Saturday, October 23, 2004

Rolling in Raw Sewage

The rain in San Diego had washed 180 days' worth of sewage, sludge, grime and muck into the beach waters. I was on vacation from Arizona and hadn't seen the beach for ages, so I went anyway in spite of the warnings on the news and the intermittent drizzle of rain. Three bright yellow signs at the entrance to the beach said "DANGER: RAW SEWAGE. DO NOT ENTER THE WATER! HEALTH HAZARD!"... and some other ominous words about horrific diseases to that effect. Swimming in my toilet never appealed to me, so I didn't enter the water, I walked along it. I scurried up the sand whenever the waves rushed up to bite my ankles.

I was looking down at the sand for beach glass and sea shells for my daughter. I glanced up and saw three people. There were two men with big cameras and lenses the size of a roll of 40 gallon black trash bags. And a woman. She was wearing... well.... not wearing is more the truth.... something akin to dental floss, except a foot of floss has more fibres to it, I think. She was sprawled on the beach, rolling in the waves of raw sewage in poses that would make Gumby greener with envy than he already is.

I wondered what the purpose of the photo session was and where her pictures would end up.
I wondered who would be rolling in the sewage of an 8x10 glossy of her, what disease of the mind and heart would eat at the soul of the ones who gazed on her image. I wondered if she disregarded the warning signs in her heart the first time she posed like she disregarded the warnings of the big yellow posters on the beach.

A life guard came along and told her to get out of the water. She put on her pants and sweater, and she and her companions left the beach laughing and talking. I guess if I had offered her my coat and told her to get out of the water and get out of the business because it was unhealthy for her soul, she probably would have left with two things to laugh about.

In sorrow I watched them walk past the warning signs and up the steps to their car. As they drove away, I prayed to the Virgin Mary to try to touch her heart, that she will heed the warning signs some day.

Saturday, October 16, 2004


Woke up at 2:30am to finish a job at a doctor's office before they opened for patients at 7:00am.
Went to another job and painted a living room while the client watched every brush-stroke until 5:30pm. I got home about 6 and my daughter says "I'm going to ride my bike with Kaya before dinner." Fifteen minutes later I get a call from Kaya's cell phone. "You better come, Kenzie fell off her bike and I think her arm is broken." We spend the next 3 and a half hours at urgent care. Good friends brought us dinner at the care center. I get home and finish business, answer email and get ready for the next day's work. I think I know why God invented time. If everything happened to us all at once, we couldn't bear it. Then it all becomes yesterday. Smart, God is.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Dinner with God

Life is tough lately. Do you ever get the feeling God is telling you "EAT WHAT'S ON YOUR PLATE, IT'S GOOD FOR YOU!" ? Pass the salt, please.....

Friday, October 08, 2004

What I Learned at Vacation Bible School III

On the last night of the Living Vacation Bible School all the cast and characters and kids gathered for a big helium balloon release on the front lawn. All the cast came in costume. There was John the Baptist with locusts on his hairy coat. There was Peter, and Abdul the rappin’ money changer. There was Blind Bart and Mary Magdelene. And Satan.

Being adults and therefore thinking like rational grown up adults, we were kind of slow on the uptake when we decided to have all the cast come in costume. Because, you see, if we had thought about it, it would have dawned on us that if some of the kids thought I was Jesus they would think Dan was Satan. And they did. I looked up and saw one of the staff coming toward me with a small child in tow. He toddled along a half step behind her, a death grip on the young lady’s hand, and looking back over his shoulder every few steps. They stopped in front of me and she picked him up. “Joshua’s afraid.” she said, “and he wanted to see you.” I reached out and took him from her arms, his head was turning like a balloon in a windstorm. He was obviously looking for someone. “What’s the matter, Joshua?” I asked him.
“The devil is back. He’s here. I saw him,” he said pointing into the crowd.
“I tried telling him it’s not really the devil, that it’s just a man in a costume, but he’s still scared,” the young girl said, shrugging her shoulders.

“Joshua . . ..”I said. Then I didn’t know what to say. The first thing that came to my mind, truly, was “Don’t worry, the devil won’t hurt you.” No. I thought, that just doesn’t sound right. (Not only didn’t it sound right but I fear now it really betrays our adult thinking about Satan: you know the truth comes out under pressure like that.) Then I thought: I’ll take him to Dan and show him that it is just a disguise, that Dan is really a nice guy and he and I are friends. But that didn’t seem right either. Jesus and Satan buddies? Satan is really a nice guy underneath his disguises? Nah… Strike two. Another bad idea.

