DENY EVERYTHING

July 30, 2007

At the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. I bought one of my most prized possessions.  It’s a gray cap that has these words stitched in the front:  DENY EVERYTHING.

That statement, believe it or not, conveys a lot more than the intrigue and the supposed drama of covert operations.  To me, espionage is a cowardly way of engaging in diplomacy among nations, and I abhor the murderous mayhem which has been and continues to be instigated by the likes of the Central Intelligence Agency (an ironic oxymoron if there ever was one), the K.G.B., Her Majesty’s Secret Service (alias 007) and so on.  While I find the alleged activities of spies compelling at some level, I am utterly disillusioned by those who have to lie for a living.  

Take the farcical film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, for example.  Chuck Barris, who created television shows like The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, wrote the autobiographical screen-play to clear the air regarding his cold-war responsibilities with the C.I.A.  Apparently, while offering his services as chaperone to one lucky couple, Mr. Barris had other duties to fulfill.   Namely the curly headed host had to kill communists in Helsinki!  Yes, the movie is well made and worth watching.  But I believe the overall point of Chuckie’s memoirs is that he wanted to do something important with his life.  He wanted adventure.  He wanted the passion of being involved in world events.  In the end, however, what his dual existence (as an assassin and a T.V. producer) got him was nothing more than tedium.   Whether or not Barris worked for the CIA, his depiction of himself and his relationships betrays a certain boredom.  

If being a spy means not trusting anyone at any time for any reason–there are no true surprises.  Individuals, families, ethnic groups, sports franchises, television networks, insurance companies and sovereign nations all operate out of their own alienating self-interests.   As undercover men and women begin to recognize this despairing and pervasive conspiracy, it doesn’t matter what agency has sent which operative to take out whatever political target.   The Bourne Identity be damned.  Casino Royale, cash in your chips.  Life is a Breach–a breach of everything that’s truly worth living for.   No matter how much we mythologize about spying–no matter how entertained we are by James Bond–those who actually deny everything must live and die in very lonely ways.   

As for my souvenir hat, let me tell you what I’d like it to communicate:  

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…”  (1 Corinthians 2:1–2).   

Such as they are, the facts resemble that enigmatic remark of the apostle Paul in the first century.  Apart from Christ, nothing and no one ultimately satisfies.  Apart from the Crucified One, every kind of love fails–love of country included.  Apart from Christ, our commitments and our promises wither like grass in the hot summer sun.  

So I DENY EVERYTHING–everything that I seem to know, everything that I’ve been taught to trust, everything that appears rock solid.  I deny schemes and systems and self-help strategies ad infinitum.  I deny myself as much as the Spirit of Christ allows me to–all with the hope that EVERYTHING WILL BE GIVEN TO ME IN CHRIST.

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Before The Deluge Began

We loaded up the bicycles and the camping gear for a trip to the San Juan Islands last week.  The weather in Spokane had been sunny and over 100 degrees for three weeks.  Along the coast, north of Seattle, the Chamber of Commerce told us about spectacular sunsets and glimpses of breeching orca whales.  Our joyful intention was to pitch two tents at the San Juan County Campground, rent some kayaks and then plunge into the sea-spray experience of a lifetime.  That was our intention, but eventually the joy leaked out of it like the air in the mattress. 

Unfortunately, after the first evening, watching the sun sink down into the misty horizon, the Pacific Ocean sent us a thick veil of gray.   By Tuesday morning the rain showers began and continued unabated through Wednesday.  Wednesday night looked half way decent, as the wind moved the clouds to the east and we could see glimmers of blue sky.  Would Thursday be our window to a world of light–without the sogginess? 

