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Cycles of Mercy

the fabulous photographer michael costa
the fabulous photographer michael costa

Every morning, the sun rises without our help. Each evening, it returns to its bed of rest. We do not contribute to the sun’s labor, and our expertise or cleverness do absolutely nothing to keep this cycle in motion. What we do, our unique role in this grand life, is to prepare space to receive the sun’s heat and energy. We bless the light when it comes to us, and we bless the light as it departs. In the same way, we receive the gift of night, the rest and the leisure and the warmth of hearth and the warmth of family around the table. We welcome these moments, sometimes we contend with them, but we do not rule over them. We are at their mercy.

The Scriptures speak of the farmer who works the soil and then simply waits on the sun and the rain and the earth to do their work (or to not do their work as is sometimes the case). Few of us know this agrarian reality first-hand. But we do know what it is to have done our very best, to have prayed our hardest or exerted our last ounce of energy, only to be left with the bare fact that the only thing left to us is to wait. We wait for a child to come home. We wait for pain to release. We wait for just the smallest glimmer of light to break through.

Miska has created something of a homeopathic apothecary. On the window sill, in front of where I write, sits jars of hibiscus, calendula and chamomile, vanilla jojoba oil, comfrey and calendula. Miska has poured her oils and herbs into the Mason jars. Miska has done her work, and now they sit and soak up the sun which arrives over the Blue Ridge each morning. They sit here and keep me quiet company. Miska does nothing for them in these days. I certainly do nothing. It is no longer up to Miska what they become. This line of jars tells me the truth about my life. Everything is a grace. All is mercy.

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The Courage of Patience

There are seasons of our life when all we can do is put one heavy foot in front of the other. It’s tempting in these dreary places to think that something is wrong, that we must muster our energy or our faith and maneuver out of the long sludge. Around a breakfast table recently, someone asked me how I was. I sighed deep. “I’m tired, but I’m surviving.” Another pastor at the table chided me. “Surviving? You better be doing better than that.” Well, I wasn’t. And truth told, I was rather proud of my survival. It’s certainly better than the alternative.

The Scriptures tell us to be patient and to wait on the Lord. We often envision this patience as something born amid spiritual fervor, a kind of contented restfulness as our prayers settle on our still hearts – and we wait. Often, however, our patience, if we’re to call it that, comes when we’re at the end of ourselves, after we’ve exhausted all other alternatives. Over years, contentment and patience can become a pattern, a way of living with trust, with open hands. In the mean time, it’s find to just strap in tight, grip a hand near you and ask God for mercy. God’s fine with that; God has more patience than any of us.

St. Teresa of Avila offers a blessing for these moments, reminding us that all things pass, that the dark hole which threatens to consume is smaller than it appears. St. Theresa reminds us of the one essential: We can live in the very place where we are, this very place, because God is with us. And God is always enough.

Let nothing upset you, let nothing startle you.
All things pass; God does not change.
Patience wins all it seeks.
Whoever has God lacks nothing:
God alone is enough.

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Gridiron Weight

Each year, I take the boys for an overnight trip for their birthday. Last year, Wyatt picked a train trek to DC. Two years in a row now, Seth has picked a weekend of Clemson football. Clemson (where the boys were born) and Baylor (where I grew up) are our two teams, but a visit to Grams, Pa and the Bears in Waco require a bit more time and financial commitment.

One of the great Clemson traditions is that after the game, fans flood the field as the team stays around for half an hour to sign autographs and pose for pictures. My hunch is that after many futile efforts to hold back the tidal wave cresting over the stadium walls, the athletic department threw up their hands and decided instead to create a massive marketing coup – they welcomed the chaos. Saturday night, watching thousands of young kids with wide eyes walking the turf amid larger-than-life Tigers, it was obvious they were solidifying the fan base for decades to come. The throngs pressed around the national play-makers: quarterback (and Heisman contender) Tajh Boyd, Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell, Vic “The Beast” Beasley and Sammy Watkins, the streak of lightning who causes a collective short-breath in the stadium every time he touches the pigskin.

However, I watched several players (an offensive guard, maybe a defensive reserve or two) slowly make their way down the sideline, toward the tunnel to the locker room. No one shoved a mic in their face. If anyone asked them for an autograph, it was only the hyper kid running frantically player to player never even pausing to look the player in the eye or the disappointed kid who couldn’t break through the surging pack to the stars. I don’t imagine there were many people in the stadium wearing jerseys sporting their numbers. None of the left-alone players looked bothered or annoyed that they received none of the glamor. They’d done their work, and it was time for a shower. I wasn’t interested in autographs, but I did find myself thinking, Hey, man, you’re a fellow who digs into the trenches. We should sit down over coffee (or, I don’t know, a 4lb roast maybe). I’d like to hear your story.

When the athletic staff attempted to lead Tajh through the massive throng so the poor fellow could call it a day, Tajh kept stopping as hats and footballs were shoved in his chest. He looked exhausted. Tajh was doing his best to be the people’s man, but that was a whole lot of people. I wondered if he’d like to play the part of the second-string O-lineman, quietly strolling to the exit.

