Monday, July 6, 2015

Things I Want To Tell You: The 1st Letter


     My feet fall into their rhythm, one step after the next, the crunch of small rocks and dirt beneath them. My breathing falls into a similar pattern.  Inhale twice . . . long exhale . . . inhale twice . . . long exhale. These simple rhythms allow my thoughts to wander.  It is almost as if my body’s struggle allows for an effortless drift of my mind. At 4 a.m., other than the three foot circle my headlamp makes at my feet, there is nothing but darkness all around me.  Every once in a while, I reach up to click the off button, and then stare up and out at a sky bursting at the seams with stars.  Once, I’m lucky enough to time it just right, and, as I stare, a streak of light dashes brilliantly from right to left.  A piece of rock from somewhere deep in the universe had made its way to the edge of our atmosphere, and in its final display had met me right here, in this moment, lighting up my night sky.  Sunrise summits are a special thing.  They are something we have come to look forward to, your mother and I. There is just something about the excitement of crawling out of sleeping bags into the darkness and moving under headlamps, climbing thousands of vertical feet and struggling and breathing and the stars and the expectation and .  . .     
     This hike is all of those, yet also something else. On this sunrise summit, my mind takes very little time to wander.  Instead it moves directly to its subject.  I settle in to the rhythms of movement quickly, and my thoughts once again find themselves swirling around you.  In life, I have found there to be many things I have longed to tell people, but have either not had the chance to, or, more realistically, not taken the chance to tell them.  My thought is to preemptively take that chance now.  I haven't even met you yet, but there are just so many things I want to tell you.  What better way than a letter from the mountains.     
     One of my favorite things about words is how they can continually speak new insights to us.  Over time, as our experiences shape us, our understanding can change perspective.  We can grow.  And like the rain soaking deeper into the soil, so words and their meanings can permeate deeper into us.  It will be some time before the words on this page begin to speak to you, so until then, play.  Play and laugh and run around bare foot stomping in every puddle along the way.  Throw rocks in the river and dig in the dirt and let your imagination run rampant, taking you places no one else could ever dream of.  Let you first concern on this earth be to play.     
     You are beautiful. You are the most beautiful, mystical miracle.  The amazing thing is that so is everybody else.  The sad thing is that very few of them actually believe it.  Since the beginning of time, since the spirit hovered over the waters, since the first sparks of the cosmos, everything in the universe has intimately and intricately worked together to bring you here right now.  You and every part of creation around you are expressions of grandeur that ultimately defy explanation.  Life is both mystery and miracle.  You are a beautiful miracle.  Believe it, live like it, and then go help others believe it.  There are a number of people who will try and convince you otherwise.  People will judge you.  People will say things to hurt you, and their words will hurt.  Sometimes words can hurt worse than anything else.  People say hurtful things because they are hurting. So many people are hurt and scared.  So many people have never been told they’re beautiful, and so many others simply refuse to believe it.  Remember, you are a beautiful miracle. All of life is mystery and miracle. Believe it, live like it, and then go help others believe it.     
     Take risks. Do things in life where there is a very real opportunity to fail.  Successes and accomplishments get all the attention, but the true substance is in the risk.  The value is in putting yourself out there, in doing things that make you nervous, no matter what they are.  There is no such thing as “trying” something.  Trying focuses on the outcome, but when we allow ourselves to do something, we can fully engage in the process, the journey, regardless of how it turns out.  The unavoidable is temporary, but lessons from the unavoidable are everlasting.  Embrace the journey.  Be a learner of life.  It is of far more value to be a learner than to be learned.     
     Don’t bother with happiness.  Chase after passion, love, grace, peace, mercy, truth, adventure, hope, wisdom or any combination of the above.  Let happiness come find you. 
     Always remember where you came from, where we all came from.  We were formed out of earth and breath, intimately connected with the Creator and Creation.  Nature is not a place to go, it is home.  Be at home in her, and treat her as such.  Too many of us have forgotten our beginnings and have lost our way.  Go to the wild places, to the rivers, the mountains, the forests, the deserts . . . and listen.  Take time to be still in them. Be a stranger to no season.  Keep your ear to the earth and let it teach you.  We live in an empowered place, and the truths and mysteries of the Creator exist throughout what he has made.  Live with your eyes wide open to the wonders surrounding us, and help others to do the same.     
