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Living in Exile

Thoughts From the Porch: We had a series of precipitation events this weekend; at least that’s what the weather folks called them. I thought it was just rain. Regardless of what you call it, the result is it’s too muddy to do a lot at Opal’s Farm. Brendan and I will harvest radishes tomorrow, but weeding will have to wait. Oh well. It means a little more time on the porch.

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I re-read “Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile” by Rob Bell and Don Golden. I re-read many of my good books. After two brain surgeries and the trudge through middle age I get to enjoy them almost as much as I did the first time. I gain new insight and reaffirm old ones from re-reading some of my favorite authors.

I appreciate Don Golden for his work as Executive Director of Red Letter Christians (https://www.redletterchristians.org/). I had the opportunity to attend the Red Letter Revival last Fall in Dallas. Being around other disciples who strive to live out the radical, and often subversive, teachings of Jesus was the highlight of my year.   

Rob Bell ( https://robbell.com/) has always ranked high on my list of favorite authors; especially since his book, “Love Wins” put him on the outs with the evangelical community. He was labelled an apostate and a universalist (God forbid!) and exiled in the truest sense of the word. Questioning long-held doctrine and institutional religion is risky. Jesus can attest to that. I guess that’s where the sub-title came from…

A brief tangent…

I purchased “Love Wins” at my old church’s bookstore (a Starbucks-looking “seeker-friendly kind of place). I had seen it in the store the previous Sunday but could no longer find it anywhere on the shelves. It turns out that “Love Wins” had generated too many questions for the church. The Senior Pastor had asked that it be kept underneath the front counter. It was available only by request. I can assure that when the last copy was sold no more were reordered.

I asked for a copy and my purchase was quickly placed in a plain brown paper bag. It was like buying Christian pornography. Forbidden wisdom there, Don and Rob…

“Trendy” Christians

There’s a current trend among many churches to be “seeker-friendly”. Contemporary services with great bands constitute the worship experience now. Sometimes it seems like they should be taking tickets at the door. The experience is more one of entertainment than worship; for me anyway…

I retain a church home in name only. I’m not okay with sitting in the same place every week only to have the same people ask me if this is my first time at the church. This tends to happen a lot in mega-churches. It’s not the worshipper’s fault. Large groups tend to be impersonal.

My old church has a plethora of Pastors and staff members: so much so that a large portion of the budget goes to administrative costs. They do some wonderful and amazing things for the local community and in missions, but I can’t help but wonder what the early Jesus followers would think. Just saying…

I used to work on quite a few service projects the church took on, many of them having to do with community gardens and almost always working with young people. I was invited to go with the Youth Group on a service project to New Mexico. When they ran a background check (yes, a background check!) they learned I had a felony conviction from my old life involving bouncing paper. Suddenly, I was unfit to work with the young people I’d been working with for over five years. They said it was a question of liability, but I think they were afraid I’d teach the teenagers how to pass bad checks…

Honestly, I was pissed. I felt betrayed. Church was supposed to be a place of forgiveness and healing, not a business concerned with liability and self-protection. I tried to move past my feelings. I continued to attend for a while, and probably well past the expiration date…

My friend and mentor, Rusty, taught a class I enjoyed and corporate spiritual growth took place within our small, class-sized community. Unfortunately, the class was cancelled, and he was made the ‘Online’ Minister. Churches have gotten tech-savvy in the pursuit of new converts (and additional dollars? – I know, I’m a bit cynical). Quite frankly, the online community simply isn’t the same for me. I spend enough time in front of a computer screen.

Self-imposed Exile

I don’t think I’ve attended a service at my old church in three or four years. My spiritual appetite has been fed in other places: “being” the church instead of “going” to church. I get to do that daily. I’m blessed to work with a non-profit, Unity Unlimited, Inc. and Opal’s Farm, that is faith-based and inclusive of everyone. Its mission is to provide for and minister to (serve) oft forgotten and marginalized communities in Fort Worth. Jesus called them “the least of these”. I get to be of service daily. My vocation is the same as my avocation.

I was relieved to hear that others struggle with the same issue. In his book, “Scary Close”, Donald Miller said something to the effect that he was a “Christian writer who hadn’t been to church in five years.

Lately, there’s been a nagging longing for spiritual community. I’ve been missing a home church, or more accurately, a church home: a place where I belong, where I can have community with other believers, and where I can celebrate and incorporate the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus, in my life. 

