An Elegy for a Dog

I’ve never been much of a dog person, but I’d thought maybe that Sport, the yellow lab we brought home from the rescue shelter three years ago, might be the one to change that. After all, most of my friends are dog people, and I’m supportive of dog ownership in theory. Maybe Sport could take what I suspected was true and make me a believer.

fullsizeoutput_48He didn’t, not entirely. The dog loved to run, to the point that most of our neighbors knew where he belonged and would quietly sneak him back into the yard when he managed to escape. He dug holes, wrecked the garden, chewed up hoses. He wouldn’t even stop to be petted, getting so excited when a human came close that he bounced up and down as though his front legs had hydraulics.

All of which makes my response to his death all the more perplexing.

Sport was older than we realized when we adopted him–probably closer to 8 years than the 4 the shelter had estimated. This past year, he’d developed a kind of doggie epilepsy that kept him from going on long walks or playing fetch for more than a throw or two. We knew he would not live much longer, so it wasn’t a surprise when I found him struggling for breath in the back yard. I sat beside him for awhile and then went back in the house for something to eat, thinking I was settling in for a long and painful wait. When I came back out, he was dead.

So what did I do? I sat there and cried, and then cried some more. Part of my sorrow was no doubt dread. My family was away for the weekend, and I would have to bury their dog and then find a way to tell them about it. And part of it is more existential in nature–recognizing just how powerless we are over death, especially for a creature we have promised to protect. It makes the whole Christian resurrection thing seem like a bit of a lottery ticket–far away from our daily experience, yet the only real hope we have.

But as I was wrapping Sport in his doggie blanket and carrying him to the grave I’d dug, I realized that most of what I was feeling was actual loss. He made my kids happy. I was going to miss him.

Much of the reason I’m not really a dog person boils down to simple selfishness. Dogs take a lot of work. They need a lot of attention and time, neither of which I have in abundance. Sport caused me to rearrange my life in ways I didn’t want to for the sake of another creature. In that way, he was a partner in my spiritual formation.

I won’t be in a rush to get another dog, knowing as I do now the struggle of caring for such an animal through the Dakota winters. But I also know I’m going to miss Sport. Maybe I’m not so hard-hearted as I thought.

Praying Twice (for real this time)

Last week, I created an unnecessary problem for myself. I dove down a rabbit hole with rockets strapped to my feet, wondering for more than 600 words if something I knew to be true was really true, creating unnecessary insecurity that required a fair amount of intellectual meandering before I could resurface.

My wife tells me I overthink things.

She’s right, of course. But it’s not always a bad thing. I’m committed to intellectual and spiritual coherence. In other words, I want things to make sense. I don’t want to be duped by religious fairy tales, and I don’t want to ignore facts right in front of my face. Doing so is the path to all kinds of idiotic behavior, from denying climate science to thinking the president is somehow on God’s side. The last thing I want–and I mean literally the last thing–is to fall into that abyss of mass stupid.

But my tendency to overthink can be paralyzing at times. When you try to see the world from every perspective, you end up with a fly’s vision. You get lots of angles, and all of them fuzzy.

Every summer I end up trapped in overthinking hell. My job as campus pastor slows way down, which is a welcome relief at first. As the weeks drag on, however, I find that I have too much time in my own head. I think-think-think, and as I do I question everything from the meaning of the universe to my own mortality to the inevitability of the designated hitter coming to National League baseball (all of which are equally disturbing propositions to me).

In this state of mind, religious observance gets more and more difficult. Prayers become obligations at best and embarrassments at worse, litanies of worries recited to a God who may or may not be listening, if God is even real. There’s too much noise in my head to sort it all out, and I wonder if my being a pastor means I’m a fake. By the beginning of August, I’m usually pretty depressed.

What lifts me out of it is music.

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Students gathered in my back yard for WUTS–Worship Under the Stars. When we sing, we pray twice.

Each year when school starts, part of my task is to gather musicians to be part of a worship band. If I’m honest, however, that’s not really how it works. My students form the band. They invite their friends, arrange many of the songs, handle most of the logistics. I’m theoretically in charge, but that doesn’t do much for my soul. What brings me back to life is being invited into the music, included in the circle of musicians.

This year more than any other, I’ve been struck by how song and prayer are one and the same to me. So much of my life revolves around words, words, words–rooms of words piled upon words. A good song sweeps away words that are lazy or inconsequential. It gets at the essence of prayer–people and God, working in time, trusting the worth of the moment itself.

Playing and singing with these young adults gets me out of my own head. It forces me to listen to what’s around me–to tuning and voices and instrumentation. It calls me to stop worrying so much about the physics of harmony or the transient nature of sound in our temporary universe. It reminds me that my faith is intellectually plausible, but not dissectible. I can’t know everything. I don’t need to know everything.

