like a shotgun

August 21, 2008

I just got back from a marathon trip to my hometown Montana.  The days stretched long past sundown, round bonfires or behind the steering wheel; sleep fit in wherever I could cram it–curled up on an air mattress or in the back of my old Jeep.  I hiked up to mountain lakes, waded in a geo-thermally-heated river, practiced my fly-fishing on what very well may be the best trout stream in the lower forty-eight, held a good friend’s baby daughter, and ate breakfast at a different diner nearly every day.  Cindy even rode a horse!  My college-aged brother and sister are exploring what it means for them to be adults, and my baby sister is already in high school.  I am learning to relate to each of them in new ways.  Very good times.

I also faced down some old, genetic (perhaps) flaws, brought to the surface by the hectic pace my parents’ family keeps.  I like to think I am a pretty good friend, that I really care for people and go out of my way to interact them at a really human, personal level.  But sometimes I really mess up. 

For instance, this past week I planned to meet up with an old friend for coffee.  My schedule was quite full, what with fishing and family and all, but I plotted and schemed and thought I could squeeze in just this one more thing.  But with the way things in my genetic-line work, everything never gets done.  I try to fit too much in.  And one thing leading to another, I ended up flaking out on my friend, feeling quite awful about making her go out of her way for nothing and feeling quite disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hear about the great things God was doing for her as she follows where Jesus leads.

I could almost spin this positively, saying that my heart is bigger than my abilities, that I try to fit so much in because I care about these people so much.  And it would be true to an extent.  But my conscience gets upset at the part untruth, and it won’t let me leave it at that.

You see, I am an irresponsible scheduler, a culpably irresponsible scheduler.  There are so many good things that I want to do, people I want to talk with, so much coffee to drink; and I tragically try to shoot the moon every time.  The basic problem is that I don’t prioritize.  I need to pick a few of the good things to concentrate on, and save the others for another time or for other people to do.  It’s the monkey and the peanut jar.

I always thought this was just my style–I’m laid back, unplanned, spontaneous.  No one can fault me for my style, I thought.  But this last trip has changed my mind.  This is really a wrong decision, and it shows an undervaluing of people, a disrespect for their time and their expectations (not that I ever make plans thinking they’ll fall through; it’s just that I should be planning concretely enough to know if things will work or not!).  So this is my shotgun apology to all of you who have been let down by my bad planning.  I considered calling and leaving voicemails to each of you individually, but sitting down to make the list ended up being like picking out a pebble from a dam–quite overwhelming.  So trust that this is much more heartfelt and thought-out than html can communicate, and please forgive me.

On the evening after I had this revelation, I sat out in my Jeep in the driveway beside the corral, watching the sun sink behind the Tobacco Root Mountains.  I felt bad, really bad.  I began to realize that this a personal fault that has its roots in the family culture I like so much–the culture that gets out and does things, goes flyfishing on a river five hours away, goes for a dayhike before a dinner party, invites twenty-five kids over to their house for a twelve hour party.  Later, as I was unloading fishing gear and tents from the back of the pickup, I asked my fifteen year-old sister if she thought our family tries to do too much.  “I guess, maybe,” she replied.  I want to find a way to be laid back, adventurous, and concrete enough in my scheduling to show people I love and respect them.  That, perhaps, is part of the challenge Cindy and I face as we continue to form our own family culture.

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i like to travel. it must be rooted somewhere in my montana childhood. there going anywhere means at least a half hour drive and going somewhere might take anywhere from two to six hours on the interstate. i liked growing up in a big state.

travel also means a chance to see good friends from far away. this last week two tea friends (one old and one newly inducted) stopped by on their epic move from NYC to seminary out in vancouver. we met up at some good friends’ apartment out in the suburbs (we didn’t want to risk all our new york friends’ worldly goods on the sometimes sketchy streets of our northside neighborhood). we talked until well past one a.m. (two a.m. for the former east-coasters), about life and theology and attempts at ministry in the city and, of all things, travel (specifically in between speck-on-the-map northern towns in canada’s prairie provinces). we ate some burgers (really good burgers!) and nursed mugs of tea and coffee. it’s nights like these that make life livable, that make life valuable.

growing up in montana meant growing up in-between (a common motif on this blog), in-between the town and home, in-between the culture of a sizeable city and the ranches that surrounded our country church, in between big timber and columbus, helena and havre, missoula and polson. home on the range sits in a funny space, the intersection of rugged individualism and the necessity of cooperation to get anything done at all (if your barn is going to get raised or, better yet, if you’re going to play on a high school basketball team, you need to cooperated with anyone who lives within a fifty-mile radius).

my dad brought this up in a conversation a few nights ago. i was in the middle of a meditation on the felt need of community, strategising ways churches can foster it, structurally and organically, when he broke in. i had just said that for people who don’t dig the every-friday-night bar scene need a place, a consistent group of people to spend their evenings with. “that describes the first thirty years of my life,” he said, “and it only gets worse after you have kids. kids can be really isolating. you get involved in their lives, they demand a lot of your time; and you and your friends gradually drift further apart.” or something to that effect.

to put this another way: i just finished the so-very-good dorothy day autobiography, the long loneliness (still worth a read for any of you readers out there). she draws back in her closing lines, asserting that long loneliness really is life–we find ourselves (and i mean this in the plural) divided, cut off from one another. love, she writes citing st. john of the cross, is the answer. love that comes from Christ, love that binds us together into true community (a revolution of “cult, culture, and cultivation” to borrow a peter maurin line quoted continuously throughout the book).

can we find community on the road? in a sense, that’s what we are always set to do in life. but in a less metaphorical way, how are we to balance our drive to bridge the spaces that separate us from those we love and our need to invest in this place, this neighborhood (where uhaul trucks or stuffed minivans might easily go missing over night), these people, etc.? how might we do it?

ouch in my heart

April 15, 2008

i found out today that the marriage of two good friends (or maybe should-have-been-better friends, or maybe i-should-have-been-a-better friend?) broke down.  i don’t know the details; i only know that he lives in one part of the country and she lives in another.  i trust them.  i’m confident they have quite legitimate reasons for walking away from this marriage project. but… ach.

it’s easy to get lost in ink and paper, in conversations about God and how we should be following him.  i spend altogether too much time following links from blog to blog.  it’s a small step to forget that people (myself included) are living life all over the place.  and more often than not it’s not easy going, this living life.

there are the faceless men on the streetcorner, the girls and women walking up and down the sidewalk, the students busying off to classes and tired parents on their way home from underpaying, overly-demanding jobs.  and there are specific people:  a friend’s wife who is very pregnant, a single mom raising her junior high son, a middle-aged man worrying about his career field becoming obsolete, an old pastor flyfishing in the cold trout streams of my native montana.  and now there are these two friends, living a thousands miles apart, trying to disentangle that last few years of an amateur marriage.

sometimes i need something icy cold, like glacier melt, or boiling hot, like a candle flame, to pull me from my self-absorption.  it’s nice when it’s something soft, something beautiful.  but it more effective when it’s hard and sharp and searing, when it severs nerves, bones, and marrow.

i am going to pray for my friends.  pray for their individual healing, for joy and peace and love.  more, i’m going to pray for forgiveness and for a larger, more attentive heart.  o God, let me not be lost to the living.