Absorbed

Hello to those of you who still surf by Wonderstuff from time to time.

I wanted to remind you that I’ve got a new blog and a new site, and it has basically absorbed the kind of thinking and writing you find on Wonderstuff. I hope you’ll add www.bobowenblog.com to your reading list, and check out the new site. As always, I welcome comments and enjoy the conversations that spring from them.

See you over there!

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From Wonderstuff to Windblown

There hasn’t been anything new showing up on this blog for several months now, and that’s primarily because I have launched a new blog site called WINDBLOWN: Reflections on Being Made New.

The launch of this new blog site – which has become my main posting site – is in conjunction with the beginning of my new job serving as Minister of Adult Spiritual Formation at Dunwoody Baptist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia. I felt it was time for a change in both look and focus, and so I created Windblown in an effort to more effectively communicate my thoughts of the myriad of ideas and issues related to spiritual formation.

If you are or have ever been a reader of Wonderstuff, I hope you will follow me to my new site and become a subscriber. I believe you will find there a lot of what made Wonderstuff a great eight-year experience, as well as some new additions (in the coming weeks and months) that will hopefully inspire you to even deeper reflections on the good and beautiful God who breathes life into each of us.

You can check out Windblown by clicking HERE.

Much peace,

The Girl on the Road: What Mary Teaches Us About Controversy

Social media is abuzz with impassioned posts about freedom of speech, judgment vs. judging not, and the difference between showing tolerance and being clobbered by it.

"Hey! Leggo my hand!"

“Hey! Leggo my hand!”

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or you are the happy few who pay little attention to social media feeds and entertainment news), you know that a rich, white, Southern guy with a well-known cable reality TV show has been accused of spouting bigotry and racism during an interview with a popular magazine. He claims his comments are based on his Christian faith and interpretation of the Bible. Some people, whether they’ve read the article or not, are outraged. Others are outraged at those who are outraged. Apparently, it is THE most important issue for Christians to think about and talk about and argue about and spend their energy and emotion responding to … this week.

I have no direct response to this issue. Oh, I could say some things, sure. But I won’t for three reasons. The first is, I just don’t care. I know this rich, white Southern celebrity is my brother in Christ and that I should show at least some measure of concern for what he has to say as a representative of Christianity. But I just don’t care. If I have to concern myself with his words, then I must concern myself with all the words spewed by all my other Christian brothers and sisters who are attacking what he said, defending him for saying it, or sitting on the fence until the winds of controversy dissipate. So, instead, I will ignore the talk and simply offer this blog post as my only “stance” on the issue.

The second reason I won’t straight-up respond to the controversy is that I recognize it to be one of those times in which the more you comment, the less clear the issue becomes. Whether you speak from conviction or merely out of loyalty because you’re a fan of the guy’s TV show, your words will only muddle the issue – make it sloppier and more complicated than it already is. Some people will agree with your points, while others will make it their mission to refute every little idle word they can identify. This I have learned from experience – unproductive experience.

The third reason I will not throw my hat into the ring of this particular controversy is Mary.

Here’s the deal. This controversy, like so many others that have set the Internet and cable news networks ablaze in 2013, boils down to one thing: what to do with sinfulness.

Read enough comment threads or Huffington Post articles or religion-themed blogs and you will find that with any issue concerning accusations of bigotry or a controversy generated by a person (or an organization) allegedly standing up for “what the Bible says,” there are those Christians who feel it is the dutiful thing to “support” and/or “stand with” the person (or organization) being “persecuted,” and there are others who, instead, point out where that person (or organization) went wrong and how they could have been less judgmental and better exemplified the Christian’s call to “love others.”

Was that enough quotation marks for you?

Was that enough quotation marks for you?

Maybe ‘tis the Season, but rather than these two trains of thought, I can’t help but think of Mary. Virgin Mary. The girl from Nazareth. The girl on the road. The girl who was visited by an angel, entrusted with an extraordinary promise, and willingly accepted the consequences.

You see, with Mary, God seemed to break his own rules. The Gospel of Luke makes it clear that while Mary was engaged to Joseph (the word is “betrothed,” indicating a promise of marriage had certainly been made), they had yet to be fully married and nothing had been consummated. Ask any evangelical Christian if it is okay to conceive a child out of wedlock, and they will shake their heads and point to Scripture to back up that conviction.

But it doesn’t stop there. Mary is called “highly favored” by the angel Gabriel, but then she is found to be with child “by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, she is unmarried and pregnant, and so, in the eyes of the public, she is a sexually active loose woman. In the eyes of the Law of Moses (which Jews believed was almost literally handed down by God to the people of Israel), she is an adulteress. According to that same law, both she and the man with whom she committed adultery (if it is indeed not Joseph) should be condemned to death (Lev. 20:10). If she escapes a death penalty (by any other excuse than she is the victim of a rape, which we cannot believe she claimed), it is only on a technicality that the marriage to Joseph had not yet been consummated and because she is therefore, for all intents and purposes, a prostitute. Is it any wonder that Matthew’s Gospel tells us Joseph was seeking to annul their engagement? Is it any wonder Mary spends three months of her pregnancy living with her cousin far from her hometown? Is it any wonder she is willing to travel with Joseph to Bethlehem, to leave her home and make that long journey south, before they are officially married?

