A conflation of events conspired this year to keep our boys from summer camp, and this weekend they were reminiscing over memories from last year’s adventure. Seth reminded us, as he does each time the topic of summer camp comes up, that he missed us terribly. “I almost cried every night,” Seth lamented, his nine-year-old voice full of pathos. “I almost cried every night because I missed you so bad.”

Wyatt, our blunt realist, chimed in. “I did miss you guys at camp…” and Wyatt paused for only a millisecond. “But mainly I was glad I could go to the Snack Shack and buy Cheetos.”

Our children need us. They need our love, our care. We’re parents, and we’re necessary dagnabbit. It’s also good to remember, though, that our children probably don’t need us as much as we think. This kid-raising gig isn’t quite as precarious as our hand-wringing suggests. We could relax a little. Sometimes the kid just needs a bag of Cheetos.

 

Miska brings the poetry into our marriage, in more ways than one. But it is certainly true that most of the poets I like, Miska has introduced to me. Miska shared Denise Levertov’s “Avowal” with me recently, and it truly sings:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Freefall. Love and grace and mercy and acceptance and hope, all wrapped up beautifully in one single word.

We really can lean into life. We really can unclench our fists. We really can step off the mental merry-go-round. We really can be loved – and love freely in return. We really can trust. We really can live. Freefall.

The Martha and Mary story will not leave me, particularly Jesus’ tender concern for the burden Martha carried. An anxious heart will bury the soul, this I know.

I see a lot of anxiety these days. It’s tricky business to locate because anxiety can appear so helpful, so “concerned,” so righteous, so radically Christian. Most anxious people are not cowered in the corner biting their fingernails. Most anxious people are working like mad, intently focused, advocating, pushing. We rarely call a spade a spade here because anxious people get stuff done. Anxiety is a mighty potent fuel.

We’re anxious that we’ll louse it up as parents, so we frantically read and worry and jump expert to expert. We’re anxious for the injustices of our world, so we charge from cause to cause with no space for life or laughter or human frailty. But some day, these anxious fumes will burn out; and even if they blaze eternal, could we stop to consider the kind of life we’re burning to the ground in the process?

A great sorrow to me is that the Church (the very people to whom Jesus said, Go live, free as a lark and My burdens are light and Don’t be anxious. For real, don’t) is often the most anxious-laden place I know. We’ve got budgets to raise and mission to accomplish, a city to save for crying out loud. And anxious rhetoric gets stuff done.

An anxious church may be a prosperous church or a socially engaged church or an exciting church, but in the end it will prove to be a hollow church and a tired church. When the Spirit is active, our work is not a burden that buries us but a dance that invigorates us.

Whatever else we might accomplish, if our churches never guide us into places of deep rest (those green pastures the Psalms speak of), then we have surrendered the very life God has given us.

christ-in-the-house-of-martha-and-mary-ca.-1618-diego-velazquez_12005

Diego Velázquez, ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’, 1618

When Martha invited Jesus into the home she shared with her sister and brother, she couldn’t have known the splendid friendship she’d just instigated. You never know the remarkable string of events you’ll set in motion by something so ordinary as opening your door and laying an extra plate at the table.

Martha got right to it, cranking things up in the kitchen and preparing for the many guests who followed the rabbi into her living room. After a while, Martha grew agitated because there she was working her finger to the bone over a hot stove while Mary refused to leave Jesus’ side, soaking up every word. When Martha protested, Jesus, in the gentle tone every over-exerted person needs to hear, answered Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted about so many things. Then Jesus added, Mary has chosen the one thing most essential here. Let’s not take that from her.

It’s easy to think that in this short narrative Jesus takes sides in the long feud between competing spiritualities: the spirituality of action versus the spirituality of contemplation. This war rages on even now, between the justice-loving activists and the mystic-minded contemplatives. Of course, it would be silly to think Jesus was interested in, much less bound by, our divisions, the ways we like to codify paradigms and categorize everything and everyone according to some flavor du jour.

Jesus did not push against Martha’s labor, but rather against her distraction, her worry. God knows we need people who clear the fields and announce the truth, people who get antsy whenever we forget that there’s a world we must tend to. But God also knows that those of us who’ve recognized how much our work matters are tempted to think it matters too much, to forget that God and love stand at the center of our labor and our noble causes, to forget that our soul is our deep treasure – and that our soul can absolutely shrivel and die. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than to find a person who’s given themselves to a cause and then, amid their fervid exertion, completely lost themselves in it. Now, only a shell of a human remains, barking burdensome platitudes.

The truth is, however, contemplatives struggle just the same. When we too heavily emphasise “the disciplines” or “the practices,” as if they are a force unto themselves, we entirely miss the point. There are few things more obnoxious than a would-be mystic who’s worn themselves out (not to mention everyone around them) because they thought the work of silence or “spiritual union” was their mission they must accomplish.

