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It Really is a Wonderful Life

Thoughts from the Porch

Dropping in at our local big box retailer this weekend reminded me the Christmas season has begun in earnest. Despite the media prophecies of retail’s slow, painful death it was readily apparent that not everyone has switched to online shopping.

I try to avoid such visits any time of year but especially at Christmas time. They’re a reminder of all things negative about the Holidays: crowded stores, pushy and frustrated shoppers, rampant consumerism – the list goes on. In a season of giving, faith, and family I have a difficult time with all the hurried rudeness, impatience, and meltdown tantrums by parents and children alike.

That being said…

I got cover crops in at Opal’s Farm before the cold front and accompanying rain passed through yesterday. The rain meant I would have all day to catch-up on emails, callbacks, and write. All was going according to plan when I made a grave mistake. I walked through the living room to go out to my truck for a moment my wife was watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It was at the point in the movie where Jimmy Stewart’s character, a suicidal George Bailey, jumps off the bridge only to be rescued by his guardian angel, Clarence.

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I won’t bore you with a retelling of the story. Who in the world hasn’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” anyway? It’s one of my all-time favorites. One can never see it too often. Suffice to say that all my plans immediately fell to the wayside. I sat down in the chair and didn’t get up until the end of the movie. I mentioned this mistake to my friend Charlie. He reminded me that it wasn’t a mistake, but time well spent…

In the movie, as in every good story, calamity strikes, and George Bailey is backed into a corner. He cries out, “I wish I’d never have been born”. I can relate. I’ve been there: that dark place where the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is a bullet train locomotive closing fast. Everything and everyone would be better off if I weren’t here. In George Bailey’s case (and mine) divine intervention says otherwise…

My favorite part of the film is when Clarence ends his “never been born” vision and an ecstatic George runs through town shouting Merry Christmas to people and buildings alike. He’s part of life once again and never has he been so grateful for his wonderful life. He knows that a warrant has been issued for his arrest. He doesn’t care. Sounds like surrender to me. All I want is to live. My life is incredible no matter what happens

His surrender is met by a myriad of friends and family who come together to save him from disaster and the arrest warrant. By the time the bell rings (and Clarence gets his wings) and everyone breaks out in a joyful rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” I’m bawling like a baby (at least on the inside – I still don’t like to cry in front of people. It’s that old “guy” thing…). As one whose been rescued from a life of desperation and degradation I am flooded with gratitude no matter how many times I’ve seen the movie.

The Never Ending Story

Maybe that’s why “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a Christmas tradition for so many people. Like Christmas itself, it shines a ray of light, a ray of hope, into an oft dark world. It reminds us that, while the war may not be over, hang in there because good will ultimately triumph. That’s the general theme in any good story. God has been telling and retelling that story throughout human history. Every writer, every good storyteller, simply puts a different spin on the story He’s been writing for eternity. It makes since to me since we were created in His image.

Sometimes frustration with the consumer culture that surrounds Christmas gets in the way. Sometimes I simply to hear another retelling of the eternal story. I get back on track. I remember the “greatest story ever told”. Suddenly, Christmas becomes alive again. God came down to live with us. He loves us and sent a reminder that a new heaven and a new earth is not only possible, but certain. Love will win out, and, as the Apostle John reminds us, what is God but love?

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As I sit here at my trusty old roll top desk this morning I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude. The creator of the universe came down as one of us! He lived among us and showed us what it is to truly love one another. He showed us that a new way was possible. He reminded us that Abba hears our cries even when we think He doesn’t. Above all, He reminds us that the story has already been written so we can enjoy life and enjoy abundantly. It really is a wonderful life I have today.

I’m going back to the big box store later. I don’t know if the craziness has changed but my perspective has. Christmas has a way of doing that, especially when I remember what Christmas truly means.

“Emmanuel – God with us…”

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Give a Wave and Change the World

Thoughts From the Porch

Wednesday was a long day. It was like any day really, but especially long when one spends it driving around DFW. Margaret is unable to get in my truck since it sits too high. We have been fortunate to use our kid’s car for her doctor appointments and such. It’s a KIA and sits low enough for Margaret to be able to get in and out. I’m not complaining mind you, but while a small car is great for her it’s not so great for me.

