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Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, taken by Wai Chee Wong

Gordon Hempton, the acoustic ecologist who speaks of finding and preserving that “one square inch of silence,” recounts how it typically goes when he takes a friend into the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park (the place Hempton refers to as his cathedral). On the hike into the lush, dense timber (Olympic is home to the tallest trees in North America, some over 300 feet tall), Hempton describes how there is often chattery conversation as they ease their way out of urban life and into an entirely other ecosphere. Yet on the return trek, after their encounter with the magnificence and the deep hush, there is barely any conversation – and if they do speak, it is always a whisper. “Quiet is quieting,” Hempton says.

The week of Dallas Willard’s death, one of Dallas’ philosophy doctoral students at USC recounted the numerous ways Dallas influenced him. The student, now an accomplished philosopher in his own right, made one observation I have been unable to shake. “In my five years studying with Dallas,” he said, “I found it almost impossible to be anxious around him.”

Quiet is quieting.

 

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Hempton recorded the sounds inside a piece of Sitka Spruce driftwood on Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park as the tide poured over top. The sounds have been described as “surf plucking the inner hollows of a piece of driftwood to make them vibrate like the strings of a violin.” You’ll want to use headphones to pick up the nuance, but this is silence for the soul.

One of the great temptations of a pastor is the greedy pull to say too much. We get so enamored with the sound of our own voice that we interrupt every silence and chatter over every mystery, spraying our neon pronouncements where sparse and hallowed words would do. We grow accustomed to being the first to pick up the mic, the first to have an authoritative or conclusive word. In an enflamed, issues-driven culture, this temptation prods with unrelenting aggression. Perhaps we fear irrelevance or fear losing our following. If we no longer scratch people’s itch, who are we then?

Of course, pastors no longer hold a monopoly on this narcissistic seduction. Technology has made it so that anyone with ten minutes and a couple fingers can unload a screed or a 140 character denouncement. If there’s an opinion to be had or an opportunity to show our intellectual (or theological or cultural, what have you) superiority, we’re quick on the draw.

Some of the best – and most troubling – advice I received from my pastor was when I asked him how he would have handled a particular hot-potato issue if he were still shepherding his parish. “My position,” he said, “would be to not take a position.” This is not at all to say that those of us who write or preach or craft lyric or verse never say anything with bite and commit only to accepted talking points. God help us, no. I’ve certainly never known my pastor to back away from a stout word when the moment required it.

This is, however, a suggestion that we refuse the pernicious allure to stay on top, to grab the momentum, to make sure we’re heard, to maintain the admiration of our tribe (or the attempt to build a tribe). It would do our souls well to, every once in a while, abandon speaking and get comfortable with silence. We might get comfortable shrugging our shoulders and saying, “I don’t have the foggiest.”

My suspicion is that a fair bit of our prattle (and perhaps I should only speak for myself) comes from fear. We fear uncertainty. We fear being left out. We fear the important people and important ideas (whoever and whatever those are) will move on without us.

One of my favorite sections of dialogue in Marilynne Robinson’s Home is when Congregationalist minister John Ames and his best friend, the aging Presbyterian Robert Boughton, have another roundabout concerning predestination. At one point, feeling a tad testy, Ames says,

I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s what people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.

These days, it may be the way of things to catch whatever fire’s blown up and add wind to the flame, but I suspect we’re losing something vital in the exchange. I also believe this blabbering posture hurts the poignancy of those moments when we do have something true to offer, some true fire burning in our gut. A poet who keeps me piqued with razor-edged vigilance will ultimately lose me. She may have sold me her verse for a bit, but I will not have found myself amid her one-pitch offering. And I will be unable to follow her into this world that knows too narrow a space for the whole of me, the laughter as well as the siren, the unsettledness as well as the dogma.

Call to Worship

Just down Ridge Street, only a couple blocks from my house, a trio in neon orange vests semi-circled near heavy machinery. An orange sign propped atop the sidewalk informed me that road work was ahead. A line of orange cones cut into the paved lane, requiring drivers to creep through the tight squeeze. The youngest of the three gripped the T-handle of a jackhammer, steel driver resting ready on asphalt marked with blue spray-paint lines where the steel would bust the ground to smithereens. He clutched tight, but too tense, like a little-leaguer with his bat before the first pitch on his very first opening day.

