Tuesday, February 26, 2008


My uncle and friend died a week ago today.

He was more than a mere uncle, though. He was a world-class pianist, a vintage VW mechanic, a whiz at electronics, an explorer, a thinker, a man of God, and a good friend.

When I was in college, Uncle Steve and Aunt Beth lived about an hour away. I would come to visit them to get my clothes washed, have a meal, and participate in whatever crazy scheme Uncle Steve had going on at the time. And there was always something going on - working on an old car, rehabbing an old pinball machine, grilling 100 chicken quarters, helping someone move - something. There always seemed to be things he got himself into that were simultaneously hilarious and awful. People had a lot of memories of Uncle Steve.

I went through some hard times in college, and even though he was busy with his own interests and his own family, he took time to visit with me and make sure I was okay. At the time, I didn't appreciate that enough.

As I look back at Uncle Steve, it occurs to me that his exploring spirit was an effort in knowing. He didn't just look at a map and say he "knew" a place. He didn't read notes on a page and say he "knew" the music. And he didn't just talk with a person and say he "knew" them. He explored. He was interested in the side roads, the hole-in-the-wall places that only the locals knew about. He was interested in getting off the beaten trail and exploring the tops of mountains. He was interested in making music musical, of having it express emotion and devotion. He didn't just know how to play piano - he knew the piano. He didn't just lead the music, he developed a connection between the music and the hearer. In the same way, it seems to me, he wanted to know people in a way that was deep and meaningful, and worked to make that happen. He wanted connection.

At his wake, people poured in for hours. I've never seen anything like it. And at his funeral, the theme of connection was evident. So many people were touched by him, and will remember him fondly. I know I will.

I despise platitudes, if for no other reason than they try to soothe the act of mourning. Ecclesiastes teaches differently:

"It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart.

Sorrow is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.

The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure."

I'm frequently guilty of knowing about things and people rather than knowing things and people. As my heart goes through this time of mourning, I pray that my mind will be drawn back, time and time again, to what it means to reach for connection.

Sleep in peace, my dear uncle.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Back when I lived in North Carolina, I used to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway at least a couple of times a month. My memory is a little foggy from that time, but my recollection is that there is an overlook on the parkway called the Black Mountain overlook, which is pictured here.

According to the plaque that is at the overlook, the forest around the Black Mountains was in very poor health in the late 1800's. Many non-native species had invaded the forest, fungal diseases and insect infestations had run rampant, and the soil was eroding at a startling rate. The government agency taking care of the forest didn't know what to do. Nothing they tried seem to work. So, one day in the early 1900's they set the whole thing on fire and let it burn to the ground. Then, in a bold move, they decided to leave it alone for 30 years to see what happens.

Their gutsy move payed off, because it is now, as you can see, it is a beautiful, healthy forest.

Sometimes I think about this story of the forest on the Black Mountains when I read the Old Testament, and God is spoken of as a wrathful and jealous fire that consumes everything in His path, leaving behind something better. Sometimes this fire is spoken of in more positive terms, as being a "refiners fire", but it still seems to conjure up images of things being forcefully burned away. This stream of thought is quite prominent in the Old Testament - consummation means burning away bad things.

But as I've pondered Luke 9:51-56, I've become less convinced we think about consummation the right way. In this passage, Jesus was headed towards Jerusalem, and visiting villages along the way. One village - a Samaritan one - refused to let him enter. In response, James and John said,
"Lord, do you want us to command fire down from heaven and consume them?"
to which Jesus scolded them and replied,
"You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."

Starting with the Old Testament prophets and continuing into the New Testament, the subtle theme of mother-child or, more prominently, husband-wife relationship has started to dominate over the "fire" images used to describe our relationship to God. This theme gets slipped quietly into the prophets, slowly rising in crescendo through the New Testament until the final image is of the Church as the bride of Christ. (Feel free to inject "eewws" here as you realize that Christ is also your brother.)

Here is my point. Perhaps consummation and fire are not so much about "burning" things away, as if we can enter heaven by burning away all the bad things in us. Perhaps instead consummation and fire are about intensification in relationship.

People who fall in love don't just force themselves to love the other person. Instead, they become infatuated with each other, which leads to stages of intensification. Flirting becomes dating. Holding hands ensures. Private stories are shared. Kissing happens. A conversation occurs to determine "where this relationship is going". Somewhere in there a major fight happens, but you don't leave each other because your life just isn't the same without the other. Love blossoms. Blah, blah, blah. And, if we follow this story to its normal end, a true act of consummation occurs. Not because the parts that didn't love you were burned away - that would be more like rape. But, in the ideal case, because one was consumed with the other to the point they wanted to share intimate things.

That's not to say that things are always rosy - sometimes intensification is more like a crucible than a joy-ride. I could go on for pages and pages about what it means to intensify in relationship, but, at least for me, the story of God's consuming action is so much more about the silver than about the dross.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Inside the fire

I'm a mystic mudblood. I come from a family, a faith tradition, and a career that, at best, frowns upon mystical talk. Yet, I remain convinced that there lays a way of knowing beyond what is apparent to the senses or the intellect.

