Archive for the Background Category

Between Clarity and Muddle

Posted in Background, Homilies with tags , , , , on July 24, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 11:1-13

Many of you know the story of my spiritual journey:

  • How I grew up in a home where church was not a part of family life;
  • How I placed a lot of stock in my family;
  • How this stock was entirely upended when my parents divorced;
  • How through this divorce I began to question what things really mattered;
  • How I began to find answers first through Bible study and later through church;
  • How I sensed a call to ordained ministry during college;
  • And how more than twenty years passed before this call materialized.

Many of you know this.  But do you know the story of my spiritual pendulum swings?

When I was a little boy and life was good—when I was growing up in semi-rural southern California on an avocado orchard, with chickens and a donkey and a dog and three cats and a swimming pool with a rope swing and large lawns and hillsides nearby for hiking and bicycling and racing homemade go-karts and neighbor kids my own age and grapevines and citrus trees and afternoon Pacific breezes and delightfully cool summer evenings—when I was a boy experiencing all these things, let me tell you, life largely fell into two clearly defined categories: good and bad.

I have a vivid, lucid memory, in fact, of lying on my lawn on a lazy summer afternoon, mesmerized by the several hues of green the sunlight was making as it danced upon the avocado leaves playing in the breeze.  “This is what life is all about,” I told myself.  “This is where I will grow old.  I’ll grow up, get married, have a family, and my kids will grow up and have their families, and this is right where I’ll be, a grandpa, still living in this house, still lazing away my summer afternoons right here on this lawn.”

Here was absolute truth without even the faintest breath of falsehood.  Here was everything beautiful without any discernible scent of ugliness.  Here was all good and nothing bad.

My spiritual pendulum, in other words, had not yet swung; it was entirely over here, on this side, as far up the arc of clarity as it possibly could be.

But then, abruptly, with the divorce, it dropped.  And it swung.

Now all those avocado trees and lazy summer afternoon swims and philosophical musings in the breeze suddenly didn’t seem so important.  Now, instead, Mom and Dad, who’d so recently seemed so certain and sure of themselves, were unstable, emotional, and confused.

The truth, beauty, and goodness of my life—now there was something rancid in the smell.  Now discerning the good from the bad was—well, now I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other began.  Now life was all mixed up.

And it all had happened overnight!

Just like that, my spiritual pendulum had swung from its highest point of clarity to its opposite extreme.  All that had seemed so constant and stable was now uncertain and confused, just like my parents.

But there’s something about pendulums: they swing back.

The backswing came, very noticeably, a few years later, when I was in high school, when I’d gone away on a youth retreat and—in the words of the youth leaders—given my life to Christ.

“Have you ever felt uncertain and confused?” the speaker asked.  “Jesus knows how you feel.  And, in fact, Jesus has all the answers.  Do you want to stop feeling uncertain and confused?  Then just give your life to Him: give your life to Christ.”

Well, yeah!  I wanted the answers.  I wanted clarity and stability in my uncertain and confused life.  I wanted my spiritual pendulum to swing back to the high point of clarity again.

So I did what the speaker said.  I stayed behind, after the emotional meeting was over.  I met with a so-called spiritual counselor.  And I prayed a formulaic prayer to receive Christ, repeating the prompts given to me by this spiritual counselor.  And thus I “gave my life to Christ.”

Now all would be clear again, I told myself.  Now all would be black and white.  Now I would be able with certainty to discern truth from falsehood, beauty from ugliness, and good from evil.

So I changed my ways.  I stopped swearing.  I started doing my homework.  I said no whenever my friends invited me to parties.  And I tried to sort everything—and I mean everything—into two neatly defined, binary categories of right and wrong.

And you know what happened?  I lost a lot of friends.

Oh, sure, that’s not the only thing that happened!  A lot of good came out of this newly repentant life, sure.  Clarity in a season of uncertainty and confusion is always a good thing.  So, for instance, I developed serious spiritual disciplines during these years.  I also learned to value very highly a life characterized by integrity—a life I strive to live to this day.

But I also became intolerant of anyone who thought differently than I did.  What worked for me was good enough—I’d developed my system, my formula for life.  And whenever I met another person who tried to practice a similar system, well, we’d become fast friends.  But whenever I met a person who did not, which was more often the case, well, I’d tell myself, my time and energies would be better spent elsewhere.

So, yeah, I lost a lot of friends.  And I made very few new ones.  My spiritual counselor at that youth retreat never told me that would happen.

So, one thing about pendulums is they swing back.  Which, in time, I’m happy to say, mine did again.  But then, yes, I’m not so happy to say, after a while it swung forth again.  And then it swung back again.  And forth again.  And back.  And forth.  And so on.  And so forth.

But there’s something else: swinging isn’t the only thing pendulums do.  After time—and for some of us this may mean a long time, like the pendulum in the Griffith Park Observatory in L. A.—after time the swinging motion starts to slow down.  The large, violent swings that once went up so high from one side to the other now don’t go up so high anymore.  Now they become softer, gentler, more manageable.  Now we begin to see details and colors we never knew were there before.

For me, these softening swings were the twenty-some years of watching my call to the ordained ministry materialize, as I navigated the waters of life together with Holly and our growing family, through various churches and denominations, gaining vocational experience as a teacher and school administrator, learning, learning, always learning, that life isn’t so clear, certain, and stable as I’d like it to be; that Jesus isn’t so much a god with all the answers as he is a God to guide.

He never promised his disciples clarity on that Day of Pentecost.  Instead, he promised an Advocate, Comforter, and Guide: the Holy Spirit.

So, somewhere in there, after several years of swinging back and forth, of vacillating between clarity and muddle, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit my spiritual pendulum swings began to soften, to become gentler, more colorful, and more manageable.

Somewhere in there I learned that life isn’t just about discipline, rationality, and the head overcoming the heart.  Life is also human.  It’s full of emotion.  It’s unstable.  It’s confusing.  It’s messy.

Somewhere in there I learned that Jesus is not just some lofty ideal, out there somewhere, fully God but not quite fully human—or maybe more than fully human, maybe superhuman—who decided to wear humanity for a while, as if dressing up for a dinner party; and all I have to do is go find him and learn from him.

