Archives For Through a Glass Darkly

Being a pastor is often a joy, but like every vocation, it’s far from peaches and cream. Stanley Hauerwas once said that being a pastor is like being slowly nibbled to death by ducks. Thankfully, I’ve never been in a church like that, but there are days when it seems like I should have stayed a stockbroker or tried my hand as a backcountry guide or maybe become one of those pro Minecraft gamers on YouTube.

There are days when you watch someone you love walk away or you are riddled with questions just as it seems like an answer’s what everyone needs, days when your pastoral energy’s flat as a pancake, days when you feel like you had something really worthwhile to offer in a sermon – only to crater that baby with a class-A nosedive. There are days when you know that all you really can do – all you’ve really ever been able to do – is invite people to Jesus’ Table, to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to remind us of The Story, to hold your hands wide and break that bread and invite people to come on home. And though you know this is all you can do, you hope it is enough.

And then one day, a child gives you a picture they drew of you in that moment. And your heart swells with gratitude. And you whisper to yourself, “It’s enough. It really is enough.”

The exit out of The Abbey, up to our house

Miska and I recently took a rambling stroll outside our old cottage, these whimsical gardens Mr. Cloud first envisioned in the 30’s, the gardens lovingly tended and expanded by those who’ve called this home in the ensuring decades, the same ground we’re only beginning to know and love and tend to ourselves. We noted how the dogwoods and azaleas are receding, tipping their hat as if bidding adieu to the tulips who’ve exhausted their glory, shooting stars blazing out in a blast of Spring brilliance. On cue, the next players have stepped up to center stage, and one of our favorites for this act in the play is the peonies. Miska had checked the peonies’ tight pods only that morning, waiting for them to open their heart to the world. And there they were, mere hours later, offering their pink and white splendor.

These are the things we only see if we take that rambling stroll, or peer attentively out our back windows. If you want to feel their pleasure with us, you’ll have to park your car and walk through our rickety back gate (one of the reasons we bought this house), maybe even ring our rusty bell to let us know of your arrival. You can’t catch a glimpse of these wonders while motoring past at 35 mph. These beauties are not, as the realtors say, curb appeal. To get to this goodness, you must enter into the quiet and hidden place.

Our gardens are part of Mr. Cloud’s orginal 2 acres. Our next-door neighbors hold the deed to the bulk of the property, but we have the good fortune to be their friends as we continue to treat the property with its orginal spirit: no overbearing fence, no boundary markers. We all enjoy the whole marvelous expanse.

On Saturday, Ben (our next door neighbor) and Dan (our down the street neighbor) and I found ourselves in a hidden nook, tucked into the back corner of the property where an underground spring feeds into a creek maybe 1/3 mile away. However, for years, Joe Pye weed has choked out the water’s movement, turning the bubbling brook into a goopy marsh. Clearing enough of the runaway flora to let the water free, Ben and Dan began construction of a small bridge, then mapped out the contours needed to allow the reclaimed stream vital flow, then began to figure the rocks they’d need, the angles, the way forward. I manned the wheelbarrow, hauling weeds and debris to the compost pile. This is the sort of job suited for a fellow like me when you’re working on such a project with an architect and an engineer.

To find this little brook, you enter an alcove, a secret hideaway, secluded by a dense circle of azaleas and dogwoods and guarded by towering tulips and regal pines. I’ve come to think of this alcove and the adjacent brook as The Abbey. I don’t get to officially christen the spot, of course, as I’m not the one who’s paying the mortgage for this plot of dirt. But in my heart, it is The Abbey. And like the rest of these joys, you have to take time to find them. You have to go looking. I think that’s the way it is for most of the deep joys in our lives.

