Archives For Through a Glass Darkly

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.”

Jacob’s name means supplanter or deceiver, and if a fellow ever earned his epithet, it was Jacob. Jacob hustled his brother Esau and then his father Isaac and then his wife’s father Laban. Jacob angled and schemed, and it mostly worked like a charm. This is the place where we’re supposed to explain how Jacob hit rock bottom or learned the folly of his ways. Quite the opposite, Jacob got most everything he wanted. Jacob was a man you’d be a fool to bet against.

However, perhaps Jacob had finally stretched his luck too far because this time Jacob had maneuvered himself into a real grade A jam. Jacob decided to return home, to the very place where he’d burned so many bridges, when a band of his breathless servants rushed back from a scouting trip: Esau and 400 warriors were on the warpath and charging their way in a great cloud of dust.

Instinct kicked in, and Jacob the Trickster got busy doing what he’d always done: working the plan, setting the traps, playing things on the sly. Jacob sent waves of emissaries to intercept Esau, with each group carrying lavish gifts that would hopefully overwhelm the aggrieved brother with outrageous generosity. Jacob maneuvered his family to a strategic position. Jacob gave instructions for an escape route if things went south. But then, with his bag of tricks empty, Jacob sat under the moon, wide-eyed and restless. He couldn’t do anything now but sit and wait. For the first time in his life perhaps, Jacob was out of moves, out of ideas. He’d played his very best hand, but he feared that finally, this time, his best was not going to be good enough.

Then, out of the shadows, a man jumps Jacob and the two go rolling in the dirt. They fight for hours, with neither able to finish off the other – and this is quite an admission because we soon discover that this “man” Jacob’s wrestling is God – or an angel, which for mortals like you and me is pretty much the same as wrestling God. Sweat and headlocks and jabs to the jugular  – and still, no victor. We get the sense that this mysterious midnight marauder has been holding something back, and we’re right. Finally, the “man” merely touches Jacob’s thigh, inflicting a wound so severe Jacob limps to his dying day.

Isn’t it interesting that when God wrestled Jacob under the moon, God brought only enough muscle to the fight to lock Jacob up in a draw? I imagine that mysterious Midnight Man taking a lick, wiping blood from his lips, and grinning. “Now Jacob, you sure can pack a wallop.” Jacob: man of tenacity and grit, a man who grabbed life by the throat and wouldn’t let go.

God seemed determined to show Jacob that his chutzpah wouldn’t be enough, that Jacob’s skill and cleverness and brute force would not, in the end, save him. However, God also seemed just as determined to not crush Jacob, to honor Jacob’s tenacity. I’ve had wrestling matches with my sons, where I had them in a vice grip they could never escape or pinned to the ground in a match they could never win – but they refused to cry uncle. Those boys made me proud.

Jacob hung on for dear life, insisting on a blessing. I think God was more than eager to oblige. Jacob may have been a trickster, but Jacob was also dogged, stubborn and tough as nails. Maybe we feel compelled to shame Jacob, to rebuke him for his misguided or arrogant ways. But God wanted to get down in the dirt with Jacob, wanted to wrestle him, wanted to feel Jacob’s strength up close. God knew that Jacob needed to lose, to surrender the illusion that his wit and braun would be enough. But God knew there was so much good there, so much to work with.

Those things we think are the worst parts of us – it’s likely there’s something deeper, something more true that has been covered up, something lost that needs to be found. Of course, we’ll likely have to lose at some point, we’ll have to relinquish our foolishness. But we only need to lose enough so that grace can take hold. God knows the strength and goodness that’s in us – God put it there.

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Next to my desk, I have a shelf of books intended for the nourishment of my soul. On this shelf sits (among others) the Book of Common Prayer, Celtic Daily Prayer, Working the Angles, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry and Hiking Shenandoah National Park: A Falcon Guide. For me, poetry and prayer and long walks in the woods are all three ways of doing a very similar thing. My jaunts in the Blue Ridge mountains, immersed among pignut hickory and shagbark oaks, asters and goldenrods, teach me the same language Scripture leads me toward: gratitude, wonder and restfulness. The Orthodox speak of the book of Scripture accompanied by the book of nature. This makes sense to me.

