Thursday, June 30, 2005

Learning to Be Gentle

Trying to teach a three-year-old boy about being kind and gentle often feels like trying to teach a parakeet how to scuba-dive. But we try anyway.

Every day -- every hour -- every two-and-a-half minutes -- we're reminding Elliot to take his feet off of his little sister's head. It hurts when you pull on my neck like that. Stop pushing Olivia. Please don't throw toys where they might hit someone else. Ouch -- that hurt! It's not kind to sit on your sister. When she cries, Elliot, that means she doesn't like what you're doing. Go have a time-out on your bed. Do you understand what we're telling you?

It never seems to end. We're caught up in a relentless pursuit of kindness and gentleness. And it's difficult to maintain self-composure in the process. I'm ashamed to say that I lost the battle with Elliot earlier this evening.

We were playing in the basement and were having a pretty good time. But my boy is a kicker; he can kick surpringly hard. So I was warning him to be gentle with his kicking. And he also happens to be a grabber; at a moment's notice, he will grab a piece of human flesh with all his might (if often seems to be my neck) and twist it in the direction he desires so attention is properly focused on him. So I was warning him to be gentle with his grabbing -- very calm and parental and all that good stuff. But it's amazing how his little fingers and little fingernails can inflict such pain on a grown man. And after one particular grab, pain and adrenaline filling my system, I raised my voice and sternly spat in Elliot's face: "Be - Gentle!"

Immediately, his face crumpled like a paper bag. His lower lip curled and quivered, and the tears soon followed. I suddenly felt shame and regret, knowing that I had shown myself to be not gentle, even in the act of yelling, "Be gentle!" He sobbed, "I only wanted to do the thing with your cheeks like Mommy does" (referring to a family game in which a person's cheeks are squished together in such a way to pucker up the mouth and create funny sights and sounds when common words are squeezed out through the chubby lips). He only wanted to play the Cheek Game. And I yelled at him. What should one do in such a situation? He was inconsolable. And I was sorry.

So I sat Elliot on my lap, apologized for my lack of gentleness, and asked for his forgiveness. Then I brought his small warm hands up to my face and gently pressed them -- my hands covering and guiding his -- against my cheeks to pucker up my mouth, so we could share in the joy of the Cheek Game and ponder together our lessons learned on the art of being gentle.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Political Inactivism

I've lost my faith in politics and governments. Truth be told, when confronted with political issues and social controversies, I feel an overwhelming sense of apathy... Perhaps some ignorance -- and I can't deny that this may be a part of the equation... But I must confess that I often feel about as interested and impassioned about politics as I do about WWF wrestling. Sure, some people get into "that sort of thing" and I don't fault them for their interest. But I don't understand it. And I don't share it. And I don't know exactly what to do with this attitude.

Writing these words feels like a bit of a confessional whispered in the dark, oaken closets of a cold, empty cathedral. I strongly suspect that there are good friends -- people whom I respect greatly -- who may read these words and cry out against such soulless, unconscionable apathy. And I grant license for such a reaction. But I'm glad that these words are out there: I am apathetically apolitical. Guilty as charged.

Yet I'm not mindless, and I do care about big-picture issues. I'm not entirely self-centered; in fact, I make it a point to live in a socially responsible way. I vote thoughtfully. And I do recognize the plight of Africa. I mourn the general moral decay of society. I become angered with corporate oppression and with genocide (military or medical). I believe that poverty is a real problem in the world today -- and so is obscene wealth, for all that matters. So please don't get me wrong, when I confess my apolitical apathy. I don't believe that we should just stand around and do nothing.

I just don't think that the government offers us answers for these issues.

Do you really believe that George Bush (or George Clooney) can "Make Poverty History?" Can the G8 overcome the D7 (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth)? I hate the fact that I sound so cynical when I ask these questions... but they're honest questions. Didn't a wise man once say, "the poor you will always have with you" and "in this world you will have trouble?" ...And then -- wait, I'm trying to remember -- did he follow that up by saying that the politically-powerful hold the key to overcoming this world of corruption and injustice? Or was it the wealthy that hold this power? Maybe it was something about the common people uniting together with a petition that will overcome the world...

