pulled away_snow_mountains_tobi gaulke


When we lived in Colorado, our church met in a simple chapel tucked into the Front Range. Behind the pulpit and altar were large windows offering a panoramic view of tall, elegant pines, rugged ridges and a vast, blue sky. Each week, I would sit in my seat next to Miska and gaze west, toward the wild. Soon, I’d hear the call to worship, but those magnificent mountains had already made the call — and I had already answered with reverence and supplication. That splendid vista offered me an invitation to lay down my cares, to breathe deeply, to be present in this one place at this one hour, to trust that “the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s.” Our pastor was an extraordinary preacher, one of the best I’d heard; but I remember the light cutting across evergreens, the white clouds drifting across craggy peaks, every bit as much as I recall any text he expounded.

Last Sunday, as I stood behind our church’s pulpit, I looked out the windows and saw heavy white flakes falling from the sky. All of our trees, shed of their Fall glamor, stretched their bare branches toward the falling grace, like a child craning her neck and sticking out her tongue to catch the magic. We paused. We looked out the windows and watched the snow. We were quiet. It’s likely those few quiet moments were the best sermon we heard that day.

There’s a reason why, when Jesus began to preach, he would at times say things like, consider the lilies or watch the birds. There is a grace that surrounds us, a grace not of our own making. We can receive God’s kindness from the world around us, we can sense the truth and welcome it and walk right into it and allow all these mercies to hold us up. Sometimes we need words and explanation. Sometimes we just need big eyes and a wide-open heart.

As Kosser and Harrison put it:

The moon put her hand
over my mouth and told me
to shut up and watch.

railroadThere’s more than a little pressure these days to live the grand life, to go full tilt, to know precisely where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness collide – and then to live from there. I appreciate the best expression of these reminders. Too many of us exist with a soul-numbing drudgery where we are never asked to exert anything of consequence, nothing that stirs the bones. We are never asked to ponder our true essence or to offer our unique voice. We’re never challenged to risk anything. No one ever pulls us aside to insist how essential it is that we pay attention whenever we believe something with such conviction or imagine some possible future with such clarity that we feel we might go crazy if we do not expend ourselves, even if the foolhardy pursuit likely means our ruin. Too many of us hand away the sturdiest part of ourselves, plug into the machine and acquiesce to the subtle cruelty of imposed expectations. We’re alive, but just barely.

And yet these ideals, divorced from the grit of life, become a harsh taskmaster, if not a privileged fantasy. To live from your place of deep gladness does not mean — can never mean — that we circumvent the pain of bearing a burden others do not bear or the wearisome task of seeing a possibility others do not see. To live your truest life does not mean we get to avoid the responsibilities rightly laid upon us: the responsibilities that accompany our call to love and care for others, to surrender our life, to participate in the flourishing and well-being of those to whom we have committed ourselves.

Many days, our best life means simply putting one foot in front of the other and mustering the energy to stay true for another day, another season. Sometimes the possibilities we envision will never come to fruition for us, like those old saints in Hebrews who were faithful even to death and yet did not experience all the promises. This is a hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?

Any life we might imagine that is devoid of cost, any life that exists only in the realm of euphoric pleasures (rather than pleasures that include toil and disappointment and the persistent need to cling to hope) – that’s a small, immature vision. This kind of untethered pursuit will not endure the long road that stretches before us. It will not yield a life worthy of the vast goodness and strength that resides in you. We were made for things truer, deeper, more solid.

Over the next week or two, most all of us (I hope) will be winding down the engines for a few days of leisure (I hope you squeak out a full week). Many of us will welcome friends and loved ones into our home. Others of us will board planes, trains or automobiles so we can travel to places where we will be the ones receiving welcome. Some of us will watch our children, a little misty-eyed, aware that these moments are too fleeting and will end too soon. Many of us will revel in all the chaos while a few of us will slip away to a quiet corner, overwhelmed by all the good energy. Most of us, I suspect, will eat more food than we need. Hopefully we’ll all laugh more than is typical.