I’ve driven a pick-up truck for most of the last 30 years. In fact, I can’t remember the last car I owned. A ¾ ton truck is perfect for a guy who’s 6’3” and weighs in at 230 pounds. Heck, I even have enough head room for my beat-up old farm hat on. I like sitting above most of the other drivers. There’s a sense of security in that. You know, the ‘above the fray’ kind of thing.

Change doesn’t typically disturb me too much, but switching to a 2-door sub-compact car? It’s a bit like moving from a big rig to a go-cart. However, I’m grateful I still have the flexibility to fold and unfold myself in and out. Once I’m in it’s not so bad…

The other drawback in using our kid’s car is that I make the sixty-mile roundtrip twice a day to drop them off at work and pick them up. I haven’t driven in rush hour traffic in a long time. The farm is only fifteen minutes from the house: just hop on the freeway and there’s one stoplight between here and there. Any other time I work from home.

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It’s not quite the same when you commute in a DFW rush hour and the closer you get to Dallas the worse traffic gets. It starts slowing on the east side of Fort Worth and by Arlington and Highway 360 it’s stop-and-go. That’s aggravating enough but something transpires once you cross the Dallas County line. Apparently, it’s a black hole of sorts that sucks any common courtesy and driving ability out the window.

I think I understand why our kid goes to bed so early. I was worn out after four hours of stop-and-go driving. If I had to do that daily my spirituality would fade into one-fingered salutes, horn honking, and yelling. I understand road rage much better, although shooting at someone is still a bit extreme for me…

After my dad was transferred to Colorado, our family returned to Fort Worth a couple of times a year. Every time I crossed the Texas state line, I was greeted by “Welcome to Texas” and beneath it was the line “Drive Friendly”. As we travelled up and down Highway 287, slower travelers would pull over to let us pass. We would do likewise for those who came up in our rear-view mirror. Once past, my father would raise his hand and wave as a thank you to the driver behind us.

If we were on a two-lane country road, each driver would raise a hand in a “howdy” to each other as they passed. People would hang back to let you merge on the freeway. When I came of driving age, I was taught that courtesy was as much a part of driving as the ability to handle a vehicle safely.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Fort Worth is its small town feel and friendliness. Common courtesy was paramount in social situations with others. Driving was a prime example. One spends a lot of time on the road living here. Even rush hour, albeit less tedious and congested than our neighbor to the east, was reasonably friendly. At least it was…

I’m quite willing to acknowledge that my perceptions may have become a bit nostalgic as I’ve grown older. The demographics of Fort Worth have changed. North Texas has grown faster than the infrastructure for America’s 16th largest city. Frustrations abound when construction delays are constant. Driving is a microcosm for what’s happening around us. As driving has become more frustrating and common courtesy less common, so too has the society around us.

All of this started me thinking. What if everyone could slow down, take a deep breath, and offer a friendly hand wave when someone lets you in on the freeway? What if you take a moment to acknowledge your neighbor with a hand wave as you drive down your neighborhood street? What if you wave an apology to the guy you just cut-off by accident?

I don’t know. Perhaps I’m a dreamer, but I think one little hand wave could change the world (or at least my little part of it!). When I exercise common courtesy on the way to the store, I’m more likely to hold the door for the person coming in or out. They say thank you and I’m more likely to be patient with that slower driver in front of me. I let that guy in on the freeway or simply wave a thank you to the person that let me in.

That simple hand wave set of a chain reaction of “niceness”. I’m not as stressed on the road. I become just a bit more relaxed. I’m nicer to the next person I meet. I smile more. In turn, maybe they’re a bit nicer to the next driver, the next store clerk, or the next coworker. In turn, who knows? Maybe world peace…

I’m so sure a simple way is the key I believe it could even change our neighbors to the east. Why not give it a try…

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Free to Love

Thoughts from the Porch

“When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting of keeping them ‘in their place’. The history of such religious manipulation and coercion is long and tedious. It is little wonder that people who have only known religion on such terms experience release or escape from it as freedom. The problem is that the freedom turns out to be short-lived.” (Eugene Patterson, The Message – Introduction to the book of Galatians)

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I often tell audiences when I’m speaking that I’m “recovering Church of Christ”. People that live here in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” usually know exactly what I mean – a fundamentalist evangelical Christian upbringing (If you’re unsure what that means, think of Southern Baptists on steroids).One was held to certain, often impossible, moral standards and judged harshly when one strayed from the established norms of church law. It was no wonder that when I moved away from home at the ripe old age of eighteen, it wasn’t long before I found release from the constraints of my upbringing. I reveled in my newly acquired freedom.

