Conference Poetry: An Oxymoron to Battle Banality

yoda

I attended a conference in London, Ontario this past week. Though there was much good to be had, like most conferences, it had its share of disappointments. On the last day there, April 24, I took to writing some flow-of-thought poetry to help me make it through. Below are the four poems that emerged from that unlikely context.

Hi Speed Blah
(Written while a keynote speaker orated at high speed off the top of his head. Disjointed, confusing, too fast… all at 8 a.m.)

Hi speed blah blah blah
Words at high speed
Remain meaningless
Too much Too many
Can put you to sleep
Why am I here?
Why is my brain made
To pay attention to this?
Might as well be speaking
Turkish
Is Turkish a language?
More interesting to ponder
Than hi speed blah
Blah Blah Blah
Too much Too many
Words rapidly delivered
How is it we are so capable of communication
Yet so poor at it?
We’ve all endured too much
Blah, blah, blah
A tragedy of life

We Got to Fix This
(The Battle Against the Banal has been my life-long struggle. It continued at this conference)

We got to fix this
Banality and brutality
The brutality of banality
Stifling creativity
Putting spirit to sleep
Deflating passion
Stomping on the eternal

We got to fix this
Banish banality
Brutalize the brutes
Who ravish our dreams
With beauty we strike back
With color, shape and sound
Inflating passion
Tender eternal with loving care

We got to fix this
Now

In Forest City
(London is known as Forest City. I took a break at one point, sitting out in the sun on a London street)

In Forest City
Run, Forest, Run
Sun, finally, sun
There’s been no spring
In our spring ‘til now

Forest City hubbub
Bubhub, Hey, Bub
Wind still chilly in tads
But just a tad
Compared to artic air
Swept through, sliced through

Forest city smells
Cancer stick wafting
Combines with new growth
Cold enough out to
Encourage me to pee

Back inside soon
Forest City, thanks

You, Yeah
(I couldn’t help but think of a couple of people who would have been better served being at the conference than me)

Thinking of you, yeah
What I hear may not apply
To me
But to you, yeah
Vision, passion, commitment
You have
Can I help you, really?
Not sure but I’ll try
Getting info, meeting people
Wish you were here
Instead of me

Thinking of you, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Want you to thrive
Want your awesomeness to fly
That’s why
I’ll apply
Myself for you
Instead of me

God, Good Fortune and My Kleenex Buddy

 

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I am just getting over a nasty cold. By my side through many hours of the fight has been my “Kleenex Buddy” (as my wife calls it), a brightly colored box of tissues. What is unique about this box is that it has Chinese characters on the side which, supposedly, mean “Good Fortune”.

As I shnorked my nose into another tissue from this buddy of mine the irony of those Chinese characters was not lost on me. “Ah, Good Fortune… Phhhhhhsssnnnaaaaaarchhhh!!!!”

I know, I know; it is just a cold. It isn’t SARS or Swine Flu or Typhoid or the Whooping Cough or the Black Plague. But when you’re sick, you’re sick and it is a tall order to see where Good Fortune is hiding amid the increasing pile of snot-filled detritus littering the floor at your feet.

However, having to look at that tissue box for the last few days has got me thinking: What does Good Fortune mean anyway? Luck? Fate? Seems like a nice thing to wish on someone but it is awful tenuous. It doesn’t feel very solid or sure; like the “Have a Nice Day” you receive in the robotic tone from the underpaid and underworking young person at the grocery checkout.

If my life really depended on Good Fortune maybe, possibly, hopefully happening but maybe not… well, that is just a bit depressing. And why should I experience Good Fortune when my neighbor just received a diagnosis of cancer or the guy I know at church rolled his car in a ditch or a family member of mine struggles with a debilitating mental illness?

Maybe I’m dwelling too deeply on my Kleenex Buddy. Maybe all that snot-expelling loosened up my brain a bit. It’s likely.

Have I experienced Good Fortune in life? It’s hard for me to say “Yes” to that because Good Fortune feels accidental and I don’t believe things happen accidentally. Sure, there are accidents in life and these include happy accidents. But even then I don’t believe those are somehow outside the plan, outside the purpose of my life. I don’t believe in an impersonal something that either does or does not bestow good things on my life. I believe in a personal God who is Good; and that God has a plan for me. Does that mean I understand it all, that I don’t have doubts, that I feel solid and sure every waking hour that my life is in His big and capable hands? Of course not. My life is like your life: At times it feels like I’m almost touching heaven and at other times like I am totally adrift in a leaking life raft in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by circling sharks the size of semi-trucks.