Rather, somewhere in there I learned that in Christ Jesus God actually became like me!  God met me where I already was.  God became human—and all that that means: all its emotion, instability, confusion, and mess!

Anyway, that’s the story of my spiritual pendulum swings.

What’s your story?  I’m sure you’ve been guided in this way too, vacillating back and forth throughout your Christian life; but that over time experiencing a sort of settling too—a softening that has produced a more colorful and manageable life.

So: in light of today’s Gospel, what is this settling?  Is it not prayer?

“Lord,” that disciple said to Jesus, “teach us to pray.”

Is this not our constant question?  Is this not what we ask again and again, over and over as we swing from one side of our human perspectives to the next?

Back and forth we go on our spiritual pendulums, setting personal standards that are humanly impossible and then failing to live up to them, vacillating between clarity and muddle.

But what softens our swinging?  What aligns us?  What draws us in?

Is it not prayer?  Is not prayer the gravity that orients and grounds us?

Lord Jesus, indeed, teach us to pray.

Quiet Ain’t Dishonest

Posted in Background with tags , , , , , , on November 18, 2014 by timtrue

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Another post spurred on by my childhood friendships rekindled on Facebook; this one having to do with a certain corner.

The setting: I grew up in an unincorporated part of Ventura County, California, just outside the city limits of Camarillo.  It was unincorporated, but not undeveloped.  Fifty or so houses lined this three-quarter-mile street and its accompanying private drives, appearing on the county map like an artery with so many smaller veins, the private drives, shooting off in whatever direction, following contours predetermined by the terrain.  Hills and barrancas running every which way, not to mention avocado trees and chickens.

We all seemed to have avocado trees and chickens, though not really.  But the fences were barely kept up—no need to keep them tidy—so our chickens and our neighbors’ ran all over the neighborhood so that it seemed like everyone had a few or several.  (The neighbors weren’t running all over the neighborhood, mind you.  I’m talking only about the chickens: the some chickens that belonged to us and the other chickens that belonged to our neighbors.  Do you see how important apostrophes are?)

But the chicken coops were kept tidy!  For there were coyotes and the occasional bobcat—another story for another day!

Add to all this that along this street, Alosta Drive, were thirty or so kids within a three- or four-year age range.  Yeah, Asphodel for the grown-ups but Elysium for us!  We still refer to ourselves as the Alosta Mafia.

So, I lived near the top of the street.  Usually people would say “end of the street,” and so it was, for the street ended just a hundred yards or so above the property where I grew up.  But remember those hills and barrancas?  The street weaved its way up the side of a sizable hill, rising 400 or so feet in elevation along its three-quarter-mile length.  Getting the picture?

Now, if we kids were to take Big Wheels—which we did—frequently—or Red Flyer wagons, modified with go-cart wheels and raised axles to lower their centers of gravity—which we also did—frequently—if we were to take these engineless vehicles to the top/end of the street, it was a full quarter-mile down (a precariously steep) hill to the first leveling-off place.  And, yep, that first leveling-off place was at the corner we’ve all been reminiscing over on Facebook.

It was a ninety-degree left turn; and the leveling-off place coincided with the corner, meaning it was a steep descent from the top all the way up to the corner.  Crazy steep!  Like 200 of that 400 feet of elevation!  And to make matters worse, some telephone company engineer had once upon a time decided to plant a telephone pole right at the end of the curve.  Something like this:

Corner

By the way, I don’t know whose idea it was to plant the ice plant there once upon a time, but it was brilliant!

Back then it was no seat belts or helmets either!

Well, you can imagine the stories!  Flying down the hill as fast as (or faster than) a car, we’d lean into the corner and hope for the best.

“Do any of y’all remember that time Mike did a face plant?” one of my reminiscing friends asked.

“Yeah,” another answered, “I was there.  His face was a bloody and the skin around his lip peeled away.”

This was a fool’s hope, now that I look back; for in the event that the sand or gravel didn’t send you into a tailspin, there was a chance that a car just might be coming uphill as you were on your way down.

I vividly remember someone once exclaiming, “Dude, you almost got run over by your mom!”

In any event, most of the stories we remember today aren’t of us making it safely around the corner.  That happened more often than not, don’t get me wrong; but that’s apparently not the stuff of memories.  Rather, it’s the face plants we remember, the near collisions, the toppling headlong into and beyond the ice plant, and the stains the ice plant made in our clothes!

Good times!

But the memory I want to share of this corner is a little different.

By now we were a little older.  It was probably late in the spring of 1982, though I could be off by a year.  I remember school was almost out; it was one of those Friday or Saturday nights where some of the guys wanted to forget our studies for a while and just goof off.  So we rallied, five or six of us anyway, and met in Chris’s driveway for a game of ditch ‘em.

The object of ditch ‘em was simple.  It was dark; we’d see the glare from a car’s headlights approaching; and it was everyone for himself (or herself) into the bushes, gutters, trees, chicken coops, whatever, so long as the driver of the car didn’t see us.

Sounds kind of lame now, sure.  But we came up with it on a night when we had sneaked out of our respective houses; and so if we were to get caught it would get back to our parents and who knows what kind of trouble we’d be in!

But not tonight.  None of us had sneaked out.  We were just hanging out at Chris’s entirely under the auspices of our parents’ permission.

So ditch ‘em was in fact kind of lame.  Or boring at least.

“I’m bored,” my brother Andy complained.  “Why don’t we do something else?”

“Like a variation on a theme?” I asked, having recently begun working on Mozart’s Ah, Vous Dirai-je Maman.

“Huh?” everyone else asked.

So we started playing with the drivers’ minds.  Instead of running for cover, which held no risk and therefore seemed pointless, whenever the glare appeared one of us would stand on one side of the road and another on the other and we’d lift in tandem a pretend cable (or rope or whatever the driver wanted to imagine), or even string a real roll of toilet paper across the road at windshield height, to see if we could get the driver to slam on the brakes and stop the car.  Whenever we succeeded it was all laughter and high fives then drop the pretend rope or real roll of t. p. and run like mad for cover before the driver could get out of his (or her) car and wring our necks (unless it was your mom, who’d wring your neck later).

Anyway, in this way on this particular night we ended up at the corner.

