Sundays are for worship and napping. And taking a little tour of our herb garden where Miska guides me (again, because I always forget the particulars) through the holy basil, the mullein, the daffodils, the lavender, the oregano. She shakes the poppy plants, and we grin at the sound of rattling seeds, nature’s maracas. She coaxes me to touch the velvety carpet of the roman camomile, a bed fit for a queen.
Juno, our black mouser, flops over at Miska’s feet, insisting Miska scratch him while he purrs, swatting at Miska if she stops before Juno deems appropriate. Miska does as Juno demands; then she reaches her fingers into the rich soil, a gesture of wonder and delight and prayer.
Watching her, I envision the Great Creator, at the beginning of human time – and still now – reaching hands down into the soil of this world and taking great, great joy in all the beauty. Our worship with the gathered community, with the liturgy and the Scriptures and the Eucharist, centers us, and having done its work, it sends us, dispersed into our scattered, holy places. And in a hundred ordinary corners, the worship and the liturgy continues. For us, it carries us into gardens and naps and later into an evening with friends. We must worship, and we must indulge in God’s good earth, and we must rest. This is a feast. These are our liturgies. It is all of a whole: one life, one God, one grand and beautiful day.
Yesterday, Palm Sunday, was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been 93, and I would have taken great joy watching this iconoclast toss firecrackers into our modern sensibilities. Strange, isn’t it, to think O’Conner could have lived into the era of Twitter if lupus hadn’t cut her low at 39. Did you know that O’Conner’s first claim to fame was when she was six? A British newsreel company traveled to her family farm in Millsville, Georgia, to capture young Flannery’s (she went by Mary then) feat: she taught a chicken to walk backwards. “I was just there to assist the chicken,” she would explain later, “but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”
Hyperbole, of course, but O’Conner did, in so many ways, walk backwards into her world. She was a farm girl, spending much of her energies raising both barnyard poultry and exotic fowl (with particular interest in peacocks). She was Southern, which made her an oddity among the literary elite. She was Catholic, which made her an oddity among the Southern aristocracy. Yet she was a person of her place, a person of her people. She wrote the world in which she lived. When criticized for her stories’ dark underbelly, O’Connor was unmoved. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
Isn’t it strange that Christian faith has so often been used as a means to deny our bleakest realities? Isn’t it strange that some of our weakest art, our most naive fiction, our blandest passions, arrive with the label ‘Christian’ plastered upon their fragile façade? How can God heal what we will not acknowledge? How can Christ’s passion strike into the crucible of our lives if we do not own the fact that there is a powerful darkness? If we do not tell the truth of how we flail and rage but appear entirely helpless to enact any remedy? With our Christian edicts and our glib announcements, perhaps we’ve got hold of the wrong horror.
We need art that carries us into our full experience, that won’t let us go until we do justice with the bare facts of our lives. We need stories that grapple with all of our humanness, narrating both the havoc and the luster. We need to be reminded that Easter announces our true hope: ruin is not the end. There is joy. There is life. But they come through, not around, the valley of the shadow of death.
We’ve taken our first steps into Holy Week, and is there any stranger, any more backwards way, to heal, to bring peace, to renew the world, than to willingly endure ridicule and torture, to embrace death? Is not Jesus’ march to the Cross a long walk backwards?
During Lent, our church has been slowly pondering and praying through Jesus’ strange blessings, these outrageous words Jesus offers as his first salvo in that preeminent Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are you who have bone-dry bank accounts. Blessed are you who are heavy with tears. Blessed are you who have no cards left to play. Blessed are you who ache for goodness and justice in a world torn asunder. And the insanity goes on and on.
The life Jesus announces really does turn everything topsy-turvy. Jesus passes blessings (well-being) on exactly the opposite of those we consider blessed. The Beatitudes pronounce the shocking reality that the precise people we assume at the bottom of the pile are actually at the center of God’s abundance. These blessings are what God does, what Jesus makes possible in ways that were impossible before.
