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.

Diversity and Belonging

If you ever see me walking through an airport during a layover, know this: I’m not exercising. I’m eavesdropping. Consider these snippets from a recent layover at DFW:

“Two supervisors! Why do they need two supervisors for that shift?”

“I told him, listen Dad, I just can’t keep doing this.”

“She said she’d meet us there, so I guess we’ll just ride with her.”

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Flying over the Midwest, vast but not empty. 

Almost all the conversations I could make out fell into similarly mundane categories–people conducting business or complaining about spouses or working the tiresome logistics of modern air travel. And those I couldn’t understand–those spoken in heavily accented English or in one of the seven other languages I counted–seemed to be no more exotic than the rest. Judging by body language, everyone seemed to be carrying similar burdens and fighting similar battles.

With this in mind, conclusions about how we are all different, but all really the same are easy enough to draw–until you look more closely at the interactions among the individuals in the crowd.

The airport had plenty of diversity, which made for an energizing atmosphere. But it did not guarantee personal connections, and in fact may have hindered them. Most of the people I encountered were either alone–reading or wrapped up in some electronic device–or with people in their traveling party. For however much people love diversity, they also tend to retreat toward the familiar, especially in stressful situations like travel.

The lone exception? The airport staff. Proportionally speaking, they appeared even more diverse than the traveling population. Yet they communicated constantly. Supervisors coached new employees, cart drivers shared information about passengers that needed a ride, cashiers wandered near enough to converse, breaking up the monotony of retail for a mostly disinterested clientele.

They were not a well-oiled customer service machine, nor were they a family with evident warm feelings for one another. Rather, they were a group of individuals working together on a common task, and so they were connected.

I found myself a bit jealous of the airport staff, if only briefly. They existed in the same swirl of interesting, eccentric, harried and haggard people that I did. But they had something I did not.

Belonging.

During one of my strolls down the back hallways between terminals, that changed for

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Empty hallways where the electric carts charge–and away from the cable news on every TV in the DFW airport.

me, if only briefly. Two men noticed my Dakota Wesleyan Tigers shirt and stopped me. They were investors who managed the assets to one of DWU’s employee benefits programs. We talked maybe two minutes, took a selfie for them to send to our university’s president–part personal connection, part PR opportunity–and were on our way. For those moments, however, my feelings about the airport crowd changed. I felt less alone, and more able to enjoy the swirl of people around me.

As I think back on that layover, I wonder if the goal of diversity pursued by so many businesses and institutions isn’t a bit misguided. Diversity may get people in the same room, but it doesn’t make them connect. There’s another step–belonging–that comes from working together on common tasks that benefit us all.

That, I think, is the point at which diversity becomes more important–when it opens the doors for different people to belong to the same larger endeavor. This is a necessary condition for a building a better world, because belonging increases security and reduces anxiety. It builds trust so that we are able to share appropriately, not just guard what is ours.

In this sense, the Christian gospel is a source of hope to me. The Pentecost story of Acts 2 is revolutionary not because of the number of converts (as American churches so often assume) but for the breadth of inclusion–everyone hearing the stories in their own languages. Paul, the much-maligned apostle, spent his entire career reaching out to people who did not belong in the ancient world–slaves, Gentiles, women, and so forth.

Buried in the bastardized nationalist “gospel” that defines a wide swath of American Christianity are the seeds of a better world–one in which an incredibly diverse cast of people are brought together in working toward the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. The message of the faith is that everyone can belong. Everyone has to make room, but no one gets left out.

That’s an aspect of faith I can get behind.

 

 

 

Micro Truths

“How’s your summer?”

The question came from a friend I ran into at my favorite coffee shop this morning, and it sounds innocent enough. It’s the kind of thing you ask someone just to be nice, knowing that you’re both in a hurry and don’t have time for sustained narrative. And The nice thing to do is to simply say, “Fine. Great! It’s flying by. How’s yours?”

Unfortunately, when it comes to small talk, I’m not well socialized. I have an alarm in my brain that goes off at the slightest hint of untruth or insincerity. It’s the reason I never watch to postgame interviews with athletes, question most sermons from most preachers, and almost break my fingers trying to turn off my car radio every time I hear a soundbite from the president.

