As we embrace a kind of holy indifference for those things which are not our responsibility (at least not for now), we discover new energy for those peculiar spaces we are meant to inhabit, those conversations that perhaps we alone can pursue, that obscure work that few notice and might go entirely ignored unless we stray from the pack and get to it. So long as we expend our energy churning to keep up with everyone else’s burning emergency, we have no energy for the one life we must live. Inevitably, we find ourselves bone-weary, guilt-laden or perhaps worst of all – a cynic unable to live open, generous and free.

Last week, a good friend reminded me of David Whyte’s words I’ve long appreciated: “the antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” To be sure, rest and leisure, kicking up the feet and laying low for a spell, is more than necessary. Yet, our deep weariness comes whenever our skill, energy or hopes do not burn from that deep truth God has tattooed on our soul. To live wholehearted, we must say no to many worthwhile things, and we must say yes to a few absolutely essential things.

I’ve happened upon a few signals (and I’m sure there are more) for how to know where my yes should be. I pay attention to the tears, particularly those moments where my heart takes a prick and I don’t know exactly why – this is a path I should follow. I pay attention to the joy, those jolts of delight or pleasure that always make me more alive, more gentle, more bold. And I pay attention to the quiet, those occasions where I sense a conviction of something I must do – but I don’t want to talk about it just now. It’s a smoldering fire; there’s heat but also a reticence to draw too much attention.

A life overwhelmed by lethargy will prove to be no life at all, mere rust and rot and a dim smallness. If there is nothing that stirs us to action, nothing that cues tears or brings sweat or stirs great fantasies, then we really do need to step into our one crack at this beautiful thing called life. Listen to me, please: there is essential work you must do, friendships you must pursue, beauty you must make, stories you must tell. Do it.

Yet, it is also a fact that we are finite (finite energy, finite vision, finite capacity) and cannot possibly carry the burden (at least not in any deep, meaningful way) of everything. We’ve all heard the warning that to care about everything means to care about nothing, and I believe this is mostly true. I’ve come to acknowledge a kind of holy indifference, a settled sense that not every worthy cause is our cause, not every good road is the road we must take, not every burning question requires our opinion. It’s important to live with T.S. Eliot’s tension: “Teach us to care and not to care.” We must welcome both sides as we become the unique person we are uniquely able to be.

Eliot’s next line asks God to “Teach us to sit still.” Perhaps this is the crucial place, to sit still and listen. To listen for that clarity and simplicity that arises from the silence, reminding us of who we truly are, convincing us again of what we are most responsible to say and to do. To do our truest work, we allow other work to go fallow. We enact faith that whatever must be done in this world, will be done – and much of it, not by us. Some sow, some water, some reap. Some plod, some fizzle, some take the big stage. We do what we can do, what we must do. And then we sit still. Maybe we even take a nap.

At the edge of our neighborhood, Habit for Humanity has begun a large multi-house development. The last two weeks, we’ve endured a couple dumps of snow, and the site is soaked, muddy and more than able to bog down both man and motor. This morning, a fellow (I’m going to guess one of the architects) parked his small SUV at the end of Ridge Street, walked to the back of his truck and opened the hatch. He slipped off his buffed leather boots and tossed them into the vehicle, pulling out a ragged, worn down pair of flat-toed, dirt-stompers as their replacement. This is a smart fellow. It’s good to know what kind of day (or year) you’re up against, and pick your boots accordingly.

In the days after my mom’s death, Miska, two good friends and my spiritual director Fr. James all said the same thing: Be kind and gentle with yourself. Grief comes with a thousand faces, but grief does come – and they all wanted me to remember this and to give myself the space to be frayed at the edges, to get a little lost, to expect some of my old demons to come knocking, to not be taken by surprise if the deeper questions come later rather than right away.

I know two moms, at opposite ends of the spectrum (one with a newborn, one almost an empty-nester), but life’s thrown both of them a real stinker. They experience happiness and have good desires, but there’s also lots of regret and uncertainty, more than a little exhaustion. I know lots of folks scratching as hard as they can for a good job, folks who are living the grind and praying to God the dollars are enough to see them to the end of the month. Friends accustomed to onslaughts of fear, anxiety and isolation.