Then it dawned on me. “Joshua!” I said with an air of authority, “you remember what happened Monday night when I chased the devil away?” He nodded, his little forehead still furrowed with fear. “O.K. This is all you have to do if the devil comes near you. You just look him straight in the eye and you say, ‘You devil, in the name of Jesus, get lost!’” Joshua looked at me, his eyes widened and his face broke into a big grin. He wiggled to get down and I set him on the ground. He looked up at me, still grinning, and said with glee, “Yeah!” and ran off shouting, “In the name of Jesus, get lost you devil!”

By the end of the evening Dan had been rebuked several times by children with faith that Jesus’ name alone would protect them from the evil one.

I wonder how many times a day Satan gets rebuked by grown-ups with faith like a child’s? Probably not many. We are too sophisticated to believe in a “real devil”, we are too philosophical, psychological and theological for such a simplistic answer to the problem of temptation to do evil. But in all of our sophistication we are still too weak to resist temptation. Armed with all of our therapies, philosophies and theologies we still walk out with the stuff the cashier missed, lie about the traffic, make the lunch date with the co-worker, call in sick, conveniently “forget”, and speak our minds. Maybe all we really have to do is what Jesus did and say, “Begone, Satan. I’m with God.” Maybe what James said is true, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” Maybe it really is just that simple.

Oh, for the heart of a child again.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Greatest Commandment

And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ This is the greatest and foremost commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matt. 22:35-40

I remember laying our Fr. Wiley’s garments for the Mass. I handled them as though they were the garments of Christ Himself. I remember the first Mass I served, my soprano second grade voice mumbling and stumbling through the Latin. I still feel a shiver of awe that I had at the altar, being so close to the sacrament.

I remember I decided to become a priest in that same year. I never fulfilled that desire within the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Along my way I exchanged the majestic ritual and awe of the Latin high Mass for the simplicity and literalness of a protestant “Bible Church” tradition. I have since returned to the majesty of the liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but I am not here to defend or condemn any of these, but to merely bear witness to the love of God.

The common thread in my change of beliefs and traditions was my desire to obey the command of Christ. Along the way from Catholicism to Protestantism, somewhere, some how, the commandments themselves became gods, wooden exactness became the criteria for my salvation. There was no mystery, all was knowledge, reverence became fear, and humility became spiritual arrogance. In all of this there was a gnawing hollowness. While I was convinced in my mind I was accomplishing something good, there was something of great importance missing.

Somewhere, somehow, I discovered mystery and awe again. I found in my life things of inexplicable grace and power. I became a child again, I ceased to figure out how the rabbit got into the hat and reveled in the joy of the magic. I ceased to try to understand how we can conjure up love from hearts battered and hurt by life, and just loved people. It was then that I understood God. It was then that I discovered peace.

Jesus said there are really only two commandments. All the other commandments are corollary or commentary. The two greatest commandments: fall in love…joyfully, passionately, head over heels, wonderfully in love with the Lord your God, and have compassion and mercy, forgiveness and grace for your neighbor.

I hear the simplicity of the commandment and my heart fails within me. How can it be?

How can I be commanded to love? How can I bring forth on command the joyful, consuming passion of love? I know I can act as though I love someone. There have been times moral expediency or guilt or fear or lust have commanded me to act as though I was in love. Sometimes the act fooled those for whom I was acting, sometimes not. In the acting though, there was no consuming passion, no tears of joyful wonder, no sacrifice of my life beyond the expectation of something of equal or greater value in return, nothing to surprise myself at the depth of love and desire I had for my beloved.

And how can I be commanded to look at someone suffering and feel my stomach wrench in compassion for him? I know I can be coerced by guilt or the desire for praise into giving or acting like I am moved by suffering. Despite the act, my heart can still remain cold, unmoved and selfishly motivated.

In the simplicity of the commandment is the root of my distress. I know I cannot be commanded to do the very thing I am commanded to do. The love I know I ought to have for God and my neighbor I cannot bring forth on demand. Even if the demand is from God Himself.

I intuitively understand in other aspects of life I cannot be commanded even to appreciate something, much less to love someone. I cannot be told to appreciate Picasso, Debussey, T.S. Elliot, heavy metal hair bands, French food or jazz. I cannot be told to worship the ground someone walks on. I cannot be commanded to adore someone. I know these things about myself and yet I have blindly accepted the notion that God thinks He can command me to appreciate Him, love Him unconditionally and passionately and care deeply and sacrificially about His creations.

