Monday, July 20, 2015

The Guy In The Basement

When I told my husband that I'd invited a guy who's on a motorcycle adventure (aiming for some 23,000 miles around the United States in 10 weeks) to spend the night at our house, he gave me The Look.

He didn't say anything; I just got that sort-of side eye look he gives - you might have seen it, if you've spent any time with him.

And, to be honest, I sort of unrolled the information slowly, because I was pretty sure that I'd get both The Look and The Side Eye; but I was also pretty sure that we could get past it, if we moved carefully.

(Once, someone I respect and care about told me, 'Beth always gets what she wants.' He wasn't necessarily nice about it - we were in the middle of an argument - and it made me so angry. I'm not sure if I felt insulted or caught, and, quite frankly, I've been worrying over that ever since, like a tiny piece of steak caught between your teeth. Do I really always get what I want? Or, more importantly, do I bulldoze my way in, out, and around the people I love to get what I want?

This concerns me, as half the time, I'm not even sure what I want. I don't trust myself, like John Mayer says, with loving you or anything else. I know I'm impetuous and spontaneous and ridiculously naive at times. I know I refuse to look at details and keep my head in the clouds. I know this about myself, and I don't trust what I want, which is one sure, strong reason why my husband is a solid match for me; he slows me down and makes me think.

Where was I?)

So, I had this strategy, that I knew he would need some time to process, even though I knew this guy wasn't an ax murderer, and I think hospitality matters and that the most wonderful thing we should do is open our home and feed this guy dinner and let him spend the night and let's just DO IT FOR GOODNESS' SAKE.

Plus, I was curious. What kind of person decides to spend 10 weeks on a motorcycle, criss-crossing the country to the tune of 23,000 miles? I mean, I knew who he was, but I didn't really know him.

Tracy and I went to high school together. Without the internet, we'd probably have never, ever even thought of one another again. Even with the internet, I was unsure; did I know him from choir? Did he write for the school paper? Was he a year older than me?

Wrong. He was a band guy - trombone, to be exact. He wasn't a journalist; in fact, he ended up in education, like me, teaching music. I nailed the age - he did indeed graduate a year before I did, but we were acquaintances because of school musicals, mostly. That's about it for our history, unless there's something else that I don't remember. And just like everybody wants to reach out and touch somebody through Facebook, we'd become 'friends', which is to say we gave each other permission to look at our photos of our kids and our yards, and to read our blog posts.

So Tony says Okay and I realize that really, I am not even CLOSE to being ready for company, as the boys' rooms are wrecked and the girls' room is still buried under wedding dresses and clutter. There's the basement space, but the bathroom is filthy - like unfit for human use - and the bed hasn't been made.

So I made a pie, and started fixing dinner for a guy who said he'd been eating Ramen and sleeping in backyards. He showed up, but I didn't even know it, because he had rolled up, found Tony outside in the garage and they immediately started talking bike talk. That gave me time to clean the bathroom.

We ate dinner and caught up and asked the inevitable question: Why are you doing this?

I think his answer satisfied me - it started out as a Guinness Book of World Records thing, totally legit, and it was fascinating to hear about that process. He eventually abandoned that plan - did you know that a traveling world record attempt requires two full minutes of video while you are in transit, every hour? Crazy! So the world record won't happen this trip, but he is pressing on with his original dream to get the miles under his belt.

He shared his stories of the road and even more (hilarious) stories of school bus wrecks, and students and education...and as we sat and talked, a peculiar melancholy settled over me.

I couldn't explain it then, and I'm less able now. I wish I could pinpoint it; a swirl of nostalgia, coupled with a total lack of nostalgia, talking with a man who left the era in which we were comrades, of a sort, to pursue a solid, enduring marriage, three kids and a varied, but settled, career. I watched my husband connect and really, deeply enjoy the conversation; he was inspired and encouraged. That pleased me, greatly.

But for me, something was amiss. Expectations, maybe; I only know Tracy Farr from the memories of adolescence, and I don't remember much. We didn't do the, 'Hey, do you remember when?.....', because we didn't have any of those.

Yet, he knew me, the girl I used to be. Or at least he saw me, way back then. And maybe I was hoping for some clue, some revelation or connection between this rich place I find myself in today, and the wild, iridescent mayhem of being sixteen. Maybe I thought he'd walk into the house of this fifty-year old woman with nearly grown kids and say, 'I can tell you how you got here because I knew you way back when and this is what I saw...' But that's ridiculous.

