Sunday, February 25, 2007

small town Sunday: questions and casserole

It was a poor student’s dream: an unexpected potluck Sunday, just when I’d run out of bread at home. Corn pudding, green bean casserole, rolls, chicken…and the dessert table. There was no cake (seriously, I think I missed my chance), but there sure was an abundance of other tasty indulgences. I had bread pudding, and cherry fudge made by the woman from Texas who sat next to me. Perhaps it’s just because I’m young, but she gave me her card: “The Bridal Path: where dreams blossom.” If I decide to have a wedding sans the groom sometime soon, just for kicks, I’ll know where to get my gown, accessories, and veil, as well as a vocalist for hire.

As usual, the people were wonderful. I was greeted again and again, invited on a hike, asked to a presentation by the historical society (Franklin Roosevelt impersonation), referred to some poetry readings in town, and recommended to teach Sunday School (they found out I am a seminarian). I even received a request to stay after church some Sunday long enough to mosey over to the library and help a woman set up her own blog.

But today was not just potluck Sunday. It was also “Stump the Pastor” Sunday. Last week, congregants had the chance to write down questions and pass them in with the offering. Today, in lieu of a sermon, the pastor addressed them one by one. The invocation began like this: “All knowing God, whose favor rested on Jesus of Nazareth, and whose love is poured out for all humankind, inspire us here to ask questions, to pursue understanding, and to share our faith.”

And so it began. There were questions about evolution, about stories in Genesis, a query about Socrates’ understanding of the soul, and a desire to know how an “old timer” can best serve in the church. People asked about absolute truth and encountering other faiths, about why the Nicene Creed uses the word “catholic”, and about how many of the disciples had wives (and what did those women do while their husbands followed the wandering rabbi?). On and on the list went. He even addressed the question regarding his favorite color. I was impressed by his frank answers, his references to everything from good books to John Mellencamp, and his encouragement to the church to continue these conversations with one another. He ended by quoting some wise words he’d heard a pastor say once: “Our parking lot is for your cars, not your God-given intellects.”

I listened to it all from the back again. I do not sit there for fear of interaction or being noticed. Rather, it is because that’s where the sun shines through the stained glass onto the pew. It is brightest through the window with an ancient symbol for Jesus: IHS. I must confess, missing the "I" I saw the "HS" and immediately thought of the Holy Spirit. I could not help but think of a song I love: “Holy Spirit, rest upon us…”

Yes, let me sense the Spirit like warm sunshine on my face, and let me know his goodness in everything from a young boy’s funny reply during the children’s sermon, to the voice of a gray-haired woman reading to us from Genesis, to the sweet cherry fudge made by my new friend from Texas.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

learning to love herbal tea

For Lent this year, I decided to give caffeine the boot. Those of you who know me well understand that this is no small task. Coffee is a way of life for me, and caffeine sure is helpful when reading lots of homework or sitting through a three-hour lecture. Still, I know I depend on it too much. I have known this for a while, but it seems like a harmless vice, really.

Let me repeat that: I depend on it too in, I am dependent...chemically that is. I am a caffeine addict. I went into this expecting a nasty headche and a good dose of yawning, but I've gotten way more than I bargained for! Several studies on caffeine withdrawal have actually led many in the medical field to recognize that a percentage of people experience very real and varied effects (for an example, check out this article by the American Chemical Society). When I read the words, "drowsiness, decreased contentedness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and foggy/not-clearheaded," I let out a sigh of relief that I wasn't just going insane. I have felt so off-kilter for the last couple days!

One of the worst parts is feeling anxious and weighed down, but not knowing what to give credence to during this time. What am I really feeling, and what is just my emotions being weirded out by withdrawal? I feel panicked about some things...are they really panic-worthy? It is amazing to me that this thing, this subtle addiction, has the power to twist my ability to distinguish what is truth for a while. It totally clouds my perception.

It has got me thinking...what sorts of other things have that kind of hold on me? I didn't notice caffeine did, until it was taken away. What kinds of things are subtly building up the strength to totally impair my ability to recognize the truth someday? What am I dependent on?

These are the sorts of questions I plan to ponder more once that whole "difficulty concentrating" thing wears off.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

just another small town Sunday

After being so refreshed last weekend, I decided to go back to Green Mountain Falls for church this morning. I once again felt my spirit calm down as I turned off the highway onto the two lane road that led into town. The Gazebo sat picturesquely by the frozen pond. A couple of teenagers, one of whom was rebelling against small town life (I could tell by her attire), meandered down a dirt side street. The sun was warm on my shoulders as I walked toward the church.

