Welcome to Big Old Goofy World . . . a place where I can share my thoughts, hopes, and dreams about this rock that we live on and call home.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Keep It Simple . . .

The whole phrase, though politically incorrect today, is “keep it simple, stupid.”  The K.I.S.S. theory . . . I know it well.  Having graduated college and heading off for seminary it was the first embroider picture my mother ever gave me . . . she said as a reminder.  She wanted me to remember that I shouldn’t make life more difficult than it had to be.  It was good advice, but not the easiest to follow.  Sometimes it was my fault, other times it was just the fault of having to live life.  Whatever the case, the truth still rings today (and, any day for that matter) . . . keep it simple.

Though I have not yet mastered the art of keeping things in life simple, I have come to see that it has worked well in other areas of my life.  One of the areas that it has worked best for me has been in the area of prayer . . . by keeping it simple; prayer is a constant practice in my life.  By keeping it simple, I seem to be able to prayer more frequently and with more impact.  By keeping it simple, God seems to appreciate it more.  It works for me.

I have always felt that prayer is simply communication . . . a conversation . . . between God and me.  It is just two ol’ buddies talking.  I can tell God anything and, God can tell me anything.  The problem is one of us listens better than the other . . . I will let you guess which one of us that is . . . and, it is not God.  But, the bottom line is that it is a two-way form of communication that involves one speaking, one listening, and sharing together.  Pretty simple.

The truth is that it has not always been that simple.  The fact of the matter is that there are as many ways to pray as there are people praying.  There are lots of proven methods out there . . . are pastoral prayers . . . centering prayers . . . petition prayers . . . contemplation . . . rosary prayers . . . lectio divina . . . adoration prayers . . . the “Oh my God, I need it” prayers . . . and, the list could go on and on and on.  Trust me; I know . . . I have probably dabbled in all of them at one time or another.  Plus, what I don’t know, the wife will tell me about as she belongs to a spiritual direction group that . . . studies prayer.  With all the sorts and types and forms of prayer floating around there, it is difficult to keep one’s prayer life simple.

For a long time I used a form for most of my prayers . . . A.C.T.S.  This acronym stands for: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  Someone told it was very biblical, but I liked it because I could remember it.  Adoration . . . admiring the Holy.  Confession . . . admitting shortcomings and sins.  Thanksgiving . . . giving thanks for blessings and gifts of life.  Supplication . . . the reminded to do the Holy’s work . . . that prayer is not just about me.  With this acronym I blazed through many years and countless prayers . . . but, is it simple?  I don’t know, in public it worked, but in private it was a little redundant.  Plus, I think God probably wished that I had just numbered the prayers since God had heard them all before . . . now, that would have simplified things a whole bunch.  The truth is that this was not really prayer, if I truly believe that prayer is a two-way conversation between God and me.  Seems I was doing all the talking, and God was doing all the listening.  Not much of a conversation.

A while back I came across a book by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott.  This simple, little book is about prayer . . . its title is Help, Thanks, Wow—The Three Essential Prayers.  Now I know that Anne Lamott is not everyone’s favorite writer as she has a tendency to shake up the traditional understanding of faith with some profane observations and words.  But, she must be doing something right as her books are often bestsellers read by millions.  This book is her response from admirers of her other books to actually delve into some of her spiritual practices . . . like prayer.  This little book is her response to that request . . . and, I take it, not one she was too thrilled about writing as it is pretty personal and simple.  In the scheme of heavy hitting theologians, I think she felt it was too simple . . . far removed from the spiritual classics that came before.  Nevertheless, she put it out there and it is a good primer for simplifying prayer.

She writes that all of her prayers come down to three things: Help . . . prayers that seek the Holy’s help; Thanks . . . prayers that acknowledge the Holy’s presence in life and the blessings and gifts that it brings; and, Wow . . . prayers that stand in awe of the Holy, the Holy’s presence and, often go beyond words.  As far as she is concerned, those three prayers pretty much cover her conversations with God.  Get that?  Conversations with God.  I liked this . . . like A.C.T.S., this was something that I could remember.  For the past couple of weeks, during that time of community prayer within the Sunday worship service, I have been using this form of prayer.  In all honesty, it has been freeing . . . more open . . . more honest . . . and, gets to the point.  It is simple.