To be sure, some of us will face hardship over this stretch of days. Some of us will know loneliness or scarcity or sit heavy with memories of ones no longer with us. A few of us will bear the weight of disappointment or estrangement, all manner of burdens. Whatever our sorrow, I pray joy will catch us by surprise. I hope we’ll allow ourselves to be carried by the love that always surrounds and sustains us.

And over these days, I hope you have a fabulous book or two that will swallow you whole, that you see a fantastic movie and hear enchanting music. I hope you find yourself, at least once or twice, enjoying really good conversations, ones where your heart feels light and you walk away thinking, well, now, that was an hour I’d do over again. I hope you enjoy stretches of quiet, where nothing is asked of you, nothing required, where you have nothing you must tend to, save pleasure and gratitude.

I hope all of his for you, and more. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

 

snow light

On the third Sunday of Advent, we heard St. Paul’s words: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. I can’t imagine a more timely word for our day. Do we not yearn to encounter gentle souls — people who listen with generosity (not accusation), friends who welcome without applying a litmus test, kind strangers who give the benefit of the doubt? Don’t we want to be this kind of person — to expect the best of another, to be tender with others’ mistakes or ignorance, to refuse the impulse to embarrass or mock (even one who deserves it), to watch for opportunities to lavish kindness?

Of course, the realists, fear-peddlers and doctrinaires will assure us (passionately) that such a posture is not possible in this scary, evil-ridden world. These rigid ones insist we must exude strength (so-called); we must take on whatever hardness necessary to maintain vigilance. Worse, those eager to resist these lies may imbibe the same energy, growing just as hard, just as mean or caviling, just as small and unimaginative, just as harsh.

And into this violence and phobia, a baby comes, the peace of the world. God, in the ultimate act of gentleness, bends toward us, enters a woman’s womb and lives among us, full of humility and noble strength. This tenacious king, with the backbone love requires, allowed himself to be taken advantage of, to be thought the fool. This One from God knows who he is, knows who we might become, knows that nothing will be won by force or shame or ridicule.

God comes to us with a preposterous gentleness that will always be a scandal in this rough-and-tumble world. And God invites us to join the scandalous subterfuge. Advent, these watchful days, asks us see the world anew, to watch for alternative possibilities. Advent invites us to become gentle people again.

lighted alps

I wonder, when we’re praying our Advent prayer (Come, Lord Jesus) if we have any idea what we’re meddling with, if we have any sense of the power we’re invoking. I pray this prayer, and I think I mostly believe it. I cling to this hope because I can not escape the sense that our world writhes in convulsions, and I am unable to imagine any solution we humans could muster to ultimately fix the mess we’ve made. During Advent, we utter an honest confession: We are full of good intentions but weak at keeping promises; our only hope of doing God’s will is that You should come and help us do it… Painful as they are, these words ring true.

And yet, when we ask God to come, to act, we are not tinkering with some plaything we can maneuver to our own bidding. We’re dealing with the God who burns, the God who holds the world together, the Holy One. I hear the quake in the prophet Malachi’s voice: Indeed, God is coming. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? Malachi continues: And don’t be so foolish as to think that when God’s justice lands, it only lands on those you think deserve it. We’re all in trouble, and we’ll all be healed together. We all need to be reborn. We all have to go through the fire. I wonder if we pray our prayers for justice too easily, aimed at everyone other than ourselves?

God is the God of endless generosity, boundless joy and unfettered delight – I believe this. I also believe that the God powerful enough to make such things true (the God strong enough to heal all wounds and silence all oppressors) exudes a furious love. A love that is for us. A love that will not let us go. A love that will not leave us to our own devices or abandon us to wallow in our narcissistic stories.

Good St. Annie (Dillard) says it right: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?”

We long for God to come, as we should – this is our hope. But this is risky business. This is a trembling sort of hope.