It’s also, I suspect, why friends don’t always talk to me in public. I hate the falseness of scripted conversation. If we’re going to talk, I want to share things that are true, even if they are trivial. I’d rather listen to a rant about the local baseball association or an ode to the virtues of yoga than to get the standard, “Fine. Great! Everything’s fine.”

And so, when my friend asked how summer was, I replied with something I’ve come to think of as a “micro truth”–a statement that offers but does not require a response while still maintaining an acceptable degree of honesty.

fullsizeoutput_4b5“I hate summer. It’s hot, and I’m alone all the time, and I have no consistency to my life. I’m ready for fall.”

She looked at me for a long moment, as though trying to decide if I had been drinking, or maybe if I’d forgotten some medication necessary for my mental stability. But she recovered quickly, said she understood, and we went our separate ways.

I don’t always know what to make of interactions like this. Part of me feels bad for disrupting the rhythm of casual social exchange, for failing to meet basic expectations. I know I sometimes make things awkward.

At the same time, I wonder if our communities wouldn’t be in better shape if we responded with more micro truths. Acknowledging struggle invites support. Offering an honest opinion normalizes healthy disagreement. If our casual conversations reflected a greater commitment to honesty, perhaps we would have a stronger foundation for more important discussions as they arise.

All of this is mere speculation, of course–a hunch from a writer, not a scientific treatise. But regardless of the relative practicality of honesty in casual conversation, the fact is that the truth matters to me more than the awkwardness it might create–no matter how micro that truth may seem.

Alternate Realities

If ever we needed a good alternate reality, now is the time.

And if I need to tell you why, you’ve not been paying attention.

As the nation continues to sell its soul to unworthy men and the St. Louis Cardinals slide toward irrelevance, I’ve started spending more and more time immersing myself in worlds that don’t exist. Ironically, that pursuit has led me to Philip K. Dick.

Even those who haven’t heard of Dick as an author know the work he produced. His stories were adapted for the films Total Recall and Minority Report. His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?–and how great is that title!–was the basis for the Blade Runner movies.

And, of course, there is The Man in the High Castle. The novel (and the Amazon television series on which it is based) imagines an alternate reality in which the Allies have been too slow to develop the atomic bomb and thus lost World War II. The American characters struggle to maintain a sense of identity and hope under the totalitarian rule of the Nazis along the east coast and the Japanese along the west.

I’m struck by the point in time that Dick wrote his story. The Man in the High Castle was released in 1962–before MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, before the Birmingham riots, before MLK and the Kennedys were assassinated. Before the escalation of the Vietnam War or Watergate, and certainly before 9/11 or smartphones or the Clintons or Trump.

Way back in 1962, Philip K. Dick was telling us it could always be worse–that things might actually get worse, if we let them.

If you told me that dystopian fantasies are perhaps not the best thing for our collective mental health right now, I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. But I would say that the quality that makes The Man in the High Castle so convincing in its bleakness is the same one that we need for a happier world.

Namely, imagination.

Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time reacting to fear. We imagine terrible things that could happen to the people or things we love, and we try to head off those potential losses by the way we spend our money or cast our votes or treat other humans as potential threats.

20131209-132648.jpgBut if we have the power to imagine a world that is worse than the one we struggle through now, don’t we also have the power to imagine a world that is better than what we inhabit? Don’t we also have the ability to work toward that vision?

We do, of course. But positive imagination is more costly than fearful imagination. It’s harder to do, and often lonelier. Plus, working toward a positive but not yet realized future comes with its own risk of loss. The failure of a dream always hurts more than other failures.

There’s an alternate reality out there–one better than what we’ve fallen into. If we have the courage to imagine it, maybe we could also find the courage to build it.

Full of Empty

“Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” 
                                                  –St. Hilary of Portiers, quoted by Kathleen Norris

Here in the the Dakotas, we have nothing if not emptiness.

I didn’t appreciate the abundance of that resource until my family and I moved to Mitchell, SD, four years ago. The few times I’d been through eastern and central South Dakota, I saw it as pass-through country, nothing more than necessary terrain on the road to somewhere else. But when I took a job at Dakota Wesleyan University, the prairie became not just a scenic backdrop, but a destination.