The other two encouraged him, “Hold that big button now. Be ready.” One of them fired a growling generator, and the man clinching the steel watched me out of the corner of his eye, not wanting any strange faces to interrupt this moment he’d probably been dreaming of for years. I’m familiar with this fantasy, steering a wild jackhammer, blasting concrete and rock until nothing’s left but rubble and exhausted energy. I know what it is to be on the verge of sheer joy, sweaty palms and excited, taut muscles, ready.

Music

Is it blasphemy to say The Band did “Atlantic City” better than The Boss himself? A strong mandolin makes everything better.

Passing the Peace

The one fellow who refuses to look me in the eye continues his bulldogged persistence. Several weeks ago I thought we had a breakthrough, but apparently I only caught him when he let his guard down and allowed his eyes an inadvertent glance as I brushed past. In this sacred environ, he is the equivalent of the bookish man who refuses to surrender his one spot on the pew and who will walk out at 12:01 if the service has not concluded. Thankfully, there’s also a young newcomer who walks peppy and every single day tips his baseball hat at me when he says hello, like he’s the sheriff and I’m one of his townfolk.

Silence

Some mornings, I listen to one of Krista Tippett’s interviews. She always posts the edited version (the one produced for broadcast) and the unedited version (the complete feed, without any doctoring, thus including hiccups and technical snafus and rabbit trails that will surely never see the light of day). Perhaps my favorite part of the unedited track is the long pauses, the silences that make their way into a conversation that is real, not scripted. These silences come when you are not trying so hard to sound smart but rather to listen well, to be present with the one sharing your conversation. If there is a word I think we need to use more, it’s pause.

Blessing

Me to Wyatt and Seth: I love you. Have a great day. I’ll miss you.

Miska to me: I love you, beloved.

This morning around the breakfast table, we opened our box of question cards. Each person receives a card, and each person answers a question. Seth’s card asked him to state our family motto. Because Seth takes such things seriously, he needed time to consider and asked us to return to him. Midway into the next person’s question, Seth’s hands shot up, and he blurted out, “I know it! Be loved. Be brave.”

You wonder if your knucklehead parenting has done anything more than make plain as day your woeful inadequacies, if anything you have said or done has even begun to break through. And then, over sourdough and oatmeal, your son says Be loved. Be brave.

That gets at the soul of it. If the boys know they are loved, and if they hear the call to courage, I believe we’ve covered the bases.

I hope these words for each of us. As far as mottos go, we could do a lot worse.

Be loved. Be still and know that you are loved. Receive love when it’s offered – and watch for it because it will be. I know anger and meanness will swing your way, but I promise you that love will come too. Hear love in the wind. Look for love in the common kindness of a friend. But the most difficult part, as I’ve come to see it, is to let love reach us. It’s a scary thing to live awake and open.

Be brave. The temptation will be to back up or quiet down. To pull in. But we need good, solid people who will live the one life only they can live. And live it in technicolor, with an audacity that makes it impossible for the rest of us not to marvel at the goodness of it all.

Be loved. Be brave.

The first time I saw her, I did not know whether she was an angel or simply disturbed. With silver hair shimmering down her back, past her waist, I could not miss her form even given the distance. I know every inch of this sidewalk, these blocks, the feet and the faces that frequent this route with me, but she was new. The tiny courtyard where she stood, back turned to me, is the lone and final outpost where those from the institutional home can go for smokes. It’s a sad concrete island, with one small bench, where smoke from the mufflers mixes with the nicotine.

The silver-haired woman did not sit, and she did not smoke. She raised her hands, shoulder-high and palms up. The outcast island transfigured into a sanctuary. One quiet person in one loud space can transform ugly into beauty, isolation into presence, endings into beginnings.

As I jogged closer, she turned toward the street, and I could see her face turned upward. She had a gentle, expectant smile. A smile of contentment, of revelation. She opened herself to the sun. Her eyes were closed, but she drank the sunlight. The warmth washed over her open hands, like water poured from a basin. And her lips mumbled words – or were they trembling? The woman with silver hair stood in the bright, her countenance shining. She prayed into the light as an SUV and a Prius and one curious jogger passed.

The next morning, the scene repeated. Only this time, the shimmering woman stood outside the front door, atop the rickety stairs. She stood straight, a pillar. Her eyes closed and face upward toward the warm beams, hands hung by her side. The same radiance, the same settled, knowing smile. Cars whizzed, honks, a man walking in front of the fire station across the street yelled to a friend in a sedan. I jogged past. She did not move. She was in tune with something beneath it all, over us all.

I do not know if the shimmering woman is an angel, but if she is disturbed, one could do worse than being a bit disturbed.

the-wizard-of-oz-dvd-cover-63

 

Happy birthday, Lyman Frank Baum. You were one crazy coot.

