Freedom comes when we stop the loony delusion that we’re a match for God, when we stop pretending that we have the resources or the skill or the knowledge or the tenacity to pull our life into clear space. It’s a beast of a job trying to hold the world up on our shoulders.

The great tragedy of refusing to trust God is that we are left to trust only ourselves. The older Christians, and certainly all the mystics, used the word ‘surrender’ often when speaking of the human encounter with God. We don’t hear the word so much any more. Perhaps we are so committed to the idea of a God who exists merely to cheer us on our way, a God who would never intrude into our schemes or desires, that the notion of ‘surrender’ doesn’t mean anything now that we’re more enlightened. How do I surrender to a god who’s little more than a projection of my own interests and inclinations?

When we are left to ourselves, though, the world is simply too much for us. This is why if we do not have a God, eventually we will create one. The call of the Scriptures, again and again, is to surrender to God and live. To throw up our hands in happy defeat and waltz into the party. If God is love and kindness and life and hope, then we should be falling all over ourselves to see who is the first to cry ‘uncle.’

When Jacob wrestled the Angel of the Lord, he came away with a limp. When Moses met God in the desert, he discovered that his future was Egypt, and there was no escape. When Saul met the Light, he fell to the dirt trembling. They met their match. And each of them discovered the happy condition of being completely out of moves. Nothing to do but drop the weight and the fight and say yes to joy.

What is the difference
between your experience of existence
and that of a saint?

The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over joy
and bursting out in laughter
and saying, “I surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves.

– Hafiz, “Tripping Over Joy”

kolbe01Raymund Kolbe was born in the Kingdom of Poland in 1894 and, with his brother Francis, joined the Franciscan Order in 1907. Kolbe was given the religious name Maximilian and after becoming a priest, he assisted the formation of a new Japanese monastery near Nagasaki. Sometime in 1936 or 1937, Church authorities asked Maximilian to return and oversee the friary near Warsaw. When the Nazis captured Poland, the world Kolbe had known ceased to exist. Though the SS initially arrested Father Kolbe and shuttered the friary, he was eventually allowed to return, with only four other brothers to maintain the property. Kolbe immediately organized a harrowing plan to hide refugees. Before their clandestine efforts were discovered, they sheltered nearly 2,000 Jews from persecution and hid another 1,000 Polish dissidents.

When Kolbe was arrested, the SS shipped him to Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. Father Kolbe was prisoner #16670. Though beaten, forced to labor long hours under excruciating conditions and given sparse food, Father Kolbe’s gentleness never waned. Prisoners recount how he would rarely rest and even in the night would walk bed to bed. “I am a priest. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

After one prisoner escaped camp, Auschwitz’s commandant instructed the guards to select ten prisoners who would be put in a bunker and starved to death as punishment for the escape and to dissuade any future attempts. When Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for aiding the Polish Resistance, was chosen, he sobbed. “My poor wife! My children! What will they do?”

Kolbe stepped forward and asked to go to the bunker in Gajowniczek’s place. The commandant agreed, and Gajowniczek recounts the moment:

I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?…I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this…

For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last.


In the bunker, Kolbe prayed with the men, read Psalms, sang hymns. After two weeks, he was the only prisoner still alive. Wanting to empty the bunker, one of the guards gave Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid. Father Kolbe died on August 14, 1941.

One of Auschwitz’s survivors, Jerzy Bielecki, described Kolbe’s death as “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”

Franciszek Gajowniczek lived. He returned to his wife, a reunion mixed with sorrow as the war had taken his sons. Gajowniczek lived to the happy age of 95, buried in March 1995. Every year, Gajowniczek returned to Auschwitz. Every day of his life, he remembered this powerful shaft of light.

maximilian_smaller

The rabbis spoke of how “our lives are too short.” This wisdom was not offered with regret or with a gaze backwards, forlorn over what might have been. Rather, this was a humble word releasing our anxieties that continually mount alongside the ever-abounding recognition that our possibilities are endless, that all we wish for ourselves could not possibly come true. Not in our life. Not in a hundred lives. Our lives are too short for that kind of burdensome, grandiose vision. Rest easy, the rabbis would say. Praise to the Master of the Universe, our lives are simply too short.

I find solace in these words. We have so many options. So many places we can be and so many works we could do. It’s a grace to be time-bound, to have limitations, to know from the get-go that there will be much we cannot finish, much we’ll simply be unable to do.

