What's in Your Hand?

      Over the weekend, after running along part of the Trinity River Trail in Ft. Worth, I recovered by reading from my Daily Bible, Exodus 3-4, about Moses’ call to action, call to leadership, call to ministry, at the burning bush in the desert.

      A reluctant Moses asked, “What if they don’t believe or listen to me?”

      God replied, “What’s that in your hand.”

      I expect Moses checked both hands closely before answering, wondering what God was up to. Did God see something in his hand he didn’t know about? Was this a trick question? Moses was holding his shepherd staff, but he was always holding that. It was so familiar. It was part of his arm. Why would God ask what was in his hand when it was something that was always in his hand?

      Moses replied, “A staff.”

      I imagine Moses raising his eyebrows and his voice in a question when he said, “A staff?” He didn’t even call it “my staff.” Why would God be interested in the most ordinary thing he had?

      We all have things in our hand that define us, that are our strength, but are so familiar to us, represent our everyday life, we tend to forget about them.

      “What’s that in your hand, Berry?”

      “My pen.”

      “My journal.”

      “My teaching notes.”

      “My trekking poles.”

      “My trombone.”

      “My list of jokes.”

      It’s all regular daily stuff, no big deal.

      I attended at Wild at Heart Advanced camp in May 2008 where I had a devastatingly personal encounter with God. He confronted me in no uncertain terms with the message: “You don’t know how big it is.”

      Curiously, and much to my dismay, God gave no details about what he meant by “it.” I had to figure that on my own, but it seemed obvious “it” was something I was underestimating, something that was part of everyday life, the staff in my hand.

      The Bible story tells us after God called attention to Moses’ staff, a simple shepherd’s tool, he told Moses to throw it down on the ground.

      Ken Medema wrote these lyrics:

      "Throw it down, Moses."

      "Do you mean, like, on the ground?"

      "Yes, I said, throw it down, Moses."

      "Lord, don't take my staff away from me,

      Don't you know it's my only security?

      Don't you know when you live here all alone,

      A man's gotta have something he can call his own;

      Not me, Lord!"

      "Throw it down, Moses."

      After Moses agreed to do what God asked him to do, he took his wife and sons and started back to Egypt. The Bible says he took “The Staff of God.”. No one thought it an ordinary shepherd’s tool, now.

      God had called attention to it, and then took it away. When God gave it back, it had new significance. Now, it was God’s staff; Moses just got to carry it for him.

      Well, and use it to produce water from a rock, and watch it transform into a snake in front of Pharaoh, and hold it aloft to win the battle of Rephidim.

      Like all Bible stories, we have to ask, was this only about Moses? Could it be about us as well? Would God ask about something he has given to us – a gift, a blessing, a talent, a skill, a calling, a ministry – and then expect us to throw it down?

      Would God ask us to throw down something that defined us, established our identity and worth, with no promise what would happen next? Would God say to me, “You don’t even know how big this is, now throw it down?”

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

 

What Was Your Best Idea?

What was the best idea you ever had? That’s a question asked by Twyla Tharp in her book, The Creative Habit. It isn’t an easy question to answer.

This past week, Tuesday evening, I went for a run through my neighborhood, in the cold wet dark, about three miles (well, OK, it was 3.06 miles), and it was incredible. I’d watched the cold rain falling outside my office window all day, and watching it fall was all I could do from the 19th-floor … you can’t see it landing on anything at all. I was bummed because I didn’t ride my bicycle to work, one of my goals for 2017, and going for a run salvaged my attitude. It was crisp and cold and wonderful and one of my best runs in months.

I often look forward to running in the cold. Maybe because I don’t live in a place where I do it often. Here in west Texas it’s a rare treat, maybe one or two opportunities a season. I’m sure I wouldn’t enjoy the cold as much if I lived somewhere that gets extremely cold and stays cold a long time, like where my cousin lives in Minot, ND, but I don’t live in a place like that for (at least) two good reasons: (1) I want my cold weather in small moderate bursts, and (2) I would be single.

