9.11.19

Today’s thoughts are going to be more along the lines of “stream of consciousness,” so please bear with me. I have written about this before, so I apologize if it sounds a little like a re-run.

I was in a unique position on 9.11.01. I was flying an airplane. I was flying with a company check pilot on a FAA mandated recurrent check ride (something we had to do as commercial pilots every six months.) We announced our arrival and intentions to the airport to which we were flying (no control tower, just announce where you are and look for other traffic), and a voice came back (which was very unusual for that airport at that time of the morning), “Well, you can land but I will not let you take off again.” Well, the check pilot (an experienced pilot with a major air carrier) got kind of huffy and said back, “What do you mean, we cannot take off again?” (or words to that effect). The strange voice came back, “Because of the attacks on the towers in New York, all air traffic is grounded by order of the FAA.”

Shock, and dumbfounded silence.

What do you do when your happy place is turned into your casket?

I grieved for all the victims of that horrible attack, but I guess my heart went out to the pilots and their families just a little bit more. There is a kinship among pilots, a kind of social attachment that only can be experienced by someone who has commanded an airplane. Talk to a pilot and he or she can tell you exactly when and where he or she first soloed. I had a pilot friend who took everyone out to eat every year on the anniversary of his first solo. We all understood.

In 2001 the doors to the cockpits were not secure. In the cockpit of a major air carrier the space is extremely cramped. The pilots had their backs to their attackers, and stood no chance to defend themselves. They probably fought as best they could – but with multiple attackers coming with complete surprise, they really had no chance.

A group of people gathered around the TV and watched the towers fall – again and again and again. In somewhat of a stupor I walked out onto the parking ramp where my plane sat, almost as if it was saying, “Hey, we have a job to do – why are we not in the air?” I looked up. At that moment not a single airplane was in the air – except for our nation’s air defense planes.

Not one single airplane in a nations of hundred of thousands.

A co-worker and I were housed in a hotel for the next several days (three, if I remember correctly). Finally the FAA allowed planes to fly again, but under extremely strict guidelines. We had to file very specific flight plans. We had to use a special call sign. There would be no deviations, no special requests granted.

As the city of Albuquerque came into view the Air Traffic Controller in the regional center “handed me over” (as pilots say) to the Albuquerque approach controller. Because we flew in and out of Albuquerque daily, we sort of knew the controllers by their voices. There was a tenseness and a kind of sadness in everyone’s voice that first day back in the air. The voice who responded to my initial call was a familiar one, although I could never know who I was talking to. After the required information was exchanged, I said, “Sure is good to hear your voice again.” He responded, “Sure is good to hear your voice too.”

I lost it.

Its kind of hard to fly an airplane through tear filled eyes, but I managed to get mine down. The day was absolutely beautiful, a splendid example of a September day in northern New  Mexico. The airport was overflowing with parked jets. The contrast in feelings was surreal. The beauty of the day was beyond description. The sadness and the bitterness of the reality of a world gone mad was palpable.

We were all, pilots and air traffic controllers, just happy and comforted to hear the voices of people we had never met, but upon whom we relied for our lives and livelihoods on a daily basis.

“We will never forget” is so often said, and is genuinely expressed, no doubt.

I will never forget 9.11.01, nor the day I flew back into Albuquerque and heard those words that I never expected to hear.

I wonder what it will be like when we see Jesus, and we can say, “Sure is good to hear your voice!”

But, even more, I wonder what it will be like to hear Jesus say, “Sure is good to hear your voice again too.”

Let’s be careful out there today, okay?

Not Every . . .

Not every mountain is a molehill . . .
Not every molehill is a mountain . . .
Not every misspoken word is a heresy . . .
Not every thought needs to be acted on . . .
Not every major news story deserves a sermon on Sunday . . .
Not every sermon deserves discussion on Monday . . .
Not every change in worship order represents a rejection of truth . . .
Not every prayer is answered the way we want it . . .
Not every answered prayer is met with gratitude or thanksgiving . . .
Not every gift is a blessing . . .
Not every hardship is a curse . . .
Not every truth is benevolent . . .
Not every lie is malevolent . . .
Not every kindness is returned . . .
Not every act of evil needs to be avenged . . .
Not every person who dies goes to heaven . . .
Not every Bible is read . . .
Not every sin is confessed . . .

And,

Not everyone is perfect.

Why can’t we learn these things?

