Passing the Torch

Reflections on the Journey


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Look! A Cougar!

Can you name something a significant other has taught you, a gem of wisdom conferred through words or example?

One of my wife’s many contributions to my life can be summed up in a simple exclamation: “Look! A cougar!”

I first heard it on a drive through the San Jacinto mountains of southern California. We were on an early date, prompted by our mutual love for the outdoors. The high-altitude road was bathed in thin sunlight, towering Ponderosas and Black Oaks lining the shoulders.

We came around a bend just as a squirrel scampered across the pavement. “Look!” Donna said, “A cougar!”

“What?” I said. “Where? All I saw was a squirrel.”

“Exactly,” she replied with a smile. “If I said, ‘Look, a squirrel,’ you’d hardly be interested. But a cougar? It made you look more closely, didn’t it?”

And here was her lesson in a squirrel’s nutshell: look at the ordinary as if it is extraordinary. Take time to notice and absorb the beauty in life’s small details.

Cliché? Perhaps, for some of you, but it was a lesson I needed, and she knew it. As a cleric, I had often waxed eloquent about the need to live in the present. “Consider the lilies” was one of my favorite admonitions from Jesus.

But my frenetic inner dialogue, fueled by a hyperactive metabolism, compelled me to move too fast. Even my time outdoors was spent cataloging memories, taking photos, “bagging” peaks to add to my list.

Slowing down, luxuriating, settling into this infinity of the present: it wasn’t easy. Sometimes it still isn’t, but inexorably, like drips of water forming a stalagmite, it has changed my life. It’s why I share this age-old salutation with everyone I meet: “Carpe diem, my friends!”

How is your mindfulness of each passing day? Lebanese-American poet, Kahlil Gibran, once said, “In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.” This dawning can happen any moment, because it contains what we need to know peace, banish fear, and experience this Presence called “God.”

Many of us know the story of Brother Lawrence, son of a poor French family in the mid-1600s. His lot in life was so desperate that he joined the Army just to secure hot meals and a bed. Stationed at a lonely outpost in the winter, he had a life-changing experience. He was gazing at a barren tree standing in a field of snow – no leaves or fruit – but the thought that come springtime it would again flourish with greenery made him realize that our Creator’s grace and promises are with us always.

Lawrence later joined a monastery in Paris, and because he lacked formal education, he was told to labor in the kitchen, cooking, doing dishes, mopping floors, cleaning the walls. There, at the bottom of the pecking order, he resolved to experience – once again – the truth he had glimpsed in a frozen French landscape.

The result? A legacy of mindfulness passed on through a compilation called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” I close with his words, overtly Christian, yes, but followed by a simple summation.

“The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

Look! A pot! A mop! A cougar! A moment to be seized and savored!


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This (Re)incarnation! This one!

In 1970, George Harrison released his magnum opus, All Things Must Pass, to universal acclaim. Ben Gerson of Rolling Stone called it an “extravaganza of piety and sacrifice and joy, whose sheer magnitude and ambition may dub it the War and Peace of rock and roll.”

What always struck me is that Harrison’s Hindu faith rang out clearly over American airwaves. My Sweet Lord contained chants to Krishna, and Give Me Love prayed “Give me light, give me life, keep me free from birth.”

Ahhh…there it is…keep me free from birth…

Liberate me from the tedium of endlessly starting over, the travails of failure and rebirth. I long for release from these wearisome character traits that plague me repeatedly, undermining my freedom and joy as a human being.

For most of us, the spiritual concept of karma makes sense – the notion that for every action there’s a re-action. We reap what we sow is a truth found in proverbs around the globe.

Does this spiritual axiom echo in eternity? The vast majority of us – even those lauded for our sterling characters – will die as unfinished works of art. Too often we take repetitive and destructive behavior patterns to our graves. If there is an afterlife, will we receive a gift of peace and rest? Or are we fated for new incarnations to get it right, to push these Sisyphean karmic stones up hills of our own invention and finally hurl them into the abyss?

Ultimately, I believe the question is more critical for this life, right now. Are we resigned to thoughts and actions that spin us in the hamster wheels of our minds? As a pastor for 30 years, I have performed hundreds of memorial services, and on too many occasions I thought “How foolish to live an unexamined life, to tolerate these insanities that dictate our life’s scripts!”

