A Holy Indifference

A life overwhelmed by lethargy will prove to be no life at all, mere rust and rot and a dim smallness. If there is nothing that stirs us to action, nothing that cues tears or brings sweat or stirs great fantasies, then we really do need to step into our one crack at this beautiful thing called life. Listen to me, please: there is essential work you must do, friendships you must pursue, beauty you must make, stories you must tell. Do it.

Yet, it is also a fact that we are finite (finite energy, finite vision, finite capacity) and cannot possibly carry the burden (at least not in any deep, meaningful way) of everything. We’ve all heard the warning that to care about everything means to care about nothing, and I believe this is mostly true. I’ve come to acknowledge a kind of holy indifference, a settled sense that not every worthy cause is our cause, not every good road is the road we must take, not every burning question requires our opinion. It’s important to live with T.S. Eliot’s tension: “Teach us to care and not to care.” We must welcome both sides as we become the unique person we are uniquely able to be.

Eliot’s next line asks God to “Teach us to sit still.” Perhaps this is the crucial place, to sit still and listen. To listen for that clarity and simplicity that arises from the silence, reminding us of who we truly are, convincing us again of what we are most responsible to say and to do. To do our truest work, we allow other work to go fallow. We enact faith that whatever must be done in this world, will be done – and much of it, not by us. Some sow, some water, some reap. Some plod, some fizzle, some take the big stage. We do what we can do, what we must do. And then we sit still. Maybe we even take a nap.

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.

Sunday Rebellion

calendar1959

The calendar hanging on your refrigerator, the one tucked behind your kid’s crayola project and the magnet reminding you to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” may be the most rebellious and spiritually formative thing you own. You’ll notice how each week, right as rain, commences with Sunday. This is the day older Christians referred to as the Sabbath. A day for leisure, for church, for the Sunday paper, for the comics, for a visit on the porch with friends drinking sweet tea and swapping stories about the neighbors.

My dad told me how his mom spent chunks of Saturday cooking fried chicken, peas, rolls and chocolate cake so no cooking would be necessary on Sunday. Saturday night meant a bath out in the garage, the old wash tub filled with hot water his mom carried via multiple trips from the kitchen stove. Anything considered a chore would be done on Saturday because Sunday was a day of rest.

In the Christian tradition, Sabbath is the day our week starts. We begin with a lull. We commence, not with sweat or labor, but with loafing, with three-hour naps, with conversations immune to the pressure to get somewhere but more than comfortable with long pauses and long thoughts. These Sabbath spaces possess enough quiet to pay attention to the wind and the smell of rain – and to the one sitting with you. In our Sabbath interludes, prayer happens as God intended, laced through our ordinary laughter and joy.

The Christian week begins with rest. I can’t imagine a more counter-cultural affirmation. The rhythms of our world have gotten cattywonkus. For many of us, Sunday is the day we’re cramming last bits from our to do list, capping off a week of fury and frenzy. Then, the way we see things, the week kicks off on Monday, the day we get to work, the day we recommit to serving the man and paying the bills. In this twisted narrative, the week begins with us working, not with us resting.

This is not so much about how we count our days but about how we count our lives. In a world where we yield to heavy shackles, defined by our production or our corporate rank or our Google Analytics report, it is a subversive act to shut it down and take a nap.

According to the Biblical story, however, our lives commence with respite. The Jewish day went from sundown to sundown. This meant that the Hebrews started their day by going to sleep. When they woke, fresh from a long slumber, they discovered that God had never slept. The world still turned on its axis, and the sun still shone bright. As they entered their day’s work, rested and invigorated, they were merely joining God in God’s creative activity. But only for a while, until it was again time to call it quits, crawl under the covers and let God be God. We really can cease our labors, because God’s labor holds this whole shebang together.

Of course, Advent signals the start of the Christian year. Advent, a time of waiting, a month-long Sabbath. We’re all revved and geared up for the start of things, to get the ball rolling, to turn over a new leaf. And then we wait. And wait. And wait. We’ll get to our cue, our time to punch ‘go.’ But first, we watch and slumber and drink hot chocolate with our kids. Sabbath is stitched into every rhythm of our life.

Next time you pass your fridge, linger a moment at that line of Sundays. Then linger a little longer.

A Stump

Be rooted like a tree / Planted by the stream  
                                                 {Brendan Jamieson}

Clyde Kilby, an English professor I wish I had known, crafted a catalog of 11 Resolutions (and I love that it was 11, not 10). This was his personal creed, his this I believe and this is how I will live. His sixth resolution is my favorite:

I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are, but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic” existence.