Can you imagine a world with no Oz, no Scarecrow or Tinman or Cowardly Lion, no Toto, no Dorothy clicking her red shoes? While the witch still freaks out my boys and Miska has never really jumped on the Baum bandwagon, even they wanted to see James Franco in the updated backstory. Even they honor the fact that Baum gave us something profoundly unique.

I heard a radio story last year narrating how Wizard of Oz had been reworked (plagiarized might be a better term) in Russia a couple decades after Oz made its splash in the U.S. Baum’s creation captured the Russian imagination so powerfully that ‘Emerald City’ became an iconic cultural moniker. Shopping centers, childcare centers and even night clubs popped up all over the country with the name ‘Emerald City’ plastered in bold, green letters. When a Russian cultural historian was asked about this ironic phenomenon (remember the stereotype of hardened enemies in the Cold War rebuffing all things Capitalist and American) was possible, he answered: “We were desperate for magic.”

We are all desperate for the magic. Baum made us a little magic. Why don’t you go out and live well and live bold and give us a little more.

I’m not the brightest skittle in the bag, but I’ve got enough sense to know a mom should not scoop poop on Mother’s Day. Emboldened by this remarkable insight, I took over one of Miska’s chores Sunday, gathering the fertilizing mounds our sweet dog Daisy deposits regularly across our back yard. Revelations hit at the oddest moments, and you simply have to take them as they come. Scouring the grass for lingering remnants, I thought of how many messes Miska and I have cleaned up over our years together. I’ve come to believe that a commitment to cleaning mess gets at the heart of the nitty-gritty grind of love, the sheer tenacity to stick with each other and piece together the broken pieces and the broken dreams (again and again) until you step clear into another of those beautiful but far too rare stretches of love come easy.

More than a few of our messes involve two boys, boys who both own our hearts and who regularly push our very last nerve and make us think we just might end up in the loony farm. If you want to push my guilt-o-meter, you can pounce on me during a bad day (or month) and start in with the litany of questions from God knows where about all the fatherly ideals someone decided we’re supposed to live up to. I’m not beating myself up over here. On the whole, I think I’m a pretty fine pops, but still there are far too many times when I have a short fuse or miss a really important cue or am too selfishly entangled that I forget that two of my main callings in this world are named Wyatt and Seth.

Miska and I tell the boys we’ve already started their therapy fund. When they turn 21, we’ll hand them their tubs of dollars and quarters, the name of the best therapist in town, and we’ll load up with them to go sit on those couches and sort out the myriad of ways we’ve screwed them up. Death and taxes are inevitable, but having your kids rack up a list of valid grievances is pretty darn certain too.

But here’s what I need to remember, and I’m guessing a few of you need to remember it too. Love is sturdier than we think. As Temple Gairdner said, “After a while you find what has stood the shaking and abides.” And as the Scriptures tell us, what stands fierce and bold, beaten but unmoved, is love. Love abides.

Where there is true love, there is an impenetrable barrier. Love can take the furious gales, the egregious mistakes, the lapses in judgment. Love (and I’m speaking of genuine, selfless love) truly does cover a multitude of sins.

 

I understand this day we’ve set apart for mothers carries, for some, the hollow heaviness you’ve been unloading for years. I know that for others it pierces into your wounded sorrow as your longings go unfulfilled. I hurt for you. I pray with you. I hope for grace and love to flow your way.

But your heaviness bears witness to a profound good that should have been, a blessing that your soul aches to know. I must also bear witness to that beauty. We need more of this beauty, not less.

I understand it’s now chic to label these cultural moments as Hallmark fabrications. Allow me to dissent. If you wish, steer clear of the Gold Crown stickers and Target, quite fine. But do not miss the opportunity to bless a mom. Do not miss the opportunity to say, Thank you, mom who loved me or Thank you, woman who gave me a picture of mother when I had none to call my own. I do not despise Hallmark for prodding us. I only regret the Church didn’t think of it first.

The Church should be the first to bless. We should bless singles and married, bless the weary and the joyful, bless the mothers and the father and the children, bless the old and the young, bless the birds and the trees, bless all of God’s good creatures – and perhaps in the blessing, they will know they are loved. Perhaps in the blessing we will participate in their salvation.

As a man married to a woman who gives her heart and soul to children who will never, never (not for a single day) know what it is to wonder if they’re loved, I must bless. As a man who is son to a courageous woman who has given herself to the long, long work of love, I must bless.