We didn't have time for those conversations, for the meandering exploration of what we hoped and dreamed and where we are. We'd start from scratch, anyway; we had no notes to compares, no foundational history other than geography. We both stumbled through and survived adolescence and built lives doing the best with what we had, and here we are, and such is life.

So Tracy Farr rode quickly into our lives and regaled us with stories. He rode out just as quickly, on the move; no time for sight-seeing or even breakfast, as his purpose is wrapped in deadlines and mileage. But for just a few hours, over dinner and pie and his best stories, there was some sort of closure, some acknowledgement of that life that was High School in Grand Prairie, Texas; some brief connection of being in our fifties, in America, with all the wide open spaces you care to explore right in front of you. Ours for the asking.

I'm so glad Tracy came, and I'm praying for safety as he continues to ride.

You can see his pictures of his trip here; they are magnificent. He writes about his travels (and other stuff) here.

And he looks like this:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Small, Sticky Truths

'Epiphany' - it's a big word for an 'aha' moment.

Sometimes it's a 'DUH' moment, more akin to Homer Simpson than a host of angels or some deeply intellectual metaphysical understanding.

I had one, this morning.

It's for me, because I need reminding.

Because I read the news on the internet about missionaries who end up captivated by child pornography; about a political system that sometimes seem more like a game show; about financial systems collapsing. I hear about soldiers dying - a story that barely makes the news. Drought and destruction and collapse and iniquity and corruption and death.

I see a broken world. But, of course, it's always been so...

I clasped in my hand, yesterday, post-it notes with very personal, very real requests for prayer. They were small, sticky truths; the reality of why we do what we do every Sunday, when we proclaim help and healing through an infinite God who somehow became flesh and somehow matters. I stood in a small circle and asked for it, knowing that it might be a dangerous request.

It was.

My heart is pulverized, with the weight of all that is carried in that small circle that is my immediate family, my brothers and sisters, my fellow pilgrims.

Financial paralysis - over and over again.

I said, We must believe this, we must live this if we are to ask, with integrity, for others to join us on this journey. So raise YOUR hand, share YOUR burden, move towards honest community. Write down your burden. I will pray for you.

"I will pray for you."

I said it, and I meant it.

But then I read those notes, one after the other, and my heart seized and I felt burdened...

which is what I asked for.

I will pray for you.

So I brought them home, and I woke up this morning knowing I had a million things to do.

I will pray for you.

I checked Facebook, and made a list of the most pressing needs on this very busy day. I checked the news. I checked Facebook again, just in case I missed anything.

I read my email.

I will pray for you.

The moments crept up on me, that point in the morning where you know if you don't move now, you're going to be late, and the timeline you'd planned will go out the window. It hit me, and it was time to move, and I looked at the evidence of my morning, and I felt some despair - at the state of the world, and the random chaos of my Facebook feed, and my emails that offer more and more Things To Do, and I knew I had to move, and I felt overwhelmed.

Monday morning, 6:30AM, and I already felt defeated. In despair. And wondering, honestly, if it even matters. In a Godless society, where it's easier and easier to live independently, sleeping in on Sundays, unconcerned with faith, proudly and openly secular - does it even matter?

All these people, all this pain, all this clutter - does it even matter?

And then came that epiphany, the one that - quite frankly - I don't want to admit. But the one that I am compelled to confess this morning, before this week takes off. I want to remind myself. I want to remind you.

I gently reminded a friend and coworker last week that doing the work of Jesus requires a daily awareness of what he did, how he lived, what he said. To declare it with integrity means we have to internalize it.

And it's not as if it is a struggle, or a difficult, torturous thing. The words and acts of Jesus are life-giving, precious, encouraging, uplifting, interesting.

But then again, so is Facebook. Isn't it?


I know I'm not the only one. My distraction today was Facebook and financial stuff. Only an hour in, I'm anxious that the week is a loss already....

But it's not.

I have people to pray for.

I have a spiritual practice that says mediation matters, prayer matters, reading Old Testament history and prophecy and New Testament tales of incarnation - they all matter, and they change us.

So, join me, will you? If God is to be real, and a reality in your life - today, tomorrow, and the next day - let's act like it.

I don't know what it looks like for you, but for me, it looks like this:

Remembering that blessed are the meek, and those who mourn, and the poor in spirit.
Praying for a wrinkled stack of sticky notes.
Offering praise from my heart and my truth, rather than a somebody else's song.