And while these blessings do not unravel a litmus test for “what it takes to get God’s blessing” (for example, no one’s suggesting we should go out looking for persecution), it’s subversively true that we need not fear these places of deprivation or vulnerability because when we’re most at risk, we have confidence that God is with us in that risky place. So when calamity visits us (persecution) or when we courageously obey Jesus (by being merciful, for instance, to those who we think deserve no mercy at all), we don’t need to fear.
Can you imagine what our world would be like if we didn’t fear losing our money or speaking out against wrong or extending mercy to those we assume should be cast aside? What if we didn’t have to be tough and were free to be gentle and straightforward and yes, pure in heart. Isn’t it strange that to many of us pure in heart is a description we’d use only for the naive or soft or hopefully out of touch, never for people we truly admire, the people who actually know how to get stuff done in the world. It’s a quaint idea but dangerous to think and live this way, we say. Maybe being pure in heart is dangerous, but it’s also blessed.
With God, we can let the danger come. We are free. We are blessed.
I’m spiritual, but not religious. In popular vernacular, I’ve understood this to mean that to be spiritual is to have subjective, internal feelings and notions of the divine, but to be religious is to be committed to a particular concrete practice, a community, a tradition. It’s an immensely popular idea, almost a dogmatic tradition unto itself. And I get it. At its best, the descriptor acts as a principled resistance to cold dogmas, heartless practices, brittle words that wound rather than heal in a complicated, harsh world. Fair enough; we need some resistance here. We need dissenters to keep us honest because God knows religion gets just as destructive and deranged as anything we humans get involved with. It’s why the Scriptures have the prophets.
But in the end, the line just won’t do for me. Initially, it has a nice ring to it; but the notion ultimately leaves me hollow. Like those massive conifers we saw in the Scottish Highlands–magnificent, towering and gutted to the core. Devoured from the inside, there was nothing left to hold them strong, nothing to hold them in their beauty. They’d fall, with great heaves, and rot into the wet sod.
In the end, it’s not vague notions of faith that keep me steady and rouse my hope. It’s Jesus, the one who was murdered on a heavy Roman cross and who rose again out of one particular tomb. It’s Jesus’ very particular and very difficult (if not insane) words about loving enemies and laying down my life, alongside instructions to care for the poor and the stranger and widows (what the Good Book calls ‘true religion’), that arrest me. I’m to resist the allure of power. I’m to turn away from greed. I’m to pursue love of neighbor and submission to God’s people. This Jesus makes demands upon me. Jesus asks me whether or not I will follow. I can obey, or I can disobey–but either way, it’s something solid, something that stands in my way, something that offers to hold me fast, if I’ll have it. It’s very particular.
Abstract ideals don’t have the grit I know is required to save me. Rather, it is Jesus’ body broken in the bread, Jesus’ blood spilt in the wine. It is my actual neighbor actually sitting next to me (someone I may not like, if I just get to choose), as we eat and drink together. It is the songs we sing and the Scriptures we hear. It is our commitment to living in this actual world (not the idea of a world). To say I’m spiritual but not religious would be, for me, like saying I believe in community but don’t want a friendor I love the wild but would never actually set foot in a forest. I need the real stuff.
Jesus, the harshest critic of distorted religion in history, didn’t set up general spiritual concepts. Jesus got dunked in water, gave us bread and wine around a Table – and then said, “Keep doing all this. Together. In my name.”
In a creative roundabout that showed no disrespect to St. Paul’s original line, T.S. Eliot once wrote an essay resisting popular notions that dismissed Christian doctrine and practice as primitive and unenlightened. “The spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life,” Eliot wrote. Eliot insisted that our vague ideas about religion (the spirit of the day) inevitably degrade into false, if not self-serving, caricatures. But the particular, the actual details, the demands even – that’s where the fire burns.
I had a meeting in New York City last week, and Miska joined me. When we were boarding the train in Penn Station for the trip home, several solo travelers in front of us asked the agent to direct them to the Quiet Car. It’s a nice idea, this “Quiet Car.” One imagines a cabin enveloped in hush calm, a meditative space, perhaps with the soothing scent of Spiced Orange and Huckleberry (it’s the holidays), maybe a few candles, the tranquility only interrupted by the rare announcements of upcoming stops offered from the hushed voice of James Earl Jones. Maybe in the far back compartment you’d find a silent yoga class.
