Dark Night Descending … July 21, 2012

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Gary and Terri were my friends. Neither relationship was based upon ease and comfort, but rather, hinged on need.

I met Gary during a brief station of living in the Bayou State. He was just a little younger than me and both of us were much too immature for our own good. He had been diagnosed as bi-polar, and like so many folks who find themselves in that position, he yearned to be normal by conventional standards. To confirm that desire, he often refused to take his medications. When he didn’t allow for chemical intervention, he was completely out of his mind and would occasionally run through the streets of our little Southern town naked, proclaiming what he determined was the “good word of the Lord.”

Because I was young and lacked experience, I took a long time to consider what my job was with Gary. He had been to so many churches in his life that in many ways he was more qualified than some ministers–at least in being able to quote large passages of scripture. He had been counseled by an abundance of professionals, so he had learned to be a great con man and was quite able to convince you of his complete competence at the drop of a hat. He was charming enough to have deluded many hapless lasses into bedding with him, so he lacked respect for the opposite sex as human beings, viewing them as sexual conquests.

I watched all this unfold in front of me. I made a decision with Gary that I have used the rest of my life. The notion that we will never meet crazy people or that there’s nothing we can do about them is what causes the empowering of the weak-minded. People are either afraid of them, baffled by them or disgusted by them. All of us have crazies. Many of these crazies are in our own families.

Now, what do I mean by crazy? If you’ll allow me to insert my definition here before you become offended by my candor, here it is: crazy is when we allow disappointment and frustration to drain us of our better virtues and invite self-pity to take control. For some people, it’s pronounced because they have chemical imbalances or issues going back into their childhoods. For others, it’s an imitation of maturity–acting depressed, upset and pulling themselves out of the game of life just as they’re about to have the opportunity to score a touchdown.

The first thing I did with Gary was love him. The second thing I did with Gary was insist that he take his medication. In the process, he became annoyed, sometimes appreciative, attempting deception, and bounced among those three profiles for the rest of our relationship. Because he was on his medication, his life got better, he grew in true wisdom of his faith instead of superstition, and he met a lovely woman and married her. But then he decided to go off his medication, and ended up abusive, threatening and dangerous.

I realized I had one last responsibility with Gary. I stepped in, protected the young woman from his viciousness and got him admitted to a mental ward. I visited him. They decided to keep him for a long time. They even transferred him to a more permanent facility. Shortly after that I left the state and I’ve never heard from Gary again. But Gary taught me a very valuable lesson.

God sends you people. People are often crazy. Deal with your crazies.

Terri, on the other hand, was a young lady who joined my musical group in its early years. She was attractive, although she thought she was beautiful–her parents had told her so. She was a pretty good singer but she thought she was great–she had a letter from her church choir director to confirm it. She had a friendly personality, but believed she was dynamic. Everything about her perceptions were exaggerated. It wasn’t exactly Terri’s fault–in a great cloud of deceptive self-esteem, she had been raised by a family which believed it was their job to over-state their appreciation for their daughter to build up her confidence so she wouldn’t be depressed by the true nature of life’s competition.

So when Terri got in a music group and needed to sing harmony with other people, it was a shock for her to discover that she was occasionally sharp or flat. She would burst into tears at the notion that she needed to rehearse more to perfect her portion. It was a painful process and a grueling detail–to smother the false awareness that had been placed in her by her upbringing and replace it with reality, allowing her to improve so that she could measure up to the standard of the praise she so yearned to receive. Terri got better, and when she got better she wasn’t nearly as devastated by being worse.

Americans are under the misconception that giving praise will keep people from being dashed by the dastardly criticism of everyday life. Really, nowhere else in the world does any culture mislead its citizenry in such a way. Young people waking up in Africa are not told they are beautiful. The Chinese don’t laud their children with tons of accolades, but rather, expect perseverence and the desire to excel.

It’s in America where we feel the need to lie so as to cushion the harshness of the necessary system. Let me explain–when something is fair, it can not be considered to be okay. Okay is a little better than fair. Learn the difference. Likewise, when it’s okay, it is not good. The word “good” means that we have entered the ballpark of possibility. Okay means we’re still trying to get a ticket. Here’s a tricky one: good is not exceptional. We love to over-praise people and end up exaggerating their sense of importance, which means that exceptional is not great–and great, my friends, is not genius. I am not so sure that “genius” is proper to use for anyone but our Creator.

Our doctrine of self-esteem in this country has created a generation of “lazies,” and because of their addiction to accolades, they cease to try to get better. It affects our society, from the President all the way down to the street sweeper.

Very early on Friday morning, a man walked into a movie theater and emptied out all of his craziness and laziness into a theater full of unsuspecting people. Because it was not caught early enough by astute family members, friends and just folks who were perceptive to human need, his unleashing was in the form of bullets instead of frustrated bad language in a counseling session.

