Monday, August 28, 2006

Weather or Not

Lately, I’ve been composing primarily personal blogs, the sort which I rarely indulge in. Oddly enough, I get more comments and e-mails for these hastily written, sentimental posts than I do for the ones over which I labor and toil and craft for days. Hmmmm. lf you would indulge me one more time...

It’s as if nature itself is conspiring to keep me in Colorado.

At the Colorado Springs airport, a violent thunderstorm rolls in just as our plane is preparing to get underway. We sit, grounded, waiting for the storm to pass. Outside, water falls in great, gushing torrents. Inside, it falls from my eyes as well.

I am confronted with the realization that, though I saw the end coming for months, I packed those months so full of friends and fellowship that I never made time for myself; never gave myself time to rest, to reflect, to be alone with the quiet and contemplation; never gave myself time to grieve. Why is it that I finally make this realization when it is too late to do anything about it?

What an odd quirk of human nature that, even in the midst of watching the dreams of our future fall into place, we regret abandoning a past that was not capable of containing or encompassing them.

Odder still that the things that elicit those emotions are very often not flesh and blood, but the composites of far baser materials--wood, glass and steel.

Why is it that tears so quickly sprung to my eyes as I closed and locked the door to my apartment for the last time? Why is that I paused in each room of the place that has sheltered me for the last two years, recalling fondly the events to which those walls have borne witness? Why it it that I cursed my rushed state, always mindful of the ravenous clock, when more time to pause and reflect would have probably made an already melancholy situation that much more difficult?

It’s not the structure that dredges up these feelings, I know, but the memories contained within it. It’s the cumulative recall of a life, or at least a minute sliver cut out of a larger whole and looked at individually. Our first apartment as a married couple. Now lost to me.

When we are finally aloft, I find my eyes glued to the window. The rain has stopped, the sun has punctured the clouds and brilliant shafts of light play softly across the sodden landscape. I am transfixed to the geography of my old life--the urban sprawl abutting wide plains, the play of the rolling hills, the swathes of green, the rise of buildings declaring the proud presence of downtown, the monolithic sentinel that is Pikes Peak watching protectively from more then 14,000 feet above. I take it all in like a famished man who has one last chance at a meal before facing absolute starvation. All too quickly the great plane speeds past and the view is taken from me.

I land in Denver for my connecting flight only to find it delayed for several hours. Waiting for the belated aircraft, I watch the fiery disk of the sun slip beneath the hungry horizon, become swallowed by the mountains and all turn to black.

I am alone. With my thoughts. And more time than I had hoped to find myself with.

I don’t leave Colorado for New York directly. I have a stop to make first. In Cape Canaveral, Florida.

My wife, who has been at Kennedy Space Center assisting with media for several days already, has conjured a VIP ticket for me to attend the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis. This, however, is not to happen.

It’s as if nature itself is conspiring to thwart my plans.

While the weather in Colorado was making for a soggy takeoff, similar weather was pelting the Florida coast. About the same time I was getting airborne, a massive lightening bolt collided with the orbiter’s gantry superstructure. The lightening rod absorbed the impact as designed, but monitoring equipment recorded the amplitude of the strike at 100,000 amperes, over four times the normal and expected charge. NASA had never had a strike of such magnitude get anywhere near that close to the shuttle and wanted to ensure that no systems had been affected. It was decided to postpone the launch for several days.

This, unfortunately, put the launch window square in the middle of tropical storm Ernesto’s rampage. Officials and engineers I had the pleasure of meeting at various launch functions debated safety procedures back and forth for days, finally deciding to roll the shuttle back into the VAB and try again later in September. Even if I had the time to stay several extra days, it would do no good. New York called. I would have to content myself with a relaxing Florida vacation, swimming off Cocoa Beach and gorging myself on more crab, shrimp, mussels and scallops than a land-lubber like myself should be allowed to consume.

I’ve been so obsessed with all that moving to New York entails that the prospect of actually doing so isn’t even on my radar screen. And perhaps that is OK. It will be real enough, soon enough. Perhaps, right now, I simply need to enjoy this watered down Mojito, the sun on my back and the beautiful wife I won’t see for the next month and rejoice in the fact that, for this weekend at least, I have nothing whatsoever to do but rest, reflect, be alone with the quiet and contemplation; and even grieve.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Chapter Stop

It's not often in life that you are aware of one chapter ending and another one beginning.

While most chapter stops are discernible only in retrospect, there are those times when the change is so momentous that it is impossible to miss the gravity of the transition.

