Around the Table

community

 

I love my new job. And I loved my old job.

 

For 24 years, I was a pastor, and it was good (except the times it wasn’t). This past 7 months, I’ve been a professor. And it is very good, and so far I haven’t found the underside. Do I love professoring (my coinage) more than pastoring? It’s hard to say. They’re hard to compare. All I know for sure is that my heart sings now in a way it had stopped singing.

 

There are probably many reasons for that. One, I think, is simply practical: I am home most evenings. In the pastorate, most my evenings were taken up with some church-related duty or another. After too many seasons of that, something eroded in me. Some deep weariness took hold of me.

 

But now I have most evenings free. The first few months, I gorged myself on that. I went nowhere. I saw no one. I sat home and read, or watched movies, or puttered around the basement. I drank a lot of tea.

 

It was life-giving.

 

And then it got boring.

 

So Cheryl and I started inviting people over to our house, and readily accepted invitations to go to other peoples’ houses. In fact, in the 7 months we’ve live here, we’ve hosted more meals in our home and eaten more meals in other people’s homes than we did in our last 5 years in the pastorate.

 

I’m beginning to realize why Jesus placed such a priority on sitting down to a meal with someone. Something happens around a table that doesn’t, or only rarely, happens elsewhere. It’s some magic that can’t be conjured, manufactured, or faked. Stories are told. Histories are remembered. Dreams are evoked. Laughter breaks out, and sometimes tears. A depth of honesty emerges. A sense of shared humanity weaves hearts together.

 

It’s ironic, maybe tragic: I spent so much time as a pastor I trying to create this, and so little experiencing it.

 

I don’t know if I’ll ever pastor again. I just know, from here on out I don’t want to miss the simple, beautiful, subversive power of meeting another human being around the table.

How to Have a Beautiful Soul (or Avoid an Ugly One)

eyeI was rereading parts of Feodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground this past week. Dostoevsky – a 19th Century Russian writer – is among the pantheon of Great Authors whose works, though rooted deeply in time and place, transcend them. His massive sprawling novel The Brothers Karamazov stands as one of the uncontested masterpieces of world literature. It is in my top five favorite novels.

Notes from Underground is something else entirely. It’s the jumbled confession of a jaded twisted man, immersed in his own torment and misery. It amounts to one of the bleakest portraits ever rendered of man alone, man without friend, without God, without hope. “I am a sick man,” the confession begins. “I am a spiteful man.” Thus launches a misanthropic tirade of burning resentment, choking self-pity, and vicious self-loathing.

The book proved prophetic. Increasingly, the nameless anti-hero of the Notes resembles us, or we him: a people longing for the admiration of others without the burden of them, wanting applause without having to earn it, bearing grudges for the slightest slights. A people who throw off God, thinking it’s liberation, and who only end up impoverished and enslaved, captive to our own dark selves.

Dostoevsky was a Christ-follower – a troubled one, to be sure, but with a deep grasp of God’s extravagant grace. His later works – The Idiot, Crime & Punishment, The Brothers K – are breath-taking testaments to the transforming and liberating power of the Christ who meets even the least of us in the most unlikely places.

The relationship in The Brothers K between the simple saintly Alyosha and the brilliant embittered – and rabidly atheistic – Ivan is alone worth the price of that book and the effort of reading it. Ivan’s logic is hard to refute, but Alyosha’s life is hard to resist. We find the atheist semi convincing, but the saint entirely compelling. Alyosha’s soul draws us with its beauty. Ivan’s soul repels us with its ugliness.

It strikes me, leafing through the Notes, that Dostoevsky was sketching all this out, and with it issuing a warning: that among the many horrors of rejecting Christ, not least is a soul that grows ugly.

Thus I begin my confession: I am a forgiven man. I am a thankful man.

Difficult People

bunckmates

Bunk Mates in Heaven

A pastor friend of mine quipped the other day: “There are some people I couldn’t warm up to even if I was cremated with them.”

I laughed, and then didn’t.

I know exactly what he means. There are people who, no matter how hard I try, I just don’t like. They grate on me. They get under my skin. Their laugh, their voice, their manner, their habits, their prevailing attitude or tone or bent – something about them irks or irritates me, and just their showing up forces me to practice Lamaze breathing.

I know this confession outs me for the spiritual pygmy I am. But there it is.

Jesus commanded us, in no uncertain terms, to love each other. But then gets meddlesome, and goes on to define the scope of “each other”: friends, enemies, the least of these, the worst of these, the brother who sins against us again and again and again. It’s a big list. He virtually leaves no one out.

