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Traction, Chapter 1

One of the recurring hindrances to gaining traction in my life, at least at times, has been obstacles or distractions. Most of us have had a car stuck in mud or snow at some point or another. Because of uneven distribution of weight or contact with a solid surface, the tires are not able to grip anything to drive the machine forward or back. 

 

It seems like urgent things or crises often arise in my life, and that those things demand attention, which sucks up my energy and my time, often robbing me of rest and, worse, peace. I spin my wheels furiously, rocking the car of my life back and forth, back and forth, hoping, I guess that eventually my tires will find a grip and create movement again - free me to "drive" normally again. Soetimes the slippage lasts a long time.

 

In the end, what is really needed is not more power, more gunning of the engine or spinning of the wheels. What is usually most needed is to put my attention on what will actually put a firm pavement under my wheels. To take the time to think through what is most needed to create firmness, stability and a firm surface, and to do that before giving the engine more gas.

 

I'm in a position like this right now. The truth is, I want to rock the car and gun the engine. I need to find the grace to get past that urge, discern what I must decide and do to give my life a decent shot at finding traction, and do that. It may still be a long and hard process, but at least putting my attention and energy in the right place will eventually result in the right result. I think....

 

I'm sure I'm not alone in this, and that some who are reading these words are feeling the same way. Find some sand... spread some gravel... dig out the slush... salt the ice. Move ahead deliberately, but with firmness, clarity and steadiness.

Traction - Prologue

 

I am a very active dreamer. By this I mean that…well…there’s often words and/or action involved. And I don’t mean just a few mumbled innocuous words, nor just sitting up in bed or the like. I mean intense, prolonged and extreme action and words. I mean, once, I tipped over my wife’s chest of drawers as an enactment of what I was experiencing in my dream. Fortunately for her, she was at her mother’s for the night. But all that is, I guess, beside the point.

Or is it?

Have you ever tried to run in water that was chest-deep? I have. The buoyancy of the water and the full-body resistance of the water and, in the case of a lake, pond or ocean, the relative softness of the body of water’s bottom all conspire to make it all but impossible to push off, gain speed or make any kind of timely headway. You try to dig in and push off, but normal gravity, force and air resistance are either negated or exaggerated. It can be fun and/or funny if you’re trying to play water volleyball or some other game. It’s not so fun or funny if you really have to get somewhere important fast.

I’ve been reminded a lot lately of a recurring dream that I have had in multiple forms for decades. I’ve had this dream while in the deepest of sleeps, in that dreamy place between sleep and awake, and it has at times actually kept me from getting to sleep. The dream has specific circumstances and settings that vary, but the overarching theme or feeling is constant: I have no traction.

Sometimes the dream has me in the water, trying to run to or from something, but more often than not it just feels like I’m in water. I desperately want to make headway, move forward, or get somewhere important or even urgent, but I cannot. The more effort I expend, the less effective that effort is.

Another analogy for this feeling is what I surmise it would be like to walk on the moon, where the reduction in gravity reduces also the ability to exert force. Sometimes in the dream my legs are pumping as if I’m running, but only every 3rd or 4th or 5th step makes actual contact with the ground, and that contact is so light as to be very ineffectual, and the lack of gravity keeps me suspended above the push-off surface longer than in normal circumstances.

In the next few days I’m going to try to process this dream experience in my own life through this blog space. I don’t actually know all I’m going to say about it; I just have felt like it’s important to me and my life at this particular moment. I’m going to do it in this way because I feel sure I am not the only one who has felt this kind of impotence and frustration.

And maybe the processing of the dream or the feeling or whatever it is will help me…you…us… gain some traction.

 

Teetering

I'm teetering between extinction and expansion.

Those were the words I found myself saying to myself yesterday as I left work. I think I was recognizing a reality in which I have lived for a long time, but only now coming to grips with language that describes the character of that reality. I have often felt schizophrenic about this, wondering how I could be so deep in the pit of despair that I either tried or wanted to quit one moment, and so amped up and optimistic about things that are happening the next. Am I really that flighty, or my moods so fickle? I don't really think that's it.

