Friday, July 31, 2009

healing the health care debate

A brief reflection on healing the health care debate, posted at Day 1.

Monday, July 27, 2009

the blues (psalm 137)

We begin with a question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” As a pastor I share conversations with a variety of folks in the course of a month, a week or even a day. I think of a man who is aging, who has lived his entire life in this community. He senses a strong connection to this church, even if he cannot be here on Sunday mornings. As we talk the conversation turns toward experiences of loss and change. Loss of a spouse, loss of health, loss of occupation and a community that has changed and grown around us. He is not asking the question in so many words, but he is wondering nevertheless: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

I think about a young woman, newer to our congregation and community. As I get to know her I realize that home is really somewhere else. She talks about a separation and forming a new family some distance from home, and not according to the plan that had been mapped out. Loss of friends and the familiar, loss of work in another city, and support systems that had been in place. She also, was asking the question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

On the surface two very different people, but sharing a common experience. They are in the wrong place, or a strange place, or they are disoriented, they are not sure this is their true home, they long for some place in the past. There is a kind of sadness about that. The 137th Psalm reminds us that we can be honest before God. Sometimes it is difficult to sing, or to feel spiritual, or to make sense of it all. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”, the Israelites asked their captors. The Psalm can be easily placed in a historical context, we know that it was written between 587 and 539 bc, or very shortly after, when the pain and humiliation of exile, following the destruction of the Temple, was fresh on Israel’s mind.

What was exile like? Imagine someone moving into our community, sending some of our children south and some of them north. Some of us are killed, the enemies claim our houses as their own, they take control of this house of worship by substituting another god for the One we worship. They take most of us captive, to another place, a place where all that we have learned and accomplished means nothing. We are simply there to do hard labor. We are not very happy about what has happened to family, home, church, nation, and we are wondering: where is God in all of this? And then one of the guards, set in authority over us, says, with tongue in cheek,

Remind me again about just how powerful, wonderful, awesome your God really is? Sing us one of those songs of Zion? What do you do? You mutter, under your breath, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Because sometimes it is hard to sing. The words get stuck in the roof of your mouth, like peanut butter on a piece of dry bread. You can remember the glorious descant that soared into the rafters of the temple, but that was then and this is now.

Maybe you are here this morning and you are feeling dislocated, disorientated, like you’re living in some kind of strange land. The ground has shifted beneath your feet, and every expectation you had about the future has been called into question---the job was not all it was advertised to be; the promises were broken; you wonder if the dream will really come true.

How can we sing? We can sing the Lord’s song as long as we remember that we do not sing it alone. In the past few years I have watched people sing during the memorial services in our church. The family often chooses the hymns---they almost always want joyous hymns of faith and assurance. These are difficult to sing, and yet, no one sings them alone. Because someone is there who will sing for the family, until the time comes again when they can voice these words.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in the strange land of Alzheimer’s and Autism, downsizing and depression, loneliness and loss? It helps to know that we do not sing the Lord’s song alone. And that is important, because the Lord’s song is the connection to our memory.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.

In exile, in a strange land, it is essential that we remember the music.

I have always loved music. As a teenager I listen to music for hours and hours in my room. You can turn that down”, my parents would say to me. For those of you who are parenting teenagers now, you can give thanks to God for the IPOD! My speakers would rattle the house, and my parents were infinitely patient, I guess! Over time I had a tall stack of eight track tapes---I am dating myself here, and then these were replaced by albums that I collected. Through the years I weeded through most of these albums, but some I kept. And then, of course, albums were replaced by compact discs, just as albums had replaced eight track tapes, just as cds are now being replaced by mp3 files. It had been a long time since I had listened to those albums, but we moved them with us, from place to place.

One fall we were getting ready for a yard sale. I was going through a bunch of old stuff and I came across two turntables. On one the arm that played the record had been damaged somehow; on the other the needle no longer worked. Put a price on it,” my wife said, and move on. I began to do that and then an idea came to me: could I take the needle from this turntable and place it on the undamaged arm of the other? I did. It worked. And there was music.