Friends of ours have a daughter who is easily over-stimulated, a spiral effect that leads to massive meltdowns (a scenario we are familiar with in our own brood). This episode was replayed for them recently on a trip to the beach, but on their last day they discovered how much she loved to be buried, neck-deep in the sand with a towel covering her head. Closed off from the world, unable to budge and barely able to wiggle her toes, she was transformed. Her anxieties ebbed as she was closed in, closed off to all the sounds and sights and all the other (good, even) possibilities of play with her siblings. The wide ocean and never-ending shore was too much. She needed a few square inches in which to sit.

For most of us, that’s a good word. Find your few square inches. Find the people you are to love, and love them well, love them deep. Find the place you are to love, for now, and love it – love it in the steady, anxious-free way of one who does not obsessively hop, skip and jump from one option to the next. Pay attention to what you must do in your world, and simply do it. For any other posture, I surmise, our lives are simply too short.

There is a dog I sometimes take for a walk
and turn loose in a
field,

when I can’t give her the freedom
I feel in debt.

I hope God thinks like that and

is keeping track of all
the bliss He
owes
me.

                                       {Rabia of Basra}

I wonder when exactly my boys will figure out how easily they could take advantage of me. I challenge their mettle and help them stretch their courage and their strength and their patience, all the things necessary for becoming a good man, a good person. But what I really love best is to give them good things, to be extravagant, to delight them, to watch their faces break wide open with some unexpected pleasure. Thanks to a gift from friends, we’ll have a late Friday night taking the boys to the Parachute concert. In a couple weeks, I’ll be taking one boy to a Clemson game while the other boy will get party weekend with mom. When we were at St. George Island, I walked them to the surf shop so they could each pick out new boogie boards, and we spent hours and hours immersed in sand and water. These things are by far the better part of parenting, way better than the necessary duties – making the kids do their chores and monitoring video game consumption.

God knows exactly what I’m talking about. James tells us that God gives generously to all, without begrudging the gift. In fact the word translated generous includes the meaning of something done ‘in simplicity’ or ‘without reserve.’ In other words, God has a laser focus. God’s face is set like flint, fully intent on showering us with divine-sized largesse. It must be hard work for God when God must provide other kinds of grace, those things necessary if we are to be whole — but nothing so good as simple, lavish kindness.

So, the 7th century mystic-poet Rabia of Basra can rest easy. Apparently God does think at least something like that.

 

 

Of my several recurring fantasies, hitting the powerball is a favorite. I’ve never actually played the lotto, and I’m opposed to how the gambling industry preys on ignorance and misfortune. However, as a friend says, “If God chose to bless me with a winning ticket, I would not refuse.”

The jackpot is $127 million. Taking the lump-sum option and after giving Uncle Sam his due, I’d have roughly $68 million to work with. The fantasy is actually not the lotto itself, but rather what I would do with such a windfall: assuring my mom the finest medical care and securing mom and dad’s retirement; houses (or mortgage pay-offs) for Miska’s parents and our siblings; gifts to our church and to several strategic Charlottesville city needs, a few other philanthropic investments. I’d pull together a few writing pals, and we’d launch a start-up press.

But perhaps my favorite part of this vision is when I call up a small handful of my dearest friends and spouses and tell them I’ve rented a few ocean front villas on a Caribbean island, one for each of us. We arrange dates, and I mail them plane tickets. I hire a chef. For an entire week, we laugh and take walks and swim and read. My friends who don’t know one another meet, and we all reminisce about what we’ve shared. We look forward to whatever is to come. I’m tempted to say I’d spring for two weeks, but Lewis’ wisdom comes to mind, the bit about resisting the temptation to grab a second piece of fruit when one left you gloriously filled and delighted.

This vision brings me such joy because friendship is one of life’s true sparks. The older I get, the more I believe that friendship is one of the true goods, a necessity, one of the things without which life has little meaning, no fire. It’s not simply that I need companionship, though I do, but that I need the other. I need them so that I can see and taste and know. I need friends in order to love. I need friends in order to believe. As Daniel Taylor says, “a shared belief isn’t joining the herd, it’s multiplied pleasure and shared risk.”

Our world can be a frightening place. Our world is also a splendidly wondrous place. Friends make much of the difference between the two. On that score, I’ve already hit the jackpot. But if ever I were to hit it again, I’d certainly share.

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.