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.

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.

Paws without Claws

Sweet enough when she's sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

Sweet enough when she’s sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

In our household, we expect guests to live by three general rules:

1)      Make yourself at home.

2)      Be careful backing out of the driveway (it curves deceptively at the end).

3)      Don’t pet the cat.

The third rule usually gets the most double-takes, especially from animal lovers. What kind of cruel pet owners would deny affection to such a lovely creature as our Sammi? And why deny our guests the chance to stroke her sleek fur and hear her purr gratefully?

Because, in the words of my eldest son, “She’ll try to gnaw your hand off.”

While Z’s statement is certainly on the dramatic side, it is in keeping with both the cat’s character and my son’s experience.

Sammi comes by her malice honestly. When she was a kitten, some of the youth from our church would sneak over to the parsonage during worship and tag her with water guns—a “game” my wife and I did not find about until years later, or else we would have put a stop to it. The poor cat was so traumatized that she licked herself bald. Her hair grew back once we left that appointment. Understandably, her trust in children did not.

By the time our boys were born, Sammi was set in her ways. Even a decade later, she will allow my wife and I to pet her most of the time, but not Z or J. If the kids come near, she will swat and snap and occasionally hiss before she runs under the bed. She has no front claws, so there’s no real danger to them. But it scares them when she swats, and it hurts their feelings to have Sammi respond to gentleness with fury. Most of the time, they avoid her.

On occasion, however, Sammi decides that the time has come for a battle of wills. She sits in the hallway and will not budge as Z or J approaches. About once every week, I turn the corner to see one of them locked in a staring contest with Sammi, afraid to move past her.

“Go on,“ I tell them. “She won’t hurt you.”

“She’ll swat at me.”

“Maybe. But she doesn’t have front claws. All she can do is pat you.”

“But she looks mad.”

“It doesn’t matter. She can’t hurt you.”

“But…”

And so the argument goes, until the cat gets bored with it and slinks away to terrorize dust bunnies.

I’ve been realizing lately how much of my life is spent in similar fear. I run into an obstacle whose only weapons are surprise and intimidation. It may not have power to hurt me, but it scares me into inaction with threats about what it might do and what I might lose.

Sadly, I often run across this in my job as a pastor. Sometimes it’s from colleagues whose insecurity turns them into bullies. Often, it’s from lay people whose unresolved fears lead to issues with control. Most frustrating of all, I sometimes see our denominational leadership resort to intimidation tactics for no better reason than to get people to do what they want.

When mature Christians give in to such tactics, we do no service to anyone, much less to God. What we need then is a little perspective, and perhaps a little courage to go along with it.

We mature Christians need to remember that we have all we need in Christ. We may lose an argument, and we may even suffer at the hands of those who abuse their power over us. Jesus certainly did. But nothing can ever be taken from us that would diminish the love of Jesus within us—not our pride nor our appointments nor even our lives.

When we learn not to be afraid of those who wish to control us, we are free from more than just the discomfort of fear. We are free to see behind the bluster of our adversaries. We can seek to understand the way they are, and by understanding to treat them with a bit more kindness, even as we resist their efforts to frighten others. We are free to move, and free to love our enemies, and free to live happy lives.

When seen through the lens of Jesus, those who would intimidate us are all paws and no claws. We can walk past them without fear.