21-25: Some Things Matter More than You Think

21. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

See the difference? The guy in the front has been using it.  The other guy CLEARLY lost it.In number 20, I suggested that practice makes perfect.  I’ve also learned that even after you’ve gotten pretty good at something, you have to keep practicing it, or it’s gone.  By the time I went to college, I was nearly fluent in German (5 years of secondary schooling and a 3-week trip to Germany ensured that).  Today? I could get by in Germany (meaning, I don’t think I’d die or starve to death), but I’ve forgotten most everything I knew.

Most things in life, unfortunately, are not ‘just like riding a bike’.  If I work hard to be come a loving, kind person, if I cultivate the fruits of the Spirit in my life, I will never reach a point where I’ve ‘made it’, and I can just stop practicing those virtues.  I will be slowly dragged back towards my base, default tendencies.  So use it!  Practice kindness, joy, peacemaking.  Practice giving honor and respect to everyone around you.  Practice seeking the good in other people.  Not only will you get better and better at it, but you’ll be formed as a person for whom these attitudes and behaviors become second nature.

22. Tattoos are really awesome.

TattooI got my first tattoo almost exactly 10 years ago today.  As of last Friday, I now have nine separate pieces that cover a lot of my upper body.  Given that I worked first for a Southern Baptist church and now for a Nazarene church, I’ve encountered plenty of people who think tattoos are evil.  For a long time I couldn’t articulate clearly why I like tattoos, and why I kept covering more and more of my body with them.

But a few years ago, I realized the explanation was much simpler than I was trying to make it.  My tattoos are simply an expression of my faith.  The pieces I get are shaped by foundational convictions I have about the nature of Christianity and a life lived following Jesus and participating in his gospel.

I’m not an evangelist for tattoos – I don’t recommend other people get tattoos unless they want to, and unless they’re confident in what they want.  But that said, tattoos really are awesome.

23. Unity is as important as Truth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor most of my life, I’ve been a Truth Crusader.  Take a look at that picture: that was me.  Ready to slay the infidel if you didn’t agree with my point of view.  My arsenal was fierce – I had marshaled an army of words so that I could cut you down with the sword that came out of my mouth, and I was very good at it.  Few foes could stand against me (and clearly I hadn’t learned lesson 16 yet: God is not on my side).

But I realized that  – while God certainly cares about Truth, God also commands unity among us followers of Jesus.  In fact, according to Jesus, the singular mark of his disciples is not our commitment to Truth.  It’s how we love each other – how unified we are.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
– John 13:35

As I pointed out in #17, Love isn’t always mushy, but it is our highest virtue, the most foundational aspect of who God is.  We ought to pursue the one who is the Truth, confessing that none of us has a perfect picture of Jesus.  That’s why we need each other.

I dare you to include some people who rub you the wrong way in your inner circle.  Learn to love them and watch what happens to your soul.

24. The words “liberal” and “conservative” have become pretty much worthless.

When I graduated from high school, I considered myself very conservative politically, theologically – really in most any way I thought mattered.  I attended a private Christian school that would also be considered very conservative on nearly any scale you choose to use to measure such things.  And yet as I studied there, I developed a reputation as a ‘liberal’.

I wasn’t sure why – I held the same foundational beliefs as my schoolmates, but because I pushed the envelope, questioned (and yes, wrote a few intentionally controversial papers), I was tarred with the most feared of all epitaphs.

Then I went to grad school at the University of Missouri, to study Religious Studies.  My schoolmates and professors at Mizzou seemed to be a little bit shocked by my beliefs at first – I believed the Bible was inspired by God and that Jesus literally came back from the dead.  In the four month gap between undergrad and grad school, I went from being known as the crazy liberal to a crazy conservative.

What this taught me was that these words are empty.  They’ve become weapons that we hurl at our opponents to label them, to mark their ideas as dangerous (or stupid or unworthy of our attention).  We use these words to block other people and their ideas out of our lives.  To protect ourselves from Others who are not like us.  If you tell me someone’s a ‘liberal’, all that tells me (given the larger context of your statement), is whether that person agrees with you or not.  As words that help move a discussion forward, they’ve lost all utility.  I move that we abandon them starting yesterday!

