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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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“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” —Stephen Hawking

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My friend Edgar taught me “when I kneel before my God I can stand before any man”. Prayer continually brings me to a place of awe. Because of grace I don’t look at my feet anymore.

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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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3 Easy Steps to Better…

I’m as voracious reader. I keep up on the news. I read articles and books that help me professionally: that hone my writing skills or help me learn to be a better farm manager. Above all, I love reading books and articles that nurture my spirituality and find simple pleasure.

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I receive several newsletters each week about issues important to me, especially those that help me help my clients better. Recently, one of them reemphasized the basic marketing concept of successful titles in catching the reader’s attention. From a marketing standpoint, classic titles saying things like, “How to do XYZ, Five Easy Steps to a better ABC”, and so forth, invite the reader in and are more likely to be read. Basic copywriting and Marketing 101. I do it for clients all the time.

However, it occurred to me while I was reading another “Five Easy Steps” article that it’s rare for such articles to exceed the number five. It may on occasion be “Seven Easy Steps to” but that always seems to be the limit. There’s a myriad of reasons why smaller numbers elicit attention: psychological, neurological, and social. Everyone wants to solve their problems in a few quick, easy steps. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way; at least in my personal experience…

For years I sought quick solutions to life’s pressing problems, but “Five Easy Steps” never seemed to work. I always found myself in the same state as before. It wasn’t until I discovered a recovery program from my “seemingly hopeless” condition of mind and body my condition began to change. It was going to require more (and steeper steps) if I were to become the man I wanted to be. In fact, I found it to take twelve of them.

People tend to have a love-hate relationship with twelve step programs. What can’t be denied is Twelve Step recovery programs have helped thousands of people through the years, no matter what the specific problem might be. It should come as no surprise there are around 240 such programs today; each dealing with specific issues – alcohol, overeating, addiction, gambling, sex, shopping, ad infinitum… I don’t know if it’s the solution to everyone’s problems, but the twelve steps of recovery were for mine. I have been transformed in mind, body, and spirit by taking all twelve steps. I have a relationship with God today. Moreover, I’ve witnessed the change in countless others as well.

I tried many times and countless ways to solve my dilemma. If I just work harder, if I do it this way or that way. Hey, I’m a reasonably intelligent guy. I can handle this. I should be able to reduce twelve steps to something more manageable like five or seven, right? It wasn’t until I was completely beaten that I decided my way didn’t work. I’d take the steps like those before me had. Maybe, just maybe I could achieve the same results and move toward positive change.

The stories the same for so many. The evidence is (and was always) right in front of me. So why did it take so long to believe it?

It may have to do with the number of steps involved. Maybe twelve is overwhelming. Maybe it’s difficult to see past three, five, or seven of them. Maybe it’s just poor marketing on the part of all the people involved. I don’t know.

The bottom line for me is in the results. I’m not who I used to be. I’m becoming the man God meant for me to be. Had I been able to see into the future all those years ago I probably wouldn’t have cared how many steps I had to take to get here today. It’s easy to say that in hindsight though.

The payoff has been far greater than any investment on my part. If I were developing a marketing campaign for such programs, I’d eliminate the whole “Twelve Step” thing. Too many steps. Won’t attract enough readers, you know? I’d break it down to what has become a bit of a mantra to me: “I can’t, He can, and I think I’ll let him”. It’s the cycle of threes seen in all twelve and, hey, it’s only three easy steps, right?

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Good Friday

Thoughts From the Porch: The wind is a bit frisk this morning, but all is well on the porch. It’s still too wet to work on the farm so I’m enjoying the quiet solitude of our little cul-de-sac and my second pot of coffee.

Today is Good Friday. I’ve always been curious how it came to be called “Good” Friday. I get the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion led to a Good Sunday (Easter), but there’s really nothing good about hanging someone on a cross. Maybe Christians would do well to change their iconography for the cross to a stone. I’d rather constantly remember the resurrection than a barbaric and humiliating form of capital punishment. I want to be a resurrection disciple.