     The wind is deafening at times, nearly knocking your mother and I off our feet.  The vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert runs out in every direction below us.  As the sun slowly creeps up over the horizon, we watch the landscape change as its rugged features are traced and highlighted.  The arroyos, the canyons, the mountains, and the glistening ribbon of river, all are coming into view.  From here, at the height of the Chisos Mountians, with a pink, purple, and orange cloud streaked sky for a backdrop, we throw our arms out wide and scream with a wild joy, because we know you are here with us.  And so now, each day we will lift our voices to the Creator on your behalf, that all of his creation will embrace you, and that you will embrace all that life has to give.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Choose Love, Not Fear


     I sit and I listen to the river, the steady melodic flow, the building and breaking of waves.  I stare at the currents dance and swirl.  This is what I do when I need to think.  This is where I go when I need to process. Or maybe it’s actually where I go and what I do when I want to stop thinking.  When my mind is racing and the thoughts are too quick to grab onto, I have found that the rhythms of the river ease their pace, giving me a chance to catch up and catch my breath.  Often times I feel similarly about our world and its frantic pace: news flash after sound bite after reactionary comments to the reactionary comments.  I can’t keep up, and honestly I’m not sure how anyone else does.  Maybe I’m just a little slower than most.  Maybe I’m trying to process something that is not meant to be processed?  Maybe I’m supposed to simply down it like a fast food burger and fries while I’m doing 75 on the interstate, blaring talk radio and simultaneously snap chatting and updating 4 social media statuses at once.  The only problem is that’s not how I want to live.  I want to live slowly, deliberately. I want to chew and taste my food, and I want to chew on my thoughts as well. And when I’m done, I want to speak, not out of reaction, but out of relationship, out of love.  Sometimes we speak to remind others and sometimes we speak to remind ourselves.  Right now my hope is to speak for both.
     On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided in a 5 to 4 ruling that gay marriage was legal.  Interestingly enough, that is not what I’ve been thinking about.  It is the aftermath, the reactions, and more specifically the hate filled rhetoric that has sent my mind spinning. 
     To be completely candid, I do not like to call myself a Christian.  There is simply too much in American Christianity that I do not agree with or believe in.  In so many ways, Christianity has become more cultural than spiritual, more often the default as opposed to an intentional, deliberate way of life.  On the other hand, me and JC, we get down.  I have no problem whatsoever referring to myself as a follower of Jesus.  His life and message have had an undeniable impact on me and the way I see the world and my relationship to it.  The way I seek to live out my time here has fundamentally changed due to his life and teachings.  And yet here is where my mind feels as though it gets away from me.  The message I hear from the Christian culture around me does not match up with the message I read in the four books of the gospel. I mean, it’s just four short books, less than 30 chapters each.  One of them has less than 20 chapters.  So how is it that I am so far off in my understanding of its content? 
     Throughout all four gospels, Matthew, Mark Luke, and John, there is one phrase that Jesus said to his disciples, his closest friends and pupils, more than anything else. “Be not afraid.” Of all the things he could have stressed and gone over multiple times, it was to not be afraid. What that tells me is that the people Jesus spent time with, and that people in general during that time in history were not much different than you and I and everyone else today.  The single, biggest motivating factor and influencer in people’s life, be it 2,000 years ago or today, can be and to often is fear.  Fear can be both paralyzing and hyper-reactive.  It paralyzes our mind from intentional, deliberate thought, simultaneously engaging our fight or flight impulses to their max. 
     I have heard a lot of fear based talking from Christians as of late. “The legalization of gay marriage will fundamentally destroy and erode the traditional structure of family which is the building block of civilization.”  Are we really going to place the blame for the current state of “family” in America on homosexuals and LGBT rights advocates?  I believe I could make quite a compelling argument that heterosexual couples, both married and unmarried, have done far more to damage and negatively impact the state of the family than anyone else.  For a number of years now, I have worked with youth who are struggling with addiction, self-destructive behaviors, extreme aggression, and sexual misconduct, and I can tell you, it is not because their parents are gay.  It is almost exclusively because their parents simply sucked and/or continue to suck at being parents.  The divorce rate in America among non-Christians is somewhere just under 50% according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.  Among Christian couples, they found the divorce rate to be round 42%.  Brokenness in families abounds throughout this country, and it is not because of homosexual men and women who are deciding to enter a committed, monogamous relationship through marriage.  Fear causes us to point the finger, when instead if we really took the time to look at the situation, we would find ourselves right at the heart of the problem.  “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye.” (Matthew 7:3)  For those who want to point the finger and cast judgment claiming perversion and debauchery I would warn you to first look at your own community before judging the one across from you.  Pornography and human sex trafficking are industries that exist in the world today largely, if not solely, due to American’s appetite for them.  Considering the fact that the vast majority of Americans (83%) identify themselves as being Christians, perhaps the perversion is not the speck we see in our neighbors eye, but instead the log right here among us.  