Not a chance.  Although the San Juan’s boast beautiful, idyllic scenary and truly sublime views of God’s creation–when it rains, our tent leaks and the “formless void” of pre-creation rears its ugly head!  I awoke at 5 am to the Chinese water torture.   Drop…  Drop… Drop…  With a sigh of total exasperation I dragged my damp body off the ground, unzipped the tent flap, grabbed the keys to the van and waded through the squashy grass to that metallic bastian of dry atmosphere.   Dosing for hours, with the steering wheel in my face, I listened to the showers intensify.  By 8 am there was a break in the precipitation, but Sheryl and the kids voted to pass on the kayaking.   There was only one thing worse than trying to sleep in a drenched enclosure of canvas, and our imaginations took us to that place instantaneously.  We imagined our shivering bodies on kayaks, driven by shifting currents, without a hint of sunshine on the horizon, or to put that another way, we imagined the primal pillars of Genesis, chapter one, collapsing in a helpless heap!  

That had to be worse!   And so, we joined legion of other campers, some of whom had driven over 1,000 miles, and renounced the ways of the sponge.  We would not be slowly transformed into the slime and the muck of False Bay.  We would not be reduced to the intellectual and emotional equivalents of plankton.  We would finally stand upon our own two smelly sandals and make the low-pressure system eat our exhaust fumes.  Our clan, along with a host of other humiliated, unhappy campers, would try to salvage some semblence of vacation and genuine re-creation.

So, leaving out a bunch of boring, but truly dirty details, we packed up and headed for the ferry back to Anacortes and the continental United States of America–home of the brave and the hot coffee and the barnacle-free boulders.   As we waited in line with other vehicles, idling all around, the gray veil was ironically lifted and we saw what we had originally come for:  light.  How typical!  My life’s decision-making in a nut shell, or in a clam shell!

As the ferry navigated through islands I day-dreamed about owning a house or two in one of the secluded coves.   Anything with four walls and a roof and a jacuzzi with a roof.  We docked with a jolt on the other side.   Miserable and mad at ourselves for even looking in the general vicinity of the tent, Sheryl made calls to Levenworth hotels.  We stayed at one of them, ate the left-overs from our cooler, splurged on a German lunch the next day and yes, yes, broke down and paid for a White Water Rafting gig.  Manny was one of our guides, and he did a great job, but the snow-melt had already come and gone, and the rains dousing the San Juans hadn’t hit the Cascades, which meant that the water level was considerably lower than it was even a few days ago.  We changed into our dry clothes and made re-entry attitude adjustments.  Going through Wenachee I forget to tell Sheryl about the turn south to I-90 and we had to go the whole darkening way home on the one-lane Route 2.   Couley City…  Davenport…   Reardon…  Here we come!

Back in Spokane, we left all the stuff in the van and collapsed into our respective beds.  On Saturday we decompressed, hanging the remnants of our trip on the clothes line.  On Sunday we opted to worship in the backyard, in the sunshine.   I grabbed a salad bowl and filled it with water.  I lit a candle and placed it in the midst of the water, like a lighthouse in the center of the bowl.  We sat in the Coleman folding chairs that had just dried out completely the day before…   Then, with the lilting sound of “Wade In The Water,”  God came close.  I read three texts…

Genesis 1:1–8… while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…

John 9:1–7…  he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes… 

2 Corinthians 4:1–6…  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts…

Listening to these sacred words I looked around at the faces of Ian, Philip, Sheryl and our dog, Pearl.  I asked all of them, except for Pearl of course, to place their hands in the water and to wipe the droplets on their eyes.  

Remember your baptism and be thankful.

Amen.

Blessed Lord God!  King of the Universe!  Thank you for the water and for the light we’ve experienced in these last few days!

I keep a yellow business card as a perpetual bookmark.  The card was given to me months ago by a gentleman who visited the newly renovated offices of Latah Valley.  Robert (Bob) R. Smith wandered in off Third Avenue with a back pack and a few photo-copies of his self-published book.   He entitled the text, “Emergency” Survival in The Woods with a subtitle, Also “Avoiding Bear Attacks.”  

After reviewing the materials, which included diagrams for eating shrubs and insects,  I declined the purchase (for $11.95) and Bob gave me his contact information for future reference.  Beneath the catchy title and subtitle of the aforementioned work of non-fiction he was careful to add this caveat:

Written for the inexperienced…

Clearly Bob R. Smith knows his target audience, and that’s me.  If there was ever an “inexperienced” wanderer who may someday require the wisdom that Bob has to offer it’s this new church development pastor.  So I keep his yellow card neatly tucked in my copy of The Missional Leader; Equipping Your Church To Reach A Changing World, by Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk.  