I will be blunt with you: James Holmes should have either ended up being taken care of and helped, or so frustrated that he put a gun to his own head, killing himself. Yes, let me say it loud and proud–suicide is preferable to homicide.

So even though the anti-gun people will insist that the purchase of weapons was the source of the tragedy and the NRA will defend itself by saying that guns are a God-given right, and those against video games will cite that the young man was trying to play the part of the Joker from the Batman movies, and the entertainment industry will bring in its experts to prove that merely watching violence does not create a climate for it, all of them miss the point.

The reason James Holmes was allowed to commit this atrocity in Aurora, Colorado, is because people didn’t deal with their crazies or motivate their lazies. When he was a kid he was given too much self-esteem because that’s what our society does, so when he arrived at adulthood he found out he wasn’t nearly as valuable as he thought he was; he also was a little crazier and more imbalanced than anyone was willing to admit to his face. So even though when people got around him, within half a minute they knew something was wrong, they chose to leave him alone instead of dealing  with their “crazy” and trying to motivate the laziness, which would allow his promise to turn into the reality of some accomplishment.

Every one of us has crazies in our lives. Every one of us has lazies. They are people who are weaker and require our focus and attention. What we decide to do with them determines whether they end up struggling, discovering a mixture of daily victories and defeats, or angry with the world, emptying ammunition into terrified ticket-holders.

Don’t blame anybody for Aurora. Be smart. Deal with your crazies and motivate your lazies. Stop avoiding people who are imbalanced and challenge them to find help. Cease to give over-zealous flattery, and instead, call great “great,” good “good,” fair “fair” and by the way–poor “poor.”

When we finally arrive at this point, people who love and care will take the crazies and the lazies out of the spotlight, and in so doing, save the lives of average people who just wanted to go out to a movie premiere.

    

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Even Stephen … May 7, 2012

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Possibly one of the most arduous treks across this great country would be the stretch of miles along I-20 between Dallas, Texas and El Paso. Historically I have chosen to make this journey at night to avoid the heat and glare of the day. One time as I sojourned on this particular piece of real estate, I saw lights in the distance. I was approaching the small city of Odessa, and as the brightness grew in size, I assumed it WAS Odessa. But as I came closer, I saw that it was an edifice, the size of a city itself–actually invoking a sense of awe, which grew in intensity as I came closer. For me, it merged the sensations of Christmas, Las Vegas and the Beverly Hillbillies–for it was an oil rig. The largest one I had ever seen. 

Black gold.

Texas tea. 

Suddenly my nostrils were assailed by the burn of that unique, pungent odor — and it smelled GOOD. Now, there may be folks who would disagree with me, but I like the smell of fresh oil being pumped from the earth–the very energy of both power and also of prosperity. It was a visceral moment on a very long, dark journey.

I had a similar sensation yesterday doing two performances at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church of the Valley in Palmdale, California. As I shared, I literally witnessed minds opening–like lubricating the gears on a bicycle with oil. For truly the main problem I have with traditional religion is that the inevitable result of repetition is the literal numbing of  people’s minds.Once-meaningful liturgy, through repetition, becomes mindless drone.

I would like to encourage churches everywhere to make two simple changes in the format of the church service: to replace one liturgical recitation with a moment of personal testimony from a parishoner, and during the passing of the peace, instead of offering one another a “peace be with you,” instead offer the exhortation: “Be of good cheer!”

Because just as repetition produces rusty mental gears, the sharing of personal experiences generates the oil of gladness. After all, Jesus said that in the world we WILL have tribulation. Our only job is to “be of good cheer.” That’s it. We don’t have to solve every problem today–and his job was to overcome the world. We don’t have to do that, either. We only have to understand that our place in the great scheme of things is to avoid repetition, share personal experiences and receive the good cheer that results.

Yesterday, as I witnessed lubricated gears beginning to move and saw the resulting good cheer, I saw that there is another, final culmination in the process–the oil of healing. Yes, mental freshness produces good cheer, which fosters the environment for healing–be it depression or terminal cancer.

Similar to the awe I sensed as I drove past the Odessa oil rig, with its power and energy, I felt the same wonder yesterday at St. Stephen’s Lutheran, viewing–and feeling myself–the energy of the oil of lubrication, the radiation of the good cheer and the power of healing oil passed among my brothers and sisters and back to me.

We try to make it hard. We talk about “contemporary” and “traditional.” But it is really just giving good people a chance to lubricate their rusty gears and then feel the oil of gladness and healing. After all, like the Tin Man, we all need a good oiling now and then.

Why not take the steps to make it happen?

  

The producers of jonathots would humbly request a yearly subscription donation of $10 for this wonderful, inspirational opportunity

Click, click, click… May 5, 2012

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Possibly nothing is more terrifying than knowing about trouble that might happen, probably won’t, but doesn’t seem to want to go away.