Running in cold and dark feels cozy and intimate, quiet and personal. For one thing, there are few others out on the road so I have it all to myself, and for another having my hood pulled over my head eliminates outside world distractions. It’s like a safe cocoon.

I first started running in May 1978, between my first and second senior years in college. If you had known me before then you would’ve never suspected I would do something like that. I was never an athlete; I was never even interested in that sort of thing. For me to begin running, on my own initiative, was unannounced and unpredicted, an original decision, and it turned out to be the best idea I had in my life.

What made it my best idea? Well, to begin with, it was how I reestablished my dating relationship with Cyndi, a deliberate action on my part to win her back from a track-and-field boyfriend. And that eventually led to our marriage which has now blossomed for 38 years. I am thankful for that every day.

Once I started running I never stopped. I’ve spent hundreds of hours running alone, and to my surprise all that time on my feet became a private meditation. It was the catalyst that moved me toward a deeply personal contemplative faith that strengthens my life even today. Almost every spiritual insight I’ve had happened while moving my feet down the road. I’ve gone out running dozens of times with the specific intent to hear from God about an upcoming decision or particularly sticky relationship, and he has spoken to me time and time again during those miles.

Because Cyndi I both enjoyed running, it became a lifelong adventure for us. We try to work in a run wherever we go - most recently, near the Sea of Galilee in Israel. We’ve run in Hawaii, Kenya, Denmark, Singapore, and China.

To my surprise, I learned to love running long distances. Marathon running permanently changed my self-image, and taught me courage and perseverance.

Running provided my first opportunity to write stories for other people to read, in The Rundown, our club newsletter. With that beginning I’ve published a weekly blog since 1998, and published three books (so far).

Running also led to my love of parks and trails, which landed me on the Midland Parks & Recreation Board, and eventually to twelve years of elected service on the City Council.

Nowadays I love to go hiking and backpacking, but I can’t imagine doing either of those if I hadn’t run all those miles. And I doubt I would have tried cycling if I hadn’t been a runner first.

This morning, Saturday, I ran for about four miles in Ft. Worth, my first time on the Trinity River Trails System. I ran along the Clearfork portion of the trail, near Mellow Johnny’s, and thoroughly enjoyed being around so many other runners, walkers, and cyclists. I love breathing the adrenaline-soaked air. It is contagious.

The curious aspect of my life as a runner is that I was never very good at it. I doubt I had the ability to be good even if I’d trained like an Olympian. But the idea to start running was one of the best, if not the absolute best, idea I ever had.

How about you? What was the best idea you even had? How did it change you?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Let's Go Somewhere Else

       As I’ve written before, I am a goal setter, a resolution maker (see my 2017 goals or 100 Life Goals), but all too often my goals are what I already think I can achieve, which means they may be hard but probably aren’t too scary. Even in goal setting I play it safe.

       I recently read a Bible story about a time when Jesus was trying to escape the crowds and find a solitary place to pray (which makes total sense to me). His disciples tracked him down and said, everyone has been looking for you. Jesus said, “Let’s go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also.” (Mark 1:35-38)

       What caught my attention in this story was the phrase – let’s go somewhere else. It’s too ambiguous. I expect more details from Jesus. When I ask God for direction I hope he’ll give me specific instructions – exactly where to go and when to leave, the name of a town, or at least a compass direction.

       Planning is important to me. I won’t go backpacking without checking my gear list and plotting my route on a topo map and leaving notes for Cyndi so she’ll know where I’ll be in case I don’t come back and she needs to send out a search party. In fact, two months ago I started planning for an extended backpacking trip that won’t happen until next July. I would prefer few surprises while I am on the trail.

       Often, when people asked where Jesus was going, he simply told them, “Follow me.” That’s not enough information for us planning types. Just going somewhere else doesn’t sound very safe. But Jesus seems to like surprises.

       The easiest way to avoid surprises in life is to do nothing at all ... take no risks, never go somewhere else, stay where it’s safe.

