Two amazing things happened today. First, our family began our sabbatical. All Souls knows the importance of tending to body and spirit (something far too rare in churches these days) and after every six years of pastoral service, our community provides three-months for renewal, creativity, rest and joy. There will be lots of playing, reading, writing, loafing, eating, hiking – lots of laughter and tomfoolery. I won’t be completely absent here, but I also will not feel beholden to my normal weekly schedule. Let’s be whimsical.

Second, today I heard how a fella named Chris Anderson dresses up in 5-inch polkadot heels and a blue apron, dons the persona of crass Southern bell Dixie Longate and charges $40 for tickets to her Tupperware parties. People pay $40 to go to a Tupperware party. Anything’s possible, folks. Anything’s possible.

 

Until I was seven years old, Miska and I both lived in Middle Tennessee, with only 75 miles separating us. Our worlds never intersected, but we watched fireflies under the same summer sky. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we had met then. On Saturdays, my dad would often take his motorcycle out on the serpentine country roads. On a few occasions, dad loaded me on the seat behind him, and we’d roll through the hills. We always stuck to the backroads, and I wonder if it’s possible we might have rumbled past Tolleson Road. Is it possible I caught a glimpse of Miska running barefoot through the grass or lying under the big elm with her best friends, her dogs? Could I have happened by just as Miska rode the tractor with her pappy or right when she made one of her courageous jumps out their barn’s hayloft?

I don’t know, but I’ll thank God every day that fifteen years later, I found my way back to her. Strange that we’d meet in Florida of all places.

I was thinking of all this, our shared geography and the way of fate, this morning. As kids, we both remember loving the first scent of our Tennessee honeysuckle, and in our backyard now, the Virginia honeysuckle has made its first appearance. It’s a marvelous scent of life and lush bounty. And it’s a reminder of where we’ve been and the grace that has carried us to this place. Life is a wonder.

 

Frank McCourt described how the community of his beloved Limerick, Ireland would gather for the wake of a dead friend or relative. The body would lie in one room, and you would go there first to say a prayer and have a few somber moments. Then, you would enter the next room to console the widow and speak kind words of the one now gone from you. You would raise a pint in the deceased’s memory and reiterate how sad you were for all the troubles. Soon, someone would offer a funny story about your dead friend, followed by several more, then eventually someone would call out the name of his favorite song and everyone would belt out the tune. The music would grow, and the spirited melodies would carry them into the night. The younger folk would dance through the wee hours. “The idea,” Frank said, “was that the entertainment was so good, the stories were so good, the dancing was so good, the singing was so good – that if the dead could stay dead through this, they’re really dead.”

“That,” Frank added “is why we call it a wake.”

And even if the dead refused to rise, those singing and dancing found their souls reinvigorated, awake. Their hearts were heavy with grief but sturdier toward the life that stretched before them. There is a joy only those acquainted with true sorrows know, a joy hard won. A joy of protest. A joy of belligerent hope.

If our response to the the world’s anguish (whether anger or retreat, despondency or especially a righteous-sounding battlecry) has forgotten to listen to the music, to tap the toe, to rib a friend at the hilariousness or absurdity of it all, then I will not join that monotone chorus. I can not. The pains we must endure in this world exact too high a price to be wasted on such small-sighted visions. I want to sing the songs that make the people dance, even in the house of sorrows. I want to tell the stories that rouse the dead.

I probably have until July before Wyatt, our oldest, stands taller than me. That looming event feels like the crossing of some kind of fatherly Rubicon. His shoes are already 2.5 sizes larger than mine, and last week when I needed to borrow a pair of running socks, he answered, “Sure, dad – but they’re too big for you.” Wyatt said this without jest or boast, simply matter of fact. As of last Sunday, I can still take him one-on-one in basketball, but only by sheer intimidation. Dads have a special knack for rattling their kid’s psyche, it’s a gift. For some ridiculous reason, Wyatt believes I can still beat him in a 40 yard dash. In a few weeks, Wyatt turns thirteen, so my days are numbered. In so many ways, my days are numbered.

When he was a tike, Wyatt endured acute sensory issues. At night, he didn’t want any blanket on his body, and many kinds of clothes were problems for him. He was a porcupine whenever we tried to hold him close. Affection was hard won, but we persisted. I want to be the dad who can always kiss his sons, even when my sons have sons or daughters of their own. So I regularly tousle the boys’ hair and kiss their forehead. I hug them and squeeze their shoulders and tell them, each morning before they leave for school and each night before they go to be bed, that I love them. Our youngest, Seth, soaks up the affection, and for years I’ve hoped we’d eventually win Wyatt over.