No, actually I believe Jesus said, "Take heart! I have overcome the world." And he didn't do it through petitions, or money, or political favors, or wars. He didn't march into Rome and demand a hearing with the Caesar. He simply sacrificed his own life -- on a gruesome and dehumanizing cross on the trash heaps outside of Jerusalem -- for the sake of bringing redemption to mankind. Indeed he saw the injustices of the world, yet he rose above band-aid solutions to the problems and operated on a higher level of discourse. And I believe that he genuinely overcame the world -- through love, sacrifice, and showing people the truest and deepest answer to all the problems in the world. And I believe that he still holds the answer to overcoming the world today.

It's true that I've lost my faith in the government. But my faith is resting on something much more secure...

Monday, June 27, 2005

In remember of dead our Big Pope

While walking through the streets of Barcelona for our anniversary weekend get-away, Marci and I ran across a shop window full of Catholic collectibles. While we admired the obvious display of piety, we had to laugh at their attempts to create a special English-language collectible "In remember of dead our Big Pope."

Back from Barcelona

Marci and I just spent three magical days in Barcelona -- a truly beautiful city, especially when enjoyed in the company of a truly beautiful woman...

While in Barcelona, we celebrated seven years of marriage... experienced the street performances and strange vendors of La Rambla... shopped in a colorful and hectic market... waded in the sand and surf of the Mediterranean... stayed in a microscopic hotel room... learned how to properly eat mixed palella... scaled the heights to reach the mountaintop fortress of Montjuïc... got mildly lost on the way down from Montjuïc... got sprayed with spittle by a homeless man... bought artwork from a Sunday morning picture market...

It was a great trip... too great to be adequately summed up in words.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Could this be church? Blankets spread out across a swath of grass in the middle of Amsterdam's largest park... Flowers for public distribution, picnic food for sharing, 100 young people lounging in the sun of a June afternoon... It doesn't match our concept of "church" -- with Sunday morning gatherings in enclosed spaces, following a programmed plan, looking out at the world through rose-colored stained glass windows. But nevertheless, we call this church.

"Vondel50" to be specific. An expression of church that is truly outside the box. We are not a building (that's why we drop the mention of "Zolder" in reference to this incarnation of "50"). We are not a service or sermon or set of music. We are not an isolated community, breathing the same recycled air in our Christian bubble. We are not trapped by tradition.

We are a community, a body -- a living and adaptable organism. And it seems like the Vondelpark is as good a place as any to enjoy each other's company and introduce others to this God that gives us life and purpose.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Card from My Son

I got such a beautiful Father's Day card from Elliot today. He's getting to that age where he can truly express himself, and it's incredible to experience the ways that he communicates love in his own unique ways. He signed his own name to the card (I'm so proud that he's learned to write the letters in his name!). He designed the artwork on the card, through his Mom's assistance in using the computer (including a picture of "Steef the Clown" and "Bob, who's wearing a hat"). And he carefully dictated the specific wording of the card's primary message, under the prompting and recording of his Mom. It reads as follows:

"I like about Daddy... when he plays, plays basketball at the park with me, plays with my wooden toys. I like him when he plays with my tennis balls and tennis racket. I have two rackets. He stands up on the stool and funny guys come out to play. I love you, Daddy!"

What a joy to feel the love of my son...

random significance

As a rule, I am a very ordered person. Schedules, structures, standards, rules, and routines... I tend towards the undeniably rational, logical, and organized. Nevertheless, I cannot escape the beauty and joy in those things that exist solely in the realm of the random.

Memory, for instance, is random -- why some memories remain and others fade into oblivion, leaving strange and inexplicable gaps in the fabric of our lives... Nature is unpredictable -- volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and even the basic patterns of sun and rain are essentially random... Many forms of modern art have capitalized on the intricacy and beauty of the random... And of course, people are random. Perhaps some more than others. But in every human being, our emotion and behavior simply transcend logic and structure. And this is much of what makes life so interesting, so beautiful, and so meaningful.

And like the basic randomness of life and memory themselves, a moment's pause allows random images from a lifetime fill my mind in an unpredictable dance of light, sound, and emotion -- composing and orchestrating a masterpiece of meaning and context...