       Unfortunately, there is a price to pay sitting on the couch in safety. We find ourselves stuck living in a small world with small-world problems; making a small impact on people. It leads to paralyzed lives, not the life that God intends for us.

       A few months ago Cyndi and I took our two young granddaughters to see the movie Finding Dory. One of the characters, an octopus named Hank, preferred to live in the safety (and confines) of an aquarium rather than live in the wild, huge ocean. He said, “I just want to live in a glass box. Alone. That’s all I want.”

       I recently listened to a podcast interview with Zachary Quinto, the actor who plays Spock in the new set of Star Trek movies. He described how he plans his life, but also tries takes advantage of surprise opportunities. He works hard to live his life along two parallel tracks. One track is purpose-driven, goal-setting, and intentional, while the other track is random and spontaneous, full of serendipitous opportunities.

       So one of my goals is to be open to Jesus’ surprises, which means leaving margin in my own plans to be ready for change. I want to go somewhere else more often. Maybe not somewhere else geographically, although I certainly want to do that, but maybe somewhere else in ideas, experiences, and conversations. Somewhere I didn’t plan or research, somewhere that scares me.

       If you have ideas for me, I’d love to hear them. But don’t be surprised if I reach for my map and calendar first.

      

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Living on the Leading Edge

I love the mental picture of leaning forward into the future, which is why I go make goals and resolutions every year. I usually publish my list, to make myself accountable, and to encourage other people to do the same thing.

But the hard truth is this: over the last twenty years, my success rate, meaning the percentage of goals and resolutions I can say I absolutely accomplished by the end of the year, is probably less than 30%.

So why bother? Because even that small 30% makes me a better man. In fact, so does the other 70%, my un-successes.  Just the act of writing them down, and sometimes that’s all the attention I give them, changed my outlook for the next year.

And that’s the thing about having goals: they change us.

I wonder how often we avoid making goals because we’re afraid to change. We’d rather success or failure depend on a complex series of actions which we can’t control than depend on changing ourselves.

Once we open up to changing ourselves, we lose control of the finished product. Personal change is never a stand-alone thing. It always affects more than we expect. We can’t know exactly who we will be on the other side of personal change.

So why bother with goals or resolutions? Why not let life come as it wants?

Because we thrive most when we stay at our own leading edge. When people asked Duke Ellington, what was his favorite song, he always answered, the next one … the one not yet composed. That’s why having goals is important. Our best days, our best opportunities, our best ministries, are ahead of us.

Here are some of my own goals and resolutions for 2017:

Re-energize my email list. I need to rebuild my mailing list before my next book comes out. Nothing adds energy like change, so I’m making a change from FeedBlitz to MailChimp, mostly to add energy. You can help me with this by subscribing here.

Practice trombone at home more often. And to be honest, any practice will be more.

Complete the Colorado Trail four-week backpacking trip this summer. Join me?

Climb stairs in my office building at least three times per week. (This is part of my training for the previous goal.)

Create a Colorado Trail Facebook page so people can join the adventure and offer suggestions.

Publish family photo albums (I have this on my list every year and haven’t yet done one, but I’m afraid to let it slip away without trying. What stops me is overanalyzing how to structure the albums. Any suggestions?

Commute to work on my bike at least 50 times during 2017

Do a 40-day fast. (Doesn’t have to be a zero-food fast, but I’m not sure the details.)

Complete a Century bike ride. (Either an organized ride, or by myself.)

Regular every-year goals. Things like reading, writing, teaching, loving, cycling, running, etc. (I’ll send details if you really want to know.)

Douglas Engelbart, who invented the first computer mouse and was a leader in developing graphic user interfaces, said that one day as he was driving to work, he felt a frightening, life-altering apprehension: "I had this realization that I didn't have any more goals." It scared him. The prospect scares me, too.

I understand fully that we can’t completely plan our lives. I know our future is uncertain. In fact, living by faith means expecting surprises and setbacks and trusting God to get us through. But I also know that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

What are your goals for 2017? Where is your leading edge?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

 

100 Things That Made My Year 2016

       I should get this out in the open right away: I am a man of lists.