Now, I am sure that there are those out there who are going to jump all over this idea of simplified prayer . . . that it is too simple . . . that it is forgetting something . . . that it isn’t deep enough, holy enough, wordy enough, or even, enough.  Oh well, I did say that there are as many forms of prayer as there are people who pray . . . and, all of them work for those praying.  Who says we all have to pray the same way?  I am all for keeping it simple.  Because of that I like the idea of prayer jars . . . write the prayer on a piece of paper, stick it in a jar, and let God have it.  I like the idea of a prayer wall that I read about in The Secret Life of Bees . . . instead of a jar, the prayers were stuck in cracks in an old stone wall out in a field.  Prayer should be simple . . . simple enough that God understands me, and I understand God.  That we talk.  That we listen.

Even though others might not know when God and I are having a conversation . . . that I am in prayer, God knows.  Sometimes they are formal requests, sometimes wordless requests.  Sometimes they follow a form, other times they represent incoherent ramblings . . . but, God gets it.  Sometimes they are profane and angry prayers . . . but, God understands.  Sometimes they are simple acknowledgements of the one word kind, like, WOW!  God understands.  I know that God listens and responds . . . God’s presence surrounds me like the air that I breathe . . . it is an awareness, though sometimes stuff in the back of my mind and day, that always comes rushing back . . . God is with me.  Always with me.

Sometimes the simplest prayer we can say is “Amen.”  I think that would make my mother proud.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Changes with the Teller

“The story of my family. . .changes with the teller.”
(Jennifer Haigh)

One of the things that I appreciate about American Indian storytellers is that they preface their stories with a statement: “This is the truth as I know it at this time.”  I think that this is a statement all of us should make when making a statement when it comes to telling stories . . . especially when it comes to family.  There are lots of versions of my family’s story . . . primarily because each of involved in the story see and understand it from our own perspective.  Rarely have any of us agreed on the so-called “official” version . . . and, we probably never will.

In graduate school I had the opportunity, unbeknownst to the class at the time, to take part in an experiment about observation.  A person came into the classroom prior to the professor’s entrance, created a scene that involved the professor threatening to call the campus police, and then left.  Those of us in the class were shocked at what we were witnessing.  Then the professor turned to the class and asked, “What just happened?”  Of course, in the retelling of the experience, each class member had different observations about what had happened . . . some were close to each other, others were quite different . . . but, somewhere in all of those stories was the truth.  It depends upon who is telling the story.

So, it goes with family stories.

Over the years, whenever my family has gathered and told “family” stories, I have been aghast at how wrong those stories have been . . . especially when I am not the one telling the story.  In the past, I found it my role to correct the stories . . . to get the facts straight . . . to make it right.  The result?  Most often it ended up with someone being offended because he or she was embarrassed because he or she was corrected.  Feelings were hurt.  I was called a pompous ass . . .

. . . and, I was.  The fact is, we can only tell a story from our own experiences . . . from our own place within the story . . . and, rarely are those places the same for each individual.  Thus, the story is different when seen through different eyes.  What I saw, experienced, and know is my personal view of that situation in that time and place.  Same goes for everyone else.  To expect anything else is wrong.  My goodness, look at how many books are written about history . . . here in Montana, there are thousands of books written about the Battle of Little Big Horn . . . which is the official story?

The official story is the one that is shared because it is the “truth as I know it” at this time and place in the journey.  It may not be the same as someone else’s story, but it is as relevant, truthful, and meaningful as the story I told . . . at least to that person because that is how he or she understands that part of his or her life.  Who am I to poop on that person’s experience?