Sadly, freedom slowly turned into a self-made prison: walls of addictions, guilt, and shame (another story for another time). In desperation I turned to the God of my youth and cried for release. Ironically, the God of my youth hadn’t changed. Only my perception of Him had. Grace, something I had only heard about in abstract theological discussions, became real.

My wife and I share a common love for the Lord even though we have denominational differences. We have the common community of recovery. While not everyone in recovery finds their Higher Power to be the God of our home, many of our friends share our Christian faith. It’s become a “church”, or community in many ways.

Her beliefs and doctrines are important to her while mine have taken a different direction. Thankfully, her denomination didn’t inflict the spiritual, of more accurately, religious abuse that fundamentalist Christianity did. It still works for her. For that I’m extremely grateful.

Over the last couple of years, she’s wanted me to explore her denominational beliefs and hopefully provide answers to some of my questions. We’ve invited a couple of young men from her church into our home each month. We’ve shared good conversation and I appreciate their energy and commitment to spread the good news Jesus brings. However, they have been unable to answer some questions I feel essential to discipleship.

Perhaps it’s their age. “Elder” typically means one of “greater age”. Their name tags may say elder, but their age says different. It doesn’t make them wrong. Their experience hasn’t led them to an answer. Besides, some of the best wisdom has come from young folks. Out of the mouth of babes, you know…

They’ve asked older members of their church to talk to me, but even they have been unable to answer my questions. What they see as divine revelation doesn’t jive with my experience. Mind you, I’m not trying to be difficult.

I appreciate the values we share – a love of God and a love for others. I don’t understand why it’s necessary to inflict a set of rules and doctrines to make one part of the “in” crowd. Before anyone thinks I’m being critical and judgmental of another denomination please know I am overjoyed by their work for the marginalized. They support family and a relationship with God. It’s just different methodologies.

That’s not what I see in Jesus. Following Jesus has led me into a life of freedom I only dreamt of. He has truly given me an abundant life. My newfound freedom comes with the responsibilities associated with “loving God with all my heart, mind, and soul and loving my neighbor as myself”. Maybe that’s why self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit…

The question they find so difficult to answer is this: Why would anyone who has found complete freedom in Christ submit to the heavy yoke of rules and regulations? Laws, doctrines, and a formula for self-proclaimed piety aren’t what make me right with God. Grace is what makes me right with God. In fact, the Apostle Paul called such people promoting the law as “contemptible” (Galatians 6.13).

Paul puts the question far more eloquently than I ever could:

“How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off top please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God… Does the God who lavishly provides you with His own presence, His own Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never (Emphasis mine) do for yourselves, does He do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust Him to do them in you?” (Galatians 3.2-3,5 The Message translation)

I wouldn’t trade the freedom I’ve found in Christ for anything. I also know that freedom brings a huge responsibility. I never want to settle for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ”cheap” grace – to “continue in sin so that grace may abound” (Romans 6.1 RSV). My responsibility is to love God and love others. Jesus said if I do that everything else will take care of itself. Simple, but difficult at times. Some people are simply hard to love. Do it any way…

When I live God’s way, Paul says this incredible thing happens.

“He brings gifts into our lives, much the way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like:

  • affection for others
  • exuberance about life
  • serenity
  • a willingness to stick with things
  • a sense of compassion in the heart
  • a conviction that holiness permeates things and people
  • we find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life
  • able to marshal and direct our energies wisely”

(adapted from Galatians 5. 19-21 The Message

It’s no wonder that Paul says to go on and “live creatively’ and “never tire of doing good”. I’m a simple guy. I can’t think of a simpler way to live. If my missionary friends can answer this question, then maybe I’ll give it some consideration.

Until then “live creatively”, my friends…

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Time to Celebrate

Thoughts From the Porch

I came home from my Sunday morning meeting and spent a long time lost in thought. Today is a special day of celebration in my life: probably more important than all the other holidays combined. I reflected on the friends who made it all possible. I cannot begin to come close to expressing my love and appreciation for them. You see, fourteen years ago I surrendered to God’s infinite grace and began an incredible, mystical journey with these people. Life began again. Dreams became. Miracles happened. In fact, I’ve come to depend on them. I’m living proof. I celebrate fourteen years free from the bonds of addiction, selfishness and self-obsession.