       I love lists. I make a shopping list anytime my assignment has three or more items. I make to-do lists for my day. I keep lists of books I read, books I want to read, miles I’ve run or biked, summits I’ve hiked, blood pressure and heartrate measurements, body weight, passwords, calendars (which are lists in graph form), goals and dreams, and, as you can see, lists of lists.

       So last January, when I read Austin Kleon’s newsletter where he included his “100 Things That Made My Year,” I knew I wanted to play, too. I was hooked immediately. I wanted to remind myself of the best that happened.

       This is my second year to make a list of things that made my year. (Here is my list from 2014.) I hope to make fifty more before I’m finished.

       Why bother, you might ask. Because we need to remind ourselves of the good things, the grace-filled things, the influential things, the things that make us human. We don’t need any help remembering the worst things that happened, but we need to be intentional about remembering the best. Not because we are forgetful, but because The Enemy steals them from our memory.

       Living with gratitude is the secret sauce for a meaningful life, and this exercise of listing people, events, and things that made the year better is a powerful move toward having a habitually thankful heart. I’m encouraging you to put together your own list, and don’t stop until you can identify at least 100 things. You may have to find help in order to remember the best, so dig out your journals, comb through your calendars, review your reading lists and music purchases, and ask those who are close to you. I won’t be easy, but is worth the effort.

       And when you do, I hope you share. A big part of imbedding gratitude in your life is making it known.

       (By the way, this list has been randomly sorted using the mathematical magic of Excel)

 

1.        Book: A Resilient Life, by Gordan MacDonald

2.        Branding calves with Cyndi and her cousins

3.        Christmas morning with our granddaughters; awakened by the shout, “He came, Santa came!”

4.        Realizing that my gifts and calling are not for me, not for my own benefit, and are worthless unless I share them.