Last week, I went for a long walk in the Shenandoah. I started the trek feeling a heaviness, the weight of many questions. But true to form, over the 9 miles or so, the weight trickled off my shoulders, a lightness returned. I took a couple detours to examine flora, beautiful luxuries that exist carefree knowing only their need to bask in the shade and sunshine, their single task to emanate beauty. As I neared a creek I needed to ford, I looked up to find a black bear on the other side, perhaps 15 yards away. There are roughly 800 bears in the park, but I had yet to meet one in a standoff. She intended to cross my direction, and I intend to cross hers. I was happy to let her win, but she inched down the brook, munching leaves as she rambled. I inched up the brook, watching my escape route with vigilance. She really was a marvel.

Image quality low due to Photograph fear high

Image quality low due to photographer fear high

Arriving at my destination, I drank crisp, cold water from my Hydro Flask, crunched on my Pink Lady apple and my chili lime cashews. I stretched out my legs and read Barry Lopez reject (through one of his protagonists) “the assertion, promoted today by success-mongering bull terriers in business, in government, in religion, that humans are goal-seeking animals.” Rather, Lopez affirmed, “we believe [humans] are creatures in search of proportion in life, a pattern of grace. It is balance and beauty we believe people want, not triumph.” I read these words, and I uttered an amen. I’m nearly certain one of the birches waved its green leaves in agreement.

I strolled back to my car, a heart filled yet again. Switching out my Keens for breezy sandals (a sweet moment, as any hiker will attest), I hopped into my truck and turned the engine. As I pulled onto the road and turned up the radio, NPR voices and the crackle of static greeted me. At that elevation and at that distance from any city, I was picking up two NPR broadcasts, interlacing. Two shows on two different topics, moving in and out like waves back and forth along the shore. I heard only snippets from each conversation, not enough even to really follow the topic. However, between the two separate shows talking to two separate panel of guests and apparently interacting with two very different themes, I heard – within only 90 seconds – the word anxiety spoken 5 times. I had only dipped my toe back into the “real world” before I was again battered by fear, by hand-wringing, by high-pitched rhetoric.

So I remembered that bear ambling over the creek, with me watching my backside. I remembered those lacy white wildflowers that forced me to stop and gawk. I remembered Lopez’s conviction of our deep longing for a pattern of grace. I pointed home, and I ignored the enticement to drink in all the fear.

Heart and Wires

I remember, in college, reading a pastor who suggested an exercise. List everything we’d ever heard in a sermon and everything we’ve ever read in a Christian book or picked up from spiritual mentors and friends. Pile up everything we’d been told a good Christian would do better, every discipline we should take on, every sin we should confess, every motive we should question, every spiritual practice we should rework. Catalogue all the evils within us. Reassert all the doctrines we are to cling to with our very life. Line up all the “shoulds” and all the “ought-tos,” heap on top of this teetering mass every time we were told more steps to holiness or more methods to spiritual success, more reasons to feel guilty, more ways to please (or appease) God.

I had heard many, many sermons (thousands). I had read many, many books. My pile was massive, heavy. It was my rock of gibraltar. I was exhausted by the exercise. I was exhausted by my life.

Now, in my 40’s, I could add a second exercise. List every cause I’ve ever been told should be mine, every injustice I am personally to right, every issue I am to have a passionate word for (or against), every way I am to prove that I am thoughtful, intelligent, evolved. Mark every way I am to be certain not to provoke or offend (even though these ways, often, stand at odds), every social moment I am to make certain raises my ire (or does not raise my ire).  If I allow myself to continue this exercise, to follow this rushing tidal flow, I find that I am again exhausted by my life.