Our church has an Easter tradition. After affirming with zest (multiple times): Allelulia! Christ is Risen! and after our raucous music and after recounting how the angel appeared like lightning and scared the holy bejeezers out of the Roman guard and after hearing that preposterous, heart-swelling story where Jesus tossed the dead man’s clothes and strolled out of the tomb and after gathering around the table of Resurrected Jesus to feast on mercy — after all that, we eat donuts. Piping hot, organic apple cider donuts from the Carpe Donut man. We invite all the neighbors to join us, and we go hog-wild. We’ve done this every year since our church began. Is there any better way to say Jesus is Alive and the party’s just getting started than locking down on a hot apple cider donut?

Only this year, as I was making my way over to the donut truck, I received a text: The donut machine needs a resurrection. Jesus is alive, but apparently the devil is still alive and well too – because through some mishap, the donut fryer was deader than a doornail. Let me tell you how big a downer it is, after the Easter high, to go down the long line of folks, all bright-eyed and brimming with Easter joy, and tell them the promise of donuts has been rescinded. Of course, we all survived. Easter’s bigger than donuts. Way bigger.

Even after encountering again the Ultimate Story, we move back into the world-as-it-is, where donut fryers go caput, where marriages waver, where hopes flicker, where friendships go sour, where doctors deliver dreaded news, where Syrian children and Coptic children die awful deaths. Easter doesn’t tell us that our troubles are no more. Easter tells us that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us out of all the deaths we know. So we keep walking, on Easter Monday just as we did on Easter Sunday. We keep walking into the love and the fury because we now know how this story ends.

With the boys on spring break, we returned late Saturday night from a whirlwind sprint to Arkansas and Tennessee to see family, including a new baby nephew Cooper who’s a chunk of burning love, let me tell you. Under the brilliant moon, we pulled our Subaru into the Lane and aware of how groggy and bleary-eyed we all were, I knew that in a few hours, when Sunday morning rose from the ashes, I would be the only one rousing. So I was off to church and returned home a couple hours later, Bodo’s bagels in tow.

Later in the afternoon, Wyatt, now reoriented to the land of the living, remembered what day it was. “Wait,” Wyatt said, “today’s Palm Sunday. I missed a big one.” He did, of course. But then isn’t that one of the themes of the story? Didn’t most everyone miss a big one? Didn’t most everyone miss the King of the World, the Love of the World, riding into their midst? Didn’t they miss the awful gravity of where he was heading? Didn’t they miss the treacherous path love asked him to take? Don’t we all seem to miss so much?

I miss God riding into my life on a daily basis. I live with a wonder of a woman, but half the time I’m clueless to all the grace she bears into the world. There’s two wild and brilliant and outrageous boys who live with us, and I feel true sorrow when I see how quickly the sands are pouring through the hourglass, a punch to the gut when I have a moment of clarity and reckon with the hundred ways I’m missing opportunities to chunk the tyrannical distractions and just be dad. If that weren’t enough: friendships missed; opportunities blown right past; that Japanese maple blooms with barely a glance; divine invitations unanswered.

But Jesus rode right on into their life. Jesus was not burning with wounded rage on Palm Sunday, and he (astoundingly) wasn’t bent toward fury on that Good, Dark Friday either. It is the way of humans to blunder along, to miss what’s right in front of us. And it’s the way of God to stand and wait, arms open wide, for us to recognize our foolishness and come home. And at the Cross, we find God’s waiting place, the true gathering place, where all who’ve been slow to clue in can finally say yes, can finally receive the welcome God’s been trying to give since forever.

It’s never too late to say yes to love. The opportunities we’ve missed will not ruin us; they will be overwhelmed by God’s embrace. God waits.

As I reflect on the legacy of those who led our nation through the early decades of the civil rights struggle, I’m struck by their courage, their tenacity, their profound love, their unflinching conviction. However, I’m perhaps most amazed by their joy. I think of giants like Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper who Chris Myers Ash (in his book The Senator and the Sharecropper) describes as the force “who rose to become the spiritual leader of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.” I think of Dr. King’s bone-stirring oratory. I think of John Perkins and how his words, even now, resound with such weight and open new terrain inside me. I think of all the music those steadfast marchers sang, the haunting and hopeful melodies. Laced throughout all their appropriately sharp words, their calls to action, their naming of evil, you’ll find a swift current of joy. This was not giddy joy or easy-won joy. It was not a joy ignorant of the wrong that must be righted or the monumental work that needed to be done. But it was a real joy, a steely-eyed joy; and I believe this joy fueled their hope.