However, I’ve been in the aforementioned “Quiet Car,” and it bears no resemblance to this nirvana solitude one hopes to discover. In my limited experience, half the people want to close their shades and pull their eye mask down and forget the world for a few hours; then half the people don’t give a flying fig about signage indicating quiet – they missed the day in preschool where they learned about the “inside voice” and demonstrate with their boisterous (and very long) cell calls, with their karaoke as the music blares from their headphones, their raucous games with friends to pass the time. Once I watched with growing unease as these two factions, over a heated and tense hour, nearly began WWIII right there in poor Amtrak’s “Quiet Car.”
So Miska and I never even considered that danger-laden zone and instead plopped ourselves right in amongst the rest of our fellow travelers, all of us willing to tamp down our expectations and just enjoy the ride.
And wouldn’t you know a fellow, a sixty-something New Yorker who I’m guessing worked in building maintenance, dialed up his daughter who was picking him up in Philly. He sat 4 feet from me and chatted the entire ride. He told his daughter how he shoveled snow the previous night and then skipped evening TV and went straight to a hot shower and bed, his muscles raging from a day on the job topped off by clearing the driveway and sidewalks at home. He asked how his grandkids were doing, worried as he was about their new school and whether they liked it and whether they had to buy new uniforms and if so if money was a problem. He asked where his daughter’s new school was and if she had to travel any extra distance to get there. He asked again about the grandkids, worried again that they might be unhappy or in need of anything. He asked about his daughter’s back pain and how her massage therapy was going and asked her if the massage therapist “put a towel over her butt” because the whole massage thing seemed like Martian-talk to him. Then (after asking about the grandkids one more time) the conductor announced the Philly stop, and he said, “Well, I guess I need to get off the phone. I’ll see you in probably ten minutes, and if I don’t hang up now, I won’t have anything to talk to you about when I get there.”
I’m certain that either way he’d have plenty of good questions to ask, plenty of love to give. See what we’d have missed if we packed into the Quiet Car? Grace comes to us in all kinds of places, unexpected places, boisterous and cluttered places. It’s a lot like Advent.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah
There’s a reason we must have Advent before Christmas. We must reckon with the dark if we are ever to be truly embraced by the Light. We have to know we’re in trouble before we have the good sense to cry out for help. We have to feel our aloneness in order to open up to the wide arms of grace. We have to know we’re lost in bad country before we gain the good sense to follow the God who leads us home.
Isaiah reminds us that God takes us through the wilderness, not around it. This is good news since life will, sooner or later, carry all of us into the rugged, isolated, despairing badlands. Eventually, all of us will have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
So here we are, waiting. Some of us are waiting alongside a grim diagnosis. Some of us are waiting while our family teeters on the brink. Some of us live in persistent anxiety, a low-grade fever of fear and tension. Some of us think where we are is all we’ll ever know. Some of us have surrendered hope. Some of us have forgotten the God who makes a way through the wilderness.
But God has come to us once in Jesus, and God will come to us in Jesus again. God has led the people through the wilderness once, and God will lead the people through the wilderness again. And again.
In a cynic’s age where suspicion and aloofness and religious detachment suffocate us, it’s an electric shock to the system when, on the first week of Advent each year, we read those wild-eyed prophets bellowing words so fiery they’d wake a corpse. Yesterday, Isaiah prayed a dangerous prayer: God, rip apart the heavens and come down, so that even the mountains would tremble at your presence. The prophets believe that either God acts on our behalf, or we’re ruined. The prophets believe that we need God or we’ll die. The prophets, these Advent prophets, dismantle our cynical, sophisticated attempts to manage God.