I don’t know what to make of all this, of our hero culture. I’ve no interest in making swipes. We’re desperate for women and men to respect, to believe in – and if sports participate in that, I won’t knock it. I do know we get carried away. One of our fellow Clemson fans, a middle-aged woman sitting near us, yelled at the offense in the third quarter, just before Tajh called out the snap: “Come on, part the Red Sea and let Moses through.”

It’s obviously gameday hyperbole, but I do wonder what it does to a soul to have this kind of weight placed on them. On the drive home Saturday night, we stopped for dinner. Seth, obviously overcome by the heat and exertion of the day, said, “Dad, you could totally have played professional football.” I chuckled, and I corrected him. Lack of talent aside, I could never have born that pressure. I hope we do not crush the good that is in the heroes we say we love.



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Generous to Demons

Jesus is so kind, he’ll even say yes to demons if he’s able.

In a scene that could have been cut from The Walking Dead, two demon-possessed men roamed the graveyard, frothing at the mouth and ravaging any poor soul that attempted to visit the tombs. Jesus approached, and the demons went to talking, nervously. The demons apparently knew their gig was up, and they didn’t let Jesus get a word in edgewise. Apparently, they knew that the minute Jesus spoke, it was lights out. So the demons belted out a request. If you’re going to drop the hammer, would you send us into the herd of pigs scavenging the hillside?

Now I could think of a hundred better options than escape via swine, but perhaps when you’re flustered and time’s ticking, you just say the first thing that pops into your mind. I wonder if later, when they regrouped and were licking their wounds, if one demon slapped the other on the head and said, “Seriously? Pigs?”

At any rate, Jesus didn’t hesitate. “Yes. Go.” Into the pigs they went, as they’d asked. My hunch is that his doesn’t happen often, but on this occasion, Jesus answered the prayer of a demon. I wonder if there was a moment, after the herd of pigs went raving mad and hurled themselves off the cliff, that Jesus lamented the sad affair. “I only wish you’d asked for more. I only wish you’d asked for love.”

God’s impulse is yes. Like a doting Father who hates to say no, God will do a yes at every possible opportunity.

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Stop Talking

Reading through James, I’m struck by how persistently he warns us of the abuse of words. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” I wonder what would happen if we took this as our motto for one solid day? Would our facebook and twitter feeds come to a grinding halt?

The theology of the first section of James 3 (with its descriptor of the tongue as a fire connected with the flames of hell and the tongue as a restless evil full of deadly poison) might be summarized something like this: if you want to sin less, stop talking.

James provides treacherous ground for those of us who spend our lives wrangling with words, but perhaps James only says something every writer or preacher knows, even if we fail to practice it. Listening must come before speaking. Watching must come before writing. We must receive the gift of another before we have any gift to give. If we are full of only our own words and our own self-absorbed visions, our words will prove to be scraggly and brittle. There will be no life in them. When we are more consumed with pronouncing to another than actually receiving the other, we have lost our way. Our listening should be quick, and our speech should be slow.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, grief-stricken over the capitulation of the German Church to the Nazi program wrote, “Sometimes I think Christianity will only live after this time in a few people who have nothing to say.” When I hear our angry rhetoric and our speed to announce final words…When I watch how we dash past the actual stories that surround us… I wonder the same thing.

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Cesar Knows Something

Toss the heavy tomes to the side. Some of the best advice I’ve received for raising kids arrived via Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. One might think I would be reticent to admit I snagged parenting cues from 30-minute bits aired on the National Geographic channel, but we all know this parenting gig scoffs at a man’s pride.

The most intriguing Dog Whisperer episodes are when there is an especially troublesome canine. Perhaps a small pooch who’s diminutive size has given him an inferiority complex, and now he bites every person other than the one human he considers his “mommy.” Or a large brute who repeatedly rips the sofa and shreds the rugs and chews the wooden chairs like they are a rawhide treat. I recall one episode where a couple, married maybe thirty years, had their life completed upended by a little 9 pound fur-ball with a very large attitude. The emasculated man surrendered his bed and his place and became the third wheel. It was pitiful to watch.

I am not a patient man. I would like to say that I am, but I am not. If I were living with any of these dogs, I do not know what would come of them, or of me. I do not know how that story would go, but not well. Cesar, on the other hand, exudes gentle authority. Cesar, with the benefit of edited tapes of course, rarely gets flustered. When a dog exhibits bad behavior, Cesar says, “Ah, now this is good. This is something to work with.”

Gentleness has been my word for awhile. I want to be a more gentle man. Mainly, I want to be a more gentle father. When one of our boys presses hard on that magic button they so easily locate, the one that triggers my blood pressure and my nervous twitch, I want to just lower the shoulders and drop the rigorous energy and say, “Ah, now this is good. This is something to work with.”

My high-pitched response to my boys’ foolishness (and it is often foolishness, let’s be honest) actually says more about me and the state of my soul than anything it says about the two rascals. Maybe my less-than-gentle reactions say something about my view of the world and the stock I put in keeping things in some semblance of order, maintaining the illusion that we are not swimming in chaos. But you just recognize these things and you move on. I imagine God getting a chuckle and saying, “Ah, now this is good. This is something to work with.”

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The Delusion of Serious Moves

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”

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Maximilian Kolbe

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.


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The Grace of the Short Life

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.

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God Thinks Like That

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

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

                                       {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.