Thoughts about living on a lake

The view from our back deck.

This past weekend was Memorial Day weekend. Like many people in the United States we celebrated the holiday by being outside. For the past five years we have lived in a house on a lake.

There are some nice things about living on a lake. If you want to get out of bed and take an early morning swim you don’t have to go anywhere to do it.  Cruising around in a paddle boat can be relaxing and physically tiring at the same time.  Our lake is too small for motorized boats, so no skiing.

However, there are some adjustments we have had to make to living on a lake. There is a very active residents association which does put some restrictions on the properties fronting the lake. A significant one for us, having a medium sized dog, is the prohibition on having a fence.  In our case, living on the lake means abiding by rules that we have agreed upon such as agreeing to mow your grass clippings away from and not into the lake. Since we are at the end of the lake where everything collects we are appreciative of this rule. It is a microcosm of what it means to live in a democratic society as we live with some rules we don’t like and benefit from some others that may be inconvenient for our neighbors.

Probably the biggest adjustment for me, having moved from a house that has a very private back yard, is getting used to the fact that we have virtually no privacy in our back yard. As the yards all converge on the lake we are funneled together if we are outside on the lake. I can see clearly and completely a half dozen back yards from the chair in my living room in which I am writing this.

Robert Frost is often quoted as saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Frost said those words in the voice of a character in one of his poems.  The irony is that, while many people have quoted Frost in support of the boundaries between us, the poem (Mending Wall) actually is questioning the need for artificial boundaries in our relationships. Frost seems to doubt that the New England reserve with which he grew up is really the best way to be a neighbor.

If you view the lake as an extension of our backyard then I share a backyard with the other 46 residents on the lake. It blurs the boundaries between our yard and theirs and between the privacy we normally would expect from one another.  I really don’t know if good fences make good neighbors.  I do know that living on a lake makes you cozy with your neighbors in a way that stretches my need for privacy sometimes. Occasionally, it draws me outdoors to enjoy the water. But sometimes, it pushes me inside, where I can enjoy the private quietude. Maybe water and walls make good neighbors – the ever negotiated balance between public and private in our lives.

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Thoughts about visiting the dog park

This is a picture of our dog, Bo, enjoying the Columbus Dog Park.

During the fall of last year I was able to take a three month renewal leave from work.  Everyone serving in my position with the church gets such a renewal leave during their fifth or sixth year as a district superintendent. I must admit that I didn’t plan anything spectacular during my time off. My main goal was to see how many days in a row I could wear shorts, a tee shirt, and flip flops.  I also had plans to take our dog, Bo, to the dog park every day. Actually, both of those plans panned out pretty well. While I did have to put on real shoes a few times, a real chore after letting your feet run free for weeks on end, for the most part I was able to bum around, read books that had lain dormant on my reading list for quite some time, and watch every episode of “Lost” on Netflix.  Not particularly productive but certainly relaxing.

Bo and I have been making more frequent trips to the Columbus dog park recently and I am surprised at how quickly I can relax in that space. It is almost as if the physical location of the dog park puts my body and spirit in the framework of that renewal leave and I immediately feel the tension melt away.  For Bo, part of the attraction is the other dogs that happen to be there on any given day. For my part, I sit on the bench while he runs free or plays, reading or just watching. Sometimes I have conversations with the other dog owners who are there with their pets, mostly about our dogs, their endearing characteristics, and how they interact with one another. While we may enjoy these conversations, we know that in this space and for this brief time, it is all about the dogs. And somehow, moving the focus away from the world outside the park helps us relax all the more.

Mystics talk about “thin places” where the veil between the corporeal and the divine is less pronounced and people’s ability to experience the sacred is more easily achieved. I have visited places, like Stonehenge, which are widely recognized as thin places. However, I also believe that there are personal thin places where our individual experiences create a proclivity to experience the divine more profoundly. In some ways I would say the dog park has become a thin place in my personal spiritual experience.

I suspect most people have a place like that. A place that represents tranquility and well being. For some it is a particular room in their house or a beloved chair. For others, it is a walking path or a pew in a church. The places are probably as varied as our experiences of God’s presence in our lives. For me, in this season of my life, it is sitting on a bench, watching a loving dog run and play, sometimes with other dogs, sometimes just exploring the sight and sounds of this generous enclosure.  Midst the storms of my life it is a happy oasis.

Thoughts about weekends that leave you tired

This past weekend was a great weekend but it left me really tired going into the week. Let me give you the highlights. On Friday night we attended a wedding in Indianapolis. The mother of the groom was matron of honor at our wedding so it was great to be with longtime family friends to celebrate. On Saturday morning I taught a group of 18 lay people about the importance of member care and how to do it. Also fun and fulfilling. Saturday afternoon we drove two hours to attend a reunion of people with whom I attended elementary school. We had a great time reconnecting but were dragging when we got back home. Sunday morning I preached at a church in Seymour and dedicated their new church building. A wonderful celebration.