Some Times There Are Just Not Enough Rocks

What a difference a year makes. This time a year ago I was on the top of cloud nine. I was on the 9th peak of cloud 9. I was going to return to my beloved Colorado, in a place where I once truly felt like I was home – close to the mountains, in a veritable Garden of Eden.

I have always loved Colorado. When I was younger we would spend weeks up near where I am now, fishing on one of southern Colorado’s best, although not that well known, trout streams. When I am here I feel a connectedness not only to the land, but to God as well. There is a line in John Denver’s song, Durango Mountain Caballero that says, “I can hear my mother speak to me and hold my father’s hand.” Well, I can hear and feel my parents, and I can hold my spiritual Father’s hand as well. I am truly, deeply, alive when I am in this place.

So, on Tuesday I was dismissed from the position I had dreamed about having for two years, and where I have served for one. It was sudden – I had no clue it was coming. No reason was given either, save for a generic “it is just that you are not a good fit for this congregation.” Hmm. Too much of something? Not enough of something else? There was, at least to this point in time, no explanation, and I do not anticipate one forthcoming. It is my experience in a long, long history of preacher dismissals. We love you right up to the day we fire you. Next!

I have to say the past three days have been a roller coaster of emotions. Crushing sorrow, bitter tears, enough anger to fuel an aircraft carrier, utter and total confusion.

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest and his friend Jenny are walking along and come out of a line of trees in front of her childhood home. It was the place where she had been abused, and all the bitterness and anger came flowing out of her as she hurled everything she could at the house – her shoes, rocks, rocks, dirt, and rocks. Finally she collapses in a heap and Forrest, who is watching in silent shock and confusion, slowly walks over and in tender compassion sits on the ground near Jenny. The scene ends with his slow drawl,

“Sometimes, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.”

I always understood that scene, but I never really got it until this week. Sometimes, there are just not enough rocks.

But, there are some moving John Denver lyrics about this beautiful country.

You know I love the trail I’m on and the friends who ride with me,
The country that we’re passing through is a paradise to see.
A haven for my spirit, the homeland of my dreams,
My heart flies through the wilderness, and on an eagle’s wings.

Durango mountain caballero take me for a ride,
on the back-bone of this mighty land, the continental divide.
To the place where earth and heaven meet, the mountains and the sky,
In the heart of Colorado, Rocky Mountain High!

You know I love  the campfire, and the circle that I’m in
The stories and the laughter, they should never, ever end.
Forever in my memory, forever in my song,
On a San Juan mountain trail ride
I’ll carry you along.

Amen.

The Loss of Transcendence and the Death of Humanity

Pardon me as I continue (sort of) my lament from yesterday . . .

We are experiencing, in increasing measure, the slow death of humanity. I don’t mean humans as such (although that might be coming), what I mean is the loss of what makes us human, what separates us from lower animal life. It seems to me that the more technologically progressed we have become, the deeper into nihilism we have fallen. We know more and can do more with greater ease than ever before, and we are far sicker than we have ever been.

What got me to thinking about this was a recent camping trip. Not that long ago it was natural to assume that a family went up into the wilderness (or, at the very least, away from the confusion of the city) to get away from the noise, the hustle, the frantic pace. You left all of that “behind” so you could unwind, relax, shed some of the stress of the “dog eat dog” world. I noticed this past weekend how all of that has changed – and not just a little bit. I was stunned to see that off-road vehicles (we used to call them ATVs) are now almost obligatory for the modern camping family. That, along with mammoth fifth-wheel campers makes most camp sites look like the infield of the Indianapolis 500 auto race. As I stood knee deep in a gorgeous little stream I had to strain to hear the birds and squirrels fuss at each other because the almost constant barrage of four-wheelers on the nearby road made it impossible to hear God’s awesome creation.

It got worse. From time to time I could look up and see the passengers in these noise making contraptions. From what I could tell they were not happy. They were in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere but where they were. Many had scowls on their faces, but virtually all were expressionless. Here they were in quite honestly the closest thing to the Garden of Eden, and they were either bored, or actually pained. They had to get somewhere else fast, so they could not enjoy where they were or what they were doing. Every so often they would come ripping back down the road they had just zoomed up. In a hurry, oblivious to the world of creation around them. Making noise, and utterly, completely unable to here the birds and squirrels chatter and talk to them.

It was so unbelievably sad.