Fine and well. Alright, I’ll do it. I love them. There. You happy?

But you never said I had to like ‘em, right?

Ah, but I’m a pastor. I have, on top of the general command to obey everything Jesus says, one large extra burden: I will be judged more severely if I get it wrong. I cannot become an accuser of the brethren. I cannot choose which sheep I feed or protect, and which I leave in the gulch or to the wolves. I don’t have the luxury of contempt or neglect.

So over the nearly quarter century I’ve been a pastor, I’ve learned and practiced, failed at and started over with, several disciplines that help me love – and even like – those I’d rather avoid. Here are four (of many):

  • Remember the state I was in before Christ found me. Jesus wasn’t drawn to me because of my winsome ways or attractive personality. I was a wretch. I was a starving ragged stinking prodigal, still dripping with piggish muck, when he ran to kiss me. It was my desperate condition that awakened his compassion. He welcomed me and rescued me, not because of who I am, but because of who he is. He calls us to love like that.
  • Tap the power that is in me through the risen Christ. Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 5) that Christ’s loves compels us, because we are convinced his death and resurrection are for everyone. And so, he says, we no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. Christ not only gives us a heart transplant: he gives us an eye transplant. The more we steep in his love and grace, the more we see people – everyone – from a “heavenly point of view.” Christ gives us his very own eyes to see people with. Use them.
  • Value others above myself. Paul commands this in Philippians 2. It’s one of the most convicting verses in Scripture, because it’s not limited only to people we like. Paul is talking, for instance, to Euodia and Syntyche, two women who want to rip each other’s faces off (see Phil. 4). It is a sobering and humbling exercise to actually, tangibly do this for someone you don’t like – to value them above yourself, and then act on that value. Try it.
  • Remember where this all ends. I have a theory: the person we least like on earth will be assigned our bunk mate in heaven. I don’t think God will do this as a prank, though. I think he’ll do it so we can laugh with that person for a few thousand years about how petty and small-minded and self-centered we were, and rejoice with them for all eternity at how great is the love of God that he lavishes on us, that we should be called his children, and made one another’s brothers and sisters.

There may be people you couldn’t warm up to if you were cremated with them. But could you if you knew you were to spend eternity with them?

 

When I practice these things, and more besides, God changes me, slow but sure. My LQ – Love Quotient, Like Quotient – goes up.

How’s that going for you?

 

 

Celebrating 27 years

Celebrating 27 years

 

We're on a night train to Paris – a marathon journey that starts in Venice, the City of Bridges, stops at a handful of Italian centers – Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, Milan – before heading into the Alps and ending, almost 14 hours later, in the heart of Paris, the City of Lights.

Our 12 days in Italy have been amazing – from the spectacular coastline of southern Italy, to the lush vineyards of Tuscany, to the magic of Venice's canals and gondoliers.

Best of all, Cheryl and I celebrated 27 years of marriage today. We began with breakfast on the Grand Canal of Venice and finished in a dining car somewhere between Padua and Milan. In between, we threaded through a maze of Venetian streets and wandered in and out of shops of handcrafted glassworks and Italian leather and silk.

I'm a blessed man, to walk with Cheryl by my side these past three decades – it's been that long if you count our courtship. Every year gets better – we get more playful, more thoughtful, less reactive. We value the other more deeply. I think we are more hopeful. We've been through a lot – glories and messes, breakthroughs and let downs, tragedies and windfalls. Such things either season you or shrivel you. Mostly, I'd say, it's seasoned us.

It's not that we don't have our episodes – crankiness, testiness, wondering when this person will finally fully get with the program. But those moments get further apart and shorter in duration. And what more and more rises to the surface is deep abiding thankfulness, to God and for each other.

I'm on a night train to Paris, and think I'm the luckiest man alive.

To the lady of my life, all my love, always.

Shalom

Mark

Golfing In Hades

 

 
 
 
 
My new friend Tony – ethnically Chinese, culturally Welsh – has managed what I thought no man could: lured me back into the game of golf.
 
It's a hateful game. A soul-wrecking, aggravation-stirring time-waster. It plays to all our basest instincts: pride, delusion, anger, pettiness, rivalry. That a fellow Scotsman first concocted this awful sport and inflicted it on the world is to my everlasting shame. The idea of spending several hours snookering a ball around a booby-trapped field is inherently absurd: to call it fun, and pay exorbitant amounts to engage it, hare-brained.
 
There. I got that off my chest.
 