I began to listen to the music, and I thought of people, places, family, birthdays and Christmas mornings, and immediately I was right back there. We are called to remember the song, to keep the music alive. Do this, Jesus said, in remembrance of me. The good news, of course, is that Israel learned, if they remembered the song, they could sing it wherever they were. As long as they could remember the words God was alive for them, not just in memory but in the present. Their struggle was God’s struggle, their weeping was God’s weeping.

The exile was a difficult time in Israel’s history, and, of course, we pass through our own times of destruction and self-destruction. Maybe you have had a child, or a friend, or the experience yourself of destruction and self-destruction, you are not really where you want to be, not to mention where God wants you to be. But there you were, there you are.

God’s desire for Israel was not exile. And God did not abandon them in the exile, even as God does not abandon us in our loss. God gave them a song. Sometimes the song is celebration and praise. Sometimes the song is the blues. Much of the music I listened to as an adolescent would be categorized as the blues. The blues is the indigenous music of the deep south, growing out of our own experience of destruction and self-destruction, the dehumanization of racism, the devastation of the civil war, the resulting poverty, the sins visited upon each successive generation. In the family tree of our region one form of blues was lodged in the African American community, another in the white community, and this we came to call country music, it was also born in the slavery of the coal mines of Appalachia. The poorest states in the U.S., to this day, are the states where country music and the blues were born: Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama.

We were a region that held to a deep belief in God, and yet we had experienced loss, and we were trying to make sense of it all. The music at the heart of all of this---blues and country music---never found its way very much into the church. And there is a reason for that…it parallels this morning’s psalm: we have never know quite what to do with this experience. We learned just enough from the Old Testament to believe that if we trusted God, and did the right thing, we would be rewarded.

Psalm 137, one scholar has noted, is buried in the third year of the lectionary, as an second alternative responsive reading (the other a more hopeful passage from Lamentations). It is a complicated Psalm, not only because it voices the pain of disorientation---being in the wrong place, but it goes farther, and it you are with me, you can see it in the last three verses:

Remember, O Lord, the Edomites, the day Jerusalem fell, How they said, “Tear it down, Tear it down!, Down to its foundations!”O Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

Here the blues turn toward anger, and anger is an emotion that we have never quite known what to do with in the church either. Some hymnals, in their responsive readings, cut it off in verse six. It has been described as an imprecatory psalm, which means it includes curses or prayers that the enemy will be punished. Eugene Peterson calls this “praying our hate”. He writes:

We want to be at our best before God. Prayer, we think, means presenting ourselves before God so that he will be pleased with us. We put on our “Sunday best” in our prayers. But when we pray the…Psalms, we find that this will not do. We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be. Psalm 137 is a prayer that brings out not the best in us, but the worst in us: vile, vicious, hate. Can God handle our hate?”

When we find ourselves in a strange place, unable to make sense of it, unwilling to believe that this is how it should be, our options are to live in denial, to experience sadness or to become angry. The psalmist is not in denial. Babylon is not Jerusalem. There is sadness, but there is also anger. The therapists know that, in fact, depression is the turning of the anger within ourselves. The activists tell us that anger can be channeled toward some constructive purpose: the deaths by freezing of several men in Charlotte years ago and the building of the first homeless shelters. The theologians see the enemy as everything that works against the purposes of God: a ravaging cancer that takes a life, a pervasive greed that shrivels the soul. The gospels radically revise our posture toward the enemy: we are to love them and pray for them, Jesus says.

To sing the Lord’s song in a strange land is to embrace the dissonance: a loving God and an unloving world, a purposeful God and a chaotic world, or, to bring it closer to home, authentic faith and real doubt, an acceptance of grace for myself and an unwillingness to forgive others, green pastures, still waters, a restored soul and a temple destroyed to the foundations, and the desire for an appropriate revenge: your little ones dashed against the rocks. The psalm echoes the word of Jesus: I believe, help my unbelief!

