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.

Two Hundred Years in a Couple of Minutes

Every once in a while I like to back up a little bit and try to take a “bird’s eye” picture of what is happening. In recent years that process has been defined as taking the “view from 30,000 feet.” Curiously, I’ve never known of a bird flying 5 miles above the surface of the earth, but I suppose anything is possible. When we back up and look at the entire forest, it helps us understand the current condition of each tree that comprises that forest. Now, if I have not completely mixed all my metaphors to the point of obscurity, let me move on.

Consider what was occurring “on or about” the year 1819. The “Second Great Awakening” was gathering wind. It was a heady time. The smoke from the Revolutionary War could still be smelled if one tried hard enough. It seemed as if the United States was quite literally at the vanguard of a new millennium, the blessed arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth. Alexander Campbell had been in the United States barely a decade, and the “movement” that he would become so much a fixture of might have been toddling, but it certainly was not running quite yet. It would still be another decade before Joseph Smith would publish his novel, The Book of Mormon. Religious fervor was, quite literally, in the air. The Holy Spirit was running amok, or so some would say, and the Shakers were not the only ones left shaking in the wind.

Flash forward to 1919. The brilliant hopes of the Divine Millennium, the earthly Kingdom of God, had been crushed first by the Civil War, and most recently by the War to End All Wars. The smoke from that war was clearly still hanging in the air, but only in Europe, not in the blessed United States. Stateside there was a renewed religious fervor, albeit not quite as rambunctious as that seen one hundred years earlier, but still robust. The eighteenth amendment had been passed in 1917, and in 1919 it was ratified. The next year prohibition would be the law of the land, and with “demon rum” removed from Satan’s arsenal, surely God’s Spirit would not have as much opposition in the battle for man’s heart. The “Roaring Twenties” were just about to get going, and the “Great Depression” was simply a bad nickname for the Grand Canyon. Adolf Hitler was just an unemployed former corporal, and a world-wide peace that he would soon obliterate was not just a hope, but for the majority, it was a reality that could not be shaken. It was perhaps not the full-bodied Kingdom of God as envisioned one hundred years earlier, but it was still a peace – or so it was believed.

Flash forward to 2019. Nothing of 1919 is recognizable anymore, and certainly not anything of 1819. Not only is “demon rum” legal again, but so is the most decadent, the most horrific, obscene pornography. Homosexual marriage is not only legal, but glorified. Biologically born men are removing the physical attributes of maleness and are becoming “women.” Same with biologically born women, surgically removing their breasts and ingesting massive doses of testosterone so as to appear “male.” Millions, not just thousands, of babies are aborted under the umbrella of “freedom of reproductive rights” (nothing could be more of an oxymoron!!). The millennial fervor of the early 1800’s is just a footnote in some dusty history book, and not even a whiff of the resurgent spirituality of the early 1900’s remains. All that the world sees of the “Kingdom of God” is an anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit, institutional “church.”

Sorry to be the source of so much joy and happiness – but from where I sit this is the “view from 30,000 feet.” In a scant (speaking geologically) 200 years, the United States has moved from being on the doorstep of a realized and eternal Kingdom of God on earth to being a bastion of narcissism the likes of which this world has never witnessed (and, taking into consideration the narcissism of the Persians, Greeks and Romans, that is saying something!). Barely 75 years ago legions of 20 something year-old men were dying from the beaches of Normandy to the outskirts of Berlin, sacrificing their lives in the cause of freedom. Today those young men are dying on our streets, the result of unrestrained gang violence. Today the greatest existential crisis occurs when a biological male is called a “he” that he is, instead of the “she” that he wants to be. Life is simply unsustainable if the WI FI goes down at the neighborhood Starbucks. We can no longer allow a dissenting voice on our university campuses (something archaically enshrined in the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution), we have to insure that only one voice – the voice of unrestrained paganism – be spoken to the tender ears of our future leaders.  We are living what Os Guinness has labeled A Free People’s Suicide. (I highly recommend the book by that title). I could go on. The view from 30,000 feet is expansive.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer could identify his world as a “world come of age,” what would he say of America in 2019? Above I described the church as being “anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit” in what has transpired. Fighting words, I grant you, but does anyone dare dispute me? When, in the last 100, or 75, or 50 or even 25 years has the church stood up and dared to be sent to its crucifixion by proclaiming in Christ and only in Christ is there to be health and wholeness? We have ministers of the gospel defending behavior that the Bible describes as an abomination to God. We accept the most reprehensible behavior in our Presidents (Democrat and Republican) simply because they represent our chosen political party. We depend on scientists to answer all our questions and politicians to solve all our problems. We depend on the government to feed and house the poor, we depend on the government to take care of our elderly, we depend on the government to educate our children, we depend on the government to protect our right to assemble and the right to speak freely and forthrightly. Well, since we have surrendered every other responsibility to a pagan government, it should come as absolutely no shock that that pagan government has no interest in protecting the freedom to protest what we have carelessly ceded to it.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. – Matthew 7:6

The churches and religious organizations in the United States have attempted to domesticate a serpent for the past 200 years, and it has not turned out pretty. You can domesticate just about every animal on earth, but a snake – and here I am thinking about a rattlesnake or a water moccasin or a cobra – cannot be tamed. They are by nature serpents, and it is not by accident that the Bible first speaks of Satan as a snake.

