Monthly Archives: September 2007



Originally uploaded by jon.swanson

Saturday night and I’m sitting in a global coffee chain with a computer writing. I have this odd sense of being years behind my friends who do this all the time. However, I don’t have a laptop of my own. I had this borrowed one with me and so decided to write while waiting for the movie theatre to disgorge our daughter and friends.

But while in this technological cliche, i gotta tell you the other story from the funeral today.

Hope spent the night with a friend, arriving home while we were in the funeral. She called my phone, but I couldn’t answer. So….

1. I sent Andrew a text, asking him to call home and tell Hope to check email.
2. I sent Hope an email from my phone, which would allow her to reply so we could find out the arrangements for the rest of the day.
3. Which she did.

I know. If she had a phone, she could have texted. If these were the old days, we would have planned. If…

But these aren’t the old days. These are now. And we have people to connect with and things to be said. And figuring out how to think through the communication options to accomplish the connection continues to be a challenge…and a delight.

Time to finish the coffee and head to the theatre. But you can text me anytime.


discontiguous continuity

Nancy and I spent three hours today at a funeral.  I had only seen Mrs. Smith (her real name) once, and we hadn’t talked at all. If you are a regular reader here, however, you know that I did pray for her and put a spot of oil on her forehead.

She died a couple days after that, which really was no surprise. After 92 years and 9 children and innumerable grands and great-grands and great-great-grands (one of whom sat on my lap for part of the service), she had built a great cathedral of praise and it was time for her to stop all the working and just get to the praising part.

I cried during the service, which really was no surprise. What was a nice surprise was the realization that I was having almost exactly the same feeling of wonder, of awe, of being in the presence of something more than me as I had almost exactly a week before.

You may remember that last Saturday at about 1:00 pm, I was at the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in NYC.  At that time, I walked in and was in awe. And in tears.

So think for a bit with me. It is 660 miles between True Love Baptist Church and Saint Patrick’s. It is much further in worship styles, in apparent theology, in average amount of melanin, in square footage, in almost every dimension you can identify. Stained glass to no windows, low ceiling to high church… forget it. I could keep making these cutsy verbal twists for hours. And get no where.

What is so compelling is that I, having little in common with either place, was overwhelmingly aware of being in the presence of holiness, of being in the presence of lives poured into God.

Mrs. Smith built a family. She was the kind of grandmother who you loved and feared and loved again. Family members told stories of her discipline (when they decided to get mouthy or stay in bed) and her prayer (when there was no food on the table) and her persistence belief that God was working. Three grandsons and a great gave us marvelous offering of gospel-tinged jazz, playing a couple of her favorite hymns. And then, in true jazz style, they embraced after they played, knowing that it had never been like that before, was only that way because it was for her.

And the preaching. Powerful, clear, confrontive. “You say she taught you to pray. But do you pray?” “You say she showed you Jesus. But do you know Him?”

Nancy and I sat near the back, just absorbing. It was, for us, completely outside our usual spiritual family, but we were completely at home.

Saint Patrick’s. True Love. Mrs. Smith.

Three different ways of saying the same thing: God grabs hearts and does amazing work.

let go

I once had a boss who would try to make me take time off, take time away. He’d tell me that I needed to just leave. He’d say that Nancy and I should go out to dinner, or go someplace fun. He’d remind me about sabbath, asking, “so which of the other ten commandments are you deciding are negotiable?”

And I’d argue that I would after I finished this project. I’d push back because that’s not how Nancy and I relax. I’d think, “set me an example and I’ll believe you.” I’d remember the times he’d call in from his own times away.

I was wrong.


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i can’t fix me.

Friday night I was sitting at a dinner. The speaker was talking about revival. More specifically, Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan was talking about the Fulton Street Revival, a(n) (…um…event? movement? process?) thing that started with a guy deciding that he needed to spend lunchtime once a week praying and invited other people to come and pray, too.

