Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"The minute we begin to understand this, that His love is not only our foundation but our life breath and the thing that carries us through, the world will open to us, and we will become what we were meant to be, without human effort and without striving."
- John Paul Jackson

Friday, April 25, 2008

You never know what is hidden inside

The moment had come for the students in my creative arts class to choose their animal assignments. And Anthony was worried.

Ever since a professional symphony had invited our class to accompany their performance of Saint-Saen’s “Carnival of the Animals” with original poetry and dance, Anthony had set his mind on being the elephant. After all, he reasoned, elephants are strong and mighty. They rule the animal world – and Anthony certainly wanted to rule third grade. But the parts for the performance would be chosen randomly from a hat.

He tried to make deals and bribe his fellow third-graders into giving him the part – to no avail. When we had a class discussion about the equal value of all animals, Anthony agreed in theory. But as sweet, quiet Esperanza stepped up to the hat, reached in, and chose the elephant, Anthony let out a moan and theatrically fell out of his chair.

Now it was his turn. As Anthony dragged himself to the hat, he rubbed his hands together and coaxed, “Come on, lion.” If he couldn’t have the elephant, at least he could chose something fast or strong. But when he read his pick, I knew the challenge for him and me had just increased exponentially.

Anthony was the swan. He couldn’t imagine an animal less mighty. Swans are gentle and elegant. Swans don’t rule anything. How could he possibly be a swan? He was crushed.

Once he recovered from the letdown, I knew deep down he could be a magnificent swan. But the recovery would have to come first, and I wasn’t quite sure how to help him.

The next day I showed him a video of “Swan Lake,” and we watched how the dancers moved with strength and ease. He saw the dancers jump high, like basketball players, and spin around several times without stopping. He thought maybe he could move like that. Maybe the swan wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe.

So I cajoled Anthony to practice jumping and twirling. He started to get into the spirit, adding a cartwheel to his choreography. He ran and leaped and flew through the air. Elephants couldn’t do that, I told him. Swans have something special that even elephants don’t have. Swans have grace.

Anthony always knew he could be strong and forceful, but suddenly he had discovered that he also had ease and grace. By the time the class performed with the symphony, Anthony had become a swan. And Esperanza, usually shy, had discovered her elephant power.

- By Lara Naughton

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I recently heard about the book “So you don’t want to go to church anymore” by Jack Colsen. You can read it here.

There was a part that just shook me and it has been echoing in my heart these past few days… (emphasis is mine own)


My wife and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary by taking a three-day trip to Pismo Beach on the central California coast. On our way home on Saturday afternoon, we stopped in downtown San Luis Obispo for some lunch and shopping. This re-vitalized downtown area is a major draw for the whole community. On this sunny April day the streets were jammed.

After lunch we split up since our preferred browsing places are quite different. I went to loiter in the bookstores while she trolled the clothing stores and gift shops. Finishing before our scheduled rendezvous time, I had perched myself against the wall of a store while nursing a chocolate ice cream cone.

I couldn't help but notice the heated argument going on a few feet up the street on the curb in front of The Gap. Four college-aged students and two middle-aged men were holding bright blue handbills and gesturing wildly. I had seen the handbills earlier, tucked under windshield wipers and lying scattered in the gutter. It was an invitation to a play about the flames of hell being put on at one of the local churches.

"Who'd want to go to this second-rate production... ?"

"I'll never set foot in a church again..."

"Been there, done that, got the scars and ain't going back..."

In the few moments since I had begun my eavesdropping, I don't think any one of them actually finished a sentence. Another would interrupt as if they would burst from the pressure if they couldn't add their own venom

"Where do these arrogant people get off thinking they can judge me and..."

"I'd like to see what Jesus would think if he walked into one of these churches today..."

"I don't think he'd probably go, he seemed..."

"And if he did, he'd probably fall asleep."

Laughter drowned him out.

"Or maybe he'd die laughing..."

"Or crying," another voice offered which caused everyone to pause and think a moment.

"Do you think he'd wear a suit and...?"

"Only to hide the whip he'd sneak in to do a little house cleaning."

The increasing volume drew the attention of those passing by. Their pace would slow to try and figure out what the commotion was all about. Some drawn by the passion and intrigued by the assault on something as sacred as religion joined in like puppies at the food bowl. Still others hung around on the fringes to listen, some even asking me what was going on.

Now a full-fledged argument developed as some of the newcomers challenged the anti-church cynics. Accusations volleyed quickly in the crowd. Most of them I had heard before--complaints about extravagant facilities, hypocrites, boring sermons and burn out from too many meetings. Those that sought to defend the church had to admit some of these weaknesses did exist but tried to point out many good things churches have done.

That's when I noticed him. He could have been anywhere from late 30's to early 50's. It was difficult to tell. He was short, perhaps only 5'4"; with dark, wavy hair and an unkempt beard, both peppered with streaks of gray. In a faded green sweatshirt, jeans and running shoes, his rugged looks made me wonder if he was a holdover from the rebellious 60's; except that he wasn't shuffling by aimlessly.

