Burning Bush or Fever Dream?

From time to time I mention my faith - my belief in the Triune God, my confidence in The Bible, the sense of purpose and fulfillment that I get from participating and worshiping at church. I mention my struggles as well - the doubt we all have, my distrust of man-made institutions, the conflicts between the spiritual and the secular. There is, however, one "faith thing" that I rarely mention, and will go out of my way to avoid. What's interesting about this "thing" is that it is, simultaneously, the source of my greatest confidence and also my greatest doubt. This "thing" is when I encounter God.

That phrase alone, "I encounter God," will have some readers saying "Amen!" and others saying "Oh brother." That, right there, is the reason I avoid talking about this "thing." Either response bothers me, and doesn't seem right. "You've encountered God? Hallelujah! Prophesy!" or "You've encountered God? Holy crap! Pharmacy!" The feeling that I've received some sort of message from God gives me the impression of being close to God, close to some sort of understanding. The idea that God is intentionally communicating with me, directly, well, it makes me think I might be crazy. The emotion makes me confident; the logic makes me doubt.

I am fascinated by other people's stories about messages from God. Are they similar to mine? How did they know? What was their response? What do they make of it and what did they do with it? Very often the stories are overly dramatic or very specific, and I immediately question the veracity; it's like an embellisher adding too many details, too much gilding on the story. Sometimes the story is told wistfully, like they cannot provide details but have a distinct, memorable impression, and these I tend to accept, or at least they help me believe in the sincerity of the teller, because it seems like something God would do ... guide or suggest but not force or command you. I do not know how God works in this world, but here are three of these "things" for the record. Make of them what you will.

On the Course:

Not long after joining Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church, I was sitting in the pew, thinking more about my afternoon plans than the message being delivered. Immediately after church I was going to rush home, grab my clubs, and head to the golf course to meet up with 6 or 7 friends. The sermon was on baptism, a topic I typically tuned out for a variety of reasons. At some point I heard the preacher ask 'What would it take for you to believe?' to which I mentally added 'AND be baptized!' In answer to the preacher's question I thought, 'If I break 80 this afternoon, they can baptize me in the 18th hole water hazard!'

Later, as we finished the 4th hole, my playing partner Rob said, "Dude. You're even after 4. You're on fire!" To be honest, after stringing together a handful of good shots, some might even say miraculous for me, on the very first hole I began to worry about my sarcastic promise to God. My previous best score ever was 89, on an easy course when playing regularly. I was a consistent mid-90's player, but could easily shoot 100+ without some breaks along the way. I told Rob, "I'm not on fire, I'm out of my mind. I'll tell you about it later." At the turn Rob asked if I wanted know my score and if I was okay because I was being so quiet. I didn't want to jinx anything so I just said again that I would talk to him about it later and no, I didn't want to know my score. But he looked at me and held up 3 fingers, which I took to mean that I was halfway home with a 39, 3 strokes above par.

I don't even remember playing the back nine. It was surreal. I was consistently landing approach shots within a putt-able range, or if I was farther out I always seemed to have an easy line. On the 18th tee Rob tells me, "I know you said not to tell you, but you need a par for 80." Thanks a lot, Rob. Off the tee I'm in trouble on the left, in the woods, though I typically slice. No choice but to punch it out. I'm 120 yards out, normally an 8 iron for me, but I'm hitting the short irons so well I decide on a wedge. If I put it close enough for a make-able putt, I have my par and my 80. I'm vibrating so much as I stand over the ball that I have to back off more than once. Finally, as I'm adjusting my stance and grip for the hundredth time, I feel a wave of calm that starts at my head and flows down to my feet. There is also this thought, this question, in no specific words which was, "Does it really matter?"

I hit the shot. It takes one hop and sits, above the hole, on the flat, maybe 3 feet away. Easy. I mark my ball and allow everyone else to putt out, all the while asking myself "does it really matter?" I can't decide what the "it" is. Is it the score, or is it the baptism? Is it the flippant promise I made to God, or this bizarre round of golf? As soon as the ball left my putter I knew. I had yanked it left, missing by a few inches. I tapped it in for bogey and an 81. It didn't bother me, because the calm had never left me, and I knew that regardless of my score, it didn't really matter.

