We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

My wife’s ninety-year-old mother died last Thursday and we mourn. Someone reminded me that when we grieve, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

I grew up in a family that camped. My father was a pastor who got four weeks of vacation. We took all four weeks at once, camping the whole month of July, mostly in wooded campsites next to windy lakes. We strapped our small Sunfish sailboat on top of our sagging station wagon.

Williamson Family Vacation, July 1968

Those vacations were a young boy’s fantasy, filled with mysterious forests and stormy seas. Four weeks wasn’t enough. We hauled our home wherever we went. It was often hot, but sometimes cold, and occasionally rainy. The car always broke down. And I loved it.

I recently heard a quote from the Epistle to Diognetus that resurfaced all those old memories,

The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life…

For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.

Do We Practice Godless Faith?

I recently met an elder whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.

After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.

The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.

I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”

“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”

The History of the World is a Long Story of Bad Answers

My wife’s and my first home was a trilevel, with only two of the floors completed. We decided to finish the third floor ourselves, creating a family room, office, and second bathroom. I had done lots of carpentry, wiring, and plumbing before. But I had never mudded drywall.

My first and only selfie: Sam Williamson, June 1984

I figured the drywall mud would sand down easily, so after hanging the drywall, I caked on mud like a teenage boy piles his plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And then I went back for seconds.

Alas. It took us more time to sand off that surplus mud than it took me to frame in and wire three rooms and to plumb the bathroom. Carla and I spent scores of hours of bored agony, sanding, wet-sponging, power-sanding, and bathing off our layers of dust:

I had thought mudding was the easy part.

The history of the world is the long story of bad answers.

Gazing on Beauty

Most of my life I failed to appreciate beauty. Oh, I loved the look of sails on the sea and snow on the mountains, but mostly I liked sailing those sailboats and skiing those slopes.

Fifteen years ago, I learned to scuba dive. On our first dive, my sons and I wobbled our way to the sea in unwieldly gear, inserted our mouthpieces, lowered our heads beneath the waves, and dived. In fifteen feet of water, we entered a cloud of thousands of small yellow and white, black-striped fish. We could see nothing but a beautiful gallery of sparkling fish.

And the beauty of their colors, and the shimmer of their glory, delighted and enthralled me.

Yesterday I joined two friends to talk with a woman about her calling. And she talked only of beauty. She shared the glory of seeing a sunrise, and sparks of hope in the cracks of a frozen harbor, and satisfaction in a sunset-pond. And she spoke of the healing wholeness of beauty.

Hearing her reminded me of the first time I was captivated by beauty.

This morning I read Psalm 27 as part of my Scripture meditation. When I read verse 4, something again was awakened:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
… to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord….

And I wondered, “What the heck does it mean to gaze on the beauty of God?

When “Good” Christians Do Bad Things

I hate the presidential election season, the rhetoric, emotional responses, hushed conversations, and mud-slinging candidates. I especially hate those damned, political phone polls! Don’t worry, this is not about the election. It’s about when good Christians do bad things.

when-good-christians

And yet, weeks after the elections, the rhetoric is still meteoric and the mudslinging has not abated. Friends of mine from both political camps willingly participate in this mud bath. And it gets nasty. Winners ooze smugness and losers dribble bitterness. We all get spattered.

And both believers and non-believers, from the right and the left, hurl slurs. Their opponents are racist or communist, uncaring or unthinking, dumb or dumber.

This absence of distinction bothered me. I had hoped Christians would handle their victory or defeat with better grace. But we didn’t. Just this morning a thought raced through my mind:

A “good” Christian knows that our atheist neighbors are often better people than us.

Living a Staged Life

A year ago, my wife and I decided to sell the farmhouse we’ve lived in for twenty-five years. While we were excited about moving into the next chapter of our life, the grown kids were less enthusiastic: our daughter’s next blog was entitled, Don’t Buy This House.

staged-life-r2

Nevertheless, we followed all the commonsense guidelines for home-sales:

  • We decluttered our closets, removed beds and furniture to make the house more spacious, and rented room at a storage facility.
  • We removed antique wallpaper and painted the walls with neutral colors.
  • And we updated older appliances and countertops, and revitalized the landscaping.

No bites. Not a nibble. Undaunted, we hired a stager who suggested we suck all personal intimacy from our home. Family photos were banished and personal artwork was expelled. Including the life-size, cowboy-hat-wearing skeleton in my office (in my office, mind you, not my closet).

Next our stager replaced every stick of sitting furniture with pure white pieces: sofas, easy chairs, and love seats. Which we immediately covered with sheets. Our stager styled it Farmhouse Chic. Our kids dubbed it, Farmhouse Sheet.

After hundreds of hours of expectant preparation for the dozens of hopeful showings: Nothing.

Last week my wife and I realized we spent our last twelve months living in limbo, neither here nor there. We were like swimmers treading water, going nowhere.

We’ve been living a staged life.

The Riddle of the Psalms

For the last forty years, my prayer time has started with the Psalms. And for forty years they have alternately given me hope and then pulled that rug of hope from beneath me. They make great promises, but when I pray them with honest self-reflection, the promises fade away.

the-riddle-of-the-psalms

Look at the hopeful assurances offered:

  • Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. (Ps. 27:3)
  • The Lord preserves the simple. When I was brought low, he saved me. (Ps. 116:6)
  • The Lord is my Shephard; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)

The problem is simple: these promises seem reserved for Saint Francis, not me:

  • The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Ps. 18:20)
  • Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! (Ps. 17:1)
  • If I have repaid my friend with evil … let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground. [YIKES!!] (Ps. 7:4-5)

When I try to pray phrases like, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” the words dribble out of my mouth and splatter on the floor.