Life will come at us, bringing wonder and joy but also sadness and real trouble. When we recognize this, we can know that sometimes we simply need to pull on our beaters. We’ve got to wade into the muck, and let the craziness or the despair or the rage work its way out. It will not ruin us. It will not overwhelm us. The hardness comes, and the hardness goes. In the meantime, be kind and gentle with yourself.

Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

On the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th or January 19th, depending on the calendar used), the Orthodox perform an ancient rite with roots in Israel and the early church: the Great Blessing of the Water. In many parts of the Orthodox world, the blessing happens on a frozen lake, requiring saws to carve their way through thick ice. Commemorating Jesus’ baptism, stalwart souls sometimes plunge into the biting water (did I mention January?). The priest dips a cross three times, then sprinkles water in all four directions, as if to baptize the entire world. This water evokes primordial creation (“the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters”) and the belief that in Jesus the world God once named good returns again to harmony with God. In God’s world, even the water is holy.

Each Sunday, Christians around the globe eat bread and drink wine, remembering Christ — and not Christ as ethereal deity but a God who got blisters and cried tears, a God who grew incensed at injustice and who cooked fish on the beach for his friends. A God who insisted on restoring humanity to our true humanity. And we raise the bread and the wine, these most ordinary elements, to God. We remember how God fills the entire world (every blade of wheat, every luscious grape, every finch and every rugged range) with grace.

Given all this, how is it possible that we have arrived at the place where many believe that love for God’s world sits at odds with Christian faith? Why do so many believe that the work of their hands and the longings of their heart share little import in the Kingdom of God? How did our humanness, the humanness so essential that Jesus would not abandon it, become only a liability rather than also a source of great promise?

However you bake your bread, however you bless the waters of your world, know you are doing holy work. Good God, we need you.


stanley-spencer-english-painter-1891-e28093-1959-driven-by-the-spirit-2

This morning at breakfast, Seth (our 11-year-old) asked, “Do you think we could have a half-Lent fast? I think 20 days is plenty.”

I get the sentiment, especially if we view Lent primarily as 40 days of rigorous, clenched-teeth discipline. However, Lent offers a profound gift – the possibility of shedding clunky baggage, of releasing old wounds, of returning to a simplicity we crave but have difficulty embracing. Lent hands us a solid reason to resist the many distractions, impulses and confusions that own us, even though we cringe each time we recognize their tyranny. Lent gives us permission to cut away messy entanglements, to reduce the noise. Lent arrives as a cleanse for the soul. Lent invites us to shed everything that inhibits our joy.

In these wilderness days, we are moving somewhere, moving toward Easter. Lent comes from an old saxon word meaning length, referring to the lengthening of days as we move toward Spring. In Lent, we begin to shake off the dirt, the slumber, the cold. We lift our eyes, hopeful, eager for the bright sun to pour into us again. But the winter is still here now, and there is work to do.

When we take on a Lenten fast or give ourselves to a particular Lenten practice, we embark on a journey, answering the call toward the resurrection sure to come. We ready ourselves for joy. Fasts remind us that the the love of God is our truest food, the nourishment we must have or else we die. When we surrender an obsession, or add a new rhythm of prayer or creativity or watchfulness, we do so because we long for the simplicity of grace. Wearied by our muddled, complicated, love-shorn lives, we yearn for the joy. And we will have it, by God.

One Lent years ago, compulsive guilt held my mind and heart in a chokehold. Every day, I woke to the runaway thoughts and went to bed with them still tapping their tune. Enduring the craziness for more than a year, the anxiety began to gobble up my life, my presence with my boys, my work, my intimacy with Miska. Each year, Miska and I help one another decide our Lenten rhythm. That year, Miska said, “I think that for Lent you should give up guilt.” It might sounds zany, and Miska certainly wasn’t suggesting my compulsions could simply be dismissed by a mental sleight of hand. Anyone who has ever tried to not think something knows that’s a train wreck. Miska was suggesting, however, that Lent provided me an excuse to step off the merry-go-round, an opportunity to say, you know, I’m going to have to put the guilt on hold for at least 40 days.