Of course, I did purchase that Jossey-Bass publication for approximately $25.00.   I’ve read it through once and am spending the summer weeks scanning its pages again.  Roxburgh and Romanuk refer to “discontinous change” and “transition.”  They do not even touch upon what happened to a young boy in the woods of Utah.   According to the Associated Press a large black bear sliced open his tent in the wilderness and dragged the nine-year-old child away kicking and screaming.  Parents and guardians found his mutilated body the next day. 

What a nightmare!

Are there truly bears, wild and unpredictable, lurking in places we had hoped to enjoy at our leisure?  Churches in North America have often been labeled volunteer organizations.  The vast majority of church-goers participate in Worship and Vacation Bible School in their free-time.  Spending a Sunday morning singing hymns is considered relatively harmless.  Saying a prayer every day may not help, but it couldn’t hurt…   And yet, Bob R. Smith’s business card reminds me of circumstances and entities which are beyond my capacity to control.  

A church community stakes a claim in the tangled brush, beneath ancient stars and on the edge of what is written by others who have gone before us.  Do we stay with what we know?   Do we buy more books and consult more experts?   Sometimes I look at the thick, ornate walls and the vaulted, gothic ceilings of the cathedral–I consider the impressive performance of the megachurch–and I wonder about the bear who can shred it all to pieces. 

Bob, how much do you want for your book? 

Never mind.  Will you simply sit next to me during worship?

Scott:  It’s a shame that we can’t get our stories together.  Have you ever noticed how two people, witnessing the same event, each tell a different version?  It’s a shame, isn’t it?  It’s a shame we can’t have one, compelling, clear and unifying story…   For example—the first time I met Sheryl she was dancing in the courtyard at Eerdman Hall.   My friend and I had just made our way through a maze of partying seminarians.   We just cleared the crowd of sweaty people inside when I noticed two people swing dancing like they were on one of those television shows.  Someone introduced us, and as I passed by, Sheryl smiled that great smile, said hello and… touched me seductively on the stomach.  It was an incidental, playful placing of her hand on the front of my Hawaiian shirt.  No one else would have noticed the exchange, but I’m here to tell you the imprint of that touch on my flesh is still hot.

 Sheryl:  Well ok, that’s kinda how it happened, but not exactly.  It was the night of the mixer for new students at PTS.  I was excited, but a little nervous.  I didn’t know very many people yet.  James B. and I walked over to Eerdman Hall and it felt like I was still in college—with loud music and the smell of beer and bodies.  I saw Daniel—he was from Indiana like me.  I tried to talk with him but I couldn’t hear him and it was so hot in there.  So the 3 of us went outside.  James B & I were swing dancing when this guy walked up.  He was tall dark and handsome.  Our eyes locked.  Daniel said, “This is Scott and he’s engaged.”  All in one sentence!  Umph–but you know—that’s the way it goes.  We all talked & joked for a bit.  So Scott says that he’s taking off—he made some funny comment and I kinda hit him and said good-bye.Now that’s the real story.  That was it.   

Scott:  You see, isn’t that a shame?  One event, but two stories.

Sheryl:  Have you ever noticed how stories in your family change depending on who is telling it?  Summers are great times for family reunions and when families gather there’s sure to be stories to tell.  The scriptures consist of the stories of the relationship of God with God’s people.  Today’s readings both tell about creation, but they also have their differences.  It’s a good thing that the point of the narratives is not a scientifically verifiable manual of how the world began—it’s really not about how it actually happened.  It’s the story of the Lordship of God. 

Scott:   But it’s also the story of our shame and how we might learn to face it and accept all that God has given. 