Like you, I have my own. Patterns of impatience and self-entitlement. The futile need to exercise control. Expectations that ferment into resentments. Fears that borrow trouble from the future.

It’s getting better. My own spiritual pathway is helping me experience what we 12 Steppers call daily reprieves. I recently collaborated on a book about The Twelve Steps as a path to freedom for all of us. Read it freely at this link.

But I want my Cinderella Liberty to last longer. Much longer. So, at this point in my journey, I sing with George: “Keep me free from birth.” There are so many disciplines to help us recognize and overcome our character flaws on a daily basis. Meditation, centering prayer, recovery programs, therapy, spiritual regimens from many traditions, the counsel of trusted mentors and spiritual guides. We must use our willpower to employ these tools.

If we listen to the still, small voice inside us, it says, “Awaken. Be free now, not after death. Become as self-realized as possible in this (re)incarnation. This one! Learn to shed the cultural and genetic overlays that blind you from what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven – not a future reality, but present, right now, within you.”

Whatever your notion of eternity, hear these words attributed to Marcus Aurelius and spoken by Maximus to rally his troops in The Gladiator, “What we do now echoes in eternity!”

Let’s do this, my friends.


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Water is Life

Water is life.

It’s an axiom I’ve heard countless times, reinforced by friends who work tirelessly to provide safe wells in developing countries. It’s the simple truth that compels two young girls I featured in a recent article for Presbyterians Today. Convicted before age ten by the news that unmet sisters around the world were missing school in order to haul tainted drinking water from streams and rivers, they formed Paper for Water.

Water is life, and on a recent trip to Zambia, I experienced its precious and simple centrality.

The Director of the Shallow Well Department, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Zambia Presbytery, took us on a tour. We bounced over rutted roads, dust billowing in our wake, to reach the village of Tamashu. Huts with thatched roofs, open cooking fires, boys thrashing soybeans in the dirt, barefoot children, chickens, goats and dogs. A timeless tableau. The villagers greeted us with equal measures of curiosity and hospitality; it is rare to see mzungos in their midst.

Together we walked down a pathway towards a creek bed. First, we saw the former water supply, a cloudy pool exposed to the elements, frequented by animals, subject to runoff from the village’s latrines. Through our interpreter, we heard in Chitumbuka that the water caused intestinal problems, especially among children.

Then, just ten yards away, we saw the shallow well, a simple hand pump at the center of a concrete perimeter and runoff channel. The drill had found fresh water at 8.5 meters (28 feet). That short depth made all the difference for the microcosm of Tamashu.

As bemused villagers gathered around us, we took turns pumping precious, clear H20 into a plastic bucket. A couple of us tried to balance that container on our heads, secretly marveling at the throngs of women who carry baggage of all types along Zambian roadways. Our clumsiness elicited laughter that was contagious.

It’s a well-worn reaction for travelers in developing countries, but it is nonetheless life-changing if we embrace it. WE HAVE SO MUCH WE TAKE FOR GRANTED! In my case, multiple showers at home, flush toilets, drinkable water pouring from any spigot, the luxury of irrigating my yard with enough liquid to hydrate this entire village.

Then I found out the cost of installing one of these miracle pumps. $450 in U.S. currency. Let me say that again: $450.

There’s a passage in the New Testament book of James. It says: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

For a moment, lifting my eyes to clouds in the bluest African sky, I contextualized these verses. What if I thanked these villagers for their hospitality, even saying “God bless you,” then left and forgot how many others are still dipping buckets into polluted streams? What if I failed to embrace my essential connectedness to these brothers and sisters half-a-world from my home?

This trip changed me. In my own small way – through family offerings and the efforts of my nonprofit, Torch of Faith – I will help finance future wells.

Why? Because water is life. Because we are all connected. Because it is a privilege to give.


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The Truth Hurts (Especially When It’s Rooted in Love)

When I “came out” clearly in my support of gay ordination and marriage (link), I was the-truth-hurtsserving as pastor of a conservative, small town church. Mind you, I never trumpeted my views from the pulpit. I never used this issue – or any other – as a litmus test to determine the faithful. I abhor fundamentalism.

However, the article circulated widely on the internet. A couple mornings later, one of my favorite members of that church walked into my office with a stricken look on his face.