Five or six cars into it I caught myself getting bored with this new game, this variation on a theme; which meant for me it was time to pull the M80 out of my pocket I’d been saving for just such an occasion.

“Hey Matt,” I whispered to the person closest to me—in proximity I mean, not in loyalty, “check this out.”

“Whoa!  What is it?”

I’d bought the thing on my last trip to Grandpa’s beach house in Baja, some miles south of Ensenada.  My family would go to Grandpa’s beach house a few times each year.  On a recent visit my brother and I had discovered how much fun fireworks could be and how easy it was to smuggle a few home to unincorporated Ventura County in our luggage.

I was always pretty good at math, and someone told me an M500 was a half a stick of dynamite.  They were also like ten bucks each.  The power alone frightened me; but so did the price.  But an easy calculation told me that an M80 was like a twelfth a stick of dynamite.  Technically, it was an M83.333…, but that’s too much of a mouthful, surely—or so was my theory.  Anyway, an M80 (or 83.333…) was a heck of a lot more powerful than a piddley firecracker or bottle rocket.  And they were only fifty cents each (“or eleven for five dollars, my American friend”)!  So I bought eleven and set five off later that day on the beach and traded four more to a guy for a live lobster.

I broke down and bought a few bottle rockets too, because they flew, which was cool.  But I left the firecracker purchases for my brother.

“Firecrackers are lame,” I said.

“But you can get a whole brick for five bucks,” he answered.  Which was true.

Anyway that left me with two M80s for the trip home, one of which was confiscated at the border because I flinched when the agent asked if I was bringing any fireworks home.  “You know these are illegal in California, son?” he’d asked.

So now I had my one, prized M80, tucked away in my pocket earlier that night for just such an occasion as this, here, bored with our variation on ditch ‘em at the corner.

Now, recovered from my boredom and quivering with excitement over my plan to scare the heebie-jeebies out of my friends, except for Matt who was in on my secret, when it was dark as dark and quiet as quiet, I stealthily lit the M80’s fuse and threw it out into the street, right in the middle of the corner.

And I waited, suppressing giggles as much as possible.

Matt giggled too.

“Shut up, doofus,” I said.

“You shut up!”

We both giggled again, louder this time.

“What?” Andy’s voice came from behind.

“Oh, nothing.”

The fuse was lit.  Only a matter of seconds now!

But the wick was barely smoldering.

Whahuh?  Had I waited too long, I wondered?  Had keeping the firework in my pocket somehow damaged the fuse?  Argh!

I continued to watch and wait, jabbing Matt in the side and pointing out my demise, the quivering and giggling having ceased now, Matt and I watching silently as the firework’s wick glowed more and more dimly, until at last we could see no glow at all.

A dud, I concluded.  My plan had failed.

“Ha,” Matt remarked, jabbing me now and pointing, “bummer for you.”  And he went off to join Andy and Chris and the others.

Then, just as I was about to walk out into the middle of the street and retrieve my prized yet failed twelfth a stick of dynamite in the hopes of some semblance of recompense, humbled, staring at the ground, shuffling my feet—I’d already stood and taken the first steps—the unthinkable happened.

No, I know what you’re thinking; but the M80 did not explode.  Not yet anyway.  Rather, the telltale glare of headlights showed in the distance.  And for some reason—maybe the others were bored by now with the pretend cable game too, or maybe we were out of toilet paper, I don’t know—Chris yelled, “Ditch ‘em,” and we all ran pell-mell in several different directions.

I headed to the uphill side of the road, still anxious to fetch my prized yet failed firework, but after the car was to have passed, wanting to keep an eye on things, hopped over a droopy fence, and sat poised.  And, then—it’s like slow motion as I replay it in my mind’s eye—just as the car we’d all just ditched reached the corner, I saw my twelfth-a-stick-of-dynamite-failed-yet-prized firework suddenly spring back to life.  That fuse wasn’t just a smoldering glow now either, but a full flame!

“Matt!” I shouted.

And—not even a shred of lie here!—not even an ounce of exaggeration!—I swear it on the Alosta Mafia’s highest levels of honor and valor!—just as the car was fully straddled—I mean, the firework was dead center under it!—

KABLAM!

And all at once a collective shout of fright erupted from the Mafia (and maybe from the driver too, I don’t know)!—except from me and Matt.

Then, crickets—except for the idle of the car’s motor and the muted sound of muffled music from inside.

The car had stopped!

And the driver got out.

And he systematically walked around the car.

And he kicked all four tires.

And he shrugged his shoulders and got in and drove off.

And that was that!

But once he was out of earshot—oh, what rapture!—I and all my friends laughed out loud until our bellies ached.

And we were still laughing a half hour later, in fact,

when the cop showed up.

“Hey,” he shouted, “anyone here named Matt?”

And he stepped out of his patrol car.

Five of us rolled out of our various respective hiding spots and walked subconsciously towards this new voice of fearsome, badge-wielding authority; a voice which then said something about someone who’d called the station complaining of some teenagers near that corner up on Alosta Drive throwing lighted objects, thought one might be named Matt.

“Nope,” Chris said, which was true enough, for Matt had gone home shortly after the explosion; thought his dad (a fireman) might start asking questions and wanted an alibi.  (“Nah, I was home by then, Dad.  Don’t you remember?”)

“Yeah,” I offered; and added without thinking, “he went home already.”

And again, crickets.

Then it began to roll over me, like when one of us would roll out of a wagon onto, over, and across the blessed, saving ice plant!  What had I just said?  What had I just done?  The gig was up now for sure!  And by the betrayed looks of my former friends, I’d have some answering to do later.

“Well,” the cop said, “I appreciate your honesty, um—what’s your name?”

“Tim.”

“Yes, Tim, I appreciate your honesty.  You do realize, son, that fireworks are illegal in California?”

I flinched.

“Yes, uh, sir,” I managed, finally.

The cop addressed my cronies.  “You dweebs go wait over there,” he pointed.  “I want to talk to Tim alone.”

“Yessir!” they said collectively and, I thought, all too willingly.  And, swoosh, they were out of earshot.  Or at least I hoped they were.

