Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Speeding Pilgrimage

I don’t always plod; sometimes I speed.  More careless than reckless, I am easily distracted.  My speed hovers somewhere between “heavy footed” and  “clueless.”

I was reminded of this last Tuesday.

The view from Goodnow Mountain
I took a vacation day to go hiking - called a friend and made ambitious plans to climb four fire towers in the Adirondacks.  We started early, leaving my house at 5:30 and arriving at the first trailhead by 8 o’clock.  We spent the morning summitting Vanderwhacker and Goodnow mountains.  Moderately difficult hiking, cool weather, good company, and stunning views made for a wonderful morning. 

The clock was creeping into early afternoon as we drove toward Long Lake for our third destination – Mount Arab.  Having been tailgated and passed by two vehicles on the way, I was self-conscious of holding up traffic.  I pushed the speed a bit and gave my attention to conversation with my hiking partner.  This was a mistake.  My mind never got the dual core processor upgrade.   I am a poor multi-tasker.  My wife will vouch for the fact that I can’t run two programs simultaneously.  As soon as I open the conversation program, the speed-monitoring program grinds to a halt.   The next time I looked at my speedometer, I was passing a slowing police vehicle traveling the opposite direction.  The needle was hovering around 70 – fine for the Interstate, but not good for a backcountry highway with a limit of 55.  I was low hanging fruit for this officer. 

Fifteen minutes later, the officer told me to watch my speed and to be careful pulling out.  I drove off…ticket in my hand and frustration in my heart.  “Kind of ruins the day,” my friend noted.  “Yeah, it does,” I sighed.  Then I sunk into a sullen silence, providing ample space for the rush of thoughts that followed.

     How could I have been so stupid? 
     Why do I never get off with just a warning?
     Where am I going to get the money for this?
     How many points will this be on my license?
     How long ago was that last ticket?
     Should I drive out for my court date or just send in a guilty plea?
     What will I tell to Sue?
     How could he have missed the two guys that passed me fifteen minutes earlier?
     Why can’t I learn to use cruise control?

I was angry, ashamed, and frustrated; feelings that lingered throughout our third hike.  A pity party on Mount Arab.  I was still picking confetti out of my hair when we reached the fourth fire tower of the day, Cathedral Rock.  The short hike brought us to a pavilion just before the summit.  Beside the pavilion was a large stone with a plaque.  I wish, now, that I had written down the inscription.  Instead, I can only offer a summary.  It was placed by a family as a memorial to their eleven year old son who fell to his death off a nearby cliff in 1996.

I have four children, including a son the same age as the boy who fell to his death.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to begin the day hiking with my family and to end the day mourning the death of my son.  My day of hiking was ruined by a speeding ticket; their day of hiking was ruined by the death of a son.   This brought perspective, a corrective lens for my spiritual myopia.

My sullen reaction to my speeding ticket highlights my aggrandized view of self.  The universe is crafted; the orbit is set; all things revolve around me.   But on Cathedral Rock I got a glimpse of a bigger universe, a grander story, a more complex narrative.  I am not the only character in this play; not even the star of the show.  I’m hung up on court dates and traffic fines while others are planning funerals.    I’m ashamed at the pettiness of my troubles and disappointed that something so small could put me in such a funk.

And this is why God charted this course, from the speeding journey toward Long Lake to the panting stillness on Cathedral Rock:  This was a journey not measured in miles.  God was guiding me from selfishness to self-awareness.  My troubles, because they are mine, loom large in my field of vision.  Everything from speeding tickets to allergy symptoms, from a restless night, to a stressful day, these take center stage in my drama.  But from any other vantage point, these are really quite small.  Reading this memorial, my speeding ticket shrunk in magnitude.  I needed this. God knew.

I’ll be traveling out to Long Lake again soon.  I have a court date set.  Maybe on this trip God will teach me a lesson about mercy.  Or maybe justice.  But this time I’ll be traveling with a new perspective…and I’ll be setting the cruise control.