Grateful, for grace - this, and every day.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Death As A Teacher

Death is not all that complicated.

It may be a long watch, when we deal with illness or injury. 

It may come suddenly; it may take us by surprise.

Regardless,there is no doubt that we all know it awaits. Each and every one of us is headed int the same direction, the same end. This mortal life will cease and we cross into that place that remains a mystery to all who walk this earth.

Death, then, is fair. We all get there. No one escapes, regardless of the imbalances we encounter while living. 

Death is fair, and it is a most appropriate teacher. And we learn, as we move through what remains. 

Mourning and grief; these are complicated things. Those left behind - we do all we can to make sense of it, to seize the day and reevaluate life in light of the shadow of death. It doesn't flinch, it does not draw back; it is what it is, and it is final.

Today, I wore the role of 'pastor' in a way that is not unfamiliar and yet not without great reverence and respect. I officiated the funeral of a friend, a fellow musician. And I cannot help but reflect upon this experience, even considering why it has such resonance and power in me even now, hours later. I'm a pastor; that's what pastors do, right? Weddings, funerals, Sunday services; we represent the presence of God where needed or expected. It's not that complicated.

But for me, it is never simple. When I wear this hat I am always, constantly, aware of my lack of qualifications. And it's not just the basic human insecurities of whether or not I'm good enough - it's a larger thing, one that carries, for me, the immensely serious and powerful responsibility of this role. Not that I think I'm all that - I don't. It's precisely because I'm not all that - not much more than a mom, a wife, a teacher, a musician who is forever indebted to the brilliant and life-changing power of God and the larger-than-life truth of Jesus. I am confident that God called me into service, but there is tremendous weight in the office of pastor. My expectations are high. 

So I tread lightly. I prayed, and I dug deep. I wrote words and walked away and came back to edit again. I had the great privilege of taking an entire day to contemplate the life of a specific human - his legacy and the imprint he left on the world - and to consider what it would mean to represent the presence of God as we gathered to celebrate his life. 

And then we met today, and the God who says I will never leave you or forsake you was true to His word, and He was with me, and the certainty of the words I'd written rang with rich, vivd power in my own heart. Something clicked within me, something about the presence of God and the gift of human presence and a half-century of life and the beginning of wisdom, coupled with the reverence of the Holy One.

My friend, Craig; we will miss your presence. Your smile and your constant encouragement live on, even today, with the honor of standing in front of those who love you, refusing presumption, welcoming the companionship of the One with whom you walk, right now, on the other side of this life. Thank you for this last gift, brother. 

I will hold it carefully.

Craig Butler RIP

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Childlike Faith In A Music Store

Although I did preach the sermon on Youth Sunday at my church in 1980, and in spite of the fact that I can look back now and see a definitive calling into ministry even in my childhood, my first career and my formal education is in teaching. I have a degree in Music Education, and I've taught in public and private classrooms off and on since the mid-80's.

I have great, powerful memories of teaching school; a few years in the Dominican Republic that were fueled by youthful passion and exuberance and the incredible beauty of the Caribbean. I was young enough and bold enough to believe that anything was possible, and so it was. Green and naive, I was filled to the brim every day with the joy of teaching.

In a small town in Texas, I learned what it was like to open your heart to kids from difficult circumstances, and I came to see the honor and privilege it was to gain trust and respect in a way that mattered both inside and outside of the classroom.

I taught in Ohio, a year that was probably more about my survival and sanity than any good I did in the classroom - but I still believe it mattered, the opportunity to walk into a classroom every day and wave a banner that said You matter. Your soul matters. Your heart matters. Sing. Play. Dance. Shout. Make it matter.

I've always believed that education is ministry - life change, investment, transformation. Again, during one transitional year in Chesterfield County, I encountered kids who needed so much...and others who barely seemed to need anything. I did my best to be present, but it was a hard year for me; I was barely present in my own life, and teaching was hard. My cup, that used to overflow, was parched and drained, and giving and sharing and leading and guiding was exhausting.

That was the year I walked away; I was offered the opportunity to work full-time for my church, in the same community where my kids attended school, and I needed to do it. I needed to soak in the grace and healing; I needed to give back and serve. I wanted to be there.

It was a very good decision; a decade into the job, I've grown in ways I knew were necessary and others that were unexpected. Creativity has flourished; I've discovered my weaknesses and learned not to fear them.

