Mitchell Richards [Words]

Month: May, 2011

Thunder Hope: The Heartbeat of a City

It’s good to see a city alive.

Breathing…moving…speaking…

And it’s good to hear her heart beating.

It wasn’t that long ago that I stood in front of the Murrah building a few weeks after the OKC bombing. A fence guarded the building as workers were sifting through debris. It was a sad time in our state’s history. I was in the fourth grade and remember all of the chaos and panic and confusion that came in those minutes and hours after. I also remember the hope that came in the days and weeks to follow.

Hope is a natural and organic thing, often times planted in the soil of our desperation and fear. Some seeds never sprout, swallowed up by the thorns and dried out in dirt of the earth. But every once in a while a little green sprout emerges from the soil.

For the people of Oklahoma, the seed was planted the very second the bomb went off as medical workers and random ordinary people in the area rushed to help the wounded and injured. People from all over the country began cultivating and watering the seed as they helped to join in the relief efforts. Even while the chaos of the moment was still going on around the building, the seed of hope was getting the nutrients it needed, even though we had no idea it was even there.

I went to the OKC Memorial Museum the other week when I had some spare time, and as I walked through I was overwhelmed by what I saw. I found myself fighting back tears more over the beauty of what was happening than by the tragedy. Yes, it was a horrific moment for us, and the loss of life was a very real and sad thing, but I couldn’t help but be moved by the support from everyone not involved directly. They had video clips of people saying that they needed work gloves, lights, and other materials in the following days as the rescue continued throughout the night. They immediately received gloves and any other materials they needed. For every need, there was a need met. People set up food trucks for the workers. Children from all of the country sent in paintings and drawings. The tragedy of April 19th was incredibly sad, but a city…a state…and a nation coming together to plant the seed of hope in the very place it had been ravaged was overwhelming…and just a little stronger.

Something was taken from Oklahoma City that day, and I don’t think there is a word that exists that can accurately describe what was taken.

But I do know that whatever the opposite of that word is, we have experienced that too. The opposite of desperation and hopelessness…the opposite of tragedy…fear…

Whatever it is we lost that day, we have found it again.

The city is still breathing…moving…speaking…

And on a few nights throughout the year, especially in April and May, you can hear her heart beating.

The sound of the beat comes from a small building just a few blocks where the explosion happened, The Oklahoma City Arena, where over 18,000 people are cheering on our Thunder.

I’ve never been more proud of my city than right now as I see all of this Thunder-mania going on. Everywhere you look you see people wearing shirts and jerseys, restaurants and bars are packed out and staying open late to watch the games, people who don’t know or care anything about basketball are now familiar with things like Kevin Durant’s backpack and James Harden’s beard. I watched a video of fans greeting the players when they returned at the airport after a playoff game against Dallas. They were standing out in the rain, in the thunder and lightning, and chanting a common arena chant, “O-K-C!!! O-K-C!!!! O-K-C!!!” It was truly moving.

What the Thunder have brought to our city is a sense of pride and togetherness that we have never seen before, and ever since April 19th, it’s been something our city has always needed and longed for. In sporting terms, no longer is our state divided by crimson and orange, but together in Thunder blue.

Whatever the opposite of the desperation we felt on that day in April is, we find it in our boys.

The seed of hope that was planted on the day the bomb went off is now coming into full bloom some sixteen years later, and we are the lucky ones that get to see it. Out of the tragedy that made a city fall, rises a city that now stands together. We have the scar, and we wear the scar for the world to see, but we never miss an opportunity to share the story and to share the healing. The Thunder are a manifestation of the heart of the city, proved by what transpired in the minutes after the blast.

Just feet from where the blast took place stands a tree that is now known as the survivor tree. It was heavily damaged by the blast and was almost taken down, but a group of people said that it couldn’t be. I think they saw the potential within its broken branches. Now, the tree is the focus and center piece of hope inside the Memorial. The tree is now over 90 years old and was there well before that tragic day, and will be there for a long time after. Not only is the tree a lasting reminder of that day, but also a mirror of progression and growth to the future…our future. Seedlings from the survivor tree are taken and distributed to parks and various other places, almost as a way of saying our hope continues on, not just here in the heart of the city, but every where these seedlings are planted.