Like this, only less honeymoon-ish and more sand and swollen feet.

Like this, only less honeymoon-ish and more sand and swollen feet.

According to ancient Church tradition, before we can revere the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus into the world (i.e. the season of Christmas), we must sit for a while in anticipation of his coming. This season is called Advent. It is marked by hoping and waiting. Hoping for the best, and waiting for God to show Himself. And of all the biblical stories that correspond to this time of hoping and waiting, the one at the center is that of Mary, the girl on the road, the girl of scorn and shame, the girl with a bastard child growing inside her. Hoping that she will endure the scorn and remain obedient to God’s will. Waiting for God to show up and sanctify what everyone else sees as sinful.

Because, according to what the Scriptures say, Mary should be condemned. One wonders if the reason why “there was no room in the inn” had more to do with keeping sinfulness at bay than it did with a particular house being at capacity. One wonders if the reason the baby Jesus was placed in a manger was to keep his uncleanness and unlawfulness (according to Leviticus) at a distance from the good Jews who did not want to be rendered unclean by association. One wonders if one of the main reasons the angel announces the birth to a bunch of shepherds is because those lowly peasants might have been the only ones unfazed if they were to have learned the sordid nature of the baby’s family history.

"Ummmmmmmm…"

“Ummmmm! We’re gonna tellllll…”

If the story at the heart of Advent teaches us anything, it is that God is more concerned with proclaiming the birth of his Son – and ALL it entails – than he is with laws and rules and naming sins. This is not to say that the law – in this case the moral, sexual statutes in the latter half of the Book of Leviticus – is pointless. However, when it comes to the good news of Jesus Christ, it takes a backseat. A way way backseat. What matters is Jesus, come to earth. What matter is peace on earth and (to cite an outdated translation) goodwill toward men.

With the help of a divinely inspired dream, Joseph recognized this before it was too late. Instead of distancing himself – joining the finger-pointers and keeping his distance for the sake of propriety and good, wholesome morality – he chose the way of love. He gave no arguments, made no rationalizations. He simply erased the distance between himself and the one who was scorned. He willingly journeyed to Bethlehem.

One hopes that, each year, we will choose likewise.

You are a Maple in Autumn

Right now I am on my back porch, and before me, rising approximately thirty feet into the blue sky, is a maple tree aflame. It is a maple in autumn.

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The maple is edged in rusty red and shot through with golds, and it bears an inner foliage still green but not for long. As green and full as that foliage once was, no one would deny that it is at its most beautiful today. Those greens have given way to a veritable rainbow of colors that do not simply comfort and shade, but captivate and dazzle. Those leaves have turned or are turning, and every few seconds another one breaks loose and rides the current of that liberating breeze until it is deposited upon my lawn.

Science tells me that this tree is deciduous, and that these leaves have been abscised because they are not currently essential. It tells me the rusty reds and the golds are the result of a change in the leaves’ pigments, as the carotenoids and xanthophylls and anthocyanins have revealed themselves in the wake of the dropping temperatures and the sun which does not shine so long these days. Chlorophyll is no longer produced, and so these pigment changes are the evidence that tree and leaf are protecting themselves in an inclement season. When a gust of wind tears a leaf from its place on the maple’s limbs, there is left a leaf scar, but these scars serve a purpose, protecting the naked limbs and preparing it to bear the foliage again in warmer, brighter days.

Those that fall upon my lawn we call “dead leaves,” but the maple no more considers them dead as it considers itself dead. No, these leaves fall to the ground and carpet the earth around the maple, and as they turn gray and brown and crackle underfoot, they release the last of their precious nutrients back into soil where it no doubt returns to the maple by way of the roots. So, the leaves that we see die are the leaves we see alive when spring arrives. What has fallen has fallen for the maple’s good, not its ill.

This is not resurrection. It is perseverance.

But what of the maple itself? The roots and the trunk and the limbs? In another month, it will appear to me as good as dead. If any leaves remain attached, too tightly fastened to be torn loose by the wind, they have shriveled and released whatever energy or food or chemical was in them. The maple stands naked and cold, a gray skeleton against a pallid, winter sky.

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Were I an impatient man, concerned only with results, only with what comforts me or what dazzles my eye, and I was unaware of what the seasons promise the future holds, I would certainly take an axe to that maple. There would be no point in leaving a dead, worthless thing such as I see it standing in my yard. I’d perceive the leaves it has dropped as nothing but a nuisance to rake together and stuff into trash bags. I would not realize my chopping and my raking to be the work of the murderer rather than the mortician. I would bring an end to life simply because I was not willing to accept that life – and endurance and energy and expectancy – does not always appear the way I think it should.