Just to be sure, though, I spoke quietly.  And I told the whole story.  Including that part about smuggling the illegal firework from Mexico.  Including that part about the tattered fuse.  Including that part about me thinking it was a dud.  Including that part when I shouted Matt’s name, which is probably where the person who called the station had heard it, I said.  And even including that part about the driver getting out, kicking his tires, shrugging his shoulders, and driving off.

“And,” I continued, “I know I shouldn’t have—  Wait.  Officer, sir, are you laughing?”

“Um, son,” he cleared his throat.  Then, some moments later, after he’d turned his face from me so I couldn’t tell whether he was smiling or scowling or what, he continued.  “Never mind.  I appreciate your honesty though, son.  Don’t ever lose that.  And you just tell Matt, next time you see him, that fireworks are illegal in California.  Got it?  That’s all.”

I stared up for a few seconds in disbelief.  That was all?  Really?  I was nonplussed.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “Aren’t you gonna bust me?”

He leaned over and cupped his hand around his mouth and whispered—so there was no chance of them overhearing—“No, Tim, I ain’t gonna bust you.  Your friends will do enough of that, I’m sure.  But keep it quiet after I leave and they might keep it to a minimum.  After all, quiet ain’t dishonest.”

He then stood up straight, turned, walked to his car, called on his radio (loudly enough for anyone in earshot to hear, mind you)—“nothing to be concerned about, just some kids being stupid”—got in, sat down, turned off the flashing lights, turned the car around, and drove slowly away, out of Chris’s driveway, around that memorable corner, and out of sight.

End of Year 1

Posted in Background, Reflection with tags , , , , , on July 5, 2014 by timtrue

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July 7 marks my ordination-to-the-priesthood anniversary: one year.  It therefore seems a good time to reflect over the past year, maybe even over the past twenty-five years; and to look ahead to the twenty-five or so years remaining in my career–not that I hope only to live for only another twenty-five years, leaving me dead at seventy-one; but that I will retire from full-time ministry at about that time (the Episcopal Church presently has a mandatory retirement age of seventy-two).

Along these lines, I used to think I’d work till I died: who needs retirement, right?  But now I’m more of the mindset that I will rejoice to stop full-time parochial work and take on a growing list of projects, like completing some works of fiction I’ve already begun and writing others; and like spending vast quantities of time in the great cities of Europe; and like taking the time necessary to read, mark, and inwardly digest and otherwise work through Homer and Vergil; and like obtaining and using season tickets for a symphony orchestra; and like watching my kids and grandkids grow and mature; and like–well, you get the idea.

So for the past twenty-five years:

  • Twenty-five years ago I was twenty-one, working at Hume Lake Christian Camps in California as a camp counselor.  Already the Holy Spirit was working on my own spirit with the suggestion that full-time work in Gospel ministry might be my vocation some day.
  • Twenty-five years ago I’d just moved out of my parents’ house, going from there to Hume Lake, and from Hume to Davis, where I’d transferred to finish out my education.
  • Twenty-five years ago I was a mathematics major.
  • Somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-four years ago I switched my major to music, concluding that I would like to pursue seminary after college, to earn a master’s of divinity and seek ordination.  It didn’t matter to seminaries what academic discipline I majored in, just that I earned a bachelor’s degree.  Curiously, even though I’d never studied the languages, I thought some about switching from math to classics (Greek and Latin); but music, already a known passion, won the day.
  • Shortly after that I met Holly.
  • Some time in here I was baptized at First Baptist Church of Davis.
  • Holly and I got pretty serious; marriage looked like a possibility.  I shared my desire for full-time ministry, resolved to take whatever I needed time to get there.  She liked the idea and resolved to take this journey with me.
  • We married on Sept. 11, 1993.
  • My first attempt at seminary came in the fall of 1994.  Holly and I were about to have our first child, so we moved to Colorado to settle in before the baby’s arrival.  Denver Seminary was the plan, a Baptist seminary.  But work was scarce.
  • So, without starting seminary, and accepting an offer to be Director of Youth Ministries with Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in my home town, we returned to California.  Now there were three mouths to feed.
  • Youth ministry was a blast.  Here I did manage to attend the Master’s Seminary part-time, where I studied Greek and Hebrew and plodded my way through a two-year Bible survey.  Through it all I surmised I probably was not as aligned with the way Baptist churches do things as with other churches.  But which ones?
  • After three years, and now with four mouths to feed, I left Baptist youth ministry to begin a career teaching in Christian schools.  This was still youth ministry, I reasoned, and in many ways more substantial than the ministry I had been engaged in.  But I wasn’t sure of my denominational alignment (if any), and also reasoned that I should step out of formally recognized ministry until such a time that others recognized my call.
  • Teaching took us to various parts of the country–a real adventure over a dozen years.  In that time I ended up teaching all ages from kindergarten through college.  Also in here was a three-year stint with a civil engineering firm (making a total of fifteen years), which, frankly, paid the bills better than teaching.
  • The other journey was spiritual.  I grew a lot during these years: I was a part of a failing school start-up; we faced and overcame cancer; I experienced a high level of success in another newly started school; I increased my Greek and learned Latin, equipping me with unlooked for skills desired by Christian schools seemingly all over; our family grew in size from four to seven.  All this shaped me as a man in general; but particularly I grew leaps and bounds spiritually, counting on God through it all to lead, guide, and otherwise direct.  Trust is the word that comes to mind here.  But also, during this time we went from Baptist to Presbyterian (when four kids were baptized on the same day) to, finally, Episcopal.  The sacraments, liturgy, and musical tradition beckoned too strongly for us to ignore.
  • So, finally, having settled into this particular Christian tradition, and with me becoming more comfortable with the idea that maybe I would never be ordained, that maybe my career would only ever be to teach–in this context, the local bishop entered me into a formal process of discernment, a process that led to seminary and ordination.  And so my sense of call some twenty-five years ago has been realized.