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Women of grace, beauty and immense courage: When you desire to nurture and create life, you embody for us the power and creative love of the Trinity, the God whose very being emanates life. When you bring flesh and bone from your womb, you renew for us the holy truth that God, from the very beginning, births all that is good and beautiful in our world. When you show us what is true and pray over us with tear-drenched faith and point us toward the God who loves us, you articulate what God’s Spirit longs to speak into our heart. You, woman and mother, are a prophet of the Living God.

For those who ache for the children you’ve lost or the children you’ve yet to know,

For those who know wounds and loss from your own mother or children,

For those in the thick of the bone-wearying labor of loving children – and especially those who think you’ve been drained of every last ounce of energy,

For those with regret,

For those who, on behalf of your children or another’s children, wage war against some evil that would ravage them,

For those who are loving, mothering or blessing children not your own,

For those with new life in your belly,

For those who need to know the powerful ways your love, nurture, prayers, tears, fears, anger, weariness, hope, laundry, meals, midnight watches, exasperation and laughter have all participated in God’s mysterious act of creating beautiful life,

We bless you.

May the God who filled Mother Eve with life and who filled Prophetess Deborah with wisdom and power and who brought our Savior into the world through a women of remarkable courage, fill you with all mercy and joy today. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think the future God has in mind includes all my friends living in the same neighborhood, within a few blocks. And we all have big front porches. Evening walks are the highlight of the day, and you always know one of those porches is where you’ll end up when your heart is heavy or when you’re laughing your head off and need a pal to laugh with you – or when you need to blow off steam because you’ve had all you can take of the numskulls.

I really don’t have the foggiest idea how our joyful end will shake out, but I’m betting all my marbles that it’s at least as good as this.

barbershop1I’ve always wanted the experience of Calvin, Eddie, and JD in Barbershop – or those ragamuffin friends who shared gossip and Mayberry’s political intrigue under the lather of Floyd the barber. If I ever found an Eddie, I’d go in at least twice a week for a trim, but mainly to get the wisdom and to leave with a belly aching from waves of deep-gut laughter.

Instead, my last twenty years have been spent jumping from shop to shop, mostly vanilla corporate enterprises with all the zest and character of a microwave waffle. The models plastered on all the posters look like they stepped out of Abercrombie & Fitch, heads overflowing with perfect hair and eyes offering that ‘come hither’ smoky gaze. The fellas in the pictures surely have the six-pack abs to match, six more reasons I know I don’t belong. Usually, the stylist takes quick inventory of me, cueing up her pitch for product sales. My ever-widening bald spot is the easy target. Typically, I can’t count to 50 before I hear: “So, have you ever thought of trying our hair growth system?” or “I wonder if you’d be interested in our hair-thickening shampoo?” Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a joint like this.

I think Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a lot of the places we create. For all our talk about building communities (can you even actually build a community?), I wonder if what we’re frantically and fastidiously replicating is really only a bland and hollow shop where we hawk our wares and put our best face forward, where we can get things done as efficiently as possible.

I tell you, I want something jagged and real, even if it’s abrasive and unpredictable. I want the kind of friendships, the kind of church, where it’s plain as day that, from beginning to end, the only thing holding that tattered lot together is grace and good old fashioned forgiveness. I want to belong to a place where you know that if you pull that one scraggly string, the whole kit and caboodle would unravel to the ground. But nobody pulls that string because the love that binds you is too strong. So you simply let the string hang, and it reminds you to never get carried away by the illusions that you’ve got everything squared.

Several weeks ago, I went into one of these style shops and was surprised to discover I had stepped into a jolt of real life. There was an older woman seated behind me, her hair up in foil. Several other women were gathered round her, and they were emphatically extolling the virtues of the TV drama Dallas. One of the friends explained how she planned to catch up on the latest episode from her DVR that evening. “Oh, you are in for a treat tonight,” the foiled woman answered, with a twinge of gleeful revenge. “The Ewings are going to get their due.” Several other women slapped their legs and cackled their agreement.

“Now isn’t JR dead?” asked one woman who was not yet part of the Dallas obsession.

“Oh, JR is dead,” answered the foiled woman. “Dead dead. He died for real, so they had to kill him off right.”

“Yeah, he’s dead,” a third woman added. “He’s dead, and he’s not coming back.”

The whole bunch of ladies fell into laughter. The Ewings were going to get their due, and that was mighty fine with them.

I think Eddie would have stayed in this shop a while, me too.