Blog News:  With warmer weather and summer vacation I am writing less.  This piece in nearly three weeks old.  It just took a while to finish.  It's hard to sit at a computer when the sun is shining.  Plus, opportunities to write for other outlets are growing.  Those pieces often appear on the blog in one format or another, but require further editing (for length and polish) before submission.  So through the summer I'll probably only post every couple weeks.  This is by design.  I'll get back to weekly posts in the fall.   Thanks, as always, for you encouragement and support.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Eternal LIFE

Today I learned of the death of a friend. His health has been fragile for years. We lost touch some time ago.  Then the chance encounter with a mutual friend and the conversational starter, “Did you hear the news about…”  Details were shared and I left sobered by the news.  One more reminder.  From the graying of my hair to the sputtering of my Chevy Lumina; from the uncle with dementia, to the friend awaiting a bone marrow transplant, there are steady reminders of transience that culminate regularly enough in the death of a loved one.

Faced so regularly with mortality, I put the weight on "eternal" when thinking of eternal life.  This is the element that seems out of reach.  All the facial creams and fitness centers can't deliver eternity, despite their grandiose claims.  Each day brings  me one step closer to my impending death.

 But the truth is that all of us are eternal, from the holiest saint to the hardiest scalawag. All will be raised – some to eternity in heaven, others to eternity in hell.  As C.S. Lewis noted, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.  It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors” (Lewis, The Weight of Glory).  Immortality is the common denominator of us all.

In light of this, I wonder if the accent should slide from “eternal” and fall on “life” instead.  At first blush this seems the anticlimactic word of the pair.  Life is wholly familiar, something I get a dosage of each new day. Eternal seems the realm of the exotic, while life feels wholly domesticated, the pussy cat standing next to the tiger.    Life as mere vital signs is not a compelling offer, even if stretched into eternity.  An exceeding pile of blandness is still bland.

But the promise of life in the New Testament is often focused not just on quantity, but on quality; not more of what we already have, but the promise of an abundance of something better.  So Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10) and Paul calls us to take hold of “the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).  There is quality of life found in Christ that is better than just having a pulse. This is the compelling nature of eternal life...not that it is eternal, but that it is the life that we have always wanted, abundant and satisfying.

So what, precisely, sets this life apart in quality?  We find the answer on the lips of Jesus as he prays. “Now this is eternal life:  that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  This is a startling verse.  Jesus suggests that eternal life is measured, not by time, but by intimacy.  No mention of harps or wings, pearly gates or white robes, halos or any other comic book images of eternity.  Eternal life is equated with knowing God. In the familiar words of St. Augustine, "God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you."  

This means that eternal life is not something merely future oriented for the Christian.  It begins now.  As my intimacy with God increases, my experience of eternal life increases.  Paul makes it his goal “to know Christ" (Philippians 3:10).  It is a pursuit I can join him in.  I know him through the Word and worship, through fellowship and prayer.  These set me on a course to know God more intimately and to begin to experience, in some measure, eternal life.

Friday, June 1, 2012


This is a follow up to last weeks post "Faith's Bitter Foe".  Weavings has invited me to be a guest blogger for a post this month, so I started writing this.  It turned out longer than I expected - too long for the guest blog post.  I'll probably use an excerpt.  But here I offer it in it's entirety.  Inertia would keep me from posting it.  It's getting close, but I still think it needs a bit more polishing.  In posting, I'm hoping for some feedback. You can e-mail me directly or leave it as a comment.  

“Thanks for calling me out.”
I had confronted my wife and we had just spent an hour talking through her issue.  Now we were wrapping up. 
“I should have talked to you three days ago, when I first noticed,” I said.
“Well, why didn’t you?”
“Because that’s my issue – inertia.”
It was late and we busied ourselves getting ready for bed.  The conversation had ended with the perfect set up for a sequel.

Three days later we were driving home from a dinner date.  A comfortable lull in the conversation and my wife broke the silence.
“Remember when you said that your issue is inertia?  I guess I’ve noticed that, but I just haven’t had a label to for to it.  That really does fit.”
So we revisited this - my wife asking if she does anything to aggravate my inertia and how she can help; me explaining my increasing awareness and desire to be different.

Isaac Newton observed that objects resist change in their state of movement.  An object will remain at rest unless acted on by an external force.  That principle of physics seems to spill over into my life.  It plays itself out in countless ways – different tunes in the same key.  I fail to take initiative. 

So in the example that launched this reflection, I noticed a behavior in my wife that needed to be confronted.  Confrontation is in the best interest of our family and her growth.  But confrontation is unsettling and unpredictable.  It can’t be scripted.  I’m afraid of how it will play out.  I can see the issue, but I don’t have a clear solution.  So instead of a healthy process of confrontation, I rely instead on coping mechanisms.  It takes three days to muster the courage to confront.  This is just one of a myriad of examples. 

