As You Watch…

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the world darken and twist. As you see the confusion and the breakdown. As you witness the walking dead around you and your heart breaks for what is happening.

Do something. Just that. Do something. it doesn’t have to be a big thing, every little bit counts, but it has something you do to make a difference. Roll up your sleeves, put your faith into action, and seek out whatever you see as wrong and broken and challenged and do something to make it better.

The world and the church are full of passive whiners and complainers, people who have a list of things to gripe about but not a single finger to lift to make things better. Enough of that. From now on anyone who complains about the way things are and does nothing to make it better is part of the problem and needs to be ignored by the people who are actually making a difference. What they say matters nothing until they have shown they are willing to take personal responsibility for making something better.

For followers of Christ this is especially important. We are not called to hide away from the world no matter how terrible that world is. We are called to be salt and light and God’s hands in a place that has made ill by human sin. We are called to proclaim the reality of our faith in word and deed and there are no exceptions, even for difficult days.

Make a decision. Are you in or you? There’s a lot at stake hear not the least of which may be your own soul.

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I am learning…

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there is no perfect place, no perfect job, no perfect church, no perfect life. In everything and everywhere there will be moments of joy and moments of challenge and nothing will ever be just the way you imagined it would be no matter how hard you try.

There’s a kind of disappointment in this. Surely one thing in this existence could be at least close to what you imagine it’s supposed to be. Yet, while some things may come achingly close, nothing will ever be “it”. In fact the closer they come the greater the disappointment when the flaw that mars comes to the surface. Just when you thought you won the prize, the reality of life does something to pull it from your fingers.  It’s, perhaps, one of the most maddening things about being human.

There’s also a freedom, though, in this realization. Accepting there is no perfect anything on this Earth and in this life gives the gift of wisdom, of patience, and a release from the tyranny of perfection into the cool waters of grace. One can be set free to enjoy that which is beautiful and release that which is less so when you realize that a normal life will have parts of both. The good can also become more precious and the harsh can be more temporary when you realize all things pass and see life through this window.

And then there is heaven which seems, as I grow older, to be less like any image I have of it and more like an existence where I can simply “be” as I was meant to be because the presence of God will fulfill all my expectations and heal the imperfections and unrealities of my life. One of the great gifts of getting older is that having seen so much of the world over the years one realizes the quiet ache in your heart on even the best of days is a sign there is more and better and it’s closer than you think. Stepping through that door you realize you’re more at home there than any place your travels in this world may have taken you. Every beauty here is a sign of a greater one to come and every challenge is a reminder of a larger day when all such things will pass.

Ghana…

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Ghana is warm and humid, busy, and full of life. Street vendors come to you while you’re stuck in traffic and quiet towns rest in the tropical sun. Ghana is color, tins roofs, skyscrapers, a country emerging out of a colony, and everywhere is a fertile green.

Six hours out by air from Amsterdam and you arrive in Accra, the capital. More than a million souls live in and about this city and like every city it has gleaming high rise buildings, government offices, streets swirling with traffic, monuments, and slums. There’s an unfinished look because people build as they have money, each story rising when the funds are there and resting incomplete when they’re not. As in the villages a raw capitalist energy flows where everything can be purchased right on the street and all prices are subject to debate. When you arrive you can feel the place is ready to become something extraordinary, a city of the world in its adolescence.

It’s a deeply spiritual place as well, this Ghana. Put away the idea of some sort of pagan Africa from the past. Everywhere there are churches large and small. In some places its hard to find a tree or a billboard without a poster for a revival, church service, or an “apostle” promising spiritual renewal. Cabs and businesses overtly proclaim the faith of the owner and the radio stations are filled with religious broadcasting. Like the street markets where vendors vie for your business the spiritual market here is full, crowded, and full of variety. Jehovah’s Witnesses are here. Latter Day Saints have contructed a magnificent temple not far from the President’s home in Accra. Every street seems to have a church of one kind or another and if not a church a mosque.

In this place the Orthodox Church is relatively young, a matter of decades and not centuries. Like other Orthodox communities in Africa it was the product not so much of colonial missionaries but of the Africans evangelizing themselves in a search for the roots of Christian Faith. There are people still living who were part of that original group of searchers and their descendants have entered the spiritual world of Ghana with the vigor and challenges of a new community of Faith. Everywhere, like the rest of the country, there is something to build, something to grow, and dreams for the future. Everything is needed from nuts and bolts to seminary training. Everything is in the process of being built. Everything is new like a bird stepping from the nest and learning to fly.

Yet there is also remarkable seriousness and maturity about the Church in Ghana. They’ve weathered some challenging times. They’ve created beauty from scratch and are tuned in to the people they seek to serve. There is a wisdom in this place and a depth of faith formed in the crucible of facing and overcoming obstacles that few in our world of convenience could, or would, ever understand. It’s a young church of old souls with an intentionality about being the Church that reflects the very best of our ancient Faith.

And, if somewhere along the line you choose to travel to this place, this Ghana, it will become your school. You may think your work is to travel to teach and explain but the larger truth is that you will be taught and you will learn. You may ponder the romance of serving abroad but you will discover that the faithful of this country will make you crushingly aware of how much needs to be done right around your own home. Ghana will teach you the Faith. Ghana will teach you humility. Ghana will teach you joy. Sit in the silence of the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Accra and you will begin to understand.