I'm teetering between extinction and expansion. Often, at the exact same moment, I am certain that I have exhausted my personal resources AND that I am on the threshhold of incredible breakthough. At precisely the moment when a dream is becoming a manifest reality, I find myself under the oppression of immanent doom or failure.

It used to be that I intentionally tipped the scales toward failure, loss or some other form of extinction. I don't do that as much anymore, which may explain why I'm now experiencing this polar dichotomy of extinction and expansion. Maybe it's just that I'm living in and with the tension longer now, so that I have the chance to define it better. Almost certainly, it's more possible that I will experience the breakthrough and a final triumph of hope and expansion, simply because I'm staying in the game. And just as certainly, if I revert back to my old patterns of relieving the tension by resigning myself to failure, I'll never know what might have been another mile down the road or around the next corner.

I have become convinced that I can't or won't ever really experience expansion if I don't risk extinction. Aye, and there's the rub, isn't it? Death or failure is inevitable without expansion. The only way to not become extinct is to expand, grow, change and risk. It's the only way. It often feels as if there is race to see whether life will arrive before death does, and that can be very unnerving.

I'm teetering between extinction and expansion, and I'm learning to live with that. And somewhere, attached to this reality, there is peace.

My What

I did my spring solitude retreat last week, and it came just in the nick of time for a variety of reasons. I had a little hermitage in the woods at Lourdes University for three days, and I read and walked, rested and prayed. And during that time, which came right in the middle of my unworkable life, my "what" came into focus yet again. When I talk about my "what," I mean the thing that drives everything about me; the thing that I care most about doing and being.

When my 72 hours was over, nothing had changed. It's still an unworkable life in more ways than I can count. But I re-upped, so to speak. Having clarity on my "what" always helps me. I still may not know how to make everything work, but if I am settled on my "what," in the words of Peter Block, "the answer to how is yes." And I'm trying to live with that in some level of peace.

The one other thing I did on my retreat last week was to write the first thing I've written since last summer. That's a long dry spell. The poem attempts to articulate what I came to grips with during those days last week, when it was just me and God in the woods. I hope you find some help in these words...

HAUNTED TEARS
031413
Inspired by The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
For Sarah

It's embarrassing, really.

My kids turn to wait for it...

Wait for it...

Breathlessly waiting for my eyes to

Softly brim over or –

Worse –

Violently flood,

Whether at pain or triumph,

Splendor or travesty.

My eyes,

My emotions,

My heaving heart

More captivating

Than the story

Or its images on the LED screen.

What sappy sentimentality!

You'd think a grown man,

Whose beard is snow-er white

Than an animated heroine,

Could control his emotions by now.

For God's sake,

Have a little dignity, man!

It's the faces.

It's the characters.

It's their stories.

They haunt me.

It's the angst-ridden poet

And the grief that accompanies

Beautiful words

Of vulnerability and

Hope against hope,

Or angry words

Shaking a fist at injustice,

Falling on unhearing ears.

And it's the picking up of

That pen that saves her life

Again and yet again.

It's the enigmatic skeptic

And the honestly won

Cynicism that clouds his world

Like an impending

All-day soaker

Of disappointment

And unveiled hypocrisy.

And it's the hope that

Cracks its way somehow

Through his

Impenetrable granite surface.

It's the idiosyncratic genius

And the ostracism

Of self, not to mention

Those who do not understand

And those who fear,

And all, ironically together,

in unacknowledged pain

Suffering silently, and alone.

And it's the brilliance

Of his ideas that break through

Obscurity into light.

It's the hidden-faced one

And the arm-wrestling

Over who is most uncomfortable –

The one possessing or

The one trying to divest,

The one hiding or

The one hoping

Not to find.

And it's the discovery

Of the first vestiges

Of truly seeing and being seen.

It's the grief-stricken loser

Of lover or dream

Picking herself up

Off the mat,

Only to be body-slammed

Once more, and again,

And the pitying spectators

Sipping on their sympathy.

And it's the final transcendent

Triumph of the loser

In a company of them.

It's the young realist,

(Really, undercover idealist)

Whose ideas have both

The insight and power

To change the world,

But who's told it's

Not yet your turn,

So get back in line.

