Why’s it have to be so Heavy!?! (or, Towards a More Substantial Life)

A few weeks ago, my wife finally gave me the green light for a project I’ve been talking about for years. She gave me permission to build a brick oven.

You can imagine my surprise, since I’m really not that handy and she knows it. Usually I can count on her to keep me grounded, you know? “Patrick, do you really think you can do this or that?” That’s the phrase I’m used to hearing. That, or a sarcastic “Oh yeah, sure, go ahead”. Until this point, I’ve been able to count on her to gently puncture my inflated ego and keep me from getting both of us in over our head in one hair-brained scheme or another.

So I don’t know if it was a moment of weakness, or a genuine desire to see me follow through on a dream for a change…but a few weeks ago the eyeroll turned to a “I think you should”.

So I like to think I did the same thing any happily married father of two would do.

I quickly went to the yard and dug a big hole in the ground. Like any sizeable endeavor, I would need a good, solid foundation upon which to build my hopes and dreams for a better future. (Plus, I figured that way she couldn’t change her mind. I’m only now beginning to realize the folly of my ways).

I dug the hole (do you know how much I sweat even thinking about actual work?) and built a form from 2 by 6 lumber.  So far so good. Then I took the frame and tried to make it fit in that hole.

Nope. It wasn’t deep enough, wide enough, or long enough. Grab the shovel again, son. This hole was shaping up to be the foundation slab for what would come, but it wasn’t fitting. I had to go deeper.

And deeper.

A little further, a little wider, and now we’re in business.

I started to question the sanity of my decision to dig this blessed hole in the ground. As a nation, we’re on the brink of nuclear war and we’re being “led” by a child given to frequent tantrums and whims. Cold weather should be here any day now (although global warming has pushed that a few more weeks away), I have two very small children and I work full time.

The last thing I need is an all-consuming project like this to take up more of my time.

I unload 2,000 pounds of concrete and stack it in my garage. Then I unload 1,500 pounds of gravel, shovel by shovel, into my hole in the ground. I lay down some plastic for a moisture barrier and arrange my rebar in something like a grid.

In the middle of it all, somehow, it becomes as therapeutic as I thought it might. If I’m going to be vaporized in a prelude to nuclear winter, I might as well go out trying to do something “concrete”, right? I might as well at least make an attempt to realize one ambition I’ve had.

Finally, today I had some friends over and we mixed/poured 30 of those 80 pound bags of concrete into that same hole. We happened to do it the same day as our new neighbors are moving in next door. They’ve been over a handful of times already to watch the progress on this oven. It makes me feel good, like I’m not just improving my patio area, but just maybe I’m helping build a sense of community in my corner of Millersburg as well.

So there you have it. In the past few weeks, I’ve moved 15-20 wheelbarrow loads of dirt. I’ve moved somewhere in neighborhood of 1750 pounds of gravel with a truck and a shovel. I’ve moved 2800 pounds of cement and thankfully had three long suffering friends give me a hand with the mixing and pouring today.

That’s just laying the groundwork so that I can actually start building this thing! Why does it all have to be so blessed heavy!

Because that’s the nature of substance. That’s why. 🙂

 

 

 

 

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Good God

“Welcome home honey, how was your evening?” I asked my wife after she returned home from a work engagement recently. “It was good”, she replied. “And you?”

“Oh, me” I cautiously ventured. “It was filled with existential angst as usual. I’m glad you’re home though, now I can get back to seeking out ontological rationale through rote reference to external generalities that have little to do with my peculiar personhood. After all, don’t we all need to protect ourselves the mystery of our being?”

She rolled her eyes.

Can you believe it?

There I was, seeking solace from this dichotomous tension, weighing the horror of existence against the terror of non-being as Bill Watterson might put it, I expressed to my wife the gentle comfort of her providing me a most welcome distraction by merely coming home in the evening…and she rolls her eyes?! Who is this woman? Why is she in my house!