25. The Earth really is important.

I was always taught that we don’t have to care about the physical world because eventually God is going to come back and destroy it.  For me, this translated into an apathy towards the Earth.  I didn’t recycle, littered freely and didn’t try to conserve anything.  I didn’t take care of my body – after all, it’s just a prison of flesh that we’ll eventually escape from!

But as I learned more and more of who God is, I learned that the physical world is not a pile of resources we can consume at our leisure.  Everything physical, all matter, is a gift from God to us, and we are called to be good stewards of it.  Our bodies matter to God, and how we treat our bodies (and the Earth!) says something about the state of our souls.

So what about you?  Got any tattoos?  Are you liberal or conservative?  And do you take care of your body or the Earth?

Generosity and Community, but Blunt.

The Mound City Post Office displayed this sign for a few days before the funeral.  The POST OFFICE. This doesn't happen in cities.  Or even big towns, for that matter.This series of posts comprise my reflections on the life of my grandfather John Barnes. The first entry is here.

A few years after John and Helen married, Eastern Kansas was struck by a pretty severe drought that left their small family in dire straights (since John was a farmer).  They were unable to pay their gas bill, but the owner of the station knew John and extended him credit for over a year until they could harvest a good crop and begin to recover from the drought.

When I first heard this story, I was overcome by the generosity of the store owner.  Such an act of kindness is far from commonplace in my culture.  Credit is offered by VISA and MasterCard, not by a local business owner, and we don’t do business with the same persons often enough that they know our names, much less vouch for our honesty and work ethic in so tangible a way.

That singular act of generosity is a window for me into John’s world; he and my grandmother were unfailingly generous as well.  I remember snippets of conversations overheard by my young ears – discussions between my mother and her brothers about some loans Grandma and Grandpa had made.  I never really knew the persons in question nor did I fully grasp what had actually transpired (I was far to busy exploring the barns or swimming in the lake to be troubled by such grownup concerns), but I do remember that they always seemed to give more than most everyone else thought they should.

I also remember when a good friend of theirs was finally dying.  Her husband had long since died, and she had no children to care for her (whether she had never had children or they were not there for some other reason I never knew), so my grandparents cared for her for a long time, visiting her several times every week and helping her to put all her affairs in order.  Small town gossip being what it is, several persons in town began to speculate that they were trying to weasel into her will.  I’ll never forget that my Grandma looked  at me and said, “I don’t know how anyone could think such a thing.  She’s our friend.”  John simply nodded his agreement.

That was John Barnes to me.  He didn’t say much.  And when he did speak, it was straight to the point (for instance, when I got my first tattoo – Hebrew on my left forearm – I knew instantly that he was not thrilled.  He asked me what it said, and when I started to tell him, he cut me off by exclaiming, “It says bulls*** to me.”  That was the first time I ever heard him cuss.)  For most of my life, I’d always taken his gruffness to be a sort of sullen anger – as my mother pointed out in her funeral reflections, he always could throw a good fit.  But in retrospect, I realize that John was just a simple man.  Not intellectually; as my uncle Jim said, “He didn’t say much, but he didn’t miss much either.”

No, I wonder if John’s simplicity was a sort of embodied honesty.  He worked hard.  He loved well.  He lived in a community that respected hard work but that caught you when you fell.  And he didn’t see much point in trying to be anything other than what he knew.

There’s an authenticity there that many of us are missing.  The communities in which we live have become so detached, so disembodied that we now have to seek out those experiences that were part-and-parcel of John’s every-day-life.  And we’re having to learn to be real in a way that he never did.

John wasn’t perfect; far from it.  And that’s the point.  If you knew John, you knew him flaws and all.  He never had a conversation about ‘taking off masks’ or ‘tearing down walls’ in his community.  I’m not sure those conversations would have even made sense to him, so far are they removed from his lived experiences.

It makes me wonder what we have to learn from actual communities actually living in community.  Where your loss is my loss and your win is my win.  I wonder what we can do to begin to reclaim that level of honesty in our lives.  I wonder how we can move back towards an embodied sense of community.

Any thoughts?