Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Happy New Year

I work in retail, managing a convenience store on steroids (20 gas pumps, 4 diesel pumps, 13 cooler doors, 4 registers, a brick oven pizza and deli).  It's a big operation, with two parrallel departments - a car wash and a detail shop.  Between all the departments there are over 100 employees - some know me well, but many only know me casually.  Brief interactions and occasional observations form the basis of an initial impression.

About a year and a half ago, I was at work, intensely focused on the pressing task at hand.  I don't recall precisely what it was.  Maybe balancing deposits, or entering invoices, or writing the schedule.  Whatever it was, my attention was wholly focused on the computer.  A few feet away, a detail shop employee was purchasing some junk food to carry him through his shift.  He looked over at me and said, "Phil, do you ever smile?"

It was an off-the-cuff comment, a casual observation, a simple question billowing out of one employee's first impression. This is how he saw me - focused, serious, intense, and dour.  It's not how I want to be perceived.  His question was an unintended rebuke, helping me see how my intense focus on managing the store well had eclipsed my joyful heart.  I didn't smile much at work.

More recently, we've been in the midst of a remodel.  We're adding a Tim Hortons to our existing food service.  To make some room, we decided to remove our flavor shots, an add on to the fountain machine that allowed you to squirt flavoring into your soda - vanilla, cherry, strawberry, raspberry, lemon, or lime.  It was a bit of a space hog.

I went to tackle disconnecting it.  I wasn't quite sure how to go about it, so I wiggled a bracket, which unexpectedly popped off.  A geyser of cherry syrup began spurting out, initially blasting me in the face.  Partially blinded by cherry syrup, I got the bright idea to stop the geyser by putting my hand over the spout.  This had the unfortunate effect of increasing the pressure of the geyser, like putting your thumb over a garden hose.  No longer shooting straight in the air, it was now spraying in a wide arc with increased forcefulness.  Deep red syrup was splattering the walls, the new Tim Hortons equipment, the blue prints, the ceiling (15-20 feet high), and, of course, me.

At this point, Karen, the deli supervisor, walked in and started laughing.  I joined in the merriment, laughing at the absurdity of the situation and my own clownish appearance.  As things settled down and the reality of the clean up set-in, Karen said, "It's a good thing you can laugh about it."

I suppose that's what I want - to be the kind of person who laughs at himself and his own embarrassing moments.  To smile freely and frequently.  To bring levity to the seriousness of work.  To exude joy, even under pressure.  To allow happiness to radiate through me. 

It's not just appealing, it's Biblical.  Joy and related concepts are spoken of well over 500 times in Scripture. It is approached from almost every conceivable angle.  It is commanded, expressed, longed for, described, anticipated, enacted, and promised.  And while much can be learned from a consideration of the individual occurrences, I will simply note that a concept mentioned this many times in this many ways indicates how weighty it is.  It is the meat of the dish, not a garnish.  Joy is not ancillary.

Two episodes can't tell the whole story.  But I do think they're indicative. I think joy shines through me more brightly than it used to.   I think my demeanor at work is more light than heavy.   I think my cheerfulness sets a tone for my employees and they respond in kind. And I'm fully anticipating that this will be a happy new year.  I hope it is for you too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

God In Flesh

I don't write poetry.  This may be as close as I've come, possibly even crossing the line. Typically, the incarnation is approached from a historical or theological angle. This is my attempt to come at it from a practical point of view. 

The incarnation.
The all powerful God embracing impotence
A hurricane in a thimble.
The all present God confined to a space
Bethlehem, in a feeding trough.
In this manner
In this place
God arrives, in flesh.
Deity stripped of finery. 
The Desired of all Nations in his birthday suit.
The naked truth.
God undressed. 

It’s a bit awkward, don’t you think. 
All this skin.  
Too much exposure for a holy moment.
No pipe organs or stained glass. 
Rather dust and dung, flies and flesh.
We’ll avert our eyes,
swaddle him quickly,
lay him (modestly) in a manger.
Have we forgetten
That before the babe was wrapped in clothes
He was dripping with amniotic fluid,
Naked as a jay bird.

What if there is an implication in this.
A living parable,
A whisper of truth.
This is a frightening prospect.
If God came naked, so must I.
Stripping myself of self-sufficiency, hypocrisy, pride
 Laying aside the whitewash, the mask, the pretense.
Exposing my true self –
Which from some angles,
under bright light,
is mortifying
And, ironically, life giving

So I swallow hard, and begin unbuttoning.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Lights

Despite landing just a few days past the Winter Solstice, the day with the shortest amount of daylight, Christmas is a season saturated by light.   When the world is at its darkest, we push back by illuminating anything and everything.  Lights are wrapped around trees, strung from gutters, and entangled in wreathes.  They illumine our oversized inflatable snow globes, Santa Clauses, Coca-cola polar bears, and Frosty the Snowman lawn ornaments.  Not to be outdone, Santa himself follows a reindeer with a shiny red nose that glows like a lightbulb.