Whew!  Doesn’t this journey sound tiring?  It has been.  But along the way I’ve been placing myself in the shoes of whatever pastor/rector has been leading the particular congregation of which I was a part, often in roles of church leadership myself, always asking myself what I’d do in a given situation.  Thus I graduated seminary and entered the priesthood a year ago ready to get to work, so to speak.  Yes, I’m tired.  But yes, too, I’m ready to press on, like I’ve run half the marathon already but I’ve still got half of it to go.  No time to slow up now.  In fact, heck, I’ve just settled into my stride.  So looking ahead:

  • Soon I hope to find a parish that I can settle into for a long time, perhaps the remainder of my career.  I’m ready–not a kid with no life experience.  (Yet I realize too that one can never be completely ready, but must trust in God’s leading.)  This is a tall order for a curate, I realize, to go from a first appointment into a position of parish rector.  But it’s not impossible.
  • In that ministry (wherever and whenever it will be) I hope to focus on pastoral care, Christian formation, and outreach.  More specifically, the Anglican tradition (of which the Episcopal Church is a part) already possesses a rich tradition of liturgy and practice; I intend to draw from these rather than from the latest successful methods.  Why spend my time, I figure, concentrating on attractive gimmicks to get newcomers through the doors when instead I have the Daily Offices (Morning and Evening Prayer) and spiritual direction already at my disposal?  And just to get a little pragmatic here, contrary to what some are saying there is in fact a high amount of interest in the ancient traditions among young people, particularly among the twenty-something singles.  As for Christian formation, well, I’ve been putting together curricula and teaching and administrating professionally for a dozen years; this whole part of the calling is in my blood.  And as for outreach, I intend to be, well, intentional about getting out into the community–on school boards, a city council, involved with sports and scouts, perhaps the Rotary Club–wherever I can without over-extending myself.  Etc.
  • But primarily I am resolved never to lose sight of my duty to provide spiritual leadership to whatever community I eventually find myself leading.
  • And to trust.

So, yes, I’m tired already.  But on the other hand I’m just hitting my stride, and this energizes me.  Besides, this is the only marathon I’ll ever run.  Best to run it well, with perseverance.

Motorcycles, Music, and the Mediterranean

Posted in Background, Education, Family, Motorcycle, Rationale, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2014 by timtrue

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Just imagine for a moment cruising around the Mediterranean Riviera on a motorcycle, by yourself or with friends, whatever your pleasure, with an itinerary based upon concerts.  Would you start in Rome and work your way north and then west through France and Spain?  Or are you more attracted to the east side of the Middle-earth Sea, to the Greek Isles maybe, or to Istanbul, or the so-called Promised Land?  Or, perhaps you have a thirst for the peoples of North Africa–for Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco?  Or maybe you’d do it all.  Anyway, sounds like a great vacation to me.  Now if only I could find a way to finance it!

But contrary to whatever ideas the title of this post may suggest about travel, what I really want to discuss here is another “m” word: manumission.  For each of these things–motorcycles, music, and the Mediterranean–represent a liberation for me from a burden that had become a sort of personal bondage.  Perhaps this manumission has something to do with why I continue to be so drawn to each today.  (Perhaps, too, that imagined vacation suggested above will become a personal reality someday.)

So: motorcycles.  How do these represent liberation for me?  To answer I must go back to my boyhood, to when I was twelve years old or so and I got my first motorcycle.  It was a Yamaha MX80, not sure of the year, maybe 1972.  An unreliable two-stroke motor powered the beast.  I remember that it fouled sparkplugs regularly, so I soon learned to carry a spare in my increasingly bulging portable tool kit.  It possessed all of 6 or 7 horsepower, and could reach a top speed of thirty-five, maybe–if I rode it down a really steep hill wide open and engaged the clutch!

But it provided me with a certain freedom I’d not known previously.  For my older brother, who had a much more reliable 1976 Honda XR75, and I now had the ability to explore far beyond where any of our previous pedestrian adventures had allowed us to go.  Many a time did we ride from our house to the bed of Callegas Creek, taking whatever footpaths and backroads we could to get there and to avoid the fuzz.  We fashioned ourselves as little rebels without a cause.  At least we did until another fouled plug threw a temporary glitch into the day.  But then we fashioned ourselves as expert mechanics.

On this note, I remember a day when we couldn’t for the life of us figure out how to get my steed back in working order.  We were three or four miles from home, stuck in a fairly boggy part of the creek bed, scratching our heads in adolescent befuddlement.  Long story short, one of us found a bedraggled piece of discarded rope; and, knowing how to tie numerous knots from Scouts, Older Brother towed me the distance.  To heck with non-street-legal status, we said; this was an emergency!  Fifteen minutes later we’d made it home in one piece, and we’d avoided the fuzz’s notice.

We didn’t always succeed, however, at avoiding the fuzz’s notice.  I can remember more than once riding my manumission-enabling motorcycle right past a cop driving in the other direction.  I can even remember seeing the cop’s frowning face and pointing finger, indicating his desire for me to pull over.

But I had some things going for me, and I knew it.  First off, the roads were narrow and windy.  It would be at least thirty seconds before the cop could turn around successfully.  By then I’d be a quarter-mile away.  Second, I knew these quasi-rural narrow windy streets as well if not better than he did.  There lay before me any combination of lefts, rights, and straight-aheads so that by the time said cop managed to turn his bulky Ford-Crown-Victoria self around he’d be left to guess his way forward like so many youths in the Minotaur’s labyrinth.  Ha!  And, third and finally, I could go off-road if necessary, as a last resort (which I actually did once).  What could the copper do then?  Pull his pistol on me?  Really?  Yeah, like that’d go over well in the Camarillo Daily News!  Cop Shoots Kid on 6-Horsepower Sparkplug-fouling Motorbike.

Anyway, I never did get pulled over, arrested, thrown in juvey, whatever.  Instead I always managed to defy the law (and my plug-fouling steed) successfully, high-tailing it home lickety-split, parking the bike in the garage, shutting it down, closing the garage door, and heading into the house to take a nonchalant seat on the couch as if I’d only been playing Space Invaders on the ATARI all morning long.

Manumission I tell you!

Vielle

A second liberating experience happened in college, after deciding to change my major from mathematics to music.  It happened this way.

I entered college in 1986, three months after graduating high school.  But I had no idea what to do with my life, what to declare as a major, and so on.  Long about second semester of my senior year in high school, in fact, I’d looked around and thought, “Yeah, I guess I ought to go to college.  Don’t want to end up delivering flowers the rest of my life.”  So I applied to enroll like so many of my friends at a local community college.

But that blasted application asked me to choose a major!