The leaves are not dying.  They are changing. The maple is not withdrawing. It is renewing.

May we who wander this earth and go back and forth within it be found as faithful as this maple. May the things about us that change and turn and often fall away do so out of our commitment to perseverance. As surely as the Son shines now, it will shine brighter and warmer in the days to come. Let us be ready.

Your Basement is Haunted

Memory is not so much a segment of the brain as it is a room in a house. It is a particular place within the home of your being. Specifically, memory is a basement. To get there, you must momentarily step out of daily life, open that creaking door that scratches across the threshold, and descend a rickety staircase leading to a place where you keep everything that, up to this point, makes you you.

Of course, like a lot of basements, the basements of our beings can be frightening places. Sometimes the swinging lightbulb flickers, casting unsettled shadows across the cold, stone walls. Here you find an overwhelming clutter – your dusty boxes full of long-buried emotions, your pile of excess mental baggage. Few trips to this basement are convenient, and even fewer find you emerging from those depths full of positive energy. Rather, even if your intentions for venturing down those stairs are positive, you usually return at a quickened clip, as if something long buried has uncovered itself and is close at your heels in pursuit, and you must surface and slam the door shut lest it leap back into the daylight with you. Lest it escape the bottoms of your past and come to exist again in your present.

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Like many a basement in a gothic short story, the basements of our beings are haunted places. There are creaks and groans down there. The echoes of angry words we spoke to someone who we’re sure didn’t deserve it. Reverberations of hasty statements we regret we ever voiced. The basement is where the ghosts of our past reside. Some we can identify – people who we wronged mixed in with all the people we believe wronged us. All of them wander around down there, blind and lost. The only conceivable purpose for their presence is to feed our guilt or fuel our grudges. When we must descend into these cellars of our lives – whether in some fleeting, naive attempt at self-reflection or a necessary reconnaissance into our memories – we attempt to do all our business from the stairs, lest we disturb those spirits. We get in and we get out, and we try to forget anything we might have seen down there. At the top of the stairs, we wipe our feet on the dusty, cobwebby mat, intending to bring not even the smallest fragment with us back through that door into daily life.

And we wouldn’t go down there at all if it weren’t the only storage space we have. The problem is that a lot of the good stuff is down there, too. Reminders of good deeds done with no coercion, wise words we didn’t know we had in us, memories of inspiring, heroic folks with whom we once interacted. It is hard to believe how much clutter is down there, and harder still that none of it is very organized. The good words are mixed in alongside the bad, and the figures we revere mill about among the same ghosts from which we divert our eyes. There are all kinds of musty odors down there – they come from the open boxes, and just when one hits our nostrils and tickles our interest, another assaults us and we recoil and berate ourselves for ever thinking it would be okay to go poking around.

Even finding your way through such a mess is daunting.

Even finding your way through such a mess can be daunting.

Oh, we’ll try and spruce the place up a bit, especially if we find ourselves needing to venture down there on a regular basis. We’ll try to get it all organized and labeled. We make sure the good things are easy to access, and we don’t stack too many boxes atop each other because the last thing we need is them to all come tumbling down and spilling out like Pandora’s box. The goal is to avoid as much of a mess of memories as possible. There’s nothing more agonizingly tedious as cleaning up spilt memories by oneself. Sometimes, we’ll decide we need some professional help with our cleaning, and a lot of time these doctors we go to see help us. They remind us that as frustrating and intimidating as it is, the clutter is still important. They help us label things, and they don’t mind peaking into those dusty boxes with us. They help clear some room in the far back of the basement for those ghosts to wander about without getting in the way. Of course, the downside is that every once in a while one of these doctors isn’t paying attention to what he is doing and knocks over a box we’d rather not have known was there.

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For the Christian, when it comes to the basements of our beings, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is with one’s salvation experience comes the presence of the Holy Spirit – the presence of Christ in our inmost being. The bad news is one of the very reasons he takes up residence in us is that, like those weirdos on Storage Wars, he is eager to get into that basement of ours and start rooting around. He’s convinced that everything down there – the good and the bad, the pleasant and the disturbing, the loved ones and the ghosts – means something for our present and for our future. What is more, Jesus himself agrees with this idea.

I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:7-11,13)

This is one of the many reasons why we pray. We seek God’s direction before we descend into the basements of our beings. We choose to go downstairs with his Spirit at our side. It’s not that the doctors don’t help – they do. It’s just that the Spirit is even more of a specialist when it comes to dealing with all of our clutter. He’s seen millions of basements like ours, and millions more that are far worse. He’s fought his way through many a jungle of cobwebs, braved even the most frightening collection of terrors, and withstood even the most rancid of odors.

Every one of our basements are haunted places, and merely getting organized isn’t enough to restore health to, and to draw wisdom from, our pasts. So we do not go in alone, but alongside the friend and Helper whose job it is to boldly yet gently show us who we really are, deep down.