Sunday, July 12, 2009

Purists and Potterers

Despite my best efforts, a rosebush planted this spring in the backyard of the parsonage has died.  Now, when I purchased this one, it was part of a multiple purchase of roses.  Some were climbers I had bought before and knew took little care and would grow well.  Others were what are called "knock-out" roses, bred to be easy to grow and with little trouble.  Another were called "Peggy Norman" roses--so hardy that they were still blooming and thriving after Hurricane Katrina and have been propagated multiple times, with the sellers donating money for continued rebuilding in New Orleans.  I splurged on a ground rose that I figured would cover a really bare area and look good.  Then, with my cart nearly full, I passed a set of extremely aromatic yellow/peach colored roses that caught both eye and nose.  

The informational sign promised exquisite flowers and enticing aroma and I just couldn't resist.  It was also delicate and demanded a lot of care, which it didn't get.  And so it died.

Now, not too long after I purchased those mostly easy care rosebushes, I read an article by a real rose professional, a purist where roses are concerned.  He turned up his nose at the kind of roses I had bought.  They were too easy to grow, he contended, and they lacked the spectacular aroma of some of the far more difficult and demanding ones, the one he cultivated.  

He is right, of course.  I don't have the highly aromatic roses, because the one that would have provided that is now dead.  In truth, I'm just a potterer, and most definitely not a purist where my garden is concerned.  I potter around the yard and flowerbeds because it is wonderful exercise and great for my soul.  I love watching seeds come up and seedlings take root and grow.  I'm totally delighted in the unbelievable taste of my homegrown tomatoes.  My dogs have also discovered how good they are, so it now becomes a morning race to see who can get to them first.  I don't begrudge them their treat--there are plenty for all of us.  My kitchen counter is covered right now with lovely yellow squash and I made some delicious marinara sauce recently using my abundantly producing basil and oregano plants.  But those are my victories.  There are lots of defeats.  I've yet to grow an edible cucumber, and my peppers just don't have good flavor or texture.  I routinely kill bedding plants and weeds are really getting the better of me in some of the landscape beds.  

I could do all of this better, with more skill and more attention, doing a far better job fertilizing, spraying, searching out new and even more difficult plants, and studying horticultural principles.  But being a potterer is good enough for me.  It nurtures; it provides; it gives me great pleasure.

Many of us have heard the statement, "If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well." While that sentiment may push people to excellence, to "purity,"  it has has kept many from trying things, because they knew they couldn't do something well.  Years ago, someone said this, "If it is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly."  Such words seem shocking, but I think make more sense.  If it is worth doing, then it is worth trying to do it--even if we don't do it particularly well.  We may get better at it; we may not.  But we lose a lot more by not trying than by going ahead and giving a shot at it, even if we muck it up.  What would I have lost if I did not at least try to grow some things?  Again, I'm really not a particularly good gardener--but the joy from this!

Sometimes I wonder if people stay away from exploring their spiritual lives and their relationship with God because too many purists have scared them away.  "Your worship and prayer must look like this!"  "You must believe exactly like I do!"  "You've left the straight and narrow.  God will get you for that."  "Here's your list--be sure each item is checked off daily.  Otherwise you won't grow spiritually."  

It might be a good thing just to be a potterer in the spiritual life.  Taste it, try it, make mistakes, explore the possibilities, run into some dead ends, and find the joy in the experience. Let us leave the fear behind of not being a "purist" or doing it well, and just see what happens. Remember that the potterer is the same thing as an amateur--one who does the task or plays the game or performs for the love of the experience--not the pay or status or other rewards.  The blessing is in the doing--and its all worth a try.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Snake and I

So what is it about snakes?  Actually, what is it about words that start with an "sn"?  Like sneer, snail, snark, snoop, snit, snot, snippy, snafu, snaggle, snare, snarl, sneeze, sniffles, snipe, snivel, snicker, sneak, snore, snort, snitch, sniff, and probably lots more that don't just pop into my mind right now?  As for snakes in particular--there is one currently inhabiting the back yard of the parsonage.  I know it is going after the toads, which I want back there because they eat insects.  I hope it is also eating the mice, which I also know are there because occasionally the dogs will catch one and play with it.  

And it creeps me out.

It's just a three foot long black snake.  I know it is not interested in me, but I still leap in shock when I reach into a flower bed to pull weeds and it comes slithering out.  I don't want to accidentally touch it.  Just gives me the shivers to think about it.

I certainly don't want to be terrorized out of my back garden.  I suppose there is a place for the two of us to co-exist but I want to sneer at the snake and snarkily snoop out where it sneaks in and snippily snicker when I sniff out ways to snitch on the snake so it snail-like sneaks back out of my garden.  Terrible sentence just then--my writing professor would sniff snottily should he see it--too bad it won't sneeze out the problem.

I'm delighted when I see earthworms out there, and they are slimy and snake-like in form.  Is it because snakes really are sneaky?  That when we call someone a "snake in the grass" we do so because snakes can camouflage themselves so thoroughly and then slither out when we least expect it, kind of like snot rolling from the snozzle at the least convenient moment?

So what IS it about snakes?  Why are they almost universally hated or feared?  I'm sure it is no accident that the crafty one who offers temptation to leave God behind in the Garden of Eden is represented by a serpent--snake aversion is hardly new.  After all, even Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, while nothing else seems to faze him.

Well, it's time to snarl my way through the end of this sniveling essay and leave the snake conundrum for someone else to snaggle with.  

