Archives For Through a Glass Darkly

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.

 

field

Whether we find ourselves in places of crisis and despair or elation and confidence, whether we know rage or desperation or triumph or sadness or joy or debilitating fear – wherever we find ourselves, the one thing we must do, the one thing we must pursue, the one thing we must cling to is what Jesus insisted was the great, essential commandment: love. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Love upends us all, corrects us all, makes space for us all, holds out hope for us all. Love, as St. Paul says, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love is not merely a means to some other end, some trite sentimental ideal that can be discarded when the stakes are high or the path impenetrable. “Love is the upmost,” Rilke wrote, “the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation.” Another wise one told us that even if we gave our life defending the poor and even if we enacted monumental works of faith or courage or justice – even if we gave ourself into the martyr’s flames – if we don’t have love, we have lost the truest thing.

Of course, love, stripped of its tenacity to enact goodness and neutered of its fierceness, its staunch rejection of evil and defense of the vulnerable, isn’t really love at all. Likewise, love, separated from its open, hopeful posture for the person in front of you (even the person you staunchly dislike or disagree with or believe to be disastrously wrong) or love overwhelmed by disgust that closes the possibility for relationship or the ability to see complexity and beauty in another isn’t really love at all. Love, we’re finding out, is immensely difficult work.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, the great Swiss theologian of the past century, wrote (and, interestingly, in the preface to one of his heady theological tomes): Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them. And I think we could also say the pastor must listen to them; the writer must listen to them, the mother, the father, the activist, the friend, the politician, the anti-politician.

We need lovers, people grounded in the gritty work of love, now – right now. We need people who refuse to buy into the lie that some moments are so dark or are careening out of control so fast that love is no longer practical. Love has never been practical. However love, modeled by the strength and tenderness of Jesus, has always been our only hope. Love never fails.

 

image: Lorenzo Scheda

ambrogio_lorenzetti_-_effects_of_good_government_on_the_city_life_detail_-_wga13488

Well, here we are. Election Eve. Many of us will limp into the polls tomorrow, perhaps some of us will cast our vote by staying home. A number of us will cast our ballot with clarity and conviction; a number of us will pull the lever with mixed feelings and a case of indigestion. I’ve been reflecting on how to think about politics as a Christian, and two moments in Scripture seem helpful to me. There were no democracies in the Bible, but there were places where God’s people received instruction in how to engage tense political environments.

The first comes from the prophet Jeremiah when he tells Israel’s exiles, those taken captive by the Babylonian Empire, that they are to “seek the peace (the shalom, the well-being) of the city.” God’s people were to use their political power, insignificant as it was, by exerting their energy and their hope and their ingenuity and their industriousness toward the flourishing of the city…of Babylon (i.e. the enemy, the folks who didn’t share their view of the world or God or much of anything; they were even the oppressors). God did not direct Israel to conquer Babylon or overwhelm Babylon but rather to seek Babylon’s good, to participate in making Babylon a thriving place, brimming with joy and fruitfulness and all kinds of very human goodness, very ordinary goodness (i.e. specific instructions were to build good houses, raise their children well, plant gardens, tend to the land, pray for Babylon’s prosperity). The Biblical vision is that whenever the saints go marching in, it’s not merely a victory for some religious tribe but good for all the people, there’s joy and welcome for everybody. Does our political posture gain its steam by dividing us, or does it genuinely seek the well-being of all our neighbors, whether we agree with them or not? Do we see enemies everywhere, or do we see fellow image bearers of God, folks we hope and pray will flourish?

The second comes from the apostle Peter where, in an even more explicitly political context (instructing Christians on how we are to “submit for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king… [or] governors…”), Peter insists we must “honor all people.” We are to honor, to show respect for, all people. This means we refuse contempt. We refuse the temptation to degrade another person’s dignity. We remember that the core identity of each person, no matter how much we disagree with them or how destructive we believe their convictions to be, is this: beloved image bearer of God. We will resist evil where we see it. We will speak our convictions clearly and passionately. We will seek to encourage others toward the good we understand. But we will not ravage another person. We will listen and seek to understand and find ways to build bridges. Wherever bridges are, for the moment, impossible, we will bear this sadness and will let this sorrow and estrangement remind us of how broken we are, how we hope for so much more.

It strikes me how both of these postures (seeking good for everyone and honoring all people) are congruent with our call to be people of faith, hope and love. Let’s do that. On November 8th. And then every day that follows.

 

image: Ambrogio Lornzetti, “The Effects of Good Government on the City Life”

moose-in-wyoming

Whenever Jesus wanted to encourage his friends to keep praying and to not lose heart, he told them a story. It was a strange story, I’ll grant you: a tenacious widow who badgered a louse of a judge until the scoundrel relented and handed her a legal verdict, though only to get her off his back. Nonetheless, the odd story did the necessary work. We need stories to help us remember that all is not lost, that what we see in this dire moment is not all there is to see, that God is not nearly so far away as it may appear.

