Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Confessional Resolution

Wake up calls come in a variety of ways. Thank God for the wake up calls that open our eyes and bring us to our knees. We received this short letter yesterday from B, an inmate that we’ve corresponded with since 2003.

B’s Letter …

Hello,

I’m writing to say thank you both. I’ve learned a lot over the past year. My relationship with Christ is growing each day. I was not going to write due to the fact I’ve written a few times with no response. I just want to say you have helped me though my time here. I hope to hear from the both of you. Love, B

My Response …

Dear B,

It’s a foggy spring-like day today. A mockingbird is singing a pretty song in the oak outside. Your letter arrived yesterday. Shirli picked it up at the Post Office and read it to me over the phone. I felt ashamed of myself for my negligence, nothing less than foolishness on my part.

I owe you a serious apology, B, for the LONG delay in writing. Shirli and I have simply been overwhelmed. We’ve been living the past couple of years in a whirlwind of difficult family matters, allowing ourselves to get too caught up in too many otherwise good activities with the Church, and running from pillar to post just to keep up with it all.

None of us have control over the crises that visit our families. We live through them and do the best we can with God’s help. The other “stuff” is another story altogether though when we finally see it for what it is.

It’s stuff that has a way of imposing itself and usurping time, emotion, and energy, the kind of stuff that cuts in on and interferes with already long standing priorities and commitments. It’s the kind of stuff that draws you in and puts you over your head without you noticing that it’s happened until you are gasping for air. Some of it has been good for us. Some of it though has taken its toll on us.

Shirli and I have begun working our way out of some of the stuff. We’ve allowed ourselves to be drafted onto too many committees and drawn into too many study groups. I think that’s one of the dangers of being the new folks at church, especially in a large church. SLCC has over 1200 families and there is no end of the need for people to serve in one capacity or another. Everybody is after you. It felt good at first to be welcomed and accepted into this wonderful fellowship. We all need acceptance. But we’ve had to learn to say no to too many invitations.

Back in December I was sitting on the tailgate of my truck in the middle of the woods. I was all alone for the day, hunting and experiencing the solitude of the woods. When I finished eating lunch, and was listening to the wind whistling in the pines, I opened a New Testament and read Psalm 8. It was one of those Providential things. Tears filled my eyes and I gave thanks. God came and visited me. It was then that I really came to realize how stretched out I had become. It came home to me. I was able to begin naming some of the things that I had been feeling. And I’m still recognizing and naming things.

2009. It’s time to stop running so hard and regain some of our perspective. We’ve never been big ones for making resolutions but we do have some resolve going into this New Year. One resolve is to reclaim some time so we have some time to do important things like just loving God in prayer and in the Word, camping and walking some trails, hunting and fishing, watching sunrises and sunsets, and doing better at writing letters and keeping in touch with folks that are important to us.

You are important to us, B. Thank you for your letter. Thank you for writing “one more time” and letting us know that your faith is growing. I think this “one more” letter is part of the wake up call that started on the tailgate of my truck back in December. God bless you. Please write again soon.

David

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Ordinariness Of Life

I live in a very real world of working things, working machines that are important in procuring something of a livelihood. Old trucks and a home made trailer. Tools. Sawing machines. Mowing machines. Tilling machines. Belts. Pulleys. Bearings. Filters. Pruners. Shovels. Rakes. Forks. Wrenches.

When these machines are working like they are designed to work, life moves along with a nice flow to it. Just turn the key and go. Do a little job and come home. Most days that’s the way it goes. Some days things get turned upside down. Powered machines are wonderful tools when they work right. The problem with these tools is that they don’t always work right and it’s expensive when you take them to the shop. I try to do as much of my repair work as I can.

Monday morning began as a normal day. I knew where I was going and what I had to do. I loaded the power washer and some hoses on the trailer. I started the diesel engine and let it warm up a bit. It died. Not normal behavior for the ’83 Chevy. It was a little contrary to get started again. It started but was running rough as I made my way out the lane, too rough for me to consider taking it down the road, so I turned around and parked it next to the shed where I could tinker on it.