I met Rob at his house that day so as we drove back I told him about "the thing." He knew what a thoroughly below average golfer I was. He had seen me spooked and shaky for most of the round. As I tried to explain and verbalize and remember everything that had transpired, Rob just listened and finally said, "When God talks, you should listen." By the time I drove from Rob's house to mine, the doubt and logic had already begun to creep in and I've never come close to 80 since.

Listening for the Call:

Several years later I was on the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) at Bentwood Trail. We had been meeting every week for a long time, trying to find the right person to be called to lead our church. We had gotten to the point of bringing candidates to town, to hear them preach at a neutral pulpit, meaning some other church. This particular week the PNC was to hear a candidate preach at Faithbridge Presbyterian Church in Frisco, TX. We had met the candidate, Elizabeth Callender, on Friday, sharing supper at a committee member's house. Saturday we interviewed, toured the church and surrounding neighborhood, and shared a few more meals.

We all liked Elizabeth, but getting everyone to agree that she was "it" was a big challenge. I never expected the process to be easy, and I had struggled with exactly what my role was. I learned the hard way that trying to force a decision based on my own preferences and reasoning was not going to work. Though it took several months I finally realized that we were supposed to be listening for God to call someone, not trying to win an argument or influence a decision. It was an especially difficult concept for me; I doubted that we would "hear" God.

I arrived at Faithbridge early, and rather than lurk at the church I drove through a nearby Starbucks, got a large ... oh, excuse me, a "venti" ... black iced tea and found a bench in the park across the street from the church to drink it, watching and waiting for other PNC members to arrive. On the bench, under the tree, out in the warm weather I thought about our responsibilities, about how I needed to "listen for God" instead of "decide for the congregation." I convinced myself that I had no idea what God sounded like, despite my earlier golf course encounter, and so, desperate for direction, I prayed.

"Gracious God. I'm not looking for lightning bolts and thunder, any sign will do, but please let me see or hear or understand something in worship today about a path forward. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen."

I prayed this out loud, very self-consciously, though no one was around. Almost immediately the doubt set in. Would God answer this prayer, and if he did, how would I know it? It felt so self-serving, like I was praying for a burden to be lifted, that it was arrogant to ask for a sign from God. Oh well. The parking lot was filling up. It was time to go.

I met Linda Wren and a few other committee members in the narthex. We decided to split up and sit in small groups of two or three in different areas of the sanctuary and try not be such an obvious distraction. Linda and I sat near the back in the center section of seats on the left aisle. Faithbridge worshipped in what was also, apparently, a multi-use space ... part gym, part fellowship hall. The chancel was a raised platform in the center of the long wall across from the main doors. The cross was displayed off to one side, which seemed odd since if a cross is displayed it is typically in the center. Once I noticed that, I also saw the reason why ... the center of the chancel would be taken up by a large projection screen. "Great. Please don't let it be a Powerpoint church, I hate Powerpoint," I thought. Off to the side was a keyboard, the only instrument I saw. Sitting beside the keyboard, at a table with a laptop, was a man who appeared a bit frantic. Someone said, "problems with the music tracks again," and I despaired, expecting the music to be some Christian Rock mix-tape.

Soon enough the lights dimmed, the screen rolled down, the projector lit up and the speakers popped to life. The projected image became clearer as the screen descended. The congregation stood and began to sing along with the karaoke soundtrack coming from the laptop. As we stood to sing I let out an audible "Ha!" and Linda gave me her best teacher/Mom raised eyebrow. I shook my head, smiled and began to sing ....

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

... while looking at the scene on the screen which was a building, alone on the prairie, overpowered by huge purple storm clouds and crisp, bright, thick, many-branched lightning bolts. Thunder and lightning, in a format that made me cringe. God, it seems, does have a sense of humor.

I told the committee at our next meeting about God's joke. It did not result in an immediate, unanimous call for Elizabeth, though several months later she was called, with I believe God's will.

In the Chapel:

This past week, Holy Week, Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston was doing a 'Spoken Word' reading, where they read the Bible out loud, from Genesis through Revelation, 24 hours a day, until they finish. They started on Monday morning at 6AM and finished around 1PM on Thursday. Before they began I had every intention of going to listen, if not actually sign up to read, but things happen and you get busy and it wasn't a priority.

I haven't been sleeping that well, for a variety of reasons, and so on Thursday morning at 5-something AM I found myself lying in bed, wide awake and thought, "I've got time to get up, drive to church, listen to the Spoken Word readings for a while and still get back home before I have to start work at 8AM." So, I rolled out of bed, hustled through an abbreviated morning routine, and drove to MDPC. I arrived about a quarter after six. I was a bit concerned as I pulled in. There were only two cars in the parking lot and there didn't seem to be much activity at all, but I grabbed my Bible and headed to the chapel, where they were reading.

