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. 

mom's stone of blessing

We buried my mom today, and a craftsman chiseled this blessing into the stone that greets you as you enter the grounds. This blessing reminds us that this soil, like all God’s earth, is hallowed. I am so thankful for my mom’s life. We have now returned my mother to God’s care and her body to the earth, where God’s very ground will cover her and surround her with the fullness of love.

The Spirit of God is around you
In the air that you breathe
And his glory in the light
That you see
And in the fruitfulness
Of the earth and the joy
Of its creation
He has written for you day by day
His revelation
He has granted you day by day
Your daily bread

It’s become too easy a thing for us to appeal to the great outlier, to ‘mystery.’ Mystery is a word that should be spoken (if it must be uttered at all) with gravity, with at least the hint of tremor. An appeal to mystery does not relieve us of hard thinking. God knows it does not relieve us of the need for steely-eyed courage. It’s a mystery should never be the tagline diffusing all the tension, but rather the invitation to gather up all the fortitude we can muster and walk deeper into the mercy that perplexes and astounds us.

If we have never sat dumbstruck in front of a blue-swept mountain ridge…if the sorrows of a friend have never sunk like icy lead into our chest…if a single word from a stranger or one line from a novel has never caught our breath…if we’ve never felt the terror and aloneness of Gethsemane – then we are so new and green to this twisting and very long path. And there is no shame in being new; in fact, these virgin days provide their own beauty and wonder. However, these are the days we must learn to listen more than we speak.

John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, learned this silence: “I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do.” To walk amid mysteries, at least in a way that is faithful and true, often requires a simple skill – the courage to go mute, to refuse to add words when only silence will do.

To speak of mystery does not make all difficult things light and free. The fact that mysteries surround us may allow the world in which we live to be honest or bearable or once again overwhelmed with grace – but mysteries, if they are true, require grit and patience and bravery.

 

I once read a poet I admire insist that if he had his way, he would write in isolation, anonymous. No one would even read his work until perhaps centuries later when someone stumbled upon his unsigned verse in the musty library of an old monastery. He would never be part of the give and take, that unique relationship between writer and reader. He would never have his name attached to his work, the signature that says, These are the words I have born into the world, for better or worse. This is the work that has been my labor and my pleasure. Who am I to critique another man’s dream, but for my two cents, this anonymous business is poppycock.

While I absolutely write for me (writing is often my way of prayer; writing is one of those few things I simply must do in this world), I also absolutely write for you. I am not merely doing art for art’s sake, but I hope and pray I’m also doing art for your sake. The truth is that (because I could not help myself) I would write even if no one ever read, even if I could never publish a book or scratch out a magazine piece for print, even if no one would ever receive what I had to give. I would write, but my writing would not be complete. You are required for that.

When I was seven, my mom gave me an old Sanger traveling salesman typewriter. Even as a young boy, she saw a glimmer of something in me, and I will always be grateful that she paid attention and encouraged me to bang out sentences. Immediately, I loaded a sheet of onion skin paper and began to hammer out my memoir titled My Life. I only completed 1/3 of a page before I ran out of material, but I immediately went searching for the next word. And I haven’t stopped since.

Over the past few days, something has returned to me again and again: deep gratitude to each of you who, in receiving my words, have encouraged me to keep searching. I’m grateful for those of you who have said “Thank you, this mattered to me” and those of you who’ve pushed back and made me work harder. It is a mysterious grace to me that there are a handful of folks in this world who buy my books and read my articles and return to these pages regularly, kind folks I can think of as “my readers.” This is no small thing. I wish I had something more eloquent to offer you, but what I feel, very profoundly, right now is this: Thank you.