5.        My first long-awaited hug from Lillie

6.        Book: The Geography of Genius, by Eric Weiner

7.        The Instrumental Convergence in Tyler, Texas

8.        James Taylor concert in Lubbock, Texas

9.        Granddaughter Landry singing “Let it Go” with reckless and wild abandon in my living room.

10.     Bill Britt with Integrity Massage – he keeps me walking straight

11.     Running at sunrise near the Sea of Galilee

12.     New leather (grown-up) messenger bag

13.     Song: Aretha in the Morning

14.     Going to Israel with Cyndi

15.     On Galveston Beach with family

16.     My Panama hat (I want so much to be a “hat man”)

17.     Running on the Winsor Trail in the Santa Fe National Forest

18.     Hiking McKittrick Canyon with the Compass Class

19.     Movie: The Martian

20.     Listening to old Jim Rohn lectures again

21.     Cyndi testifying in court of her desire to “guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.”

22.     Sitting with Cory on the back row of orchestra

23.     Playing with MC Jazz band

24.     Learning to run, again

25.     Dancing with Cyndi at Wes’ birthday party

26.     Base Camp Gathering in Colorado

27.     Voting for my first write-in candidate, ever

28.     Finishing (my) Book #4 … Trail Markers

29.     My new Squarespace website

30.     Rappelling at Bear Trap Ranch

31.     Calling Intensive with Noble Heart Ministries, at our house in Midland

32.     Energel Liquid Gel Ink Metal Tip 0.7mm ball pens

33.     Praying at the Western Wall

34.     Playing in the orchestra with Cyndi

35.     Christmas lights in the yard instead of on the roof

36.     Summiting Truchas Peak (13,100’) for the second time, but the first time with new knees

37.     Byron’s graduation; he is a fine young man and I couldn’t be prouder to be his dad.

38.     60th birthday party with so many friends

39.     Book: My Grandfather’s Blessings, by Rachel Naomi Remen

40.     Book: The World According to G, by Geraint Thomas

41.     Wrangler Relaxed-Fit jeans

42.     Reading my Daily Bible

43.     Book: Shut-up Legs, by Jens Voigt

44.     Singing near the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

45.     Dak Prescott & Ezekiel Elliott

46.     Rock cairns

47.     Movie: Muppets Christmas Carol

48.     Arriving at Pecos Baldy Lake with Daryl

49.     Quote: "True greatness requires a long obedience in the same direction." (Bono on B.B. King)

50.     Cycling with the bike club in July (I chased the fast flatbellies until I bonked)

51.     Remembering George Koehl

52.     Spicy Southwest Chicken Salad with Chili Lime Vinaigrette at Chick-fil-A

53.     Movie: Star Trek Beyond

54.     USGS Bench Mark paperweight from John-Mark Echols

55.     Cyndi Simpson in yoga pants

56.     Updating my 100 Life Goals when I turned 60

57.     Dreaming again of long distance hikes and rides

58.     Listening to audio books with Cyndi

59.     Quote: “We are taught more about how to care for our cars than how to steward our souls. But you cannot have an impactful life with an impoverished soul.” (John Ortberg)

60.     Running on the beach in Galveston

61.     Book: Target Tokyo, by James Scott

62.     Midland Storytelling Festival

63.     Turning 60 (full of hopes, dreams, goals, missions)

64.     Sharing lunch on a mountainside at 13,000’ with Clark and John-Mark

65.     Quote: “If you receive teaching but don’t pass it along, you are stealing.” (Linda Spackman)

66.     Backpacking the South Rim of Chisos Basin

67.     Iron Men – the finest group of men I know

68.     TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry

69.     Movie: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

70.     BLT sandwiches at Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen in Santa Fe

71.     Surrounded my so many men of God

72.     Watching the Summer Olympics

73.     Twila Tharp lecture in Midland

74.     Backpacking with 15 men in the Pecos Wilderness

75.     Working with my editor, Bob Hartig

76.     Forge #1, Iron Men retreat

77.     Dad cracking jokes in the emergency room

78.     Riding bicycles with granddaughter Madden

79.     I’m finally old enough to wear jeans 7 days a week

80.     Sunday afternoon naps

81.     Coffee with John and Tammy Worley in Tiberius, Israel

82.     Cyndi’s homemade green tomato relish

83.     Waking up and smelling the desert rain at Casa Wilma, in Marathon, Texas

84.     James Lovell lecture at Midland College

85.     Movie: Jason Bourne

86.     Summiting Guadalupe Peak again (my 17th time on top, but first time with new knees)

87.     Reading Austin Kleon’s newsletter

88.     Playing Words With Friends, with friends

89.     Toyota Tacoma pick-up; it just makes me happy to drive it

90.     Shuttling Linda Spackman to and from the airport

91.     Quote: “Every good hike brings you eventually back home. Right where you started.” (Edward Abbey)

92.     Cycling with my dad on his 88th birthday

93.     Book: The Martian, by Andy Weir

94.     Discovering a singer: Rumer

95.     Playing trombone with the Global Missions Project Celebration Orchestra

96.     100K bike ride with cycling club, first big test of my new knees

97.     The young families from Compass Class

98.     Keep Exploring

99.     The excellent young men who joined me in Journey Groups

100.  Regular phone visits with my brother

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Open Eyes

Sunday night when I heard, “Would it be alright, if he had my eyes,” well, it was hard to carry on with tears in my own eyes.

I was only doing my job, which was to be the trombone section in our church orchestra for our Christmas music presentation. The lyric was from the song My Savior and My Son, sung by Rebecca Griffin (as Mary); it’s Mary’s response to the angel who told her she would give birth to … God. How would any of us respond to news such as that?

Why was it was my favorite moment from the entire night? Because it’s such a personal request, close to the heart of all mommies and daddies. Mary was just a young woman who would give birth to a baby, and her request, “Can he (at least) have my eyes” is almost too personal. It is perfect. It is a reminder that all the characters in the Christmas story were people like you and me, with regular lives and dreams. They wanted their children to take after them, to look like them, the same way we do.

It reminded me of another of my favorite songs, from 1979. Amy Grant sang: “When people look inside my life, I want to hear them say, she’s got her Father’s eyes.” Amy wanted eyes that resembled God's. She wanted her human eyes to see with compassion, hope, and love, just like God's eyes do.