We have a penchant for laying burdens on one another (or maybe laying burdens on ourselves). We seem to miss that we are all to do what is given to us to do. We can not fix our own life, we can not fix the world. We do that one thing, maybe two things, that has been given to us as a unique responsibility, and then we live well. We seek to be faithful and true to what we see clearly, to what good light has made clear to us, and then we release the expectations and the demands. We love and trust that when we need that next bit of light, it will be ours.”You do not have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver,

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…

No, we merely need to see the truth and fulness of our life, to see what beloved beauty and responsibility God has placed within us. And then we live, with boldness and delight. And we trust that God is doing the same with everyone else and then, somehow, when the Great Story finishes, love has won the day.

whirl-of-a-night

In those chaotic hours on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, two friends (Peter and John) raced, schoolyard-stye, to the tomb. After arriving breathless and after taking in all there was (and wasn’t) to see, they stood dumbfounded, mouth agape, like two boys who’d just seen a rabbit pulled out of a hat or a glamorous assistant disappear inside a small box. And though we’re told that John “believed,” we don’t know exactly what he believed because the Scriptures indicate that the whole brood of disciples were still very much out of sorts, baffled as they’d ever been (which is saying something). Luke tells us that Peter walked home in a stupor, thunderstruck by every remarkable thing he could not understand.

It’s striking, then, how Easter often becomes the day when we haul out our heftiest apologetic guns, overwhelming folks with our rapid-fire arsenal of logical rationale for the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection. Look, I believe it, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. I think Jesus, once a corpse, walked out of that tomb better than new. And I believe Jesus’ resurrection cuts to the heart of everything God intends to do in this world, the very heart of the Good News. I think resurrection matters not only because one man rose from the dead but because of the promise that, through Jesus’ triumph, the whole of creation will one day shake of its grave clothes to shine brilliant and new.

Yet resurrection, with all the hope and possibility it summons, ignites awe and wonder – not a mad dash for sharp pencils and calculators or a whiteboard where we can sketch vast theorems. If we have the fact of the resurrection, but we have none of the bewilderment or the astonishment, none of the unbridled joy at the sheer fantastic lunacy of the whole thing – I wonder if we’ve really got the resurrection at all.

This is not only about the event of resurrection, of course, but about our entire faith. “It is not the task of Christianity,” says Kallistos Ware, “to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” If there is nothing in our faith that drops the jaw, that moves us to inexplicable laughter, that unravels our sense of things…If our vision of God never hurls us to our knees or gooses us in sheer pleasure — we should return to the old stories and hear them again.

Dear John,

So Easter’s coming Sunday. You probably remember enough from your pastor-years to recall how this is a pretty big day. I love seeing all the joy and laughter, some folks stepping it up a little with their Sunday clothes and all the kids wired for the candy they’ve had or the candy they know’s coming their way. The sun’s typically bright, the dogwoods and the daffodils showing off. The music has extra oomph. It’s a grand day.

But I also know it’s an important day because this story we’ll be telling, this moment where we remember that Jesus rose from the dead and kicked evil to the curb – this day is pretty much the whole ball of wax, isn’t it? St. Paul seemed to know a thing or two, and he said that if Jesus didn’t raise up from the dead, then we’re all in a major heap of doo-doo. I tend to think everything in Jesus’ life pointed to this climactic moment when he sloughed off those grave clothes and walked back into this world he loves, this world he’d literally gone to hell to salvage. Some folks think that Jesus got a resurrection because he had to have a cross, but I think Jesus got a cross because he had to have a resurrection. What do you think about that? I don’t know, maybe that’s parsing truths that don’t need parsing. I know this though – what I most need, what most everyone I know needs, is a resurrection. I think most of us live fully aware of the death rattle; we’re just wondering if the story’s really true. We’re wondering if Life and Love really do win in the end.

But here’s my problem, John – I’ve been pondering my sermon for a mess of days now, and I’ve got nothing. Nada. At the moment, my heart feels flat as a pancake. Dry. Dull. Dead. Maybe that’s right, for now. My pastoral workweek calendar says I’m supposed to have a sermon prepared by 5 p.m., but my soul knows that first comes an evening where Jesus shares what must have been a very lonely meal with his disciples, clueless as they were to how he was pointing toward death. First comes a Friday we’ve named Good, though it’s the strangest good I know. Today, I’m leaning toward resurrection, but my soul knows there’s the valley of the shadow of death to walk through between here and there. Why can’t the story of God’s salvation of the cosmos fit into my nicely arranged to-do list?