There is a seedling planted in each seat in the OKC Arena, in each rowdy restaurant and bar goer, and in the heart of each and every Thunder fan. I will never get tired of hearing the O-K-C chant, because to me it’s more than three letters, it’s the sound of hope and the sound of our city’s heartbeat.

Impatient Waiter: The Hero’s Journey

I would hate to admit that my career is waiting tables, but since I can’t think of any other way to phrase it, that’s my career. It’s a terrible career for someone like me. Us ultra-creative types need to create, and bringing food to people for two bucks an hour plus tips isn’t really a form a creation. Granted, some people were made for waiting tables. It is an honorable way to work hard and make decent money, but not for me. I hate small talk and I can’t fake a smile if my life depended on it, I’m hard of hearing and I have trouble understanding people when they have a thick Okie accent. I’m a terrible waiter really, I’m just good at busting my ass to getting the job done, and every once in a while the eater will take notice of that and give me a good tip.

But it is a frustrating thing to be a waiter most days; constantly cleaning up after people, refilling drinks, dealing with crying babies that are spitting crackers everywhere in a three table radius, and trying to communicate with people who more or less believe themselves to be better than you in every way. I cannot begin to explain the amount of people who will not even look at you when you ask them what they want to drink, or completely ignore your questions, or won’t let you finish your sentence. It’s ridiculous. I also believe that restaurants are that last great place where adults can make a mess like a child and not be responsible for cleaning it up.

I am saying all of that to get to my point that I am a very bitter person. I hate dealing with people most days. It sounds dumb, but if I don’t get enough sleep the night before, or if I have a big project on my mind (which I most always do) you are probably not going to get five-star service…but then again I don’t work at a nice five-star restaurant. It doesn’t take a lot to set me off or much to make me get a chip on my shoulder. If someone walks in, walks past the hostess (who is there to seat you) and past the sign that says that we will seat you at a table, I automatically become bitter because usually the person will sit down at a dirty table or a table that someone else is already sitting at, and expect things. I usually see these people walk in, but since I’m a butt-head I don’t help them for a good amount of time. I don’t walk in to a doctor’s office for example, walk past the receptionist and into some random room, plop myself down on one of those weird table-chair things with the paper on it, and expect treatment immediately.

I could go on about all of the things people do in restaurants that bother me. Trust me, I’ve been waiting tables for 8 years…I could go on, but I really do have a point to get to here…

I’m stuck, you see. I’m bitter because I am doing something that I know is not my purpose, it’s not why I am here. When I was just a little middle-schooler, I went to church camp…ah yes, church camp, that last great place where adolescents can leave their messy lives and escape to Jesus…but the summer after my youth pastor, Dan, had been fired from the church I felt God calling me to be a youth pastor myself. Dan and I got along great, and he was really instrumental in my life and keeping me away from certain things and out of trouble. I’ve read some weird statistics about kids who grow up without fathers that usually end with them being in jail or addicted to something, and while my mom and my dad were still married at the time, my dad was working a lot overseas and I had kind of given up on him, so more or less, my dad wasn’t around much and even if he was I didn’t care. Thankfully, Dan was there to kind of keep me going on the right path. I owe a lot of my Christian life to him. But since churches are churches, a dispute here and there got Dan fired, or asked to leave, or something…It crushed me. Here was the one guy who had taken me under his wing and had shown me Jesus in a way that I had never experienced before. I was very bitter to say the least, but for some reason, the summer after all this had happened, I felt God calling me to be a youth pastor. That is a typical God move right there too, to take someone who had been burned by something and shown them that way to Him is the way through the fire that burned you.

After I made that choice, every step I made in my life was in that direction, to be a youth minister. I enrolled in Christian university, took leadership classes, was always active in my church youth group, tried to learn to play guitar, and so on. I eventually got a youth ministry internship at a church I had been attending. It was great. I was still waiting tables and working in restaurants at the time, but I don’t ever remember me being bitter about it because that wasn’t my career. My career way ahead of me, and waiting tables was just a means to an end.

Then those flames that burned me when I was young seemed to flare up again. I won’t get into details, but I believe there is a popular phrase that fits well here: same old shit.

Churches are a great thing. I love and need them in my life. When they are good, they are beautiful, but when one things gets off track it seems like the whole train is going to come off its rails.

So, I quit my job as the intern. I dropped out of youth ministry school because I had no clue what I wanted to do anymore. I had spent the past seven years or so with one goal, only to give up on that goal. I quit going to church for a while. It was here that I began to run from what God had in store for me. It was here that I left it all behind. I cut ties and ran. It was the end.