Older diesel engines, before they started putting computers on them, are pretty basic combustion engines. Fuel is injected into the cylinders, air is sucked in through the intake. The more fuel you give them the more air they draw and the faster they go. Starve them for fuel and you don’t go anywhere.

It hadn’t been that long ago that I had changed them out but I guessed that the fuel filters were dirty. It was my best guess anyway.

There are parts houses closer to home but I prefer to do business with Jack. He’s quite an animated fella. To say that he’s a little rough around the edges is a major understatement. He’s really rough. The men he employs in his shop are really rough. They live in the realm of Harley’s and hotrods. Your ears had best not be too sensitive or your skin too thin.

I only remember once that he didn’t have in stock what I needed to keep my old trucks going. It was at the store before he opened the next morning. With the price paid for parts you always get a generous discourse on economics, politics, or whatever else happens to be on Jack’s mind at the time, like it or not, agree with it or not.

It took only about a half hour to change the filters once I got home. The truck started, took me to the job and back, but there was something about it that wasn’t up to snuff. Tuesday morning I got ready to head out. The truck started quite easily, ran just about 30 seconds, then slowly shut down. It was like it was starved for fuel.

I unscrewed the primary fuel filter and poured its contents into a glass quart jar, something that I should have done the day before but didn’t. Beads of water covered the bottom of the jar, more than I could just justify to condensation. A slug of water at my last fill up? I can’t think of any other way. The truck had been running fine.

Another trip to the parts house. Another round of filters and this time some tank treatment to turn H2O into its composing parts. I dosed the tank with the treatment then bounced on the bumper for a while to mix the contents with the fuel and water. Another half hour to change out the filters. I let the truck set a while longer while I ate some lunch.

I had to crank the motor over for a full 30 seconds before it gave some indication that it wanted to start and at least another 15 before it got that diesel starting and running sound to it. Then it was up and going, running rough, but up and going. I drove it around a while, topped off the tank with fresh fuel, drove it around some more, then hooked up the trailer and hauled a load of pine bark mulch to a customer.

So what all this got to do with Oblation, with living as an Oblate of St. Benedict? Why bother to recount the water in the tank and ruined filters bit? It is, for me, a pointed object lesson in life.

It’s easy, I think, to have some mental impression or conception that spirituality is something designed to deliver us from the ordinariness of life. It’s easy to have some mental impression that leads us to think we are supposed to order our lives exactly as our cloistered brothers live. It’s also easy to imagine life as something other than it is and to manipulate time and materials in order to secure something imaginary.

I’ve tried to escape the ordinariness of life only to find myself surrounded by more of it. I’ve tried to order my days around a strict monastic schedule only to fail over and over at living up to such a strict standard. I’ve tried to imagine my way out of life as it is only to have life as it is manifest itself in greater degrees.

I cannot escape the ordinariness of life. I no longer try to. I do, in fact, rather look for ways to make life even simpler and I don’t have to look far. The ways have a way of finding me. All I have to do is accept them and embrace them.

The ordinariness of life, the circumstances and dilemmas and the bumps and the ruts, are as much a part of Oblate life for me as are the platitudes and the vistas and the joys and the pleasures. Perhaps they form an even greater part, one designed to keep me in touch with the reality that I am little more than a stranger and foreigner passing through a beautiful yet barren and fading landscape.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Four Year Assessment

Twenty months ago I made my Act of Final Oblation as an Oblate of St. Benedict at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. Before this act I spent a year as a novice or candidate for Oblation. Before this I spent a number of months reading and pondering this direction before picking up the phone to schedule a personal retreat and make an appointment to meet with the Director of Oblates at the monastery.

The basic foundation of Oblation is a life of prayer and work. That’s Benedict’s Rule for brothers, cloistered or lay. It’s close to four years since I started in this direction, long enough now to make some assessments and draw some conclusions based on experience over time.