I’ve been blessed to have stepped out of my comfort zone. Stepping out is never easy, but over the last few months I visited several churches outside my long-held religious tradition. I’ve discovered how much I miss corporate worship of the Creator and the community of other disciples. There’s a huge difference in being a Christian and being a disciple.

This past Sunday I visited a church my friend attends. The service was beautiful, the people friendly, and the Eucharist was celebrated in a way that reminded me of the beauty of community. Our time together was holy. I left feeling far less alone in my faith. That’s a good thing…

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I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know my faith was never meant to be exclusive of other Jesus followers. The writer of Hebrews urges the Hebrew Christians to remain faithful to gathering together. It’s for their benefit and growth. It’s time for me to revisit this advice.

How About You?

What is your experience with this? I’d love to hear from others who struggle with this issue and how its resolution (of suggestions anyway).

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Spiders and Clarity

I haven’t written from the porch for the past couple of weeks. Time has been short. I’m playing catch up from a recent two-day stint in the hospital (long story but everything’s okay). They couldn’t figure out what was going on. I guess that’s why doctors only “practice” medicine…

I could use the whole hospital thing to explain my lack of recent communication, but I won’t. The truth is a bit uglier than that. The reality is there’s been some doubt and depression going on the last few days. When I started writing “Thoughts From the Porch”, my intent was to only write positive, encouraging words. God knows there’s enough negative crap out there!

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Unfortunately, life isn’t always happy, joyous, and free. Life shows up in some awful ways. Even when I feel I’m on the path God has chosen for me it can have some serious rough spots. I would be dishonest if I didn’t share those as well. I may not write in a manner comparable to great authors or even my fellow writers on WordPress, but I’ve learned to be truthful, to be authentic, and to be myself regardless of how I’d like to be.

The truth is that I haven’t liked myself very much the last few days. Sometimes, the truth sucks. As my friend Edgar always tells me, “The truth will set you free, but it’ll really piss you off first.” Quite frankly, I’ve been pissed.

Margaret and I have struggled financially over the last few months. Work has been slow as most of my time is spent on the urban farm project, Opal’s Farm. Most of you know my passion for the project. Margaret and I prayed diligently before taking on this task. We went into it with eyes wide-open. We knew money would be tight until we gained sponsors and had our first harvest. Looking back over the last few months, hell, even over our lifetime, we can see God’s thread all the way through. He stands with us through all the difficult times. Bills get paid, we eat regularly, and most of the time life is good despite the setbacks that come with our chosen path. However, there are times when an awareness of God’s providence is insufficient to stave off the blues.

In lieu of our smaller income we’ve been forced to put off needed home repairs and tighten our money belt in ways neither of us have experienced, at least in our lives together. Add to that Margaret’s chronic pain, limited mobility, and the depression that rears its ugly head as a result. Frustration and stress mounts despite our faith in the Almighty. It’s a recipe for doubt, fear, and self-loathing, for me at least, and it has been simmering for quite a while. Yesterday it came to a boil…

A serious case of the “F..k Its”.

Yes, folks, expletive laced prayers, lamentations of “poor me”, and drowning in a cesspool of comparing myself to everyone else. I threw a temper tantrum! Why me?

I imagine some of you can relate. It felt as though my world had fallen apart and God was nowhere to be found. He always seems to be playing ‘Hide and Seek’ when I need Him: just like with everything else in my world. I immediately decided to quit the farm, stop writing, and start looking out for Number One. I’d probably have to become a greeter at WalMart (no offense intended – all work is important). A career in bank robbery seemed a viable alternative to the present financial hardships. You must take it, because no one’s going to give to you, right?

If it sounds a bit extreme, it is. I tend to go for extremes. A friend once told me that “balance is the beam I trip on while running between extremes”.  Yep!

I always feel like such a spoiled brat after these not-so-little tantrums. It doesn’t take as long as it used to getting over these fits of doubt, frustration, and fear (that’s really what the tantrum is about…). I find relief in the fact they don’t happen very often anymore, but I sure hate it when they do. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can identify with this temporary insanity…

Fortunately, sanity returns, I own my behavior, make amends for the harsh words and actions, and find forgiveness and gratitude for everything I do have. First and foremost, I have a Heavenly Father who appreciates my authenticity. I’m sure most church folks would be shocked by how I “pray”. It’s not always pious and formal. Still, God allows me to express my doubts and fears. He listens. He understands and He loves me right where I’m at – expletives and all. He allows my rants and then holds me close to remind me that I’m loved and it’s okay to be human. I’m His child.