We, as humans, have created a world where we can control virtually everything. If it’s too hot we turn on the air-conditioner. If it’s too cold we turn on the heater. If we are bored we turn on the TV or the tablet or our cell phone. If it is too quiet we blast our stereos or plug our ear-buds into our tablets and tune out the world. I just saw an article pointing out how there are signs of increasing mental struggles of pre-schoolers because of the increasing use of “screen time,” the fact that children do not interact with their physical world, but are increasingly tied to computers, tablets, or cell phones. It has now become the norm that even when we try to “get away from it all” we pack everything up and bring “it all” with us. We haul around our stress, our anxiety, our utter inability to deal with life if we are not stimulated to the ends of our hair follicles.

We have, or at the very least, will soon lose every concept of transcendence, of the “awesome.” When we do we will have lost the very last vestige of what it means to be human. To me that is not theoretical – I have actually witnessed it. People, human beings, created in the image of the Divine God himself, so completely engrossed in technology that they cannot even recognize, let alone appreciate, the awesomeness and transcendence of God’s most holy creation.

I do not have a Ph.D in psychology, but it really does not take a psychologist to recognize that we are a sick culture. Anger, depression, anxiety – all symptoms of a decaying society are rising at an exponential rate. Children are displaying acts of greater and greater violence at younger and younger ages. Prescriptions for anti-depressants are skyrocketing. Young people are identifying feelings of rootlessness and meaninglessness like never before. And, yet, the demand for the next upgrade for a cell phone or the next greatest app is unending.

I am not naive enough to believe that all of this can be reversed if we only clicked our heels together three times and repeated with Dorothy, “I wish I was home.” But, I am equally opposed to the idea that I should just shrug my shoulders and say none of this matters. It matters, and for future generations it should matter very much.

Somehow, someway, in calm and reasoned thought or in pure desperation, we are going to have to learn how to unplug, unwind, and “deconstruct” our over-stimulated lives. Maybe when we run out of fossil fuels and we can no longer drive massive trucks that pull 40 foot fifth-wheel camp trailers we will learn how to live life patiently again. I think learning how to hitch up a horse to a wagon might be valuable for a great many of us. It would, at the very least, teach us that we need to respect and nurture God’s awesome creation.

And, it would be a lot quieter. Maybe we could learn to listen to the birds and squirrels again.

Things Will Never Be the Same (Or, Change is Inevitable, but not Always Progress)

I was going to write a post today, a lament really, about how things have changed, and not for the better. The main source of my melancholy being a recent camping trip. When I was a little boy my family spent a lot of time in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Not every trip was a camping trip, we would often just spend a day on a river, fishing and just enjoying the mountains. Several times each summer, however, we would head out as soon as my father got off work and spend Friday night and all day Saturday on one of New Mexico’s many streams.

I have always wanted to give my daughter the same gift that my father gave me. The problem, as I have come to realize it, is I cannot. It is simply impossible. When I was young the opportunities for “primitive camping” were almost limitless. You could drive up a dirt road, find a little pull off or winding little path down to the river, set up camp and enjoy yourself. Slowly but surely those pull-offs and winding paths were closed off and the only way to camp became official “camp-grounds” complete with water and, in some cases, septic services. And, to be sure, ridiculous camp “fees.” Tents and cab-over campers were replaced with pull trailers, and now massive fifth-wheel camp trailers dominate the countryside. When I was young if we heard our nearest camp neighbor’s dog bark, my dad believed we were too close. Now, as dusk settles all you can hear is a cacophony of electric generators providing power for the air-conditioners and satellite tv sets.

Oh, yeah, the noise. One of my treasured memories is sitting on a rock above a stream, watching the little birds and chipmunks play along the water, and singing my favorite church songs. I was struck this past weekend as I stood by the river by the constant, almost never-ending noise of off-road and ATV traffic. The wilderness is not a place to go and to enjoy nature any longer. It is a place to go and be assaulted with the vanity of humans showing off how much money they have – and their utter disrespect for nature and for their fellow man.

I wept as I realized one of my great dreams for my daughter will never be realized – or certainly not as I expected to fulfill it. She will remember our tent camping experiences, but not in the same way I experienced  the joys that my father gave me.