I am finding out that God is very relentless though.

If my life were a story in a book, this point where I decided to run would be normal. I am working on a fictional story right now where the main character is your quintessential hero in the most unlikely of ways. He is the “everyman” in the story. Just as every hero in history has, he has a calling. The calling isn’t easy, in fact he runs from it, he refuses to accept the calling. It’s all apart of the hero’s journey. He refusal to accept the calling will ultimately lead him to being thrown into the calling no matter how far he runs from it.

I have found that following the calling God had put on me so long ago is still there, no matter how far I have run from it. It’s a lot easier to stay on the path of the hero’s journey, the original plan, but if you don’t stick to the original Plan, like I said, God is relentless and He’s going to throw you back on the path.

It may take a big fish…

It may take the firing of someone close to you…

It may take a flame…

It may take sleepless nights and bitterness…

But God is relentless.

Getting back on the path of the hero’s journey only sounds difficult, because God as the ultimate Author allows his children to pick up right where they left off and sometimes even a little further down the road.

My brother and I were talking the other day, and he mentioned how many people he had talked to that had used the phrase, “you know, I always felt God call me to [whatever]…but…[lame-ass excuse]”.

I’m telling you this from experience: if God has called you anything, you should do it before it gets out of hand. A lot of the Bible is normal people saying no to God when He calls on them only to have the story go on to find themselves doing it anyways. God’s story can continue without you and I, but trust me, you want to be apart of it. Whether you were called to [whatever] and got lost in [lame-ass excuse], friend, let’s get back on the path. The story God has given us will only point to a Story greater than us.

So consider me vomited on the beach like Jonah.

You cannot run far enough from God’s call on your life. You don’t have to be a pastor or a missionary, maybe you do, but you know where God has called you. He hasn’t called me to deliver people’s food to them, and even though He can use me there it’s not the Plan. There is no Plan B. There is the Plan and it’s going to happen with or without you.

Take it from me, a very impatient waiter, doing what God called you to is far greater than where you can take yourself. Easy? No. Greater? Yes.

Jellyfish: Sing Louder

(I am not a music expert by any means, I tried learning to play guitar a couple of times but with no success. So if I use a wrong word or term here, please put down your stones and forgive me.)

In my brief and semi-illustrious guitar career, I did pick up on a few things: chords. You put your fingers on certain strings and on certain frets and you give it a little strum and boom…you have chords. The same goes for piano, certain fingers on the white keys, others on the black keys, and boom…you have chords.

And the weird thing about chords is that you know when you hit them. If your hand is just right, and each finger is where it’s supposed to be, when you strum it just makes sense. The noise emitted makes sense. It is pleasant to the ear. One with no knowledge of how the strings and the frets work cannot simply pick up a guitar and start strumming and expect “Stairway To Heaven” to come floating out of the amplifier. A child cannot bang on a piano and expect Mozart.

But this makes me wonder…why? Why is it that when I make my hand all cramped up to make a G chord, it sounds right but if one finger is in the wrong place the whole chord sounds wrong? Who figured all of this out any ways? That some patterns make more sense than others? That some noise is pleasing to the ear while other noise isn’t? Who strummed a harp for days on end, tuning and breaking strings, to get it just right?

Let me allow you in on a little secret: in the Kingdom of God, there is no such thing as off key.

Things like rhythm and music make sense because we have always had things like rhythm and music. Chords sound “right” because we’ve been using the same chords for hundreds of years. I was at a Oklahoma City Thunder game a few weeks ago, and in a crucial moment of the game everyone rose to their feet and began clapping in unison. Everyone in the arena was on the same page…CLAP….CLAP….CLAP….

Except for the woman in the row below me, who somehow was clapping way off beat. It was more like…CLAPclap.ClaP……..CLAP…CLAP.

It drove me nuts…until I saw how much fun she was having. It made me realize that no matter how off beat you are, there is no rhythm in the Kingdom (or in this case, rhythm is not needed in the Thunder-dome). In his song “Bubble Toes”, Jack Johnson uses the phrase, “move like a jelly fish, rhythm is nothing”.