I am surprised to realize how many of these random memories include my father. How much my Dad has influenced me, shaped me, and defined me... I have random memories of a thousand conversations, a million interactions, and a nearly infinite store of emotions. I remember how much of a random streak runs through my Dad, himself. It was the kind of thing that would (and still can) make me and my brothers and sister laugh at times: walking in on a living room conversation while randomly swatting at an invisible gnat... a request for dancing answered by a slow, rhythmic, random swaying... Silly moments, funny moments... Yet as I think on my life and my father, in a random fashion, I am reminded how much these random moments carry significance and purpose -- unbeknownst to deepest consciousness at the time, and perhaps still not completely realized, but indelibly captured and replayed for the rest of life's days.

...I remember discovering water striders on the par course in Lancaster, exploring and learning together with Jay, and Anna, and Dad...

...I remember Sunday mornings, listening to by Dad singing "Moses" or "Mister Simon" or "The Preacher and the Bear" -- his smooth tenor filling the halls of small sanctuaries, combining art and music and storytelling with faith...

...I remember running races at rest stops somewhere off an interstate in Midwest America, just doing something to break up the monotony of an extended road trip -- the simple, side-line moments of an entire vacation that become the only surviving memory...

...I remember playing basketball -- ah, the basketball. In the garage of the house on South Gamble. In the parking lot of the First Baptist Church (watch out for that poison ivy if the ball skirts off behind the backboard). In the early hours of the morning at the Berean Family Life Center. My Dad taught me to play basketball, and I picked up so much in the process. Even today, I feel that basketball helps me to process my emotions, to experience community, and to develop my mind and my body...

...I remember catching lightning bugs in the "Back Forty" of the house on Old Potossi -- experiencing a sense of wonder. Attainable, experiential wonder...

...I remember building a fort in the woods, dragging out an old armchair (which later became a hornet's nest!), carefully painting a sign to mark our territory -- becoming creators, innovators, warriors, and protectors...

...I remember conversations about the birds and the bees, conveniently timed for a captive audience during the course of an extended car ride -- meaningful communication even when it's uncomfortable...

...I remember words spoken at my wedding -- weaving the tapestry of our family's legacy and reminding me where I've come from and where I'm going...

The memories are many and varied. And they are indubitably random. Yet they inexplicably define me and shape who I am. In a strange sort of equation, these random experiences actually add up and make sense. In a sense, even my sense of structure and analysis are built upon this foundation of random significance. There's no part of who I am, or who I am becoming, that is not informed by who I've been, and by who and where I've come from. Random it may be; but not meaningless. So I am thankful. And proud. And captured by the wonder of it all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

moving on

She called to say that she'd found someone else. Well, I guess that's not entirely accurate. She didn't call me. I had to make the effort. Send an e-mail or two, a message on her voicemail, a call finally made it through while I was washing dishes one evening. And while I watched the soap bubbles dance and carress so many dirty knives, forks, and spoons, she finally picked up her phone and we started to talk. And she tried to dance and carress the cold dirty truth that she was leaving. That she wanted out. That somehow the relationship would be improved and enhanced if we just didn't hang out as much anymore.

So I listened, as it was already clear that she was past persuasion. And I tried -- oh, I tried -- to have a kind voice and do what a friend needs to do to let his friend off the hook even when that hook represents so much time, energy, and emotional investment. I just listened, adding an "Mm-hm" every now and then to make it seem like I was understanding and compassionate. But this façade masked anger and feelings of betrayal. As she droned on and on in her syruppy-sweet sad song -- pretending like this was wise, rational, the best for everyone -- and I just kept thinking how much this was all such a joke...

I was glad to be washing dishes again after the call ended. It was a channel for my frustrations. Blasting hot water over so much crud and muck, letting everything melt down the drain, leaving pure white plates and shiny silver utensils gleaming in the drying rack. Using a thin white tea towel to wipe up everything that didn't quite evaporate. Restoring everything to cleanliness, wholeness, order. It's sanctification. Holiness. A new start. I felt much better by the time I hung up my towel.

