Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Journey and the Destination

To so many people life is about destinations—“If I can just get this job…this house…this amount of money in savings…this position…this status…then I will enjoy life.”

While goals are certainly important we can very easily fall into the idolatry of the destination. The destination then becomes the fantasy we live for, that we sacrifice for, that we put life on hold for only to find when the destination is reached, when the goal is achieved, it doesn’t bring us the happiness or fulfillment that we had imagined. And so the joy of the goal accomplished, the destination met is tinged with an anxious searching for the next destination. I suspect this is due to our tendency to become so fixated on the idol of the destination that we fail to experience the joy of the journey. Yet it is the very joy of the journey that actually gives us the capacity and substance of heart to savor the destination when it is finally met.

If we can begin to appreciate the journey with all of its meandering, surprises, and trials, then the destination will become just one of many moments of joy and wonder along the way and we will be truly free to enjoy it when we get there because our souls have become enlarged in each step of the journey.

I think this is why I love hiking in the mountains. Hiking up a mountain is fun but the joy is as much in the journey as in conquering the mountain-top. It’s the walking through piney forests, breathing in the cool dry air, seeing a deer running across your path, putting your feet in a cold mountain stream at the end of a hard day of hiking, the setting up and breaking down of the camp, the colors and the smells of nature which enrich and refresh the inside. The mountain-top, while breath-taking and beautiful, is simply the culmination of that journey. How sad and insensitive it would be to be so focused on getting to the peak that you could miss the beauty along the way.

Yet how often do we find ourselves doing this in life—Focused and determined, reaching and grasping for our dreams, oblivious to the in-breaking of the divine all around us each step of the way?

Too often sincere men and women of faith live as if heaven were just some mere destination we go when this business of life is over. Yet the words of Jesus tell us a different thing--“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

You would think by the way folks talk about God these days that our prayer should really be “please God let me in to heaven when I die” as if that were the point. Yet even Jesus did not seem nearly so concerned with the ultimate destination as in our experiencing a bit of heaven in the here and now, that the very journey of our lives would be infused with the richness of his presence, and the touch of his kingdom right here, right now. As for that final destination, it will certainly be breath-taking and wonderful when it comes in full, yet we should not meet it as those who are completely surprised nor as those who have only read the brochure, but as those who have experienced the nearness of God, holy wonder in the mundane, and beauty all around concealed only to those too busy or too distracted to notice. The end of this journey will be wholly incomprehensible yet strangely and intimately familiar for those who have lived not simply for the destination or tethered to the past but savoring every beauty and trial all along the way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What’s Up With All the Skinny Santas?

I have noticed a very disturbing trend this Christmas season – Skinny Santa’s. I’ve been bumping in to them everywhere and it just isn’t right to see a Santa with his clothes barley hanging on, with his black belt tightened all the way up.

My first encounter with a skinny Santa was at my son’s kindergarten Christmas production at school the other day. The high point of the production was when Santa road in on a tri-cycle with a woman on the back dressed up as an elf. Okay so that part was cool. But when he got off the “tri” it was obvious that he couldn’t have weighed more than a buck thirty. Come on!

Then later that afternoon I’m driving across town with my kids and see Santa out in front of a local car wash soliciting business. Again this dude was scrawny. Then I get home and turn on CNN to see a story about a Santa somewhere, and this guy was a skinny Santa as well.

I don’t know if there is some kind of memo that is being circulated amongst those in the Santa industry telling them that they need to shed some pounds but it sure seems like the jolly old obese variety of Santa is definitely the minority this year (at least in my neck of the woods).

Perhaps it’s a sign of the hard times, maybe it’s in protest to the growing epidemic of obesity in this country, but it just don’t seem right. And by the way, my kids aren’t buying it either. So please, all of you vocational Santas out there, do us a favor and either start eating more, quit smoking, or stuff some pillows in your suit.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire - A Review

I saw one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time today called Slumdog Millionaire. Slumdog scores big on everything from screenwriting to acting and cinematography but mainly on the strength of its story.