So I wondered and reflected and contemplated and pondered and thought and over-analyzed, as I am wont to do.  What am I good at?  What do I like to do?

In the end I checked the box that said forestry.  How cool would that be, I reasoned, to backpack around Yosemite or Kings Canyon and check the lakes to see if they’re stocked with enough fish!

But in my first year of college I almost gave up.  Flower delivery, after all, was paying me pretty well.

It was the math, really.  I’d let calculus get the better of me.

The fall of 1987 came around and I determined to get back up on that horse–or, to use another metaphor, to fix that fouled plug and ride the motorbike home.  I poured every bit of mental effort I had into my second attempt at calculus.  And I found I actually understood it, even liked it!

At the same time I was taking music appreciation and music theory courses.  These I enjoyed too.  But they were almost effortless for me.  I wrote the first coherent paper of my life, comparing Beethoven to the Beatles–and earned an A.  I devoured every musical rule I learned; compositions flowed.  So, I reasoned, because of the effortlessness these courses must not be as academic as math, somehow.

Yet I enjoyed them so much so that I shared with my engineer-dad my struggle.  “Dad,” I said, “um, well, I’m still technically a forestry major.  But I’m thinking of changing my major to either music or math.  And, uh, since you’re paying the bills and all, well, what do you think?”

“What kind of job could you get with a music degree?” he asked.

So I officially changed my major to mathematics.

Three years later I was in Davis, California, the fall of 1990, beginning what I hoped would be my final year of college.  Math was a struggle, but the end was in sight–if only I could pass analysis and combinatorics.  Everything else came easily enough for me.  But these two courses were a struggle.

Then there was music.  I was still taking music courses on the side, for fun.  But it felt somehow wrong, like dating two girls at the same time.

“And besides,” I asked myself, “what would I do with a math degree?  Teach?

“I could always teach music. . . .

“And that whole silly dream of being a fighter pilot in the Air Force, well, really, Tim, that was kind of a passing fancy, wasn’t it?

“Aren’t you really feeling more of a tug to pursue ministry?”

And so I was.

Couple this with things taking a turn for the worse in my first significant relationship with a girl–another story for another day.

So then, it all exploded over Christmas break.  My girlfriend broke up with me (on Christmas Day no less!) and faithful Music and jealous Math found out what was going on.  The gig was up.

So I again sought sage Engineer-dad’s counsel.

“Do what you want, Tim,” he said.  “But keep in mind that the money will be used up by the end of this year.  So if you end up staying on, you’ll have to pay for it.”

So I did.  I changed my major to music and stayed on–another two years.  And I paid for it out of my own pocket.  Happily!  For I’d been manumitted.

On to the Mediterranean then!

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Some years after graduating college I was indeed teaching.  Ironically it included math.  By now I was married with two daughters, ages 3 and 1.  And I was frankly disappointed in the educational prospects for my kids.  So I began to consider and contemplate and think about and ponder and over-analyze the idea of home-schooling my children if necessary, to offer them something better than the other options we were faced with–if necessary.  My question to myself, then, was where I lacked.

I began reading lots of books about education, turning first to the history of education and then to the seven liberal arts of the Middle Ages themselves.  Curiously, my education had included lots of stuff.  Serendipitously, I was already quite well-versed in the quadrivium–arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music.  But, aha!, the trivium revealed a gap.  Sure, I knew some things about grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric.  But these were not taught once upon a time as we teach subjects today.  They were seen more as stages, as Dorothy Sayers points out in a rather famous essay.  Anyway, to learn the languages of Greek and Latin would reasonably fill in my personal academic gaps, I concluded.

So at 32 years of age I dived into the ancient Mediterranean pool of classical languages.  And again I experienced a sort of manumission.  For I wasn’t the only person seeing educational deficiencies in our modern culture, I soon discovered.  Lots of schools in fact were restructuring their curricula to incorporate these same ancient models, or starting up as altogether new.  And I soon found a place teaching Latin, not to mention ancient Mediterranean cultures, to students.  I found schools to which I could send my kids with a clear conscience too.  Manumission!

So there it is, really: my manumission theme and three variations.  But, before I conclude, I’d like to add a coda.

That 3 year-old is now a sophomore in college.  She is studying this semester in Florence, Italy, smack-dab in the middle of all things Mediterranean.  And she is having the time of her life.

She’s been there only a few weeks.  But already she has traveled to Rome and Pompeii, and to Ravenna.  She will be taking a field trip to, among other places, Venice.  While in Florence, in addition to studying, she will enjoy an internship restoring Etruscan artifacts.  She recently wrote me to say,

“While doing my homework this evening, I glanced at a picture of Zeus that I’ve seen in several textbooks over the years.  I then realized that this sculpture resides exactly where I do.  I think it’s finally hit me that I live in the midst of, essentially with, all the history and art that I have studied in the past several years.  I’m currently in awe.”

There’s something very liberating in all of this.

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Background: From Then Till Now . . . For Now

Posted in Background with tags , on August 4, 2013 by timtrue

The following is an article I wrote for my church’s newsletter this month.  It finishes off my blog’s background story in brief.  In time, I’ll fill in more detail of my back story, I’m sure.  But this one brings you up to the present day in a fun way and thus fills out the picture.

 

Once upon a time, a long time ago, after a certain choir rehearsal, a young superhero named Captain Uriah (a. k. a. Tim) told Holly (his wife-to-be) that he sensed a nudging from the Holy Spirit towards the Gospel ministry.  Would she marry him anyway?  Yes, she said, misty eyed, though not from the adventure she knew a life of ministry promised but from the high concentration of pollens in the air that day: this was Davis, CA, after all, second only in allergen parts per million to south Texas, or so I’ve been told.  They were married a few months later and their adventure together began in earnest.

Tim accepted a call as Youth Director with a Baptist church in southern California.  Things cruised along well enough for a time, including the births of Tim and Holly’s first two daughters, till Tim realized he wasn’t really a Baptist after all, but maybe a Presbyterian.  “Whoa,” he told Holly one morning over coffee, “maybe I should figure some things out.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, adding a little Splenda to her mug, “maybe.”