Except that we love and are loved, which is reason enough to pray and to sing.

 

 

Praying Twice (Take 1)

“The one who sings prays twice.” 
                                                           –???

It’s the question marks beneath that quote that bother me. I don’t like loose ends.

IMG_2926Despite my wishing, however, no one seems to quite be able to pinpoint the source of this bit of spiritual wisdom. The signs I’ve seen in choir directors’ offices usually attribute it to St. Augustine, if it’s attributed at all. Others credit Martin Luther, although I’ve heard some Methodists suggest Charles Wesley best embodied the saying. In the end, however, no one can definitively say which of our spiritual forebears coined the maxim about praying twice when we sing.

I suspect that the general population doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the origins of such meme-able quotes. Unfortunately, I am a member of not one but two nerd tribes–academia and clergy–for whom sources matter a great deal. The question of originality thus drives me bonkers.

On the bright side, one of these two tribes offers me a way to quiet my unease at the sing-pray ambiguity. And it’s not the one you might expect.

There is an aspect of the Christian faith that involves giving yourself over to a set of standards that are outside your wishes or expectations. Loving your enemies or giving away your money isn’t the most natural thing in the world, and yet those are clear expectations set forth by Jesus. When you sign up for the Jesus life, you agree to be shaped by the Bible, among other things.

But when you rely on a standard outside yourself in a search for truth, sources become critically important. If you follow an untrustworthy source, you’ll end up in some sketchy neighborhoods.

Church scholarship doesn’t offer any definitive answer as to who first suggested the link between prayer and song, and that’s a problem. There is no shortage of voices who say the exact opposite–that music gets in the way of a faithful life, that it causes us to turn our eyes and ears away from God and onto ourselves. Whom to believe?

Thankfully, my second tribe–academia–comes to the rescue, and in a surprising way.

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Jonathan, my bassoon-playing 12-year-old who knows my love for music, carved a lego-sized guitar for display in our office.

For all of its neuroticism and occasional arrogance, the academic world strives to be honest. What drives most of the researchers and professors I know is a search for truth in a methodical way. Those who fail to abide by basic intellectual and experimental standards usually get weeded out over time, brought into line by peers who challenge dubious practices or results.

Ironically, those who try to downplay science on religious grounds fail to realize that a similar thing has happened in the development of Christian faith. Much of what we hold to is the result of long-term experiment, the testing of what was passed down to us from Jesus and his followers. What we believe is tried by practice and then kept or discarded, not based on individual tastes but on long-range evaluation.

Kathleen Norris tells us in her brilliant book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography that we go to church to sing, and theology is secondary. This is wisdom borne out by centuries of experiment, of which I am now a part. And the results from all these various laboratories give me confidence that when I sing, it’s more than just belting out a tune. It’s an act of devotion that is both creative and formative.

More to come…

Attention Where It’s Due

When I talk to my student leaders in our campus ministry, I tell them they have two jobs: show up and pay attention. It turns out I needed a little help with the latter.

Not that I’m unaware of my surroundings. If anything, I’m hypersensitive to the conditions of mood and weather and comfort. It’s important for me to know the various aspects of the climate in which I live.

Unfortunately, that commitment to knowing has made me at times hyper-focused on the politics that define so much of American life right now. And while conflict and disagreement don’t bother me–how else are we supposed to come to agreements if we can’t be honest?–the sheer idiocy of our time has cost me more than one gray hair. Even as we mark the death of John McCain, the conversation inevitably seems to turn away from the late senator and toward the president’s childish response to his passing. I’m continually baffled by the intellectual dishonesty and spiritual cowardice that enable our commander in chief to make it all about himself.

I get pretty worked up.

Luckily, my friend Boyd knows this about me.

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Boyd was also my son Zachary’s confirmation mentor. They occasionally met in our treehouse.

Boyd is the kind of old man I’ll aspire to be, if I live long enough. Determined, curious, sometimes irreverent but always caring, Boyd has lived many lives in his nearly nine decades. He’s been a pastor, an author, a district superintendent–a job he still sees as inflated, if not ludicrous–a maintenance worker, a professor, and a self-appointed security officer.

When Boyd makes his security walks around campus, he stops in at various departments, doing covert pastoral checks on his often wayward flock. A couple of weeks ago, he came by the campus ministry office to talk about an idea he’d first mentioned to me in an e-mail.

“Why?” he asked, raising his hands in righteous bewilderment. “Why on earth do we pay so much attention to Donald Trump when the Apostle Paul paid so little to Emperor Nero?”