Slumdog Millionaire is about an orphan named Jamal who grew up with his brother Salam in the slums of Mumbai, India only to find himself at the age of eighteen on the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When appearing on the game-show Jamal mysteriously has the answer to every questions posed by the host of the show. This greatly puzzles the show’s host who questions how a teenager from the slums could know such things when even the most educated of contestants have not made it nearly as far on the show.

Just before Jamal is about to get the final question of the show for a prize of 20 million Rupals they run out of time postponing the big question until the next night. As Jamal leaves the studio that night, he is apprehended by police and forced to answer questions of a different kind as he faces allegations of cheating. During the interrogations he begins to recount the situations in his life where he came across the specific answers to each of the questions on the show. Was it luck, cheating, or destiny?

The picture that emerges of both Jamal and his brother Salam is that of two different paths. While both brothers start out in the same adventure Jamal’s heart is turned quickly to the quest for his true love Latika while his brother Salam sets his heart on money and power. It is Jamal’s love for the orphan Latika, whom he had shown compassion to after loosing his own mother, which becomes his reason for living and eventually, though ironically even his reason for going on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When Jamal gets on the game-show it is as one who has no desire for money or power, he just wants to find the one he loves.

The movie is predominately told by the use of flashback scenes going back to their early childhood and the death of their Muslim mother at the hands of angry Hindus on up to the present. Though the story touches on the tension between Muslims and Hindus it steers clear of making a story explicitly about religion. The only examples of religion in this movie happen to be of some of the more negative aspects of both the Muslim faith and Hinduism, at least as they are practiced by some individuals. If anything the movie shows that there is something more transcendent out there than religion. That said, the movie is very spiritual.

As I watched Jamal recounting how he discovered the answers to questions in the present from things he had experienced in the past, I couldn’t help think of my own history with God and how I have noticed similar things in my own life. While it seems that the answer put forth by this movie is that Jamal is being guided by destiny, it is not some impersonal destiny but rather a life lived in love which has become aware of the possibilities in pain and suffering and the divine in the seemingly random and often cruel circumstances of life. While I won’t tell you how the movie ends it can be summed up with the words “Love Wins”.

I am not usually the type to cry at movies much but I found myself definitely fighting the tears at the end of this one and it wasn’t because of the usual theatrical button-pushing common in so many movies today. I was simply moved by the story…a very rare experience these days.

Trailer - http://www.apple.com/trailers/fox_searchlight/slumdogmillionaire/

Monday, December 01, 2008

Speaking of Christmas Gifts

Speaking of Christmas gifts, I saw an add for Snuggies today. There must have been some bet by a group of marketers to see who could come up with the most ridiculous product and see if folks would buy it. All I can say is “wow!” I almost fell off of the treadmill at the gym from laughing when I saw this commercial today (and I couldn’t even hear the audio). If you haven’t seen the commercial it will really lighten up your day https://www.getsnuggie.com/flare/next . The funniest part in the commercial is the shot of the whole family wearing Snuggies while sitting in some bleachers at a baseball game. I’m seriously thinking of buying Snuggies for my family so we can enter the new year looking like monks (or Polyphonic Spree groupies).

They Kept Shopping

I was saddened this morning to see a news story about a man who was trampled to death at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream New York on Black Friday http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/29/business/29walmart.html?ref=business . Black Friday has become quite a cultural phenomenon in recent years as the day to cash in on some of the best bargains in the Christmas shopping season, yet more and more it is becoming a day when some of the worst tendencies in people surface, sometimes, as with this Wal-Mart, with very destructive consequences.

Upon seeing this story I was reminded of a passage from the Book of Romans:
What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn't treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand (Rom. 1:21-23, The Message).