“The story of my family . . . changes with the teller,” writes Jennifer Haigh.  And, she is right.  I can only speak for myself whenever I tell a story.  I cannot speak for my brothers or sister . . . for my wife or children . . . for my friends . . . or anyone else.  I can only ask that they accept my story as I understand it, as I must accept their understanding of the story as they tell it.  Combined the stories create a whole . . . actually, more than a whole.  Together it creates an understanding of who we are in the bigger picture of family . . . and, of life.  It helps us to understand.  To see my experience through the eyes of someone else opens me to more of myself and helps me to understand how others see me.  I cannot do that if I insist that mine is the only story.

So, this is the truth as I know it right now . . . in this time and place.  With age I have come to appreciate those times when family and friends gather, tell stories, laugh and cry . . . I have come to understand myself better . . . I have come to understand them better.  And, besides, sometimes their stories are better than mine.  Within them all is the truth . . . you just have to listen.

Dust on the Pews

Bob Dylan, way back in the mid-1960s—sang about the times changing.  Another person once said that if you were not big enough to change the times, then you needed to change with the times.  Well, within the so-called “church” today, the times are changing and, not too many people are embracing that change . . . at least not from the inside of the “church”.  The result?  Lots of dust on the pews.

I have served as an ordain minister in a mainline denomination for 30 years now.  In those 30 years I have seen a lot of changes . . . some good, some not so good . . . and, I am still in the “church”.  In retrospect, those changes through the years were not really significant; but, the changes today are big.  The church is growing . . . it is transforming . . . it is becoming something that is making people uncomfortable, especially those who have grown use to the way that things have always been.  It is a scary time in the “church”.

Statistics from research show the decline in the so-called “traditional” church . . . show that people are show their unhappiness with the “traditional” church by not showing up . . . the dust is collecting on the pews.  The media has forecasted the demise of the “church” as it has always been known.  The “church” of our parents and grandparents is fading, but to what . . . no one is certain about yet.  With no past to lean upon, and no clear cut future defined . . . well, it kind of makes people nervous and scared.

Unfortunately, people are not honest.  People are not honest about what they are really feeling.  Instead of being honest about what they are feeling, they dig in, become combative, and harp on the fact that “we never did it that way before.”  The end result?  Combative, fractured, and dying congregations scraping by to make it to the next Sunday worship service.  As humans, we have a tendency—for good or bad—to hang onto that which is familiar.  Good or bad, when it is familiar, at least we know what to expect.  This change in the “church” that is growing is not something familiar . . . it is new, different, and scary.

Or is it?

Is this so-called transformation really something new and different?  Or, is it something that has finally come to fruition?  Has finally come into the form that it was always intended to be?  I tend to think that it is more of the latter—no something new and different.  In the beginning of what was called “the Way” the followers of Jesus did not see themselves as sharing something new and different, but the fulfillment of what God intended from the very beginning.  Jesus, himself, stated that he did not come to get rid of the old, but to show how it was meant to be lived.  Those earlier followers saw themselves as sharing the final form of what they already were . . . not something new, but something complete.  It was not new, but a model of how it was meant to be from the very beginning.  I think that is where this transformation is coming from . . . not something new, but what it is supposed to be.

Of course, those are fighting words with those firmly entrenched in the so-called traditional view of the “church”.  Fighting words because that means that they were wrong.  Again, I disagree.  I do not think that the so-called traditional “church” got it wrong . . . far from it.  I think that the traditional “church” was just a part of the growing phase . . . just a part of the journey.  The traditional “church” is a part of the journey . . . a part of the plan . . . it was never meant to be the final destination.  The argument comes in whether or not it was the final form . . . final destination.  In those terms, I probably would be combative too.  The fact is, even this new transformation of the “church” is probably not the final destination or form . . . but, I do think it is getting closer.  I imagine that if another reformation happens, it will be the transformation group that is up in arms with the new kid on the block.

Some people are in the thick of the change . . . fighting for what once was.  Some people are in the thick of the change . . . fighting for what could be. And, the most—I think—are just stepping away from it all, declaring themselves to be spiritual, not religious, and waiting.  Waiting for the dust to clear.  In the meantime, the dust collects on the pews.  The bottom line is that it is killing the “church” . . . at least the “church” as most of us practice it.  In my mind, the race is on to see whether the “church” will even be there by the time I retire.  With the I.R.S.’s help that should be about another 20 years.  I guess time will tell.