As he was talking, Keller said, “The default mode of the human heart is to revert to self-salvation.”

I would love to argue with this. Except I can’t.

This morning I was looking for my shoes. Nancy innocently asked what I was looking for. I was polite, but inside I thought “don’t ask me. I don’t need help. I’ll look myself.”

A month ago, a four-year-old was in my office. There were balloons on the walls because a friend had decided (correctly) that I needed encouragement.  The little one’s dad wanted her to ask me for a balloon. She resisted, was told “no” to taking one without asking, went through a period of tears, calmed down, got down from her dad’s lap, and was told again to ask me for a balloon.

“I don’t need to. I can reach myself.”

We looked at each other, the dad and I, and laughed the kind of laugh that doesn’t show up on the face. We laughed because we recognized the independence of spirit which characterizes humans, showing up clearly in this four-year-old.

Every face I look at, every mirror I see, shows this same fierce commitment to fixing things myself, to fixing myself. Even as I put myself into this picture with my close friend Manhattan, there is a strong sense of me.


Practically, such independence is silly. I cannot save myself, not even from myself. Now, I do have to take care of myself. I am responsible for my actions, for my reactions, for my attitudes, for my attempts to live life in a meaningful way. But I cannot function apart from other people. If I tried, I would die. I can’t grow enough, work enough, whatever enough, to sustain myself.

And if I try, I prove that I’m an ornery cuss. To function as a person, as a social being, I need other people.

Now Keller’s comment wasn’t talking merely about the practical level. His point was that unless we stop trying to save ourselves and acknowledge that God has to do that, we will fail at revival and we will ultimately, eternally, fail.

What is important to understand is that he is talking first to that collective entity of people who call themselves The Church. Keller was saying that The Church, or the little clusters of people who call themselves churches are stuck in this self-salvation too.

We end up saying that if we believe exactly right or if we care for the poor exactly right or if we have the precise kind of worship service services that make me God happy or if we go to church the requisite number of times a day/week/month/year or if we consume the right kinds of music/movies/books or if we do ______ exactly right, then God will be happy with us and love us.

And that is exactly wrong because it puts all the burden for our salvation on us. It makes us responsible for fixing ourselves.

It’s no wonder that people get annoyed with “church”. It’s because we often are helping people get LIKE US rather than helping people get TO God.

I was reading about Jesus a bit ago. He was talking to and healing and touching people who never would have made it into a church. In fact, he was even doing all those things with people who didn’t even, well, didn’t even know whether they believed in him or not. I mean, they saw him, and knew that he was cool, and knew that he healed them, but they didn’t understand any of the theological stuff about him.

All they knew was that what they were doing wasn’t working. So when Jesus talked about good news, they were all (deaf) ears and (blind) eyes and (broken) hearts.

What if the church stopped being so churchy? Maybe there might be evidence that God actually is necessary rather than just our rules.

Or at least that’s what I think.


no more hiding

I haven’t really been hiding, I don’t think. But for the past month, ever since completing the month of sign posts, I have felt a bit floundery. You know, like the flounder, dragged out of the water, flopping around on the deck of a boat.

I’m speaking, of course, of my writing here. During the past few weeks, entries have been sporadic, the writing has felt uneven. I haven’t had anything consistently compelling about which to write.

I think that a similar thing has been happening in my life, however. After the discipline of August, there has been a looseness to September, and a busyness. We traveled 1200+ miles Labor Day weekend to Wisconsin. I spent most of another weekend helping Nancy with feeding 60+ middle school children’s choir kids. I traveled 1300+ miles this past weekend to NYC. I am discovering that such weekend activities end up draining energy during the week. I am older than I think.

As I was standing in the subway on Sunday, I looked across and saw this sign: NO CLEARANCE IN NICHE. I’m not sure what the point of the niche was. There may be a valve. There may be something that sticks out of the track. Whatever the purpose, however, it is not a place of shelter. If you face into that niche, you will still lose something if a train goes by.