And it's her refusal

To settle for a despotic

And impotent status quo.

It's the starving artist

Whose vision and creativity

Stem from an invisible,

Unending source,

Uncomprehended by those

Whose prescription has expired

And whose ear cannot hear

Such visceral sound.

And it's his devastating choice

To paint it, play it, still

From his deepness.

It's the man with no roof

Whose stereo-typewritten story

Is authored by a community

Just fine with it all,

By a culture gone wild

With pragmatism

And struck blind with

self-interested analysis.

And it's the dismantling

Of collected assumptions

Against all odds.

It's the church-ridden follower

And the guilty pleasures of

Dogmatic certainty

And sanctioned

Outsider relegation to

Hopelessness and despair,

Whose gut tells him

He has missed something.

And it's the courage found

To more closely follow

The One who always hopes.

It's the alienated world

And its torment,

Torn apart by isolation

And compartmentalization,

Fragmented by war and

Fraudulent efforts at peace,

Heaving its heavy heart

In grief-stricken agony.

And it's the hope that

Reconciliation and redemption

Are palpably real.

Oh, how often and how desperately

I want to quit.

To run.

To forget.

That I care.

But the stories.

The characters.

The faces.

They haunt me.

It's the self-tormented pastor

And the fatigue that accompanies

Grieving loss

And all the lost grieving,

Whose lofty aspiration

Is yet so distant that it

Defies the most stubborn faith,

And falls to disheartened earth.

And it's the hoping

Against fleeting hope that

The final story will transcend

His haunted tears.

Not so trite after all

It's a phrase that may be one of the most overused in Christian prayer: "the peace that passes all understanding." I have used it over and over again myself, and have often wondered why I can't utilize other words to say the same thing. I have both heard and used it so many times in my life that I often question my own sincerity in it; I must confess I have also questioned the sincerity of others, as well.

This month has been something else. It started out with me having an unexplained 4th heart attack. Later, my daughter Lauren tore ligaments in her right foot, rendering her unable to drive and me her chauffeur. The same week that happened, my mother-in-law passed away. All of this led to a lot of chaos and scrambling around, as well as a lot of missed work. It has included very important church and organizational meetings and decisions, and some personal ones, too. And this is December. It's the month of Advent and incarnation, Christmas and giving.

Trust me when I tell you that I have plenty to help feed my worry and my natural self-doubt. I've had my moments of sleeplessness and my brain has inflicted some cruel pain on my psyche. I have bumped right up against despair and self-loathing over and over again, only to find rising from the middle of it....

Peace. I have experienced deep peace in the face of crisis again and again, and I've seen others who have done this far more and better than I. But this is different for me. I have a deep pain that I cannot shake on the one hand, and this emerging, almost make-me-feel-guilty peace on the other. At the same instant in which I rub elbows with profound frustration and depression, I have a deep and abiding sense that I am ok and will be ok. I don't understand it.

So, suddenly, the phrase is not so trite after all. I don't know what it all means, but isn't that the point? I think of the words of the Christmas carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem": "…how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

For all of you who are acutely aware of the current intersection of hopes and fears in your own heart and life, I pray for you the peace that passes all understanding. You don't get it, and neither do I.

But that's the point.

Merry Christmas.

_____

Liminal Words

Death is the ultimate rite of passage, isn't it? It's the quintessential defining moment of life, always revealing the deepest issues of a person's life. I've always viewed an invitation to be present with someone who is dying – and their loved ones – as one of the highest honors. Not everyone gets invited to such a graduation, so to be among those present is, for me, a moment worthy of taking off my shoes.

Of course, there are moments in which, because of the closeness of a relationship, presence at such a liminal crossing is inescapable rather than chosen. My family and I are now at a moment such as this with my mother-in-law. In the last day, I and my children, along with other friends and relatives, have had the chance to both say and hear the words that make willing and full passage possible. Intimacies have been conveyed and received, and all the goodbyes have been said. Humor has been shared, and memory has been celebrated. These things are what make it possible for a person to, with full and contented consent, say goodbye to one world and hello to the next, and my mother-in-law is in the process of doing exactly this.

