No Safety Net

No Safety Net

I hear the sound of water returning to itself.  It falls and swirls and sings its way over the cold hard stones.  The water is stuck in a never-ending cycle, falling downward only to be pushed back to its origins.  Like Sisyphus it rises and falls, going nowhere, signifying what?

I walk down to the river into unfamiliar places carved by a fall storm of biblical proportions.  The once familiar river, more a stream most seasons, now meanders through fields where Black Angus once grazed. The water makes its way into and out of its original bed, as per the fickle instructions of angry Mother Nature.

I find peace in the river, even in its altered state.  In spite of the new twists and turns the river still knows where it’s going.  It has begun its long journey from the majestic rockies to the sea. I sit on one of the few boulders I recognize, aspen leaves floating by. The river is moving. The river, she is not stuck.

I am.  Stuck, that is.  I’ve been through my own storm of biblical proportions and I feel more like the water feature in my backyard, cascading down and artificially pumped back to where I began. Anger and frustration intertwined.

The poet Mark Nepo knew a woodsman who said the reason people get lost in the forest is because they do not go far enough. They stop just before the way would have become clear, trying instead to return on a path no longer visible. “If we could only lean forward by what little light we are given,” Nepo says.  He is allowed such confidence, having beaten cancer twice. He asks, “Can you endure your uncertainty until it shows you another deeper way?”

For all of my adult life I traveled with a safety net.  I left home without it about six months ago.  I stuffed the net in an old trunk.  I was confident. But then the wind swirled around the tightrope I was walking, and the ground fell away beneath me. I straddled the wire and held on, swaying over the yawning abyss.  Go back? Go forward?  Both seemed impossible.

In March I visited friends in New England. The full moon cast its scattered shadow on fresh-fallen snow.  The husband was not feeling well.  His wife and I nestled by the fire.  She looked at the stuck me and said matter-of-fact, “You can’t go back.  You know that. You cannot go back. You have to let go.” She is a prophet. She tells the truth you do not want to hear, but must.  You hear it because you know you are loved.  All the way home I pondered her prophetic words.

I have to fill up the water feature every seven days.  The water, weary of its circular journey, just evaporates.  The babbling brook is not self-sustaining. It requires outside energy – electricity to run the pump and someone to fill the basin with unsuspecting fresh water, knowing nothing of the maddening journey on which it is about to embark.

The water feature has to be handled. The river does not have to be handled. In fact, if you have noticed, every time the Army Corps of Engineers tries to handle any river, it just makes things worse.  Rivers cannot be handled. They must be trusted. Raging floodwaters or meandering stream, the river simply flows.  It trusts its own flow.

I must trust the flow. I must let go of the rope, stand upright, and move forward through the swirling currents of air, one step at a time. I have no idea how I am going to stay upright.

It Means The Presence of God

It Means The Presence of God

In so many ways I have lived a charmed life. I was voted “Most Likely To Succeed” in my high school class, and although I have no idea how other classmates have done, I have mostly known success.

Planting churches in New York was not easy. It took over a decade to experience what others considered success.  Raising funds was rarely fun or easy, and there were lots of serious trials.  It wasn’t particularly fun having the buck stopped with me.  But still, I would not consider my years with the Orchard Group to have been years spent in the desert. Our four decades working in New York were rich and rewarding.

The front range of Colorado, the Denver area, is a high desert.  It rarely rains from October through March.  Summers can be brutal, with dry thunderstorms that bring lots of lightning but precious little rain.  Until you get into the mountains the predominant color is brown, not the green I love so well in the verdant east.  I suppose it is fitting then that as a resident of the high desert, I have had my first desert experience.

Desert experiences have been the stuff of spiritual writing for eons.  Most of the world’s abiding religions are desert religions, where scarcity, thirst, and hunger are common terms.

As I have written over the past several months, these times are a desert season for Cathy and me. We have had to remind ourselves of what Carlo Carretto writes in The Desert In The City: “And remember: the desert does not mean the absence of men, it means the presence of God.”

We lead busy lives. Work, school, children, grandchildren, counseling – all of these surround our desert experience. They are intertwined in it. We try to steal moments to go into a closet and pray.  We have only furtive opportunities to shed tears, or rail at God.  But we are discovering God is present even in the midst of our busy desert – a phone call here, a random visit there, a chance meeting with an old friend. God makes her presence known.

My spiritual director suggested I am in a period in which my ego is being defeated so my spirit might emerge. My sense of entitlement is being challenged so God might have access to the interior corners of my life, those hiding places previously known only by the carefully choreographed work of my ego.