It seems we need these wild voices to announce Advent to us. Otherwise, we’d only yawn and roll over and continue our delusions that we’ve got things mostly in control. But we don’t. Anyone with half an eyeball knows we’re in trouble. All of us are in trouble. This whole big thing we call the world is spinning off kilter.
And when we’re in trouble, when we’ve played our last card and we’ve got absolutely nothing left up our sleeve, then (maybe then) we come to our senses enough to turn to God and pray that beautiful, beautiful prayer: help. And in Jesus we find that God loves nothing more than to answer this honest ask.
But most of us keep working the angles, always imagining a new dream hand. The game’s done, and the dealer’s eyeing the door. But we’re crunching the numbers, refusing to see what’s plain as day to everyone else at the table. We haven’t really owned the fact that we’re finished; our best efforts have played out. We don’t see how desperate we are for mercy.
Advent, if we’ll have it, moves us back into reality. Advent tells us that without God we’re wrecked. But thankfully, Advent also tells us that God holds the cards. Advent assures us that God is always the God-who-is-Coming. Advent leads us into an abundance of mercy.
Some of us have surrendered to irreparable despair, a vortex of exhausted gloom that’s drained us of everything good, leaving only hopelessness and resignation as we withdraw into isolation. Some of us have succumbed to a swift-burning rage, an incinerating force that’s consumed our perspective on our common life and fueled an inferno charring every vestige of our joy, faith and goodwill. God knows there’s justification for either. These are troubled times. More senseless killing. More entrenchment. And the saddest thing: I could write this on almost any Monday; little would need to be altered.
Both of these responses, different as they are, seem to be the wounded responses of those of us who are overcome by futility. Are we so lost we will never be found? Are we, as a people, so collectively infested and diseased that we will never be healed? Perhaps we have crossed our Rubicon. Perhaps it is indeed the time to throw up our hands and retreat into our cultural silos and just finish out best we can. Or perhaps it’s time for the final, desperate measure: maybe we should light the torches and burn the whole thing down. Perhaps.
But surely you know me well enough to know I don’t believe that at all. I may flirt with capitulation and despair for a day or a week, but I’m a man of faith. I’m a man of hope. As Wendell Berry says, “The word ‘inevitable’ is for cowards.”
This is the hour when we need poets and storytellers and seers and wisdom-seekers, women and men of fresh imagination and steely courage, to walk out in front of us and show us another way. When we are locked into an intractable spiral of death, God inevitably sends us (and often from the margins) people who see a possibility we could not imagine, who envision a future that seems ridiculous. Their words pierce like a hot iron. Their life disrupts our certainties, reveals our foolish vision or commitments. Of course, we do not always listen or follow. Sometimes we refuse to see the new future as anything but a threat. Sometimes the One Who Shows Us The Way gets crucified.
Lord, we woke this morning to another wave of sorrow. More of us are dead. We had to tell our children, once again, of the evil we’ve done. We have to face another grieving day, added on top of all the other grieving days. We have tears. We have anger. We are hellbent on destroying one another. You’re going to have to help us see the truth. You’re going to have to give us courage to be something different. You’re going to have to help us. Amen.
In these heavy days, sometimes I find myself tempted by despair, wondering if maybe we’ve finally experienced our culture’s Andreas Fault. Maybe the cracks really are too deep and the destruction too crushing. Maybe the whole thing will break apart and we’ll just have to watch everything crumble and then pick through the rubble. How will we find our way back to one another? How will we mend all that is broken?
But I tell you the truth, when all the despair and the disintegration have played their oppressive hand, I inevitably find my way back to hope. I’m a goner; I do believe that goodness gets the final say, I do. I’m a man of faith. It’s the easiest thing in the world to wear the cynic’s hat, to finally give myself to suspicion of my neighbors (especially the ones I most dislike). It seems foolish to stand amid the raging furnace, insisting on kindness and gentleness, the courage to push against the evil even while maintaining an open heart to all of this world’s complex beauty, to each and every of this world’s beloved creatures. It does indeed seem foolish. But then, call me a fool. Like I said, I’m a man of faith. And being a man of faith and playing the fool are, at least in my experience, often close to the same thing.