Liminal moments permeate life: graduations not just from one level of academic education to the next, but from one stage of emotional, relational, physical, vocational or spiritual development to the next. Of course, at each of these intersections there are plenty of reasons to stay in the known and familiar stage as opposed to moving to the uncertain future represented by the next movement. And at each of these intersections are people who have the opportunity to help a friend or other loved one, by their presence and their words, say goodbye to the finished moment and say a full and contented yes to the next.

I know most of these moments pale in comparison to the liminality of death in some ways, but if one recognizes the importance – even the holiness – of each present moment, it puts each of these into a different kind of light. It makes the openness of each intersection with another person of great importance and opportunity. I have a couple of close relationships with people really important to me in which I am very aware of this fact. To each I want want to say that I'm aware of the importance of this moment for you, and I want to help you say both your goodbyes and hellos in such a way that your past is treasured and appreciated even as you let it go in order to grasp what is yet ahead. I am also aware that there are some who are doing the same with me at the important points of my life.

On the holy ground of your life, onto which you have invited my presence, I am taking off my shoes. Let's together say the liminal words as we each walk through the rites of passage at which threshholds we each now stand.

_____

On Receiving

My daughter, Jennifer, was married on Saturday night. She looked so beautiful and – I think much more importantly – incredibly happy. There are some moments from the evening I won't ever forget, like when Lyn finally noticed that Jen had changed from her own wedding dress into Lyn's, and when she first stood in front of the beautiful cake our friend Amy made for her. I could easily see that Jen felt like the princess she has always dreamed of being. Her new husband, Sam, is more responsible for that than anyone, and I trust him to help her feel that way throughout their life together.

The main reason the wedding and reception went off as well as they did was the amazing community of friends who worked and served throughout the days leading up to the wedding, and especially the days of the rehearsal and wedding. Honestly, they worked so hard and did such good work that I have had trouble controlling my emotions all day today, just thinking about it, let alone trying to tell them. Whether they were taking the wedding photos or creating an exquisite wedding cake, preparing a delicious meal for the reception or serving it, they were all amazing.

The volunteers especially blew me away. I don't want to name them here, because I'm afraid I would miss someone inadvertently, and because to order them would be impossible. From setting up the sanctuary at New Harvest for the wedding, to changing the room over for the reception in 45 minutes, to serving the meal, to helping tear it all back down and set it up for Sunday morning worship, they just worked and served and loved my daughter and our family and guests – and me – with such a radical, self-giving love that I can hardly think about it.

And "Thank you" just seems so weak. My desire is to say something more powerful, something that conveys the depth of my gratitude. I have thought about how to demonstrate my thanks – essentially, to consider how I could "pay them all back." Today, I was trying to talk about this with Shawn and he reminded me of conversations we have had previously about such things. He corrected me.

There are times when the giving is so profound that the idea of "pay back" can only cheapen what was given. It's the kind of giving – work – that can never be repaid, no matter how hard one might try. In the end, this kind of giving can only serve to momentarily reveal a depth of relationship that can never be fully conveyed in words, but the moment lingers with the trembling realization of surpassing beauty, devotion and sacrifice viewed as joy. And I am undone by it.

It is not the first time I have been on the receiving end of such grace and generosity. In fact, I would consider myself somewhat of an expert on this topic, not because I am good at it but because so many people around me are. I am reminded tonight of those previous times I've learned this same lesson, and I wonder how many more times I will be on the receiving end of such a gift before I learn to live in it more. I am reminded of the great privilege I have of living in a community of people who live this way as a matter of course; a community of people who have provided for me a living example of a life together dreamed of in Starhawk's words:

"Community.
Somewhere, there are people
to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us,
eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us
whenever we come into our own power.
Community means strength that joins our strength
to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing. A circle of friends.
Someplace where
we can be free."
Starhawk

Thank you for being such a place for me and my family. I love you all.

_____

Anniversary

One year ago this evening, my family and I stood on the sidewalk and in the street while we watched our house burn. It was a night of devastating grief and loss that changed our family's life yet again. I will particularly never forget the looks on my children's faces during those agonizing hours. Steven drove blindly into the chaos because we didn't get to call him at work before he was dismissed early. I have never seen such a look of devastation on my son's face, and it is etched in my memory.