But choosing to believe in a Good God instead of Good Fortune puts my life under the auspices of the One who is love, who doesn’t create anything by accident, who doesn’t get blown back and forth by the whims of Fate or by my pathetic human whims either.

By believing in this Good God do I mean to say that nothing but good will come my way? No. Hell, no. I don’t believe in a Good God who has my personal happiness as his #1 priority. I believe in a Good God who has a Master Plan for all of Creation and I just happen to be an infinitesimal but integral part of what He is up to. That thought makes me feel very humbled and exalted all at the same time. Weird but true. God loves me but it also is not about me. He knows me personally but my personal fulfillment doesn’t trump the Fullness of His purposes.

More deep thoughts coming from a box of tissues. That rattling sound you hear is my brain.

I could be diagnosed with cancer one day. I could have any untold number “bad” things happen to me in the days, months, years I have left. That still doesn’t change the Good about my God. And it doesn’t change the good about my life.

I’m not trying to be morbid but if it all ended for me today…

I have been deeply loved by so many people. I have an awesome family that laughs long and loud and sings together. I have felt the profound love of one woman who I am bound to in this trip through life together. I have seen my two kids being born and have experienced the extreme sport that is fatherhood. I have traveled to Africa, Europe, around North America. I have climbed to the top of Pike’s Peak. I have created artwork and acted on stage and banged on guitar strings while singing my lungs out with a “Hey, Ho”! I have preached the Word. I have been witness to the death of my Mom and not been afraid. I have felt so much Good, so much God. I have lived. That is enough.

Life is never easy for anyone. But it can be so Good.

Life can blindside you with trouble. But God’s eyes are always on you.

That is solid. That is sure. That is what I choose to believe.

So Good Fortune to you? Nah… I’ll wish you instead a lifetime supply of a Good God for however long that lifetime is for you or for me.

Peace & Love, all.

Jesus: The Yes Man

crucifixion

As a Christian on Good Friday, I can’t help but consider this day and its events, its impact on history, its resonance despite the distance of almost 2,000 years. The fact is that the day wouldn’t hold such prominence if not centered on one man; a man whose life and death transcends easy categories.

Jesus is so many things to so many people but to me on this day I remember the man who battled the religious and died with terrorists.

His most heated debates, his harshest words, his greatest rebukes were directed at those who loved God and sought to worship Him with all their heart, mind and strength. They were believers living under the rule of an unbelieving Empire and they fought desperately to maintain their sense of right and wrong, their faithfulness to the Bible, their calling to represent their God in an increasingly wicked world. It is easy to cast these characters of the Gospels as villains; but that would be forgetting that they were very sincere in their desire for the wholeness of their faith. They believed that it was crucially important to guide their fellow Jews along a true path. They saw Jesus as a threat, one who would undermine this goal. Increasingly they saw the man of Nazareth as a religious rebel, a “blasphemer” who was sullying the name of God and tearing down all the distinctiveness of Judaism and therefore dragging the faith into the mud. For people who saw themselves as defenders of their beliefs, Jesus became an adversary that had to be dealt with before he dragged more people down to his irreligious level.

An honest reading of the Gospels makes it much easier to understand their perspective, especially if you are a believer and put yourself in their shoes as you read. Jesus seems to go out of his way to pick fights with the upright of his day. He recasts the Law time and again, putting his own spin on things, telling people “this is what you’ve been taught for hundreds of years but I say this“. The seeming arrogance of his statements, the casualness of his apostasy, would have rankled so many of his fellow Jews; particularly those who felt the pressure to live true to their faith in the midst of a world that was dominated by the non-believing, the godless and the secular.

Jesus invited the presence and the influence of the non-believing, the godless and the secular. He didn’t live as if there was an ever-increasing gap between those who believed and those who did not. In fact, he lived as if that gap didn’t exist, as if the warfare that waged between the faithful and the wicked did not influence his goals or his mission. In other words, he doesn’t seem at all motivated by the factors that motivated his Jewish peers. His agenda was not their agenda. Their fears did not play a role in his mind, words or actions. Unlike the religious, he boldly stepped into the breach. He brought hope instead of fear; love instead of law; he said “Yes” virtually everywhere they said “No”.

And, yes, he did die with terrorists. The Gospels record the fact that he was crucified between two criminals, often called “thieves” in a traditional recounting of Good Friday. However, it is highly unlikely the Roman authorities would resort to their harshest form of execution over a couple of common thieves. It is much more likely that these two men were insurrectionists, Zealots: Jewish men who felt so strongly about their people, their nation, their faith that they were willing to kill and to die for the cause. To them the evil Empire that dominated their land and lives needed to be directly opposed and attacked. Their crime was probably killing Romans or others they saw in league with the Empire. Therefore, the two men crucified with Jesus were, in the eyes of the Romans, terrorists; those who would use fear, violence, intimidation as a means to their end.