It is praying our sadness, praying our disorientation, praying our hatred, praying our anger. It is best that we do not cut these verses out of our Bible, remove them from our hymnal, cast them aside too quickly, for somewhere along the way, this is where we live, asking a question that really has no answer: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Sources: Eugene Peterson, Living The Message. Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Van Horn and Strawn).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

psalms in the summer: part six

I am moving through the psalter this summer; this morning I sent a tweet on Psalm 97 here. This has been a good daily discipline for me, and one that has become a way of life, not unlike drinking a morning cup of coffee or working on a Sudoku at the end of the day. I have also enjoyed getting back into Psalms that I have preached before (see posts on this blog related to Psalm 23 and Psalm 121), and we have welcomed two excellent guest teachers, Peter Wallace of Day One and Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Tomorrow I am preaching from Psalm 137, which is a profound and complex passage of scripture. It conveys the sense of "disorientation" of which Walter Brueggemann speaks, and I have also been helped by Eugene Peterson's description of it as a vehicle for "praying our hate". I have turned again and again in the summer to a number of background works, related to the Psalms, chiefly Brueggemann's The Message of The Psalms, Peterson's Answering God, and two works by Ellen Davis, Getting Involved With God and Wondrous Depth. I have also spent time in two more recent works, Peter Wallace's Connected and Clint McCann's Great Psalms of The Bible.

One work, which I recently came upon, holds great promise. It is Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, edited by Van Harn and Strawn (Eerdmans). It completes a four part series, and I can only say that it is both substantial and accessible.

The citation on Psalm 137 begins with the observation that this Psalm is buried deep within the lectionary as an alternate responsive reading; then moves to historical context, then literary structure (this is poetry), then cultural echoes (including Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, Bob Dylan and Bruce Cockburn----I had never thought of this psalm in relation to his "If I Had A Rocket Launcher"). The exegesis moves to a thoughtful reflection on what to do with verse nine; we can omit it, gloss over it, or
in some way come to grips with it. Brent Strawn quotes C. S. Lewis, from Reflections on The Psalms, as the latter seeks to revise or contextualize 137. 9:

"I know things in the inner world are like babies: the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become....settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless than in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us, "I don't ask much, but"...against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of Psalm 137 is the best. Knock the little bastards' braints out. And "blessed is he who can", for it is easier said than done."

The treatment of Psalm 137 concludes with a return to Ellen Davis, who asks us to "rotate the Psalm 180 degrees" so that someone else is praying the psalm toward and about us. This leads to contemplation of our own actions, and, is, alongside other readings of this text, "good for the soul". This could be said about the Psalms in general; they help us to confront our own disorientation on the way to new life.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

help. stay away.

I was in conversation with a friend over lunch, a member of our church, and I mentioned that I had preached, I realized, over 250 sermons in my time at Providence. I confessed that sometimes I felt like I was running out of things to say. He did not miss a beat. You can preach it again”, he said as he smiled, “we probably won’t remember that we’ve already heard it.”

We are focusing on the psalms this summer, and I have preached on a number of them more than once: Psalm 23, Psalm 51, Psalm 84, Psalm 139, and this particular Psalm, 121. We are traveling through familiar territory, hiking a path we have walked before, and maybe we will notice something new, or maybe we will forget that we have seen it already!

Our psalm begins, “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills. From where will my help come?” What a beautiful verse of scripture! I love the mountains. Some of the richest experiences in my life have taken place in the mountains: as a young boy our family sometimes took trips to the Smokies and my imagination was filled with the possibility of bears…some of my most important Christian experiences as a teenager were in summer camps in the western North Carolina mountains, being from south Georgia it was a magical place to be.

I was ordained at Lake Junaluska, just west of Asheville, our older daughter Elizabeth was baptized in the Memorial Chapel there, I think about vacations, going down Sliding Rock, standing on the top of Mount Mitchell, the fall colors, hiking portions of the Appalachian trail, renovating our cabin. It’s easy for me to gaze at the mountains and see God’s strength and majesty.

But when the Israelites looked at the mountains, they saw something different. Much of the pagan worship in ancient Palestine took place on hilltops: spells, enchantments, fertility cults, priests to the moon and the sun. Folks went to the mountains to feel better, to solve life’s problems, to flee from evil. Call it the ancient self-help movement. Call it the “old time religion”.