Steven later posted on Facebook these words: "Fire? Here's what i have to say to you...He is my fortress; I will never be shaken." Psalm 62:6. Jennifer posted Isaiah 41:10: So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."

Also, one year ago tonight, 30 or so members of our extraordinary community stood on the sidewalk and in street with us while we watched our house burn. They held us and cried with us, and they would not leave us to face our tragedy alone. They were there again the next day…and the next…and the next. I frequently told people that the one thing more overwhelming than the fire was our community. A week after the fire I posted these words on my Facebook wall: "What we are seeing is not so much a community rising to meet a crisis, as it is a crisis revealing what the community has become." I still feel that way.

The last year has been hard in very many ways – really hard. Yet we have not been alone. In the midst of loss and heartache and blessing and hope, we have all found the promise of life springing up within. Some days feel as if the new life has been trampled into the stony path of difficulty and lack, only to awake the next morning to find the tender plant reaching back up to the sky. And slowly – I suppose very slowly – we are rising again. Earlier this evening, my daughter Lauren posted these words: "From Destruction Comes Rebirth. One year ago today my family and I came home to see our house in flames. We are slowly rising from the ashes." It is, in fact, a chance to start anew.

I'm so proud of my wife and children, and I'm so thankful for a faithful God who has been near through it all. And I'm thankful to all of our family and friends who have been so consistently with us. We owe you more than we can repay. We love you all.

_____

The Resilience of Hope

It was just after New Years Day in 2001, and I was in Mexico. The mission team with which I and my son were serving was moving fast on our last day before returning home to "normal" life, and it was snowing. I am serious. I didn't know it ever snowed in Mexico.
Across the street from the cardboard house in which new friends Juan and Marta lived, there was a house that had been there for some time. You can always tell how long someone has lived in a colonia like this one because their house is better constructed than a beginner's cardboard house.

But what was most notable about this house was not its mostly concrete block construction, nor its superior size, nor the number of pirated electrical lines it took to deliver power to the place. It was that it had a decorated Christmas tree on its roof. I have a photo of that scene, but I don't need to look at the photo to see it in my mind's eye. I don't need to see it to feel its impact.

That's because it is my favorite image of hope. I know you've seen pictures of hope, too. Maybe it's a flower run over by a size 12 shoe that somehow finds its way back to upright position within an hour or two. Maybe it's a solitary pine tree stretching up out of a solid mass of granite. I know you've seen it. We all have.

This week I have been paying a visit to the pit of frustration, angst and helplessness. It's not my first time, and it's one of the deepest treks I have made into the valley in a long time. It is a time during which I have not wanted to be around even my closest friends and family, and I have been near despair for days. And, as has been the case a time or two before, I have wanted to just stay alone in my misery. I have used the busyness of my days to hide from my life, my friends, my self – and I wanted it that way.

Yesterday I found myself singing worship songs in the same moments in which I was the most desperate and depressed – and I didn't like it. I didn't want the flower to spring back up from the shoe tread track. I didn't want the seedling to find its way through the metamorphic mass to reach toward the sun. And I sure didn't have any interest in climbing up a ladder to erect a decorated Christmas tree on the roof of my life. I didn't want any of it – kind of resented it, actually – and yet these things kind of broke in on me. Finally, I was sitting alone in the dark in my car in the driveway of my burned-out house, and half a dozen of my amazing friends pulled up and came to surround me…to surround me with a graphic reminder of the things that matter most to me when I care. And although I had a hard time caring last night, something of hope peeked its head up out my my pit.

I was reminded of a lot of things yesterday and last night, but the one I thought of most was the end end of a poem I wrote a few years ago on a really bad day. I wrote it while sitting in my car waiting for a poetry reading at the Collingwood Arts Center and, when I read it over, I thought it sounded like a psalm of David, so I called it Psalm. It seems fitting for this day in my life, so I share it with you:

PSALM
071508

Alone I am,
Enveloped in unwanted silence,
Yet still deafened
By the screams of eager accusers.
Arising from the reverberating din,
An all-too-familiar voice –
My own.