Me too. I want Jesus to have human eyes just like mine, and I want my human eyes to see just like God’s.

Sunday night as I was thinking about all this, even while playing my horn, I found myself lost in another song that I first heard several years ago, sung by 14-year-old Adriana Jasso in the role of Mary in a another church choir presentation. She sang: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Maybe I’m just a softy when it comes to songs sung by Mary, but once again, this line was almost too personal. For all my writing and teaching and talking about journey and calling and purpose and meaning, and if you are around me much you know I talk about those all the time, the person I want to be, who I want my life and legacy to be, is a man who magnifies the Lord.

I want to make Him easier to see, make His grace more comfortable to accept, open His comfort for healing, illustrate His huge strong hands that have a firm grip on me. I want my life, my writing, and my teaching to be a continuous stream of, “Hey, take a look at this.” I want to describe, reframe, illustrate, and illuminate the grace of God through my own experiences.

The story of Jesus, which is to say, THE STORY of all time, flows through the lives of real people, and it bears the marks of their personalities and shortcomings and struggles and victories. It is amazing that God trusted human beings to bear his story.

There are so many ways for us to tell the Christmas story. We read the gospel accounts, we stage live nativity presentations, we give big choir and orchestra performances, we send Christmas cards, we decorate our houses and yards, we wear Christmas sweaters, we sing Christmas carols, and we give our dollar bills to the Salvation Army bell ringers. Maybe we do those because they have become traditions, but I believe the real motivation runs much deeper. We do all those things because we’re telling the story of Jesus through our lives and actions, and that story changes both the teller and listeners in more ways than we can know.

This year, open your eyes to the story of Jesus, and let it flow freely through your life. That is exactly what everyone needs to hear.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Living a Meaningful Life

“Most of us lead far more meaningful lives than we know” wrote Rachel Naomi Remen in her great memoir, My Grandfather’s Blessings.

For most of us the meaning of our life is right under our nose. It’s been there all our lives; we fail to see it because we are focused on the distant horizon, the giant landscape, wondering when our day will finally arrive.

One of my favorite movies this past year has turned out to be The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), starring Ben Stiller. It’s based on a character created by New Yorker writer James Thurber in 1939, a man who spent most of his life daydreaming about being a hero, saving the day, doing something epic that proved his existence to the world, proved that he mattered.

In the movie, Walter Mitty discovers that his fantasies are actually holding him back from living his real life. He learns: don't dream it, be it.

This movie is for all us dreamers. And for all of us who feel stuck. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the story of everyone who has a secret life they want to live. That includes me. Even now as I’m typing I’m thinking of adventures I want to have, changes I want to make, goals I want to achieve.

To quote from another movie, Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About, “I just don’t want to come to the end of my live and have to say, “I was gonna be different but I chickened out when I had the chance.”

Walter Mitty.png

In the movie, Ben Stiller’s character, Walter Mitty, works for Life Magazine as the Negative Asset Manager. Even his job title sounds diminishing. His job was to record and track all the photographic negatives stored in the magazine archives, not a small thing with a magazine based on excellent world-changing photos.

But for Mitty, it never felt like enough.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend, and we were discussing how we both wanted to live the second half of our lives in a way that mattered. He had obviously spent lots of time thinking about it, and mentioned one of his wealthy friends who had chartered a ship to take food around the world where crises had occurred. My friend long to do something like that, something larger-than-life, something unmistakable.

I thought he was missing the most important part of his own life. He has been a professional musician his entire life. Even more, he’s been a coach and mentor to younger musicians, helping them move to toward the next level of their career. That’s his life passion, it’s what makes his eyes light up, it’s where he has made his greatest contribution so far.

I thought his hopes for a grand gesture would be even grander if he poured his second-half into more musical mentoring.

Rachel Naomi Remen wrote, “Often finding meaning is not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways. When we find new eyes, the unsuspected blessing in work we have done for many years may take us completely by surprise … perhaps it is only by those who speak the language of meaning, who have remembered how to see with their heart, that life is ever deeply known or served.”