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From where will my help come?” This is a good question, perhaps it is the question. Someone has observed that we should leave room for a significant pause between the first and second verses of this psalm. Most of us live much of our lives in this silence between these two sentences. Most of us are asking the question: where is the source of help, when is the help coming? Then the psalmist answers his own question. We don’t worship the creation; we worship the creator. We don’t place our trust in the mountains, but in the One who spoke the mountains into being. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

This psalm was a part of a small hymnal loved by pilgrims, known as the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134. Many of us have a hymnal within a hymnal, the songs we are moved to sing, and the Songs of Ascent spoke to these pilgrims who were searching, yearning for more. I think of the Bidding Prayer in the Service of Lessons and Carols, where we speak of those we love who stand on a distant shore and in a greater light.

These ancient pilgrims had it right: there had to be more. The best way to find what they were looking for was to make the journey. They would sing these psalms as they took the journey to that one special place.

Thousands of years ago people believed that there was one special place. Yes, every place was holy, every bush was a burning bush, all ground was holy ground, but there was one special place: Jerusalem. The pilgrims sang this psalm on the way up to Jerusalem, they were marching to Zion, the beautiful city of God. As they sang “I will lift my eyes unto the hills, from where will my help come”, they would remember, “my help comes from God. As these pilgrims were going up to Jerusalem they had truly found the place of help.

I think pilgrimage is easy for us to grasp. We all feel like we’re on the way to something.

We’re about to get married, or we’re about to get that job, or we’re about to have a child, or our child is about to start school, or go off to college, or leave home; we’re about to retire; we lived there a few years ago, now we’re here, in a few years we’ll be somewhere else, nothing is a constant.

We are pilgrims, we’re on a journey. And when you’re on a journey, life can be difficult, even treacherous. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Frodo, It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The journey can be treacherous. The psalmist points to three potential dangers, and each corresponds to a promise:

Verse Three: *He will not let your foot be moved When you’re traveling on foot, you can trip, and fall and sprain an ankle, or you can fall off a cliff.

Verse Six: *The sun shall not strike you by day: When you’re walking in the desert, you can be burned by the relentless heat of the sun.

Also Verse Six: *Nor the moon by night When you’re walking at night, the ancient writers believed, you were in danger of moonstroke, we literally call this lunacy.

The journey can be dangerous. Along the way we stumble, we get burned, we go a little crazy. If we’re going to make the journey, Psalm 121 insists, we’re going to need some help. Now you would think help would be a simple subject. But it’s not. I once served on the board of a non-profit organization, and at our annual meeting I listened to the leader of an organization of which I was a part. The leader, at one moment, would say “help, help”. Then she would say, in the next breath, “back off, leave me alone, I can do this”. Help, back off. Help, leave me alone. Help. Stay away.

But as I share this I know there is some of that in me. Maybe you’ve been there, too. Most of us need some kind of help. But we also want people to think we have it all together. We pretend. If we’re men we’re singing “I did it my way”. And you women are singing “I am strong, I am invincible”.

Sometimes we do it our way, and we make a mess of our lives. Sometimes we are strong, invincible, but within we are crumbling. Sometimes we need help.

Our help, the psalm teaches us, comes from God. There is a wonderful image for this in the Psalm. The one who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. In the 44th Psalm the writer is involved in a litany of everything that has gone wrong, everything that is unjust and unfair, have you ever had a day like that, you just want to make a list of everything that is wrong with the world, with your community, with your family, with yourself. Or maybe you call a friend and get it off your chest, or you fire off an e-mail. Today we would call it a rant!

Well in the ancient world they had another name for it: a psalm! The 44th Psalm is a great example. This psalm describes a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day”. And in the 23rd verse of chapter 44 the psalmist says it bluntly: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O God!” While the mess continues to get more and more complicated, we wonder: Is God taking a nap?

We sometimes hear folks in the culture criticize God, or the idea of God, and maybe it is unsettling to us. Or we have that impulse ourselves, and we don’t know what to do with that, it is does not seem right or appropriately religious, somehow. If you are reading through the psalms this summer, you will know that the psalms have an ongoing argument with God, call it is lover’s quarrel, there is a healthy criticism of God in the psalms,

And yet in this psalm there is also a profession of faith. God is engaged with all of life, God is paying attention . The one who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.