Last week, Wyatt, Seth and I walked into Whole Foods to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I walked between the two, my left arm draped over Wyatt’s shoulder and my right arm draped over Seth’s. In turn, both boys spread an arm over me. We walked in step, like the Rockettes. I realized how I was no longer surprised with Wyatt being the first to come in close, the one to lean heaviest into me. As we entered the store, I believe I sensed Wyatt slow to pull away, as if he wanted our walk to linger a few moments longer. I know I did. I want so many of these moments to linger longer.

Lent lasts 40 days, but Easter stretches 50. In the Kingdom of God, the party always outlasts the sorrow. These are the days for fresh light, for new possibilities, the days to return to the joy we’ve feared might be lost forever. If you want to know the real juice for the Christian, well we’ve landed on it right here.

There is a kind of foolishness to these days, a devil-may-care abandonment to the hope of a new world, a new marriage, a new friendship. We have known long, grueling (and necessary) days of lament. We have reckoned with all the death. But today, we pull out the bagpipes and pop the champagne. Today, we dance on the graves.

 

 

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If we are to live wholehearted, there is another word which matters a great deal, a word that has fallen out of favor in our über- independent, you-should-do-anything-you-can-dream self-talk: responsibility. There are many things I am not responsible for (and it’s important to get those things clear, or we’ll suffocate for sure). As Walker Percy said, “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him” However, there are some things I alone am responsible for – and it is my great task to see to them. There are few things (though perhaps only a few) worthy of the weight of our life.

There are two boys in my house who have only one fella to call dad, and that’s me. Miska has only one man to whom she has pledged her love and fidelity, and she has received this pledge from only one man in return. These responsibilities have been handed to me, and I gladly received them (though I was so young and mostly ignorant when I said ‘yes’). These responsibilities are mine. They are a trust, a bond, a calling. Whatever jolt of inspiration I might receive, whatever great stirring of wanderlust or new possibilities – if they pull me from these responsibilities, then they are lies.

There are a few words I must write, a few people I must pastor, a circle of friends who I will walk beside, come hell or high water. There is ground I must tend to, a horizon I must walk toward. To abandon any of these would be a wound to me and to those around me.

To insist we must be attentive to the unique contour of our life is not to throw fuel on the narcissism of our age, where we flit from one whim to the next with little regard for the world or our responsibility to it. Here, we have no silly suggestion that our entire life should be one long, uninterrupted string of thrills and chills. Just the opposite, attentiveness to our life helps us to know where we must lay down our life, if our life is what’s called for. Not everything will be worthy of this sacrifice, but some things are. Some things absolutely are.

As we embrace a kind of holy indifference for those things which are not our responsibility (at least not for now), we discover new energy for those peculiar spaces we are meant to inhabit, those conversations that perhaps we alone can pursue, that obscure work that few notice and might go entirely ignored unless we stray from the pack and get to it. So long as we expend our energy churning to keep up with everyone else’s burning emergency, we have no energy for the one life we must live. Inevitably, we find ourselves bone-weary, guilt-laden or perhaps worst of all – a cynic unable to live open, generous and free.

Last week, a good friend reminded me of David Whyte’s words I’ve long appreciated: “the antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” To be sure, rest and leisure, kicking up the feet and laying low for a spell, is more than necessary. Yet, our deep weariness comes whenever our skill, energy or hopes do not burn from that deep truth God has tattooed on our soul. To live wholehearted, we must say no to many worthwhile things, and we must say yes to a few absolutely essential things.

I’ve happened upon a few signals (and I’m sure there are more) for how to know where my yes should be. I pay attention to the tears, particularly those moments where my heart takes a prick and I don’t know exactly why – this is a path I should follow. I pay attention to the joy, those jolts of delight or pleasure that always make me more alive, more gentle, more bold. And I pay attention to the quiet, those occasions where I sense a conviction of something I must do – but I don’t want to talk about it just now. It’s a smoldering fire; there’s heat but also a reticence to draw too much attention.

A life overwhelmed by lethargy will prove to be no life at all, mere rust and rot and a dim smallness. If there is nothing that stirs us to action, nothing that cues tears or brings sweat or stirs great fantasies, then we really do need to step into our one crack at this beautiful thing called life. Listen to me, please: there is essential work you must do, friendships you must pursue, beauty you must make, stories you must tell. Do it.