Walter Mitty learned that his daily work, something he did with care and precision and detail and focus, day in and day out, was where he made his greatest impact on the world. His dedication to the grand vision of Life Magazine was more important than any of those larger-than-life hero adventures he imagined.

He was living his most meaningful life all along. How about you?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Grateful for Gratitude

It’s finally Thanksgiving and I’m happy. Even more, I’m grateful.

I’m grateful for this year’s Thanksgiving enchiladas, chili rellenos, smoked ham, sweet potatoes with poblano chilies, pecan cream pie, and healthy apple cake.

I’m grateful for a second chance to work through many of my life goals (especially hiking and backpacking goals).

I’m grateful that, for all the things in life I worry about, I don’t worry about Cyndi loving me. She make me braver, stronger, nobler, and more creative.

I’m grateful for the circle of people God has entrusted to us: family, friends, and ministry.

I’m grateful to be surrounded by big-picture thinkers who live their lives and calling in God’s larger story.

I’m grateful for longstanding traditions. Maybe the reason we hang on so desperately to family traditions (watching the Muppet Christmas Carol, running the Turkey Trot, reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, going to a Thanksgiving movies, decorating the yard and house, and like that) is because we need them. Too many things in life change too much too fast; we need traditions to hang on to.

I’m grateful for my family who introduced me to Jesus before I was old enough to walk or talk. In fact, they had me in church long before I was old enough to roll over, or even hold my head up by myself. Rich Mullins once wrote, "Despite our insistence that we are self-made men and women, we are dependent creatures. We like to think that we determine our destiny, but in reality we have very little to do with it. The people who raised us, our parents and our older siblings and our extended family, have tremendous influence on who we become." I’m grateful for a family legacy of multiple generations following Him, who continually put me in the path of God. They made my own decision to follow Jesus so much easier.

I’m grateful for the people who love me. Love is a huge risk no matter how you come at it, and yet the people who’ve loved me longest still do. It’s a rare blessing I don’t take for granted.

I’m grateful for gratitude itself. People who regularly practice gratitude experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. It’s not a passive activity.

Being intentionally grateful takes courage because so many things come at us unexpectedly. It’s easier, lazier, to simply complain about everything, but who wants to live a sorry life like that. How do you live more gratefully? First, you just decide to do it. As my dad said after an hour of hiking on Guadalupe Peak, “You can’t train for this, you just have to do it.”

I believe the grace of God follows, even chases after, hearts full of gratitude. And so, I hope this holiday season is a grateful, thankful, worship experience for you. Thank you for reading these blog entries. I am grateful for you.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

The Western Wall

Friday was our day in Jerusalem to visit the Western Wall, and we began by going underground. Our tour guide asked if anyone was catastrophobic (an accidental portmanteau from catastrophe and claustrophobic). He asked because we were going into our second tunnel tour in two days.

Most of the old archeological sites in Jerusalem are deep under the city, and tunnels are how they were discovered and explored. This particular tunnel followed the length of the Western Wall.

After the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the base of the walls were covered in rubble. Succeeding conquests continued to fill in the valley to make the city easier to defend and make more space for houses, which means that today, much of the Western Wall extends dozens of feet below ground level. So the tunnels were excavated to trace the wall and understand generations of development around it.

After an hour in the tunnel, we went to the above-ground part of the Western Wall where Jews go to pray because it is the closest they can get to the location of the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple. Our guide gave us some time to take photos and observe and to pray.

I wasn’t especially drawn to pray at the wall. Neither its age, nor proximity to the Holy of Holies spoke to me. I thought of it as a ritualistic symbol of a lost temple based on a religion of rules. I suppose, if anything, it was 2,000 years of accumulated prayers in this location that attracted me.

Not wanting to cause an international incident, and not certain of rules or protocol, I approached the portion of the wall not occupied by the tribe of men dressed in all black, with big black hats, swaying forward and backward as they prayed. I went to the south of them, to a spot where there were more men dressed like me.