The problem with accepting the notion that God has actually commanded or even issued a strong suggestion that we had better love Him and our neighbor (whether the suggestion is for our own good or not is irrelevant here) is that other notions come with the package, much like fleas on a dog. The flea on this dog is that I am supposed to be capable of loving on command. I know full well I cannot. Even if it is for my own good. And so I struggle with the command and I struggle with my inability to obey fully and love as deeply as God tells me I ought.

But here are some things I have come to understand. These things have opened to me the mystery of the command:

There are things of wonder and beauty that move me deeply and incomprehensibly to feelings that I cannot control. I am commanded, in a sense, and I am powerless to disobey. I understand these things: To see my best friend for the first time in many years is a command to smile and be glad. To say goodbye to one I love, to embrace for the last time in this life is a command to look deeply and wordlessly at one another and feel a deep emptiness fill with tears. To hear “You are forgiven” after grievously hurting someone I love is a command to be humbled and grateful and at peace within. To see a child hollow eyed and reduced to skin over bones by hunger is a command to feel compassion. When I hear a certain piece of music it is a command to remember that friend, that love, that time when….., and to feel just as I did all those years ago. The smell of roses, a “greasy spoon” on a certain street corner, a photograph, a name alone is a command to rejoice, to be misty eyed, to smile, to feel melancholy or to laugh. These things command me, not with words, but with wonder and majesty and beauty that reaches into the depths of my most secret needs and desires and my most sacred memories and deepest hungers.

Perhaps then, it is not that God commands me or tells me that I MUST fall in love with Him, as in “YOU WILL EAT THOSE PEAS, YOUNG MAN!!”, but it is that he simply places Himself before me in all of His loveliness, beauty, awesome majesty and gracious mercy. Perhaps He commands me, He draws from my heart and soul all the love and devotion and adoration I harbor within me by His very presence. He does not seek to coerce love from me by directive, but He goes to any length to compel me to adoration and to elicit my love from me. For God to reveal Himself to me is in itself the command to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. To be forgiven by Him is the command to have peace. To know His mercy is the command to walk humbly with Him in gratitude. To see His heart’s desire for my heart is the command to rejoice. To find His love unending and infinite is the command to worship and adore.

Thus the greatest commandment is not so much a dictate but more the deepest desire of God’s heart being expressed to me. “Fall in love with me” is the command of His presence, the compelling message of the Cross.

The second greatest commandment is like the first- to love your neighbor as yourself. It is like the first because it is impossible to fulfill by sheer will. It is like the first because it is an overflowing of the first, a command that is rooted in the passion we have for our Beloved God. This I have come to understand too.

Being in love commands me to see the world through new eyes. Where there was once nothing of interest now there is delirious beauty. I now see irises and strawberries in a way I have never seen them before. Love commands me to hear music and the wind in the trees like I’ve never heard it before. I feel the temperature of the morning air like I’ve never felt it before. My love commands me to be touched by certain words, by thunder, artichokes, concrete park benches, hot dogs and blue in ways that I have never known because they are now shared with my beloved.

So, you see, I have fallen in love with God. I now see the world as through new eyes. Being in love with God is the command to see my neighbor in a new way. To see someone in need, or hurting or sorrowful or doubting or in pain, this is the command to my heart to be compassionate, forgiving, kind, gracious and merciful. It is simply what happens because of my heart’s deepest love and longing for its Beloved, God. I cannot help it, it all happens inexplicably and overwhelmingly. The presence of the world before me is itself a command to love it and serve it because of the love I have for its Creator.

Jesus said, “If I be lifted up upon the cross, I will draw all men unto myself.” From His cross He draws from within me all that I am and all that I have. All is new, I am my Beloved’s and He is mine. In His consuming passion He has done what all the finest and best lovers in stories and in history have always done. He gave His life to possess me, to win my eternal devotion and love.

Yes, the Cross is like the old song, the smell of a summer’s new mown grass, the distant rumble of a freight train in the humid night, the sound of an old familiar voice, a friend walking through the door unannounced, that draws from somewhere deep within me a remembrance of what once was, and rekindles the fierce desire to know Him, a passion for His presence, my love, peace, and sometimes a tear of grief and yes, even a weeping for joy.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

What a Wimp

So, I just finished soldering a new hose bib on my house. It has only been hanging there with a set of rusted channel locks for a handle for ohhhhh... six or seven years now......

Yeah, I've fantacized about martyrdom before. Sure, I'd suffer for Christ. Go ahead, torture me, I'll endure and not deny Him.

As I sit here with an ice pack on my burned fingers that I put in the path of the blue flame of a blow torch for less time than the interim between first and second place in the 50 meter dash in the Olympics, I wonder....

Man, pain hurts. Name the price to make this go away, I'd probably pay it......