Then, today I was reminded that on July 16, 1969, three men left the confines of this earth to travel to, and for two of them, to walk on, the moon. So far, only 12 men have done so. But I wonder – at what cost? I don’t mean money, and I certainly understand and appreciate the good that the Apollo moon landings have brought to us. But I ask again, at what cost? For millennia humans have looked up at the moon and have wondered. The moon was always mysterious, even as we came to understand more of its power over tides and even animal and human emotions. When Neil Armstrong stepped off of the ladder of the Eagle, something changed, and we will never be able to undo that. The moon’s mystery has now been revealed (or, at least, some of it has) and there is a part of me that wonders if that scientific achievement can fully be described as progress.

We now have robotic machines on the surface of Mars. There is much talk of colonizing the moon, and even of sending humans to Mars. So, I guess it is only a matter of time until the moon is littered with massive fifth-wheel trailers and fee-only campgrounds. Mars will only be a few years behind. After we have finished trashing the moon and Mars, what will be next?

Not all achievement is progress. Just because we have the ability does not mean we have the mandate, nor the justification, to destroy that which is wild. Sometimes the wilderness needs to remain the wilderness, if for no other reason than to serve as a reminder that we are pitiful human beings, and that we are all too often slaves to our stinking, noise making inventions.

Thus endeth my lament, but not my sorrow.

D-Day, June 6, 1944

Thinking about, and writing about, past wars is difficult for me. I am, by all accounts, a pacifist. Now, I am not the 1960’s hippie version, sitting around a campfire smoking weed and singing “Kumbaya,” but never-the-less, I just do not see any sense defending war. I believe that I stand in the best tradition of my forefathers in making that stand. I believe with all my heart that Jesus taught peace making and self-less surrender over taking up arms. Maybe I just missed the verse that says that we should love our enemy, but yet spend billions of dollars inventing ways to blow him and his children to oblivion.

On the other hand, the Bible speaks just as clearly regarding defending the weak, and standing up for those who have no voice. So, while I struggle mightily with the concept of an offensive fighting force, I honestly have no problem with maintaining a defensive force, so long as there is a bright line dividing what is an offensive and a defensive military confrontation. So, in my mind, the last truly defensible war the United States has fought was World War II. (Word of explanation here: you cannot defend a war using the “just war” defense, if there was no war declared. No military action  whether it be Korea, Viet Nam, Desert Storm, or any other “operation” since WW II, was officially declared by the President or Congress as a “War,” and therefore, cannot be defended using the “just war” precepts.)

World War II was, in my opinion, the last time our nation has correctly applied the concepts of a “just war.” The definition of a just war varies depending on who is making the distinction, but most definitions include having a definable goal, avoiding civilian casualties to the best of an army’s ability, the clear declaration of a war on a legal basis, and the humane treatment of captured enemy soldiers. Even in WWII the lines were blurred, as the fire-bombing of Dresden was unconscionable.

All of that was a long pre-amble to this: today, June 6, is the anniversary of perhaps the greatest single effort to liberate a conquered continent in the history of mankind. Thousands of allied soldiers died in just a few hours that morning, as well as even more thousands of German soldiers. What I have learned over the past few days is that even more French civilians died during the invasion and weeks following!! June 6, 1944 was literally the turning point in the war in Europe, and without the sacrifices paid that day, Europe would have never been freed from Nazi control. The hundreds of graves in the cemeteries of the Allied soldiers, and even those graves in which the soldiers of Germany lie, are a testament to the brutality and inhumanity of man.

World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Then there was World War II. Then there was the Korean “conflict” and the Viet Nam “police action.” And then there was “operation” Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom – the names are a mockery of the English language.

I believe that the United States was right to come to the defense of England, Europe, and China in the 1940’s. I also believe (and believe it has been well proven) that with the proper intervention, World War II should never have happened. Political and diplomatic opportunities abounded, but isolationist policies and a resolute refusal for the Christian Church to oppose both Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito spelled disaster for the European continent, and most of the Pacific rim nations. Even after the hostilities began, had the Church been more aggressive in pressing for diplomatic overtures, the resistance in Germany would have eliminated Hitler, and thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives would have been saved.

So, I honor those men and women who sacrificed their lives this day 75 years ago. They must never be forgotten. I doubt this world will ever see such courage again – at least not on the scale exhibited that day.

And I fervently pray that no generation will ever again be asked to liberate another continent from a depraved, maniacal, despot. May we learn, somehow and for all time, the skills necessary to solve our disagreements around a conversation table, and not over a battlefield.

Does Architecture Matter?

Strange question for this Friday – which has absolutely nothing to do with any cataclysmic issues of the day. But, this funny question popped into my mind. To be honest, I am utterly conflicted. My answer is no, but, really, yes.