That is a long way of saying that we had a busy weekend. We put a few hundred miles on the car, spent a lot of time visiting with friends and some new acquaintances, and participated in a couple of wonderful celebrations. The problem is, it is Monday morning, time to go back to work, and I am tired! I often hear people complain about being too busy and my pat response is, “I’d rather be busy than bored.” I can say unequivocally that this was not a boring weekend!

For most pastors weekends are an elusive thing, anyway. When your primary work event happens on Sunday morning you don’t get many unencumbered weekends. Most of us make do by taking another day of the week off (Friday for me) but this just puts us out of kilter with the rest of the world. All of those Sunday afternoon extended family get togethers are out of play unless your extended family lives fifteen minutes away which is unlikely in a world where pastors tend to move around.

All of this is a way of saying that what the Bible describes as “sabbath rest” is sometimes difficult to attain in our over-committed, fast paced culture. Even when a weekend is filled with fun and rewarding activities we can find ourselves overextended and sapped of energy. Unfortunately, as was the case for me this past weekend, we are not always in total control of our schedules and many things can get scheduled on the same weekend. I could have chosen to stay home and not attend one or two of these activities but I didn’t want to miss out on the fun. And I am glad I didn’t.  But I couldn’t do this every weekend without breaking down. I need time to be revived.

It was, actually, a very fine weekend and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. But I’m drinking an extra cup of coffee this morning and I might close the door of my office and put my head on my desk this afternoon. When you get to be my age, busy isn’t what it used to be!

Thoughts about sleepless nights and dreaming dreams

I am awake.  It is four in the morning.  Those of us who are trained in the Wesleyan way know that John Wesley woke up every morning at 4:00 AM to pray.  When I see four in the morning it is not usually because I have set an alarm but because I am not sleeping well as is the case this morning.

This morning when I woke up, I picked up my phone from the bedside table, made a brilliant play in Words with Friends, and then decided to see if anything was stirring in the Facebook/Twitter world.  While I skimmed lots of posts from the night before I was struck by two very different posts.

The first was a series of tweets by a friend who was having nightmares, the most recent being six minutes ago.  Her brief descriptions of her nightmare and her anguish at not being able to find peaceful sleep were heart wrenching.  I said a prayer for my friend. Like her, I have had nights when sleep wouldn’t come and bad dreams intruded on my sanity when sleep did come.  These are dreams of the unwelcome variety.

And then I came across another tweet about dreaming. This was a blog report about #DreamUMC.  (You can read the entire report at http://pastorbecca.wordpress.com/)  #DreamUMC is an invitation to have online conversation about the future of the United Methodist Church. Specifically, it is an invitation to chat live via Twitter at predetermined times about issues  that challenge us but also about issues that give us hope. I didn’t find much about which to be encouraged in this General Conference, but I find hope in conversations like the one that is happening at #DreamUMC.  I look forward to seeing where it may lead us.

I haven’t decided yet whether to give up on sleep tonight, or this morning, depending upon how you look at it, but I am sure that I have not given up on dreaming dreams.  At least of this second variety.

Thoughts about Twitter (Don’t tweet me if you don’t love me!)

Recently, I have entered the world of Twitter or, as it’s website describes it, micro blogging. It has been somewhat interesting to know where some of my colleagues spend their time and I was certain that Anne Lammott’s tweets were written especially for  me until I noticed that she has almost 20,000 followers.  (I currently have 53 followers.)

One of the challenges of Twitter is trying to express yourself in 140 characters or less. Great for telling the world that you are going to the grocery store. Not so great for expressing emotional nuance. A couple of weeks ago the United Methodist Church had it’s quadrennial (every four years) meeting in Tampa. This year the conference was covered by a live webcast, which was true four years ago. What was new was that there was a concurrent twitter feed, which became at times the United Methodist version of angry birds.

And so I have some thoughts about using Twitter for good and not for evil. (No, it is not a super power, although some treat it as if it is.)

First of all, try to assume good intentions on the part of others. After General Conference, a friend of mine posted a blog in which he describes a Twitter exchange between him and an unknown “tweeter.”  What was interesting to me was that he continually assumed good intentions on his own part and thought the other person should as well. But he constantly made assumptions about the other person’s posts which tended to vilify that person’s intentions.  I have noticed this tendency in a lot of electronic venues which is why I am more apt to send someone an email if I want to complement them but prefer to have critical conversations by telephone or face to face.

Secondly, it is rarely helpful to have deep philosophical conversations via Twitter. If you want to talk in depth find another means to do it. The advantage of Twitter is that it is in real time and keeps you up to date with your friends. It isn’t really designed for depth of expression. It can, however, point you to a blog, Facebook page, or other venue where these kinds of conversations can take place.

