Distractions and Renewal

Stuff gets in the way. Stuff gets in the way of life happening the way it is supposed to. We get distracted, we lose focus, and before we know it, our lives have veered from where we thought they were supposed to go.

Maybe that’s where Lent comes in. As a season, it asks us to let go of some of those distractions. To let go of those things that keep us from living life as we were meant to live it. When people pick a trivial thing, even a happy thing, to give up for Lent, I think maybe it misses the mark.

I like the notion of Lent as a time for renewal and refocusing. Last week at Christ Church Easton, the Gospel reading was Mark’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. Interim pastor Jerrett Hansen, reflecting on this mountaintop experience, asked, “How are we connected to the story?”

He posited we need to live into the mystery of the story, the mystery of God and Christ, rather than try to intellectually analyze it.

“Jesus and God are to be experienced. We need to be open to these experiences… Experiencing God is essential to our journey.”

I think that is what life’s distractions prevent us from doing. They get in the way of our wonder; they get in the way of loving more fully; they get in the way of opening ourselves to possibilities and to each other. Distractions keep us from knowing ourselves more fully and from knowing God more fully.

Maybe instead of giving something up just to give something up, for Lent we can think about getting ourselves into spiritual shape. Building better habits to peel back the distractions. Jerrett introduced a notion that a friend of his, Michael Foss, spelled out as marks of discipleship:

1. Pray daily
2. Worship weekly
3. Read the Bible daily
4. Build spiritual friendships
5. Serve in the community
6. Be generous in all things

We’ll be spending time over the next weeks working through what some of those look like and what they mean. If you are up for it, maybe think of Lent as time to take on a discipline, or a devotional habit, to help get into shape a bit.

We all need help in our lives in some form or fashion. We can all be better people, for ourselves, our family, our friends, our community, our world.

I’m stoked to be helping lead groups this Lent and spring, which will be looking at Mark’s Gospel; which will be looking at how and why to pray and read the Bible. And the Alpha Course.

I love Mother Teresa’s notion that through prayer God guides us to do the things that need to be done in the world, that “prayer changes us and we change things.”

God invites us to come as we are, just as we are. But He also knows we are capable of being so much more. We can be better. We can do better. Maybe we can start now.

I’ll leave with a final though from Jerrett’s sermon this past Saturrday:

“God loves you the way you are, but He knows how much more you can be.”

Ava

Ava is a rock. She takes things in stride where her sister is all over the map. If she is upset, it means something is up.

Over the last couple years, I’ve had too many reasons to write about Ava and what she’s been through with her seizures. Yet, seizures are the furthest thing from defining her.

This is a year of parenting milestones. Anna turned 16 and now Ava turns 13, and we are head first into the teenage years.

Ava is the smart kid without much common sense. She’ll pick up on something five minutes after the conversation because she’s been thinking about her own thing. She makes honor roll effortlessly and organizes herself in ways her sister (and her father) may never figure out.

This year the younger sister by three years grew taller than the older. They like to stand next to each other and have people guess who is older. The guess is usually Ava.

She endures and carries on. Ava has taken more pills over the past two and a half years than I have taken in 45. She’s had to worry about things she can’t understand or control. And yet, while in the hospital for a month, her biggest complaint during that stretch was not being allowed to have a soda while she was in intensive care.

Ava finds humor in simple things. She laughs easily and often. She isn’t that worried about what other people think and doesn’t seem to need to be surrounded by friends all the time. She is nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning or off the couch.

I love remembering her packing the 96-pack of Crayola crayons in her backpack so she was sure to have the right color to draw with. I love that when doctors said she probably wouldn’t be ready to play field hockey after getting out of the hospital, that Ava was named the team MVP for the season and was a force on the field. I love that she already knows the key things she wants to do when she visits Ocean City this summer, including her annual tradition of getting hair wraps.

Ava surprises me frequently. Her thoughts come out of left field. She has taught me more about taking life as it comes and about perseverance than I could have imagined. She taught me about prayer and about gratitude and about carpe’ing the diem.

When Ava was born, I remember thinking she and her sister will be 13 and 16 at the same time. Formidable parenting patience required.

I look at her attitude. I look at her humor and personality. I look at her quirkiness and kindness. And I know that she will live life on her own terms and at her own pace. But she’ll probably need someone to wake her up in the mornings ūüôā

 

Sixteen

You are the ringleader. When I look up, you have cousins, kids, your sister, watching and following you around. You always make me laugh with what goofiness you come up with to run them through. From costumes to choreography, I don’t have a clue where you come up with it.