Somewhere in this process I find peace. The situation hasn’t changed at all, but I have.

Healing the Blind…

My tantrums always begin with tunnel vision and outright blindness. The world is out of focus, blurred with pain and frustration, and I can only see myself, my needs, and my wants. When I finally grow tired of emotional blindness, I hear Jesus’ question to the blind man at the Pool of Siloam, “Do you want to be healed?”

It sounds like a simple question doesn’t it? Sure, I want to be healed, but… I tend to find excuses, much like the guy at the Pool, until finally, I can see again.

Restoration of sight, healing, takes place in miraculous ways for me. It happened the other night. Blinded by my self-centered fear and doubt, I stormed out to the porch to be alone. I stood there, blindly staring into the night, when a tiny spider and his (or her – I’m not sure how to tell the difference) web began to take focus.

As my vision sharpened, the intricacy and size of the web grew. I saw his tiny legs shooting across the web with new silken strands. The minute strands vibrated in the wind but never strayed apart. It seemed impossible.

It sounds silly to be so intrigued by a simple spider web, but I’m kind of a simple guy, I guess. However, this tiny spider is building his web in the same place on our porch every Spring. He’ll stay until Fall, building his net every evening and waiting for the meal he knows will come. I’m no expert on spider species identification, but it’s always appears to be the same species year after year. It’s always a smaller version that grows to be the same as the one last year.

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While I’m no Arachnologist, our little eight-legged friend is probably last year’s offspring. I had the privilege of seeing all the little ones bursting from their egg sac last year. Their home and ours are one in the same. I get to watch the intricate, complex beauty of this tiny creature every evening. Clarity had returned.

Our hardships and my frustration faded into the darkness of the evening. I could see, and more importantly, see that our difficulties were nothing, that God was still (and always is) faithful. Life may have its difficulties, but grace changes how I see them. Difficulties become opportunities to grow in ways I can’t even imagine.

If a tiny spider ca open a world of grace and heal blindness, how much more can I be a vessel of grace?

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Obituaries…

Thoughts From the Porch: After putting the brakes on Spring for a couple of days we’re returning to normal here in North Texas. The sun is shining, temperatures are far more Spring-like and my time on the porch was punctuated by competing bird songs and a woodpecker in the closest tree. The bluebonnets are gathering force with the other wildflowers waiting in reserve to make April a month of vibrant color. All is well in our corner of the world.

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An article in the Daily Good (you can read the article at https://www.good.is/articles/mean-obituary-daughter?utm_source=thedailygood&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailygood ) caught my eye this morning. Whenever I see “brutal honesty” in a headline I must click it and see. Honesty is rare these days, and brutal honesty is usually code for hateful opinions. I had to laugh at someone getting the last word in with one’s obituary. While some may find such an obituary inappropriate, I hope whoever writes mine when the time comes will tell the truth – good and bad – and will get both a good laugh and a new respect for the grace given so freely.

Several years ago, I remember an assignment I was given by my mentor and friend, Jim. He told me to write my own obituary. Then write it from the perspective of a family member or friend. Finally, write it like someone who knew little about me. (I want to note that this little assignment came from a speaker he had heard many years ago, but I don’t remember which one. This wasn’t unique to him and I sure don’t want to take credit away from the originator.) The one thing he asked was that I be brutally honest with myself in how each was written.

The bottom line was how I see myself, how does my family see me, and how does the world see me. Jim was always big on introspection. He would always tell me “self-examination coupled with prayer and meditation produces favorable results”. I wasn’t too happy with the results at the time. Fast forward the clock a few years and the exercise became a lot easier and far more friendly for me.

I made a lot of mistakes. Scratch that (brutal honesty, remember?). I hurt a lot of people: myself, my family, and everyone I met through my selfishness and self-centeredness. Even when I was “doing good” it was usually to manipulate others and meet my own desires. The process of looking inward and being honest with myself revealed the real me – not the “me” I wanted to be and sure not how I wanted to be remembered.

As I’ve grown older, I still go back to the assignment Jim gave me periodically. I try to keep stock of myself daily. Periodically, I need to go through a full-blown inventory and take stock of my life. Now that I’m “in the last quarter of the game”, as my friend Gary says, I’ve become more aware of the legacy I leave. I believe others see me far differently from before. I know I’m not the same man as I was when I started this process. I trust that others see me far differently as well. I still make mistakes and have failures, but they no longer define who (or who’s) I am.