Finally, I have learned to block people I don’t know and who are merely trolling the ethernet looking for sparring partners. If the person has a screen name that is clearly meant to hide their identity then I give them a wide berth.

Having said all of this, I am enjoying the interaction I am having on Twitter. Yesterday, I connected with a group of young pastors in our conference who want to read through the standard sermons of John Wesley together, one per week, and share their thoughts together through tweets. I have a few friends who do Twitter and don’t do Facebook and so I enjoy hearing their thoughts and keeping up with their activities. And I have, cautiously, made some new friends.

For the time being, however, I mostly listen in on conversations (or lurk, in electronic parlance) trying to get the feel of this short burst of words world.  In time, I suspect I might put forth my opinions but for the time being I make this request: Don’t tweet me if you don’t love me.  I have enough conflicted ambiguity in my life already.

Thoughts about Mother’s Day at the Zoo

This past weekend was a very busy time for us which culminated with a Sunday afternoon visit to the Indianapolis Zoo accompanied by our daughter and her husband to celebrate Mother’s Day. It has been some time since I have been to the Indianapolis Zoo. I remember visiting the zoo at the old location by the fairgrounds when it was little more than a petting zoo. Since it moved to the White River Park location in 1988, it has expanded into a wonderful place to explore and enjoy family time.

Seeing animals in captivity is fun in some respects but is sad in some others. Watching a tiger continuously circle it’s enclosure is a constant reminder that this is not the environment in which it is meant to live.  It is obvious that some of the animals lack the muscle tone of their counterparts in the wild. And yet, for some of these creatures, which are threatened with extinction by poachers and human encroachment, the zoo is a haven of sorts.

The picture of the elephant with this blog is one that Michelle took while we were on a morning safari at the Victoria Falls Game Preserve in Zimbabwe in 1999. To see animals that close with only a range rover between the two of you is exciting and informative as well. Unlike the zoo experience, it is obvious in this environment who is visiting whom. That is, we are the ones who need to respect the power of the beast rather than watching from a comfortable distance with a fence and trench between us.  It is both fulfilling and a little frightening at the same time. Unfortunately, the safari experience is not readily available in central Indiana. And so we go to the zoo and imagine what the animals might be like in their natural environment.

I expect that many of us like life served up in the zoo experience style – just interesting enough to engage us but at a completely safe distance.  One of my wife’s childhood friends published a book a few years ago titled “The Glass Between Us: Reflections on Urban Creatures” (Rebecca Norris Webb) in which she photographs animals in various zoos around the world.  She shows that “in a certain light, the glass between us can be a window and a mirror.”

So, my  visit to the zoo has reminded me that we are both fascinated by and a little wary of those things that are radically different from our world. And maybe we should be careful about lions, tigers and bears. But there is also something to be said for seeing things without barriers or at least looking into the reflections in the glass between us as we look through the glass.  It might have something to tell us about who we are and how we look at the world.

We had a great time at the zoo, by the way.  And although there is a small pool where you can pet a shark, I chose not to do that. I think I’ll keep the glass between me and that experience for the time being.

Thoughts about patience and payoffs

Yesterday was a prime illustration of why I love baseball and, incidentally, why many people do not. The Reds played the Nationals yesterday in a game that was to start a little after one o’clock. After a three and a half hour rain delay the game finally started. In a seesaw game the Reds were down to their last out when Joey Votto came to bat with the bases loaded. One run behind. It was the classic scenario. And Votto, like millions of kids in fantasy moments in their back yards, hit a walk off grand slam to win the game. By the way, it was Votto’s third home run of the afternoon. Amazing.

However, many of the fans missed that moment. A good number gave up on the game during the long rain delay. Some had long drives home and they left never having seen a pitch. I suspect some people left early when the Reds went into the final inning one run down. The Reds have lost more than their fair share of one run games this year thanks to a flagging offense.  But for the people who waited out the rain and stayed in their seats it was a big payoff.

I have in my life left games too early and missed the big play. I have also made that mistake in larger venues in life. Most of us have waited longer than we should for something that never happens and so we are a little skeptical when the wait gets too long.  How many times have we said “I’ll give it three more months” to a job that isn’t going the direction we think it ought to go?  Or how often have we been tempted to give up on a friend or family member? And the reality is, that on some occasions the rain or the other team metaphorically wins. Things don’t always work out the way we hope.

But every once in a while the clouds clear, the situation arrives, and in response to just the  right pitch the ball sails over the outfield wall. And because of those occasional dramatic payoffs we are willing to sit, wait, and hope. So, for all my friends who are sitting in the rain right now, hoping that their overcast life will clear into peace and prosperity  maybe there is a motivation to hang in there. Because every once in a while, in baseball and in life, winning grand slams do happen. And if we are patient enough we may be there when they do!