town’s memory. 

It is important to know whether you are coming or going. In a way that is hard to describe, the faded murals remind me of testimonies I’ve heard through the years. Testimony time in church has always been curious to me. Irrespective of age, one adult after another would share her or his faith story by recounting what had happened long before, at times including details as to the date and time they encountered the Savior. Each narrative was unique, the one common element being a distinct encounter in the distant past. I listened carefully, at times spellbound, only to wonder later what difference the historical event was making in the testifier’s present and what impact it might have on his future. There is no such thing as standing still with one’s relationship to Christ. We are either going or coming, growing or declining; at times, it is difficult to detect which way we’re facing. The hallmark of Christian experience is a growing faith.  

“but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” 2 Peter 3:18

“Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” Hebrews 6:1

When you stop growing, you start dying. At any given moment in time I am either a masterpiece in process or a fading image of what I once was, the ghost of what I was intended to be. The choice is mine.

Altered State

“Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.”~ Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

We made our annual trek in a rented minivan for family vacation–four adults and three children. On any journey of length it’s helpful if the passengers get along and fortunately we do, but even for the most congenial and heartiest of travelers there comes a time for stretching legs and releasing energy. On the second day of our trip we did just that and made an unscheduled stop in Pensacola, Florida at the Naval Air Museum. We unfolded ourselves, coaxed legs into action, and walked inside without knowing what to expect. The cavernous metal building was filled with different types of aircraft strategically placed to tell the story of flight from Kitty Hawk to the Blue Angels. While our grandchildren quickly rediscovered their land legs in the shadows of every conceivable mode of air transportation suspended by cables from high up metal girders, my wife and I walked at a more age appropriate pace and attempted to take it all in. As grandparents are want to do, we looked for ways to maximize the experience for the kids and our gaze settled on what a sign innocently designated as a flight simulator. With two boys to corral, this was just the thing to occupy a twelve year old and seven year, the only problem being that the height of the youngest required an adult to accompany them. With their father out of sight pushing their younger sister in a stroller somewhere across the museum, the lot fell to me to ride with them. My wife paid for tickets and I climbed inside with the boys. I was as anxious as they were for the simulated flight until the door closed and I remembered my extreme claustophobia. Too late to formulate an excuse to exit, it dawned on me that being in a simulator meant that I would be trapped inside a box for who-knew-how-long with no way to escape with pride intact. While my grandsons laughed and prepared for the “flight”, I frantically looked around for a way out and spied a red handle on the ceiling in front of me with a sign next to it that read “emergency stop.” It might better have been labeled ‘Panic Button.’ I fought the almost uncontrollable urge to jump up, slam my fist into the red handle, and claw my way out of the cage. I was too young to be buried alive. I gave myself the pep talk of a lifetime, attempting to convince that the struggle was all in my mind; I guilted myself to get a grip, to fight through the cold sweat and gritty panic. The box swayed and swerved in sync with the images on the screen in front of us, and as we slid from side to side I sat face to face with fear. Fear is an ugly thing, especially when it is your own. 

Quite honestly, I am unafraid of most things. I do not like snakes, especially a green mamba dangling overhead from a thorny acacia tree while preaching in Tharaka, Kenya. I have a long term dislike of the dark that was forged at an early age, but I am not terrified of shadows. What I do fear is being trapped with no way of escape. It may be relinquishing control, or some other psychosomatic influence, but the bottomline is that fear alters my perception of reality. “We’ve known for a long time that fear and anxiety can disrupt cognitive processes,” says Stella F. Lourenco, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta. An example is the person who fears losing control over her car because she perceives inclined bridges as steeper than they really are. Again, the mere thought conjures up memories of driving across the Rainbow Bridge near Port Arthur as a teenager. Fear convinces that everything is what it seems to be, even though the perception is far from true. 

As the flight simulator heaved and bucked and I fought to regain breath, I remembered something I had read and decided to fling my hopes upon it: Fear not, for I am with you (Isaiah 41:10). An accurate translation is “Do not continue being afraid because I am with you.” Fear is conquered by recognizing distortion and then focusing on reality. Face your fear and know that God is working gently behind the scenes to bring you to the light, strengthening you in the process.

“I was flying somewhere one day when all of a sudden the plane ran into such a patch of turbulence that it started to heave and buck like a wild horse. As an uneasy flyer under even the best of circumstances, I was terrified that my hour had come, and then suddenly I wasn’t. Two things, I remember, passed through my mind. One of them was the line from Deuteronomy ‘underneath are the everlasting arms,’ and for a few minutes I not only understood what it meant, but felt in my nethermost depths that without a shadow of a doubt it was true, that underneath, undergirding, transcending any disaster that could possibly happen, those arms would be there to save us if my worst fears were realized.” (Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart)

Fear fabricates an altered state of reality, and acknowledging it is a crucial step back into the light of who we are, and, correspondingly, who we are not. See yourself and immediate context as God does, and stride or limp or crawl forward, hand in his.

Listening While Living

Listening-while-living is an art form worth learning. Life seems at times like a succession of converging and divergent tragedies, at once interconnected and then again, disparate. Unfortunately, our earthbound perspective is linear and we strain to see ahead and behind without the ability to focus properly on either. We do not realize that this “right now” perspective is actually a grace gift. Jesus expresses it eloquently: 

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

In other words, we have right now, not yesterday or tomorrow. Surrender this moment. Celebrate this day. Create this memory. Love immediately and passionately. Do what lies at hand and you just may find the dividend is eternal.

(From the introduction to Ordinary Glory)