Disappointment pounds
Like ocean's surf on shore,
Reducing once-solid rock to sand.

Emptiness o'erflows
Like castle's moat at high tide,
Blurring dreams once well-defined.

Uncertainty swirls ‘round
Like a whitewater-side pool,
Halting progress once thought inevitable.

Grief flows down
Like raging river over fall,
Reminding once and always of all that been lost.

Longing I am,
To break the awful silence
With articulated despair.
But such words just will not come,
Nor do such thoughts linger long
(Though often I want them to) –
Because of You.

Let hope fall gently
Like a warm April rain,
Restoring the promise that now seems lost.

_____

Remembering Albert

In my lifetime to date, I have known perhaps a handful of people with whom I felt privileged that I ever had five minutes in the same room with them. One of those people was Bishop Albert Ottenweller, who passed away this morning at the age of 96. He was a giant of a man in stature, in intellect and in compassion. He deeply touched my life with his humor, his generosity and his wisdom. Anyone who knew this man loved this man, and I am happy to say that I am one of them.

I posted this on my Facebook page a few minutes ago, and there are already many responses, likes, etc. There will be many more.

I remember Albert describing his life in a public gathering not too long ago (was that really last fall?): "I was priest for (X) number of years, and that was great. I was a bishop for (x) number of years, and that was OK." Albert loved people. He reminded me of God a lot, in that respect. It would take an awful lot of space to attempt to tell all the extraordinary ways in which he demonstrated this fact throughout his life. It would likely take even ore space to list all the ordinary, every day ways in which he did it. He would prefer the latter, if anything, because he was just that kind of unassuming man. Truly, he was as authentically humble a person as I have ever seen.

Albert bore a lot of fruit throughout his life, but it was the fruit he bore in his last years – the only years to which I was a witness – that captivated me. His vigor and vision were both remarkable. I wrote a poem for Albert about this fact about 6 months or so after I met him:

ALBERT'S FRUIT
For Bishop Albert Ottenweller
Christmas 2008

A tree was planted by a River decades ago.

Over time it wasn't just water that passed

Under its branches, past and through its roots:

Life itself witnessed the tree – and vice versa.

Standing like others through the turning seasons,

With time growing to appreciate its source:

The River's devotion to the gen'rous task

Of bringing nourishment to the hungry plant.

Others standing nearby missed the perspective

And, sending their feeding tubes searching elsewhere,

Missed the richness of the river's provision

And fully spent thinly resourced fruit too soon.

The wise'ning tree devoted itself likewise

To the River ever faithfully flowing:

Roots reaching deep and far t'wards wooing current,

Drinking more and more deeply with passing time.

Not unscathed through such lengthy passing of life,

The element-ravaged, River-‘biding tree

Not spared once-gracious limbs gnarled by hardship,

Nor sturdy trunk twisted by disappointments.

Undaunted, drinking still the River's devotion;

Still reaching up in hope, growing deep in trust

That stateliness is not visible stature,

But by fortitude and faithfulness revealed.

Now ancient members, and heavily laden,

Bow low ‘neath the weight of unexpected fruit

Born not of youthful vigor nor epic effort,

But of its rootedness in the River's life.

I sat with Albert and his two dearest friends, Sister Nancy Westmeyer and Father John Blaser, last Thursday for about an hour. He was not able to really talk, though he responded to the people around him as each entered the room. There were tears and smiles and laughter and wondering…

I couldn't help thinking that I was watching the leaves fall from Albert's tree, like the last leaves of fall just before winter really arrives. I was also struck by the intentionality of it all. By that I mean that I was aware that the grace that had…well…graced his life was now gracing his goodbyes here. It was as if the giant tree was deciding to let this leaf go, and then that, and that God was allowing him the privilege of participating in his own dying in a unique way. i don't know all the ramifications of this, but I was very aware it was happening. And it was beautiful. And God was good.

And Albert's leafless tree still casts a shadow; a shadow that still reminds and motivates and challenges and inspires. And the fruit of his life is preserved in each of us on whom his shadow still falls. May each of our lives bear fruit that will continue to fall not far from the original tree.

_____