The service opened to the sound of hand bells played by musicians donning blue and white choir robes. Save for one rather sour note, coming from a woman who was clearly nervous about missing her beat, the melody was beautiful. I listened to it from near the back, having chosen one of the pews that catches the sunlight from the stained glass windows.

During the children's sermon, the pastor was called upon to be a sort of human stand for an old felt board. As he did so, an elderly woman did her best to use cloth cut-outs to explain the transfiguration, and this to a bunch of tots who have no idea what the word transfigured even means. Apparently today is Transfiguration Sunday on the church calender. I don't come from a liturgical church, so it was news to me.

While the flannel board bonanza was going on, those of us in the back were treated to a three-year-old fellow who would wander courageously down the aisle, a little closer each time, only to change his mind just before reaching the front. Each time, after turning around, he would walk back toward his parents, shaking his head very seriously at those he passed, and announcing that he'd rather go to the grocery store.

Later, in the fellowship hall (which unfortunately lacked cake this time), I sipped that nasty substance we like to call church coffee and talked with the Pastor. He is a young man from Britain, who was as surprised to be called to Green Mountain Falls as one might be surprised to see him there. "They're a good group though," he told me. And, as is the nature of being from small town Colorado (I am from a different one), I ended up talking to some folks who know a guy I went to elementary school with, and who are related to my middle school music teacher. Small towns are all connected somehow, I suppose.

Driving away, not wanting to leave, I started thinking that I may need to make a habit of small town Sundays. When the weather warms up, take a picnic for the park across the street. Plop down at the local cafe. Buy a coke at the Market.

And hopefully, get another chance at some cake.

Monday, February 12, 2007

whistle stop

T minus two lanes until my insides calm down.
70, then 45, then 35, and now 15
mph through my ever rushing mind.
I stroll down main street with my thoughts.
I learn their names.
We talk longer than the usual 20 minutes.

Seventy in church this morning.
In the fellowship hall,
cub scouts sold their mothers' cake
to old ladies wearing Sunday best.
No talk of calories.

Two, ten
no, sixteen hours til their Sabbath ends.
Time for a cafe brunch,
time for an afternoon nap.
No concern for hours lost.

Population million, thousand, now just
800 stories to tell,
Six generations of friendly hellos.
They played football together,
she watched them as children.
I'll return to a different demographic: a populace of
370,000 ways to rush through the day,
370,000 worries over efficiency and image,
370,000 "just don't have the time"s

There, I'll wake to the longing
for a two lane heart,
a quiet conversation with my thoughts
(what were their names?),
a pew that they know is mine,
a booth in the local cafe.

Sometimes, it's
T minus too many days
til a small town girl
finds home.

(Written after a Sunday outing described in the previous post)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

the plight of the third verse

The third verse is an endangered one. I had forgotten about this entirely until I visited a hymnal-using church this morning, for the first time in a while. As usual, hymns were listed in this way: "Hymn #543, omit verse 3" Every single time. I suppose there are two things to be gleaned from this tragic reminder. 1) If you have a favorite hymn, there could be a third verse that you've never even heard, and it could be amazing! Look it up! 2) If you are ever going to write a hymn, put your weakest material in the third verse. Odds are good that no one will ever sing it anyway.

My visit to this hymn singing church was part of my Sunday outing, one which might be titled: "A small town girl tires of the city, and strikes out in search of a small town church and a quiet place to read." I have spent my whole life in small towns (most of them of the mountain variety), save for an internship in Wichita and a year in Honolulu. My heart is just more rested in those places. So, after spending a quiet evening at home last night and heading to bed early, I got up this morning and drove to Green Mountain Falls, elevation 7800, population about 800. On previous drives through town, I had noticed a beautiful, old church--a perfect place of worship for today's outing.

I managed to show up on Cub Scout Sunday, so I was treated to four-foot ushers and a Scripture reading from a young fellow still struggling to pronounce his r's. Jewemiah was the book, if I recall. The Pastor surprised me by laying down an unabashedly forthright sermon about the woes Jesus spoke to the rich and well-fed (amen, brother). I was greeted enthusiastically by several people and offered some amazing looking cake (unfortunately, my sweet tooth doesn't turn on until after lunch, so I had to refuse). When I left, I smiled to be walking down a sleepy small town street on a beautiful Colorado day.

From Green Mountain Falls, I drove ten minutes farther up Hwy 24 to Woodland Park (population just under 7,000--felt like a metropolis after Green Mtn Falls). There I munched on a breakfast burrito and sipped coffee at Java the Hut, one of the best coffee shops on the planet. I sat in the sun, looked out at the back side of Pike's peak, and read Proverbs. The chapter in Proverbs was amazing, and the view of the Peak brought back memories of a very cold journey across the ridgeline...