We all have a song to sing, a story to tell if you will, in the Kingdom of God. Some make no sense like Arcade Fire makes no sense to me. Some sound like a dive bar’s karaoke super star. Some are a gentle humming of a mother as she rocks her baby to sleep. Some are screaming, others are more like a musical. Some are like a depressing country song, and others a dance number. Some require the choir, while others are to be sang alone looking out an open window.

But your meaning here, your purpose in life or whatever else you want to call it, is your song. It’s yours to sing. And when you sing it, sing bravely because no notes are out of tune, no beat is out of rhythm. We must sing in the meadows, and we must sing in the dark alleys. In the caves and in the streams. Whether we are alone or together, we must sing.

And no matter how ashamed of your song you are, when you begin to sing and begin to come out of your cave, you begin to hear the songs of others from the caves beside you. And for once, you may see that your song makes sense. Yours may be a lament as your neighbors are praise, but the more you sing the more you realize that we are all singing a little off key and a little off beat.

And in the climax of the song, the part where all of the anger and joy clash together, we realize we have been singing the same song together all along, and that it doesn’t matter how off key we are. Because in the Kingdom of God, we all are singing and there is no such thing as off key. We are all moving in the ocean like the jellyfish without rhythm, swept away in grace and peace and community. The lady clapping away in the stands is perfectly out of rhythm with the rest of us, but that just means she’s right on time.

We are all singing the same song.

Sing louder, let the others around us recognize the tune to the song of their own hearts. Sing louder, bring comfort to those who need to hear. Sing louder, so that the young and the old can finally sing the same song. Sing louder, because the tired need rest. Sing louder, because it is the song of the Kingdom…every note and non-note, every chord and non-chord alike…it is our Song.

Robot Breath: The Cluster-Cuss That Is God

My roommate in college had this poster on our wall that had like 100 names for God, or something like that. It was a list of all these words that describe God in the Bible. It was interesting to say the least, useful, and all of that. But in someway, it was incorrect.

The story of the Bible begins where it should, in the beginning. From then on, it tells the story of God and his people. Then it becomes a story of God and His son, Jesus, and then we see that the story was actually about them to begin with. The beautiful thing about God is that he uses his people to communicate His message. I can’t recall the last time God parted some clouds, sent a dove down, and talked in a really deep voice to me. But I do remember the last time I felt Him. I had a friend in elementary school tell me that he went on a helicopter ride and saw Jesus in the clouds, and while I am not one to dispute a vision from God, this is the same kid who also told me that he set up a video camera on Christmas and caught Santa in the act.

To be a tad more clear, there is a separation between God and man. Granted, He does communicate to us and He does use us, but there is a deep deep deep disconnect. Even the name of God, YHWH in Hebrew, is a little confusing, leading some to believe that it’s not a pronounceable word at all.

We are talking about a God who created us, created the trees, the fish, the animals. He created cells, protons and neutrons and everything smaller than that. He created our little blue dot in the giant vastness of space. And then, He breathed life into it all.

This kind of God is not something to be summed up in a poster on a wall.

We are talking about a God who created man from dust. We can wrap our minds around man inventing and creating because we see it all the time, but man cannot create on this level. Man can build a robot that has to be plugged into a wall, we can breathe that electric-breath, but we cannot breathe the breath of life into anything. We can split cells and form them from almost nothing, and we can create clones and babies in test tubes, but not on the level of magnitude of God merely speaking it into existence.

How can we describe a God like that?

Simply…you can’t.

Even the word indescribable falls short. You know why? Because of the separation between us. Every word we utter to God is a word man created, and therefore cannot begin to actually describe God. Ever notice that every word we use to describe God is also used to describe people? Good. Holy. Just. Merciful. And while man will fall short of these descriptions these descriptions fall short to who God actually is. You see what I’m saying here?

And it’s not just how we describe God that doesn’t work, it’s also how God works.

God is not man. He does not function like man. So every clue and every inkling you believe you believe about God is probably wrong. Every time you step back and think you see His plan and have a grasp on it, it is so much deeper and richer than you could ever imagine it being.

So in times of trouble and confusion about doctrine or specific beliefs, you know what I say? I say that this is man trying to do God’s job. That it’s man trying to figure God out, to build a cabin around him and to talk with Him and try to learn everything about Him.

It’s like if God came crashing down to earth right now, you know what my fear would be? That we would literally dissect Him in an attempt to figure Him out. We would want to know in great detail the great separation between us. If Jesus came down from the heavens right now, He would be on the cutting board quicker than if and alien crash landed.