So he changed lanes on what was really the same freeway and taught for some years, middle and high school students mostly, incredibly important things like passive periphrastics and gerundives and when to use the locative case and what it looks like and who Aeneas was and why this even matters–or not.  Somewhere along the lines two more daughters were born and Tim looked at Holly one day over lunch and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time, dear?”

And she said, sprinkling Parmesan cheese over her spaghetti ever so delicately, “Yes, yes it is.”

So, thinking they might really be more Episcopal than Presbyterian, on a certain Maundy Thursday this former superhero and his family donned the red door of an Episcopal church.  “Finally,” they all said together over Communion, “we’re home.”  And they knew they were right where they should be.

“How would you feel about going to seminary?” the bishop soon asked.

“What?” gulped Tim, “with five kids?  Pshaw!”

For, you see, now a fifth child, a son, had been born to Tim and Holly.  It happened in the mean time, when they were simply going about their business trying to live their lives, teaching, parenting, eking.  But that was beside the point.  The Holy Spirit said, “Time to man up!  Time to make good!”

And so the family left the Hill Country and sojourned in the Southern Wilderness of Sewanee for a thousand days, a land flowing with coffee and pasta lunches.

“I manned up,” Tim prayed at the end of this time; “I made good.”

“Indeed!” the Holy Spirit declared.

English: Texas Hill Country, on Route 187 head...

Texas Hill Country, on Route 187 heading North, just north of Garner State Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And now they are back in the Hill Country living happily ever after.

Background: How We Started Dating

Posted in Background with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2013 by timtrue

sewanee

So that’s how Holly and I met.  Here’s how we started dating.

Maybe a year after her announcement that she knew my secret identity–after we’d spent much time in class together, catching concerts, eating meals, participating in study groups, not always with other friends and fellow students present either, but my point here is after we’d gotten to know each other quite well in circles platonic, more or less–I realized I was thoroughly stricken, smitten, and afflicted.

I remember the February day this hit me, in fact, though this is not exactly what led to our first date.  We were catching a lunch together at a Chinese buffet.  Hey, it was raining and cold outside and dry and warm inside and the company was pleasant so don’t hack the choice of cuisine!  Anyway, Holly was at this time dating a guy she’d met in San Luis Obispo over Christmas break, a long-distance relationship that seemed off to a good enough start, though I remained somewhat skeptical.  But some trigger was pulled in me that day, eating an egg roll and drinking hot tea from a way-too-small cup across the table from her.  I was acting goofy.  And I became aware of my goofiness.  And despite my attempts at reining it in I couldn’t seem to get control.  Something inside was no doubt off-kilter, a kind of dizziness, but not, if you get what I mean.  And it hit me at once that I was a little jealous of this SLO guy.

Now, Holly is a perceptive person, this much at least I knew already.  So, perhaps abruptly, sensing my inner drama and not wanting it to become any more outward than it already had, “I gotta go study,” I said, “see ya in class tomorrow,” and left.

Incidentally, when I rehashed this scene with Holly later, maybe on our honeymoon or something like it, she said she hadn’t noticed anything.  Perhaps she’s just being kind.

Also at this time I was living with four other guys in a big house in town.  It was a four bedroom house, so somehow three of us decided we would share two of the bedrooms, making one a sleep area and the other a study area.  Might sound nice for the other two who got their own rooms, but, crazy, it worked out well, so well in fact that the three of us guys–Derek, Paul, and I–decided to spend Spring Break together that year.

My dad let us borrow an old van–this a 1976 Sportsman, an upgrade from the 1968 model–which we fitted out with a place to sleep over a place to keep snow skis, camping equipment, and luggage.  We did just about everything you can do in eight days in March in the western U. S.  We drove from southern California, where we’d retrieved the van, to Lake Tahoe where Derek had access to a family cabin for spending a night and trying our luck at nearby slots; then through Nevada to Utah where we skied at Snowbird; then to Colorado where we holed up for one night in Rifle and camped the next just outside the Garden of the Gods in freezing weather; then to southern Utah where we camped, fished, and swam in Lake Powell–and Derek ran over a few hares, we all hiked some natural arches, and Paul nearly destroyed the van; and finally back to southern California.  All three of us were in between dating relationships at the time.  None of us had brought razors; and if my memory serves one or two even forgot toothbrushes.  (Paul visited me just last week in fact and we couldn’t help reminiscing over this very trip.)

Having barely made it back to school in time for spring quarter then, as I walked across the courtyard in front of the music building, who should I see but Holly?  Mind you, I still hadn’t shaved since before leaving for Colorado, something like ten days before.  She smiled nevertheless.  And after I’d barely said hello she said, still smiling,

“Guess what?”

“Uh, what?”

“Darren and I broke up.”

“Oh,” I said, stalling for time, thrilled as a roller coaster ride inside but looking for signs outside.  She was still smiling, maybe even more broadly.  But was that enough?  “So, um,” I decided to risk it all, “let me take you out to a movie, er, to cheer you up?”

“Okay!”  No hesitation.  No reticence.  Nothing.

Well, no way was I as perceptive as she, but at least this time it seemed to be working out.

Next night we dined at Cafe Italia and took in an appropriate movie for music majors, Beethoven.  Except it wasn’t about the musician at all, just some St. Bernard pups.  But I couldn’t have cared less.

The following day I overheard Holly telling a fellow music student, Helena, that I’d taken her out last night.

“Finally!” Helena smiled.  A lot of other students agreed, and maybe even a faculty member or two, when Helena shared Holly’s news out loud.

By some strange serendipity, Derek and Paul were in dating relationships again within a week.

Background: How We Met

Posted in Background with tags , , , on July 19, 2013 by timtrue
Adam et Eve

Adam et Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the byproducts of giving in and embracing my faith in the simplistic camp setting discussed last time is that I likewise gave in to my childhood temptation of seeing things too clearly.  Not that it’s all bad to see the world this way.  Yes or no, right or wrong, black or white, good or evil: it makes for robust principles and idealism.  The difficult part comes in the eventual impracticacabillity of trying to live out such robust principles and ideals.