At the table outside the chapel was Charlie, the one and only person who knows me by name and sight at MDPC. He's one of the facilitators of the 'New Member/Get To Know MDPC' class we are attending on Sundays, and we've only met twice. I thought it was pretty remarkable, given that I randomly decided to come at this particular time, and that there are 3,500 or so members, anyone of which could have volunteered to be at the welcome table at this time. But I was glad to see him, it made me feel at home, that I was in the right place. He shook my hand and said he was glad to see me. I took a seat on the aisle, a few rows back from the front and wondered where to turn in my Bible as a new reader took the lectern and began to read.

She announced, "First Corinthians, Chapter 15." Happy that it was a New Testament reading, I quickly found the spot.

The footnotes in my Bible divide the chapter as follows:

15:1-11, The gospel of Christ's death and resurrection
15:12-34, The significance for us of the resurrection
15:35-58, The nature of the resurrection

The reader did a wonderful job and I was amazed as I sat, read along and listened. The happenstance of it all, arriving basically on a whim, and walking in to sit down and hear Paul's explanation of the resurrection, on Maundy Thursday, before Good Friday, in advance of Easter Sunday. This seemed to be "the" passage to hear before Easter! No one else was there to just listen. The other people there, like Charlie, had volunteered to greet or to read. It felt like this was being read directly to me, directly for me. And I listened, intently, with hope.

I was not disappointed. All of these words I had heard before, many, many times. This time it seemed fresh, coherent, cohesive, important. The words didn't just want to be heard, they wanted to be understood. Paul's statements, his thoughts, built from the foundation of Christ's death and resurrection, to what it represents, to what it means for us in our daily lives, and finally to the eternal, the ultimate purpose. I felt I was hearing it for the very first time and was amazed.

As the reader began verse 50, my eyes watered and I fought back tears ...

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this:
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery!
We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’

I felt that I needed to hear this, at this time, in this place. These words that I've heard hundreds of times, this time, they stuck. They mean something to me. I believe them. Where, O death, who has and will torment me, where indeed, O death, is your sting now that Christ has been raised?

It's now late afternoon on Easter Sunday, and despite my recent encounter, and regardless of the celebration I witnessed in worship today, I feel the doubt making its way into the memory and into the feeling. I was probably tired from lack of sleep. I was probably desperate to find something significant in the experience. It could have just been the poetry and picture from the reading that prompted the tears ... the reader did do a remarkable job of "selling" the passage. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the chapel setting and the familiar words simply triggered a perfectly predictable emotional response. It was probably more fever dream than burning bush, don't you think? After all, they both just make you feel too hot, right?


Brother Dan

He drove a black Volkswagen Beetle. Dad called it "one of those furrin' death traps." Mom said it worked out as she predicted; Jennifer would marry the first man she dated that was taller than her. I was a kid, recently turned 7 years old, and the first of my many brothers-in-law had come to town. He was there to marry my oldest sister, Jennifer, and I distinctly remember my first interaction with him. Mom had tasked me with setting the table and when Dan sat down at his place, he picked up his fork, looked at me and asked "Can I get a dinner fork instead of a salad fork?" Hell. I didn't know there was a difference. I was embarrassed and immediately subscribed to my parent's skeptical perception of this guy.

Jennifer is 13 years older than me and was more legend than sister. I couldn't imagine anyone being up to the standards required to marry such a smart, pretty and adventurous woman. She had moved away, off to college, only a few years before. I vaguely remember helping my parents move her to Denton, but I distinctly remember everyone being excited when Jennifer came home, even Mom and Dad, who didn't get excited much. Now, getting married, well, we would not be her home anymore. She would still visit, of course, but even a seven year old knows that getting married is a permanent, life altering decision. I expected him to be as worldly and wise and sophisticated as my sister after all, she picked him. I'm not sure he was any of those things, but he was certainly different.