We in the church celebrate an empty tomb, the tearing of the thin veil between our experience and the Great Reality Beyond it. But more than celebrating the rising of our Lord, we also look to the empty space behind the tattered cloak, and somehow need to reclaim the courage to celebrate the absence of that which we hold most sacred.

There is no “something” that will fulfill the sense of lack we carry. No sacred object that will fulfill our deepest longing, no relationship that will unlock the secret to happiness.

The Holy of Holies is as empty now as the tomb we celebrate. That’s good news from a good God, for we can stop our seeking, our striving, our shaming…we can stop passing the buck and passing the blame and we can finally start living this life. The one we’ve been given.

We can finally take the risks that might end in failure, because failure is to be expected; embraced, even. This paradigm shift means every small moment; indeed every risk weighed and deemed worthy, is a moment ripe with the smell of conversion.

The empty tomb; the empty temple; the final acknowledgement of an empty life…it’s replete with fullness. And as we draw closer to the Advent season, we again have the chance to repent of our tired ways and small thinking. We again have the choice to make between flesh and spirit, old ways or new life!

But all we can do is roll our eyes.

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A Poem

There’s something

intoxicating

watching the

sun

set

over a dozen amish farms

wending my way along

the asphalt

gray

somehow enchanted

ribbon of road.

Home.

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Embers and Ice

Today is Ash Wednesday. If the week was unfolding according to my plans, I would have preached a sermon on idolatry this past Sunday, using the text from Exodus that describes the fashioning of a golden calf. We would have taken communion together, and it would have been a morning of preparation for this evening, when we would have had an Ash Wednesday bonfire at the farm of one of our members.

I told him I wanted a fire big enough that we should call the fire department ahead of time to let them know what we were doing. He was happy to oblige.

My thinking was we could spend significant time reflecting upon the idols we have on Sunday, then come prepared on Wednesday to symbolically cast pieces of wood into the flames as a preparatory ritual for the season of Lent.

As it is, we ended up canceling our Sunday service for the second time I can remember in the 8 years we’ve led this church. And we’ve cancelled this evening’s fire, as well.

It’s just too cold. Too snowy. Too icy. And there’s too much wind.

We’re still planning to do it…just during a different week.

But the experience has me reflecting.

Somewhere in this farmer’s field, the conditions have been prepared for an epic bonfire. Two truckloads of slabwood (the outer part of the log that can’t be used for other purposes) have been stacked, another load of old pallets that are no longer fit for other uses, along with who knows what else have been carefully arranged to produce a fire the size of a car in preparation for our ritual. All that’s lacking is the flame.

And yet, if I were to go to that field today, I’d see no evidence of this at all. I’d see snowy, wind-swept, barren space with no evidence of a possible fire. Though the conditions are right in one way…the fire is impossible to imagine in another way.
It’s safe to say it would take more than a match to get the fire started on the landscape of that frozen tundra today, February 18, 2015, in Holmes County Ohio.

The embers burn only in my mind; the flames have yet to become reality.

So it is, I think, with much that we call “faith” (and others call “foolishness”). The potential within our world (for good and for evil) is much greater than any one of us can imagine. The conditions have been prepared for goodness from the foundation of the earth…and the God who spoke this into being has pronounced it to be good.

And yet to hold out hope for the fires of God’s divine goodness to burn brightly and hotly seems ridiculous in the frozen tundra we inhabit. We do prefer our idols, because we prefer certainty when compared to true (uncertain) faith.

So, while it’s common to give something up for Lent (typically something fairly trivial; chocolate, facebook, certain television episodes or the like), the problem with simply giving something up doesn’t call forth a new vision of the fullness of life we hope for and are meant to pursue as Christian people.

Lent is too often entered as an exercise in futility, as if Christ died to help us overcome our sweet tooth, or our tendency to waste time.

This year I’m making a different change. At the risk of spiritualizing this decision by going public on Ash Wednesday, I am committing to run the Akron Marathon on September 26th of this year (2015). I have no time goal. My goal is simply to cross the starting line and the finish line under my own power.

This decision won’t help combat the ideological foundations of religious extremism or outright terrorism…it won’t help feed orphans in developing nations…it won’t even raise money for MCC to provide relief kits in Syria.