You are the curious one. Watching, listening atop the stairs, paying attention when no one realizes it.  You leash the dog and set out on foot. You are the sea glass explorer and the finder of odd things.

I rarely ever cried before you were born. Now I can’t watch movies with fathers and daughters in them; I am pretty well worthless in church if a sermon, song, or prayer hits the right note. That comes from being a father, which started with you. I guess the yelling comes from that too ūüôā

I’m not sure how a father is supposed to feel about his oldest child turning 16. And I’m not sure how I feel about it, so I guess that’s about right. I feel like I remember turning 16 too well for you to be there already. My teenage years were full of bad decisions, adventures, opportunities, and dumb luck. You’ve avoided a lot of the bad decisions so far, for which I thank you.

My father knew a lot more about being a dad to a 16 year old than I do, or he didn’t let on otherwise. It’s a privileged place to look at my parents and how they did it and at my daughter and how she does it. I have a lot to learn.

I want to strangle you a fair amount of the time, but I recently learned it’s your amygdala I have to take it up with. I realize you are part of God’s way of teaching me patience at the same time you are teaching me about love and gratitude.

You care about people in ways that make me both humble and proud and make me worry, which is part of what parents do, especially with 16 year olds.

When you forget yourself, you do amazing things. I’ve seen it on the field hockey field, or stepping up to play goalie in lacrosse, or in a hospital with your sister. I hope you learn to trust that more.

Paddleboarding this past summer, just the two of us, brought out the kind of conversations, questions, laughter, that no one could have told me existed before I knew you.

You and others know this story, but it’s on my mind now: we were on our way into the Annapolis Mall, you were three and sitting backwards on Ava’s stroller looking at us, and out of nowhere, unprompted, you asked, “Why did God make us?” I didn’t know what to say. You caught me off guard. And then you answered, “Know why I think? I think because He was lonely.”

There is no amount of theology or learning that has ever said it better. And if we can know the love God felt and feels and how His loneliness disappeared, maybe you show me that.

Until it’s time to get ready for school in the morning ūüėČ

When I look at you, turning 16, I see a lot of myself. But I see so much more, and someone totally different.

For your sixteenth birthday, I want things for you that I can’t possibly give you: happiness, love, friendship, wisdom, health, success, grace, hope, and laughter, to name a very few. I hope we can point you in the right direction to help you find those things and what they mean to you.

I have no idea where you will go in life or how you will decide to get there. That’s one of the coolest, most frightening, and beautiful things I have ever seen. You are growing up. And we get to be a part of it.

 

Nostalgia and Home

It’s the green house that I think about the most. It was off the back of my grandparents’ house in Towson. It was full of flowers and plants and my grandmother would go around watering and studying things out there.

Nostalgia grabs us in strange ways. It can be a smell, a song, or a feeling. When I walk into the sun room in my house and see plants inside for the winter, my mind goes immediately to my grandmother’s green house. It makes me smile. To get to the green house, you would have to walk by my grandfather sitting at the dining room table, drinking coffee, and reading The Baltimore Sun sports section.

Lately I’ve been thinking that nostalgia isn’t longing for the past, it’s touching something missing. In his book, “Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth,” Hugh Halter goes with nostalgia meaning “to return or go back home:”

We all have nostalgia and memories of going back home. Some of us remember our fathers through old cars; some of us keep Christmas ornaments our mothers passed down. Maybe it’s old guns; maybe just a photo. But whatever the point of reference, we all know emotions of looking back to times that brought us great joy. Nostalgia is the answer to the why.

A question I love to ask people is, “Where/what do you picture when you hear or say the word ‘home?'” I think it’s something that gets to the core of us. For one person it could be a childhood home, or the house where they raised their kids, or where they’ve spent the most years. I don’t picture a house. For me, when I think of home, I think of the Eastern Shore, Oxford, the Tred Avon River, anywhere outside in nature. Christ Church Easton and the people there feel like home. Log cabins in the woods feel like home, though I’ve never lived in one.

Christmas is a heavy nostalgic time. In part because many of us have deep memories tied to Christmas growing up. As a holiday, it can stoke both joy and emptiness, missing time past. But there may be more to it than that. Personally, it can sometimes take hearing Linus explain to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about before I get it right in my head. Funny how maybe it takes Charles Schulz to get kids to connect to Luke’s Gospel.

Let’s appreciate the forum here for a second: this is a blog, where I work out half-baked thoughts that should probably stay in the oven a while longer, or at least until after another cup of coffee. I don’t generally edit and things tumble out free form. That’s my disclaimer.