First of all, he was loud. He had a loud, deep voice that got your attention. He was tall and thin, even taller than my big brother Billy. He was direct, and not just about things like salad forks. For example, when asked about the Beetle he didn't just make small talk about affordability and gas mileage, he would explain how it was the superior automotive choice, daring you to challenge his position. He did not defer to my Dad on every discussion of weather or cars or work. He did not react to Mom's subtle insults and comments. Perhaps that's because he did not know her well enough, but I suspect it was because he didn't really care what she thought. All of these characteristics spoke to his confidence which was indeed something foreign to me and my environment, like his car. Dan was the ground-breaker, the first of my many brothers-by-marriage, and I appreciate all the things I learned from him and most of all, his friendship and the mutual respect we shared.

As a boy, Dan taught me many things. I spent a lot of time on summer vacations with Dan and Jennifer, and though the things we did would seem mundane to some, they were quite the adventure for a small town Texas Panhandle kid. Jennifer and Dan were married in August of 1966 at the Central Church of Christ (reception to follow at the Coronado Inn) and I was seven years old. When I turned nine, in the summer of 1968, I spent several weeks with them and continued to spend some time with them every summer until I was a teenager.

We went to Fort Concho in San Angelo while we were visiting his family. Jennifer bought me a souvenir "bull whip" and Dan helped me learn to crack it in his mother's backyard. He told me stories of his own childhood and how he learned a lot from Fess Parker as Daniel Boone, and even had a coonskin cap.

Though my family were big 42 players (it's a domino game for those unfamiliar), Dan was the one who taught me to play, again at his mother's house. He was patient to a point, but you didn't want to make the same mistake twice, especially if it cost you the hand. Dan was competitive.

I would not say that Dan was a "foodie", but he did introduce me to Green Goddess salad dressing, eating raw green onions that have been chilled in a glass of water in the refrigerator, eating scrambled eggs with pickled green pepper sauce and wheat bread. He also took me to Taco Bell, my first exposure to "mexican food" of any kind, though I have yet to see an "enchirito" again. And though I suspect it was more about catching the fish than cooking them, the best fried fish filets I've ever had were cooked by Dan.

His mother kept a pistol, a pearl handled, nickel plated, pocket sized semi-automatic .22 in her apron pocket. Once, when we were playing 42, it clanked against the table as she stood up, so she pulled it out and set it next to her iced tea on the card table. I can't imagine what face I made, but on later adventures, when I was amazed or confused Dan would say, "There's that pistol face again" and remind me of the story.

Once, I sat in the back seat of their '67 Mercury Cougar as Dan and Jennifer fought over the length of my hair. I had been staying with them a while and I suppose my hair was longer than what Dan deemed appropriate for a boy ... it was the late 60s. Jennifer argued to "let him be" and "he's just a kid." There was enough shouting to make me cry. That may sound like a terrible thing, but my only exposure to married people fighting was the deadly silences between Mom and Dad, and then having one or the other vent their side to me while riding alone with them in the car. Note that despite the argument, I did not get my hair cut until I got home to Pampa, at which point Mom took me to Bob & Gip's barber shop and had my hair buzzed, unfortunately for me, right before school started.

Dan took me to work with him. It was summer and hot and humid and the job was roofing lake houses with wood shingles. I did a lot of gopher work in the mornings and then, when it got really hot, he'd let me go fish from the shore while he and his buddy, Gilbert I think, continued shingling. I never caught many fish, but I learned the difference between shingles and shakes, why a rip hammer is different than a claw hammer, how to pop a chalk line and to appreciate a nice piece of shade and a little breeze while eating deviled ham sandwiches on white bread, dill pickles and iced tea.

Dan took me fishing, on a boat, and let me drive it. My Dad was always prompting me to drive cars and tractors and trucks, so I knew the drill. Once we found ourselves right in the middle of a school of sand bass in some sort of feeding frenzy. My cheap Zebco 202 had a silver spoon on and it would no more touch the water than some sandie would hit it. I heard "there's that pistol face." Dan had been driving and had a worm on, which was no good in this situation because they were feeding on some shad. He told me he would get the fish off the hook and for me to keep casting that silver spoon. I don't know how many we caught, but it was a bunch. He taught me to clean and filet fish that day, too.

Dan took me to my first professional sporting event. We sat in the cheap seats at the old Arlington Stadium to see the Texas Rangers. He was too cheap to pay for parking, so we parked out in some trees on some undeveloped land near the stadium and walked a bit further than those who paid to park. Though I had played baseball, Dan explained it. He was openly critical of poor play, and with his loud voice everyone around us would hear him. One time, there was a guy a few rows in front who would shout "Amen, Brother!" when Dan would criticize a weak at bat by Ted Ford or praise a defensive play by Toby Harrah.

