July 29, 2016
I can’t remember when Pumpkin first starting coming around. We were already feeding our dear neighbors’ cat, which had migrated to our house, when Pumpkin showed up and waited to see if we would feed her (him?) too. Of course, she didn’t come with a nametag, so we took the full, orange coat as our cue to give her a name. She has now been coming around for so long that the pronunciation of it gets her attention and she will respond to it.
Now Pumpkin is a feral cat, which means that we have never touched or petted her, let alone held her in our arms. Almost every time we see her she snarls at us. But she long ago became a challenge for me, a challenge to see how much trust I could develop in her.
When she first came, she would snarl deep and long. And, with her plump frame, she looked pretty vicious. But I would talk to her, at quite a distance, and then leave the food for her. After I was in the house, she would finally, cautiously approach the dish with the food in it. Well, this scenario got repeated many times, and gradually, since I would always kneel down to put the food in the dish instead of towering over her, she began to move a little closer. There were some glimpses of trust, but any hurried movement or sudden noise would cause her to back off again, accompanied of course with more snarling.
Well, these many years later, I can now go out, call her by name, talk to her as I put the food in the dish, and see her come to within about a foot and a half of me as she waits for me to finish. Then, most times, she will immediately move to eat as soon as I turn my back. And, nowadays, whatever snarling there is seems almost like a greeting and not a warning to stay away.
I have learned so much from Pumpkin, both about friendship and about trust. I guess, in some ways, we are friends, but my friendship isn’t dictated by receiving something from Pumpkin, although it gladdens my heart when I see her waiting to be fed, but rather the joy of the friendship for me is in making a difference for her (I’m not sure where else she would eat, though she does seem resourceful).
But I have learned even more about trust, and the development of trust. I have worked to develop that trust, because I want Pumpkin to feel she has a safe place to come, even if she has to be constantly on guard everywhere else. But I have also discovered that the development of that trust has come mostly on her terms, and in her own timing. And I have been fine with that.
Now I have no expectation that Pumpkin will take the next step and accept a touch of love. But it makes me wonder, how far are we willing to go in developing trust with another, and what lengths will we go to in entrusting our self to another person?
Maybe we can only go as far as Pumpkin and I have gone. Maybe there is hope that we can go much deeper, and experience the true joys of such trust.
I have been reading a book entitled, American Country Churches. It is a so-called “coffee table book,” which means that it is big, heavy and full of pictures. I bought it in part because of an obvious interest in churches, but also because the pictures are beautiful. As I paged through the photos one day, I actually came across five of them that help tell the story of the Missionary Baptist Church in Cades Cove, Tennessee. They jumped out at me because that church was the unplanned, but very memorable, site where I was privileged to perform the wedding ceremony for my son and daughter-in-law. The wedding was supposed to take place in a meadow, which had been arranged with the park authorities. The rehearsal in the meadow was a beautiful time. Then, the day of the wedding, well, I don’t know that I have ever seen it rain harder than it did that morning. The wedding in the meadow wasn’t going to happen. So, we came upon the church, got inside as quickly as we could, and decided it looked like a good place for a wedding. It was interesting though. There are no lights in the church. So, the little light we had came from what filtered through the rainstorm outside, and that was added to by the occasional camera flashes. It was a great moment, and I remember it fondly every time we pass through Cades Cove, and every time I turn to the photos in the book.
When I sat down to write, I had no intention of telling that story. It just sort of flowed out. Where I was going to go with this was to respond to something in the author’s commentary that accompanies the photos throughout the book. Early on he writes, “Americans believe themselves to be a country people, regardless of where we live. How else can we explain our continued faith in the landscape…We share a deep-seated, unshakable belief that the country is redemptive.” (William Morgan, p. 12)
Now I don’t know that his statement applies to all Americans, though I certainly believe that many people would say it is indeed true for them. But what made me think of the statement, was being in the grocery store the other day shopping for fruit and vegetables. I enjoy fruit and vegetables, though like many people I probably don’t eat enough of them throughout the year. But there is something different about summer. Maybe with the hotter weather, the fruit and vegetables just taste that much better. Maybe with it being summer, the produce has come fresh from farms instead of having been grown in hothouses during the winter. I don’t really know, because I am not an expert on agriculture. But I do enjoy the great taste of fruit and vegetables in these summer months.
All of which makes me think that though I am deeply imbedded in life in a large metropolitan area, I do have a connection to the country. The few oranges that I get from our tree, and the grapes that will come in later this summer, both remind me that there is a little bit of country even in my own backyard. And, when we visit Tennessee, I always have that connection to a country church.