The Best and Most Challenging…

Open hands beggingquestion any parish can ask is actually rather simple, “Are we doing what Jesus wants us to be doing?”

Now that question should actually be obvious. Surely if we claim to be followers of Christ we should be doing our best to do the actual things that Christ commands. They’re not hard to find, a simple reading of the New Testament will reveal any number of places where Jesus directly tells us what to do and in very basic and simple terms. He also tells us that there will be accountability for our doing, or not doing, the same.

So why not do just that? Why not, for example, when we have parish council meetings start out with a simple question “Are we doing and being what Jesus asks?” and with that as the standard then proceed to seek God’s face for the wisdom and guidance to make what Jesus tells us real in everything we do. Although the implications for many parishes could be profound, the actual process is quite dimple and direct.

Now some would say “But we have all these things we need like keeping the lights on and such…” and all of that is true but what did Jesus say? Jesus said that God knows we have these practical needs and he urges us to seek FIRST the Kingdom of God in the assurance that all the other things we need will be given to us. The truth is we often have things backwards. We seek the things that Jesus says God already knows we need and ignore the things that Jesus tells us will make us the sons and daughters of God.

In the end we’re the ones who lose. Our parish life becomes an endless series of meetings and projects about keeping the building open rather than the Spirit filled adventure of impacting the world and transforming ourselves into what God would have us be. Hands and hearts that God could use for doing great things grow idle or occupied with the trivial and fall into a kind of spiritual listlessness. Faith turns into formalities.

There’s better. There’s more. The question, I suppose, is to what extent we let Jesus be Lord in his own church.

The Elevator is Slow…

An-older-woman-in-her-whe-006as it travels to the little world that is 4th floor. Slow enough so that people in wheelchairs don’t have the doors slammed on them and slow enough to provide a moment of transition from everything below to everything above.

On the 1st floor are the offices and corporate things. Most everything is beautifully arranged with a view of the gardens and grounds.  A post card serenity is there with a background of light Christian music. You imagine your grandmother there. Indeed, you can imagine yourself there some day, a suburban place of rest and relaxation where, after years of work and challenge, you can literally sit on a park bench and watch the lake change with the seasons. It’s that good.

As the elevator proceeds up each floor harder things become more apparent. People who are ill. People for whom the picture postcard of retirement turned into a scrum of illness, deterioration, and a single room with a few possessions and, if you are fortunate, no roommate. 4th floor, at the top, is where this truth of growing old and changing is where that other reality is most real.

Alzheimer’s disease is an illness of the brain. No one is quite sure how you get it and no one knows how to stop it. It kills you, eventually, but not before the person you thought you were gets slowly erased one brain cell at a time until your brain simply tells the rest of you to stop living. Even a cancer has a slim chance but right now there is no chance for the person with Alzheimer’s.

There are times when the very word is fraught with peril. Imagine the mixed emotions to be descendants of Dr. Alzheimer, the person who gave his name to this terrible thing because he began the process of figuring out what it was but also a name that can strike abject terror into the person sitting across from the doctor.  If you hear that word, and the diagnosis is true, you will die but not before you change into something you wouldn’t recognize even if you could and the thought of it is a pain worse than any other illness.

The only respite is that eventually you won’t know what’s happening to you. The earliest stages are the toughest because you remain, for a while, aware of the changes, aware there is something terribly wrong happening, and you enter a world where nothing is the same even minute by minute. You can be lost within three feet of where you once stood and the people and places you knew slowly fade out of your comprehension, becoming thoughts you struggle to grasp and words that evade your tongue.  As things progress you will lose control of your bowel and bladder and your speech, if it exists, will become gibberish. You may be able to smile but the rest of the world will become a blur where you are moved from place to place and tended to like an infant because, well, you are becoming one. The one good thing, perhaps, is that your death will be quite peaceful, gentle even, as the ravages of the disease give way to a simple falling asleep.

As you ride the elevator from 1st to 4th floor you prepare for this, the people who work as helpers and the families and friends of those who bear this terrible burden. What will I see today? How will this person, or people, I care for be when the door opens and I see them in this place? At best you hope they are at a certain place of comfort and peace. At worst you prepare for what you might need to do when the ravages of this disease turn ugly inside of them. Mostly it’s a little of each.

Some can’t take it at all. Family members who can’t bear the sight slip quietly off the floor never to be seen again until the very end. There’s too much trauma, too much loss, too much heartbreak to bear to look again. That’s understandable. Others are in for the long haul, women, mostly, who come sometimes every day and keep watch as their loved one slips away. Occasionally there is a husband and wife who have taken their vows to this end, a love that refuses to die even in the face of this monstrous thing.

And when you work on this floor, this place where the sometimes forgotten and forgetting have found shelter, you make up your mind to get through this day as best you can. Things will be messy, they always are. Yet, there will also be moments when love breaks through even the horrible reality of Alzheimer’s Disease. There is a quiet confidence that even though the people you care for will forget you and the world will as well (Who, in our cult of youth, wants to remember the suffering and broken?) that God remembers and good, even when it’s never noticed, still has an eternal quality to it.

So the elevator is slow, it has to be, but you press the button for 4th floor and stay the course.