My spiritual practice was to not worry about all the evil things I believed about myself, all the ways I feared I might be a screwup. That Lent didn’t cure my mess (sometimes we need time or friends, drugs or a good psychiatrist), but it certainly did make room for joy, room that would not have been available to me otherwise.

 

Levi, now in his eighties, considered his words with the same wonder and frugality as those rare shiny nickels when he was a boy. There were never more than a few in his pocket, and he surrendered them only with great care. And since Levi prayed the same as he lived, Levi’s prayers were short and direct, never more than three or four sentences. Levi might express bewilderment “at the meanness of things” or ask for “kindness to be granted to Margie (or Duke or the Simpson family) amid all the pain;” but whatever sentence or two might populate the meat of his daily petition, Levi always concluded with exactly the same affirmation: And God, we thank you for the bounty. Amen.

Bounty was a word out of favor, but Levi clung to it. It was not that Levi viewed the world through a rosy tint. God knows he’d lived through more than one man’s share of sorrows. Rather, Levi had come to believe that grace was abundant, surprising even. He could not agree with modern sentiments grounded in fear, scarcity and exclusion. There was always faith, always hope, always love – even if the boisterous God-talk muddled this truth.

Levi believed his prayer likely a protest in vain (and he believed God more than salty enough to handle his own affairs), but Levi considered this his duty, to speak this one word every day of his life: Bounty.

Our youngest son Seth has gone deep into the world of The Hobbit. Seth reads stories from the shire with feverish energy. He sketches scenes from Middle Earth and regales us with talk of his beloved Dwarves. At every opportunity, Seth ventures into our neighborhood woods (woods he refers to as Rivendell) with his sack of Hobbit wares. He feasts on the score from the movie soundtracks, ticks off every character’s name, reviews minute details from the narrative and explains intricate plot twists and Tolkien lore. Seth’s our Hobbit savant.

All this is more than a boy’s fascination with adventurous play, however. Seth has found a language for his soul. Or maybe this language has found him. A few days ago, Seth was in our backyard, earbuds delivering haunted Hobbit melodies. He paced across the yard, swinging his sword as the music and the crisp air carried him to his distant country. When Seth returned to the house, he told Miska, “You might think this is silly since I’m only a kid. But the music was so beautiful it almost made me cry.”

We all need an encounter with something so beautiful that it carries us to the verge of tears. A landscape or a story, a friendship or a blessing, a dream or a joy. We need beauty, however slight, if we are to truly live. The human spirit can survive without luxury. We can endure ravaging hardship. But wonder, beauty, ineffable joy – these are our necessities.

Miska and I sat in a booth at a mom and pop Italian diner when she told me she wanted to go to grad school for counseling. She had never so much as hinted at this before, but the moment I heard the words I knew it was exactly what she was to do – which meant it was exactly what we were to do since this would necessitate a move, a new job for me, a completely unknown future. A few months later, I was in the driver’s seat of a Penske truck pointed West. What an adventure those next few years turned out to be.

Part of the adventure was the joy of watching Miska’s artistic soul flourish. Miska learned how to tend to people’s stories, but it always seemed to me that Miska was becoming more a poet and an artisan than a counselor per se. It takes more than a little moxie to linger in the hidden places, to not know for sure what exactly you are walking toward. But Miska, bold as she is, has never flinched from such things.

It was no surprise to me, then, when Miska, motivated by her love for the earth and for the nourishing power of beauty, began to craft her own all-natural skin care products, soaps, candles and sundry other delights. This artisan work grew into Broken Elm Apothecary & Mercantile, her shop she opened a year ago today.

I want to tell my brave and beautiful Miska how much I admire her and how much I love all the goodness she offers this world.

And I want to tell all of you, dear readers, that in honor of Broken Elm’s anniversary, Miska is offering a 15% discount if you use the code ONEYEAR.

Thomas noted Ezekiel’s question with peculiar attention, as he did with so many of the good book’s odd words, whenever the reading landed in the lectionary. The line’s literary quality and the apocalyptic images it evoked made the prophet’s flourish a bewildering favorite. What preacher or Hollywood producer worth their salt wouldn’t lean forward with such a prompt: Can these dead bones live? 