It didn't help that I was mentored in the game by a father who fumbled away at it his whole life but, maybe to compensate, was a stickler for the rules. So I know that you don't touch the head of the wedge to the sand before hitting the ball out of a trap, but never managed to hit it well anyhow. I know that even to nudge the ball before laying into it is counted as a stroke, but rarely make the shot count all the same. I know all the intricate arcane rules of putting – there are dozens – and still can't putt. 
 
I'd given the game up years ago. When anyone asked if I'd like to play, I'd politely decline. In my head I reckoned it would be cheaper, faster, and provide roughly the same sensation to just to buy a box of straight pins and stick them in my arm. 
 
Then Tony – he who cooks like an angel, he who regales me with stories of God's astonishing healing power, he who, along with his wife Marian, has embraced us bedraggled displaced Canadians like we're long-lost relatives – asked me to go golfing. Tony loves golf, and I love Tony, and besides, I have a lot of time on my hands these days. So I said yes.
 
And I like it. 
 
I still play like a fool. I still torture the ball, just never into submission. I still can't drive, can't chip, can't putt. I still hear my father's pedantic lectures and stern rebukes every time I break the rules, which is pretty much constantly. But darn if it ain't fun.
 
Well, there's Tony to liven things up. And there's Hades, not once but twice, to get the adrenaline pumping.
 
Hades I and Hades II is what Tony calls hole 6 and hole 8 on The Cliffs, a par-3, 9-hole course in Gwbert, just north of Cardigan Bay. Both holes involve treacherous shots across wide chasms over churning water. But that only begins the test. Both holes have greens – especially Hades I – that sit on a narrow plate of earth: undershoot, overshoot, shoot to far to the right, and your ball is gone, swallowed in outer darkness.
 
I would happily play those two holes, over and over, all day. I would, of course, go through a mountain of balls (on Wednesday, Tony and I together lost about a dozen). But there's something compelling about matching your wit and skill, modest as these things are in my case, against the abyss. It is grievous pain to lose at it. But it is joy unspeakable when you win. One good shot over Hades is worth a thousand brilliant ones elsewhere. 
 
Surely God is speaking through such things.
 

What I Discovered In Scotland

 

 
 
 

    
 
 
My daughter Nicola and I have been on a road trip through Scotland. It is a remarkable country, enfolding a vast range of geography: snowy heights, craggy coastlines, vibrant cities, rolling farmland, white beaches and turquoise water to rival the Caribbean (until you put your toe in: that rivals the Arctic). From the desolate beauty of the Island of Mull, to the sacred stillness of Iona, to the Mediterranean-like charm of Oban, to the haunting remoteness of Loch Ness, to the fable-like medievalness of Stirling, to the artistic hum of Edinburgh, to the commercial pulse of Glasgow, the journey’s been memorable from start to finish.
 
We’ve stayed in Youth Hostels the whole way, ranging from the gothic to the rustic to the exotic (for a hostel, at least). Night to night, we’ve not known what’s awaited us until we’ve arrived, which has been half the fun. Tonight, I write this in a Victorian-era apartment building perched above the city of Glasgow, in what must have once been a dining hall – marble pillars! A chandelier! – but now is a scruffy lounge for travel-worn wanderers. 
 
This week’s been a great adventure. But the best part, by far, has been spending the time with my daughter. Nicola and I have together driven hundreds of miles, walked dozens of them, talked a blue streak, laughed about things that aren’t even funny, and endured each other’s strange sleeping habits – I snore, she takes forever to wake up. We’ve eaten in bistros and cafes (including one J.K. Rowling frequented in her slumming-it days) and pubs and parking lots and dingy hostel mess halls. 
 
I’ve relished every minute of it. 
 
If there’s one regret I have as a parent (how I wish there was only one), it’s that I was too busy for long stretches of my children’s growing up years to have been fully present for them. I never made enough snow men, never played enough hide-and-seek, never read enough Dr. Seuss. I always thought there’d be time for that next week, or the one after that. But it all flew by with blurring swiftness. And then, with one child and then another, it was gone. Soon, Nicola too will say goodbye and not come back. 
 
But that’s not yet. And in the meantime, we’ve had this magical week together. 
 
For me, it was supposed to be about discovering my ethnic roots, reconnecting with my Scottish heritage, exploring the land of my forebears. I guess it’s been all that. I still have no idea if I’m from a line of illiterate peasants or glittering noblemen. 
 
But I don’t care. The week’s really been about being with Nicola. That’s been so rich, I may as well be descended from kings.