Rather, the change I seek this year is closer to home. I seek to change myself.

I seek to model for my infant son what good health looks like; what balance in life means.

I have a feeling, if this is anything like the half marathon I ran in 2012, that incorporating this challenge into my daily routine (being “in training”) will serve a variety of purposes. I will become healthier, mind, body, and, yes, soul. I will become more creative, and less likely to spend my free time in front of screens. I will become closer to God as the mileage increases (and I will likely cry out to God to make it stop at least once a week between now and then). I will become a better husband, a better father, a better leader, and a better Christian.

But I’d like some company on the journey, too. Are you willing to join me? I’ll probably post an occasional update on how my training is going. With a baby in the house, I’ve learned not to be overzealous in my commitments to doing anything regularly (besides my work)…so ‘blogging’ will not be a priority for me for the forseeable future.

But would you join me? Will you join me in running the Akron (OH) marathon on September 26th? Drop me a line if you’d like to change your life with me, beginning in Lent. There is power in numbers, and I’d love to see you at the starting line!

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Fingernails on Chalkboards

The clouds stream across the sky
drug, I daresay by the very
fingers of God
as one scrapes
fingernails across the chalkboard.

He claws his Almighty way in,
an angry protest,
rending the heavens to
speak of hope.

Reality Beyond Perception
streaming like netflix,
a visage of fire
streaming
like rain from the heavens
streaming
like a thousand thousands
wending hither and yon,
to and from the
Throne of The
Almighty
God.

Bitter and Sweet
mingle together underneath the tongue
the tart and tangy taste we crave
already and not yet
becoming one with us
in consumption.

We are hungry for the Divine.
We are hungry for justice to be done.
We are hungry…but perceive it not
in the midst of such
abundant
living
and
scarce
thinking.

So we pray before but
not after
this meal, this feast, this feeding on carnality
seeking satiation
still, not willing to give one inch
to truly change
our lives
if not
the world.

Listen to the screech, and
turn not away from
the good teacher.
Amen.

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Anger

I’m a little behind in sharing my Bible columns in this space. Here is the latest one, from the March 31, 2014 issue of Mennonite World Review. The scriptures I’m commenting on are Mark 11:15-19 (the story of Jesus cleansing the temple), Zechariah 6:11-15, Isaiah 56:6-7, Jeremiah 7:9-11,  Jeremiah 23:5-6, and John 19:1-5.

The texts in this issue are meant to be looked at on the final two Sundays of the Lenten season. Our anticipation is meant to grow with each passing week as we empty ourselves and turn towards the cross, the promise of resurrection dawning in the background, it’s light casting long shadows over the spiritual landscapes we inhabit.

It is interesting to me, that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus enters Jerusalem for his final confrontation with the powers that be, and the first place he goes is the temple (Mk 11:11). The text makes a note that he looked around at everything there, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany (roughly 2 miles away) with the twelve to spend the night, only to return the next day to carry out the protest we’ve come to term “the cleansing of the temple”.

This is an important detail, for it paints a picture of a Jesus who premeditates this angry outburst rather than marching in with his proverbial ‘guns’ blazing.

Indeed, In the cleansing of the temple, Jesus uses his anger for righteous reasons, rather than letting his righteous anger get the better of him. Yes, love can be angry; love can burn with angry passion.

Contrast this effective use of anger with the display we see in the reading from John. Here we read again of anger; only this time it is anger unbridled from Love. The soldiers and the crowds are controlled by their anger, reacting from fear rather than responding in love. Fear, too, can be angry and burn with equal passion.

So much of our religious experience today is reactionary. Someone wounds us, someone makes us angry, someone belittles a cause we believe in and suddenly we reach a breaking point. We snap. We react.

We flip the proverbial tables within our religious system, and we depend upon this story from Mark to justify our actions. After all, we tell ourselves, Jesus was angry too. Anger can feel so good, and we can feel so self-righteous in our exercising of it.