My memories don’t go back to the beginning of creation. There is a time before I was born. I think nostalgia reaches back further than our lifetimes. Maybe it’s a longing for a return to something in us that came before us. A Garden of Eden time that we can feel in our bones and hearts. We know there is something there, something to this longing, but we can’t put our minds around it quite right.

Halter points out that with the Incarnation, God wasn’t/isn’t trying to give us a ticket to get back to that perfect time–He’s bringing it to us. Christ brings the kingdom here and now. But it’s a process we have to open ourselves to. Christ gives us clue after clue; He shows us how to live, how to love, how to be in the world to help bring the kingdom/home both to ourselves and others. Halter goes into ways we can do a better job with this in our lives.

David Bailey’s book “Journeywork” found me via Outside Magazine. And it’s been a slow, wondrous walk since. Bailey describes home and coming home in a different way:

There’s a part of us already home
from the journey, resting by
the eternal fireside, and with us now
through the dark age and renaissance, through
every resurrection and
the great breaking-opens that feel like
endings. Storm lantern holding course
through every misadventure. Evergreen growing
through all seasons. It shines a halo of worth around
even our most irredeemable trials.

Feel that place now.

Returning home. But not as a journey to somewhere out there, but bringing home to us. Followers of Christ call it the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a gift we can’t buy, it’s given to us by grace. It’s been brought forward to us, but we have to open the door. And we help bring it about through love.

Maybe that’s the connection: nostalgia is a longing for home, to be reconnected to it and to each other by love.

Buechner on Eternity

I spent late Sunday on a bike and under a tree. The morning and afternoon had been music, prayer and fellowship of worship services, then blessing of pets (several dogs, a hedgehog, two guinea pigs, and a horse) at Christ Church Easton.

On a beautiful fall evening, I hopped on my bike and eased around Boone Creek and then found a tree on the shoreline of the Oxford Cemetery. I stretched my legs out and listened to geese in the cove, the breeze through the trees, conversations of boaters in Town Creek, and watched the sun dance on the water. I read David Bailey, Richard Rohr, and N.T. Wright. Mostly I sat, watched, listened, imbibed.

I was completely full. I didn’t try to give it words, just breath and feeling.

Yesterday I came across this passage from Frederick Buechner’s “Wishful Thinking,” and I realized Buechner had the words I was looking for:

ETERNITY IS NOT endless time or the opposite of time. It is the essence of time. 

If¬†you spin a pinwheel fast enough, then all its colors blend into a single¬†color‚ÄĒwhite‚ÄĒwhich¬†is the essence of all the colors of the spectrum¬†combined.¬†

If you spin time fast enough, then time-past, time-present, and time-to-come all blend into a single timelessness or eternity, which is the essence of all times combined. 

As¬†human beings we know time as a passing of unrepeatable events in the course of which everything passes away including ourselves. As human beings, we also know occasions when we stand outside the passing of events and glimpse their meaning. Sometimes an event occurs in our lives (a birth, a death, a¬†marriage‚ÄĒsome¬†event of unusual beauty, pain, joy) through which we catch a glimpse of what our lives are all about and maybe even what life itself is all about, and this glimpse of what “it’s all about” involves not just the present but the past and future¬†too.¬†

Inhabitants¬†of time that we are, we stand on such occasions with one foot in eternity. God, as Isaiah says (57:15) “inhabiteth¬†eternity” but stands with one foot in time. The part of time where he stands most particularly is Christ, and thus in Christ we catch a glimpse of what eternity is all about, what God is all about, and what we ourselves are all about too.¬†

On Vocation Part II: Closer to the Heart

My path seems spiral-shaped sometimes. I come back to a familiar place or thought, but things are different. It’s like further unearthing something, brushing dirt away to reveal more of the picture or map.

When I graduated Washington College in 1998, I was set to go to graduate school with the goal of teaching philosophy and religion. Ultimately graduate school debt didn’t make sense and there was something to staying in this community that stuck. That fall I started working at the Academy Art Museum, overseeing public relations, marketing, and development. Almost 20 years later, my career and spiritual paths combine, right across the street from the Academy: on October 16, I will start working full-time at Christ Church Easton as Assistant for Adult Christian Education & Newcomers Ministry.

I’ve been working at Christ Church part-time since last November, listening to a calling to work with small groups and adult education. I go back to Frederick Buechner’s thought that, “the place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I knew right away that working with the church was the first time that my vocation lined up with the big questions that I’ve always asked, the things I wonder about, and how I want to spend my time.

I am humbled by and grateful for this opportunity. This summer I told friends that if I won the lottery, I’d focus more on working for the church, continuing my own education, and writing. This fall it seems I’ve won the lottery.