I stayed in the classroom, part-time, for a year or two; the local high school needed an accompanist and I gladly obliged, grabbing moments when I was asked to instruct and coach and cast vision and throw out words of inspiration. But when I walked out of the classroom for the final time, I said I was done. I have no plans to teach in the classroom again. Leaning hard into the work on my plate in this season of life at my current job, I seize the moments when I can tutor and enlighten, expound upon things, throw out some ideas and inspiration and wait for the light bulb to come on.

I love those moments. But I have no interest in going back to the classroom.

And yet, today, something beautiful and amazing and wonderful happened. My husband's business - Powhatan Music & Sound - had been asked to host a special event for elementary kids in the county. Called Read to the Rhythm, the school partnered with the library to hand out books, share stories and inspire kids to read throughout the summer months. We worked to clean up and prepare and make room...

And then the kids came in.

And they kept coming.

I never counted, but we had probably 60 to 75 kids there, from preschool up through 6th grade. They were eager, smiling; each one came in clutching a copy of a new Scholastic book that the volunteers handed out on the front porch of the music store. Respectful, mindful of their surroundings, we had no issue at all with kids touching instruments or running around. They were well-behaved and well-mannered.

Valerie Ayers, of the local school board, had chosen a book about music to read to the kids. For certain sections of the book, I was prepared to illustrate with a live instrument; 'P' is for piano (which I played); 'V' is for violin (which I cannot play, but I can fake); and on and on, with banjos and ukuleles and maracas and guitars and the upright bass.

The kids smiled and I had an absolute blast.

I got to tell them about the music store in a very short spiel, and then we took a few questions.

How do you make the instruments?

What makes the sound?

Do you have every instrument here?

How do you yodel in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'?

There was a moment, when I was speaking, bent over towards those upturned, shiny faces, when the joy of teaching flooded through me. I remembered what it was like to spend an entire school year with a group of children who knew that they were there to learn, who were caught up in a system that was sometimes a chore and yet they were willing to go along and follow the one leading.

Childlike faith.

That's a thing in my current day-to-day job, this notion that there is great value in childlike faith. But in this day and age, the serious, humble pursuit of childlike faith seems to be lost in the shuffle. Lately, it gets shouted down by folks taking sides and tossing out arguments, pushing agendas and defending long-held beliefs; there certainly isn't much evidence of the innocence that 'childlike faith evokes on the endless stream of social media declarations and demarkations - even (or especially?) from followers of Jesus, for whom childlike faith was worthy of emphasis. Even when we gather on Sundays, sometimes it's an awkward mix of a longing to celebrate and the tender, careful eggshells we walk on for those who remain skeptical or even hostile; the air can be thick with cynicism, a stubborn tolerance of rather than participation in corporate singing, a bleak "show me" cloud that hovers over our heads, reeking of the muck and mire of cultural battles and general discontent. Anything 'childlike' can get buried pretty quickly.

Richard Rohr often provokes interesting challenges in me; his writing inspires, occasionally comforts, but mostly stirs up a mess in my soul. These days, I think my heart is better stirred up and thoughtful than it is relaxed and cozy, and this morning, I read these words from Rohr:
Humans tend to think that if they agree or disagree with the idea of a thing, they have realistically encountered the thing itself. Not at all is necessary to encounter the thing in itself. Presence is my word for this encounter, a different way of knowing and touching the moment. It is a much more vulnerable position, and leaves us without a full sense of control, which is why many will not go there...In some ways, presence is the 'one thing necessary' (Luke 10.42), and perhaps the hardest thing of all.
I'm not sure if any of the dots connect in this; they hardly do for me, so I cannot say for sure that anyone reading this can make sense of it. A relative who reads my blog occasionally told me last week that I wrote a lot, but often didn't really say anything. He smiled as he said it, and neither of us were really sure if it was a complement or constructive criticism - but it's true, really. I write a lot and I don't always understand it, but I can tell you this: Something about standing in front of a bunch of open-faced, open-hearted children, talking about the joy found in music and learning - that changed me today. It pulled me clear back around to the beginning of my life, lived with purpose, and it caused me to think about what I do every day, especially on Sundays, in my work and my real life.

As Rohr says, I think I encountered presence, today, of a sort that I can't really make sense right now - but that's okay. That vulnerability is okay, and maybe even necessary.

Childlike faith. Oh, may I remember.