And it’s good that we want to know God. But there is a difference in knowing God and knowing about God. Knowing about God is limited, but knowing God is limitless. Knowing about God uses things like language, while knowing God goes into another dimension and uses things like the Spirit.

So when we question God, we cannot question Him like He is human, because He is not. When tragedy strikes, and we question God, remember we are questioning God, not man. God’s nature is not equal to man’s nature. God’s plan is not even written on the same kind of paper as ours are. God creates sunsets, we create snow cones. He is on a different level.

God recognizes the separation though, He sent his son Jesus as the mediator, as the breathe of His own lungs, here to earth so we could in some small way grasp what God was like. And even as we praise Jesus, we are still praising a man, of course this man is God, but it was the only way for us to fathom God. Because God doesn’t want us in the dark, does He?

God is a cluster-cuss of greatness. Indescribable beyond imagination. Nothing, no language, art, word, desperate cry, or anything else can fully contain everything that God is.

Let’s be honest, since we cannot fathom Him, we have no clue what else He is capable of. Let people discuss heaven and hell, who is in and who is out, doctrine and specific beliefs, baptism, females in the church, and the color of the new chairs. Let them discuss and bicker, let them hold the piece of fabric that is God’s robe while we enjoy the face of our Creator. Let them hold on to something they believe they contain, while we let go and swim in grace. Let them fight while we love.

Something tells me God is only showing us a sneak peak of who He actually is, because our brains literally cannot control the beauty of what He actually is. He is God. We are man. Act and praise accordingly.

Celebration

One should know that I am probably the least political person you know. So while this entry may contain political words, names, and phrases, it is not a political message. It is not proclaiming cheers for one side or another, nor is it celebrating death or a government in any way. It is a conflicted message if anything, because that is how I have felt today, very conflicted.

As you know, last night came the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Reading updates on Twitter and Facebook, I have felt very conflicted with this knowledge. Not for fear of attacks, or whether or not it was really bin Laden, and not with the claims and accusations of our President being one thing or another; I’ll leave you to discuss those things. What conflicts me is the message of the world and the message of the Kingdom.

I understand that as Americans, we stand for and demand justice. It makes sense. I get it. But as a citizen of another world, another Kingdom, I believe there is a better way. I am conflicted, and maybe really for the first time in my life, because our Leader is telling us to not only forgive our enemies, but to love them as well. A Leader who tells us that things like revenge are not the way of the Kingdom. A Leader that says that an eye for an eye doesn’t work.

So I am curious to what we are all celebrating here? Death? Justice? The American way? For starters, there is a difference between justice and vengeance. For some reason though, the news of all of this saddened me in some way. I do not know why, and I do not think I will do too much soul searching in order to find out. I am not trying to be poignant here, but I believe I am saddened because we have killed a poster-boy for our anger over the last 10 years since 9/11, and that someone will replace the face on the top of that list, and the cycle will continue. Whatever we are celebrating, I am positive that it is not the way of the Kingdom.

And as Jesus tells us to forgive our enemies, I wonder, “How do we forgive someone like that? Someone who is responsible for the killing and death of our own people?” And to that question, I do not have the answer. But I know that it is possible. If grace alone can capture the heart of a wretch like me, it can forgive the heart of anyone else. Period. End of statement.

So as a country, we will celebrate. But as a Kingdom, we will mourn. And there is my conflict.

I believe that another way is possible, and as Indian activist Arndhati Roy said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

As Christ followers and Kingdom people, we are called to stand up and be different. To mourn the things God would mourn, and celebrate the things God would celebrate. I understand that we ourselves did not go to Pakistan and kill anyone, but the way we handle ourselves when governments and people do, defines which kingdom we belong to; a kingdom or the Kingdom. It does not make sense for us as Americans to not celebrate what is happening, but it also does not make sense for us as Kingdom inhabitants to celebrate what is happening.

I went to go visit my grandfather in a hospital room in Nebraska just a few weeks ago. I sat in a chair at his bedside and all I could think about was how I wanted sickness to be a thing of the past. My little nephew had some health problems a couple weeks ago, and in my tears all I could think about was a groaning for a time when sickness would be a thing of the past. And now, in what many are calling our country’s finest achievement in a long time, I am groaning for a time when war and retaliation are a thing of the past.

And I do believe that day is coming. And on quiet days, I can hear her breathing.