Want another?  Just before sitting down to write tonight, my wife reminded me of my intent to fix the gutters on the back of our house. After a hard rain this past week, she suggested I make this a higher priority.  I’m not the handiest husband.  Each new project is another opportunity to reveal my ineptness. So I procrastinate.  I know the gutters need to be  fixed, but I don’t want to look like a failure.  To make matters worse, I worked on the gutters last year and thought I had fixed this problem.  So this year I’ll step to the plate with one strike already on the count.

So again, I turn to Abraham for help.  In my last post, an article in the current edition of Weavings, I reflect on Abraham’s struggle with fear in Genesis 15 – a familiar struggle for me.  Hand in hand with fear is inertia, and God addresses this three chapters earlier, in Genesis 12, where God visits Abraham for the first of seven visits between the two recorded in Genesis.  These visits are the story of a growing relationship and this is where the relationship begins. 

It begins with an invitation, or a command really, but not one delivered with heavy handedness.   Go.  That is the one command in the passage, the only verb with imperatival force in the Hebrew.  He is invited on a journey.  And, like any journey, this journey has a “from” and “to,” a departure and a destination, a first step and a last step.

The point of departure is clearly defined. “Leave your country, your people, your father’s household.”  Each phrase is more intimate, adding punch to this command.
            Your country – geographic region, the familiar landscape
            Your people – identity and culture, the familiar customs
            Your father’s household – direct relatives, the familiar family.
He is to leave behind all that is familiar and comfortable and safe.  This is an uprooting.

The clarity of the point of departure is matched by the murkiness of the destination - “to the land I will show you.”  That seems wildly undefined.  He is to uproot and set out with no clear path.  Leave all that is familiar to go…somewhere. In the words of Alexander Maclaren, “To part with solid acres and get nothing but hopes of inheritance looks like insanity.”  Insanity, indeed.  Insanity enough to keep this body at rest, thank you very much. 

How can he trade these solid acres for mere hopes?  How can he pack up and set off with so little direction?  How can he overcome inertia that keeps him rooted in place?  The answer is faith.  “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, obeyed and went even though he did not know where he was going.”  Hebrews 11:8.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step - one step that breaks the inertia and sets him in motion.  Abraham steps out in faith.  No details of the trip are given, because none are needed.  We need only know that he obeyed.  Inertia is overcome.  The obedience is as plain spoken as the command.  “So Abram left, as God had told him” (Genesis 12:4). 

And while the destination is unsettlingly misty, the promise is crystal clear.  Some form of the Hebrew word “bless” (barach) is used five times in Genesis 12:2-3. This is God’s promise – you go and I will bless.  That promise is enough to set Abraham in motion.  He leaves all that is familiar to pursue God’s favor.  And this seems a fitting depiction of faith – letting go of favorable circumstances to grasp the favor of God. 

In offering this definition, I would note that this does not necessarily mean renouncing favorable circumstances.  In letting go I am releasing my grip.  Those favorable circumstances may not be lost, but they will not be grasped.  Unfettered, they may linger or even settle by God’s good pleasure.  A good job, good health, material prosperity, good friends – all are to be enjoyed as they come, but none should be grasped.  My grip can only hold so much.  Empty of other things, I can hold hard to the blessing of God.

And this is where I need help - to trust that his blessing is really the best thing to grasp; to believe that it is more real and substantive and satisfying than all that I must release.  From confronting my wife, to fixing the gutters, to the myriad of ways I get stuck in a rut, God invites me to be an active agent.  I keep choosing to be a passive recipient.  My inertia is almost always a case of choosing what is expedient over what is best.  This is what holds me back.  Status quo may not be satisfying, but it is familiar.  I find comfort in that familiarity. 

Before I set out, I want a clear destination – the assurance that I will know what to say to my wife when I confront her, the guarantee that I will be able to fix the gutters right this time.  God doesn’t offer me that.  Instead, he calls me to be an active agent so he can bless.  He will work through my initiative - sometimes in ways that I hoped, other times in ways I never would have imagined.  In whatever way he works, this is his blessing.  And this blessing is worth grasping.