Now, as cities go, Colorado Springs is one of the best. I don't feel too crowded-in, or like I'm trapped in a concrete paradise. I can mountain bike right from my house. But still, there's something about a small town church and the people filling its pews, or a hometown cafe and the folks in the booths, or a quiet mainstreet where people just makes my heart feel right at home.

Next week I'll throw caution to the wind and eat the cake.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

fun in the mud

I felt like being alone today, so I passed up offers for hiking (wanted more speed than that), climbing (don't actually know how), and polo (just kidding). Instead, it was me and Pedro the Spikey Bikey (aka, my bike). Now any mud lover knows that God made the earth and waters, and when he mixed them together, he called it good--a lesser known and rather loose translation of Genesis. But today I learned that I sometimes need to be careful what I ask for...

Ah yes, I love mud when it splatters. It is less fun when it completely clogs your wheel. Still, I got a good laugh and made it home after cleaning out the muck and getting back to the more solid section of the trail.

But seriously, it doesn't get much better than a ride through the mud on a sunny Colorado day.

Friday, February 09, 2007

fixed on the unseen

Let it all out (get it all out)
Rip it out, remove it
Don't be alarmed when the wound begins to bleed
We're so scared to find out (what this life's all about)
So scared we're gonna lose it
And knowing all along that's exactly what we need

And You said, "I know that this will hurt,
but if I don't break your heart, things will just get worse.
If the burden seems too much to bear, remember
The end will justify the pain it took to get us there."


The above is just a sampling of a song by Relient K that echoes much of what I wrote about Lot a few days ago. Lot knew it well--the journey away from sin and disasterous decisions is not an easy one. It wounds, it bleeds, it's messy. Even when the journey isn't away from sin--perhaps just allowing God into a hurt or letting him awaken a numb spot--sometimes it can be overwhelming. Dizzying, even.

I hear much truth and hope in a song like this. I love that God recognizes the things that hurt us, and that he knows such burdens can seem too heavy. Yet he has the big picture in mind. He knows that the destination will far outweigh the pain. Paul says it best:

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
-2 Corinthians 4:16-18

If that promise is true, then I want to always give him room to lovingly rip out and remove the things that get in the way of his glory. A life that is ever-increasing in intimacy with him will be worth any pain it takes to get us there.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Stands for: everthing I need to know I learned from my mountain bike. Which is proving to be true. Lesson ala bike for the day: the Bible.

After months of pedaling away in the balcony of World Gym, it was finally warm enough (and reasonably dry enough) for a bike ride today. I decided to try a loop starting from my house that I figured would provide a good dose of exercise. It ended up being a great ride; I discovered a pedestrian bridge over the interstate (one less nasty intersection to navigate), and though I had expected the Santa Fe trail to be pretty dry, I got a good dose of my favorite kind of terrain--mud. Mud which I didn't make an effort to brush off before coming in the house, and which I imagine is getting all over everything as I type this.

The difference between riding a bike at the gym and riding outside is beyond compare. In the gym, it is all about checklists. Made it to the gym for the day, check. Cardio for a certain length of time, check. Burned a certain number of calories, check. Set the level pretty high, check. Working out inside is just plain discouraging and boring most of the time.

Outside, however, checklists have nothing to do with it. Out on the trail it is about the burn in my muscles as I push myself up a hill, and the wind in my face when I go down one. It is about navigating terrain, getting dirty, and going just a little father simply for the sake of exploration. It's about pushing hard so that I can push farther the next time, about knowing my metabolism is kicking, about the fact that my body will be ready for rest tonight--about feeling healthy, but only as a byproduct of enjoyment. Even if there was a checklist, it would probably look something like this: Didn't waste a warm day, check. Did not quit on a single hill, check. Got as muddy as possible, check. Found a new trail, check. Laughed out loud as I rode, check.

But the Bible...yes, back to my point. We've all heard it said before, but reading the Word can become a bit like a checklist. It can be like an indoor workout. Read my Bible today, check. Covered at least one chapter, check. Underlined a few things, check. Even if we don't mean to do it this way, even if we really want to grow with Jesus, we sometimes let ourselves end up there. Just trying to stay in decent shape and fit into our image.

The Bible should be about so much more than that! It should be about the challenge of pushing our ways through trial, knowing we are building muscle, and the sweet wind of relief when God opens the floodgates of blessing. It should be about enjoying the journey, getting a little dirty, laughing as we go. Scripture should be alive in us, getting our metabolism kicking, causing us to grow in perseverance and Christlikeness. Reading the Word of God should be the most thrilling ride we will ever take.