Sheryl:  Those two stories [Genesis 1:26—31 and Genesis 2:18—25] are similar in some obvious ways; so I want to focus on some of their differences.  The order in which things were created differs in each account.  In the first passage God creates plants, animals, and then humankind as the culmination of creation.  In the second passage God creates a human, then plants, then animals, then male and female human beings.  The general style of the first passage talks about the entire universe & a 7 day creation.  It refers to a formless void, great darkness, vast cosmic ocean & a great wind of God.  The story style of the 2nd passage focuses on the relationship of the human beings to God and the creatures who surround them in the garden.  We have a specific description of the large barren land without plants or shrubs and no one to till the earth.  So we have differences in the order, focus and style.  And then there’s the tree.  In the first passage the human beings are given every tree.  In the second story God prohibits them from going anywhere near the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  But that’s another story and another sermon.

Scott:  You see, even in the biblical text, even with something as fundamental as the creation of the universe, we cannot agree on which story to tell.  Isn’t that sad?  Isn’t that a shame?  Or maybe not.  In the Broadway rendition of Fiddler On The Roof, Perchick is a vagabond scholar from Kiev.  He agrees to teach Tevye’s daughters Bible stories in exchange for food.   In one scene, two of the younger girls are listening to the story of Jacob and his marriages to Leah and Rachel (as found in Genesis 29).   Perchick, who leans a little to the Marxist left, finishes reading the story and says, “And so, children, the Bible clearly teaches us, Never trust an employer…”   “I’m not sure the Rabbi would agree with that interpretation,” says one of the older daughters, the one that Perchick would eventually marry. 

The point is—reading the Bible is like intruding on someone’s family therapy session.  And it could be your family.  In fact, Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, claims that everyone is born into a script.  Your mother tells you that you’re getting a little fat, and there’s your script.  Your father tells you to not to take any guff from anyone, and there’s your script.  But what if, right alongside those stories, there’s another family script?  From Genesis through Malachi—the family that we’re talking about is Israel.  From Matthew’s gospel through the Book of Revelation—we’re talking about the extended family of the church.  And the benefit we gain from joining that larger family is shameless recreation.  You and I can be re-created.  We can recreate without the shame of trying to hide our faults or failures.  

My family isn’t particularly skilled at camping, and let me try to explain why.  Raccoons  Wild Horses  and Tornado Warnings.  Corresponding to these images, each member of the Kinder-Pyle clan has a story that we could tell, all of which communicate the same theme.  Disaster.  Camping in a tent is no fun.  Hence Sheryl sleeps this weekend in the bunkhouse.  And depending on who’s telling the story, she snores.

 Sheryl:  Of course, from the perspective of the raccoons, the wild horses and the tornados, whether we love creation or fear it doesn’t matter.   The bias of Genesis, of course, is that we love it.  We are in relationship with creation—the plants and the animals.  How can we not be amazed and in awe of God’s creative work?  I love the hymn “This is My Father’s World.”  “All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres—the rocks and trees and skies and seas his hand the wonders wrought.”  As a welcome to HPPC I was given two plants for my office.  For my birthday my boys gave me one of those table top fountains—I love listening to the flowing water.  They both give me peace.   I love animals too.  Especially dogs.  I’m convinced that dogs can show us what God’s unconditional love is like more than anything else in the world.  In our desire to be good stewards of creation we have rescued two border collies.  One I found 17 years ago in Comstock Park.  When she died 2 years ago I lost someone very dear.  In Dec. we rescued a border collie mix from Colville.  Pearl has likewise found a place in my heart.  I care for her like I’m the shepherd.   

Scott:  Sheryl loves dogs.  I love dogs.  What’s not to love…  But haven’t you been amazed with the number of Pit-Bull stories in the newspaper?  Isn’t it a shame that some owners of dogs actually train them to be mean and to fight and to maim?  With all these differing versions of the truth, with the family of faith, with our personal families, with creation, shame is the one constant.  But does it really have to be that way? 

  

Sheryl:  In her book, Crooked Little Heart, Ann Lamott gets at the issue of shame and families.  Rosie is a 13 yr old tennis champion who cheats.  She calls balls out that are actually in.  Rosie confessed to her mom, Elizabeth. 

