Thursday, August 11, 2011

Walking with a Stick…

As a young boy growing up in Guyana and Grenada, there was something I always had in hand when I left our yard:  a stick.  A stick was just a part of the everyday life there.  As many folks get up, dress—and without even thinking—put a wallet in the pocket or a cell phone in the purse,…well, a stick in the hand was like that for us kids in the Caribbean.

Why did we carry a stick?  As we walked the roads through neighborhoods or the paths through “the bush,” there was always the chance of being attacked by dogs.  A stick was good protection.  And, if we were passing a mango tree, the stick became a lance to knock mangoes out of the tree.  If we happened upon an old tire (car or bicycle), a stick turned that tire into a toy that we would run along beside for hours and hours.  And, of course, it was good for prodding, poking, moving around whatever unknown things we found lying around.  The stick was a security blanket, a tool and a companion.

boy stick tire  mango tree

This week, I remembered the stick as I came to the end of my morning walk on Wednesday.  There is a large, light-brown dog that is chained to a tree in the front of one of the houses I pass.  He usually startles me, lunging at me and growling as his chain—thankfully!—comes up short.  I try to pay him no mind as I walk on by.  However, this past Wednesday was different.  As I came around the corner onto our street, I happened to glance over and see the brown beast lying in the yard…of a neighbor.  Hmmm.  I decided that as I was walking quickly and quietly, and as he was playing with a friendly neighbor dog, he would probably pay me no mind.  I strolled rapidly past…made it about 20 yards, and then I heard that raspy, scratchy, clickity-clackity of dog toe-nails on asphalt…and the growing growl of an angry dog.  I turned to see the beast zeroing in on my calves and feet….

bad dog

He didn’t bite me, but he sure got me worried there.  Thankfully, I retained a presence of mind and didn’t run or act scared.  However, I will gladly admit that my exercise-elevated heart-rate just about doubled!  Still…I made it the last 50 yards to my house with all my flesh and blood intact.  And then I remembered the stick from childhood.  As I stretched after my walk, I realized that I needed my stick again….

I don’t think anyone would have said in my childhood—nor to me in my present situation—that carrying a stick is “sissy.”  In fact, only a fool would walk the streets and paths of my childhood without a stick…and I guess my fellow Texans of the present might—at worst—consider my stick a bit deficient when I see hand-gun warnings on the doors of restaurants.  So, if carrying a stick in the face of real challenge and danger is smart, why not carry a “spiritual stick” as we maneuver the challenges and dangers of daily life?  And what would that "spiritual stick” look like??

As I walked this morning, a verse that I learned long ago (also in my childhood!) came to me: “Thy Word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee.”  Okay, so I learned it in the KJV…but I still understand that we must somehow internalize the truths, the teachings, the promises of God we find in Scripture.  Some may insist on memorizing word for word…others will be content to have the core, the gist of it, firmly planted in their minds.  I would challenge the Psalmist who wrote those words to expand the purpose a bit more (and I think God will be okay with this)—not only that we might not “sin against” God, but that we might live with confidence, that we might have healthy relationships, that we might live joyfully in the faith we profess, that we might grow in our relationship with God.  Yes, I want that “stick” in my hand (heart!?) as I go out the door each day, as I wade through the streets and paths of life.

So, now I walk in greater confidence each day.  In the mornings before the sun comes over the horizon, I have my walking stick in hand…in case that dog gets off his chain again.  It’s made from a branch of the tree that stood in front of our house in Sta. Catarina in Mexico…3.5 feet long and a very hard wood.

Jon Stick1

In my heart, I carry my other stick, my “spirit stick,” that goes with me to protect and comfort me—God’s Word, truths and teachings remind me that I do not face anything alone, that I am a precious being with purpose and direction, that there is more to life than getting and taking. 

Spirit Stick

It’s won’t knock a mango out of a tree, but these words are “sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps.19:10b NRSV).  Yes, my “spirit stick” protects, comforts…even guides and ‘feeds’ me as I navigate the streets and paths of life.

JH

Friday, August 5, 2011

Saying “No” to Culture…and “Yes” to Faith

To be honest, I had forgotten what it was like. I had forgotten how difficult it is here in the US. I remember, oh, so clearly the mission teams, the work teams, coming to serve in Venezuela and Mexico remarking on how refreshing it was to worship there…on how deeply spiritual the people seemed…on how faith was somehow different there. I lived, moved and breathed the culture there…and saw nothing unusual…wasn’t really sure what they were talking about, but nodded, smiled and affirmed their assessment. After a month-and-a-half back in the US, I finally understand….

