Desperately Lonely

For weeks now, I have been haunted by the specter from an article I read in the Seattle Weekly about Leland Cobain.  You may recognize the surname.  Leland is Kurt Cobain's grandfather.  He lives, by himself,  in a trailer in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, Montesano.  For years Leland wanted nothing much to do with the thousands of fans of his grandson who were desperate for some living connection with Kurt Cobain.  Then, Leland's wife died.  Since then, 1997, Leland Cobain has not only been open to answering emails, letters, phone calls, even requests for personal visits, he has been, essentially, the only surviving member of Kurt's family to be so providing.  Hundreds of fans have contacted him over the years.  The article notes that Leland has had some bizarre encounters along the way:  "The worst was an Australian woman who called from Olympia,...asking if Leland could pick her up.  For whatever reason, he obliged her...she turned out to be mentally disturbed, claiming to know who killed his grandson."  (Conor Christofferson, Seattle Weekly, August 18, 2010) It's not the seriously ill ones, however, who are so haunting; it's the lonely ones.  One woman, 31-years-old, from rural Pennsylvania, has been writing and visiting Leland for a couple of years now.  As the article notes, "...as time went by the letters drifted from the topic of Nirvana and began to resemble something more akin to the correspondence of a girl and her elderly grandpa."  The woman herself says, at one point in the article, "It was more of a fan thing at first, but now that we've talked and met, it's more like he's a part of my family."

In one sense, God bless 'em.  They are both, clearly, providing a touch of belonging, care, even love, for one another.  But I am also saddened by the deep longing that motivated their connection.  How desperate so many of us are to be loved and cared for.  So desperate that we would drive thousands of miles to spend time, in person, with someone who has shown us the least inkling of intimacy.  I once heard a speaker - I would love to give him due credit, but cannot remember who it was - who said, "No matter what your personal belief about homosexuality, one thing that the AIDS epidemic revealed, is that there is a whole community in our midst of people who are, literally, dying for love."  This breaks my heart.

I am tremendously thankful for the family, community and congregation I am a part of who provide me with such a sense of belonging; even more so, I am thankful for a God who is always present in a way that speaks to that soul-wearying loneliness.  I must admit, however, that when I hear of stories like those above, I wish that we, as the Body of Christ, were doing even more to reach out to those all around us who are so desperately lonely.  May it be so.

A Land Flowing with...?

For several days now, I've been pondering what the equivalent might be for me.  As Moses is preparing God's people to enter the "promised" land, he describes its beauty and abundance:

"God is about to bring you into a good land, a land with brooks and rivers, springs and lakes, streams out of the hills and through the valleys.  It's a land of wheat and barley, of vines and figs and pomegranates, of olives, oil, and honey.  It's a land where you'll never go hungry - always food on the table and a roof over your head.  It's a land where you'll get iron out of rocks and mine copper from the hills."  (Deut.8:7-9)

I'm okay with the "never go hungry / roof over your head" part.  I enjoy olives, honey, the fruit of the vine.  But I'm not so much a "streams and lakes" kind of guy.  And mining has no interest for me, whatsoever.  So, I've been wondering, off and on, for several days now, what is "a good land" for me?

This morning, it dawned on me; I mean that literally.  Mornings, on my way into work, I cross north Seattle from east to west on 45th Street.  I pick up Aurora Avenue heading south right about at Woodland Park.  Just after I've merged into the flow of traffic, one of the most beautiful vistas I can think of opens before me.  To my left, the Cascades cut a blue-grey jagged edge on the horizon, giving over to the white-topped, dominating sentinel Mt. Rainier.  On my right, at this time of year, especially, Queen Anne hill flourishes with a thick carpet of green.  In the center of it all, the steel and glass towers of downtown Seattle stand like meerkats attentive to the morning sun, and Lake Union lays at the feet of the skyscrapers like a pool at the foot of a palace.

This morning, this view was spectacular.  The sky was a light, royal blue, the sun's rays just clearing the Cascades created sparkles on the Lake and a green-gold glow to Queen Anne hill.  To top it all off, Bruce Hornsby and the Range's "Mandolin Rain" filled my car with a lovely, acoustic heart-ache.  And then I knew - THIS is my "good land".

The point of Moses' preview is not only to give the people courage to endure the difficulties they will face in the process of fully receiving the land, but also to exhort them to remember.  As written in Deuteronomy, Moses proclaims, "After a meal, satisfied, bless God, your God, for the good land he has given you." (8:10)

So, after this morning's "meal", for this land flowing with cars and creativity, for this land abounding with blackberries and Blackberrys, I give you thanks, O Lord.

Grace in Odd Places

At the closing of Georges Bernanos' touching story, The Diary of a Country Priest, the young protagonist absolves a man uncertain of his actions with the lovely words, "Does it matter? Grace is everywhere." I recently read the story of a woman whose response to a devastating revelation in her life offers a glimpse of such grace in our everyday world. Some of you will be familiar with the story of her husband, Michael Fenter. He is a Puget Sound resident who was arrested on October 8, outside of a bank in Tacoma that he had just robbed. It turns out that he was also charged with several other bank robberies up and down the West Coast. The most bizarre element in all of this is the fact that NOTHING in his past would have suggested such actions; and, all the while he was allegedly carrying out these crimes, the rest of his life was that of a loving family man working on a peaceful farm.

This is where Kateen Fenter's response comes in. I want to give full credit to Maureen O'Hagan from the Seattle Times for her outstanding article covering this story in the newspaper on July 24. O'Hagan does a masterful job at setting us up for the shock it was for Michael Fenter's wife, Kateen, to hear of her husband's arrest, and the allegations against him. No one involved in investigating the crimes has any doubt but that Kateen was completely in the dark about her husband's alleged acts. Truly, as far as she knew, she and her husband were living out their dream of running a farm near Discovery Bay, "...where people could come and be fed and find a place of healing" - her own words.