I’ll tell you this: I do hope some worthwhile words present themselves to me before Sunday. The folks with whom I’ll gather to announce Resurrection are kind and generous, and most will put up with me and my bumbling ways. But still, I would like to have something helpful to share. Every hope I have is bound up in this Jesus who put death in a chokehold and refused to let go. I’d like to do it justice, if I’m able. 

So all that to say – light another candle for me. And if you get some flash of inspiration and want to write a sermon to pass my way, I’m all ears. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Dear John,

Apparently I’ve passed my crazy dreams on to Miska. Mine have faded, but Saturday night, Miska dreamed that Donald Trump asked her to be his spiritual director. She remembered this only a minute or so before I was supposed to stand up to give Sunday’s sermon. She leaned over and whispered her dream in my ear, and I slapped my hand over my mouth to stifle a cackle that would have interrupted the Scripture reader who was diligently reminding us of how God led Israel into a land flowing with milk and honey. I had to recover before I stepped up to the lectern. 

This morning, I read Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s tribute to Antonin Scalia. Did you know they sat side-by-side at the opera regularly, and their families celebrated every New Year’s Eve together? Ginsberg, the liberal stalwart, called Scalia, that fiery conservative, her “best buddy.” She even praised his dissents for pointing out the ‘applesauce’ and the ‘argle bargle’ that needed to be sliced from her majority opinions. I like that – argle bargle. Watching coarseness overrun the political scene and finding ourselves bombarded by the various kinds of flash-mob flareups that happen about every 17 hours on the Facebook feed, it’s easy to believe we have devolved so far that the anger consuming us has stripped us of our most basic humanness: a charitable spirit, neighborliness, a willingness to listen rather than merely snipe and score points. But then you’re given a small gift, like a note where Ginsberg calls Scalia her best buddy and you gain a little hope again. I wish I had words to describe the estrangement I feel from the dominant storylines in our world. But I don’t right now, so I’ll just say that I needed to hear Ginsberg’s kindness and warmth.

Last word on these sorts of things – but since we’re thrust yet again into the electoral carnival right now, I do wonder why anyone with more than a pea-brain’s worth of sense would want to be president? These days, that job sounds like my worst nightmare.

On to better topics – I like your vision of Pony, Montana. I’m willing to carry your ashes there should you land on such a request, but I think we should plan a trip — while we’re still breathing. There’s lots I want to do in the years ahead. On Ash Wednesday, the gravity and humanness hit me at a new level. I can’t say why. But marking that black soot on the foreheads of so many friends, looking them in the eye, touching their body with the sign of the cross, remembering our frailty and the fleeting days of our life — I had a steady lump in my throat. I held it together, but only barely.

A month ago, I bought Paul Kalanithi’s When Breathe Becomes Air. Per the usual, Miska’s gotten to it before me. Kalanithi, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, and as his world came unglued, a question dogged him: “what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life?” Miska says that Kalanithi tells his story beautifully, I look forward to it. I know this question has my attention. I want to live well. I want to love well. Also, I have to say again: I despise cancer. 

We’ve been handed another snow day. We got a few inches, but they say ice is on the way. Looking out my window, Carter’s Mt. has a lacy fog flowing over the ridge line and fingering toward the white-dusted trees, as if the Northern Queen is breathing fresh winter over us. It’s going to be a grand day. 

 

Your Friend,

Winn

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John and I have been letting you in on a few of our letters, and we’ll do that for a tad longer. I’ve always been drawn to letters. They’re personal, they cut the fluff. This is part of the reason why a number of years ago I published a collection of letters that François Fenelon, the 16th century French pastor/priest, wrote in response to friend’s requests for spiritual guidance. Because it’s Lent and during these days some of us like something to ponder, a little help along the way, I wanted to offer Fenelon to you. A number of folks (seriously, I can count at least two) have said that these letters are sturdy guides for the Lenten season. The letters are short, direct – Fenelon wasn’t one to beat around the bush. I’ll leave you one excerpt, then if you like, you can pop over and snag it on Kindle (and there’s a free Kindle app for computers and phones if you don’t own the hardware) for $4.99 (cheap as beans).