Monastic spirituality is not a world all its own. But it’s not far from it. It has its own routine, its own demands, its own rewards, its own challenges. It calls us to separateness, to standing apart from the world. This, in itself, is not easy at the outset but grows easier as we go about living out the ideology presented in St. Benedict’s Rule.

I’ve come to believe too, and this is my own perception, that honestly living out the ideology of the Rule of St. Benedict can also place a person in something of an adversarial position in the greater community of the Church.

I find this to be particularly true in a busy mega-church environment where programs abound and people to carry out the programs are few. There’s always something else that needs doing to keep the machine performing. In such an environment it’s easy to get so stretched out doing good things that I don’t have the time or energy to invest in the pursuit and development of the promissory note that I signed in front of the Tabernacle at the abbey.

I’ve discovered that Oblation, in certain respects, is a “no man’s land” where one travels great distances without seeing another kindred soul. It is a lonely row to hoe especially when life is lived several hundred miles from the monastery and an annual Oblate Retreat is the best I can do.

I’m a lay brother and not a cloistered monk. I live in the world and make my way through it as best I can without becoming too tainted by it. My housing, vehicles, bed, food, healthcare, and clothing are not provided for me by the monastery. Through personal industry, most of it manual labor, I earn an income to help support me and my wife in an economic and moral climate that is growing more vicious by the day. A large percentage of our food comes from our garden, fish that we catch, or meat that I hunt.

Although I have a cenobitical relationship with the monastery I live more of a semi-eremitical life. Except for my wife, our children, and a few (very few) close family members and friends I’d rather be left alone to focus on living simply and close to the earth. It’s not that I’m inhospitable. That would be contrary to the Rule. Most people, however, have a way of complicating life for me, a way of destroying the peace and solitude that I desperately need in order to maintain my spiritual and emotional equilibrium.

I no longer try to meet people where they are and then try to lure them to where I am. Some may see this as a betrayal of the great commission to evangelize. I don’t. I live in Christ and when the timing is appropriate I vocally speak for him.

There was a day when I thrived on being the center of attention. I wouldn’t have admitted it then as a Protestant pastor. I can admit it now. It really stroked my ego when people prefaced my name with the “pastor” title. I’m glad that is now something that is becoming more distant, in the past, a former life that always seemed so unnatural for me.

I’ve come to the point that I no longer measure my spirituality in terms of success or failure. Do I always practice Benedict’s ideology perfectly? No. I never have. None of us do or ever will. It sets an extremely high standard. I’d much rather admit and face my own inabilities than to take too much liberty in watering down the Rule to make it comfortably suit me.

I also sometimes fall into a major funk that takes some time to work through and come out of. It usually happens when I get too involved with other people and agendas that don’t run parallel to what I know I need to do to live simply, peacefully, prayerfully.

When I honestly consider all that’s going on in the world I think the best thing I can do for the world is to leave it alone. Let it run its course. Put more distance between me and it. Perhaps this is a fault that I have. More likely, I think I’ve discovered my limitations. More, I think I’m also rediscovering my truest ambitions, those that were inherent within me when I was still too young to understand them.

Four years. I can see some changes.

Ora et Labora. I want to stick with this formula.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rusty

My first income earning job off the farm was at a neighboring dairy making 60 cents an hour. It stunk. Figuratively and literally. Then I tried working in town when I was a teenager. First at the grocery store stocking shelves. That was the pits. Then at Western Auto assembling bicycles and doing other stuff. That too was the pits. Then I was told about a job at Wood Acres. I had never so much as heard about Wood Acres.

Mr. Wood had a business that catered to folks staying at the Grand Hotel. It was quite an interesting and diversified operation with a skeet range, trap range, riding stables, licensed quail hunting preserve, and brackish water fishing excursions. It paid 40 dollars a week plus any tips I made and I did everything from guiding to shoveling horse manure. It was the perfect job. I loved it.

One Saturday morning I got a call from the hotel. A lady that called herself Rusty. She told me that she had had an incident with a horse when she was young, one of those horse runs to the barn and through the door stories, and now she wanted to overcome her fear of horses. I told her to come on out and we’d see what we could do about it. I had taught a lot of people, kids and adults to ride, but I had never helped anyone overcome a fear like this.