Will welcome all suggestions--just make them snappy!

Monday Morning Quarterback

A week ago on Monday, I drove to Richardson to spend a few hours with my mother.  I brought her one of her favorite meals and we sat at the kitchen table chatting and enjoying our food.  On the kitchen counter sits a small TV, and she, as is normal to her, had it tuned to an all-day news channel, but with the sound off.  At one point, I glanced at it and saw in the corner of the screen this: "Police Chase in Dallas."  I asked her to turn on the sound. For the next 45 minutes, we sat transfixed as we viewed through the lens of a helicopter camera an extremely dangerous car chase all over the Dallas freeways.  By then, I was running late for another appointment, but didn't want to get on the freeway because of what was happening.  

As we watched, the driver turned off the freeway and ended up on Plano Road, heading northbound--toward the neighborhood of my mother's house.  He ended up being stopped after running a red light when a pick-up truck, the driver totally unaware of the drama unfolding in front of him, smashed into the felon's car.

Shortly after the end of the car chase, I headed out to my next destination.  I flipped on a news channel, curious myself about the outcome and concerned for the driver of the pick-up (he was not seriously hurt, thank goodness).  As it happens, I hit one of those talk shows that gives people a chance to voice their opinions.  I was fascinated by the amount of criticism that was heaped upon those giving chase to the felon.  Several people said, "Well, the officer could have cut him off earlier.  Makes no sense why he didn't do this."  The implication is, "If I had been that officer, I certainly would have done this!"

Hmm. . . I wonder about that.  We who were watching had the advantage of sitting in our comfortable homes, viewing everything from a bird's eye perspective, seeing much more than the officers in the high speed chase were able to see.  We had the advantage of hearing the commentator describe the location and the surroundings.  The officers on the chase had almost none of this information.  There are major communication difficulties between those on the chase and those watching the chase making it very difficult to keep the officers on the ground fully informed.  We also were not endangering our own lives or the lives of others by our decisions.  We just watched--and many decided that they, as watchers, could do this much better than the participants themselves.

I wonder.  I wonder how well they would have done, with limited knowledge, with their own adrenaline racing, with awareness of the danger to many--how well would they have done with the two brief opportunities that did arise where the run-away driver might have been cut off?  I'm betting that few, if any, would have done better.  And probably all would have caused much greater harm than actually did take place.  

But it is much easier to play Monday morning quarterback than it is to put on the gear and get out there on the field, take the hits, avoid the blockers, find the running holes and the receivers, and actually move that ball down the field while playing within the rules.

I ache for our political leaders, especially those who hold their offices with great integrity and personal sacrifice.  Every one of them has hundreds, thousands, even millions of Monday morning quarterbacks, screaming at them that they are idiots making stupid decisions.  I sit with my pastoral colleagues as we comfort one another.  Each of us chooses in the best ways we can to walk in holiness and obedience to God and leadership to our churches.  Each of us seeks constant improvement in life and service and looks for helpful critique and guidance.  And each of us has experienced attack that has simply left us breathless from those who know they could do our work far, far better than we do it ourselves. Frankly, before I became a clergy person, I did this quite often myself. Too many conversations about my church and its leaders started with, "If only he/she would do that this way . . ."

Monday morning quarterbacking springs from basic human nature--all of us deep down inside think we know better than God does what is best for us.  That is the nature of the separation between God and humankind.  We dictate to God how God may act, where God may act, for whom God may show love and compassion.  The more we do that, the more disappointed we are with God because we are not getting our own way.  

And then there is the joy of taking the descending way--the way of Jesus, who endured the shame, suffered the cross, offered forgiveness to all, and saw the resurrection on the other side of it.  The resurrection says, "God wins!!!!!!"  And when God wins, morning does dawn in hope and reconciliation and new life.  It really doesn't get any better than this!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Who Did Jesus Come For?

At the beginning of this week, I received a letter from a family for whom I have great respect.  They are a family of some wealth and privilege, fairly young, healthy, with intelligent and gifted children.  The kind of family every church wants. They wrote in their letter their extreme displeasure with me as a pastor, spoke disparagingly of my character, and withdrew their membership from the church.  Much pain in my soul--grief over their departure, grief over significant misunderstandings, grief over my own mistakes and immaturities.

At the end of the week, I sat in my office with an older man who gave me the privilege of hearing his life story.  He grew up with an alcoholic, abusive father, quit school and left home early, took a long-running turn to drugs and alcohol, had multiple marriages and divorces, experienced the death of daughter of a gunshot wound from her mother's boyfriend's gun, and has a felony conviction and prison time behind him.  His sister and her partner--and how those words raise hackles in the eyes of some of most religious of people--took him in a few years ago, got him to AA, and helped him get back on his feet.  Such means of grace these two women were!

We talked about the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.  We talked about the invitation to enter into the life of grace through Jesus.  I asked him, "Have you ever been baptized?  Do you know what it means to be baptized?"  He answered, "Please tell me what it means."  And so we discussed that it is an outward sign of the inward grace given to him by God where all is forgiven and he is totally one with God again.  And so I asked him, "Do you want to be baptized?"  And he said, "I've been waiting for you to ask me.  Yes, I do!"

So, it seems that this church, this embodied community of Christ, has lost one very lovely family with future and hope and possibility in front of them and gained one beat up older man with a life of regrets and pain and abuse behind him.  Which did Jesus come for?  Both, of course.  In Jesus day, which would have been mostly likely to have received him gratefully?

An intriguing question.  Would be interested in some comments.