After 200+ years, we are not going to change things by electing more “Christian” politicians. We are not going to change things by appointing more “Conservative” judges. We are not going to change things by getting more strict and “moral” laws passed. We are not going to change things no how, no way, at all.

What we can do is pray that God breathes fire back into his church. We can pray that God revives and restores us, the body of his Son. We can begin by acting like we fully believe what we have been preaching. And, we can pray that God in his power and wisdom will give us the chance to once again be his “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) before he decides to permanently purify his creation.

Two hundred years – from literally the threshold of heaven to the basest pit of hell. Maybe, if it went that direction when we turned our backs on God, just maybe it can go the other direction if we return our hearts to him. (See Jeremiah 18:7-10; 26:3, 13)

Musings on the Gospel of Christ

We are an empty people.

Perhaps it has always been that way – I’m not old enough to remember the days pre-Enlightenment. I’m not too sure about the 1800’s and early 1900’s either. Maybe people were empty back then, too. Maybe one defining mark of humanity is this cavernous emptiness eats away at our soul.

I guess what strikes me about our present culture is how fast, and how far, we have fallen.

We tried the drug thing, and we tried the sex thing. Those analgesics helped for a while, or so it seemed. But when the false high of the drugs and sex wore off, our emptiness became even greater than the void that drove us to the drugs and sex.

The emptiness that returned has now grown to the point that we do not even know what it means to be human any more. Our biological sex is no longer even certain. I read this week where children of younger and younger ages are being given life-altering drugs and undergoing radical surgeries to “change” their birth sex. Boys are undergoing operations to remove their external genitalia and are being given drugs that will keep them in a state of perpetual pre-puberty. Girls are undergoing double mastectomies and are being given massive doses of male hormones. And, if the article is truthful, these procedures are being performed on children as young as 8 or 9 years old.

We have totally redefined marriage, the core unit of any society. With the stupefying progress we have made in the progress to help infertile, heterosexual couples, we now have lesbians carrying “their” babies and gay men parenting a child carried by a surrogate woman.

In terms of gender and sexuality, and by extension marriage, all hell has indeed broken loose.

In politics and partisan conversations, logical and open debate has been replaced by unbridled hatred. Unsubstantiated and unverifiable claims of abuse from three or four decades in the past can destroy a person’s entire career – the accusation does not need to have merit, simply the fact that it has been made is deemed to be enough. A person can honestly and sincerely confess to angry emotions (not actions, mind you, just emotions) and the person is vilified simply because he felt those emotions. And he was confessing the error of holding those emotions!!

Simply put, we don’t have to listen anymore, all we have to do is scream and blacklist and vilify and protest. Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” has been corrected to, “I hate, therefore I am.”

No one ever proposes a solution. We just hate, and protest. And those who disagree with us just counter-protest. And hate us.

We are just a profoundly empty people. We have no center. When we look deep inside ourselves, there is no “there” there.

And, without a center, without a core truth that sustains us, we have no hope.

And, a people that has no hope will ultimately, and quickly, descend into pure anarchy.

I think we have already started. We have met the enemy, and it is us. (Pogo!)

It is at this point that the gospel of Christ is the most powerful. It is only when it is darkest that a light can be seen most clearly. It is the gospel of Christ that must be returned to the center of our culture – or we face certain annihilation. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow humans to regain their humanity – it is only the gospel of Christ that gives males the power and joy to be males and gives females the power and joy to be females. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow virtual wars to become peaceful discussions once again. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow what is left of our culture to survive – assuming God will even grant it to be healed from the mess we have made of it.

Has a culture ever been as empty as ours? I cannot answer that. I do know that wherever and whenever the gospel of Christ has been preached faithfully, entire civilizations have been renewed.

Can it happen once again, can it happen with us? With God all things are possible.

But, only through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Any other solution will be vanity, a dark and empty void.

June 6, 1944

There is a beautiful phrase in the book of Hebrews, tucked neatly in the author’s paean to those heroes of faith so vast that he could not name them. He wrote, as the section drew to its close, “. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

On this, the anniversary of the great allied invasion of Normandy, I cannot help but meditate on that phrase.