Most of the horses were older and gentle animals. They still had plenty of spunk in them but they were well accustomed to the kind of work they did. Prince was a very trustworthy Appaloosa. I had him ready by the time Rusty got there.

I introduced her to the horse and let the two of them get acquainted. Prince was used to nervous people and had seen a lot of them in the course of his life at Wood Acres. After a few minutes of getting comfortable with the horse I gave Rusty a foot-up. She was sitting on a horse for the first time since she was a little girl.

The next part of the journey, now that she was sitting on a horse, was into the riding ring. I took Prince by the reigns and led him around the ring a few times. Rusty seemed comfortable enough and was beginning to enjoy the experience. I handed her the reins, put a hand on the bit in Prince’s mouth, and continued walking around the ring. We spent about an hour working the ring. It didn’t take long until I was standing in the center of the ring watching Rusty and Prince traveling around the circle. Then, while Rusty took a little break from the saddle, I got a big Palomino named George ready for a ride.

It normally took about an hour from the time we left the barn until we returned. This was a very casual ride. On other occasions there were parts of the ride where I’d trot or canter. But not today so the ride took a little longer. This was a ride tailor made for this lady that had found the courage to face and overcome a fear in her life.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. Thinking back now I think it’s probably one of the most notable things I’ve ever done. Me barely more than a boy helping a grown woman overcome a fear that she’d lived with since she was a little girl. I have no idea what became of Rusty. The limo from the hotel came and picked her up and that was the last time I saw her.

Fear is something that comes dressed in assorted clothing. It can be the fruit of some traumatic experience, something external that leaves an internal impression. That kind of fear is bad enough.

More insidiously, and I think even worse, is the type of fear that has nothing to do with traumatic experience. It’s the kind of fear that breeds internally in our being, develops to control us, then rules our lives with an iron fist. It comes from living too long corralled within the nice little patterns and expectations of comfortable social acceptability where life is lived on paved and well lighted streets. It’s the kind of fear that confines us without using fences or walls. It doesn't need them. It has us hamstrung and afraid to wander, afraid to venture, afraid to adventure.

It won’t go away on its own. Somehow, somewhere. If we are going to overcome it we’ve got to ride another horse, wander deeper into the woods, reblaze some abandoned trails.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Cocoon

It happens to me occasionally. Sometimes it affects me less or worse depending upon certain variables. In its lesser form I generally plough right through it. When it comes on in full blown form, set off by certain triggers, it’s another ugly scenario altogether. More often than not I spin a cocoon around myself and disappear for a while.

It’s been quite a number of years since I last made it through the Christmas Season without the full blown form rearing its ugly head. I relate very well to the multitudes that experience a lot of emotional pain during the holidays. This past season’s full blown form was exacerbated by several close family crises that were themselves well beyond difficult to handle.

One of the things that Benedict teaches me is that I am not, nor will I be, perfect in this life. Perfection is a process that is ever ongoing. It is a process that plays out heavily on the experience of life as it happens to us rather than on how well we play life to our benefit.

Life is not always pretty. Life is not always fair. Bad disastrous things happen to good people and the tragedy of the unfairness, like lightning striking a roof, burns holes clean through into in our heart and soul. It penetrates to our core leaving a gaping wound.

I think it was Charles Swindoll who wrote the book entitled Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back. The title makes it sound like we are regressing if we back up. Sometimes it’s not a matter of backing up. Sometimes it’s more a matter of stopping long enough to just breathe and be. Sometimes we need to take time to rethink, rediscover, and redirect.

A couple weeks ago I was sitting on the tailgate of my truck in the middle of the woods. I was all alone on a solo hunting trip experiencing the solitude of the woods. When I finished eating lunch, and was listening to the wind whistling in the pines, I opened a New Testament and read Psalm 8. It was one of those Providential things. Tears filled my eyes and I gave thanks. God came and visited my cocoon.