It was 1990 and I was traveling with my family in California. We were in the Sierras, scheduled in the town of Lone Pine. Now, to get to Lone Pine you first had to drive to Nowhere, take a sharp left turn into the forest, drive about eight miles through the underbrush, and then all at once–you’re there.

Our means of transportation in that season was a 1977 silver Mercury Cougar pulling a travel trailer which had given up the will to live years earlier. We had decided to resurrect it from the tomb, reverently believing it was our savior.One of the more bizarre aspects of this particular trailer was its lighting system. There was a series of little wires which looked like disconnected arteries desperately pleading for a heart, which had to be strategically placed in the correct holes to make sure that when we put on our brakes or turn signals, the people behind us could be aware of our transitions. It was a hit-or-miss project.On days when the lighting actually worked well, like Viking warriors, we felt that the gods were with us. On those days when the lighting lost its sense of illumination, we were constantly nervous about all stops, turns and passing officers of the law.

One particular night, as we were leaving Lone PIne to head north, we were cruising along–my son Jerrod (then about fifteen) in the front next to me; my wife, Dollie, and oldest son, Jon Russ, and our little three-year-old, Jasson, in the back seat. Those in the rear had already fallen asleep. It was a moonless night, a little bit chilly. Suddenly our lights began to blink ferociously, accompanied by the horrific sound of a “click-click-click.” I immediately pulled the car over and asked Jerrod, who was in charge of the lights, to go back and work on them. He was a fine, industrious young man, so he leaped from the car, went back, opened the trunk–where the lights of the trailer connected to the car–and came back and said, “It all looks good, dad.”

And he was right. It was about twenty-two miles of “good.” Then, all at once, it began doing that startling “click-click-click” again. Pulling over, I decided I had better go back with him and check it out for myself. I reached in the glove compartment for my flashlight, and discovered that the batteries were dead. So I stepped out of the car into the chilly night air, and was immediately greeted by the mournful howling of a coyote. I cannot describe to you how disconcerting such a sound can be when the air is cold, the night is dark and you’re confronted by a problem that you have absolutely no idea how to address, let alone solve. I was not an electrician. My God, I didn’t even know an electrician.

So the two of us climbed into the dark trailer, crawled on our bellies to the back-end, where the lights went into the rear of the cab, and without being able to see anything, attempted to negotiate rewiring our system–ala Helen Keller. About that time, I looked out the rear window of the trailer and saw the shadow of red, flashing lights. We had apparently acquired the interest of a passing highway patrolman. I crawled out of the trailer and went back to talk to the policeman. I explained my situation and he offered us the use of his flashlight for a few minutes, which was very handy and enabled us to complete our best attempt of not knowing what we were doing.

Just as we were finishing up, he got an emergency call on his radio and he had to take off, wishing us well. As he left, my son and I walked slowly to our car, knowing that in short seconds we would know if our particular patchwork had actually “quilted” our lights together. There was the another call of the coyote as I climbed into the car, turned it on, and we flicked on the lights. They worked.

We rejoiced. Being the believing sorts that we were, we actually said a couple of “glory hallelujahs.” Our little praise session for divine inspiration lasted another twenty-five miles before “click-click-click” returned to taunt us, reminding us of our human ignorance and frailty.The true horror of the experience was that the interruption was intermittent. In other words, we could drive ten miles and the lights would be just fine, and then suddenly we were in the middle of a disco show.

We tried to pray. Let me tell you something about prayer. Prayer is a wonderful thing to do when you’ve been given an accurate diagnosis of a problem, the prognosis is clear and you are fully aware that any human effort is probably not going to meet the need. Yes. Ask God’s help. But ignorant prayer is often a plea for grace. And grace resembles mercy. And Jesus made it clear that mercy is only obtained by us if we’ve extended it to others. So it’s difficult in the middle of a dark night with flickering lights annoying your travel, to ask for mercy unless you’ve already been living a merciful life yourself.

We were fortunate. Although Jerrod attempted to slumber, periodically our car’s tribute to Saturday Night Fever went off with its “click-click-click,” awakening him with a start. We somehow survived the experience and made it to dawn, when, with a great sense of relief, I reached over and turned off the headlights, thus ending our ordeal.

At our next stop, we discovered that the problem had nothing to do with the trailer, the wiring, or anything beyond the front dashboard of the car. We had a bad light switch, which turned on the headlights.There was a short in it, so anything we could have done would have been meaningless.

It was a good experience. It taught me that the grace of God is often more valuable to me than the intervention of the divine. Because unless God was going to come down and heal my light switch, nothing was going to work. And honestly, if God’s going to heal something, it probably should be that little girl in a hospital somewhere in Alabama who’s dying of cancer instead of my ailing car part, don’t you think? Most of the time what I need is the mercy of God instead of having all my problems solved in one big explosion of blessing.

And receiving that mercy requires that I live a life of giving mercy to others. It’s a good deal. It’ll get you through the night–and keep you from being eaten by coyotes. 

  

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