Think about this for a moment, as O'Hagan points out, Kateen had known Michael for 25 years, most of which she had been married to him. His arrest left her responsible for their three teenage kids and the family farm. How would I respond to my spouse upon learning of such a secret and criminal life? Kateen's response, as reported by O'Hagan, "I'm angry at moments. But you can't live there...I get up every morning and breathe. I get up every morning and love the people around me and go to work." Even more powerfully, when asked about whether she feels her husband is guilty, Kateen responds, "I don't need answers because I've made my decision based on who I am, not on what he did. We can choose to love Michael or reject him, but he won't be a better person if we reject him."

I have no idea of Kateen Fenter's faith or beliefs, but when I heard her response, I thought of Christ. I can't think of a finer demonstration in recent days of the truth that grace is everywhere, maybe especially in the oddest of places.

The God of Outsiders

In studying for the sermon last week (Sunday, July 18), I came across a brief section of a larger prayer that caught my attention. It lies within the prayer Solomon gives at the dedication of the newly completed Temple. Solomon is standing before all of Israel, publicly proclaiming his desire for God's blessing on this glorious new building. Early on, Solomon sums up in one word his greatest desire from God, praying, "Hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive." (1 Kings 8:30, NIV translation, italics mine)

Of all the things Solomon could have requested of God, he chooses to emphasize forgiveness. Why that in particular is the topic for another time. Suffice it to say for now, that Solomon then elaborates on this prayer with seven specific scenarios in which most require some sort of forgiveness from God. However, one scenario, in particular, does not ask for forgiveness at all. It is the one scenario involving the prayers of "the foreigner":

"As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel
but has come from a distant land because of your name - for [people]
will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched
arm - when [the foreigner] comes and prays toward this temple, then
hear from heaven...and do whatever the foreigner asks of you."
(1 Kings 8:41-43, NIV, italics mine)

Even if Solomon had reversed the general tenor of the scenarios and had asked, mostly, that God "do whatever" the good church-going folks ask of Him, and "forgive" the "foreigner", I would still have found the prayer somewhat gracious. But, the way in which he truly prayed I find astonishing. I could fill another page qualifying this request from Solomon; but, I won't. I think we are meant to hear this in all of its audacity. In fact, the next line in Solomon's prayer reveals his own intentions for this part of the prayer. His desire is, "...that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name." (1 Kings 8:43)

To know someones name, in the scriptures, is to know who they are in the fullness of their character. In this case, answering this prayer, as prayed, would reveal a God whose door is open to "all the people's of the earth", a God who hears their prayers and answers them, a God whose first concern is that they "come from a distant land" to be with Him.

Throughout the scriptures, both Hebrew and Greek (i.e., Old Testament and New), I have found these passages that reveal God's love for those outside of the circle. From Day One, literally, God's desire has been that all peoples live within the loving embrace of the Trinity. God's initial act of creation is full of grace, gift. Always, God's initial movement towards those not yet within the fold of love is gracious. Further, the persons who God is most demanding of are those who claim some special favor by being on the inside.

In a world so violent towards those who are standing on the opposite side of various lines, I find every word of God's that reveals God's love for the "outsider" both encouraging and challenging.

The Title

A word about the title for this blog. Some of you will recognize this phrase from T.S. Eliot's, "The Dry Salvages", one of the Four Quartets. The phrase is from a line that follows a passage about the difference between saints and the rest of us. Eliot writes that, "...to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time, is an occupation for the saint." He then goes on to say:

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarna-
tion.

I'm not a saint. But I'm fortunate enough to have an occupation where I can focus on what Eliot calls "the rest" - prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. My hope is that out of all of this you and I might be able to experience a few more of those "hint[s] half guessed" or "gift[s] half understood."

Here We Go...or, at least, Here I Go.

I have a bit of a quirky job. One of the things I get paid to do is ruminate. I read, study, pray, contemplate, meditate, procrastinate. Ooops, that last one just kind of slipped out. Beware unattended alliteration.

The goal of all of this rumination is to somehow find a connection, a bridge, between the dust and dirt of the ancient scriptures, and the damp earth and glass towers of present-day Seattle. I will readily admit that it's a good gig. I love the challenge and the whole process from study to sermon.

One of the only frustrations I have, though, is that I ALWAYS discover, or am reminded of, way more good stuff than I could, or should, ever share in one sermon. By Monday, I've moved on and all that good stuff gets left behind also.

And so, "Hints & Guesses". I am starting this blog that I might share some of those good things - ideas, authors, images, etc. - with anyone and everyone who cares to look in now and again. I make no claims of brilliance on my own part. However, I am often pretty good at spotting it in others. So, I will look to share only those things that might catch your breath, cause you to pause, maybe see the world a little differently going forward.

I won't restrict myself to the dirt and the dust of the ancient scriptures. I plan as well to share the good stuff I gleen from the damp earth and glass towers of present-day Seattle. One day maybe it will be a posting about the source of Solomon's wisdom; on another day, it might be a line of great wisdom from a Fleet Foxes song.

I should also beware of false advertising. I doubt I will be posting one "day" then the next; as might be inferred from the above paragraph. Realistically, I'm shooting for at least one post each week. I would love to think that I will really start rolling and be one of those bloggers who starts writing about a great idea / thought even before they've had one. But, likely not. In addition, no one may be interested in my "hints & guesses" at all. Well, if such is the case, at least I'll have a written record of some of the good stuff I have come across and be able to find it easier.