In the midst of the craziness, God invites me to speak. “What do you ask of me?” I cry. And I listen for the still small whisper of the God who knows suffering, and who knows when it is time to speak.

Kindness and Holiness

Kindness and Holiness 

Over the past 30 years I have flown over two million miles with one airline.  As you might imagine, things have changed.  In my early days of flying it was not unusual for me to exchange addresses with a seatmate, or share a cab into town.  I regularly wrote letters to the airline extolling the exemplary service of this or that employee.  Back then people were, in a word, kind.

Frederick Buehner said kindness is not the same as holiness, but it is awfully close.  My father is an extraordinarily kind man.  Throughout my life I have heard others refer to him as a gentleman. Gentleness and kindness go hand in hand.

I was blessed to have two mentors, both of whom have moved on to the other side, where I imagine kindness is in abundance. I am confident they are at home there. Both were brilliant, both with doctorates in philosophy.  One was a Roman Catholic priest.  When a mutual friend, also a priest, told me my mentor had been considered for the role of bishop, but passed over, I asked why.  He said, “Because Jim isn’t mean enough.  He is far too kind.”

When I was younger I was a bit of an idealist.  Idealism can be dangerous. It can lead to a shortage of kindness. You become convinced that wrongs must be righted and justice must be done, no matter the cost. Eventually you learn that determining what is wrong and what is just are not nearly as easy to discern as you once imagined.

When I was in my late 30s I had to tell an older gentleman that his position no longer existed and we would have to let him go from the non-profit I directed.  As he walked out of the room he said, “Be nice Paul, be nice.” I had adopted a posture of clinical coolness as I informed him of his termination.  I did not want to “lose it.”  I wanted to “be a professional.”  Years later, when I had to let 21 people go in a single day, I cried with just about every one.  I did not care whether or not I was “professional.”

I do not have to tell you that the flying experience is no longer what it once was.  Civility is barely maintained.  A couple months ago I had to protect an airline employee from a verbal assault by a passenger.  I said, “Buddy, leave her alone.  A mechanical delay is hardly a gate agent’s fault.”  He started to push me and then thought better of it.  The gate agent was in tears.  When I returned to the airport the next week she said, “I am so glad you were there.  No one else would have protected me.”

Kindness is awfully close to holiness. I am grateful for my father’s example. I do not have much hope that the flying public will suddenly become kind, but I can still hope, right?

And so it goes.

The Value of Wise Mentors

The Value of Wise Mentors

I have found two groups enjoyable to be around until the subject turns to religion.  That is when both groups have a tendency to become overly confident, if not strident.  They are quite sure they are right and everyone else is wrong, especially me.  Ironically, these groups come from two different ends of the spectrum.

I once developed friendships with a two professors from a secular university.  One was a specialist in the history of 16th century India, while the other was an expert on the philosopher Richard Rorty.  Both were quick to tell me how utterly ridiculous it was that I should be a Christian.  Of course, it was New York, where Christians do not grow in abundance.  I took their criticisms in stride.

These friends were kind and generous and enjoyable to be around when the subject was not religion.  They were curious, open and thoughtful.  But when the subject turned to Christianity, they were intractable.  They were right.  I was wrong.

Because of my work with this magazine and Christian churches around the country, I also come in contact with church leaders who are equally convinced my religious beliefs are misguided.  If I encounter these folks in a restaurant or at a convention, our conversations are enjoyable, sometimes even delightful.  But when the subject is a matter of faith on which we hold different opinions, their rhetoric can condescending or patronizing.

Both groups make me think of Dr. Byron Lambert, my mentor in the faith.  Dr. Lambert was firing more neurons in his sleep than I do on my best days.  A student of philosophy, theology, ethics, and a plethora of other subjects, Byron was a walking encyclopedia.  He was also one of the most wise and humble men I have ever known.

When Byron disagreed with me, I never heard about it in public.  He waited until he had time to consider what I might have intended with my misguided thoughts.  Eventually he would kindly say, “I found your perspective interesting.”  Then Byron would gently and rightly direct me toward a new way of thinking.

Byron never questioned my intent.  He always treated my position with respect, even when he suspected I might have derived it from a bubble gum wrapper.  He taught me how to be gracious, as he graciously corrected me time and again.  In the process I became a better thinker.  I also learned to realize that an open mind is very close to a Godly mind.

I miss Byron a lot.  I wish more of my generation were like him.  I will never have his knowledge or wisdom, but I would love to have his spirit.