My dinner guests was on their way over. We had stories to share and lives to celebrate. The dishes were back in the cupboard. I was ready to go.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

It's crazy to notice at such an early age, but Olivia already seems to look up her big brother... She likes to be where Elliot is, touch the things that Elliot is touching, taste the things that Elliot is eating. Now that she's more mobile, crawling around and pulling herself to sitting and standing, the mimicking pattern is more obvious than ever (much to Elliot's chagrin, at times). Olivia just seems to enjoy being in Elliot's presence, soaking up every opportunity and hope of opportunity for interaction. One smile from Elliot, intentionally directed toward Olivia, is enough to set her giggling. It's a charming and beautiful image, played out in our home every day.

I think there must be something about the nature of human beings that simply seeks something to emulate, immitate, idolize. If it's already happening in my 9-month-old girl, then it must be fundamental to our social development. I don't understand it, and I can't explain it... but I can clearly observe it -- and in so doing, I gain an interesting insight into my own life and Life in general.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Life After God

Last weekend, I just re-read one of my favorite books of all time: Douglas Coupland's "Life After God." It's a collection of short stories with a mildly (though not necessarily) autobiographical tone. They are stories of family, faith, hope, pain... at times hysterical, at times profoundly sad...

I find the stories of "Life After God" to be absolutely beautiful. As far as I know, Coupland would not call himself a Christian -- nor might anyone else, for that matter. Yet he touches on themes that are highly spiritual and deeply meaningful (perhaps moreso than a majority of "Christian" authors). He writes in short stories that could easily be disconnected and separately digested, yet the entire collection breathes common vapors and drinks from common pools of thought. As I'm pulled along from one story to the next, the larger themes unfold in front of me. I can't exactly place what it is, but something in his words simply resounds in a core part of my being, and not just me but also my generation. In my humble opinion, "Life After God" is one of the most powerful and poignant works of art for this era.

A lot of times, in my own writing, I catch myself trying to sound like Douglas Coupland. So I wanted to share some isolated passages from "Life After God." They're not as good by themselves, without the context of the larger stories, but they are still beautiful. The book can be irreverent at times and even vulgar -- but I recommend it as a case study on the spiritual temperament of those men and women born into the Western world during the closing decades of the 1900s... From here, I'll let the work stand for itself:

"You are the first generation raised without religion."

* * * * *

"And there were Christian radio stations, too, so many many stations, and the voices on them seemed so enthusiastic and committed. They sounded like they sincerely believed in what they were saying, and so for once I decided to pay attention to these stations, trying to figure out what exactly it was they were believing in, trying to understand the notion of Belief.

The stations talked about Jesus and salvation and I found it pretty hard listening because these religious types are always so whacked out and extreme. I think they take things too literally and miss too many points because of this literalism. This had always been the basic flaw with religion -- or so I had been taught, and so (I realized) I had come to believe. So at least I knew one thing for sure that I believed in.

The radio stations all seemed to be talking about Jesus nonstop, and it seemed to be this crazy orgy of projection, with everyone projecting onto Jesus the antidotes to the things that had gone wrong in their own lives. He is Love. His is Forgiveness. He is Compassion. He is a Wise Career Decision. He is a Child Who Loves Me.

I was feeling a sense of loss as I heard these people. I felt like Jesus was sex -- or rather, I felt like I was from another world where sex did not exist and I arrived on Earth and everyone talked about how good sex felt, and showed me their pornography and built their lives around sex, and yet I was forever cut off from the true sexual experience. I did not deny that the existence of Jesus was real to these people -- it was merely that I was cut off from their experience in a way that was never connectable.

And yet I had to ask myself over and over what it was that these radio people were seeing in the face of Jesus. They sounded like their lives had once been so messed up and lost as they spoke; at least they were no longer so lost anymore -- like AA people. So I figured that was a good thing."

* * * * *

"I felt sad because I realized that once people are broken in certain ways, they can't ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older as you see the people in your life break one by one. You wonder when your turn is going to be, or if it's already happened."

* * * * *

"Our curse as humans is that we are trapped in time -- our curse is that we are forced to interpret life as a sequence of events -- a story -- and that when we can't figure out what our particular story is we feel lost somehow."