It’s normal, necessary even at times, for fear to prod us into action. When a rattler’s about to strike, a good jolt of fear gets the body moving pronto. However, we can’t (healthily) operate on fear long-term. Over time, fear leaks a poison into the soul. But joy – there’s a power large enough to fuel a life. Joy (our joy and the joy of others) opens up possibilities fear never will. Fear lures us into a shrinking circle, but joy moves us outward with boldness. Fear warps our sense of things and, like acid, eats away at our humanity and at our ability to honor the humanity of those we fear. More, fear draws absolute lines, with “the enemy” dominating our imagination. The trouble of course is that whatever or whoever we fixate on slowly shapes us. It’s one of those strange cruelties that we often become a mirror reflection of that thing or person we oppose. But joy – joy throws a massive wrench in fear’s runaway wheel. Joy helps us shed fear and move forward with abundant faith, tenacious hope and vigilant love.

No wonder our Scriptures tell us to pursue joy always.

Last week, I confessed to Miska how much resistance I feel in several areas of my life, a lethargy I can’t shake. Genuinely curious and without any judgment, Miska asked: “I wonder if you’re trying to avoid pain?” I’ve been pondering this in the days since.

I don’t know that avoiding pain is the only factor at play, but I’m newly aware of how easy it can be for me, when I’m not operating in my truest self, to attempt to arrange my life so that I don’t have to enter the complications of vexing conversations or strained relationships. At times, I can put more mental energy than I care to admit circumventing other’s judgments or disapproval. I can often grow disillusioned or angry when I face troubles that seem unrelenting or even more so, when I see how others face severe sorrows while God seems so very absent. Is not pain our great enemy? Is not suffering the sign that God has gone on vacation?

Into this place, I read again Paul’s word reminding us that as God’s beloved, we are drawn into the fullness of Jesus’ experience. We share in his life, but we also share in his sufferings. I’m not suggesting for a moment that my recent malaise is anything so noble as this, but I am reminded that avoiding pain, natural as the impulse may be, is not exactly the goal. God is immensely kind and desires to nurture and heal us, but apparently, as was true with Jesus himself, sometimes suffering (on our own behalf or for the sake of others) is part of our vocation.

We encounter suffering that bellows from the evil we humans do to one another; we must name this and resist it – and I’m in no way suggesting that anyone should endure injustice out of some vague spiritualized ideal. We also encounter suffering with no apparent cause other than tumultous weather patterns or bad luck, or suffering bound to the fact that we are mortals in bodies that decay and grey and wither, bodies that sometimes do the opposite of what they are supposed to do. With our Israelite forebears, ones who knew suffering perhaps more than any people ever have, we cry to the heavens with those gut-wrenching Psalms, prayers of both agony and relentless faith.

And somehow, in this mix, we also add this strange witness: some pain is an invitation into Jesus’ own love, arms spread wide for the love of the world.

Because I’m married to Miska, I’ve become modestly conversant in the Enneagram (really only conversant enough to keep asking Miska questions like: so what is that number that does xxxx??” or this is probably my distintegrating 5-ness, huh?). I’ve gone so far as getting the daily Enneathought emailed to me, something I send directly to the trash folder on days I can’t stand another moment of introspection. And yet there are days when something will hit me square in the solar plexus, like I’ve got a big bullseye painted on my chest. Several times, the opening line will be: “Today, try to do the opposite of your personality pattern.” Well gee, thanks. 

But it’s a good word, sometimes we need to intentionally do the opposite of whatever has become too easy for us, too “natural” – only it isn’t really natural at all. It’s just the way we’ve learned to withdraw from our life, to live by inertia. It’s just too, too easy. I’m not talking about working something up or resolut-ing ourselves to death (Good God, no). I’m simply saying that our life is too marvelous to waste by collapsing into a bored sluggishness.