It’s a great question, and one Boyd has the pedigree to ask. Aside from his life experience, he is a careful observer of politics. He’s also a New Testament scholar, having taught Life and Letters of Paul at Dakota Wesleyan for several years. He knows of what he speaks.

And like many great teachers, he makes his point in the form of a question. When I go to answer it, I can’t help but feel a bit chastised.

History is filled with Neros and Trumps, men of great influence but weak character who loom over everyday life. They crave power, and they derive it from attention. The more we talk about them–even in opposition–the more we play into their hands.

For Paul, however, the emperor was barely worthy of mention. He could cause problems, of course. In fact, he could and did inflict real suffering. But in Paul’s perspective, he was nothing but an annoyance, a fly buzzing across the field of vision, a minor distraction from the real scene before us.

For Paul and for Boyd, that larger scene is Jesus–his life and death, his teaching and his disciples. The spectacle of resurrection and the God-infused life that followed are, in this view, the only things really worth talking about.

I’ve taken Boyd’s observation to heart lately. I spend less time reading the news–a healthy lifestyle change for any political junkie–and more time on the positives around me. And when I get caught off guard by the president’s latest atrocity, I remember Boyd’s question and shoo him away with the disinterest he deserves.

I’ve got bigger things to focus on, and I’m happier for it.

Friends

Slowly but surely, the campus outside my window is coming to life, although not everyone realizes it. The fall sport athletes–they won’t really be students until next week–move more like zombies, beaten down as they are by minor injuries and conditioning drills. Imagine watching Rudy, only with the cast of The Walking Dead.

Ice packs and ankle boots notwithstanding, the return of undergrads to campus brings a tide of good feelings, carried by the sounds of conversation and laughter that once again fill the student center. Almost none of them realize that I’m watching, much less how vital their relationships are to my own well being. But their friendships are more than just a way to enhance their own student experience. They’re a witness to the best things about my work in higher ed. Without friendship, college ministry would be impossible.

I would say a similar thing about Christian discipleship.

Last Sunday, I spoke to our church about one of my more odd possessions–a copy of an icon known as “Christ and Abbot Mena.” The original, on display now at the Louvre, dates back to a Coptic monastery in Egypt sometime in the 8th century. The older man, identified as “Apa Mena superior” by the inscription near his halo, holds the rule of the monastery in one hand and raises the other in blessing.

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“Christ and Abbot Mena,” also referred to as “Christ and His Friend.”

What’s most striking about the icon, however, is the figure of Jesus. He is not distant, not some theoretical savior or far-off ruler. Rather, Jesus stands next to Mena, his arm draped over the abbot’s shoulder. It is not a transactional gesture between lord and underling. It’s a sign of friendship, of intimacy. No surprisingly, the icon is often referred to as Christ and His Friend.

I received my copy of the icon at an academy for spiritual formation I was part of about ten years ago. Trevor Hudson, a United Methodist Pastor from South Africa, emphasized the importance of friendship as part of a cycle of grace: acceptance leads to sustenance, which leads to significance and ultimately to fruitfulness.

Unfortunately, the larger part of American culture gets the cycle backwards. We seek and reward fruitfulness–results!–and derive our significance from there. But the cycle doesn’t work in reverse. For grace to be grace, it has to come first–before we’ve done anything worth putting on our resume.

I’m not a particularly sentimental guy, but this icon is among the few possessions that I truly value. I don’t always know who God is, and it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around who Jesus is sometimes. But I know what it is to be and have a friend. I’ve been blessed with many of them over the years. They make me a healthier person and a better human.

The picture of Christ with his arm around his friend helps me think about Jesus not as an abstraction or concept or idea, but as a person–as a friend, someone who embodies love and acceptance and sustenance. Someone who helps me believe in my own significance, before I have anything to show for my work.

This, I think, is how the world gets transformed for the better–not by coalitions implementing ideas, but by people who put themselves on the line for one another as friends. Such friendships give us hope. They bring us back to life. And who can say how much good they do for the people we didn’t know were watching?

Faith Minus the Mountain

When I remember times in my life when faith was easy, I think of mountains.

My late teens and early twenties–the formational decade of my adult person–were littered with retreats atop Petit Jean and Hikes on Mt. Nebo. While in graduate school, I spent more than one weekend mountain-biking in the western Appalachians. On a ski trip with some friends, I saw the Rockies for the first time, and kept my face turned to the window so no one would see me crying.

When I think of these mountains of my young adulthood, they are intimately tied to my

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A view from Mt. Nebo, near Dardanelle, AR.

experience of God. More than once, I remember being so overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded me that I questioned how anyone could deny that it was formed by a good creator with good intent. I felt small on the mountains, but I also felt loved. The mountains helped me zoom away from the pettiness of everyday life. They restored my patience. They renewed my hope.