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In my family growing up, every Christmas Eve, before we turned out the lights and cast a final gaze at our stockings, we’d leave a few cookies, perhaps a brownie or a chocolate covered cherry, on a plate next to a glass of eggnog and a short note:

Thanks, Santa. Stay warm.

P.S. Be sure to share with Dasher, Dancer and the Crew

And every Christmas morning, even into my college years, mom and dad would place one gift for my sister and one for me, out in front of the tree, set apart from the rest of the packages. On each of these boxes, scribbled across the front: Merry Christmas, Santa. I’d always hug my folks, grin and say Thanks, Santa.

We say Father Christmas isn’t “real” — fine I suppose, but there’s something very real happening here that won’t let us loose. With some folks, Santa’s taken a knock, either out of frustration with crass commercialization or due to religious concerns (and if you have such scruples, you really should read the tale of St. Nicholas). However, we don’t know these stories merely because Madison Avenue wants to milk us for billions — that’s just a perversion. Rather, we tell these stories over and again (and they stick with us so powerfully) because we are in constant search for a language to express all the wonder, all the gratitude. We need true myths because sheer facts or flat logic are not enough.

We return to these stories because somehow we know there is a true magic (call it grace, if that helps) woven into this world. In our depths, we know that our life and all the goodness enveloping us arrives as pure gift. We know that hope and faith and love are essentials. We know a mystery, a holy haunting, pulses at the center of things. Somehow, our soul knows that if we experience no awe or wonder, we are paupers.

As Advent commences, we wait for the Christ child. We lean forward, in anticipation. We watch for wonder. St. Nick can encourage us in the same direction. Maybe St. Nick holds open a space, a longing or a child-like imagination, a space that will eventually be filled by the deepest magic of all.

///

G.K. Chesterton, our apostle of mirth, says it far better than me:

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill. {G.K. Chesterton}

Frosted-Tree-Tops

There are moments when you experience a deep settledness, a generous contentment, with your life. You find yourself at ease or you realize that the laughter’s flowing free or maybe you recognize how, with almost no effort on your part, your joy exudes an uncanny resilience. And what I find most delightful with these generous flashes is how I can never tell you exactly why they’ve arrived, what wind blows them in – or even what wind will eventually push them on. I did not manufacture this grace, and so I know it’s foolhardy to cling tight. It’s my happy lot to just enjoy the gift, to wink and say thank you.

I’ve experienced this ineffable joy a time or two over the past couple weeks. Our life is good, but we’ve had no fewer troubles than normal. If anything, our world has added a few stress factors that would typically leave me sucking wind. And yet, here and there, I’ve been overcome by a profound gratitude, an awareness (even if only for a few hours) that I am alive in this good and magnificent world with people I love, doing work that, though small and ordinary, matters to me and maybe to a few others as well.

For so many good gifts, I want to say my thanks. There are sorrows in this world, but there is also much goodness, much beauty, much possibility. As often as the gifts come, I want my thanks to come just as fast. “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth,” say Barth. “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightning.” Like thunder follows lighting, yes indeed.

In this week when we turn our heart to gratitude, I want to join the chorus. I also want to thank those of you who read my words. Perhaps it sounds cheeky for a writer to say thank you for reading, but what else would we say? And particularly if we really mean it? So, thanks to those of you who land here regularly, those who drop a line every once in a while. It matters.

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There are a few things Jesus repeated often, as if there are a few words so essential they must be spoken again and again. Words like this: Don’t be afraid. Apparently, Jesus’ friends were prone to fear, with the powers menacing and their futures uncertain. And into these grave moments, Jesus spoke a clear instruction. Don’t be afraid.

We too are prone to fear – and the fears are often legitimate. Evil strikes at this world, and if any of are so naive as to think otherwise, the awful truth crashed upon us yet again this weekend, as it crashes upon us most every day in so many places far and near.