I don’t often speak of my recovery on social media. For most of my life I’ve been an example of what NOT to do. I wouldn’t want anyone to judge the recovery process by my actions. I chose a program of recovery that taught me how to rely on the God of my understanding to break the cycle of addiction, to correct my oft repeated shortcomings, and be of use to others. It has worked for me for a while now.

It gave me a relationship with God that grows more intimate each day. It offered me a new set of glasses through which I see the world as God would have me see His creation (most of the time at least). Where there only existed failure, depression, and endless desperation before, my life is filled with light and infinite possibility. I never dreamt that life could be this way. I know what joy and freedom are today. I’m recovering the life God intended for daily. Pretty damned amazing if you ask me…

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I thought of my friend and mentor, Jim, who walked alongside me throughout much of the journey. He followed an eternal path almost two years ago. Not a day goes by that his voice doesn’t speak to me, either in my head or through my friends. One friend in particular, Edgar, frequently quotes “Jimisms”. He always seems to know when they’re truly needed.

I thought about my brother Craig who opened his home when I needed it most. I spent five years sitting in his woodshop, sharing coffee, prayer, and spirit. No man is more blessed than me. I always wanted a brother. I had to wait fifty years to get one!

Perhaps most of, I thought about the woman in the next room who shares life with me; the woman that God (and recovery) gave me. Most of you know my wife Margaret. Most of you know Margaret broke her leg a few weeks ago. It’s been non-weight bearing and will be for several more weeks. It has been my honor and privilege to be her legs these last few weeks; to bring coffee, to help her to the chair, and push her wheelchair. Recovery taught me what it means to love someone else, to be in a relationship with God and the love of my life. It made it easy to exchange vows and really mean it. She is the light of my life and brings me joy on this walk together.

Blessed more than I deserve

I would be remiss if I failed to tell you how important each of you are in my life. I once told my friend Rusty that I could finally count my true friends on more than one hand. He told me I was blessed: most people can’t say that. From a life of isolation and loneliness I been brought into a life that almost feels too full at times. I somehow make room for it though. When I don’t God helps me make it bigger.

Above all, I know all is grace. I don’t deserve any of the blessings I enjoy today. I’m unbelievably thankful I didn’t get what I deserve – clean or using. What I received was an endless supply of love and grace instead. As my brother Craig reminds me, “God is especially fond of me” (and you, too!).

One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received is waking up each day to a new and bright world full of hope and possibilities no matter what the newspaper (does anybody still read those?) may say. I get to “live creatively” as the Apostle Paul would say.

Thank you for being a part of this wonderful journey…

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A New Economy…

Thoughts From the Porch: A gorgeous Fall day greeted me this morning as I stepped out on the porch. Every day is gorgeous in my mind, but this morning was especially bright and inviting. My “porch time” has included an email series I’ve been receiving from the Center for Action and Contemplation. I’ve always appreciated Father Richard Rohr and I hope you will appreciate today’s meditation as well.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

From the Center for Action and Contemplation

Week Forty-eight

Economy: Old and New

The Gospel Economy
Sunday, November 24, 2019

Jesus said to the host who had invited him, “When you hold a lunch or dinner . . . invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; and blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” —Luke 14:12-14

I’d like to begin this week’s meditations by contrasting two economies or worldviews. The first economy is capitalism, which is based on quid pro quo, reward and punishment thinking, and a retributive notion of justice. This much service or this much product requires this much payment or this much reward. It soon becomes the entire (and I do mean entire!) frame for all of life, our fundamental relationships (even marriage and children), basic self-image (“I deserve; you owe me; or I will be good and generous if it helps me, too”), and a faulty foundation for our relationship with God.

We’ve got to admit, this system of exchange seems reasonable to almost everybody today. And if we’re honest, it makes sense to us, too. It just seems fair. The only trouble is, Jesus doesn’t believe it at all, and he’s supposed to be our spiritual teacher. This might just be at the heart of what we mean by real conversion to the Gospel worldview, although few seem to have recognized this.

Let’s contrast this “meritocracy,” punishment/reward economy—basic capitalism which we in the United States all drink in with our mother’s milk—with what Jesus presents, which I’m going to call a gift economy. [1] In a gift economy, there is no equivalence between what we give and how much we get. Now I know we’re all squirming. We don’t like it, because we feel we’ve worked hard to get to our wonderful middle-class positions or wherever we are. We feel we have rights.