My new hometown is not exactly an outpost. Mitchell is home to two schools of higher education, a world-renown tourist attraction, a Walmart, and a Cabelas. At about 16,000 residents, we are the sixth-largest town in the state. Compared to much of South Dakota, Mitchell is downright urban.

These are all relative, boasts, however. We’re still a small fish in a vast, sparsely populated pond. if I bike three miles in any direction from my house, I can be on backroads that carry only a handful of cars each hour. If I drive west past Chamberlain, across the Missouri River, I can find even greater solitude, miles and miles with nothing but wind and wildlife.

That may sound romantic, and it is–for about fifteen minutes. It’s easy to crave space and silence when you’re living at the break-neck pace of modern American life. It’s natural to think that getting away from everything might be the cure for what ails you.

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Sunset over the chapel at DWU. If we had more on the horizon, we’d miss the glory of the skies.

The reality, however, is that entering into emptiness requires a certain amount of detox. We are all wired to need people, albeit to varying degrees. And with so much connectivity available to us via digital technology, most of us don’t know how to be alone without also being lonely–much less how to be lonely in a spiritually beneficial way.

Surprisingly, even in a land with such abundant emptiness as the Dakotas, I don’t find many people who readily defend its merits. Like just about every other place in America, we tend to fill up our time with one thing or another until we’re frantic with activity. Rather than see the emptiness around us as fertile ground for spiritual renewal–the silence as clear air through which to hear the voice of God–we ignore it, except for agriculture. Emptiness is a condition in which we work, not a vehicle for our salvation.

Kathleen Norris is among those who remind us to see the emptiness of the Dakotas differently. Norris, who left New York City to spend decades at a family ranch in Lemmon, SD, writes of the richness of empty space in her classic Dakota: A Spiritual Geography:

“Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are. The irony and wonder of all of this is that it is the desert’s grimness, its stillness and isolation, that brings us back to love.” (p. 121)

Emptiness invites us to open our eyes. To let go of the illusion that our activity makes the world go round. To embrace our smallness and transience, and to find freedom in those things. To embrace a paradox, that a land that seems empty can fill us with a wonder we didn’t know we needed.

Resurrection

Here we go again.

When I gave up on Monday’s Penny nearly four years ago, I thought I was done with blogging–maybe even with writing. I was coming off several stunning failures–the death of a friend, the unraveling of a career, the dissolution of what I thought were solid relationships. The entire world seemed angry and noisy and pointless, and I had no idea how to address it. So I just stopped trying.

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I always try to see the pennies, because they are the easiest to ignore.

And then, as she has done a thousand times before, Anne Lamott smacked me in the head. I listened to her TED talk, “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.” While she is certainly wrong about some of what she says–chocolate with 70% cacao is not, as she would have it, less than real food–she is on point with most of what she says, including this:

“Publication can’t save your life. But writing can.”

She has more to say on the subject, all of it good. But that phrase was enough for me to realize how depressive and defeatist it was to kill Monday’s Penny. The blog had not been “successful,” at least not in terms of building a large following or develop a brand. But it had helped me sift through a lot of big questions and–even more importantly–had kept my eyes open to good things in my world I might have otherwise overlooked.

When I stop to think about it, what publication success I’ve had in recent years has taught me more about the publishing industry, which is of course helpful. But it’s the writing process that has taught me about life and love and what it means to be human, what it means to be a child of God.

Giving up on Monday’s Penny didn’t cheat anyone out of my opinion. In fact, the world has functioned much the same without my insights as it did with them. But my hiatus made me a little less hopeful, a little more blind to the wonder that can come just from noticing a penny on the sidewalk.

I’m a better person when I am hopeful in a disciplined way. And I’m more disciplined and more hopeful when I write, regardless of how many or how few read my words.

And so I’m resurrecting Monday’s Penny, even as I myself am continually being brought back from the deadness that modern life can inflict on us all. My prayer is that you will find some life here too, that you’ll open your eyes to the insistent goodness that’s waiting to be found right under our feet.