So New Years lands past the halfway point of Christmastide, a time when these two different accountings of time are telling us similar things: to enter our life, to pay attention, to give ourselves to these days and these people that surround us. Maybe this would be a good day, or a good week, to do something that is the opposite of what, left to our boredom or disappointment or compulsions or lethargy, we’d do. If sadness comes easy, poke at a little happiness. If we always stay on the surface to avoid the pain, ponder something a little deeper. If you always withdraw into your internal cave, ask a friend (or someone you’d like to be your friend) over for dinner. If you have a really hard time being alone, take a walk in the woods or curl up for an afternoon by the fire with a fine book. There’s joy to be had, but sometimes we have to intentionally seek it.

Dear John,

I told you that we had to bring down the big, old Ash in our front yard. Years ago some mortal wound pierced its mammoth trunk, and over the years since, the rot and the carpenter ants have done their business. It was a sad day when I watched the crew bring that great tree to her knees. However, yesterday was the day of joy. We were out early, Wyatt and Seth and me along with a handful of friends and neighbors. We were all wearing flannel and heaving axes and gunning a hydraulic splitter. It was grand. There’s something about having work to do, work you are responsible for, work that has defined parameters and objectives: cut the logs, split the stumps, stack the firewood. This was a mother bear of a tree, so the work’s not yet complete – but I see clearly what needs to be done and I know how, if the weather and my back holds, I’m supposed to do it. So little of my life feels this straightforward, this immediate, this grounded. I know something now I did not know when I was younger: I have to stay grounded. I have to be among the trees. I have to be under the night sky.

That’s what connects us both to folks like Kent Haruf or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver. They are people who ground us to life, to the hard and marvelous wonder of it all. I enjoyed your letter, as always, but this one was especially educational because I learned a new word, had to look it up: hypethral (“wholly or partly open up to the sky”). Now that’s good, John. You said Mary had a “hypethral theology,” and I can imagine Ms. Mary reading that and chuckling to herself and saying, “Well, I guess so…” And like you, it was this single line from the first essay in Upstream that made me sit up straight: Attention is the beginning of devotion. If there was ever a line suited to Advent, that’s one right there.

Advent holds much allure for me because these are days that give us permission (and perhaps it would be more helpful if we heard it as a command) to stop. I’m not sure that in this helter-skelter world where most of us live so fearful of falling behind or not catching up or somehow getting steamrolled that we think we can actually just stop. In the Church especially–those of us who are supposed to really get this Advent thing–I don’t think we do a very good job of helping people stop. I wonder how many times, as a pastor, I’ve loaded stuff up on people’s weary souls rather than helping them shed the back-cracking weight. Even this idea of waiting and watching can have such a heavy, drag-yourself-through-the-finish-line posture. And on the other hand, our idea of being watchful (or waiting, or hoping) can also carry a hollow ring, evoking a limp passivity. But when Mary says that attention is the beginning of devotion, there’s teeth there. It’s a belligerent hope, but a hope-at-rest. Attention does not happen when I’m up to my eyeballs trying to furiously hack my way through life, but neither does attention happen when I’m just folding all my cards and calling it a day.

You know when attention happens? For me it happens every time I say no to the things that are not mine to do. Attention happens when I feel (as Miska says) that my “carrying capacity” has been met (and right now, I realize it is met, full tilt, time to start cooling down the engines). Attention happens on days like last Saturday, when there were two moments — one each for Wyatt and Seth when I stood back and watched them, for the very first time, take those herculean swings with an axe, determined to make splinters of that stump in front of them. I’d given them a few pointers (after I’d received instructions myself), but then there was nothing for me to do but watch. And I tell you, it was a sight to behold, those two boys of mine becoming men, unleashing their strength.