Some time ago, I was thinking about Moses' encounter with the burning bush. This bush burned, but was not consumed. Moses found this strange, and ventured over to this thing to see what was going on. In the process, he experienced something life-shifting.

As I thought more about this story, the idea of the "holy ground" around the bush began to intrigue me. Pretty much every day of the week, this ground around the bush was normal earth - nothing special. But in the Moses story, the presence of the bush and the ground were superseded by the presence of God in that place, making the land Holy Ground. And, as Moses approached this Holy Ground, he encountered God in a way that put his checkered past into perspective, and defined his trajectory into the future. Being in the very presence of the fire changed Moses.

Yet despite the fire, the bush was not consumed. Even though the fire and the presence of God superseded the presence of the bush, the bush still remained. The union of the bush and God left the bush still bush-like, and God still divine.

It might not seem like much, but this was a bit of a breakthrough for me. Let me explain.

Very often I struggle with how to describe the way in which God, through the Holy Spirit, changes those who encounter him. The tradition in which I was raised seemed to focus on a more demanding or crushing action. God demands submission, and if he doesn't get submission, he punishes and crushes the resistance by sending the Holy Spirit to "convict" people. This action on the part of God drives those fearful of Him into behaviors that purge whatever they feel is evil, not worthy, or unholy. This purging takes many forms - from throwing away "secular" music, to prohibiting kids from reading or watching "magical" material, to general withdrawal from culture. Sometimes the end result of this type of purging is legalism, in which the way we avoid God's crushing activity is by doing things tied directly to the Bible. Sometimes the end result of this type of purging is self-loathing that stems from never being able to be "right" before a Holy God.

But the image of the burning bush seems to shift this view of God. Instead of crushing us, as He could have done with that bush, God woos us- He calls us and encounters us. Normal as we are -normal as the bush was - His presence on us in the Holy Spirit, through faith in Christ, changes our normalness, our unworthiness, and our unholiness into Holy Ground. In the process, it shifts us - it ignites us, just as it seems to have ignited something in Moses.

So, God's presence brings me fire, yet does not consume and crush me. Yet for those who find their center in the One Who Is True, the presence and thoughts of God fill their every breath. In this manner (here comes the mystical part) "I" am consumed, but I am not consumed. My thoughts and anxieties shift from selfishness and self-preservation - the "I" - to something outside of myself. As the reality of being found in God - of being a brother of Christ, of realizing that true power gives itself away - begins to sink in, "I" is no longer the focal point of my interaction in the world. Instead, I become consumed with the work of God, which gives itself sacrificially in love towards others. My thoughts are still my own, but no longer focused on me.

This way of thinking has led Paul to make a lot more sense to me:
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Paul, it seems, speaks of himself as not living, yet living. It seems these are the peculiar thoughts of those who find themselves inside the fire of God's work, but not consumed. In a mystical way, we become the burning bush.

Being consumed with the work of God in the world leads to what appears to be some strange behaviors. But just as the bizarre behavior of the bush attracted attention, and led to an encounter with God that changed the trajectory of those who approached, I find myself wondering if the bizarre consummation of Christians should accomplish the same thing.

I also wonder how often we, as Christians, choose to find ourselves outside the fire, looking from a great distance at those bushes that burn, but are not consumed.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Giant Ichneumon Wasp

See that guy? He's called a Giant Ichneumon Wasp. He wants to bite your head off and lay babies in your stomach.

He also loves to scare you. Especially when you are cutting down a tree in your back yard during the summer and he suddenly appears without warning, crawling towards you as if unafraid, sure that your feeble attempts at personal defense will fail. He knows that his corn-dog-like size and wasp-like appearance will paralyze you with fright. He also knows he is vaguely tiger-colored, which means he is one bad dude. You will be unable to run away. You will be his.

You eye what appears to be a 3-inch stinger, knowing that if you run, you will expose your back, allowing him to sting you in the spinal cord, resulting in instant full-body paralysis. But if you stand there, he will probably gouge out your eyes right before kicking you in the genitals. Your mind races. You've never seen any insect like this, but you know his wasp-like appearance and vague scorpion rear-end mean danger. You also know that he knows this. You sink in despair as you realize he is winning the psychological battle.

Then, you remember that you have this in your hand. You remember that you have opposable thumbs, and have harnessed the power of electricity. You realize that you are not in some Pleistocene time where giant insects rule the world, but that you are in the 'burbs. You realize that you are wearing the worn-out t-shirt and faded levi's of the weekend warrior.

You take your formidable suburban scimitar and strike down the giant ichneumon wasp with all your might, destroying a small portion of a birch tree in the process. The wily insect is quick, but not quick enough, for he is torn asunder by the multiple whirling knives of your blade. As for the tree - it is no matter. You were cutting it down anyway.

You bask in the radiant glory of defeating the giant ichneumon wasp, saving yourself and your family from their terrible paralyzing sting, and being made into incubators for their young. You are the Bobby Fisher to their Russian chess match of corn-dogged sized fear and tiger-stripped intimidation.

Then, you find out that "he" was really a "she", and that she is quite harmless and really sorta cool.

Then you realize that you are a giant tool.