Living a life of vibrant faith here is so hard! The culture crushes in from all sides…and sucks the faith out of life. Technology is God. Money is salvation. Status is the goal. Possessions and shopping are the passions. And the Church here is not immune. Worship has become a technological production, practically impossible without multiple digital projectors, state-of-the-art sound systems. I even saw recently that one conference of churches is even offering workshops on “worship design.” What? Giving is the great push in many congregations still. Status within the community—if not the wistful desire of the church, is the desire of the pastor. Bigger, more, better…the accumulation of things is even part of the church-culture. And, by participating—whether ignorantly or purposefully—the Church is teaching her people that this is right and good. As the people fill their pockets, cars and homes with technology, as they work unceasingly—even multiple jobs—to put more and more money in the account to pay off the revolving credit cards, as they seek status among peers, coworkers or neighbors, as the house—and garage…and rented storage unit!—fill to overflowing with stuff…as people pursue and engage in all of these things, their lives are left empty, vacuous, ultimately meaningless. And they don’t know why….

Our culture is an immensely powerful force. Oh, it’s not a living entity, not really diabolic, but it does have a life of its own…and that ‘life-of-its-own’ happens to be quite contrary to the spiritual life, to the life of faith. The culture leaves no time for spirituality. The culture pushes the spiritual and inner life way down on the priority list.

It is no wonder, then, when North Americans go to those “backward,” third world countries, when they break away from the power of culture here, when they get to a place that has no TV or radio (at least, not that they can understand!), when they become ‘helpless’ foreigners without status or power, then…then the life of faith can finally flourish and bloom and grow.

I know this because I have seen what has happened to my faith-life since returning to the US. Slowly, quietly, it has been pushed down and aside. I found myself being caught up in the “new” stuff that fills the stores to overflowing. I began plotting and planning as to how I might save enough money to replace the four-year-old thing-a-majigy (that works perfectly fine) with a brand new one! The self-serving consumerist culture began to seep into my own life…replacing the simple and living faith that carried me unfailingly through almost seven years of missionary service.

So, I now realize that I must consciously and purposefully live counter-culturally here in America if I am going to nurture a spiritual life. I must decide NOT to buy or to want or to pursue what the culture insists I must have in order to fit in and find happiness. I must determine to focus on those things that have nurtured and carried and strengthened men and women through the centuries…and they are not things I can buy at Target or order from Amazon or gain through higher or lower interest rates.

The spiritual life, the simple faith, is fed through prayers—extemporaneous and guided, Scripture-reading, devotional readings, and contemplation, meditation and silence. Oh, yes, worship is important, but we have no shortage of that—what our inner lives crave is the calm, the silence, that gives balance to the noisy, boisterous, rockin’ 21st Century North American church life. The inner-self craves a quiet simplicity that will nourish who we really are and prepare us to face the false cravings and dead-end pressures of our complex, technologically advanced, consumerist culture. May God help me. Amen.

God’s Expansive Grace

Recently, some friends of ours invited us to visit with them a couple of days during their vacation on the coast about an hour-and-a-half from where we live. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity.

As I walked down to the beach from their apartment, I was struck yet again by the immensity of the sea. The horizon so far in the distance, the quantity of water, the variety of sea life—all of it just brings a sense of awe to me…and that to a boy who grew up in the Caribbean! The ocean always amazes me.

I step down to the water’s edge…the wash of a wave running up over my feet, sucking the sand from beneath. I’m left unsettled for a moment, a little off-balance. It is though the sea is beckoning to me, gently trying to pull me in. I step a little farther into the gentle surf…tentatively at first since the water is so cool compared to the glaring sun-heated world around me. I’m up to my knees…my waist…mid-belly…and I finally plunge in, diving through a small wave. Refreshing, cleansing sea-water envelops and washes me, stripping me of the grime of the city, the cares of the work-place. In the silence under the water, I am instantly transformed…I become a part of the sea…and I come to surface calmed, clean. This is what the ocean does for me.

As I sat on the beach later (sans cell-phone, sans computer), I did what I always do: I considered the sea, put my thoughts to it…and I could see that the ocean before me is so much like God’s grace. We cannot even begin to fathom the depth of His grace…can’t see the other side…can’t even imagine all the goes into and thrives in His grace.

In the beginning, we’re hesitant to enter that grace, declaring ourselves unworthy of God’s love (and we are!). But yet another small wave of His grace—in song, Scripture or kindness—curls around our feet, beckoning us…calling to us. We step forward…tentatively, unsure. The refreshing grace swirls around our legs…laps up on our belly…and we take a deep breath…and plunge into God’s amazing grace. His love washes over us, stripping away the grime of sin and self-doubt. In the silence beneath the waves, we know that we are changed…different…and we surface—our heart now clean, our soul calm, wrapped in that peace that passes all understanding.

This sea of grace is not an hour-and-a-half drive away. It is right where we are. God brings His ocean of grace to us. We need only close our eyes in prayer…wade in…and immerse ourselves anew in the great expanse of His grace—and we are renewed. This is what God’s grace does for me….

(Originally published 5-August-2011 on The Mission Society blog site: http://themissionsocietyblog.com/?p=628 )

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