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Professionally, I worked many years as a Process Manager and Engineer building process improvement teams and finding ways to increase productivity for the companies I worked for. Writing and revisiting my own obituary has been “process improvement” for my life. It goes on today…

I’ve been blessed with the “favorable results” Jim always promised. I was fortunate to find a life of service to others. It’s the nature of what I do today, both as a writer and as the Farm Manager for Opal’s Farm. I ‘get’ to have a wonderful marriage, a loving family, and good friends. I ‘get’ to sit on the porch each morning and think about the amazing world I live in. I ‘get’ to say thank you to my Creator constantly for the grace I’ve received. I say ‘get to’ because it’s an opportunity I never had while wrapped up in self-centered blindness.

Each day is a new opportunity to rewrite my obituary, to leave a legacy of love and a servant spirit for my family, friends and community. I don’t think I could ask for more so maybe I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

I’d urge each of you to take on the same assignment. If you already have then please share your results with me!

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“Schadenfreude – pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.”

I have a standing meeting on Sunday morning from 9AM to 10PM. I love to listen to National Public Radio on the way home because “Hidden Brain” is on air with the host, Shankar Vedantam. I’m fascinated by the topics and most all, by the science of why we do the things we do. More importantly, the things we have in common are far more numerous than anything that divides us. Today’s topic, envy, was no different.

Envy has a poor reputation. It made the infamous ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ list. Depending on who makes up the list, it usually ranks second or third on a scale of one to seven. No one wants to admit feeling envious, but we all do it from time to time.

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There are instances envy can have positive consequences. When used for social comparison it can motivate action leading to positive change that brings about happiness – ‘I wish I had what you had so I’m going to do what you did in order achieve it’. This is benign envy. It may be frustrating at times but leads toward action that is generally positive. It’s upside of the very human emotion of envy.

The other side is the one we are most familiar with: malicious envy. It’s the kind of envy that wants to pull a superior person down. That’s where schadenfreude, envy’s evil cousin, comes in – pleasure at another’s misfortune, laughing at another’s failure.

I could go into all the science, psychology, and sociology that explains envy, especially schadenfreude, but I’ll leave that to the experts. I couldn’t help but think about the Biblical story of Cain and Able. The story explains, either parabolically or literally, how envy reared its ugly head in human society.

The book of Genesis tells of two brothers, Cain, the older brother, and Abel, the younger of the two. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. Cain would offer the first fruits of his produce in sacrifice to God. Abel would offer the “firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat”. For whatever reason God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. I often cited this story as the reason I didn’t like vegetables growing up! God obviously is not a vegan.

Anyway, Cain was peeved that he didn’t measure up (there’s the social comparison thing – kind of like ancient Facebook). He headed for his room and sulked. “God spoke to Cain: Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4.6-7 The Message).

I can only imagine what Cain was thinking, but I’ve been there, as much as I hate to admit it. We all have at one point or another. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian denomination I get it. I know what it’s like to ‘never measure up’. I could never be ‘good’ enough to get on God’s good side. It wasn’t until many years later I discovered that there was absolutely nothing I could do anyway, nor did I have to. God’s good side is called grace and it is totally free. It can’t be earned, but that another story…

Most of us know the rest of the story. Cain experiences a severe case of schadenfreude. He not only wants to pull Abel down: Cain kills his own brother. Envy, malicious envy, puts Abel in the ground. Cain tries to deny his involvement, but ultimately faces the consequences of his action. I’ve been there.

In my younger years I chased a lot of pipe dreams out of envy and delighted in schadenfreude when those I viewed as competitors failed. I’m glad Facebook and social media wasn’t available back then. Comparison to the projected images on social media would have killed me. There’s no way I could ever measure up.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve experienced envy and schadenfreude far less than I used to. It may simply be the result of getting older and hopefully, wiser. Robert Fulghum once wrote that one day he walked out to the mailbox in his old bathrobe, bunny slippers, and bedhead hair and didn’t care what others thought of him. He said it’s either “going to seed” or “the beginning of wisdom”. I can relate.