Since February 2015, I’ve had the privilege of being the Executive Director of the Oxford Community Center, in the town where I grew up. I don’t have the words to say how much that experience has meant to me and what an incredible time it has been developing programs and events and welcoming and building the community at OCC. It has given me back a town I had lost touch with and one I am excited to call home again.

There have been a few moments in my life where/when things have lined up and I have known in my heart and in my bones what I was supposed to do. To this point in my working life, I’ve had jobs that I’ve enjoyed, but not that called me from the deepest level. I’ve felt this calling time and time again–from studying and wanting to teach philosophy and religion; to wanting to go back to school for Christian theology in 2014; to last year, putting my hopes and intentions out into the world, which led me to the small groups position at Christ Church.

I’ve reached a place and time in life that feels like a new beginning. It’s a beginning that is the culmination of everything that’s happened up to this point: work, fatherhood, friendships, connections, questions, faith, joy, struggle, community, opportunity, study, passion, prayer.

In his book, “Desire,” John Eldredge spells out:

“To live life fully–that is to say, to live life as God meant for us to live–demands a full recovery of our heart. You need that wellspring flowing swift and clear and true… The adventure calls. The future awaits. How you handle your heart’s desire will in great measure determine what becomes of your life.”

To be a part of a community of faith. To help each other in our own walks, with our own questions. To study, to learn, to share, to write. To have the opportunity to follow a calling in vocation. To live life closer to the heart. To listen, to discern God’s will and find deep happiness in His Way and Word.

Those are things that get me out of bed in the morning, things that stir my heart watching the sunrise. They are thoughts and images that dance through my mind when I am running, skateboarding, hiking, reading, or paddleboarding.

It’s a coming together of life and experience to this point, my part and passion in God’s larger work and will. It’s coming to know God’s grace and love as lived out and given to and for us through Jesus Christ.

Here I am. I am grateful, humbled, excited, and so many other things.

Amen.

Wonder and Welcome

“We need to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.” – G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy.”

Watching the sun break the horizon, change the whole color of the sky and the landscape; watching fog dancing on still sleeping water on the cove–that conveys the sense of wonder we can find any given morning.

Smiling at the sunrise, laughing like it’s an inside joke, or on a morning with others running, skateboarding, or paddleboarding, realizing what a gift those moments are to share–that feeling, that recognition, that is welcome.

Maybe it is our job, with the time we have, to find both wonder and welcome. Maybe it’s our job, with the time we have, to be grateful for both wonder and welcome. Maybe it’s our job, with the time we have, to convey both wonder and welcome to others.

Part of that is finding what moves us. Part of it is staying after it, stoking our fire, our passion–what makes us who we are–and doing something with it, not settling, and not just being comfortable.

For me, that starts with waking up, wrestling the dog, smiling. Putting coffee on, grabbing a notebook and pen, a book. Praying. Reading. Reflecting. Maybe it’s a running or skateboarding morning. Maybe it’s watching hummingbirds light on the feeders next to the window.

Wonder and welcome are up to me to find. They are up to me to recognize. They are up to me to be grateful for. And they are up to me to pass along.

Finding Meaning and Community

Life can be rough. That’s not even worth a bumper sticker, it’s just a given. Even the most positive people have dark nights of the soul. And we all run up against questions we can’t answer. I think Fr. Bill Ortt is on to something when he says it is our questions that define us. It’s also our questions that drive us.

“Is there more to life than this?” That’s one of the first ones we come across in the Alpha Course. Alpha is phenomenon that took off in London under the leadership and vision of Nicky Gumbel. The notion was and is to take people who aren’t church-goers, but who wonder about life’s big questions, bring them together, to eat a meal, to enjoy each other, to watch some short films and talk. No judgment, no pressure, but plenty of laughter, connection, and fun. And funny things begin to happen when you put like-minded seekers together, no matter how different they may seem.

Last winter and spring, something like 60 adults and 40 youth went through Alpha at Christ Church Easton. It was a transformative experience for just about all involved. I went from feeling like a newcomer to knowing I was a part of a community of people. And I saw the same thing happen to other people. It wasn’t about “church,” it was about relationships, conversations, and connections. The weekend away itself left me reeling and inspired.

It seems a rare thing today to make the time to sit down with people, to eat together, to have meaningful discussion about things that matter, to admit we don’t have all the answers, but we have plenty of questions, and to put that on the table. The humor, the honesty, the laughs that follow are amazing.

Christ Church is starting Alpha up again this coming Saturday, Sept. 9. There is a worship service called “Alive at 5,” that is one of the most laid back and Spirit-filled I have ever encountered. At about 6-6:15, everyone sits down in the Parish Hall to eat together. Right now there are 70 adults signed up, plenty of whom haven’t been a part of Christ Church, a number who have and who are looking to go on a journey of sorts, together. The church’s youth program (ages 10-18) has dinner with us. Daycare is provided, free. Then we go watch a short film and break into small groups to talk.

