Monday, March 21, 2011

The Cactus of Encouragment, Addendum

I thought I should show the beauty that came. I include the photo with my hand to give scale of how small the pot is. That's a lot of flowers for a little pot. At least, I think so. I've never seen more than two blooms in a season on these cacti.

No deeper theological reflection than such beauty and the part it plays in this abundant life.

(Or, to quote Image Journal: Beauty Will Save the World.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Disaster and Connection

I am not one to stay connected at all times. I have a cell phone but I seldom use it. I don't have text. I've often watched people walking around looking at a gadget in their hands or talking to someone we can't see via a gadget in their ear, and I think, never have we had so many ways to stay in touch and yet remain so disconnected to our immediate surroundings.

But I do love the internet. I love Facebook and the way it has created connections for me, both with people I used to know and with people I have never met. In the '90s, I loved listservs and developed a number of friendships via them. To this day (and often on Facebook!), I remain in touch with people I "met" via listservs devoted to Joni Mitchell fans, to Mark Heard fans, and to the joys and struggles of being gay and Christian.

One such person is Darren. We "met" first, I believe, on a gay Christian listserv. Then I noticed his name pop up on a listserv devoted to singer/songwriter Sam Phillips. I emailed him off-list to point out the connection. We developed a correspondence off-list. When I moved to Chicago in 2001, he and his partner, Atsushi, visited me for a few days.

Eventually, our correspondence lessened and we drifted. It happens. I never had anything but kind and warm thoughts of Darren and Atsushi and was happy to reconnect via Facebook some months ago.

Darren and Atsushi live in Tokyo. Despite being badly shaken and everything in his apartment "strewn all over the place," Darren has been able to post to Facebook that he is okay, that they've been in touch with Atsushi's mother (who had been out and stranded for hours before making her way home), and are doing well for living so near an enormous earthquake.

Thanks to the internet, the Japan earthquake is more personal than other such disasters. I have a face and a name to place in the middle of the rubble.

I almost always respond to these sorts of natural disasters through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Disaster Response, which has a great reputation for getting relief to where it's needed.

This time, more than Haiti, even more than New Orleans, I feel something more personal at stake. Darren is in Tokyo. Someone in the disaster has a name I can call, and it belongs to someone I've met, hugged hello and goodbye.

Of course, Christian love demands that I care for the people I don't know in Haiti as much as I do for Darren. We know this and we respond as we can to this demand. I don't mean to say that this tsunami and earthquake are in any way worse than Hurricane Katrina.

I'm merely reflecting on how some email listserv postings from over a decade ago are affecting me today. The ripples in this web of connection.

I don't have anything much more profound to say about it. Except that I will pray for Japan and I will pray for Darren and Atsushi, for those I do not know and for those I have called friend.

I suppose that's how it always is.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Taking Up a Cross

Tonight, I was at a meeting with an opening devotion that included the question of taking up our own cross and following Jesus. (Some variation of the saying is in all three of the synoptic gospels and I admit I don't recall which one was used for the devotion.)

As is often the case with this text, the conversation circled around what "taking up the cross" isn't more than what it is. A bad day on the job is not "taking up the cross." Having to care for a sick relative is not "taking up the cross." Living next door to bad neighbors is not "taking up the cross."

But we're not ever really sure what "taking up the cross" is. I sat silent in the conversation, listening, hoping for once I'd get some insight to what it is. The closest we ever come is that it has something to do with dying to ourselves and discipleship.

Whatever those are.

I recently found a place in my journal from 1985 where I boldly wrote that I had "heard the call of Jesus." I was a terribly pious 22 year old and I cringed at the language I used to write about this calling. At the same time, I read it and realized, "dang, that's what's still nudging at me."

The whys of having heretofore not fulfilled that call are many. After a while it looked frivolous. It was even a little embarrassing to say out loud (and I'm not typing it tonight!). And then I realized I was gay and I couldn't see how a gay man could fulfill this sort of calling in a world (and I'll say it---a church) that doesn't very much want gay men. And, really, I don't know that I ever really got much more than a pat on my head if I dared talk about it. No one is really asking for this vocation to be filled and people are often really quick to offer alternative routes.