I found a tiny crack between stones and inserted my piece of paper with this simple prayer: Jesus, make your home in my heart; make me like you (it was a tiny scrap and that was all I had room to write, but maybe that’s all I need to pray, ever, anyway).

I stood for a few minutes with both hands on the wall, absorbing with my entire body, before retreating back to a white plastic chair (they were scattered all over). I wanted to soak up the environment. God, speak to me through this.

I was surprised. It was a deep and moving experience; I lingered in my chair for about ten minutes.

There is a part of me that wants the attention to detail, the focus, the physical connection I saw in the worshipers around me. It’s so easy for me to descend into an intellectual understanding of faith. I need more physical, tangible connections to ground me in reality.

Hands-on worship has become more important to me lately. Soaking in a sacred space, or feeling tangible stones, helps me escape from the mental exercises I so often run to when thinking about God.

While sitting in the white plastic chair I realized, maybe since I was on an orchestra tour, that my engagement with worship music is similar. I go deeper when I’m playing my trombone with the group than when I’m merely listening. I need to participate physically, with breath and body, to settle the music and make room for God to speak.

I’m grateful to belong to a church that still uses an orchestra, that has a place for me to play my trombone, that provides a physical outlet for me to worship. I’m grateful to God for the gift of music, and more specifically, the talent and desire he has given me to play. And I’m grateful for these ancient stone reminders me of the dependable nature of God.

Lord, make my faith like these stones: large, solid, long-lasting, and foundational.

 

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Singing in the Garden

“I thought I heard singing, sir.” (Jonesy to Captain Mancuso, Hunt for Red October, 1990)

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Cyndi and I were part of a musical tour of Israel with the Global Missions Project Celebration Orchestra, and Saturday morning our group visited the Garden Tomb, also known as Gordon’s Calvary, owned and operated by a British charity since mid-19th century.

 Even though we were there very early in the morning, there were dozens of other groups going through the site at the same time. But we didn’t interfere with each other since the Garden had special sitting areas for each group, providing privacy and separation so we could each hear our own guide. On and off we’d hear one of the other groups singing, and by the time the day was over I had counted at least six languages (of course I kept a tally). It was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip.

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“Music is love and love is music if you know what I mean. People who believe in music are the happiest people I’ve ever seen. So clap your hands and stomp your feet and shake those tambourines. Lift your voices to the sky, tell me what you see. I believe in music; I believe in love.” (Mac Davis, 1971)

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 I knew in my mind the church is worldwide, and it didn’t surprise me that people worship differently. But it was amazing to actually hear so many worshiping in their own heart languages, one after another, each different in tone and melody and meter and accent, all clearly praising God.

 Later, one of my orchestra friends said, “Imagine when we get to heaven we will all speak the same language.” I agreed with him, at first, but then I didn’t. I hope we continue to sing and praise in our earthly heart languages. It would be a shame to lose those voices. I’m not sure I want a future where we all sound alike.

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“What the people need is a way to make them smile. It ain’t so hard to do if you know how. Gotta get a message; get it on through. Oh, listen to the music.” (Tom Johnston, 1972)

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We all interpret God’s grace through the narrow view of our own experience; that view only gets broader when we listen to each other’s stories. For me, it got larger again hearing all those voices and languages. It was a deep, solid, hit to my soul, and I haven’t yet stopped thinking about it.

We went to Israel intending to share God and share our hearts through music. Nothing spans culture and language gaps like music, and by playing with the Celebration Orchestra we hoped to share the gospel of grace with anyone who’d listen. I never expected God to speak to me in the same way. I thought I’d hear more from God through geography and archeology. We came to Israel to give; we ended up receiving.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, in Life Together, “Love for the brethren begins with listening to them. It is God’s love for us that he not only gives us his word, but also lends us his ear.”

Thank you, God, that we can hear people sing about you, even when we can’t understand their words. Thanks for your gift of music.

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Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, “How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it.” (Mishkan Tefilah, The Jewish Sabbath Prayer Book)

 

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32