The Gospel of Luke tells the simple but profound account involving these two terrorists on either side of Jesus. In Luke’s account, one of the men joins in with those who came to the cross to mock Jesus, to rub salt into his wounds. It is really not a surprise that this man would do so, especially if he was a hyper-committed Zealot. Jesus had spoken and acted like he was the Messiah but had failed miserably to live up to that promise. To this criminal on the cross he was just a pathetic poser with delusions of grandeur. Even as his own death was imminent, this terrorist would feel anger and resentment towards Jesus, someone who was undeserving of a martyr’s death.

But the second criminal, instead of sinking deeper into the void of bitterness, seems to gain insight as he sees the specter of death approaching. He rebukes his fellow terrorist for his harsh words directed at Jesus saying, “We are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then, in one of the most heart-wrenching and direct statements recorded in scripture, he turns to the young rabbi hanging next to him and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Did he understand at that moment the deeper implications of the death of Jesus? Or was he professing a faith that no matter what transpired that day, this man crucified next to him must be the Messiah; he had to be, he could be no one else? Whatever was the motivation, a man who likely killed out of his fierce ideology was now proclaiming faith out of the glimmer of hope his soul still clung to.

Jesus rewards this gasped confession of faith with the powerful words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

These words of Jesus, as his own life was ebbing away, is just another example of the fact that, time and time again, when he was faced with an opportunity to respond to those around him, he says “Yes”. Jesus never turned someone away and he always saw a movement towards him as a movement towards truth, towards good, towards what God had in mind in that moment. And he approached each of these moments without fear, without a judgment based on the moral character or background of the people before him. He showed us over and over that when given the chance to do so, he was a Yes Man.

I am pondering this on Good Friday at a time when there is firestorm of debate on social media surrounding the recent events in Indiana. From one side of the story it is a triumphant expression of religious freedom; on the other side it is a cloaked and dangerous form of discrimination. I am in no position to take any one of these sides as I am simply not informed enough. However, as a Christian, I am saddened that non-believers automatically associate the discrimination, the negativity, the exclusion, with followers of the same Jesus I have been writing about here. To those outside the faith so often we are people who, when confronted with the opportunity to engage with the world the way Jesus did, give a loud and undeniable “NO”. As people who believe and follow a man who did not act out of fear, we continually and repeatedly rely on fear as our “fall back” position.

This disturbs me on this Good Friday. As I see it, Jesus died to free us from sin, to give us forgiveness and eternal life. His resurrection on Easter seals the deal. It is God’s great act of restoration and healing for us and all Creation. We can make the theological proclamations and re-affirm this belief. But in day-to-day living what does it mean? Ultimately I believe it means that we are meant to live and engage in our world the way Jesus did, without fear, without our actions being tainted by our mistaken notion that we are “defenders of the faith”. We get so caught up in the wickedness of the world, in our concern that religious freedoms will be stripped away, that a godlessness will descend on our lives that we miss the moments, over and over and over again, to display to our world the powerful example of Gospel grace and truth, love and mercy, openness and engagement without fear.

We are meant to embody hope to people who so desperately need it. Our world is full of sadness. We are not meant to make life more of a struggle to a people stumbling around in darkness. We are meant, like Jesus, to shine; to take those moments offered to us, when our world needs a word of love amid its gasps of pain, to speak and act as our Lord did. Perhaps this was one reason Jesus was so critical of the religiously upright of his time. He saw their attempts at preserving a pure faith as laying heavier and heavier burdens on people who were already feeling crushed. He reacted to their expressions of fear of their world by throwing it back in their faces, confronting them with the actual God they thought they knew and understood.

I’m not sure what it means to you to follow Jesus. But to me it means that every time I am presented with an opportunity to be Jesus in someone’s life, I want to say “Yes”; recognizing that these opportunities will often come with a heavy dose of challenge to my values, my belief system, my understanding of what is right and wrong. Because it is not my job to make sure everyone lives in accordance to the will of God. It is my job to do the will of God, period. And the will of God has never been more powerfully on display than in the life of the one I follow: Jesus.

On this Good Friday, I ask God to grant me the strength to be a Yes Man to my world. To be present and real and a source of hope; to not live my faith out of fear but out of joy; to act and speak from a place of trust in my God and love for all. In other words, I ask God for the strength to be more and more like Jesus.

A happy and hopeful Easter to you all.