What Martha and Mary needed, what we need – that one thing that is necessary – is Jesus. In our seasons of grit and grind as in our seasons of quiet and sabbath, what we need is Jesus. Jesus may come to us in a thousand ways, through Psalm and Gospel, wind and river, worship or children or wine or sweat or solitude – but we must choose him. We must choose that which is absolutely essential, the one thing that, unless we have it, we will die.

 

The idea of ‘preaching’ has fallen on rough times, often tarnished by those who claim to be friends. Perhaps I’m a hopeless idealist, but I think it’s a mistake to surrender a good word to the wolves.

At the same time, I also feel like Reinhold Niebuhr who confessed, “There’s something ridiculous in a callow, young fool like myself standing up to preach.”

At any rate, I continue my Church Words series at Deeper Church today, pondering the old, out of favor word: preaching. This subject gets me stirred up.

One of the disadvantages of our over-broadcasted lives is that we encounter an ever-increasing temptation to live another person’s story. We humans have always been jealous creatures. With Cain and Abel, it only took one other person with which to compare and compete; yet that was plenty to instigate a fit of rage, one life lost and another life chained to restless wandering and sorrow.

Midrashic tradition asserts that Cain and Abel were not merely fighting over God’s pleasure with their sacrifice but also over which brother would marry the beautiful Aclima. Since history, for as far back as history goes, tells us that men have thumped their chests and sailed their fleets into bloody war in order to secure the beauty, this traditions seems at least plausible. The sad truth, however, is that we don’t need any deeper reason for the conflict or the tragedy that ensued. All we need, if we are to inflict violence upon another or upon ourselves, is fear.

Fear that we are nothing. Fear that our odd and marvelous peculiarity is not enough. Fear that when someone else knows great joy or splendid success, that this means there is less joy or success in the universe for us.

Of course, the opposite is true. The more we revel in another’s goodness, the more we find ourselves bumping into goodness too.

The tragedy of a small, fearful life is not only that we inevitably harm our friends (or someone who could be a friend, if our ego were not in the way), but also that we harm ourselves. When we waste our energy attempting to capture the glint from another person’s life, we completely abandon our life, the life that will tragically go unlived if we do not pull up our boots and get to it. As Rumi said: “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”

Another person’s life may be swell, but by the time it reaches you, it’s old hat. We don’t need another recycled life. We need you to get busy showing us your life. Whatever uniqueness your life exudes, the world is smaller if you do not give it to us.

Don’t mimic another’s voice. Don’t give too much time to the fantasy of what might be if you had only been given their opportunity, their smashing looks, their resources, their golden touch. Bless that person, I promise they’re fearful too. Then blaze ahead with your one life. Please.

 

 

Naaman was a ‘great man,’ says the book of Kings. The word great can literally mean big. Naaman, we are told, was a Big Man. He commanded iron-fierce armies and led overwhelming military campaigns, the sort that build empires and fill both lore and legend. Naaman owned vast estates and held the confidence of royals. When Naaman snapped, people rushed into motion.

Our world is filled with big people, or at least filled with people striving for this prize. Many of us aim to live big lives and build big buildings and write big books and, God help us, build big churches. Something’s quite good about the desire to make a mark, to do our best and live a life that matters. This quest for bigness, though, is a cancer. An inflated ego eats away at all the good, all the simplicity, all the humanness of our efforts.

Naaman was a big man used to being in command, but he could not control the leprosy ravaging his body. Eaten up with the disease, this big man’s options were running out, his life was running out. But the Scripture says that a young slave girl, a girl Naaman had ripped from family and home during one of his military campaigns, had compassion and told Naaman that there was a prophet in Israel who could heal him. We’re given a stark contrast here. The word translated young can literally mean little. There’s Big Naaman and then there’s the little girl.

After long travels and a humorous confrontation with Israel’s king, Naaman lands at the prophet Elisha’s doorstep. Only Elisha does not greet the Big Man, Elisha only sends his servant with the message for Naaman to dunk seven times in the Jordan River in order to be healed. Big Naaman was not used to such cavalier treatment. Naaman had done what big, powerful people do – he had carried massive wealth, the sort of resources and capital big people leverage, in order to buy what he wanted. Grace, however, cannot be bought. Grace can only be received.

Naaman gathers his entourage and his booty and takes off in a huff, wanting nothing to do with this strange prophet who knows nothing of the ways of power. But compassionate servants appear in the story again, imploring Naaman to reconsider. “If Elisha had asked you to do something difficult, you would not have hesitated,” the servants say. “Then why not something simple?” When the servants speak of something difficult, they use the same word translated great at the beginning of the narrative, the word we’ve understood as big. In other words, Big Naaman wanted to commandeer a Big gesture. Big people feel comfortable when they stay in charge, when their efforts overwhelm the moment and win the day.