Yet, it is also a fact that we are finite (finite energy, finite vision, finite capacity) and cannot possibly carry the burden (at least not in any deep, meaningful way) of everything. We’ve all heard the warning that to care about everything means to care about nothing, and I believe this is mostly true. I’ve come to acknowledge a kind of holy indifference, a settled sense that not every worthy cause is our cause, not every good road is the road we must take, not every burning question requires our opinion. It’s important to live with T.S. Eliot’s tension: “Teach us to care and not to care.” We must welcome both sides as we become the unique person we are uniquely able to be.

Eliot’s next line asks God to “Teach us to sit still.” Perhaps this is the crucial place, to sit still and listen. To listen for that clarity and simplicity that arises from the silence, reminding us of who we truly are, convincing us again of what we are most responsible to say and to do. To do our truest work, we allow other work to go fallow. We enact faith that whatever must be done in this world, will be done – and much of it, not by us. Some sow, some water, some reap. Some plod, some fizzle, some take the big stage. We do what we can do, what we must do. And then we sit still. Maybe we even take a nap.

At the edge of our neighborhood, Habit for Humanity has begun a large multi-house development. The last two weeks, we’ve endured a couple dumps of snow, and the site is soaked, muddy and more than able to bog down both man and motor. This morning, a fellow (I’m going to guess one of the architects) parked his small SUV at the end of Ridge Street, walked to the back of his truck and opened the hatch. He slipped off his buffed leather boots and tossed them into the vehicle, pulling out a ragged, worn down pair of flat-toed, dirt-stompers as their replacement. This is a smart fellow. It’s good to know what kind of day (or year) you’re up against, and pick your boots accordingly.

In the days after my mom’s death, Miska, two good friends and my spiritual director Fr. James all said the same thing: Be kind and gentle with yourself. Grief comes with a thousand faces, but grief does come – and they all wanted me to remember this and to give myself the space to be frayed at the edges, to get a little lost, to expect some of my old demons to come knocking, to not be taken by surprise if the deeper questions come later rather than right away.

I know two moms, at opposite ends of the spectrum (one with a newborn, one almost an empty-nester), but life’s thrown both of them a real stinker. They experience happiness and have good desires, but there’s also lots of regret and uncertainty, more than a little exhaustion. I know lots of folks scratching as hard as they can for a good job, folks who are living the grind and praying to God the dollars are enough to see them to the end of the month. Friends accustomed to onslaughts of fear, anxiety and isolation.

Life will come at us, bringing wonder and joy but also sadness and real trouble. When we recognize this, we can know that sometimes we simply need to pull on our beaters. We’ve got to wade into the muck, and let the craziness or the despair or the rage work its way out. It will not ruin us. It will not overwhelm us. The hardness comes, and the hardness goes. In the meantime, be kind and gentle with yourself.

Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

On the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th or January 19th, depending on the calendar used), the Orthodox perform an ancient rite with roots in Israel and the early church: the Great Blessing of the Water. In many parts of the Orthodox world, the blessing happens on a frozen lake, requiring saws to carve their way through thick ice. Commemorating Jesus’ baptism, stalwart souls sometimes plunge into the biting water (did I mention January?). The priest dips a cross three times, then sprinkles water in all four directions, as if to baptize the entire world. This water evokes primordial creation (“the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters”) and the belief that in Jesus the world God once named good returns again to harmony with God. In God’s world, even the water is holy.

Each Sunday, Christians around the globe eat bread and drink wine, remembering Christ — and not Christ as ethereal deity but a God who got blisters and cried tears, a God who grew incensed at injustice and who cooked fish on the beach for his friends. A God who insisted on restoring humanity to our true humanity. And we raise the bread and the wine, these most ordinary elements, to God. We remember how God fills the entire world (every blade of wheat, every luscious grape, every finch and every rugged range) with grace.

Given all this, how is it possible that we have arrived at the place where many believe that love for God’s world sits at odds with Christian faith? Why do so many believe that the work of their hands and the longings of their heart share little import in the Kingdom of God? How did our humanness, the humanness so essential that Jesus would not abandon it, become only a liability rather than also a source of great promise?

However you bake your bread, however you bless the waters of your world, know you are doing holy work. Good God, we need you.