This past weekend, my wife and I stayed in a small cabin outside of Crested Butte, Colorado. I wanted one last time to glory in the beauty of my home state before trading forested mountains for the urban jungle.

Hermiting ourselves away, we spent several days reclining on the porch, reading, hiking, talking beside the river, playing games and any other activity that fostered an attitude of contemplative relaxation. (I also spent several hours reviewing the new Apocalypse Now DVD. How apropos, I thought, as the film opened to the strains of The Doors singing, “This is the End.”)

This Friday--in mere hours, really--it truly will be the end as I bid Colorado goodbye.

Lately I've recognized "the end" in everything. Each day this week I've woken up and turned to my wife saying, “This is my last Tuesday” and so forth. This is my last movie at Kimball's art-house theater. This is my last cone of Colorado Cookies and Cream at Josh and John's ice cream parlor. This is my last cup of Pikes Perk coffee. This is my last stroll downtown. This is my last Eucharist at Grace and St. Stephens.

Everywhere I go, I've been trying to make a conscious effort to really soak in my surroundings, to experience everything on a hyper-visceral level.

Aside from the years spent in the Navy and away at college, I've lived in Colorado Springs for nearly three decades. And now I am leaving once again. The differance is, this move has the bitter-sweet sense of permanence. My future career will not steer me back this direction and though family still lives here, guaranteeing frequent visits, I do not foresee ever calling Colorado Springs home again.

And, of course, I've been contemplating the end of larger things.

“Those friends you have,” Shakespeare said, “grapple them unto your heart with hoops of steel.”

Breakfast, lunch and dinners these past weeks have been filled with final goodbyes. More than at any time in my life, I am dreading leaving, not a place, but a people. I have such rich friendships, such extraordinary mentors, such wonderful kindred souls that I am loathe to leave them. I want to encircle them all in real hoops of steel (steal?) and cart them off with me to New York City.

I realize that moving does not mean that those friendships will end. But they will, by necessity, alter in ways I do not wish to contemplate. And I also know that I will find people in New York who will fill that void and become as indispensable to me as my current friends. When I leave New York, this is a process I will have to go through all over again. It is the nature of things. But it doesn't make it any easier.

My dearest Colorado friends—and you know who you are—I will miss your fellowship, encouragement, admonition and wisdom more than I can possibly convey. You have spoken into my life, shaped me, and built me up in ways you cannot even realize. I am blessed and honored to have been encircled by your love and affections these past years and I will take the memories of those times with me wherever and however far I go.

Thank you...

...and goodbye.

Monday, August 14, 2006

What? Me? Worry?

This weekend my wife and I visited the tiny St. Phillips in the Fields Episcopal Church in Sedalia, Colorado. Our reason for for making the drive was to visit our friend and mentor, Father Theron Walker who was previously the Vicar at Grace and St. Stephens where we attend but had recently taken on the position of Rector with St. Phillips.

There is no way to describe this church other than to use the word quaint. Built over 130 years ago, it is lucky to sit a hundred parishioners. The widows on each side overlook wooded hillsides dotted with the gravestones of families that go back more than five generations.

It was wonderful sitting under Theron's teaching once again. He was so clearly at home. Though a radically smaller church, the community had obviously embraced him as their own and his very demeanor spoke of a man at peace and even delighted with where God had placed him.

And yet God, as he so often does, had more in mind for us than simply seeing an old friend. Theron's homily seemed directed right at two people in the middle of the inevitable stress of making a massive life change.

He spoke of Maslow and his well-known Hierarchy of Needs. The need for comforting our physical bodies—shelter, food, water, air, health, etc. The need for love, acceptance, belonging, safety, security, etc. We would all be hard-pressed not to agree that Maslow was on to something when he listed the things that drive human beings.

And yet, from St. Luke 12: 22-34 Theron invoked the familiar words of Christ to his disciples:

“Do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? Notice how the flowers grow. They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass in the field that grows today...will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? As for you, do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not worry anymore. All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides.”

I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't anxious...worried, if you will...about the impending move to New York. While it is something I cannot wait to undertake and look forward to with a sort of electrically-charged excitement, it is, nonetheless, a large and treacherous leap, full of unanswered questions, unseen steps and unresolved issues.

Christ's words, through Theron, were exactly what I needed to hear. If God is concerned about the well-being of plants and birds—obnoxious birds at that—how much more so is He interested in my well-being with its tedious journey, its lack of housing and employment and the opportunity/specter of graduate school.

Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God," Theron said, quoting a famished Christ when he was tempted with food in the desert.

Truth is, I haven't been dining on the words that proceed out of the mouth of God in some time now, nor have I been seeking His kingdom. The last few months have been fraught with activities, towering to-do lists, and last minute details. It's easy for me to let the most important things fall by the wayside. It's easy to tell myself I'm too busy. It's easy to make excuses.

Anyone can see the result of my neglect. I get angrier faster, am more irritable, less patient, more stressed. I have less grace and compassion for those around me. Worst of all, I behave like a jackass to my wife, at the very time when we need solidarity the most. I'm not saying that contemplative meditation is the cure all for my every dark side. But it does help keep the me I abhor at bay. And it does whittle away at it a bit more each year. Hopefully, at some point, probably far later in life, I'll look more like Christ than myself.

“Just what are those words that proceed out of the mouth of God?” Theron asked rhetorically. “St. John 1: 1-2 says, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race...' The words of power. The words that spoke this world into being. The words of creation breathed from God while His spirit hovered over a naked universe. The words of creation breathed from God while His spirit hovered over a virgin girl named Mary. His spirit hovers still, His words sustaining you, me, everything you see and don't see. ”

And even me. Just a guy. And a girl. Moving to the big bad city. Excited and a bit scared. Simultaneously off on a grand adventure and an exercise in faith. That's probably just the way God wants it.

Doubtless Theron had some reservations those months ago when he left the stability, comfort and security of Grace and St. Stephens to helm a tiny church in a town no one had ever heard of. And yet it was clear to anyone looking at him that morning that he was right where he was supposed to be. Right where God wanted him.

I'm sure the transition was frightening. But then, most of the things in life worth doing usually are.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Jigsaw Musings

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I am my mother's son and she is her father's daughter.

My grandparents' attic is packed with boxes and boxes of sentimental items--letters, books, trinkets--that my grandfather has kept over the years. A vast closet holds, it seems, half of everything with which they returned from the mission field in Africa. His garage and work shed is a storehouse of metal scraps, rolls of twine, drawers of rubber-bands and a dozen other things that "I might need someday."

Several years ago, when helping my mother pack up my childhood house in preparation of her move to Oregon, I came across box after box after box in the cramped crawlspace. Magazine subscriptions dating back several decades, linens from college, pots and pans which haven't seen a scrap of food in eons, non-perishable food stuffs from when I was in school, an old water bed, a dead lawn mower and worn tires. And this does not even touch the multiple, 4-drawer, upright, metal filing cabinets in which she maintains everything from insurance and other necessary documents to "Kids' School Papers, " "Inspirational Articles," and "Favorite Quotations."

So, I suppose it should not have surprised me this weekend, as I transferred the contents of my life into boxes for shipment to New York, that whatever pack-rat gene dominates their DNA obviously courses through my body as well.

Our Colorado apartment is not large enough to hold all our stuff. For the last several years, some friends have been gracious enough to allow my wife and and I to store our extra things in their basement. But with our impending move to Manhattan, we are compelled to gather everything together and decide what we really and truly want to keep. We are being forced to live simply. A New York lifestyle--at least one in our price range--simply does not allow the accumulation of "stuff."

This purging is hardest on me.

Over the weekend, I took a huge and painful step. I threw out a gigantic box worth of VHS tapes. On these tapes was every episode of Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise and even a season or two of The Next Generation that I'd compiled from TV for almost two decades. Part of me felt liberated. But mostly I just felt very sad. (Later, when my wife got home from a weekend wedding in Kansas City, I would tell her what I'd done. There was no, "I'm sorry honey, that must have been difficult." No, this heartless, Star Trek-hating woman of mine's face lit up and she immediately asked, "Did you also get rid of the hundreds of Star Trek novels!?" No, my beautiful bride, I did not. A line must be drawn somewhere, after all. I'll remind her of this sacrifice someday when I am ready to purchase the DVDs.).

Later came the boxes of books. I own hundreds and hundreds of books. Even after setting aside four huge plastic bins of books to take to the used book store, we're still coming away with nearly 30 boxes of books to take with us. I had to decide which books I truly wanted to keep and which ones were simply the sort which are read once and discarded.

Next came the boxes of beautiful National Geographics dating back to the mid-90s. Ouch.

Most difficult of all, however, were the three or four massive and extraordinarily heavy "Save Boxes."