This time, however, there was no theological curiosity. Thomas had no energy to paint the scene in imaginative detail. He could summon no voice to scratch around the narrative with poetic spaciousness. Ever since the letter arrived in November, Thomas had descended into numbness. Only questions. No one would accuse Thomas of being one of the the chipper clergy who answered every perplexity with tidy conclusions and a flurry of rhetoric. Still, a resilience persisted in Thomas, mere stubbornness perhaps. Though he freely acknowledged that the evidence often tempted otherwise, Thomas consistently refused a surrender to the grim path. Thomas comforted others in their grief and their fear. He encouraged his parishioners and friends to borrow his faith, or their neighbor’s faith, to carry them for the next spell when their own hope flagged. But now the question settled into him with an ache. Can dead bones live?

For days, he fumbled over the text, but on Sunday only blank emptiness poured over his heart and his notes. Thomas considered calling in sick. At least once a month after the church service, Don Barber would exit the church, stopping to pump Thomas’ hand while cuing a very tired joke. “Well, Rev, I guess you’re done working for the week. That’s quite a setup if a fella can get it.” At this point, Don would pause long enough to break into a Cheshire grin before delivering the weary punchline. “I have my own fiery sermon worked up. I just might make a run at your cushy gig one of these days.”

Thomas felt a hint of pleasure at the prospect of Don receiving the call and Don hearing how today would be his moment to give it a whirl. But then Thomas knew there was no way in hades he would miss a perch on the front pew whenever Don’s decades-old harassment fizzled amid nervous laughter, awkward pauses and great beads of sweat.

What did it say about Thomas when the one bit of lightness he’d known in weeks required the image of him pumping Don’s hand at the church door, him handing Don the line he’d fantasized hundreds of times. Don’t beat yourself up, Don. I wouldn’t have the first clue what to do with one of your backhoes if I ever landed in the driver’s seat. I’m certain I’d look the fool too.

But Thomas did not make the call. He put one foot in front of the other, carrying himself and his empty notes up to the lectern. Thomas did not show up out of duty or because of an overblown sense of indispensability. He had no idea what he would say in regard to Ezekiel and the dusty bones. Thomas simply knew he needed to speak the same opening words he spoke each Sunday. Even more, Thomas knew he needed to hear the words offered to him in return.

Thomas stood behind the wooden pulpit, taking longer than usual to gaze over the half-full pews. Thomas caught the faces of friends and a couple strangers. Scattered among these rows were the ones who knew his story, as he knew theirs. In this space they blessed their dead and baptized their young. Of course, there were one or two among the number who provided steady annoyance and agitation, even as there were many who brought regular delight and laughter. This was the blessed community, wobbly as it was. This was the community that bore the one distinction that matters in times like this: Thomas could call these people his own.

Thomas watched over the worshipers until their nervous fidgeting told him he best release them from their discomfort. The Lord be with you, he said. And also with you, they answered.

It is a strange thing to see your mother in a wooden box, lying there so gently, as if you could simply lean over and whisper into her ear to wake. For her funeral, my mom wore the dress she had originally purchased for Miska’s and my wedding. My mom released her son into the world. And now we have released my mom into God’s care.

It is such a strange thing to lay a hand on your mother’s casket, to speak a blessing over her life. Emotions and memories rush forward at such a moment, but the sturdiest thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude for her tears and her tenacity, for her commitment to my dad, for the ways she sought out those who had been left out or wounded or silenced. One morning before her funeral, I ran my old jogging route, and I stopped in front of the house that was my childhood home. For several minutes, I walked back and forth in front of the old house, fearing the neighbors would think me a loon. I remembered all the years, all the tenderness. I remembered a few arguments, tense moments. I remembered laughter and meals around the table. I remembered love. Through tears, the words that spilled out over and again were only this: ‘thank you.’

A friend recently passed Kahil Gibran’s words to me: When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. And this is true. Sometimes you also weep because of regrets or things that will never be. But somehow it is true that if you trace those things back far enough they do somehow work their way to delight, to hopes, to joys you knew or joys that lingered as you searched for more. In the strange twist, grief and gratitude seem to walk together.

As I say goodbye, for now, the only words I have are this: Mom, I love you, and I thank you.