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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).

Belief, Choices, Community, Connection, Depression, Emotional Health, Faith, Gratitude, Hope, Peace, Practice, Prayer, Recovery, Relationships, Serenity, Simplicity, Spirituality, Thoughts From the Porch, Writing

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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Choices, Christianity, Communication, Community, Consequences, Dogs, Emotional Health, Family, Grace, Listening, Neighbors, Patience, Peace, Pets, Practice, Prayer, Recovery, Rescue Animals, Serenity, Spirituality, Thoughts From the Porch, What Can I Do, Writing

Escape Artists and Neighbors

Life loves to grant opportunities for introspection and growth. Sometimes they come from unexpected, and often, unpleasant places.

Sadie, our Rottweiler/we’re not sure what else, is the happiest dog that has ever graced our home. She’s the smallest of our three rescue pups but has been known to take on a pit bull that made the mistake of jumping into our (more appropriately “her”) backyard. She’s sweet, gentle, and incredibly smart. The “smart” part can sometimes be a problem…

Our little stinker! I can’t stay mad when I see this face…

She recently discovered a space where she can jump the fence into our neighbor’s yard and escape to the front yard. She loves to explore, and our cul-de-sac offers endless opportunities. Our other two dogs, Jameson and Maggie, are bigger and I just assumed she had found a hole somewhere to crawl through. After several attempts to block any small holes she might have found, our neighbor informed me where she was jumping the fence. Our neighbor went on to explain that he didn’t want her in his yard. He has a two-year old daughter and was fearful of Sadie. I dutifully affixed a guard to prevent her from jumping in the same spot.

Did I mention Sadie was incredibly bright? She apparently found another spot. I put her in the house and tried to figure out where she was jumping the fence. It wasn’t long before the White Settlement Police came knocking on my door asking about the “dog problem”.

I’m somewhat ashamed of my initial response. While I was quite friendly to our local law enforcement (who threatened us with “doggie jail”), I wasn’t so gracious thinking about our neighbor. I fantasized all the possible ways I could make his life miserable. After all, we had put up with the chaos coming from their house – the noise, the loud swearing at the kids, and the dog who stayed on our front porch rather than in their backyard (a cute little cuss who ate our cat’s food) and never said a word. They, they, they! Mouthing off to anyone who would listen (sorry Son for interfering with the hockey game), I made for a great self-righteous, pompous victim…

Self-righteous anger doesn’t serve me well. I had time to calm down and go on to bed. Sleep is amazing. I awoke with a far calmer attitude: that is until my morning routine was broken by having to take time to take Sadie out on her leash. Agitation quickly returned.

I finally grabbed my coffee and greeted the morning in my usual way with morning prayer and meditation on the porch. However, thoughts of the previous evening’s police visit kept interfering with my prayers. Suddenly, I remembered Jesus’ words:

“If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend (or in this case, a neighbor) has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” (Matthew 5.23-24 The Message)

I didn’t think it wise to go to my neighbor at six o’clock in the morning. I pondered the situation further. I began to look at the incident from God’s perspective, forcing me to look inward rather than outward toward my neighbor. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with what I found.

A little back story is in order…

We live in a well-kept, older working-class neighborhood. Most of our neighbors have lived here for years. They are either retired military or retired Lockheed Martin employees. The only time children are playing outside is when grandkids (or great-grandkids) come to visit, so it tends to be quiet.

The neighborhood demographics are changing. There’s far more diversity even in the few years we’ve been here. There’s more younger people, families, and racially and culturally diverse residents. Several of the older residents on the block have passed away over the last couple of years. Their children, who already have places of their own, usually put the homes up for sale. The housing market is tight in our area, so a couple of the houses have been purchased by investors to either “flip” or keep as rental properties. There’s far more diversity even in the few years we’ve been here.