But often, it is the quieter people, the ones who might even seem little to us, who often readily see the ways of grace, the ways of love. There are people, thank God, who do not need to fill the room with their persona but are at home in their body and at home with their God – and they have the discernment and courage to say a simple word in the moment when a simple word is needed. I’ve noticed this with Miska, in the ways she prays with others. Miska is very present, but she is not overly visible. Her presence reminds people they are not alone, but her presence opens up people’s view of God, not their view of Miska. I want to be more like this.

Of course, I know that in our anti-institutional, cynical world, being ‘little’ can be merely a new way to engineer being ‘big.’ Perhaps the issue isn’t so much big or little but simply being who God has made us to be, living out of the love that has been given us.

This world is a splendid and magnificent thing. Our lives are wonders to behold. Having no language to top the Creator’s own description, we take a wide, contented gaze and simply exhale, “My, my, this world is good.”

But we are in disarray these days, our world and our lives seeming so fragile, our bright hopes sullied. The truth is there’s much evil and sadness in our world, too much death and too much anger and too many stories of friends and strangers clinging at the brink. Some of us have lost our keen-eyed wanderlust for the horizon, the splendors ahead, the good to come. We are no longer able to hold on to the belief that bright love will write the final chapter.

But it will, friends, it will. The God of all love and goodness, the God who promises to bring tears and evil to its end, is not fragile. God has not forgotten. “My, my, this world is good.”

So have hope. Dig in. Love bold. Go dance. Write a novel. Make babies. Clean up a river. Plant a grove. Bike the Eastern shore. Rent a convertible and tour Route 69. Receive the Eucharist with gusto. Learn to play the sax. Give yourself to big ideas and big causes. Laugh in the face of fear. Do something foolish with a friend simply because they’re your friend. Grab the one you love and kiss them extra hard and extra long. Cry. And then laugh. And then cry again.

If the Christian story says anything at all, it says this: the gloom we know is not the final tally. The God who named the world good gets the final say. The heart of Christian hope is the promise that death is, in the end, merely a two bit player in the great drama.

In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, the pastor offered the eulogy at the funeral of a young girl who died tragically and too soon, and he knew this hope:

The preacher coughed and asked for silence and said he had a few final words. He went through the formalities of prayer and the old biblical Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but then he said that it was his firm belief that ashes could someday return to wood, that was the miracle not just of heaven, but the miracle of the actual world, that things could be reconstituted and the dead could come alive, most especially in our hearts

Ashes return to wood. Sorrow to gladness. Cold hearts burn again. One day, everyone will experience the truth that is already here, if we’ll see it. My, my, this world is good.

One of the most tragic moments you will ever witness is when a person begins to believe that their life does not matter. Among the many confusions of our modern moment, this must be one of the most vexing: the belief (often an undercurrent more than stated outright) that there is no purpose or meaning, that an unclenching claim to the base truth of a thing – justice, love, courage, noble choices, sacrificial friendships – are remnant shadows of a simpleton age. One who arrives at this conclusion may regret the fact or wish she could return to the time before she knew this alarming reality, but pandora’s box has been wrenched open. Almost certainly, some moral compass remains, evidenced by an instinctive revolt when a child is harmed or a minority oppressed or a mountaintop’s beauty razed for the sake of a buck, but the awful idea sticks: What I do does not, in any lasting or significant way, matter.

This is a lie, and this lie kills the soul.

The witness of the Scriptures and the actions of Jesus tell a radically different story. The invitation God gives is for us to rise up from the dirt of the ground and give ourselves to good work, exerting goodness wherever we humans have lost our way. God taps us on the shoulder and asks us to be the ones who wipe off the muck and unearth the world’s beauty, the ones who herald the splendors of what God has named true living, the ones who announce by our life and labor that every solitary spec of human effort done in response to God’s good vision for his world absolutely, positively matters.

And it is not just that ‘the world’ matters, though it does, a great deal. You matter. Your life is your participation. When Abraham Heschel spoke with young people, he would plead with them: “Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.” This was not gushy self-help. This was the prophetic pronouncement that our lives are the gifts we have been given by the God who beams over the sheer fact of us. This was the prophetic charge to take our life seriously, to see our life in all its glory and then to live with fire and conviction. We live with the magnificent knowledge that our days and our dreams and our failures and our successes all, by God’s grace, participate in the kingdom and the beauty and the hope that God promises will be coming.

You exist, and this absolutely matters. I’m glad you’re here on this big dust ball, each and every one of you. I’m glad you’re alive and kickin’ up dirt, making a beautiful mess and loving like mad and giving us what only you can give us. Your life matters.

Recently, I had the chance to lead a small circle of folks into the home of friends. We toured the house, hearing stories about the space, what the rooms represented and what their hopes were for the life that would blossom between those walls. We blessed each room, and we blessed our friends who would call it home. This occasion was one of the reasons I’m a pastor, and it’s one of the most Christian acts I know.

I recount the story at Deeper Church.