And I mean really, even if there was a checklist, it should probably look something like this:

Allowed the Spirit room to radically change my life today, and fell a little more in love with Jesus, check.

Monday, February 05, 2007

turn your back and run

Sodom and Gomorrah. In the likeness of “forbidden fruit” and “Bathsheba”, mention of these two cities immediately brings to mind one thing: sin. Sodom and Gomorrah make us think of outright, nasty offense and indiscretion, along with all of their worst consequences. To the believer, Sodom and Gomorrah represent the idea of sin city in a way that Vegas could never come close to.

For Abraham’s nephew, Lot, however, Sodom was home. His house was there, as was his family—a wife, two daughters and their husbands-to-be. He walked the same streets each day. He saw familiar faces around the city. If we strip back our deeply ingrained images of Sodom for a second, we might see that it was home to him as Colorado Springs is home to me.

But we ask, how in the world did he feel at home there? How did he come to be comfortable with it all? Perhaps it happened slowly--the gradual, almost imperceptible desensitizing that represents the way most of us find ourselves living in a place that reeks of indiscretion and ungodliness.

When Abraham and Lot parted ways in Genesis 13, Lot chose the “whole plain of the Jordan, [which] was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar.” He looked out at good land, and decided to settle there. Then, the Bible tells us, he “lived among the cities of the plains and pitched his tent near Sodom,” where men were sinning greatly. Perhaps he moved is tent closer over time, and began to chat with the citizens. In the end, whatever the final straw was, he pulled up his tent stakes and moved into Sodom. I wonder how long the process was. I wonder how long it took for a man to go from being disgusted by the sin of Sodom to feeling at home in the midst of it.

Lot would have died right there in that cozy home if it weren’t for the prayers of his faithful uncle. But before God brought down his wrath on the city whose sin repulsed him, he sent two angels, whom Lot welcomed into his home as guests for the night. When men tried to beat down Lot’s door to have sex with his visitors, the angels had seen all they needed of the city’s sin, and they said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here--sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the LORD against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.”

Lot rushed to his sons-in-law in the night, but they didn’t believe him. How he must have pleaded! When dawn approached and the angels warned him all the more urgently to flee, even then he hesitated. He was torn. God could have given up on him right there; the angels could turned their backs at his flimsy faith and his attachment to such a home of sin. But the Bible tells us something far more beautiful: “When he hesitated, the [angels] took his hand and the hands of his wife and two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16). Yes, God could have turned away; instead, he took Lot by the hand.

Outside the city walls, more urgent instructions: “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere on the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!” Lot asked to flee to a town instead, the Lord consented, and off he ran toward Zoar, his wife and daughters with him. He had to hasten, for the Lord had told him, “But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it.”

The words echo:“Do not look back, and do not stop anywhere on the plain!”

How amazingly hard those instructions must have been, and how seriously God took them (as we know, Lot’s wife did stop to look back, and she ended up as a shapely stick of sodium). Yes, Lot knew he was being spared, and he knew that he was running away from destruction. But really, wouldn’t you want to look back? Wouldn’t you want one last look before your home went up in blazes? He must have wondered if his sons-in-law were trying to escape, or if anyone had made it outside the gates. He must have wondered what the flames looked like as they licked the city walls. But for Lot, merciful rescue from pit of sin meant never, ever looking back. Not if he heard his name cried out, not if he wanted to remember what the city looked like in the morning light, not if he realized he had forgotten a goodbye. Just turning his back and running toward a town he may have never seen before.

Lot was lovingly, mercifully spared, but being delivered from Sodom was not all smiles and warm feelings. He left behind family, lost everything he owned, and had to run into the unknown without so much as a glance back toward the place he called home.

This story flabbergasts me, because it is so familiar. How well I know the slow desensitization of sin. I know what it means to head out looking for good land, only to find myself scooting my tent closer and closer to sin, until before I know it, I’m living in the middle of it. As Beth Moore puts it, until I'm hanging up pictures on the walls of my pit.

I know of the prayers of faithful friends, and of the merciful ways the Lord chooses to lead me out even when I hesitate. And I know what it feels like to want to look back. How it feels to be sucking wind and running toward the unknown. How it feels to know it was sin, but want to remember what it looked like in the morning light. What if I forgot a goodbye?

In all of it, I am brought back to a verse from Hebrews I wrote about months ago: “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.”

May I learn more and more to take hold of the merciful hand that leads me out, and to trust him when he tells me to never, ever look back.