But I fear we might forget that the crowds were angry too, heaping scorn on the only one who can save us. Not all righteous indignation is of God. Indeed Jeremiah has some harsh words for those who would hide their true motives behind religiosity and proper etiquette.

There are good words in these passages for the Mennonite church today. Our anger should not be avoided. It should instead be reflected upon and it’s root should be exposed…lest we unwittingly heap more scorn upon our savior.

The great scandal of our Mennonite church today is that it is easier to love our enemies who live in Syria, or Afghanistan, or Iraq than it is to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is easier than ever these days, to surround ourselves with like-minded friends and family, happily ignoring those who think differently, happily turning blind eyes to the brokenness rather than seeking to bind it up for healing.

This is not the way of the Christ we profess, who cared enough about the brokenness at the temple to stir things up with an angry word accompanied by angry actions, carried out in love.

We are the ones crying for crucifixion, and until we acknowledge our fear and our complicity in the corruption of Christ’s church, we will continue to live only in the shadow cast by the dawning of the resurrection, not in the resurrection itself.

What fears do you carry? In what ways is your anger using you? How might Christ’s healing love reach out through you to friend and foe alike?

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A donkey, not a warhorse

The scriptures I wrote this column on (in the March 17, 2014 issue of “Mennonite World Review”) are Zechariah 9:9 and Matthew 21:1-11.

Zechariah offers good news for a people at war. Their deliverer has come! His feet have trod on the necks of his enemies, therefore his followers can rest in the knowledge that their world has been set right. God’s anointed one is for them, and he is victorious! God is on their side!

In ancient times, a king who rode a donkey was a king who came in peace. A king who rode a donkey had exchanged his war-horse for a beast of burden.

But when Jesus claimed this imagery, it was before, not after, a battle of great importance. He wasn’t interested in fighting battles (at least not physical ones). He was interested in re-interpreting what would have been a familiar narrative of Messianic salvation.

He did come riding on a donkey, not a war-horse.

But that’s not exactly comforting to a people who were still oppressed by Roman occupation. I can imagine they would have preferred Zechariah’s version.

There are times I would, too.

But the truth of the matter is, enemies are destroyed more completely through the saving power of sacrificial love than through the exercise of brute force. This is a truth that’s become so familiar to most of us, that we lose track of it’s subversive nature. Jesus was victorious on his way to the cross!

It’s more than mere symbolism, that he’s going to be a different kind of King with a different kind of Kingdom. It’s a declaration that the battle is over, and he has won.

It’s subversive, it’s radical, I know. The victorious Jesus stretches and frays the delicate fabric of our social and religious etiquette to the tearing point…but it seems that the message Jesus sends is clear.

The battle is over, and he is the victor.

Yet we continue to thrash about as we seek to reconcile the fullness of this grace, the fullness of God’s love, with the broken reality we inhabit.

Something insidious happens when we entrust Jesus with our hopes and dreams for a better world. More often than not, we find our expectations crushed. We send in our Hero Jesus, we load him with our hopes and dreams, our expectations for a better world, we load him like a beast of burden and send him into the fray, only to watch him get flogged, humiliated, and finally crucified.

We know that resurrection follows.

We know that new life springs up from death. We know Easter comes next…but that doesn’t make the bearing of the crucifixion any easier.

We’re still surprised when life doesn’t work out according to our plan. We still mourn when dreams are shattered. We still wince and turn away when our Hero chooses the cross instead of the battle, and we still lose hope when it seems like he’s not even willing to put up a fight.

The bitter truth is, we love our agenda for a better world more than we trust the way of the cross. It’s a jagged pill to swallow, that resurrection only comes through death and relinquishment.

It’s not natural. It’s not easy. It’s troubling to come to the realization that God’s ways are not our ways, that the discipleship we are so fond of talking about does not lead directly to happy endings.

We follow a Messiah whose path does lead to Resurrection. That’s our hope.

However, His path first confronts our expectations. Then crucifies them. Then it leaves us hopeless, scared, and panting for breath in the darkness before finally revealing the resurrected Christ in the face and in the place we least expect to find Him.

Where are you looking for Christ?

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