On the one hand, then, it was really unfortunate that my wife met me during these years.  For I had everything worked out in my mind ahead of time, gleaned from the first of all marriages, Adam and Eve’s.  From the Scriptures, I told myself, it was all so clear.  Adam and Eve had been given specific roles by God himself.  Adam’s were to provide and protect.  He would provide for his family through his own toil, eking out whatever living he could for his multiplying family by the sweat of his own brow, not Eve’s.  Of course I wasn’t a gardener or shepherd but instead one who’d decided (rather foolishly according to some) to study music in college, to earn a degree in theory and composition.  My toil then would be less of sweat than of mental efforts of creativity, or so I told myself.  I had not yet experienced how difficult it would be to get a publisher’s attention, the means by which a composer makes money–a different kind of toil altogether.  Besides, I assured myself, I sense the call to the Gospel ministry anyway, meaning I will more than likely go to seminary after graduating from UC Davis, meaning too that I should just study whatever I like, since seminary requires only a bachelor’s degree and no specific field of study like engineering, physics, or math (“practical,” money-making degrees those fool-deemers would have preferred).  Somehow, I just knew, I’d find a way to keep my family’s finances afloat.

Holly, my dear bride-to-be, had a pre-determined role as well.  Clearly, I saw, Eve’s labor was to bear and raise children.  Holly would do the same, surely.  Bearing children was a difficult prospect.  But there was no way around this difficulty–other than not having kids, which made no sense.  Besides, the joys of spending days raising children would make it all worth it, right?

“How many kids do you want?” I asked one day over dinner.  We were both music students, meaning free concerts most nights of the week, meaning lots of good dates for low prices during our engagement.

Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel, Adam and Eve, detail.

Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel, Adam and Eve, detail. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Um, er,” Holly began, then quietly chewed her pizza and took a sip of her soda probably to think it through.  At last she said, “two maybe, or three?”

“Two or three?  I was thinking six.”

“Six!” she coughed and then took another sip.  Perhaps some pizza was lingering.  At any rate, a moment later, recovered more or less, she said, “I can’t imagine any more than four.”

My idealism was based on Adam and Eve before the fall–you know, that time in the Garden when they walked around naked, which certainly must have meant a tropical climate, meaning too that there were lush and abundant fruits for their picking and eating, warm waters for delightful swims whenever the fancy struck, sleeping out under the stars, frolicking with beasts, and so on, and there was no shame.  But of course this pre-fall bliss, this honeymoon if you will, was before they had actually had any kids, before the Cain and Abel incident in other words.  Talk about sibling rivalry!  No matter, I told myself, our marriage would be based on Edenic principles.  We’d be different.  Our kids–if God blesses us thusly–won’t argue or fight.  You’ll see.  Just watch!  Incidentally, in my experience since, most people whom I have encoutered with similar ideals aren’t basing them on post-fall humanity.  But this is the period of humanity in which we live.  Just an observation.

But on the other hand, Iwas a superhero.  How could she resist?

For video-archive detail, watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBZothIXJBg&feature=youtu.be.  BTW, I don’t show up for the first 8 minutes.

Captain Uriah was the brainchild of a certain few of us on the College Life Leadership Team in the fall of 1990.  College Life was a ministry of First Baptist Church, Davis.  Its stated purpose was to offer spiritual direction to the student body.  In actual practice, we met weekly in a classroom on Sunday evenings for songs, a talk, and fellowship.  Once a month the meeting took on a different feel, a skit-oriented talk show modeled after Late Nite with David Letterman.  We called it outreach, but I think it was more an opportunity for those so inclined to exercise some creativity.  It was fun.  It was an outlet.  And people called it ministry.  Certainly, I thought, I could do this kind of work for the rest of my life.

Captain Uriah began as a skit.  I wore a blue turtleneck with a “U” duct-taped across my chest, a safety-pinned Mexican serape as a cape, blue running tights, and a pair of boxers with panda bears on the outside.  Goofy, I know.  But the first appearance was an absolute hit.  He became a regular guest, whose deeds of do-gooding and soul-saving quickly became the stuff of legend.

Then the videos began.  This was the early 90s, remember; there was no digital recording available, or at least there wasn’t for poor college students.  We did everything with a camcorder, sometimes shooting a particular scene seven or eight times before we had compiled enough material to splice it all together into something presentable.  There was always a story to tell, for sure, but I think the chief goal (unsaid of course) was humor.  The cameraman would sit in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, for instance, filming and interviewing the driver in some formulaic fashion.  Suddenly I’d appear outside the driver window as if flying, hands outstretched, and thereby learn some crucial point necessary in saving some soul.  And off I’d be to do some good.  Of course, someone was in the bed of the truck holding my legs down so I wouldn’t fall out.  But we were going thirty, fast enough to give the effect of speed, but also fast enough to really hurt if I did fall out.

Fortunately I never did hurt myself in my Captain Uriah escapades.  But this was because I was doing right, not wrong; doing good, not evil.  Right?  It was all so clear to me.

Meanwhile I’d made the shift in my academics from math to music.  I was singing in choirs, practicing lots of piano, and absorbing every fact of music history and theory.  What between this and my alter-ego, life was good!

That’s when I first noticed Holly.  I’d see her almost daily in choir, a petite soprano walking across the front of the rehearsal hall to her place, and it occurred to me that I’d seen her before, elsewhere, no small coincidence in a school of 30,000.  Was it church?  Was it College Life?  Yeah, that was it.  In any event, I figured we had similar interests and I determined to introduce myself to her as soon as I got the chance.

The chance came a week or so later.  I was leaving the listening lab at an off time, meaning a time when most students were tucked away behind classroom doors.  The halls were relatively empty.  Then, there, ahead, the double-glass doors of the music building opened and in she walked.  And it seemed to me as if the Rachmaninov I’d just been listening to was still playing in my ears, the third movement of his second symphony, a quintessential romantic movement.  A gentle breeze caught her hair.  Warm sunlight highlighted her defined cheekbones.  Scents of spring blossoms caught my olfactories, wafting on the zephyr.  Our eyes met.  She smiled at me.

Now is the time, I told myself.  I suppressed whatever nerves sought to rise up against my purpose and set my face like flint.  I had to introduce myself.  When would I have a better opportunity?  I just had to say hi.

Approaching now, nearing, I began to move my right arm determined to offer a handshake.  Hey, at least it was something.  But, anyway, before my arm had noticeably moved, she–yes, she–said, “You’re Captain Uriah, aren’t you?”

I was speechless.