The house next door is one such property. It’s always been bit more run down than other homes on the block. It’s been bought and sold a couple of time in the last year and a half. The first owners did little in the way of improvements so when the present owners began working hard to bring it up to current building code, we were thrilled.

New Neighbors…

We watched with a degree of trepidation as the new family moved in next door. They were loud and seemed to have a hundred people helping them. After they settled in, we learned all the “helpers” were family members. It turned out they had ten children and one on the way. So much for our quiet little cul-de-sac!

The solitude of my evening porch time has often been broken since they arrived; by the younger one’s screaming and crying and the parents yelling at them with a variety of swearing and threats. The two and three-year-old kids have repeatedly been found walking around the block without parental supervision (or clothes). The older ones often block the street playing basketball daring neighbor’s vehicles to interrupt them. It goes without saying that our new neighbors are difficult to live with. No wonder I felt justified in my anger about the dog incident.

Unfortunately, justification only goes so far. It’s a great substitute for reality. Was I mad because they called the cops on my dog or was it because I couldn’t stop Sadie from getting out? Who was I upset with? What was I afraid of? It always seems to come down to fear.

The questioning began growing deeper and deeper. The guy had told me he was concerned about his two-year old. I know Sadie wouldn’t hurt a fly, but does he?  Could I not see he had a point? The deeper I looked inside the less I could point fingers at him. I hate it when that happens!

Shifting Perspectives

One of my favorite prayers is the “Saint Francis Prayer”, especially when the line asking to “understand, rather than be understood”. It’s amazing to me how quickly I forget it when things don’t go my way. While I’m grateful my perception, my thoughts, and my actions are less self-centered than they used to be, I still have days when the world just needs to “do as I say”. Father may know best. I do not.

I probably won’t be running next door and apologize for my ill thoughts. Thank God for the pause button between my thoughts and my actions. I tend to re-act slower and think a bit more before acting these days. I don’t appear to step on as many toes and quite frankly, making amends and corrective action is not on my favorite list of things to do. As my friend Jim used to say, “Crow is best eaten fresh…”

What I will do is pray to “understand, rather than be understood” and stay here on the porch enjoying my morning coffee. It’s funny how much easier it is to bask in the peace and solitude that follows a bit of understanding…

Would you call the “Doggie Police”?
Bad Weather, Community, Connection, Emotional Health, Gratitude, Role Models, Thoughts From the Porch, Writing

I Like My Village…

I haven’t had time to write the last couple of weeks. Opal’s Farm takes up most of my time. Things are moving full steam ahead. Spring is in full bloom in North Texas and I maximize the warm sunny days because rain is inevitable and unpredictable this time of year. Wednesday’s 2 inches of rain and the subsequent mud may have allowed me to play catch-up on tasks best suited to office work, but the lingering wetness is getting old.  

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A farm volunteer work day was scheduled for Saturday but was rescheduled to Sunday afternoon because it was still too wet to work. Now it’s Sunday and another storm came last night. It wasn’t bad, but it was enough to cancel today’s events. I’m going to take it as a message from the universe to stay home today. It’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on “me time” and write about something other than work.

Reading is an essential part of what I do, but I read more than I should. Sometimes I read well into time that should be given to other things, but the WordPress community is often too engaging to shift gears. One more story. Just one more article. My morning news feed is filled with your thoughts and stories. You inspire my own thoughts. You challenge me to become a better writer (although the jury is still out on that one…) and all-around decent person. I’m thankful for each one of you. WordPress is a great village!

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Easter People…

Thoughts From the Porch: Another beautiful Spring Day here in Fort Worth so it’s off to the farm. No time to write this morning. Before I go, I just wanted to say I hope you all had a wonderful Easter. We did here at the Joel household! Any time you spend you get to spend a whole weekend with close friends it’s a great weekend!

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“Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask but when we are challenged to be what we can be.”   — Morris Alder

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“Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, his will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”   — Desmond Tutu

Easter symbolizes resurrection and rebirth. May we all live as Easter people today.