Those hours with the boys splitting wood and drinking cider were not attached to an Advent devotional, but they were Advent top to bottom. It was me being attentive to this very good life God has given me, these boys, this house, these trees. I watched and said thank you.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Today, as we feel so unsafe, so unsure, so torn asunder, it can be difficult to imagine a different day, a different world. And yet this is precisely what the prophets do for us. The prophets do not flinch from any grim reality. Rather they point to the evil and name the ruin and insist we take our own hard look. The prophets agitate us so often and with such persistence that we find it nearly impossible to stick our fingers in our ears and hum a nursery rhyme while the world burns. And yet the prophets do more: they stand in the middle of the flames and bellow an audacious song of hope. It can be the easiest thing in the world to ignore calamity or injustice or our own sick soul. However, it may be even easier to believe that this same calamity or injustice or sick soul owns the end of the story. We need the prophets to save us from both.

So on the second week of Advent, after Isaiah has described in brutal detail Israel’s national corruption and personal ruin, we find ourselves in a vulnerable place where we see our own world, our own heart, teetering on the edge of a deep abyss. Bana Alabed, the 7 year old “Twitter girl” from Aleppo, has gone silent, her final characters sharing her fear with the troops approaching. Our marriage, enduring for years now, threatens to finally collapse under the pressure. Our job has gone south, a friendship closed off. Our national life–and the many global perils–offers so much gloom on the horizon.

And yet, as the prophets always do, Isaiah tells us we must imagine a different day, a different world. In the world Isaiah sees, the wolf becomes friendly neighbors with the lamb; the leopard stretches out (comfy as a cat being lazy in the afternoon sun) right alongside the goat; the cow munches on dinner right next to the bear (rather than being dinner for the bear); the little toddler sucking on her thumb plays at the cobra’s hole and a rosy-cheeked boy sticks his hand into the very middle of the viper’s nest. In the world Isaiah sees, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no trouble, no conflict. Everyone belongs. Everyone is welcome. Joy is everywhere.

Advent is a time when we see the world for what it is. Advent’s also a time when we begin to see the world for what it can be.

 

image: Evan Rummel

night-light-2

Well, here we are again, God. I’m supposed to feel advent-y. Instead I feel weary, a little sadness, grumpy. I’m also hungry, but of course that’s because I haven’t had breakfast yet – so I won’t load that one up on you. The nutritionist told me to make sure I eat something small first thing (maybe a little 90 calorie Yoplait or a slice of cheese), right after I get up and before I go for my run. So there’s another thing I’m supposed to be doing. Yoplait first thing and feel Advent-y. Welp, two strikes.

But here we are again, starting the story for another go round. I’m glad the story moves on whether I’m in the groove or not. I’m glad all I really have to do is get in the vicinity, just ease on to the slow moving train and hold on for the ride until (hopefully) some of the magic sets in. Oh, I know it will. Something unexpected always yanks at my heart – maybe it will be those haunting notes from the Russian State Symphony, maybe some Instagram photograph, like a quiet Nebraska cornfield dusted in white, maybe one of those moments with Miska when she says something wickedly witty and I go rolling, maybe a text from a friend with a line or two that collapses the miles between us. So really, nothing for me to do but open my eyes and move into these Advent days. And wait.

Of course, that’s the point – to wait. To open our groggy eyes (or wake up from our slumber, as St. Paul told us on Sunday) and turn our groaning bodies out toward the dark night so we can watch for the light that, soon enough, will burn away the midnight, burn into our world, into my soul. I guess I’ve actually never heard you say anywhere that I’m supposed to feel Advent – I guess that’s the kind of expectation we put on ourselves (why do we do that?). Instead, you just tell me to wake up and move closer in. I think I can handle that. I can turn up the Bulgarian National Choir. I can read a bit of old Isaiah, a bit of Merton. I can ask for you to help me today, to watch over our boys, to watch over this weary world of ours. I can invite neighbors over to split wood for all the fires that will warm us and enchant us through winter. I can try to put a few more words on the page. I can dance a little with Miska in the kitchen.

I’ll do the waiting and the watching, God, and you do the Adventing. I assume you’ll do it on your own schedule, that seems to be the way it works.