As the season of Pentecost begins, we are reminded of the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit is the means of communication and collaboration with God and God’s will.  It is not a quick zap of knowledge and truth that is once and for all . . . it is a process of growth into what created us to be.  So, why we act as God only spoke God’s will to one generation and all the other generations are S.O.L.?  Is that not to limit God and God’s will?

I say, let’s follow the Spirit.  Let’s follow the Spirit through the acts of prayer and discernment.  Let us pray to understand God’s will.  Let us discern, through conversation, through research, through experience, what God’s will is.  As someone once said, “If it is God’s will, so be it . . . if not, so be it.”  The state of the “church” today leaves lots of room for the discussion of God’s will for this time and place. With all of the upheaval it would make one think that at least we need to consider what it all means.  That takes prayer and discernment . . . gifts of the Spirit.  That is where we have to begin.  If we are honest and open about our fears, willing to sit down and discuss, and open to the possibilities . . . well, maybe we can begin to get rid of that dust on the pews.  Then, again, we’ve never done it that way before . . . but, there is always hope.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Stick It to Me—Stigma

Four . . . that is the number of tattoos my daughter now has adorning her body.  Yesterday she got number four . . . where her neck joins her back . . . and, it is of the Beartooth of the Beartooth Mountains in Montana.  It is actually a cool looking tattoo . . . in fact; all of her tattoos are pretty cool.  There is the tiny dove on her right shoulder . . . the peace symbol on the inside of her right wrist . . . the “Let it be” on the left side of her collar bone . . . and, now, on her neck/back.  If you did not know where to look, you probably would not even know she had any tattoos, but that does not hide the fact that she is a “painted woman”.

At least that is how some people react when they learn that she has tattoos . . . she’s a bad girl, a wild woman, a criminal, or even a druggie.  When I told some folks about her most recent tattoo, I got that reaction from them . . . you know that look . . . one that expresses lots of disapproval and curiosity.  Curiosity about what sort of person she is . . . and, what sort of parents are the wife and I, since our daughter has four tattoos!  As I said, if one did not know where to look, no one would even know she had tattoos.  So, what is the big deal?

In all honesty, as the kids were growing up, I was pretty staunch against tattoos.  I gave the kids the lecture (number 87, I think) about them not getting tattoos as long as they were living their parents’ house.  Part of the reason for this is because tattoos are permanent . . . you cannot easily erase them later on when they become boring.  Ask one of my friends who got the name of his girlfriend tattooed on his arm professing his unending and undying love . . . ended up marrying someone else, and after forty years still regrets that his wife has to see that “other woman’s” name on his arm.  There was also some of that generalizing about the sort of people who would have tattoos . . . didn’t they understand that their parents were ministers!  What would the congregation think?  As the kids were growing up, tattoos were taboo . . . three of them got tattoos within a few months of moving out.  Yeah, what sort of parents were we!

Unfortunately we live in a society that is prejudicial . . . that is very judgmental . . . that has opinions that are readily expressed . . . that likes to separate and divide . . . that generalizes . . . that likes to stigmatize . . . and, even more unfortunately, we are all guilty of taking part in it.  Yeah, I know what you are thinking, you are not a prejudiced person . . . phtttt!  We all are prejudicial . . . trust me, we are all prejudicial.  We have our likes and dislikes . . . our opinions . . . our ideas of what is acceptable and unacceptable . . . what is right and wrong.  All of this makes us opinionated.  Opinions express our prejudices.  Right or wrong, knowingly or unknowingly . . . we all have our prejudices.  I have only known one truly unprejudicial person in my life, and he hated everyone and everything!

Stigma is a “mark” or “sign” or “label” that is used to separate others because they are different . . . they are unacceptable to some sort of written or unwritten set of rules and norms . . . It is to brand someone through perceptions (right or wrong) as being different.  As we all know, being different is not good . . . after all, God created us all in the same image . . . God’s.  Surely your image of God is the same as my image of God!