People of faith have always told one another stories in order to keep the fire burning. When I was young, we called these stories testimonies. We knew we needed to bear witness to the faithful love that carries us even through the howling night. We needed to receive one another’s faith in those weary stretches where our faith was weak and faltering. God knows, it’s the easiest thing in the world to lose heart. It’s the easiest thing in the world to sink into despair or cynicism.

And so Jesus told a story and said, Keep praying. Don’t lose heart. I think this is one good way to describe prayer: the refusal to lose heart, the refusal to relenquish our hope in God.

So hear these words today: Do not lose heart. I know our world is in the thick of it, ripping at the seams – but do not lose heart. I know your family may be buckling under the crush – but do not lose heart. I know you may feel you are alone without any true friend who knows the deepest parts of you – but do not lose heart. I know you may be tired of holding on, tired of playing your fiddle while the boat sinks – but do not lose heart. I know the questions and the fears claw at your soul – but do not lose heart.

I’ll keep telling my stories, and you keep telling yours. When one of us lags or buckles, we’ll pick each other up, knock off the dust, keep walking toward the dawn. Together, we’ll stand up bold, even if a bit wobbly, and we’ll refuse to relinquish our faith or our hope or our love. Somehow, we’ll make it through.

enchanted-forest

One of the many enchanted graces in Glacier NP

Hiking in Montana last week, the lushness enveloped me, the velvety green moss, the towering Hemlocks. The rush of frigid water cut through tight canyons while austere granite peaks sliced into the sky, dusted in white as if some heavenly baker sprinkled confectioner’s sugar across the ragged edge. Without planning to do so, I would find myself still, watching and listening, hushed, as though I were answering the monk’s bell calling me to divine hours. Over and again, I found myself uttering the most basic prayer: Thank youThank youThank you.

Eucharist (or Holy Communion) means thanksgiving. It is, from beginning to end, a prayer of thanks. Thanks for Father, Son and Spirit. Thanks for the life we’ve been given. Thanks for love that holds the world. Thanks for the healing promised for any of us who will have it. Thanks for the hope that we are not alone. Thanks for the beauty of those who are gathered at this table of mercy alongside us. Each Sunday, we find ourselves (whether we feel like it or not) receiving these small graces culled from our everyday world and uttering the most basic prayer: Thank youThank youThank you.

But the Eucharist, with its table of hewn oak or pine, with its bread of golden wheat and fresh oil, with the wine squeezed from plump red grapes, tells us that the good things of this earth are the very elements that lead us to God — these are the very parts of this good world that will find, with us, their healing in God. The Eucharist on Sundays reminds us that the whole world is a eucharist, a holy thanksgiving. There are places of such enchantment, such rawness and mystery and joy, that to simply walk their hallowed paths is to participate in a prayer of gratitude. On such holy ground, we inhale the incense of pine and western red cedar, we drink from the cup of wild rivers singing a powerful song, we eat the bread of so many beauties, so many. We really can’t help ourselves: Thank youThank you.

I know a woman most dear to me who, for a season of her life, could only pray while standing on solid ground, among the trees or touching those fresh green shoots pushing their way through the brown dirt. Some might think she was straying too far. I say she had learned to receive the gift. She had learned to say thank you.

Even though the heart of the Christian story centers on the fact that we humans, left to ourselves, make a real mess of things and are sunk without a rescue, we can’t quite make peace with such humbling news. We want to believe that given enough time and sweat, we can muscle or brainpower our way through just about anything. For most of us, it takes true loss — a child on the brink, the death of a dream, a doctor’s report we can’t ignore – before we come to terms with how powerless we really are.

In the Orthodox marriage rites, there’s a whole lot of praying. Less spousal promises. Less pastoral homily. But lots and lots of prayers. And lots of singing. Both bride and groom take their responsibility seriously, but they recognize that at the end of the day, without grace kicking in, they’re in a heap of trouble. So they ask for help, and then they let loose (as only the self-dispossessed can do), singing the joy. This seems about right to me.

It’s humorous (though also disturbingly familiar) to listen in on how often Jesus’ disciples brush Jesus off, the same way my boys do whenever I’m trying my darnedest to offer them fatherly wisdom (yeah, I know, I know, we got this…now watch what we can do…). We do like to pretend we’re accomplished, don’t we? We’re convinced we’ve got our life pretty much ready for overdrive if everybody would just get out of our way. Boy, we think we’re something.

The Collier version of one portion of the gospels reads thusly: Jesus looked at his stalwart disciples, that energetic band who could barely take a break from flexing their spiritual muscles, brilliant theology and heroic intentions, and said, “Well, la-dee-frickin’-da.”