I’m thinking that I am not sheltering in the right niches right now. Even in the busyness, there is a need to get further from the track if I want to rest. And to castigate myself for being tired and run down when I am not looking at the sign is just foolish. And to wonder at my writing-or lack thereof-is silly.

Maybe I’m the only one who can’t step away from the tracks to rest. I’m guessing, however, that there are more of us than we care to admit. So let’s step back so we can step up again.

Sound good to you?

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safe place

I’ve been in NYC/Newark for 31 hours, making this my longest stay ever. Although the primary reason to be here is to attend a conference, I knew I needed to look around a little. But how? And where? And when?

This afternoon, my friend Tom and I skipped the first hour of a session on prayer to walk four blocks to The Cathedral of Saint Patrick. Nancy had been there 26 years ago, the summer before we were married, and still talks about the space. When I realized how close I was, I went.

I walked in and felt my breath stop. No other way to describe it.


It’s not the beauty or the size or the colors or the height or the history. I think it is the holiness. This is a space which has been committed to prayer, to worship, to God.

We walked around, I took some pictures, we talked through my tears, and then walked back to the conference in the rain. I went to the balcony where I could get power for the laptop and, frankly, to be alone with my thoughts. I could hear and see the speaker, was aware of the group of conferees, but was alone.

We were asked to sing and then to listen to God. And as I listened and thought about St Patrick’s, I began to think about sanctuary, about safe place. I realized that the breathlessness of the cathedral came because of the decades devoted to God. And I realized that Paul talks about us individually and us as groups of Christ followers as sanctuaries. And then I stopped short.

I realized that in the same way that people walking into St Patrick’s are breathless, people seeing the walking-around sanctuaries should be amazed at a dynamic holiness, at the evidence of God working in lives as well as places.

That’s a terrifying and humbling and challenging thought, one which I’m not sure I’m ready to think.

But I’m getting ready.

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Notes on a conference

It’s the Saturday morning session at the Fulton Street Prayer event. There is a band playing and there are several hundred people singing. And I’m walking around with a camera and a writing mind.

I live with several minds. I want to be part of what is happening. I agree with those who are in the middle of worship. But I also want to observe, to understand what is going on while it is going on. As a result, for those who are engrossed in the experience, I look like I’m not being very spiritual.

I don’t let that bother me anymore.


The whole room is singing “I’m desperate for You. I’m lost without You.” There are hands raised, there are voices singing, there are tears and sobs and heart pains written across faces. And as I look between the raised hands, I see a face looking above the heads of people, looking past us at someone, something, that we can’t see.

It is the statue of Jeremiah Lanphier, the man who, 150 years ago tomorrow, showed up in a room to pray.

He was resolute.

This bronze statue is not the same as the living faces. And yet, each capture something significant about being a Christ follower. And they give me a challenge. How can I be both resolute and desperate? How can I be both broken and strong? How can I be stable and flexible.

The picture is blurred. That’s on purpose.

We had been listening to a speaker. We were asked to take about five minutes, break into groups of four, summarize in a couple sentences what we had heard that applied to us individually or together.

These are those groups.

What did my group hear?

That we need to not have worship be entertainment but to let God talk with people through music and prayer and reading. That we need to quit beating up people who don’t know God. That we need to stop having so many little arguing groups of people who say that they do know God. That we need to expect rather than just being amused.

There were one hundred such groups. I don’t know what other people heard. But that isn’t my problem.

The weekend started with a dinner on Friday night. My first reaction was “this is too many Christians all together.” I realize that I’m being pretty ungracious, but too often we get together and and tell our little “in” jokes and amuse ourselves and walk out feeling good.

As the evening went on, I realized that there were many younger people and older people and people from many denominations and people from many ethnic origins. And all of us were together because of this prayer meeting 150 years ago. And all of us, together, at the heart of New York, were asking God to be at work. And all of us, together, were living the suggestion that maybe He will.

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