I think of the thousands of young lives lost that day – American, British, Canadian (and others) – on the sea and in the air. I think of their resolute composure. They were not fearless – but they overcame their fear with the realization that their mission, what they were tasked to do, was so much more honorable than the goal of their enemy that they set aside their fear in order to meet the challenge.

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of the commanders, those in the field and those well behind the lines. They knew the losses would be catastrophic. Maybe they were not fully aware of the carnage that would meet the Americans on Utah beach, but they knew General Rommel was in charge of the defenses. I cannot imagine the weight that rests upon the shoulders of a man who must send other men into the face of withering gun fire or anti-aircraft shells. I wonder about their conscience. They were tasked with a mission, and the mission would cost lives. Many lives. What goes through the mind of a man who looks into the eyes of young men who, within a few short hours, will offer the greatest sacrifice?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of the medics and the chaplains who tried to save the wounded and who gave comfort to the dying. What do you say to a young boy from Kansas who, up until a few days ago, had never seen an ocean and now, thousands of miles away from home, will never see another wheat field? How do you give spiritual comfort in a battlefield that resembles the mouth of hell?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of those who piloted the transport craft ferrying the soldiers to the beaches, and the airplane pilots who carried the paratroopers over the drop zones. Many of them would not survive either. The C-47 drop planes were supposed to bring their planes over the drop zones at 1,000 feet. For those who do not understand, in terms of firing anti-aircraft guns 1,000 feet is the equivalent of a knife fight. Yet, many would make the same trip, over water and through the air, ferrying soldiers, retrieving wounded, and dropping supplies.

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I question whether the United States could win another such war. I do not doubt our soldiers and sailors one little bit. I stand in awe of their willingness to serve, even if I deeply question the civilian commanders who blindly and stupidly send them into battle. But I simply do not believe in the moral fabric of our American culture anymore. We are a nation of narcissists and cowards. We hide behind our “rights” and our “freedoms” and we no longer have the strength as a people to shoulder our responsibilities. A pathetic little coward who cannot even stand on two feet during the playing of the national anthem is regarded as being “brave” and a “hero” by many. His disrespect for those who have served this country and have given him the freedom to spout his hatred is beyond repugnant – but such is the time in which we live.

Cowardice is called bravery, hatred is called love; respect is called bigotry.

When the United States collapses (when, not if), will we look back on those young men who gave their lives on June 6, 1944 as the high point of our civilization?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I try to honor the sacrifice of those young men every day, by living according to the highest standards given to us in Scripture. I know I fail all too often – but their memory still haunts me.

May we all aspire to live lives worthy of their sacrifice. May their deaths not be in vain.

A Mind-Bending, Spirit-Shaking 60 Days

The last 60+ days of my life have been anything but normal. Even now, as I sit after pondering for many days what I would write, I still find the words elusive. I once thought I knew many things. Now, I wonder if I will ever even understand the questions.

This journey started on August 14. On that afternoon my wife was diagnosed with cancer. As with so many who hear that diagnosis, our world was shattered. Four days later, on the 18th, while trying to restore some semblance of normalcy, and while ice skating with my daughter, I fell and broke (shattered?) my femur (large bone in my thigh). Surgery the next day. Thirteen days in the hospital. A week in re-hab. Meanwhile my wife had to begin her chemo treatments without me.

It’s funny how quickly, and with such violence, a life of plans and goals can be shattered. Literally.

Now we live from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour, our future punctuated with doctor visits, scans and tests, physical therapy, and the looming appointment of yet another surgery and hospital stay.

There is a personally ironic and even pernicious twist to this story. The sermon text that I had selected for August 20 [selected before the 14th, by the way] was 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It was a sermon I never got to preach. It was a sermon I don’t know if I will ever be able to preach.

I was going to wax poetic about the paradox in Paul’s language. I was going to revel in the assurance of God’s presence in the time of trouble. I was going to speak as only a fool would, not knowing the depth of the mistakes I was making.

Like I said, I thought I knew a lot about many things. I lost my father due to cancer 27 years ago. My mother is a 27 year survivor of cancer. A close family member was murdered. The father of a very close childhood friend committed suicide. I’ve lived a lot of life and have preached a lot of sermons.

But, somehow I’ve changed. I do not enter the pulpit now like I used to. I don’t read the text now like I used to. I cannot quantify the change, nor adequately describe it. But this world is just – different now.

In many ways I’m the same me as I always was – a snarky, ironic if not sarcastic, self-impressed, knuckle-dragging troglodyte. I guess some things are just too deep to root out. But now I see things a little differently, and hopefully much more clearly.

I still want to ascend by climbing lower – I hope I just know a little bit more about what that means now than I did 60 days ago.