Dear Friend, I beg you; don’t listen to that small voice, the self-voice. It can get crazy: the self-voice whispering in one ear and the God-voice (love) whispering in the other. The self-voice never stops; it constantly churns. The self-voice is brash, full of chaotic energy, and forever trying to force quick, impulsive decisions. This voice seduces us with its intoxicating charms and charisma. In truth, though, the self-voice is short-sighted and hot-headed.

The God-voice is simple, peaceful. It doesn’t offer lots of chatter. The God-voice typically uses only a few words, and God’s tone is mild and gentle…

pulled away_snow_mountains_tobi gaulke


When we lived in Colorado, our church met in a simple chapel tucked into the Front Range. Behind the pulpit and altar were large windows offering a panoramic view of tall, elegant pines, rugged ridges and a vast, blue sky. Each week, I would sit in my seat next to Miska and gaze west, toward the wild. Soon, I’d hear the call to worship, but those magnificent mountains had already made the call — and I had already answered with reverence and supplication. That splendid vista offered me an invitation to lay down my cares, to breathe deeply, to be present in this one place at this one hour, to trust that “the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s.” Our pastor was an extraordinary preacher, one of the best I’d heard; but I remember the light cutting across evergreens, the white clouds drifting across craggy peaks, every bit as much as I recall any text he expounded.

Last Sunday, as I stood behind our church’s pulpit, I looked out the windows and saw heavy white flakes falling from the sky. All of our trees, shed of their Fall glamor, stretched their bare branches toward the falling grace, like a child craning her neck and sticking out her tongue to catch the magic. We paused. We looked out the windows and watched the snow. We were quiet. It’s likely those few quiet moments were the best sermon we heard that day.

There’s a reason why, when Jesus began to preach, he would at times say things like, consider the lilies or watch the birds. There is a grace that surrounds us, a grace not of our own making. We can receive God’s kindness from the world around us, we can sense the truth and welcome it and walk right into it and allow all these mercies to hold us up. Sometimes we need words and explanation. Sometimes we just need big eyes and a wide-open heart.

As Kosser and Harrison put it:

The moon put her hand
over my mouth and told me
to shut up and watch.

railroadThere’s more than a little pressure these days to live the grand life, to go full tilt, to know precisely where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness collide – and then to live from there. I appreciate the best expression of these reminders. Too many of us exist with a soul-numbing drudgery where we are never asked to exert anything of consequence, nothing that stirs the bones. We are never asked to ponder our true essence or to offer our unique voice. We’re never challenged to risk anything. No one ever pulls us aside to insist how essential it is that we pay attention whenever we believe something with such conviction or imagine some possible future with such clarity that we feel we might go crazy if we do not expend ourselves, even if the foolhardy pursuit likely means our ruin. Too many of us hand away the sturdiest part of ourselves, plug into the machine and acquiesce to the subtle cruelty of imposed expectations. We’re alive, but just barely.

And yet these ideals, divorced from the grit of life, become a harsh taskmaster, if not a privileged fantasy. To live from your place of deep gladness does not mean — can never mean — that we circumvent the pain of bearing a burden others do not bear or the wearisome task of seeing a possibility others do not see. To live your truest life does not mean we get to avoid the responsibilities rightly laid upon us: the responsibilities that accompany our call to love and care for others, to surrender our life, to participate in the flourishing and well-being of those to whom we have committed ourselves.

Many days, our best life means simply putting one foot in front of the other and mustering the energy to stay true for another day, another season. Sometimes the possibilities we envision will never come to fruition for us, like those old saints in Hebrews who were faithful even to death and yet did not experience all the promises. This is a hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?

Any life we might imagine that is devoid of cost, any life that exists only in the realm of euphoric pleasures (rather than pleasures that include toil and disappointment and the persistent need to cling to hope) – that’s a small, immature vision. This kind of untethered pursuit will not endure the long road that stretches before us. It will not yield a life worthy of the vast goodness and strength that resides in you. We were made for things truer, deeper, more solid.