‘Krin,” he said, “I read your article. I think what’s hardest for me is that even though I disagree with you strongly, I have already grown to love you as a friend. Now, somehow, I have to put those extremes together in my head and heart.”

He smiled ruefully and shook my hand. We remain friends to this day.

The truth hurts, especially when it’s rooted in love.

Our country’s recent elections were the most rancorous I’ve experienced. I heard truths that hurt PRECISELY because they came from people I love. I’m not naïve. I’ve always known that the cultural fault lines in our country zig-zag through my circle of family and friends. Until now, I’ve delighted in the dialogue that has marked these relationships. I like to think I’ve grown from them.

But there was something brutally naked about this latest election cycle. It pulled back the cloaks from ALL OF US. I’m afraid it has underscored our divisions rather than offer a healing path forward.

Why does this hurt more than ever? Because with some of my closest relationships, it’s like living in different worlds. We don’t speak each other’s languages. There are niceties, politeness, but no real connection at the deepest level of our world views. Agreeing to disagree feels like drifting apart.

I struggled to find an analogy, and what came to mind – oddly – is a scene from my youth. I share it with this qualification: I love my father deeply, and I know he loves me.

I was always an avid reader, far more attuned to the humanities than math or science. This confounded my Dad, a successful corporate career man, who would have loved to groom his son for a place in the business world.

One night I was reading The Country of the Blind, a brilliant short story by H.G. Wells. I don’t recall the exact passage that enraptured me, but it gave me wings! I had to share it with someone.

I made my way to Dad’s office. He was seated in front of a ledger and his adding machine, intent on complicated problems.

“Dad,” I said, “you’ve got to read this!”

He looked up, distracted, took the paperback from my hand, then speed read the page I pointed out.

“That’s good writing,” he said, his eyes straying back to his calculations. “Thanks for sharing it.”

Even as a young man, I felt the fissure. What did I know of elegant algorithms or the intoxicating air of high finance? What did he know of the power that words have to transport us into realms of imagination?

And yet, there is love, and it remains…

I took the book back, touched him on the shoulder, returned to my room.

 

 

 

 


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“Yes, This Really Happened,” by Mo Spheric

Some time ago, I began a season of life at what is now a well-known Southern California mega-church.building-the-church

The church had five services every weekend and I served on the worship team at least one weekend a month for 6 1/2 years. I was a much younger man then, but five services over two days is grueling. Between personal practice, rehearsals and services, you basically sacrifice an entire weekend.

I remember one weekend Pastor Jim (not his real name) was trying to get more musicians to serve on the worship team. He tells the congregation, “Why, you don’t even have to be that good. Take ‘Mo Spheric’ for example. He’s no Jimmy Page, but he does an OK job for us. If he can do it, you can do it.”

I suppose in hindsight that should have been the big tip off to how little I was actually valued. But I wasn’t quite grokking the gestalt at that point.

A few years later, the church buys some property and starts a building campaign. Pastor Jim calls me up and asks if he can come over and speak with my wife and me.

The big night arrives. Pastor Jim sits at my dinner table and proceeds to tell me, “You and your wife are among the top 1% of all givers. I am personally meeting with every one of the top 1% to ask them to give sacrificially to the building campaign. My wife and I are going to pledge $40,000 on faith. Some church members are taking second mortgages out on their homes to help us out. How much can I count on you to give, in addition to your regular tithes and offerings? This is a matter of faith. Don’t just pledge from what you already have. I want you to believe God for a miracle. Make it a big one. God will come through, you’ll see.”

Yeah well…I told ol’ Pastor Jim that I’d have to talk it over with my wife before we could make any specific commitment. I also told him that I believed in being a good steward of what God had already given me and that pledging more than I knew my family could comfortably give just didn’t seem wise. I could see the disappointment on Pastor Jim’s face.

My wife and I did eventually decide to give to the building campaign. I recall it being about half of what we had in savings at the time. It was many thousands of dollars, which was a lot for us at the time (heck, it still is a lot). But hey, Pastor Jim had honored us by asking us personally. It seemed like the least we could do.

A few years later, the church hired a very young worship leader. He was fresh out of college and had married the daughter of another high-profile Southern California Pastor. He was the golden boy, the heir apparent… and he knew it. Warren (not his real name) was generally abusive to anyone who didn’t belong to his inner circle, and for some reason, Warren took an almost instant dislike to me. It was a pretty dreadful time in my life. It wasn’t long before I felt God prodding me to move on. So we did. We didn’t raise a stink about things. We just stopped attending and serving.