I haven’t lived in the mountains for a very long time.

In geological terms, the last time I lived among mountains was fifteen years ago, when Denise and I spent time in Rapid City, SD. Since then, we have progressively moved to terrain that is flatter, emptier, and less populated than each previous stop.

My spiritual life has followed suit. The easy relationships of my schooling gave way to the politics of professional ministry, and eventually my disillusionment with much of American religious life. I’m still a Christian and still a pastor, and still happy with that most days. But I’m more alone more often than I used to be, and acutely aware that some of my bigger life goals are not likely to materialize. I don’t sleep as well. My shoulders hurt a lot of the time.

I realize this is all just part of the emotional landscape of my age group, and as I’ve said before, it’s not all bad. But for me, the trek through the expansive flatlands of early middle-age is a tougher slog than the more vertical terrain of my youth. I’m never quite sure when I’ll reach the next mountain. And when I do, the view from the top doesn’t seem quite as clear as it once did.

All of this makes faith harder than it used to be, back when so much of my future had not yet been realized. Not impossible, but harder.

Faith has taken on a different character for me these last few years. It doesn’t grip me from mountaintops quite like it once did. It no longer seems like something outside of me, a destination I arrive at unexpectedly. Rather, faith is a crop I’m growing, even when the soil isn’t very good. It takes care and vigilance, and more trust than I’m comfortable with. It recognizes more than ever how much is beyond my control, how desperate I am for the Bible stories I preach to turn out to be true.

Is the faith I have now stronger or weaker than it was in my mountainous days, back when it seemed so much easier to believe? I ask myself this question sometimes, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair. Faith is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s a continuum. And if Jesus is to be believed, you don’t have to be far on that continuum–no further than a mustard seed, as a matter of fact–to be credited with faith.

While I miss the mountaintop faith I had years ago, I’m not trying to find it again. Each step is new territory for me, and it’s better to find a way to live with new conditions than to try to return to some gilded past. I still stop by the mountains on occasion, and I’m still moved by the view.

But I know better than to put all my trust in what I feel. Faith that lasts a lifetime requires so much more.

A Dry Spell

As a kid, I was mostly a failure at farm life. I lacked the attention span and patience, and I dreaded all the work that had to be finished, only to be restarted again as the seasons changed. And as I’ve mentioned before, I hated summer.

For farmers, summer is always a time of anxiety–even without a man-child president launching trade wars. In a normal year, farmers fret about too much water in the spring, which hinders planting and makes pastures impassable. In June, when Mother Nature turns off the sprinklers, they worry about too little water, about the hot sun and dry soil burning up their crop.

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The creek along the southern side of our farm, mostly dry but ready to be filled.

My family’s farm is in western Arkansas, where the soil is too rocky and devoid of nutrients for serious crop farming. But even in an operation focused mainly on raising cattle and baling hay, we were never secure. My parents told stories of watching summer rain showers fall along the fence line, soaking the soil of our neighbors’ land while ours continued to burn. The distribution of rain was never equitable. The things we most depended on were largely out of our control.

It’s not an ideal scenario, but that’s pretty much the human condition, both literally and metaphorically.

Summers have always been a dry time for me, spiritually speaking. Every congregation I have ever been a part of–from the country church that tended my roots in faith to the campus ministry I now serve as pastor–changes in the summer. People go on vacation or work seasonal jobs. Kids go to camp. College students leave for internships. Life gets much busier in some ways, but less involved with people. Who has time to linger over a cup of coffee when the lawn needs mowing and the kids have baseball tournaments?

Perhaps what I notice most is the lack of music. During the school year, I’m constantly engaged in rehearsals or performances (if church can be called a performance). We sing a lot, play a lot, try new songs and new instrumentations. In many ways, music is my prayer life. It’s my clearest path to believing.

During the summer, however, the songs dry up. I still play with my church’s worship band, but that’s only two hours per week. Strumming or drumming by myself doesn’t cut it either. I need the sound of other voices. I need to be a part of an ensemble more than just once a week on the weeks I’m in town.

What gets me through the summer dry spells is the same thing that gets farmers through stretches of unfavorable weather–the knowledge that it won’t last forever, that the rains will come, that feeling alone doesn’t mean being forgotten. That dry creek beds are not less creek beds, just because the water doesn’t run. They are still what they were–vessels waiting to be filled, conduits for sustaining life.

The last day of my summer visit to my mom’s farm, the thundershowers we’d been seeing all week to our north and east finally made their way to our land. In about an hour, we got about 3/16 of an inch–not enough to get the creek running, but enough to reassure us that it would run. Enough to get us through until the dry spell gives way and the rains fall again, the sound like the very music of heaven.