It’s fun, it’s free, and there is no pressure. There are folks this spring that found it to be pretty cool. I found it to be something totally unexpected that I had been waiting for for some time. So much so that I am signing on again, as are a number of other folks. If it sounds like something you would dig, you can find more information at Christ Church Easton’s website.

There are different ways to find meaning and community. Alpha is a great beginning.

 

Carve Therapy

Skateboarding was my first love. It was the first thing that seemed to come to me on its own; the first thing I couldn’t wait to do when I got up, whether or not anyone else was around or doing it. I did it for me, and the feeling I got.

In my teenage years, it signified so much of what I felt: rebelliousness, restlessness, creativity, fun, physicality, and a way of looking at the world around me differently. Pavement and concrete became both a canvas and a playground. Skateboarder Jason Adams says it best in a short video that captures just about everything I feel, remember, and look forward to with skateboarding (the video, not just the quote):

“I remember my biggest fear in life was to grow up and be normal. I was terrified of that.” -Jason Adams

I was 13 when I got my first skateboard. It was a Sims Flagship from The Sunshine House in Ocean City. It looked like the cover for The Who’s Greatest Hits, a British flag close up. I can’t count how many more I went through over the next five years. I plastered my walls with photographs from Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding Magazines. Skating was an activity, sport, and art form that defined my teenage years.

Skateboarding resurfaced for me about 10 years ago, when I bought myself an Element Skateboard for my 35th birthday. My daughters got a kick out of watching me ollie over things in the driveway, but it didn’t give me the feeling I used to get as a kid. Then Landy Cook grabbed a hold of long distance skating, and a few of us would meet in the pre-dawn dark with headlamps and skate from Easton to Oxford and back before work. This was closer to what skating used to feel like, but limited.

Now we’ve hit a sweet spot with the surf/skate flow that Carver Skateboards has made a wave of. It’s not about tricks or hopes of being a great skater. It’s flow, it’s fun, it’s getting lost in the moment. It’s hearing your friends in their 40s and 30s, during their lunch breaks, or mornings or evenings, outside carving around on a skateboard. It’s riding skateboards to work. As a couple friends put it, it’s “carve therapy.”

It’s meeting as a group in the mornings to surf on asphalt and imbibe a sunrise, talking about life, fatherhood, camping, and stoking the fire of being alive and having fun; making mornings, days, life, a little different. There is something to skateboarding now, as years ago, that says life on your own terms.

* Image at the top is a still/screenshot of Carver Skateboarder Yago Dora from the video, “Under the Above.”

Choose Your Own Adventure

Maybe life is more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book than a box of chocolates, with apologies to Forrest Gump. The problem is, at some point we forget we can choose.

With life, it’s more difficult to look ahead at the different outcomes before you make a decision. But unless you choose, you are stuck on the same page.

Without being able to read ahead, the stakes feel bigger. We are talking about our lives, how can we make choices like that? What if we make the wrong one? If you belong to the overthinkers club like I do, that kind of stuff can keep you up at night.

The analogy between books and lives breaks down when it comes to time. We are on the clock when it comes to our lives. If I don’t choose, the clock still ticks and there is less of life left for the choosing. When I look back on the past 10 years, so much has happened, and yet it feels like the blink of an eye. If I try to look forward, it can be exhilarating and frightening at the same time. So what do I do?

The times in my life that I know have worked out the best, have been when I let go. Now when I say or think “let go,” I hear the voice of my friend and fellow small group leader Barbara Coleman, who says, “let go and let God.”

I come frequently to those places, those crossroads, those decision points in life where I feel too busy, too worried, and wonder what to do on a loop. And yet when I go for a long run, or pray, or hike/walk, or sit outside, I can feel something. If I let it all go, and listen and look, there is something there.

…with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you (Ephesians 1:18)

I come back to the words from Ephesians and close my eyes so that the eyes of my heart can open. And when I let go of everything else, I can see.

Sometimes. I am not great at always pulling that off. I have a long way to go and a lot to learn to get there.

But I have learned what it feels like when I give myself over to it. When I submit, surrender, and trust that God is at work. Worry is replaced by peace. Confusion gives way to clarity. And smiles and laughter emanate through my whole being.

So there’s that. I just need to do it more often. And those times are when I know I am thinking the way I need to to choose my own adventures. Those that make me who I am, use my talents and desires, feel in sync with the Universe, and give back to God.