At the time, it hurt me that Pastor Jim, the guy who had sat at my dinner table asking for money, never so much as called or sent me an email saying, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in church lately… Is everything OK?”

OK, so here’s where the story gets err…”revealing.” Flash forward another 6-7 years and I get an email from ol’ Pastor Jim. It seems that the church has embarked on another building campaign. The email began by saying, “You matter to God and you matter to me.”

Obviously, I had been left on some fund-raising list. But I couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with ol’ Pastor Jim, so I emailed him back. I said something like, “Wow, I matter to you? Who knew? I haven’t set foot in your church in over 6 years. You once personally sat at my dinner table and asked me for money (which I gave you), yet you never once called or emailed after I stopped attending. If we matter so much to you, haven’t you wondered what happened to us?”

So Pastor Jim replies, “If I have offended you in any way, I’m sorry. What can I do to make this up to you?”

I replied that I would just like to talk things through a bit and perhaps try to gain some closure.

Well, I never did hear back from ol’ Pastor Jim. I guess he felt that tepid apology got him off the hook. After all, it sure did sound like a spiritual thing to say. I hear he got that new building.

But I know some things about Pastor Jim. I know that while he might be concerned with people as a group, compassion and empathy on a personal level are merely abstract concepts to him. He’s too busy saving the city to be bothered very much about how any one person might be hurt by his actions. Individuals are just so much acceptable collateral damage. You gotta break eggs to make omelets, right? I also know that Pastor Jim treats people differently according to what they give to his church. He is what the Bible calls “a respecter of persons.” The Bible condemns such behavior. I know that Pastor Jim routinely hires people for part-time positions, then works them 50+ hours per week. I know that there are broken marriages and broken people in the wake of his grand vision.

While it is a very painful chapter in my life, I don’t really think about it much. When most folks hear this story, they usually tell me that Pastor Jim’s behavior is especially callous and egregious. The funny thing is, I don’t think it’s egregious at all. I think it’s pretty much the cultural norm for successful “professional Christians” these days. What used to be called “church” has morphed into the modern-day “business of selling Jesus,” and God help you if you get in the way of the mega-church juggernaut. These men are going about doing great things for the Kingdom of God thank-you very much. Just step aside and you won’t get hurt (much).

One of the lessons I take away from the Book of Job is that letting earthly success be a referendum on whether or not God approves of your life is neither accurate nor wise. I’m sure Pastor Jim sleeps well at night. He lives in a nice home in a fashionable upscale neighborhood. His church is many times the size it was when I attended, there’s plenty of money to go around, and after all the church does many worthwhile things for the community. But does that necessarily mean that God is pleased with Pastor Jim? Maybe. Maybe not. For in the same way that Job’s trials and hardships in no way meant that God was displeased with him, I believe that earthly success, status, fame, notoriety and influence don’t necessarily mean that God approves of what you are doing or how you are doing it.

Mo Spheric is the pen name of a man who writes about his emergence from what James Fowler called “Stage Three Faith.” This piece is from a collection of essays entitled “The Apostate Chronicles,” available on Amazon here.


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Passing the Torch

(The torch of faith passed on to me from childhood has illuminated corners of existence my family never imagined. Still, early lessons can be powerful! I first shared this in a weekly column I wrote for the “Alice Echo,” then later in a collection of meditations called 52: Weekly Readings for Your Journey)

We all have favorite school teachers who taught us more than subject material; they imparted lessons about life. Yet in the cradles of our journeys, parents remain our earliest, most potent tutors. Their words and actions mold our outlooks from infancy.

My ordination day, September 27, 1987

My ordination day, September 27, 1987

Clearly, this can be positive or negative. In decades of working with people, I have seen both kinds of parental legacies. Learning to claim the best (and leave the rest) from our families is a healing journey many of us have taken. Some of us still need to.

On this Mother’s Day, I celebrate my Mom. Our relationship hasn’t been easy. Thankfully, over time we discovered a grace that is the cornerstone of our faith. This faith has been my mother’s greatest gift to me, a priceless heirloom. Let me share a memory that clearly highlights this.

My childhood neighborhood swarmed with kids, evidence of the Baby Boom. Like typical children, we often took sides and fought with each other. One day the conflict moved from taunts and posturing to rock throwing and BB guns. On the other side, I could see one of my “enemies.” His name was Gentry and he was a Goliath, heads taller than the rest of us. He was also mean as a snake, channeling anger from a severely abusive family.

Under a bright sun, we lined up in two gangs and advanced toward each other like fronts in a medieval battle. When fists started flying, Gentry singled me out. He had a board with rusted nails that he hurled like a lance. It struck my head, leaving a gash that gushed freely down my neck and onto my shirt.

The sight of so much blood drained the fight from all of us. We halted and scrambled back to our homes.

That night, my stitched head wrapped in Ace bandages, I lay under the sheets. My mother came to my bedside for prayer, a ritual she kept with all her children.

“We have something special to pray for tonight, don’t we?” she asked.

“We sure do,” I replied. “That God would take the pain from my head.”

“That’s not what I’m thinking,” she said. “We should pray for Gentry, that God would take the hatred from his heart.”

I felt an instant wave of resent. Why pray for that jerk? He was the guilty one. He was my enemy.

But with a sudden flash of wisdom beyond my years, I thought about the daily dysfunction Gentry endured in his family – the lack of a love I took for granted. My resent morphed into compassion. My mother waited silently, hoping this would take root in my heart. Finally, I took her hand and we prayed for Gentry and his kin.

One of the core teachings of Jesus is to love our enemies. Do not return evil for evil, but pray for those who persecute you. That night my mother illustrated one of the greatest elements of the faith she was passing on to me. I carry that torch to this day.

Mothers and fathers, your influence is incalculable! Raise your children with love and encouragement. Most importantly, pass on any faith you have that calls us to a higher plain.

And Mom, thanks for doing this with me. I love you!


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What Stitches Me into the Fabric of the World? – by Suzy Cleveland Yowell

How do I stitch myself into the fabric of the world? The answer comes quickly. I head to the banks of the Trinity River. I’ve been lacing up my shoes and running on the river trails for almost forty years. It’s my thing. It’s my place.suzy

My love for this Fort Worth treasure began as a young girl on the middle school track team. Though I liked being there at a young age, it was only because a coach told me to be. A lot has changed since then. I never imagined in my youth that the river’s presence would transcend every season of my life. I never imagined that I would learn life’s greatest lessons or embark on a spiritual journey on its banks!

There are more than forty miles of trails that stretch through our city and run parallel to the Holy Trinity. I’ve had the privilege of exploring all of them at one time or another. Each mile offers a unique gift – a dose of inspiration, a profound awareness. It’s a beautiful web of pathways, part urban escape, part nature refuge. On any given day, the trails are alive with walkers, runners, cyclists, even horseback riders.  I love the sight of young families enjoying a picnic together, or an elderly couple strolling hand-in-hand. The Trinity is a gift to so many.

Of course, there’s no end to the metaphors that resonate as a user of these trails.

  • There’s such beauty and comfort in simple things. The smell of spring flowers, the sight of young wildlife, the sound of water as it calmly flows over the river bottom.
  • If you want to get better, you have to work through the pain. As a runner, it takes great resolve to push against the unforgiving sting of a windy winter day. Or, to weather the stifling heat of summer. Whoever said, “Joy is in the journey, not the destination” never ran ten miles on an August afternoon in Texas. Trust me, the joy is in the destination!
  • Focus on the path, not the obstacles. And never take yourself too seriously! Skip once in a while!

I figured out long ago that no other place has the same power to balance my soul or demand my presence. I gravitate to it. It’s where I connect with God. It’s where I go to celebrate my triumphs and successes, to mourn my losses and failures, to give thanks for the many blessings in my life. It’s where I go to ask for forgiveness and seek resolution. It’s here that I’ve learned to trust my own strength and better understand and respect my weaknesses. And yes, it’s where I go to be stitched into the fabric of the world. My world. It’s my thing. It’s my place.

Suzy Cleveland Yowell is a nonprofit director, TCU Horned Frog, and a very giddy new grandmother. Lover of life! Enjoys having fun with family and friends, learning new things, exploring the outdoors, cooking and traveling. Thrives on new challenges and is currently training for her first triathlon.