And I'm a pleaser. Well, there are people who might argue that point, but I am more often than not willing to say yes to things that I know I won't like doing, won't do well, and will resent doing later simply because in the moment I want someone to like me.

So I've started a little lenten exercise (which is sort of a discipline, I guess) wherein I'm spending just a few minutes brainstorming in a notebook about how this calling might take shape.

I need to get over my embarrassment about it, get over pleasing all the people who would have me do any number of other things, and get on with this thing that has popped up over the last 25+ years and I keep avoiding.

Is this dying to myself? Is this taking up a cross and following Jesus? How will I know if it is? Or isn't? (I'm dubious about "success" or "failure" as being a measurement of vocational fulfillment.)

Really, needing those answers are also a part of "self" that needs to die. Maybe.

Maybe the point of carrying your own cross to your own execution isn't about success, failure, pleasing, or fulfilling a need.

The point is to follow.

It's a little scary. But baby steps are being made toward Golgotha. Jesus has gotten a little ahead of me. I'm hoping he'll slow down a bit and let me catch up.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash and Fast

Isaiah 58.6:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Today, people around the world are giving up things for forty days (not counting Sundays, of course). It's the lenten fast, when I've heard people promising to give up everything from chocolate to porn.

It's not a tradition I grew up with. In my rural, Texas upbringing, Roman Catholics did things like receive ash and give up things for lent. We were Lutheran.

I picked up the habit in college, I guess, or came to understand it was a tradition with broader observance than I had been lead to believe. And for a time I took on things, according to a fashion of the moment. I took on extra reading, or extra writing, or other such tasks that might serve me spiritually.

Centuries of all this giving up and taking on . . . and here we are in a time with such gaps between the super-wealthy and the crushed-by-poverty. The words of Isaiah haunt us as we live in this disparity.

Poor people are in prison on nothing more than hearsay and rumors, mostly for lack of adequate counsel.

Megalomaniacal antics of "stars" occupy us more than the dying hungry.

Political uprising is applauded or decried depending upon the profits to be made.

It's all so overwhelming. How do we fast from such a culture?

Yet, this, I believe, is what Isaiah is calling us to. A fast from the culture of prisons for those too poor to defend themselves adequately. A fast from a culture that turns its collective head toward every outrageous comment and flashy explosion, literal and metaphorical. A fast from a culture that follows the flow of money, right down to the polluted waters of political abuse and bloody profit.

How do we fast from the way we move in the world? How do we give up our worldview and understanding of our place in it?

I honestly haven't a clue.


Let us choose this fast. A fast from the bonds of injustice. A fast from oppression. A fast from a yoke too heavy to bear.

As we learn to do without injustice and oppression, perhaps we will learn what it is to be in the world but not of it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Cactus of Encouragement

I took the above photo a little over a week ago. It is a small cactus I have on my balcony. My palm can cover the entire group of prickly orbs. On them you can see several buds. None of them have bloomed, yet, but I think a couple more have appeared since I took this picture. Today, I counted 16 in all. I have had this cactus for about 5 years now. I've never seen more than 3 buds on it in a season.

I suspect that the reason this little pot of cacti is so full of buds is that I left it outside for a portion of the cold weather we had here in Houston. I brought it in when the temps got into the 20s, but before that, the cacti experienced some low 30s, maybe even a little nip of freezing temps. I've noticed all around Houston that other plants are starting to put on buds and it looks like it might be a more colorful than usual spring around here.

The stress of the cold weather makes the plants bloom a little extra.

I've mentioned here more than once that 2010 was a hard year for me. Now in the third month of 2011, I'm still a bit stressed. At present, I have only part-time, temporary work, which will run out at the end of May. So I'm not feeling so secure these days. Luckily, I've never counted security to be a god worth trusting anyway, so it could be worse. Still there is real stress.

So I check this cactus everyday, to see if it's blooming. It's not, but the buds continue to swell. It will bloom.

I find this encouraging.

So I give thanks to the God of prickly, blooming things, that I have them as a sign and a reminder: Something beautiful is coming.

(This is always true, but doggone it if I don't need the reminder!)