In fact what had caught my eye was the determined purpose of his gait, moving directly toward the center of the rising argument. It seemed from some distance away he had picked out the crowd and now zeroed in on it walking slowly, his face as intense as a German Shepherd hearing an unfamiliar sound in the night. As he approached the crowd he seemed to melt into it. Within moments he emerged toward the center of the circle surveying the more vocal ones. When his eyes turned my direction, I was captured by their intensity. They were deep--and alive! I was riveted on him. He seemed to know something no one else did.

By this time the debate had turned hostile. Those who had attacked the church had turned their anger toward Jesus himself, mocking him as an impostor. As intended, that only made the church go-ers in the group even more livid. "Wait until you have to look in his face as you sink into hell!" I thought the combatants were going to start swinging at each other when the stranger floated his question into the crowd.

"You really have no idea what Jesus was like, do you?"

The words slipped off the man's lips as gently as the breeze wafted through the trees overhead and in stark contrast to the heated argument that swirled around him. They were so softly spoken that I read them on his lips as much as heard what he said. But their impact was not lost on the crowd. The noisy clamor subsided quickly as tension-filled faces gave way to puzzled expressions. "Who said that?" was the unspoken question that filled the eyes of each one as they scanned the others around them.

I chuckled under my breath because no one was looking at the man who had just spoken. For one thing, he was so short that it was easy to pass over him. But I had been watching him and the crowd for the last few moments intrigued by his demeanor.
As people were glancing around he spoke again into the silence. "Do you have any idea what he was like?"

This time all eyes turned downward toward the voice and were surprised to see the man who'd spoken them. Where had he come from? What does he know about it? The unspoken questions reverberated in the tense silence.

"What do you know about it, old man?" One of them finally spoke up, his mockery dripping off of each word until the disapproving gaze of the crowd silenced him. He laughed it off and looked away embarrassed, grateful that their eyes had swung back to the stranger. But he was in no hurry to speak. The resulting silence hung in the air, far beyond the point of awkwardness. A few nervous glances and shrugs shot throughout the crowd, but no one spoke and no one left. During this time the man scanned the crowd pausing to hold each person's gaze for a brief second. When he caught my eye, everything inside seemed to melt. I looked away instantly. After a few moments I glanced back, hoping he was no longer looking my direction.

After what seemed an insufferably long time he spoke again. His first words were whispered directly at the man who had threatened the others with hell. "You really have no idea what motivates you, do you?" His tone was one of sorrow, almost entreating. There was not a trace of anger in it. Embarrassed, the man threw his hands up and twisted his lips as if he didn't understand the question. Which was all he could think to do with everyone looking at him.

The stranger let him twist in the gaze of the crowd briefly, then looking around the circle he began to speak again, his words flowing softly and sweetly. "He was nothing special to look at. He could walk down this street today and not one of you would even notice him. In fact he had the kind of face you would shy away from, certain he wouldn't fit in with your crowd.

"But he was as gentle a man as one would ever know. He could silence detractors without ever raising his voice. He never bullied his way; never drew attention to himself nor did he ever pretend to like what vexed his soul. He was real, to the very core of his being.

"And at the core of that being was love."
The stranger paused and shook his head. "Wow! Did he love!" His eyes looked far past the crowd now, seeming to peer across the depths of time not space. "We didn't even know what love was, until we saw it in him. It was everyone, too, even those who hated him, who wouldn't extend to him the simplest of courtesies. He still cared for them, hoping somehow they would find a way out of their self-inflicted souls to recognize who stood among them."

"And with all that love, he was completely honest. Yet even when his actions or words exposed people's darkest motives, they didn't feel shamed. They felt safe with him. His words conveyed not even a hint of judgment, simply an entreaty to come to God and be freed by him. There was no one you would trust more quickly with your deepest secrets. If someone were going to catch you at your worst moments you'd want it to be him.

"He wasted no time mocking others, nor their religious trappings."
He glanced at those who had just done so. "If he had something to say to them, he'd say it and move on and you would know you'd been loved more than anyone had ever loved you before." Here the man stopped, his eyes closed and mouth clenched as if choking back tears that would melt him in an instant if he gave in to them.

"I'm not talking about mamby-pamby sentimentalism either. He loved, really loved. It didn't matter if you were Pharisee or prostitute, disciple or blind beggar, Jew, Samaritan or Gentile. His love held itself out for any to embrace. Most did, too, when they saw him. Though so few ended up following him for those few moments his presence passed through their life, they tasted something they could never deny even years later. Somehow he seemed to know everything about you, but loved deeply all that was true about who he made you to be."

He paused and scanned the crowd. In the last couple of moments perhaps as many as 30 people had stopped to listen, their gaze firmly on the man and their mouths suspended open in bewilderment. I can record his words here, but am bereft of an adequate description of their impact. No one within earshot could deny their power or their authenticity. They rang from the very depths of this man's soul.

"And when he hung there from that filthy cross," the man's eyes looked up into the trees that towered over us, "that love still poured down--on mocker and disillusioned friend alike. As he approached the dark chamber of death, wearied by his battle with sin, there was no finer moment in all the world. His anguish became the conduit for his life to be given to you. This was no madman. This was God's Son, poured out to the last breath, so that we could live free."

So you don’t want to go to church anymore
- Jack Colsen