By the time I was in my teens I stopped spending summers with them, but they still came up for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Once, at Thanksgiving, just Dan and I went quail hunting at Uncle Ivan's place near Shamrock. We also hunted on my Uncle Joe's place which was near there. Though I had been hunting before with Dad and Bill, their approach was a lot more relaxed, if you see 'em shoot 'em. Dan was more intense, you didn't just hope they were there, you went looking for them, and you kept looking. We got maybe 6 or 8 birds total, with me getting only one of those. The one I hit was only winged, and still alive when we found it. Dan quickly popped its head off and put it in his game bag. There was a dusting of snow when we started that morning. Much of it had melted, but there was still some to be found in the shade of the tall grass or behind a fence post. He washed hands with snow and said "hunting's not about suffering."

I have two fond memories of Dan from when I was in college. Once he loaned me $500, a princely sum in those days, so that I could go on a ski trip during winter break. There was no question he expected to be paid back (and I hope I actually did!), but he told me he thought it was important to have fun when you're young enough to not have responsibilities but old enough for really fun things. The other was during my senior year at NTSU (now UNT). It was nearing the end of the spring semester and I would soon be interviewing for jobs. I was going to Ft. Worth to hand deliver some applications and résumés. When he learned I was coming that way he asked me to meet him at The Pioneer, his regular after work hangout, what some might call a dive bar. As I walked in, my eyes adjusting to the dim lights inside, I heard Dan say "why I could beat you with that skinny long haired kid as my partner!" They invited me over and I began to play shuffle board with Dan as my partner. The standing wager was pitchers of beer and after we won a couple he confessed I was a ringer, since he had taught me to play on a few other occasions. He introduced me to his friends and had me go to the car to get a copy of my résumé. Later, I got an offer from Texas Employer's Insurance, his employer, but I opted to take another offer from Kraft Foods in Garland, which is a whole 'nother story, as they say.

There were so many other things, so many little, insignificant things, that on reflection reveal his impact was on my life. I first heard about Rush Limbaugh from Dan, and I still refer to the Fort Worth Star Telegram as "The Startlegram." I like the smell of pipe tobacco and smoked a pipe for many years. I understand rough, calloused hands are the result of intention, not carelessness. I know the effort involved in investing wisely, and the consequences of debt. I learned that anger can obscure your best intentions and prevent you from being heard or appreciated. I witnessed the sanctity and personal implementation of "in sickness and in health." And I know, from experience with Dan, that a loud voice and confident manner does not replace a fundamental humility, and that being direct, or honest, doesn't mean you don't care. It means that you honestly do care.

As we got older, our relationship changed. Dan mellowed out a bit, and I gained more experience with work and marriage and the world in general, so we eventually ended up with a peer-like relationship, a "brother" relationship. I saw him most recently at Christmas, at Jessica's house, and we talked of sports and politics and the struggles of married men as we often did.  Not long after we learned that Dan had been diagnosed with cancer, and sooner than anticipated he passed away. When I heard about the diagnosis and prognosis I sent the following text to Whitney and Jessica:

"Also, please know and feel free to share with Dan that my life has been better because he has been in it. He's given me much more than he knows. That may be hard for you to see, but it's true."

And it is true. I know that my brother Dan was a stumbling block for many. He had his flaws, as do
we all, but he was good to me, and treated me better than I deserved. As the kid brother of his wife, from a family that did not always accept his "differentness", I have what I think is a unique perspective. I worshipped my sister Jennifer, and still do, because of all the above plus the many other things she has given to me. As kid brother I have witnessed, from an objective position, a 50 year marriage. That does not happen without love. It does not happen without grace and forgiveness and joy and sorrow. It does not happen without being worthy of respect. I once read that men want to be respected by a woman they love, and women want to be loved by a man they can respect. I cannot testify that this was true for Jennifer and Dan, but I hope it was, because I respect them more than they will ever know.

My life has been better because Dan was in it. What more can you ask? I will miss him, but I cannot forget him because he helped shape my life.

And finally, much like my Dad, Dan was not a church-goer. I have no special insight into the workings of the Almighty, but I have faith that his grace is sufficient. I suspect that Dan, always keen to see to the crux of any issue, knew that grace was there, and took full advantage of it. Rest in peace brother Dan. I love you.