I’ve borrowed this practice; and on most days after I run, I’ll stroll a few minutes extra. I breathe deeply and try to pay attention to my world. I’ll look around for some physical object, something on which to gaze. It may be the billows of white clouds or moss covering a portion of rock. A leaf tossed by the wind. A fence. A blade of grass. I take in the sight. I ponder the sheer fact that it exists. I notice that I had nothing to do with making it exist; and after I walk away I have no impact on whether or not it continues to exist.

Sometimes it’s good to remember that, valuable as I may be, I do not hold the world together.

Today, the object was a stump. Not a tree. Not a sapling full of possibility. Just a stump. A gnarled, cracked stump. A piece of creation that’s already had it’s day. It isn’t good for much. Other than a dog hiking a leg it’s direction every now and then, I bet no one pays this stump any attention. Yet there it sits. It sat there yesterday. It will be sitting there tomorrow. The rain will thrash. The sun will bake. The winds will flurry. But the stump merely sits, nestled in its little spot, its roots dug deep into the soil that will not let it loose.

Amid a world of noise, a world insisting we have something good to say, something smart to say …  amid a culture where we are jostling for position, spreading our branches so to speak, it’s balm to my weary soul to watch a stout old stump and know that sitting there, out of the way – sturdy and solid but unbothered and at rest –  can be enough.

I’m a Consumer Christian

The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself it is not hungry. {Simone Weil}

Give us this day our daily bread. {Jesus}

Much ink has been spilt (with good cause) resisting the soul-numbing prevalence of hyper-individualism, where we view God – and then in turn people and neighborhoods and natural resources – merely as raw material for the pursuit of our isolated whims. The gospel tells me that my comfort and the satisfaction of my every impulse is not the goal of the universe. Bummer.

In the church, we have created a cottage industry around denouncing consumerism, and I understand the revulsion to this spirit of our age. I too am frustrated to no end when we belittle the mystery and beauty of Christian community by our penchant for using churchy experiences with all their gizmos and “energy” the same way we down a can of Red Bull: guzzle, toss, grab another when wanted. Yum. I recently read that at some churches, you can now get your pastor delivered via hologram. Truly, I am at a loss for words.

I’m concerned, however, that the way we talk about all this sends the message that there is something wrong with our cravings and the hope to fill our unmet longings, something unseemly about our hunger. I’ve seen shame attached to the notion of someone coming to the church community without arriving ready to give. Jesus invited the weary people to come, to come and eat, come and drink, come and rest. To hear some of us, we only want the people who are ready to come and work, come and plug right in “doing mission.”

I once heard a young pastor on the speaking circuit say, with a swagger: “We aren’t here to meet your Christian needs. If you’re a Christian, we aren’t really here for you – we’re here to be on mission for those who don’t know God.” It came across brash. He sounded revolutionary, a bad-ass pastor. He prompted a lot of laughter. I wanted to cry.

A while back, during our Denver years, Miska and I were exhausted. Serving God had worn us out. A church up in the hills welcomed us in. We attended on Saturday nights. It was a peaceful space. We heard the Scriptures and prayed some prayers (or didn’t). We sang along with a few songs and soaked in the gospel. We didn’t sign up for any ministries or serve on any teams. We dropped checks in the offering plate, and we (usually) showed up on time for church. Other than that, not much. Oh, we did attend a small group. Twice.

We were consumers, and it saved my soul.

Jesus’ first miracle was wine at a wedding in Cana, an extravagant act intended for no good reason other than the peoples’ consumption and joy. The Psalmist describes our want for God in visceral terms: hunger, thirst, cravings. Jesus gave us a table with wine and bread as the retelling of the Great Story. At Jesus’ Table, all we do is come and receive; we gorge on grace. We do not come to Jesus to work. We come to rest. We come to allow grace to work on us. The Christian’s work is what happens when resting people find the free life of the Spirit flowing among them. Work is what we do when the Kingdom has taken root and joyful obedience begins to sprout. But first, we rest. First, we consume.

The gospel never calls us to myopic self-centeredness. The kingdom of God moves and (re)creates and leads us to lay down our life and give ourselves away. But who can say exactly when – or how? The new creation I first encounter is God’s love that pours and pours and pours into my soul. And I must drink it in. I must consume it, a man desperate and starved with nothing much, for the moment, to give.