* * * * *

"Life was charmed but without politics or religion. It was the life of children of the children of the pioneers -- life after God -- a life of earthly salvation on the edge of heaven. Perhaps this is the finest thing to which we may aspire, the life of peace, the blurring between dream life and real life -- and yet I find myself speaking these words with a sense of doubt.

I think there was a trade-off somewhere along the line. I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God.

But then I remind myself we are living creatures -- we have religious impulses -- we must -- and yet into what cracks do these impulses flow in a world without religion? It is something I think about every day. Sometimes I think it is the only thing I should be thinking about."

* * * * *

"I'm trying to escape from ironic hell: cynicism into faith; randomness into clarity; worry into devotion. But it's hard because I try to be sincere about life and then I turn on a TV and I see a game show host and I have to throw up my hands and give up. Too many easy pickin's! Clarity would be so much easier if there weren't so many cheesy celebrities around. Agreed?"

* * * * *

"Some facts about me: I think I am a broken person. I seriously question the road my life has taken and I endlessly rehash the compromises I have made in my life. I have an unsecure and vaguely crappy job with an amoral corporation so that I don't have to worry about money. I put up with halfway relationships so as not to have to worry about loneliness. I have lost the ability to recapture the purer feelings of my younger years in exchange for a streamlined narrow-mindedness that I assumed would propel me to "the top." What a joke."

* * * * *

"Sometimes I want to go to sleep and merge with the foggy world of dreams and not return to this, our real world. Sometimes I look back on my life and am surprised at the lack of kind things I have done. Sometimes I just feel that there must be another road that can be walked -- away from this person I became -- either against my will or by default."

* * * * *

"Now -- here is my secret:

I tell it to you with anopenness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God -- that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love."

Saturday, June 04, 2005


Have you ever noticed that the clouds seem to move faster, as you get older? As a boy, I can't ever remember a time that I sat still long enough to actually watch clouds move -- can you? So where did I cross that threshold of being able to watch the sky long enough to observe actual movement and change in the cloud patterns? And now that I stop to watch, why do those clouds seem so fast? Have they gotten faster, or have I just gotten slower and older? ...Isn't it strange that I'm now the one lying on my back, looking up at the sky, trying to get my little boy to stop playing for a moment and watch the clouds with me?

Do you ever look in the mirror and realize how much older you're becoming? Why didn't anyone tell me that I'm sprouting some gray hairs in my beard and on the sides of my head? How could it be that no one noticed my thinning crown? Is it simply that they really didn't realize, or are they just being polite? Why does aging have such an effect on us (and by "us" wouldn't I mean everyone who observes the phenomenon in others and not just those caught in the process of visibly aging)?

I certainly understand that this realization of aging is a bit sad or scary -- but isn't it strange that I'm actually not that upset about it (at least not today)? I mean, didn't someone say that gray hairs are a crown of glory? Can't I enjoy the fact that I have a beautiful wife and beautiful children, without yearning for some stupid notion of "glory days"? Couldn't it be that my glory days are now? How long do we have to let our society dictate what's best and most glamorous? Does anyone want to join me in a celebration of small gray hairs, the beginnings of wrinkles, and growing older together as a family?

Would you have ever though it possible to write four entire paragraphs with nothing but questions? And yet I wonder: does it only request responses, or can it in fact provide answers and reveal truth? Who knows?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

green tree

I think "green tree" would be a great name for a church... So organic, strong, alive. Trees combine establishment with adaptation, solidity with flexibility, presence with potentiality... a force of life that can exist anywhere and everywhere, even in the harshest of environments. The symbolism is more than tangible.

The Bible describes a righteous man as being "like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither." Jesus Christ himself takes the symbolism of a green tree on himself on his way to the cross, when he asks the women of Jerusalem, "If men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" And God's Kingdom is demonstrated through the image of the mustard tree, which grows from the tiniest of seeds to become a vibrant, green tower and shelter to the birds of the air.

What is the church meant to be but men and women, made righteous through God's grace, united under the headship of Jesus to serve as the Body of Christ, working together to establish and expand God's Kingdom in an ever-widening circle of influence? That sounds like a green tree to me...