I admit that this position satisfies the logical mind. At the same time, if we call ourselves Christians, we have to deal with the actual Gospel. Now the only way we can do the great turnaround and understand this is if we’ve lived through at least one experience of being given to without earning. It’s called forgiveness, unconditional love, and mercy. If we’ve never experienced unearned, undeserved love, we will stay in the capitalist worldview where 2 + 2 = 4. I put in my 2, I get my 2 back. But we still remain very unsure, if not angry, about any free health care (physical, mental, or spiritual) or even free education, even though these benefits can be seen as natural human rights that support and sustain peoples’ humanity. All too often, we only want people like us to get free health care and education and bail outs.

Brothers and sisters, you and I don’t “deserve” anything, anything. It’s all a gift. But until we begin to live in the kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of this world, we think, as most Christians do, exactly like the world. We like the world of seemingly logical equations. Basically, to understand the Gospel in its purity and in its transformative power, we have to stop counting, measuring, and weighing. We have to stop saying “I deserve and deciding who does not deserve. None of us “deserve”! Can we do that? It’s pretty hard . . . unless we’ve experienced infinite mercy and realize that it’s all a gift.

Gateway to Presence:
If you want to go deeper with today’s meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

[1] “A gift economy, gift culture, or gift exchange is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. This contrasts with a barter economy or a market economy, where goods and services are primarily exchanged for value received. Social norms and customs govern gift exchange.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy)

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Capitalist Economy and Gift Economy,” Homily (September 1, 2019), https://cac.org/podcasts/capitalist-economy-and-gift-economy/.

Image credit: Le Denier de la Veuve (The Widow’s Mite) (detail), James Tissot, between 1886 and 1894, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

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Brain Worms

Thoughts From the Porch:

Do you ever get brain worms? You know, those pesky little musical ditties that play over and over in your head. No matter what you’re doing the song or musical rift won’t go away. In fact, the more you try to think of something else the more persistent the song becomes. Sometimes they’re simply the last song you hear on the radio and other times it comes out of nowhere. Sometimes they come from the most unlikely sources.

Let me explain…

After an early freeze it’s been a string of beautiful Fall days here in North Texas. The sun was bright, trees have turned to true Fall colors, and the birds celebrate the morning in song. The coffee was fuller in flavor and I relished in the November morning in shorts and a t-shirt. Truly a blessed morning…

I was reading about Jesus’ first recorded miracle at a marriage feast in Cana: turning the water into wine. About halfway through I started humming a Kevin Fowler song, “The Lord Loves a Drinking Man”. Honestly, it isn’t the most spiritual thing to pop up during my prayer and meditation time. Click on the link and you’ll see what I mean.

Jesus turned the water to wine and “any man who can do that is a good friend of mine”. Yep…

Changing Water into Wine

John’s retelling of the miracle at Cana offers a brief glimpse into his kingdom. He says time and time again the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast and the Jews in Palestine knew how to throw a wedding feast. Family and friends came together from all over the region. The finest food was prepared, and the best wine was brought out first. The party was going to go on for a while so serve the best wine first and “after the guests have had their fill bring in the cheap stuff.” John 2.10 (The Message).

It was a big deal. Scholars say their wedding parties lasted for days. I got a taste of this when I was a groomsman in an Irish Catholic wedding. The reception was in the Coors Brewery Workers Union Hall if that offers you a clue. They prefer Irish whiskey to wine and that’s probably a story for another time, but I digress…

I’d like to think that God’s kingdom is a big celebration. The idea of sitting around singing angelic hymns for eternity sounds a bit boring. God’s kingdom is one of love, joy, and a heck-u-va party. I can’t think of anything better to celebrate.

Wine into Water

Ironically, for people like me Jesus seemed to have worked His miracle in reverse. He changed the wine into water. For me this is the most amazing miracle of all. Trapped in a swirling whirlpool of cheap wine (among other things) and total self-obsession, He lifted me to a life I never dreamed possible. He invited me into the feast (an analogy He uses often). I know longer settle for scraps of life. I have a seat at Abba’s table: and what a party it is.

I can only imagine that if this party is so good now, then how much more so will the big feast be?

I’m unbelievably thrilled and amazed at just how much He loved this drinking (among other things!) man. I’m happy His miracles aren’t contingent on my false piety and spiritual correctness; that His love is unconditional. He always works the right miracle whether it’s wine into water, or water into wine. Whatever you’re drinking, come on in and join the feast…

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