And yet, in the very midst of terrors, Jesus tells us to resist this compulsive urge to give ourselves over to fear. Fear takes on many guises. We may succumb to panic. We may hide, just drowning out the noise. We may go the way of machismo and beat our chest, motivated by the madness of crazed retribution. All fear. And all of this yields destruction. None of this yields life.

And to “not be afraid” does not mean that we must never feel fear, but rather that we do not succumb to it. We do not feed the fright. We choose something truer, something more powerful. It means we move toward courage. We resist the catcall of doom and ruin. “My courage is a wild dog,” says Ze Frank. “It won’t just come when I call it. I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can.”

And we do hold tight, clinging to an alternative possibility. We refuse to let our courage loose. And even when we must act with a boldness and ferocity (and sometimes love requires exactly this), we still refuse the fear. We hear Jesus again: Don’t be afraid.

 

cabin

There is a place in my mind, tucked away in the Virginia Blue Ridge or just outside one of the little towns we love so much in the Colorado Rockies. We slip away, to this little roost, as often as we’re able. We do not come here merely to ‘get away,’ because this little porch, these acres, are not an escape but rather a way of returning – to wholeness, to the good earth, to a kind of slowness that reminds us we are humans and lovers and friends, not machines. We take our boys here and over time (and perhaps without them ever realizing what’s happened), these four walls and these kind woods become a sacred spot for them as well.

My vision has grown over the years. Now I envision a few more cabins, nestled into the hills nearby – not too far but not too close. A few friends have their own little place of laughter and wholeness. Together, we form a kind of mountain neighborhood. Together, we split wood and walk the forests and share more than a few warm dinners under moonlight. Friendships ripen here. We share a bond born in simplicity, a sense of wonder at this splendid world – and our place in it, an ever-expanding delight and gratitude, a sturdy hope that will not yield despite all the troubles, a keen sense of pleasure.

We don’t talk much about these places we share, because the whole experience seems to us a quiet thing, a neighborly thing. But we do welcome folks in as much as we’re able; we pass along the spaciousness we’ve been given. Our little spot in the woods makes us more whole, more true to ourselves and to one another. We have been given another place to love, to be welcomed into the solidness and generosity of this good world, and we are the better for it.

I don’t know if this vision will ever come to be, but I believe that even the picture of it, the possibility, enlarges my heart and keeps something very good burning bright.

 

image: anoldent

I believe that if we happen to be one of those folks who make it our work to attempt to say something helpful about God, someone who seeks to offer some light or clarity in this confusing world, then we must move into the pain. Sometimes we will speak with boldness. Sometimes we will whisper with a tremble in our voice. Sometimes, this ruin we encounter, the stories we enter, these heartaches, require only our silence.

If a preacher knows only principles and ideals and theological maxims but never goes silent… If a pastor refuses to wade into the dreadful terrors… If a pastor is too fearful to acknowledge the uncertainties, the oppressive fog… If a pastor never weeps with her people… If a pastor never wrangles with the weight covering one he loves or the sorrow pressing upon his own soul…

If a writer attempts to speak on questions of faith but never lays down the pen to wipe away the tears… If they seem certain of their cause or their position but they forget their own humanity — or the humanity of those they are writing to (or especially the humanity of those they are correcting or cajoling)… If a writer never comes up short, never finds their words paltry, never joins me in my quandary or sadness…

Such people, no matter how well intentioned, may provide me with insight or instruction, but they will inevitably leave me alone. And worse, despite their language, they will not offer me God.

It’s important for me to return to Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko’s description of his sobering first days in seminary:

I entered St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1957. The school was housed in an apartment house in New York City. Our professors were refugees from communist lands, mostly Russians. My first lesson in seminary was that I was never to say anything about God that I could not say over a furnace of burning babies.

I don’t know what to say about Hopko’s words here, what could I possibly say? But I believe I would trust a man who would write such a thing, a man who would know such a thing. I believe he would have something to say to me, something that would penetrate my heart. I believe he would offer me God, and I believe I would not be left alone.