Light even invades the first Christmas, long before LED bulbs and icicle strands.  Matthew focuses on a star that guides the magi.  Luke depicts the glory of the Lord shining around the shepherds and Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, poetically anticipates the birth of Jesus as the rising sun coming from heaven "to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace" (Luke 1:79).  A baby is born and the darkness is pierced, shadows are dispelled, a path is revealed.  The Christmas lights are lit.

In our day, Christmas lights are primarily decorative.  Drab winter is turned into magical Christmas with the help of oodles of lights.  String lights on a barren tree and it doesn't look so barren.  The browns and grays of winter are overcome by an array of illuminated colors.

But for all the luminescent beauty of light, this image of Zechariah's is not trimming. Light is only secondarily decorative.  Zechariah depends on a more fundamental function.  Light illuminates, reveals, exposes.  When we are engulfed in darkness we don't need decoration, we need illumination.  We need light just to keep from stumbling.  This is Christmas.  The manager scene is as much a sun rise as a baby's birth.  In Christmas, the light is just cracking the horizon.  Light is penetrating a dark world.

And this darkness cannot be restricted to that which is other and outer.  It is more personal.  It's not just a darkened world, it's a darkened heart.  I know what lies hidden in the shadows of my soul.   I am petty, arrogant, selfish, bitter, deceptive, angry.  There is a parade of ugliness beneath the surface.  Zechariah makes plain what is intended by the metaphor of light invading darkness when he says that the Lord will, "give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins." (Luke 1:77).

Advent is a reminder that what I need most desperately is not a life more attractively decorated, despite what the Sunday glossies would have us believe.  I need my darkened souls illuminated.  This is the sun that is rising.  The darkness of sin is being overcome by the light of the infant Messiah.  I It won't shine in full glory until Easter.  But those first rays of light breaking through the darkness are glorious indeed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Don't Shoot the Editor

Recently, I received a complimentary copy of a magazine with a piece I wrote.  It is a bi-monthly publication that has a daily Bible reading with a short reflection on that passage.  As a neophyte writer, it's still a novelty to see something I wrote in print, so I quickly browsed through the magazine looking for my contribution.  When I found it, I was disappointed.  The piece ends with a brief prayer, which they included as I had written, but then added the Lord's Prayer to fill the space remaining on the page.  I didn't like it.  It didn't fit the theme I was developing.  It felt cobbled, sloppily tacked to the end of what I had written.  It wasn't my voice.  I value the Lord's Prayer, but I don't use it rote in my own prayer life.  I would never have written that myself. It put me in a bit of a funk.

A few days later I received a copy of an edited article I wrote for a magazine coming out in February 2012. The editor asked me to look through her edits and reply with any feedback. As I read through the article, I found that none of the edits were substantive.  Small changes in word order, replacing vague pronouns with clear nouns, and rewording a couple sentences was the entirety of the editing.  Ninety-nine percent of the article was left untouched.  I felt validated as a writer, pleased that little was altered.  In this case, my voice would come through clearly, unaltered by a stodgy editor in a remote windowless cubicle.

Soon after, I read Psalm 131
    My heart is not proud, O Lord
       my eyes are not haughty;
    I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
    But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
      like a weaned child with its mother,
      like a weaned child is my soul within me.

The weaned child as a picture of a still and quiet soul.  It's compelling.  Only my soul is decidedly not like a weaned child, stilled and quieted.  My soul is restless.  More like a suckling child, rooting for its mother's breast, frantic for nourishment, unsettled and impatient.  That's why I react so viscerally to any tampering with my writing.  It is an expression of the proud heart and haughty eyes that are resisted by the Psalmist.  Mine is an arrogant pen.

I write to teach.  If you've read many of my posts, you probably recognize that.  Writing for me begins with having something worth saying, a nugget of truth that is worth communicating.  Hopefully it is something insightful and rich.  Trite is trite, no matter how it is packaged.  Let me not be guilty of serving up junk food on a platter.  What I write must have substance.

But I also don't want to be guilty of serving up bland or half-baked entrees.  Once the nugget of truth is settled on, the challenge in writing is figuring out how to communicate that well.  It's this challenge that causes me to labor over words, write and re-write, and even allow for editors to modify what I have written.  It can be an agonizing process with more time spent staring at a computer screen, reading and re-reading, than spent actually writing.  Energy spent makes me feel invested in what I have written.

This effort is always in service to that nugget of truth I am trying to communicate.  It's a truth that is not mine.  I merely convey what is laid out in the Word of God.  I am the messenger. If that is true, then I need not be so possessive of the things I write, nor fret over whether my voice shines through.  Self-promotion can eclipse that fundamental purpose of communicating that nugget of truth. But ultimately, God can be trusted with that.  It's his truth, after all.

It's mine to rest my soul.  Still.  Quiet.  Weaned.  Lord make it so.
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