July 15, 2016
I remember studying world history in seventh grade and finding it to be a fascinating subject. It was one of my favorite classes. What made it great was that the teacher helped and encouraged us to engage the events and people we were studying in more ways than just reading a book and taking a test. He would show photos of places he had visited, and his pictures were more significant for us than the ones in the textbook. He brought into the classroom his collection of ancient coins, and we got to examine them. Some of the coins may have been authentic, and others were likely reproductions, but to us it was history brought to life.
In the past few years there has seemed to be an increasing number of books being published about historical events and figures. There have likely always been many on bookstore shelves, but recent ones have captured people’s interest, at least judging by how many weeks some have been near the top of bestseller lists.
I am glad to see such interest. It is important. I am also glad to know that some teachers still work hard to make history fascinating as well. My assistant at Gateway, Jeff, is a middle school history teacher. He not only absorbs books about history himself, but he makes learning about history fun for his students. His various activities, including appearing himself as various figures from history (which means that the students need to relate to him for their class period as that person), bring history to life. I know Jeff personally, but I hope that there are many other teachers out there whom I don’t know who also bring such encouragement into their classrooms, encouragement to discover joy in learning, and in this case learning about history and what it means to us.
History can seem like something that is rather irrelevant as we hurry headlong into what comes next. But history provides us with a context for our lives, whether it is as citizens of a country, or as members of an extended family, and certainly too as members of the human family that fills our world.
It is also true that history is vital for a full understanding of religious texts and faith traditions. Often we read the Bible just as it is, and we even quote passages that we have pulled out from one book or another. There can certainly be value in doing both of those things. But the Bible does not exist in a vacuum, and certain passages can be misleading when taken out of their context. To understand the background of the events being described in the Bible, to have an appreciation for the wider cultural context of the time in which the various books were written, to understand the interaction between the Judaism of Jesus’ day and the Greek and Roman cultures that were in existence at the same time, all have an impact on the reading, interpretation and understanding of the texts. The history is not just a fascination, it is vital for a full appreciation and grasp of all that has been handed down to us.
There is so much to do, so much to accomplish, that looking back can seem to be a waste of time. Yet, looking back helps us to see more clearly where we are going.
I enjoy writing, and writing for this space, as much as anything. As I sat down to write for this week, I began to reflect upon how busy I have been. I remember the days and years when summer was a slower time, with less activities and less stress. This summer, for me, has been anything but slow. And so I thought about what I needed to do in the midst of that busyness - take some time for quiet, quiet reflection, or just plain sitting in silence.
So, rather than writing about that sitting in silence, I encourage you to use the time you would have spent reading this blog to now give yourself the gift of a few minutes of quiet.
I hope it goes well for you.
As we welcomed some family into town this week, we spent time at both the La Brea Tar Pits and the Long Beach Aquarium. Visiting such places always piques my curiosity. I actually read some of the displays, learn a little, and imagine what it might have been like to have chosen a different course in life than what I did.
Like most children, I wanted to be a firefighter at some point along the way. I did also seriously consider being a marine biologist when I first entered college. I didn’t take my first college-level biology class until after I felt a call to ministry, and perhaps my heart and mind wasn’t as into the class as it might have been without the feeling of that call, but I struggled to pass the biology class and so took that as a sign that pursuing the ministry was where I was supposed to go.
Nonetheless, I still enjoy the sea and its wonders, just as I enjoy learning more about the earth, its history, and inhabitants such as the dinosaurs who roamed long ago not far from where I live. There are always things we can learn, even when they have nothing to do with our chosen profession or course in life.
But I sometimes wonder whether learning more about things causes us to leave behind some of the marvel and mystery of those things. Does, for instance, learning about the anatomy of a fish cause one to see it more as an organism than as a marvelous part of nature? Does understanding the tides, and the action of waves, make body surfing any less intriguing?
I wonder about such things, because in my chosen field of theology and ministry, it can happen that one learns so much about the Bible and church history and the sociology of current church movements, that one starts to lose connection with the original, marvelous experience of God that got one started on a life track of walking with God. I sometimes think that theologians can get so wrapped up in their studies, and their attempts to explain everything about God, that they get disconnected from the personal experience that motivated them to pursue such areas of study in the first place.
I hope that I never forget God’s touch on my heart, no matter how many sermons I may prepare. At the same time, I hope that I will never learn so much about sunsets that I will stop being moved in the depths of my soul by their beauty. I hope that I never learn so much about the ocean that I fail to enjoy the breaking of the waves and even the taste of the salt water that splashes into my mouth.
There is so much about life that is marvelous, and sometimes what is marvelous is the mystery of it. I love to learn and experience new things. I also enjoy simply dwelling in mystery. I hope I will always do both.
Welcome to my website. I hope you will discover a connection to the life of small churches, and the richness that the arts can bring to these churches.