Years ago I participated in a retreat with a very diverse group of clergy, men and women, black and white, liberals and conservatives. Among the group was a female pastor who had grown up in a very evangelical, almost fundamentalist background. Nothing in her tradition told her that it was okay to be a pastor, as a woman, and yet the Holy Spirit had overcome the rigidity of her community. Such is the power and mercy of God. Sometimes God even overcomes our own inflexibility!

We were reflecting on our spiritual journeys and she shared this experience. She said, “I had just given birth to our first child, a daughter. It was the middle of the night, and I was exhausted. But she would not go to sleep. And so I took her into the den and began to rock her. She grew calm, but in the quietness of the room I could also hear, from the nearby bedroom, the sound of my husband, snoring.

“And for some reason a verse of scripture came to mind: the One who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. I began to imagine that God had to be more than just male. This was very much opposed to what I had always been taught. And yet, in the moment, I wondered: what was God really like?” God watches over us, God helps us, all along the journey.

In the history of the Lutheran Church this psalm was read as the parents brought a child to the font for baptism: “The Lord preserve your coming in and your going out, from this time forth and forever more”. This is a psalm that is often read at memorial services, chosen by the family. Six times in this psalm we are reminded that the Lord is our keeper. God watches over us, from the cradle to the grave, from the infant who is held in her mother’s arms to the beloved who is placed into a casket or columbarium urn.

This psalm is deeply rooted in the orthodox belief of the church—the one who makes us also watches over us, it bears witness to the creation and providence of God. And yet it has always been true that our believing is linked to our praying. With pilgrims across thousands of years we ask the question: I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? These are words that we can preach and pray, again and again, because we forget, all of us.

Let us pray: O God, you are as strong as the mountains and as gentle as a mother who holds us close in the middle of the night. You are a mighty fortress; and you hide us in the shadow of your wings. O Lord, you are the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

O God, you are always with us, every step of the way: you keep our feet from stumbling, you neither slumber nor sleep, you watch our coming and our going, from this time forth, and for ever. You are our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. Amen.

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

why preachers need to listen to writers

Over the past few years I have tried to find ways, as a preacher, to listen to communicators who are not preachers: Ira Glass, the host of This American Life; Lauren Winner, author of the memoir Girl Meets God; Garrison Keillor, on more than one occasion in person but also on the radio; Toni Morrison, author of Beloved; Tim Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name; and the poets Billy Collins and Scott Cairns. When I am in Nashville, which is once or twice a year, I also try to spend an evening at either the Bluebird Cafe or the Douglas Corner Cafe, where songwriters perform for groups as small as fifteen and as large as seventy-five. None of these are preachers, and yet their work, and their reflections upon that work bears directly upon the task of preaching.

Today I attended a reading by Ron Rash, a professor at Western Carolina University and the author of a number of novels, most recently "Serena". I had read one of his previous works, "Saints At The River", and had read notices about "Serena". It is a compelling novel, chiefly due to the presence of a very powerful female character who personifies evil. It is also set in Haywood County, North Carolina, where we have a small cabin (near Lake Junaluska).

Whenever I hear a writer in a context such as this, I am reminded as a preacher about the importance of the creative process. It is easy, over time, to continue to pull sermons "out of the barrel" (old sermons). This is almost always a bad idea: they have likely become stale, times change, contexts in differing locales are not the same. It is also tempting, over time, to fall into a rut, preaching the same message, in essence, over and over again: the theme could be the acceptance of God, or our need to get along with each other, or to make the world a better place, or to try harder to be virtuous. All good sentiments, but ones that have been spoken and heard before.

In the presence of someone who is creative, one senses the importance of speaking and writing in such a way that all of this will find a hearing, in a fresh way. In part this is exploring themes that are not original; for example, "Serena" is about two women, and how each makes a choice between power and love. Of course power and love are at the heart of the gospel (see John 13), and yet most preachers (myself included) do not spend enough time bringing this struggle to life, or portraying it in a way that it is relational....and yet this is precisely where most of us live. The task is to dig more deeply into the recurring themes in search of the new life to be discovered, or the fresh relevance that awaits us (for example, Serena focuses on timber mining in the 1920's, and is a warning against the practice in our time of mountaintop removal).