It’s not that I don’t care what others think of me. It’s that I have no energy or time left for chasing images. I’m content with reality these days. Life is simpler, full of gratitude, and drama-free. My quiet time on the porch and my days at the farm are filled with peace and serenity. Life is good…

Ultimately, it’s not important what you think of me or even what I think of me. The most important thing is what God thinks of me. Because of his grace, I know He not only loves me, but He’s especially fond of me. I don’t have to compare myself to anyone else, because He’s especially fond of all His kids.

I maintain a presence on social media. I have a business and Opal’s Farm. Heck, my blog even gets posted on them. I simply wish others well when they get to have fabulous vacations to exotic places. I don’t get the check-ins and pictures of dinner, but I still get envious when I see someone eating a pint of Bluebell Chocolate ice cream…

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MLK Day 2019

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is the holiday commemorating Dr King’s birth. Festivities are planned in Downtown Fort Worth later this morning. My grandkids have the day off from school. Government offices are closed, although not only because of the holiday. Some have been closed for a while. Thirty-one days to be exact…

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No Resolutions…

Thoughts From the Porch: I typed 2019 for the first time this year and actually got it right the first time! Hang on to the little life triumphs wherever you can, right? Starting off the year with a victory sets the tone for the whole year!

I hope each of you had a wonderful New Year’s celebration. Margaret and I celebrated by falling asleep before the 10:00 o’clock news ended. I woke up to a whole new year. I finally feel like I got enough sleep…

I hope each of you had a wonderful New Year’s celebration. Margaret and I celebrated by falling asleep before the 10:00 o’clock news ended. I woke up to a whole new year. I finally feel like I got enough sleep…

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I do not make New Year’s resolutions, but there are some changes forthcoming this year. For one, it might be more accurate to call this blog, “Thoughts From the Desk”, at least for the first couple of months. I moved my quiet time to my office for a couple of reasons, least of which is the early cold temperatures that hit North Texas early this year. I’m not usually affected by the cold. I spent seventeen winters in Colorado, several of them quite severe, but I don’t ever remember feeling this cold. It’s a bone-chilling, wet, blustery cold that cuts through everything and numbs the brain. I don’t need any help in that regard…

The main reason I’ve retreated to the desk is I’ve decided to quit smoking (again). It’s coincidence rather than resolution that it’s also the start of a new year. I’ve never had much luck at resolving to stop annoying habits. Usually I need to have all sense of resolve and ability knocked out of me. Desperation is a wonderful impetus for willingness. I’ve reached a new level of willingness to quit; hopefully before the consequences are dire. It also helps that I closed out the books on 2018 and saw how much I had spent on tobacco. Seeing the dollar amount in black and white makes it all too real. I’ll keep you posted. Not that it’s newsworthy as much as there’s some sense of accountability in making a public statement.

Besides, smoking is no longer in vogue. More and more places ban smoking. It’s not good for those around me and, to be honest, I feel like an idiot doing it. I feel even worse when I’m driven to sneak away from my grandkids or a dinner party just to have a cigarette. It sets a lousy example. To continue smoking requires a lot of excuses and justification. Things like, “I gave up all my other bad habits, so allow me one bad habit”, just don’t hold water anymore.

So here I sit. You all may have to bear with some strange posts over the next few days. I tend to ramble and get extremely irritable when I’m “detoxing”. I know I tend to ramble anyway, but it’s especially bad during nicotine withdrawal.

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I’ve stopped smoking before. I should be able to do this, right? My friend Edgar reminded me that “my problem wasn’t stopping, it was staying stopped”. I’ve encountered this situation before and found that the answer isn’t mere willpower or a lack thereof. Like those annoying habits and shortcomings of character, the power to remove them tends to lay beyond my grasp. I keep hearing Jim, my friend and mentor’s voice reminding me one more time; “Cowboy, lack of power is your dilemma.” Ask any smoker who wants to quit and hasn’t (and can’t).

If I stop there, I’m left feeling hopeless, but experience has taught me that my greatest strength lies in my greatest weakness: I can ask for help. Help comes in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s through friends and acquaintances. Other times it comes from complete strangers. Most of the time it comes through prayer. For me, faith has proven itself time and time again as the vehicle by which some of life’s greatest dilemmas are resolved.

So here I sit at the trusty old desk that was my father’s. I’ll stay here for the bit just to break the pattern. In doing so I might just stay stopped. Besides, the weather folks say it’s going to be yucky outside for a while. I’ll take all the help I can get.

I hope 2019 is absolutely amazing for each of you! As for me, I’ll suck down another Gummi Bear and stay inside… ���: