Friday, July 3, 2015

Choose Love, Not Fear

     


     I sit and I listen to the river, the steady melodic flow, the building and breaking of waves.  I stare at the currents dance and swirl.  This is what I do when I need to think.  This is where I go when I need to process. Or maybe it’s actually where I go and what I do when I want to stop thinking.  When my mind is racing and the thoughts are too quick to grab onto, I have found that the rhythms of the river ease their pace, giving me a chance to catch up and catch my breath.  Often times I feel similarly about our world and its frantic pace: news flash after sound bite after reactionary comments to the reactionary comments.  I can’t keep up, and honestly I’m not sure how anyone else does.  Maybe I’m just a little slower than most.  Maybe I’m trying to process something that is not meant to be processed?  Maybe I’m supposed to simply down it like a fast food burger and fries while I’m doing 75 on the interstate, blaring talk radio and simultaneously snap chatting and updating 4 social media statuses at once.  The only problem is that’s not how I want to live.  I want to live slowly, deliberately. I want to chew and taste my food, and I want to chew on my thoughts as well. And when I’m done, I want to speak, not out of reaction, but out of relationship, out of love.  Sometimes we speak to remind others and sometimes we speak to remind ourselves.  Right now my hope is to speak for both.
     On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided in a 5 to 4 ruling that gay marriage was legal.  Interestingly enough, that is not what I’ve been thinking about.  It is the aftermath, the reactions, and more specifically the hate filled rhetoric that has sent my mind spinning. 
     To be completely candid, I do not like to call myself a Christian.  There is simply too much in American Christianity that I do not agree with or believe in.  In so many ways, Christianity has become more cultural than spiritual, more often the default as opposed to an intentional, deliberate way of life.  On the other hand, me and JC, we get down.  I have no problem whatsoever referring to myself as a follower of Jesus.  His life and message have had an undeniable impact on me and the way I see the world and my relationship to it.  The way I seek to live out my time here has fundamentally changed due to his life and teachings.  And yet here is where my mind feels as though it gets away from me.  The message I hear from the Christian culture around me does not match up with the message I read in the four books of the gospel. I mean, it’s just four short books, less than 30 chapters each.  One of them has less than 20 chapters.  So how is it that I am so far off in my understanding of its content? 
     Throughout all four gospels, Matthew, Mark Luke, and John, there is one phrase that Jesus said to his disciples, his closest friends and pupils, more than anything else. “Be not afraid.” Of all the things he could have stressed and gone over multiple times, it was to not be afraid. What that tells me is that the people Jesus spent time with, and that people in general during that time in history were not much different than you and I and everyone else today.  The single, biggest motivating factor and influencer in people’s life, be it 2,000 years ago or today, can be and to often is fear.  Fear can be both paralyzing and hyper-reactive.  It paralyzes our mind from intentional, deliberate thought, simultaneously engaging our fight or flight impulses to their max. 
     I have heard a lot of fear based talking from Christians as of late. “The legalization of gay marriage will fundamentally destroy and erode the traditional structure of family which is the building block of civilization.”  Are we really going to place the blame for the current state of “family” in America on homosexuals and LGBT rights advocates?  I believe I could make quite a compelling argument that heterosexual couples, both married and unmarried, have done far more to damage and negatively impact the state of the family than anyone else.  For a number of years now, I have worked with youth who are struggling with addiction, self-destructive behaviors, extreme aggression, and sexual misconduct, and I can tell you, it is not because their parents are gay.  It is almost exclusively because their parents simply sucked and/or continue to suck at being parents.  The divorce rate in America among non-Christians is somewhere just under 50% according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.  Among Christian couples, they found the divorce rate to be round 42%.  Brokenness in families abounds throughout this country, and it is not because of homosexual men and women who are deciding to enter a committed, monogamous relationship through marriage.  Fear causes us to point the finger, when instead if we really took the time to look at the situation, we would find ourselves right at the heart of the problem.  “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye.” (Matthew 7:3)  For those who want to point the finger and cast judgment claiming perversion and debauchery I would warn you to first look at your own community before judging the one across from you.  Pornography and human sex trafficking are industries that exist in the world today largely, if not solely, due to American’s appetite for them.  Considering the fact that the vast majority of Americans (83%) identify themselves as being Christians, perhaps the perversion is not the speck we see in our neighbors eye, but instead the log right here among us.  
     The loss of religious liberty has been at the forefront of discussion as well.  In the state I currently reside, the Attorney General issued a statement to all county clerks and judges that they do not have to perform gay marriages as long as they refuse on the basis of conflicting religious beliefs.  When the Pharisees plotted to trap Jesus with a trick question and ask him if it was lawful to pay taxes to the government, his response was not what they expected.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)  It seems to me that if you are going to work for Caesar then you probably should do what he says, and if you really have an objection to it, then find a new employer.  I have no issue with someone objecting to participating in something that does not go along with their religious beliefs.  But I am wondering why these Christian county clerks and judges are not objecting to participate in other parts of their jobs though.  Shouldn’t there be objections to participating couples filing for divorce and/or divorced people remarrying?  “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)  What about the fact that it is completely legal for parents to give up their rights to their children simply because they do not want them anymore?  I have had a number of students whose parents gave them up to the state without any legal ramifications.  Where are the Christian clerks and judges up in arms about this?  Jesus had the utmost regard for children, saying “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”    
     I heard a man on the radio talking about how he feared that his pastor would be thrown in jail for refusing to marry gay couples.  As a high school United States History & Government teacher, I would tell him to take a deep breath, and refer to the “separation of church and state” clause.  The government does not tell religious leaders how to live out their beliefs within their houses of worship.  This is why it is perfectly fine for a Catholic Priest to not allow my wife and I to be married by the Catholic Church because neither of us are Catholic.  The same applies to Jewish Rabbis, Evangelical Pastors, the Mormon Priesthood, Muslim Imams, and so on.  Another woman proclaimed that this was just like the religious persecution that the Pilgrims fled and went on to talk about how this country was founded on religious freedom.  She was at least partially right, I guess.  The most recent ABC News poll shows that 83% of Americans identify themselves as Christians with 13% claiming no religious affiliation, leaving 4% for every other religion.  I would make the argument that it is extremely difficult as well as unprecedented in the history of mankind for a group that holds 83% of the majority to be persecuted.  Having people disagree with you does not make you persecuted.  Having to learn how to live civilly with people that you do not agree with does not make you persecuted.  In the 200 plus year history of our nation, the only two people groups who could and sadly sometimes still can legitimately claim persecution are Native Americans and African Americans, both of whom were, interestingly enough, persecuted by Anglo Christians. (One could also legitimately argue Mormons being a third persecuted people group, although they were not subject to it as long since they escaped away to Utah, which at the time might as well have been on another continent.)
     Fear is based in the unknown, and maybe this is at the heart of why Jesus wanted us to not be afraid.  It is difficult, not impossible, but extremely difficult to be afraid of someone or some group of people if you get to know them.  Jesus spent a lot of time with people who most did not want to get to know: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the “unclean” according to religious elites.  And what strikes me is that he never talked with these people, these “sinners”, about hell or about how wrong they were.  Instead, he met them where they were, just trying to find their way through life, and he showed them he cared.  The only people he warned about hell, called hypocrites, and told to change from their evil ways were the super religious, the people who thought they had all their stuff together.
     I have friends who are gay.  I have acquaintances who are gay.  I have worked with and still work with people who are gay.  In no way do I claim to be an expert on the subject of LGBT issues, but I can say for sure that I am not afraid of them.  They are people, no different than me, just trying to figure out their way through life.  It is easy to objectify and vilify a group of people if you never sit down and share a meal with them.  Christians who fear what the LGBT movement will do to them and their way of life do not have any LGBT friends, just like Americans who fear what Muslims will do to them and their way of life do not have any Muslim friends.  When it comes down to it, there are two things we are instructed to do, two actions from which all other actions must flow.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)  Neither one of those commandments involve fear.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Things I Want To Tell You: The 1st Letter

     


     My feet fall into their rhythm, one step after the next, the crunch of small rocks and dirt beneath them. My breathing falls into a similar pattern.  Inhale twice . . . long exhale . . . inhale twice . . . long exhale. These simple rhythms allow my thoughts to wander.  It is almost as if my body’s struggle allows for an effortless drift of my mind. At 4 a.m., other than the three foot circle my headlamp makes at my feet, there is nothing but darkness all around me.  Every once in a while, I reach up to click the off button, and then stare up and out at a sky bursting at the seams with stars.  Once, I’m lucky enough to time it just right, and, as I stare, a streak of light dashes brilliantly from right to left.  A piece of rock from somewhere deep in the universe had made its way to the edge of our atmosphere, and in its final display had met me right here, in this moment, lighting up my night sky.  Sunrise summits are a special thing.  They are something we have come to look forward to, your mother and I. There is just something about the excitement of crawling out of sleeping bags into the darkness and moving under headlamps, climbing thousands of vertical feet and struggling and breathing and the stars and the expectation and .  . .     
     This hike is all of those, yet also something else. On this sunrise summit, my mind takes very little time to wander.  Instead it moves directly to its subject.  I settle in to the rhythms of movement quickly, and my thoughts once again find themselves swirling around you.  In life, I have found there to be many things I have longed to tell people, but have either not had the chance to, or, more realistically, not taken the chance to tell them.  My thought is to preemptively take that chance now.  I haven't even met you yet, but there are just so many things I want to tell you.  What better way than a letter from the mountains.     
     One of my favorite things about words is how they can continually speak new insights to us.  Over time, as our experiences shape us, our understanding can change perspective.  We can grow.  And like the rain soaking deeper into the soil, so words and their meanings can permeate deeper into us.  It will be some time before the words on this page begin to speak to you, so until then, play.  Play and laugh and run around bare foot stomping in every puddle along the way.  Throw rocks in the river and dig in the dirt and let your imagination run rampant, taking you places no one else could ever dream of.  Let you first concern on this earth be to play.     
     You are beautiful. You are the most beautiful, mystical miracle.  The amazing thing is that so is everybody else.  The sad thing is that very few of them actually believe it.  Since the beginning of time, since the spirit hovered over the waters, since the first sparks of the cosmos, everything in the universe has intimately and intricately worked together to bring you here right now.  You and every part of creation around you are expressions of grandeur that ultimately defy explanation.  Life is both mystery and miracle.  You are a beautiful miracle.  Believe it, live like it, and then go help others believe it.  There are a number of people who will try and convince you otherwise.  People will judge you.  People will say things to hurt you, and their words will hurt.  Sometimes words can hurt worse than anything else.  People say hurtful things because they are hurting. So many people are hurt and scared.  So many people have never been told they’re beautiful, and so many others simply refuse to believe it.  Remember, you are a beautiful miracle. All of life is mystery and miracle. Believe it, live like it, and then go help others believe it.     
     Take risks. Do things in life where there is a very real opportunity to fail.  Successes and accomplishments get all the attention, but the true substance is in the risk.  The value is in putting yourself out there, in doing things that make you nervous, no matter what they are.  There is no such thing as “trying” something.  Trying focuses on the outcome, but when we allow ourselves to do something, we can fully engage in the process, the journey, regardless of how it turns out.  The unavoidable is temporary, but lessons from the unavoidable are everlasting.  Embrace the journey.  Be a learner of life.  It is of far more value to be a learner than to be learned.     
     Don’t bother with happiness.  Chase after passion, love, grace, peace, mercy, truth, adventure, hope, wisdom or any combination of the above.  Let happiness come find you. 
     Always remember where you came from, where we all came from.  We were formed out of earth and breath, intimately connected with the Creator and Creation.  Nature is not a place to go, it is home.  Be at home in her, and treat her as such.  Too many of us have forgotten our beginnings and have lost our way.  Go to the wild places, to the rivers, the mountains, the forests, the deserts . . . and listen.  Take time to be still in them. Be a stranger to no season.  Keep your ear to the earth and let it teach you.  We live in an empowered place, and the truths and mysteries of the Creator exist throughout what he has made.  Live with your eyes wide open to the wonders surrounding us, and help others to do the same.     
     The wind is deafening at times, nearly knocking your mother and I off our feet.  The vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert runs out in every direction below us.  As the sun slowly creeps up over the horizon, we watch the landscape change as its rugged features are traced and highlighted.  The arroyos, the canyons, the mountains, and the glistening ribbon of river, all are coming into view.  From here, at the height of the Chisos Mountians, with a pink, purple, and orange cloud streaked sky for a backdrop, we throw our arms out wide and scream with a wild joy, because we know you are here with us.  And so now, each day we will lift our voices to the Creator on your behalf, that all of his creation will embrace you, and that you will embrace all that life has to give.



     

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grand Canyon Goodness

Whitewater highlights from a 15 day trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

May I Have This Dance?

     
     
     In an instant, there is nothing but darkness.  My eyes are open, but they might as well be shut tight.  The only sensation they provide is the feeling of water moving across and against them, causing me to blink again and again.  With each flutter of my eyelids, I hope to see something. Still only darkness.  It is not silent, but the sound around me is dull, muted.  Everything is muffled, almost like a dream where I can’t quite make out what is going on or being said.  I can feel the current swirling all around me and against me, moving me.  The river feels like hands on my back and shoulders, standing over me, pushing me down from above.  My body presses against the riverbed.  I can feel the worn rocks on the backs of my legs and in the small of my back.  I reach out with my hands, out in front of my face and above my head.  It seems that the tips of my fingers have gained some heightened sense of awareness.  Smooth and worn, but not featureless, my hands move across the underside of a large boulder.  I can feel its variations and intricacies.  The more I move my hands, the more of this rock I feel.  Then suddenly, a flash in my mind, a thought, a memory.
     Sitting around a campfire, my bare feet are propped up on a stone fire ring.  Friends are in camp chairs all around, some with beer in hand, their feet mimicking mine.  My wife sits next to me.  Her long, straight sandy-brown hair hangs down past her shoulders, framing her face.  The flames dance in her deep, dark eyes.  We have sat like this a thousand times over: telling stories, laughing, debating.  But this memory is specific, for one of our topics this night happened to be death.  “How would you go, if you could choose?”  Most responded with answers like “quickly” or “in my sleep.”  A climber friend of mine joked about it happening on impact.  Not necessarily the most peaceful, but definitely quick.  But then I gave my answer, different from all the rest.  I knew the ways I did not want to die.  I had seen an aunt die after dealing with cancer for years, her husband and two daughters having ridden an emotional and exhausting roller coaster that I cannot even begin to fathom.  I had a grandparent who physically and mentally deteriorated from Parkinson’s and dementia.  The last time I saw her I am fairly sure she had no idea who I was.  Or maybe she did, but she just had no way of showing it.  Saddening while simultaneously frustrating.  I did not want something drawn out. I did not want to get sick.  So when it came to me around the campfire that night, my preferred method of departure was to drown.  I have spent over a decade, more than a third of my life, working on rivers.  I figured that if I died from drowning, that meant that up until the moment I passed, I was doing what I loved, and I liked the idea of that.  I remember even half heartedly joking that if I lived long enough to be a worn, salty, decrepit old man, that I might just take one last trip down the river and find a rock to stuff myself under.  Well, it was a few decades sooner than I would have liked, but here I was.
     As my hands continued to move back and forth, my fingertips had assumed the role of my eyes and searched for an exit.  The realization came to me, surprisingly matter-of-factly, “I’m gonna die under this rock.”  I did not feel scared or sad.  I did not begin to struggle or fight.  It wasn't that I consciously choose to not feel or do those things.  I just . . . didn’t.  And then, like being awakened from an extremely involved and intricate dream, my now highly sensitized hands felt something new, air.  My eyes quickly opened to notice light shining through the water above, and I went after it with everything I had.  Just as abruptly as it had begun, it was over, and I was breathing deeply again.
     Last night I learned of the passing of fellow paddler, a river guide I had the opportunity to work with and had come to befriend, admire, and respect.  It would be an understatement to say he was well known throughout the “river community.” A guide and instructor, world-class professional kayaker, and mentor to so many, he was diagnosed with cancer, and within a few weeks, suddenly he’s gone.  I remember every time we would see each other out on the river, Brian would make an effort to paddle his raft of people over to mine, and tell the folks in my boat, “You guys don’t know how lucky you are.  You’re getting to boat with one of the best river guides I know.  I really hope you appreciate him.”  Now, there is no telling how many different crews of paddlers he would say that to while on the river, probably more than anything to help out a fellow guide with a tip at the end of the day.  But never the less, it always made me feel special.  Here was this guy, 10 times the boater I’d ever be, and he would make it a point to compliment me, to build me up.
     More often than not, death can be so damn frustrating and seems so pointless, such a waste.  If Brian would have been sitting around the fire that night, I know for sure he would not have chosen “cancer in my 30s.”  I stayed up most of the night, as many others did I am sure.  The recirculating and unanswerable question of “Why?” came back again and again, and with each pass it made, I could feel the tension and frustration build.  My head would spin, mind jumping from one memory to the next, and my chest would tighten and my breathing become slightly strained.  I tossed and turned and sat up for hours, heart heavy and unsettled.  But as the first morning light began to make its way through the clouds and whispers of the night’s rain dropped off the leaves, I began to realize I had been completely missing the point.  Death had become a distraction, and I had allowed it to garner all my attention.  “How would I die if I could choose?” is the wrong question.  The more important, relevant question is “How will I live?” because that I can choose.  I have very little control over how I leave this spinning ball of rock and water, and maybe that is what’s so frustrating about it.  But I have complete control over what I do with the time I’m given here.
     I think back on all the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned from my time on the river.  In the beautiful whirling messes of waves and whitewater, there is way more out of my control than in it.  And yet I know there are a few certain things I do have control over, things that I can do.  Distractions are crashing and calling all around, trying to steal my attention, but if I remain focused on where I want to go, and the little things I can do to help myself get there, then I can find myself so immersed in the moment that time almost stands still.  In the midst of chaos, waves building and breaking and exploding off the rocks of the riverbed, I can dance with one of the most powerful things on earth, and, even if only for a fleeting moment, be a part of something beautiful. 
     There is plenty out there to distract us, plenty to steal our attention away.  To the living, death can feel like an unexpected punch in the gut, the kind that leaves you breathless and helplessly grasping.  Death can drop us to our knees and have us crying out to God.  And maybe, in some final twist, these are death's gifts to us.  For what good is death if it doesn't awaken the living?  That blow to the gut that knocks the air out of us reminds us how precious each breath is.  In dropping to our knees, death reminds us that it is important to stop, to cry, to question.  It awakens us from the complacent lull that we might not even realize we have been in.  Brian left us too soon, there is no question, but that doesn’t change how much he lived while he was here.  The sting of death is a little less when viewed through the context of life.  I grabbed my river gear this morning no longer questioning how or when I will die.  How we die doesn’t really matter.  My concern is how I am going to dance with life today.

     

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dip & Rise


     The day’s first light graces the highest point on the canyon wall and slowly begins to work its way down towards the river, illuminating layers of rock and time in the process.  Shadows bend and morph by the minute, revealing unnoticed pockets and dimensions, a single sandstone wall becoming many as I drift by and gaze upon its array of intricacies.  Droplets of water fall off the outstretched oars as they methodically dip and rise, dip and rise, dip and rise.  The rhythm of them lapping the water is my morning music, my mantra, my prayer.  Like holy words repeated over and over again, they still my mind and center my soul.  Birds flutter and chirp, and in between spans of tranquility, the river narrows, tumbling over rocks and boulders.  Waves build and break.  Currents swirl and boil in a seemingly chaotic mess of froth and white.  It is written here in the turbulent mess, in the wild and the wet, the language older than time itself. For it is said that even before night and day, before heavens and earth, there was simply water and spirit.  We float along, listening to this language, reading the water.  Treading only along currents that invite us, we are careful to heed the warnings of other paths. The river speaks to us, and by listening we are connected to it and to the beginning.  We travel deeper into the heart of this place, and in doing so travel deeper into ourselves.  In side canyons we rediscover the awe and wonder of childhood, exploring and laughing and loosing ourselves, existing only in the moment at hand.  In others, we find ourselves overwhelmed by emotions we had stored in our own narrow, deep, hidden place.  The language of water is now written on us as tears make their way down our face.  We sketch images.  We write words.  We take photos.  We sit and stare and breathe deeply.  We do whatever we can to hold on to this place.  Though some of us shall return and others never again, we all know there will be times we will long to look back and to remember vividly in hopes of resurrecting these feelings again.  There were moments we felt 
strong, when we pushed ourselves, and others when we simply faced the challenge we had no control over.  Staring up at moonlit canyon walls and a sliver of stars overhead, we realized our smallness and became comfortable in it.  We shared stories and laughter.  We celebrated the days of our birth, and professed our commitment and our love.  We listened and looked each other in the eyes.  We connected.  And maybe in the end, that is the greatest gift of this grandest of canyons.  It inspires and encourages connection, with each other, with ourselves, with the waters and the world around us.  Here, we awake expectantly.  We look forward to that first morning light, excited for the places it shall reveal.  We listen for the soothing rhythm of oars as they kiss the water’s cheek, whispering holy words as they dip and rise . . . dip and rise . . . dip and rise.