Ron Rash is clearly a novelist who has reflected deeply upon his family heritage (his parents worked in the textile mills of piedmont North Carolina) and the landscape of the region (the mountains). He spoke of the temperament that shaped his family life and the geographical and environmental qualities that bear upon the lives of the folks in this region: at times this is a kind of fatalism, and at others there is a literal absence of light (shielded by the terrain). He also paid homage to Shakespeare and Flannery O' Connor, and commented on the care he takes with structure (the repeating greek choruses) and the choice of the names of characters.

The artist who works with words can be an important conversation partner with the preacher. We have an audience, but one that we can take for granted. Characterization, choice of words, variance of structure, attention to communal worldview and geographical landscape: all of these issues can help in the shaping of sermons, and the end result can be a narrative that is compelling and even transformational.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

in search of reading material

It is a quiet Saturday afternoon. My wife is doing some design work at a home across town. Our younger daughter is shopping with a friend, although, due to modern technology, I know the balance of her bank account, so I have little worry. Call it a social activity. The three of us had lunch at Azteca, our favorite Mexican restaurant in Charlotte (it is located on Independence; order the homemade Guacamole; as my friend Bob Tuttle would say, I just did you a favor). I then stopped by to visit friends who are in the latter stages of a chronic illness.

My Saturday morning tasks had been to 1) complete the sermon 2) catch up on a week's worth of e-mail and 3) go through the mail and voice mail. It is obvious that the volume of email (358 messages) is swamping the mail (one personal letter, two form letters, three publications) and voicemail (four phone calls, two of whom had tracked me down later on the cell phone). The sermon is mostly there. It is basically finished, but needs a deletion here and an expansion there. I also wanted to stop by to see one of our associate pastors and her husband; she gave birth to a baby this week, and Pam and I peeked in. It was a good visit. Ours are now 23 and 20. It seems a blur.

Then to Azteca. We are at the stage where a meal with more than the two of us is rare, so it is a treat. And then, after another visit, home.

One of my mental "to-do" items was to go through our older daughter's book collection, in search of something to read during the latter part of July. I have been on something of a fiction binge lately: Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses, Ron Rash's Serena, Clyde Edgerton's The Bible Salesman. I cannot quite bring myself to take on the next volume in McCarthy's Border Trilogy, and IOur daughter Liz was a voracious reader in high school; she had read all of Faulkner prior to graduation, and she also got me into reading Murakami, the Japanese novelist. Sure enough, I found all of these works. Sadly, I am reaching the place in life where our family book collection is more substantial than that of most bookstores; I am not exaggerating, and, before you express the thought, I have given thousands of books away (to younger seminarians, to the libraries of Huntingdon College and Hood Theological Seminary, to our church library, and to friends). I am not attempting to magnify any kind of altruism, simply confessing publically our inability to restrain ourselves in the purchase of books.

So many books, and yet, what to read? I will settle on something, maybe the short stories of Alice Munro, and Robertson Davies' The Cunning Man, which I have not completed, and perhaps Wallace Stegner's The Spectator Bird, which I also began years ago, and need to return to.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

a vacation from technology?

We often take a part of our summer vacation at Lake Junaluska, which is in the mountains of western North Carolina, about 30 minutes west of Asheville and 2.5 hours north of Atlanta. We have a small cabin here, and for better or worse we have fallen into the routine of coming here at this time of year. A part of the appeal is the elevation (about 3000 feet above sea level), and the cooler temperatures, at least in contrast to the city. Another is the simplicity. And another is the change to re-connect with friends in the area.

The gradual omnipresence of electronic media has forced me to make decisions about which ones I will take part in, on vacation, and which ones I will avoid. I have not arrived at a perfect solution, but for now this is the practice: on vacation I do not read e-mail. I know I miss some personal correspondence, but the implication of participating in e-mail is that I am in the flow of administrative work. When I am in Charlotte, I usually read email before 7:30 in the morning (but always after a Psalm, Facebook and coffee), and I generally look at email as late as 9:00 in the evening. In that time I am rarely away from email for more than an hour during the day. So it is quite a detachment to set aside email on vacation.