The trampling of the Wal-Mart employee is a tragic picture of the deeper problems in our society. These last few months, filled with their economic woes, are really beginning to reveal how deeply we Americans have trusted in money and stuff and government for our happiness. Our world has become so confused that the only solutions that seem to get proposed or passed have to do with consuming more and buying more as if spending more money on useless things didn’t have anything to do with how we ended up here. This is like a drug addict rationalizing that just a little bit more drugs will actually give him the clarity to think up a way out of his addiction.

Yet whenever we start down the path of ignoring God, and seeking life from the various “cheap figurines” we will ultimately find ourselves in a state of spiritual, relational, and emotional confusion and clinging anxiously to worthless things or worse trampling an employee to death at a Wal-Mart early on a Friday morning.

One of the saddest comments on the Wal-Mart riot came from a Ms. Cribbs who said, “When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning!’ ”…“They kept shopping.”

They Kept Shopping?
Why?

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter from prison to the church in Philippi in which he claimed to know the recipe for happiness—“I don't have a sense of needing anything personally. I've learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I'm just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I've found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” Philippians 4:11-13 (The Message).”

We would do ourselves tremendous good to meditate on this truth during this holiday season, to revisit this passage over and over, to let it adjust our bearings.

Take a deep breath and ask yourself, “What matters to me?”

Your first thoughts will likely turn to your job, or your house, or that new car you’ve been wanting, or getting your kids into a good school.

None of these things are bad but what really matters to you?

Last Sunday morning I sat with my wife and kids around a camp fire in the Homachitto National Forest and read a passage from Matthew before we set off on a hike. I was truly dumbfounded by the sense of God’s presence with us in our connection to each other, in the beauty of the trees, in the cool morning breeze. It’s moments like those that I feel compelled to get out my digital camera and take a picture, knowing that it won’t do the moment justice. The best I can do in those times is to simply be there in that moment and enjoy it.

Just a few days after our camping trip I found myself sitting in a living room in rural East Texas hearing my aunt’s words of how she has been utterly transformed in her battle with cancer this last year. Dina and I sat listening as she told us how through the chemo, and the weakness, and the nausea, she felt a nearness to God like she had never experienced before. She could not deny the closeness of His presence. While she is not completely out of the woods she has found the richness of God’s life and love that transcends her physical pain and sickness. I get the feeling, as I listen to her that in some sense she has considered this struggle a gift. A hard, gut-wrenching battle, yes. But in it she has found the grace of God. And in listening to her stories we began to sense the very grace and presence of God among us.

Thursday evening, following the traditional thanksgiving dinner and the obligatory Dallas Cowboys game, my dad and I sat out on his deck late into the evening having a talk over a couple of cigars that lasted long after the cigars were spent. As we shared stories of joy and hardship, of wrestling with faith and meaning, of our family history and our own personal journeys, I felt the very same presence of God as days before. His presence was right there with us and we walked away a little bit different than before.

The truly great things in life, the things that matter most to us, the things which open our hearts and connect us to God and one another cannot be bought or held or saved but no doubt they exist and we have all tasted of them.

So why then do we forget and turn to worthless things so easily?

The apostle Paul found the secret recipe to happiness—A recipe which requires retracing our steps from the roadside stands selling trinkets back to remembering who God is, a recipe which demands that we lay down these cheap idols which only keep us confused and fragmented within and estranged from one another and turn again to the One who makes us whole.

And we can turn to Him, like Paul, even in a prison—hungry, chained, and surrounded by soldiers.

We can turn to Him even now in our offices, classrooms, homes, even in our relationships with one another.

We can turn to Him even in the midst of a battle with cancer, in relational brokenness, and in financial crisis.

Christmas gifts are fun but the truest most valuable gifts of all we cannot buy. Realizing this is the first step to receiving that which matters most.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”—Jesus

You can turn to Him right now.
Just stop what you are doing.
Be still…Breathe…Slowly…Deliberately…
Let the veil of the tyranny of the urgent be pulled back so in this moment you can gaze in wonder on He who is your life.