Stigma reared its ugly head early in my life and the life of my family as I was growing up.  Two of my brothers have disabilities . . . one has Cerebral Palsy, the other has major learning disabilities.  Growing up they were just my brothers . . . we fought, laughed, played, goofed off, and got in trouble . . . just like all siblings do.  I did not recognize that their disabilities made them any more or less my brothers . . . they were just my brothers.  But outside of the house the stigma flew . . . they were retarded (which neither of them are) . . . they were burdens (no more than any other children) . . . our family was trash and to be pitied . . . and, the list could go on and on.  It is no fun being on the short end of the stick when it comes to stigma . . . you can only ignore it for so long . . . you can only punch out so many people . . . you can only bang your head on the brick walls so many times.

But it did not end when I grew up and moved away from my family.  I got married, we had kids . . . and, two of the kids ended with disabilities.  One son has Epilepsy, the other learning disabilities.  It was like déjà vu . . . I hated what it did to my family growing up, and what it did to my children.  It was wrong.  Plain and simple, it was wrong . . . then and now.

Now, as many of you know, the wife and I are ordained ministers . . . have been for thirty years now.  That in and of itself is a stigma.  When I started working at the university, it got out that I was an ordained minister.  Which in turn stigmatized me . . . oh sure, I got all the theological questions, all the “please pray for us” requests, but I also got this unfair stigma that I was a certain type of “holier than thou” saint.  Needless to say, experience has changed that opinion of me over the years . . . I am just like everyone else.  Shocking as that may seem, I really am like everyone else.  I cuss . . . fuss . . . think things I shouldn’t  . . . say things that I regret . . . and, pretty much live life like everyone else.  The problem is that sometimes even positive labels can become stigmas that do not allow the individual to be who God created him or her to be.

Stigma is sticking it to another unfairly . . . it is making generalizations about others unfairly . . . it is separating, dividing, and even killing others because they are not like “us”.  We are all guilty of it . . . we do it all of the time.  Think about how we lump all politicians and political parties into categories . . . how we react to people with mental illness (they are all crazy) . . . how we treat people with disabilities . . . how we portray the elderly on television . . . how we portray gay people . . . how we treat reformed criminals (once a criminal, always a criminal) . . . how we treat those in different economic classes . . . foreigners, especially those from the Middle East . . . and, the list could go on and on and on.

Which brings us back to tattoos and my daughter.  It is unfair to stigmatize my daughter because she has four tattoos.  She is intelligent.  Good looking.  Hard-working.  A loving and devoted mother and wife.  She laughs at her father’s jokes.  She believes in God . . . tries to eat only organic and natural foods . . . reads all of the time . . . sings all of the time . . . enjoys life.  She is special and unique, and she happens to have four tattoos . . . did I say that they are all pretty cool tattoos?  So why the looks when I tell people that she has four tattoos?  What difference does it make?  She is beautiful, just as we are all beautiful, as God created her to be.  Who are we to mess with what God created . . . after all, scripture tells us, we are all created in God’s image.

Over the years I have come to view tattoos differently.  I have even caught myself thinking about getting a tattoo from time to time . . . of course, the children have encouraged me to get off the pot and do it . . . but, it hasn’t happened yet.  But, it is getting closer.  Maybe, just maybe, I will have to get one to support my daughter.  What would the neighbors think!  What would my congregation think!  What would my co-workers think!  What would the world think!  That would really blow my minister stigma out of the water!  But, who cares?  I am who I am . . . in God’s image . . . as God created me to be.  If it is good enough for God, it should be good enough for everyone else.

Please don’t stick it to others . . . please do not stigmatize.  Label bottles, not people.  In the end it is how we loved that will make the difference . . . if that isn’t something that Jesus told us to be about, then I don’t know what is.  Tattoo or not, I love my daughter for God created her to be . . . besides, like her, I love the Beartooth Mountains too.