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Those who have experienced God’s grace on a deep level tend to be aware of the price paid for their redemption. They know spiritual death. They know what the proverbial “end of the rope” is. They know what it’s like to have nowhere and no human being to turn to. They know that accepting God’s grace is the only thing that will bring us back to life and there’s no doubt how costly that grace was and is. They eagerly cling to Easter and resurrection.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to stay stuck on the crucifixion, to live in the past, and forget that the real joy in life comes from the resurrection. God did, and does, the impossible. He often does for us what we cannot, and sometimes will not, do for ourselves. That’s where the real power lies. Not in the cross, but in the rolled-away stone…

“I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of”. John 10.10 (The Message)

Today, I’m living in the present, enjoying the resurrected life I’ve been given…

“Yes, all the things I thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant”. Phillipians 3.8 (The Message)

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Thoughts on Grace

Thoughts From the Porch: Wednesday is my busy day, especially at the end of the month. I have a group meeting every Wednesday morning and try to schedule as many meetings as possible on that day, so I have more time available at Opal’s Farm the rest of the week. The last Wednesday of the month is the Grow Southeast meeting and a chance to work with other urban farms and growers.

 Our Wednesday morning meeting, Fort Worth Development Group, is a group seeking to “bridge the gap between ministry and business through cultivating meaningful relationships in the workplace: allowing our character and integrity tom minister God’s love to others through our daily business practices.”

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I attended the first time thinking it was another ‘networking’ group. Networking does take place. That tends to happen whenever business people are gathered together. However, it’s far more than that. That’s why it’s a development group. Each quarter we have a theme that guides our speaking and discussions. This quarter that theme has been gratitude. The coming quarter will be on grace. It seems you can’t really have one without the other. Grace and gratitude have this whole “chicken and egg” thing going on. I’m not always positive which came first…

Next week, I’ll be delivering the ‘Hot Topic’ on grace. I’ve submitted a title and catchy tagline for my talk (after all, business appreciates good content). It’s called “Simply Grace – 100% natural with no additives”. I have about 15 to 20 minutes to speak on grace. One of the most difficult things I’ve done is try to squeeze grace into 20 minutes. I have a newfound respect for the preachers I’ve heard speak on the subject. God forbid they go past 20 to 30 minutes and make their worshippers late for lunch…

I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for next week. I’ve finally managed to get my ideas within the time limit but believe me, it hasn’t been easy because everything in my life; every action, every deed, and every experience is about grace.

The older I get and the deeper my relationship with God becomes the more I realize just how much grace I’ve received. My successes and my failures have taught me that grace is enough, and everything is grace – “an unmerited gift”.

Some of you know exactly where I’m coming from. Experience has taught me that a simple prayer, “God, help me”, opens the door to receive the grace that was waiting there all along. Ironically, it was grace that my prayer possible. I couldn’t even muster up the strength to do that on my own.

Life has since become a process of learning to accept the grace I’ve been so freely given. Gratitude, the natural consequence of accepting and living a “grace-full” life. Gratitude makes it easier to set aside old mental tapes and put to death the tired, old lie of self-sufficiency. I see clearly the importance of my fellows and the value of each and every individual I meet. Through gratitude I’m able to share the grace that was so freely given to me.

That’s not to say that I still don’t have my moments: moments when all thought of God’s marvelous gift of grace takes a backseat to my worries and problems. I have moments of self-absorption and self-centered expectations, of myself and others. I still have times when I feel woefully inadequate and undeserving of grace. I always seem to come around though. You see, I am undeserving of God’s grace (Heck, I’m undeserving of grace from most people if I’m honest about it). There is absolutely nothing I can do to earn it. If it could be earned, it wouldn’t be grace. Funny how that works…

I’m fortunate to have daily reminders of God’s grace. I have an amazing family. I get to work with some truly awesome people in my business and with Opal’s Farm. I’m not confused by these reminders. I surely didn’t deserve them. Quite frankly, I’m in awe that I’m even still around. Self-care was not something I was big on until late in life. Some of you know what I mean. I’ve heard it said that God has a big heart for kids and fools. I often fall into the latter category, in case you’re wondering.