This summer we are involved in a "Psalms in The Summer" project (see recent posts on this blog, or follow us at twitter/summerpsalms. I generally distill a Psalm in the morning and evening into 140 characters, and at the moment over 250 folks are following this. I also receive these into my cell phone, along with a few other posts: from Andrew Conard, Amy Forbus, Jay Voorhees, Peter Wallace, The Wesley Report, NPR Politics, Nicholas Kristof and a couple from friends in the church. I must also confess that I receive posts from Shaq.

I got into Facebook via our daughters, and I will also admit that the first thing I look for is a post from them. I think, as a parent, there is something wonderful about seeing their faces, especially given that one is in China and one in Atlanta. I do not spend a lot of time on Facebook, and don't participate in the tests or games, which are quite fine, but I am interested in what my friends are doing. Like most experiences in our culture, it seems to be a media that the baby boomers have entered into and overwhelmed---like contemporary worship services designed initially for young adults.

My participation on Facebook and Twitter is very similar on vacation and in daily life, which is to say, minimal: a few minutes (or even moments) in the morning, a few at mid-day, a few in the evening.

Inevitably, a vacation from technology (or at least significant participation in it) leaves more time for reading longer works, which is of course the critique of the web. I generally put aside reading material that I want to get to in the summer, and work my way through it. I have just finished Robert Benton's The Echo Within and Ron Rash' Serena, and have been dabbling in Beldon Lane's The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, the latter a very serious reflection on deserts, mountains and wilderness that requires close attention. I also recently met Gary Shockley at a stewardship event, picked up his The Meandering Way, and read it, marveling at how closely many of our experiences parallel each other (a new church, education in discernment, times in life when we were overextended). Some of the reading will find its way into sermons in the fall and winter, but this is more by-product than intention.

I should finally say that I do have a system for responding to pastoral and personal calls. I am available, although others during these days are more present to these needs. I have often returned home early for a memorial service, and have spoken to friends in our church, in the middle of vacation, about marital difficulty or the suicide of a family member. I quickly add that this is not a burden. I find that there persons continue to be a part of my prayer life, even as I am away.

The fact that I am writing this on a personal computer and posting it on my blog and on Facebook is an indication that I am somewhat wired, even on vacation, and this is by choice. But the engagement is different: it is mostly selective attention to friends and family, and finds its expression as reflection on the day's experience. When I return, the remainder of it will be waiting for me, finally released from the purgatory of cyberspace, awaiting some kind of response.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

a junaluska fourth of july

So we have been at Junaluska for the weekend of the 4th. The day began as I went with two friends to erect our tent near the lake, so we could have a place to watch the fireworks. More about that later. Then we came home and prepared to go to the parade, which began at 11. It is a quirky, somewhat campy parade, one part Americana, one part civil religion, one part mountain culture. Throw in a splash of Methodism, another of Duke, and another of free enterprise. The floats passed by, they waved at us, some threw candy at (to) us, and then it was over. I don't know which float won, but a friend in our party suggested it should be whoever threw chocolate.

We then followed the end of the parade down Lakeshore Drive, where we encounted Bishop Goodpaster and his family, and some other friends. We made our way to the Nanci Weldon gymnasium, an outdoor structure which houses part two of the July 4th extravaganza: bluegrass and barbecue. Since we had dined last night at "Butts on The Creek" in Maggie Valley (yes this is the name of a real restaurant, and my younger daughter texted saying she wanted a t-shirt), we had reached our saturation level of bbq. But we mingled, saw some old friends, resisted the urge to purchase craft items, and listened to the music. Then we walked back to our car, and returned to the cabin for lunch and then a nap. A long nap. The weather has been absolutely amazing today.

Today I can truthfully say I have not watched a minute of the television coverage of Michael Jackson, Sarah Palin or Mark Sanford...a group that certainly achieves a strong measure of diversity (race, gender,orientation and ideology), but nevertheless are not that interesting, after a time.

The day has one more agenda item, and that is fireworks by the lake. Bill, Gary and I set up the new Coleman tent this morning. Pam, Jacquie and Margaret have the food together; Eddie may well have helped in this area too. We will take our places beside the lake, and, if the past is any indication, we will enjoy a multi-sensory experience---taste, smell, sight, sound, as darkness comes to the day.