     The loss of religious liberty has been at the forefront of discussion as well.  In the state I currently reside, the Attorney General issued a statement to all county clerks and judges that they do not have to perform gay marriages as long as they refuse on the basis of conflicting religious beliefs.  When the Pharisees plotted to trap Jesus with a trick question and ask him if it was lawful to pay taxes to the government, his response was not what they expected.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)  It seems to me that if you are going to work for Caesar then you probably should do what he says, and if you really have an objection to it, then find a new employer.  I have no issue with someone objecting to participating in something that does not go along with their religious beliefs.  But I am wondering why these Christian county clerks and judges are not objecting to participate in other parts of their jobs though.  Shouldn’t there be objections to participating couples filing for divorce and/or divorced people remarrying?  “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)  What about the fact that it is completely legal for parents to give up their rights to their children simply because they do not want them anymore?  I have had a number of students whose parents gave them up to the state without any legal ramifications.  Where are the Christian clerks and judges up in arms about this?  Jesus had the utmost regard for children, saying “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”    
     I heard a man on the radio talking about how he feared that his pastor would be thrown in jail for refusing to marry gay couples.  As a high school United States History & Government teacher, I would tell him to take a deep breath, and refer to the “separation of church and state” clause.  The government does not tell religious leaders how to live out their beliefs within their houses of worship.  This is why it is perfectly fine for a Catholic Priest to not allow my wife and I to be married by the Catholic Church because neither of us are Catholic.  The same applies to Jewish Rabbis, Evangelical Pastors, the Mormon Priesthood, Muslim Imams, and so on.  Another woman proclaimed that this was just like the religious persecution that the Pilgrims fled and went on to talk about how this country was founded on religious freedom.  She was at least partially right, I guess.  The most recent ABC News poll shows that 83% of Americans identify themselves as Christians with 13% claiming no religious affiliation, leaving 4% for every other religion.  I would make the argument that it is extremely difficult as well as unprecedented in the history of mankind for a group that holds 83% of the majority to be persecuted.  Having people disagree with you does not make you persecuted.  Having to learn how to live civilly with people that you do not agree with does not make you persecuted.  In the 200 plus year history of our nation, the only two people groups who could and sadly sometimes still can legitimately claim persecution are Native Americans and African Americans, both of whom were, interestingly enough, persecuted by Anglo Christians. (One could also legitimately argue Mormons being a third persecuted people group, although they were not subject to it as long since they escaped away to Utah, which at the time might as well have been on another continent.)
     Fear is based in the unknown, and maybe this is at the heart of why Jesus wanted us to not be afraid.  It is difficult, not impossible, but extremely difficult to be afraid of someone or some group of people if you get to know them.  Jesus spent a lot of time with people who most did not want to get to know: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the “unclean” according to religious elites.  And what strikes me is that he never talked with these people, these “sinners”, about hell or about how wrong they were.  Instead, he met them where they were, just trying to find their way through life, and he showed them he cared.  The only people he warned about hell, called hypocrites, and told to change from their evil ways were the super religious, the people who thought they had all their stuff together.
     I have friends who are gay.  I have acquaintances who are gay.  I have worked with and still work with people who are gay.  In no way do I claim to be an expert on the subject of LGBT issues, but I can say for sure that I am not afraid of them.  They are people, no different than me, just trying to figure out their way through life.  It is easy to objectify and vilify a group of people if you never sit down and share a meal with them.  Christians who fear what the LGBT movement will do to them and their way of life do not have any LGBT friends, just like Americans who fear what Muslims will do to them and their way of life do not have any Muslim friends.  When it comes down to it, there are two things we are instructed to do, two actions from which all other actions must flow.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)  Neither one of those commandments involve fear.