I am the product of a non-liturgical church. The churches of Christ in which I was raised went out of their way to be non-liturgical. In fact, we developed an entire liturgy to declare our non-liturgicalness. Our ministers wore no special garments, studiously avoided any special recognition (woe be to the funeral director who attached the epithet, “Rev.” onto the preacher’s name!) Our choirs wore no special robes because we never had a choir – the congregation was the choir!! There were no “special days” – and most likely the preacher preached on the resurrection of Jesus the week before December 25, and preached on the birth of Jesus the day everyone else was celebrating the resurrection. Our services had no uniform “liturgy” as such, except that the routine of opening prayer, three songs, Lord’s Supper, song, sermon, song and closing prayer could be predicted within a verse or two of having a universal application. That’s what I mean by having a liturgy of non-liturgicalness. Heaven help the poor soul who dared to rearrange any aspect of our worship.

This “low church” approach was especially evident in the architecture of our buildings.There were no stained glass windows, no crosses, and certainly no crucifixes. The only piece of furniture that could even remotely be considered “high church” was a simple table with the words “Do This in Remembrance of Me” or perhaps even just “In Remembrance of Me” carved or emblazoned on the front. Our buildings were constructed to be utilitarian, not expressive. The main room was not a “sanctuary,” it was an “auditorium,” designed for the specific purpose of having something “heard.” Classrooms were added alongside the auditorium, or in an adjacent “education” wing. If there was a “fellowship” hall, it was  quite often detached from the “auditorium” so that there would be no confusion as to what purpose each room was constructed.

Most, but not all, of that changed when the Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” and became respected, and respectable, members of the community. Our buildings became more ornate – some even had stained glass windows installed! – but the basic utilitarian nature of the building never changed. It is still the very rare congregation that displays a cross behind the pulpit, “praise teams” abound but there are very, very few “choirs,” and only the most pompous preachers would dare to wear a clerical robe or accept the title, “Reverend.”

I contrast that with the most common “high church” architecture. I think of the massive cathedrals in Europe, and even many of the fabulous church buildings in the United States. I grew up just a few miles from one of the most beautiful Spanish churches in the United States in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I still love to visit that and other Roman Catholic churches in my home state. They are beautiful, ornately constructed, and the architecture conveys a message that our utilitarian church just simply cannot convey.

For one, the interior of the buildings lifts the worshipper’s view upward. There is a feeling that, when you enter the main worship center, you are called to experience something greater than yourself. In a pre-literate society, pictures, statuary, and architecture was the primary way of communicating the holiness and transcendence of God. The manner in which the church was constructed was a silent, yet powerful, way of communicating a basic truth: God is greater than the worshipper and a measure of respect and awe was due when one entered the place where God was to be worshipped.

Even the exterior of the building conveys this truth: the spires and the other forms of elevating the worshippers eyes let the person know this is a building like no other. When you enter here, you are entering sacred space – leave the world outside. Enter his courts with joy and thanksgiving, to be sure, but remember whose courts you are entering, and respond appropriately.

Compare that with the modern combination of a “worship” space and a basketball court. Who is being worshipped? God or LeBron James?

I said in my opening paragraph that I am utterly conflicted. On the one hand, it matters not in what kind of building we worship. We can worship in a house, in a rented store-front, in a cave or in a tent. Or, we can worship in an ornate, classically constructed cathedral decorated with beautiful stained glass windows and majestic arches. The apostle Paul was equally content to worship in a synagogue (which, as archeology has proven, were often incredibly ornate and beautiful) or gathered with fellow worshippers by a stream.

But, to be honest and straightforward, when God told Moses how to construct the tabernacle, and when David instructed Solomon how to construct the temple, there was to be no limit on how beautiful the physical structures were to be built. The purpose determined the result. If it is to be God’s house, if the purpose is to praise and to worship a holy and transcendent God, wouldn’t it make sense to have that house, that worship center, the most beautiful and glorious that we could make it? This is where I struggle the most with our utilitarian focus. If all we do is gather together to listen to a lecture and sing a few songs, then who cares what the building looks like.

But . . . if we are gathered into His Presence, if we are present with His Holy Spirit, if the creator of the universe descends to “tabernacle” with us, doesn’t it just make sense to signify that presence with architecture that reflects that presence?

As always, thanks for considering my meandering thoughts.