 Rosie then said, “I don’t want to even tell anyone.”   Elizabeth replies, “Well, we have to tell James (Rosie’s stepdad).  “We do?”  Elizabeth nodded.   “And Rae and Lank?”  (their closest friends)   “Yep, this is a family thing, Rosie.  Rae and Lank are family.  And this is what families are for.  That’s just the way it is.  But we need to go to bed now, it’s late.” But neither moved.  They listened to the chorus of night creatures, the pulse beat of crickets.  “Mommy?”   “Yeah.”  “I wish we had a real family.”   “See darling, I think we do.  Don’t you?”   “Not a real family, like the other kids.  Like Deb Hall, or Hallie.  We’re –I don’t know.”   “We’re what?  Say it.”   “We’re like some family you’d get at a garage sale.” 

Scott:  We’re like some family you’d get at a garage sale.   Isn’t that the way we feel sometimes about the relationships that we’ve been given?   We feel ashamed.  We feel as if we have to run and hide.   And yet, Genesis 2:25 provides an alternative story:  

  

“And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” 

 Naked, in this context, doesn’t have anything to do with nudity or prime-time sexuality.  It has everything to do with vulnerability and mutual acceptance.    Sheryl:  As a community of faith we are called to be in grace-filled relationship.  We need to put shame aside and live out of the grace that we have been given by God through Jesus Christ.  Families will vary in their size and shape, but God is the Creator and Lord of us all.   

Roots Amen

July 2, 2007

Roots stop the erosion

of the bank.  Amen.

The creek keeps

shoving the land

chaotically aside.

Planned households, like

sediment, will not stand

a chance

Except the grasping

mysterious

talons reach

and reside beneath

our irrelevant and lofty looks

at wind-swept, sun-drenched branches, 

while all along it a subversive clutching that

frees us from the power

grids and grouting

which will wash catestrophically

away if not for hidden

green and brown growing

stubble.

Like the beard of Aaron

it appears again, after the close shave

and before the oil flows, anointed,

upon the robe.  

It’s a fascinating little book–Douglas Coupland’s Life After God, published in 1994 by Pocket Books. 

On page 273 read this:

“Life was charmed but without politics or religion.  It was the life of children of the childrne of the pioneers–life after God–a life of earthly salvation on th 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.”

When I read and re-read these words I automatically think about how many people in Spokane and the Northwest truly resonate with “the price we paid…”   On Saturday we took the bus back from Hoopfest, downtown.  Ian had been given a million dollar bill, with references to lust, hell and how to repent and get right with God.  He showed it to me and asked me what I thought.  I told him it was a scare tactic–threatening folks with damnation.  A scruffy guy with a mustache and a goatee sat in the seat in front of us.  He talked with his companions, another college-age guy and two young women with black finger nails and heavy doses of mascara beneath their eyes.  He rabbled on about getting high, chugging beers until four in the morning… about probation and F–ing this and F–ing that.   Anyway, I tried to imagine a church in which he might really experience the love and the presence of God.  I tried, but folded my arms and rolled my eyes at Sheryl, hoping that Philip couldn’t hear all the cursing and open jabber about drug-use.   Then, I realized something about what I was hearing, or attempting to censure. 

I realized this type of conversation happens all the time.  We’re just so wrapped up in our church stuff and our church sub-culture that we can’t really listen.  Studies show that most of the mainline, megachurches and other religious groups simply cater to a very, very small percentage of the population in North America.  Christians are moving around from congregation to congregation, but the truly lost are practicing the ironic religion of the lost.  They are burned out, numbed out and not seeking much of anything.   How in God’s name–that is, in the name of the One, who seems like a commercial slogan–do we genuinely connect with them?  

And maybe they aren’t them after all?  Maybe we have our own quick fixes, our own ways of celebrating our addictions and being proud of our brushes with the law.  Maybe the wasted guys on the bus are more like us than I care to admit.   

Yes, yes, yes…  I believe in the coming kingdom of Christ.  I am energized by the covenant mark placed upon me by the Holy Spirit.  But now, in this Life After God matrix I wonder if the fellowship at church wouldn’t benefit from a few less rides in the SUV and a few more jaunts on public transportation.