Archives For Through a Glass Darkly

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.”

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.

shenandoah.06.22.16

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.