Their contents were an eclectic hodgepodge, a cornucopia of my life inscrutable to any outside viewer, but pieces indelibly connected and related to my eyes. Childhood toys and stuffed animals, an elementary school "Best Improved Speller" award, a Royal Ranger Straight-Arrow of the Year certificate, old posters, drawings by my sister, High School year books, pictures, Bible school items, college papers, random notes, printed e-mail exchanges, old girlfriends' love letters, gifts, short stories I'd written, Navy memorabilia, and reams and reams of favorite quotes collected on scraps of every kind and size of paper imaginable.

I had to be ruthless. I couldn't keep all of this stuff. I had go through it and separate what was truly worth keeping and what was merely sentimental clap-trap. I began making piles, quickly going through everything. Why had I kept every card my grandparents and mother had given me for Christmas or my birthday? They all said roughly the same thing. Keep the significant ones and trash the rest. Who cared about all those college papers? Keep the ones that I was especially proud of and trash the rest. Quotes? Do I think they are doing me any good in a basement box? Trash. Trash. Trash.

A few hours later, sitting back and looking over what I'd done and the huge pile of rubbish collected on the floor, I suddenly felt nauseous. It happened so quickly that it completely caught me unaware. I was physically ill, teetering on both tears and dry-heaves.

And that's when I realized the extraordinary power of words. You'd think that someone who has a degree in literature would already well understand the magnificent and transcendent majesty of words. Yet this realization cut through the academic arguments and hit home at a place far more personal. As mundane or insignificant as some of these cards and letters were, they represented history. That ink was the embodiment of someone's thoughts, splashed on a page for me to see. These symbols proved they existed. They validated their feelings and intentions. Other than my memories, these things were all that they would leave behind, at least in a physical sense.

Moving like a man who has only seconds to accomplish a task, I dove back into the piles, scattering papers across the living room floor, digging through the mounds to retrieve letters and cards and the like. Happily I began transferring them back into the now near-empty boxes. So what if I had several huge, heavy boxes. I'd simply have to find a place to put them. I simply couldn't part with some of this stuff.

When I was finished, so was the nausea.

These items embodied things I'd done well and was proud of, while others actually reminded me of things I'd screwed up, people I'd hurt and times I wish I could go back and change. They represented history--my history and the history of those closest to me. Was I such a product of my throw-away society that I was willing to toss out the very things that, if not made me who I am, at least were the touchstones for those experiences that formed me? These boxes held the random and seemingly unrelated shapes of the jigsaw puzzle of my life--and there is nothing worse than sitting down to put together a puzzle and realizing that you don't have all the pieces.

I am my mother's son and she is her father's daughter.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pilgrim's Progress

Newsweek magazine has just written a beautiful and sublime article on the Rev. Billy Graham.

As America's evangelist looks towards the final moments of his life, he reflects on what is truly important. What is perhaps most surprising (and may be upsetting to some) is his moderation on so many things—from politics to inter-faith discord to the unplumbable mysteries of Scripture. This is an article about growing old, and about the reflective and softening nature of time's passage. But more than anything, it is a story about an extraordinary life and legacy.

"Others relish the battlefield; Graham now prizes peace. He is a man of unwavering faith who refuses to be judgmental; a steady social conservative in private who actually does hate the sin but loves the sinner; a resolute Christian who declines to render absolute verdicts about who will get into heaven and who will not; a man concerned about traditional morality—he is still slightly embarrassed that he kissed "two or three girls" before he kissed his wife—who will not be dragged into what he calls the "hot-button issues" of the hour. Graham's tranquil voice, though growing fainter, has rarely been more relevant."

To read more of this article, click here.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Top Ten Signs You're a Fundamentalist Christian

It's good to have others challenge our beliefs. Without those challenges, those questions, those demands--aggressive or hostile as they may be--we cannot strengthen our posture or even reply to the questions when we ourselves demand the answers.

The person who sent the following list to me admits that it is "pretty mean, but pretty good." Yes. Also, at times, very true. And very funny. Ridiculing God is one thing. Ridiculing ourselves is something else entirely.

10 - You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.

9 - You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.

8 - You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.

7 - Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!

6 - You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.

5 - You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.

4 - You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs -- though excluding those in all rival sects -- will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."

3 - While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.

2 - You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.

1 - You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history - but still call yourself a Christian.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

So Much for a Wing and a Prayer!

"New York City or Bust!" should more accurately be titled, "Just Plain Bust!"

Read all about it here.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus