More Than We can Say

In my notebook I wrote down “just a great line” from Frederick Buechner’s memoir, Now and Then

The chance that something better than what you are can happen, that something more than you know can be spoken and heard.

Later, I wrote that this line was certainly my prayer for that day… a day when I felt hopeless and like a failure because I said words that derailed the peace of my family. I prayed a centering prayer specifically for peace in the situation before it happened.  I failed to make that peace happen. And that is precisely where the trouble begins; with me trying to make someone else see things as I do.

It wasn’t a bad thing to tell someone kindly but firmly how I felt; what moved me beyond something better was my expectation—expecting some other person to see things my way.

I cannot change what happened. The truth is that I am powerless to change either my own life really or other people’s lives.

In the Christian tradition of Compline, or prayers at the end of the day, I struggle to release contention, to surrender what is incomplete and even unpropitious.  To consider this time of prayer as an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter the situation is almost impossible.  Yet Kathleen Norris calls the evening offices of vespers and compline a surrendering of contention and a willingness to let the day go and “let God bring on the quiet, brooding darkness…”

Hope always comes from unexpected places. In Luke 1: 1-25 is the story of Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. In verse 20 Gabriel says to Zechariah, “But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (RSV).

What stands out to me today is which will be fulfilled—its not in my control or simply fate—its God’s work. Putting my own expectations upon other people, expecting others and even God to see and say it my way get’s in the way. In quietness and trust will be my strength Isaiah reminds me. For Zechariah literally something more than he could know or speak was possible.

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Escape From Ourselves

Holidays like Christmas and New Year suspend our regular everyday lives in ways that might seem like an escape. The time off extends the notion of time spent; chronological time stands still when our presence in the moment demands our attention.

While a respite of sorts, I often meet these interruptions with anxiousness. If I’m really quiet and keep the dog quiet, I’m able to at least enjoy a few moments of regular morning routine in the midst of visiting sleeping family. Even in these quiet moments, I worry about what to fix for meals, did I have enough, and how can I listen more instead of encouraging my own agenda.

Giving up that anxiousness is a challenge that forces me to consider what matters again and how; questions that return over and over, not just at this time. I thought about a few Christmas’ past spent with what appeared to be an idyllic family.

Wally was in his seventies when I first met him, a stately man with five grown children. He was a storyteller; recounting earlier days in the community where he’d lived his entire life. Listening to him and his friend, Jack, their lives always seemed full of promise and prosperity. Nostalgic reminiscing is like that; viewing life from a vantage point where whatever happened was made right in the remembering.

The puzzling or maybe enviable stance for me was that even though I knew all was not “right” with his five children and their children and their children, that circumstance didn’t seem to affect his living abundantly. Did he not realize the struggles of those around him and maybe even his own from time to time? Did he choose to live his own life generatively without getting caught up in others’ stuff? Was faith in a greater Presence keeping him above the tensions and realities of those lives?

None of these questions get at the heart of my observation and ultimately at how I meet these days.  Again, Buechner’s words help me weave Wally’s stories, Jesus’ wisdom, and my faith experience to make sense for a moment of my own way in the world.

Religion has often been denounced as escapism, and it often is. To deny the prevalence of pain in the world and the perennial popularity of evil. To abdicate responsibility for them by assuming that God will take care of them very nicely on his own. To accept them as divine judgment upon the sins especially of other people. To dismiss them or to encourage others to dismiss them by stressing the promise of pie in the sky. To pretend like a Forest Lawn cosmetologist that there’s no such thing as death. To maintain your faith by refusing to face any nasty fact that threatens it. These are all ways of escaping reality through religion and should be denounced right along with such other modern modes of escape as liquor, drugs, TV, or any simplistic optimism such as communism, anticommunism, jingoism, rugged individualism, moralism, idealism and so on, which assume that if everybody would only see it our way, evil would vanish and all would be sweetness and light.

 But the desire to escape is not always something to be denounced, as any prisoner or slave could tell you. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8: 31-32). Free from sin, he explained when they pressed him. Free from imprisonment within the narrow walls of your own not-all-that-enlightened self-interest. Free from enslavement to your own shabbiest instincts, deceits, and self-deceptions. Freedom not from responsibility but for it. Escape not from reality but into it.

 The best moments we any of us have as human beings are those moments when for a little while it is possible to escape the squirrel-cage of being me into the landscape of being us.

 

Morning Pages

Every morning I begin the day by writing morning pages, 3-4 composition notebook pages of evolving streams of consciousness. Sometimes the words reveal answers to my dilemmas for that day: list like writing of what I could do; sorting out my relationship with…; complaining and contemplating everyday and not so everyday things. Sometimes I recall encounters I want to remember or ponder challenges I want to forget and always hopes and prayers seep into the mix.

Buechner writes about his life in Now and Thewith the intent that when we write, we record the things of our lives that are “so easy to miss when you’re caught up in the process of living them.”

I used to read and pray more (I thought) and write less each morning. Maybe I would write down a quote from a book or a scripture passage that was particularly significant for my life at that moment and I still do that and more.  So: is it worth writing several pages of whatever comes to mind daily?  And re-reading those pages, my notebook or even this blog, I see patterns and a sense of divine direction or feel discouraged: this isn’t good—I just ramble—the same struggles occur over and over.  In one of those later moments, I was reminded of this passage from Henri Nouwen in The Road to Daybreak titled “’Useless’ Prayer.”

Why should I spend an hour in prayer when I do nothing during that time but think about people I am angry with, people who are angry with me, books I should read and books I should write, and thousands of other silly things that happen to grab my mind for a moment?

The answer is: because God is greater than my mind and my heart, and what is really happening in the house of prayer is not measurable in terms of human success and failure.

What I must do first of all is be faithful. If I believe that the first commandment is to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, then I should at least be able to spend one hour a day with nobody else but God. The question as to whether it is helpful, useful, practical or fruitful is completely irrelevant, since the only reason to love is love itself. Everything else is secondary.

The remarkable thing, however, is that sitting in the presence of God for one hour each morning—day after day, week after week, month after month—in total confusion and with myriad distractions radically changes my life. God, who loves me so much that he sent his only son not to condemn me but to save me, does not leave me waiting in the dark too long. I might think that each hour is useless, but after thirty or sixty or ninety such useless hours, I gradually realize that I was not as alone as I thought; a very small, gentle voice has been speaking in me far beyond my noisy place.

So: Be confident and trust in the Lord.

The practice of meeting God and myself on the page matters—the daily-ness matters—showing up and encountering my world matters. I may rarely say something life-changing but there is something in the words that is beyond me, beyond this moment. Like Nouwen says “I’m not alone as I thought; a very small gentle voice has been speaking to me” in spite of the inadequacy of my words. Faithfully recording them and my indiscriminate thinking changes me and moves me closer to knowing and loving God and myself.

Another Way of Knowing

It happened again this morning.

I read a passage that directly spoke to my fierce wondering of the days past. How does God speak in my life or maybe that isn’t even the most pressing question? The question is about God and me, how we both listen, speak and connect; complexly pondered or simply understood.

It seems like I’ve spent the last two years contemplating a newish direction for my life, but the truth is that both small and great nudges and events have moved me forward over a lifetime. I accepted a faculty position in a new place and realize that what I have been offered I really didn’t know I was looking for. How is that?

Looking back, I vaguely identify the “stuff” of life that has surfaced; things that I’m not sure how to name or define. All my life has been about the integration of my faith and scholarship; but I worked to keep this internally pervasive (until this blog, I guess). Even speaking well-worn creeds on Sunday unleash my teetering around assertions rather than claiming them as my belief.

Last summer, I stood on the grass in front of the chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary, with little inkling why I was there. I knew the beauty of the summer day, the majesty of nearly 200-year-old buildings that epitomize faith and scholarship, and knowing that a greater Presence overtly permeated everything around me. I found solace in the creative worship, the big-organ hymns, and collective spirit of care that found me there. And I still had no inking why I was there.

For many years, maybe most of my life I’ve felt this pull to the Appalachian Mountains. From driving interstate 40 toward Asheville to waking to the foggy mist high on the mountain from deep in the hollow in Virginia, those vistas are both awe-inspiring and a reclusive escape into both myself and the immenseness of creation. Over and over I come back to this source of wonder; as a summer volunteer for the Christian Appalachian Project, taking an exit off the main highway deep in the foothills to “just see”, and reading stories of the strength and challenge of the people who inhabit these particular landscapes. And while firmly attracted to a place, this was only one part of the puzzle of where and who and why that links these experiences beyond time.

Back to this morning…

Wondering how all of the seemingly random but intricately connected “stuff” over a lifetime happens; I opened up Listening to Your Life, my daily dose of Frederick Buechner’s writing, to find that today, December 16, was titled “Small Events.” Speaking about two short autobiographical books, The Sacred Journey and Now and Then, Buechner writes:

They gave me more of a sense than I had ever had before of how as far back as I could remember things had been stirring in my life that I was all but totally unaware of at the time. If anybody had predicted when I was an undergraduate at Princeton that I was going to be ordained as a minister ten years after graduation, I think I would have been flabbergasted. Yet as I wrote those two autobiographical volumes I found myself remembering small events as far back as early childhood which were even then leading me in something like that direction but so subtly and almost imperceptibly that it wasn’t until decades had passed that I saw them for what they were—or thought I did because you can never be sure whether you are discovering that kind of truth or inventing it. The events were often so small that I was surprised to remember them, yet they turned out to have been road markers on a journey I didn’t even know I was taking.

I’ve read Buechner’s words, the very ones I read today, more than once. Did they just happen to catch my attention today because I was wondering about my life in similar ways? Looking back over events and nudges from places and people in my own life, do I now see what is true or simply justify how my new work in the foothills of Appalachia with people whose stories connect them to this place and lives of faith happened?

Speaking about writing and faith Kathleen Norris states,

This has happened to me a great deal, and I think it happens with a lot of writers: that you look at something you wrote a few years ago and all of a sudden you realize what it’s about. You weren’t conscious of it at the time…that is part of the process of writing, where the words and poems that come out know more than you do.

 Shouts and Whispers  Jennifer Holberg, Editor.

This is true for me not only as I look back on my writing over the years; but as I re-encounter the events recorded in those words and reconstruct memories in connection with other words and events. Patterns emerge that make me wonder, again, did I just happen to read this particular thread of Buechner’s life that sits so squarely amidst my own life now? It’s easier to listen, when I know it has happened to me.

 

Quotidian Miracles

Since this was the last week of classes for the semester, my Friday seems a bit lighter. I still have a bit of grading to finish but it isn’t weighty or laden with expectation.

I’m contemplating actually cleaning my whole house, not just quickly cleaning one bathroom sink for the week. At the same time, I just happen to be reading The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris. I came upon this quote:

I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self…. If they are wise, they treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.

I am reminded of Brother Lawrence seeking God’s presence in doing his best to honor the work before him in that presence—literally while scrubbing pots and pans– his daily monastic responsibility. However, I take this notion, as Norris does, a couple of steps further.

Last week, I also made a cake that required slicing 5 apples, greasing and flouring pans, and layering in addition to the usual egg cracking and thorough mixing. The occasion wasn’t a party but a death; when food means more, not as sustenance, but as prayerful support to the bereaved.

In this case, a ninety something woman I love has now outlived the final of her three children. I baked as much for me as for her; she has plenty in the material world. A phone call or card wouldn’t do the same as I sliced, broke open, and mixed the ingredients with thoughts of collective care for her; from her friends, other church people, and my understanding of a Presence that is with us all.

I’m not very good at inviting people for dinner or hosting even a small gathering. This week as I clean out the car that smells like a wet dog, scrub the 50’s something tub that really doesn’t ever look clean, wipe up muddy footprints and refresh restful beds; I want to listen for signs of another Presence. And in doing so, for even just my family, that mindless work becomes welcoming.

As Kathleen Norris says, the paradox is that these essential tasks retain possibilities for religious meaning.

Ironically, it seems that it is by the means of seemingly perfunctory daily rituals and routines that we enhance the personal relationships that nourish and sustain us…. it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for the greatest transformation. Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory. And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but….What we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless—the endless repetition of a litany or the motions of vacuuming a floor.

Of course I can’t find it now, but someplace, Barbara Brown Taylor has written about cooking as prayerful hospitality when we do it in that spirit. Maybe she didn’t, but I know this is true.

In Altar in the World, she does say,

My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the scared, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is not a way to God apart from real life in the real world.

The real lesson here for me is that now that classes are over for the semester, I face everyday tasks more intentionally. December is full of days that require choosing how to be in the real world of parties and presents and dinners and deserts that come with real people attached.

Instead of meeting the days with dread, I could choose to be attentive to signs of God’s presence in my everyday tasks and to live the truth that faith is not an intellectual pursuit, but requires (inter)action with real people. The point here is that Jesus taught the practice of encounter amidst everyday living, even I guess, in December. 

Unlike me, Jesus did not have a home to welcome people to or a place to cook anyone a meal, or offer a bed for the night but as Barbara Brown Taylor points out that may be what gave him such an hospitable heart. The issues of this season are not about rituals or even expectations but about encounter. Barbara continues more simply eloquent than I am able.

The point [of encounter] is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.

That kind of encounter happens most often when you are doing things like making cakes and washing dishes. You dry; I like to wash and sink my hands deep in the hot soapy water that cleans the dirt out from under my fingernails.

Miracles

Faith in God is less apt to proceed from miracles than miracles from faith in God.

Buechner – Wishful Thinking

At this time of year I hear words about the miracle of Christ’s birth and I wonder.  Most of haven’t seen heavenly hosts of angels or have we?

Maybe miracles, too, are the result of a different kind of faithful attentiveness.

The weather around here has been strange for November and December.  The trees are bare and there is certainly a morning chill, but the days are noticeably warmer than they should be.  I don’t know if that has anything to do with the majesty of the sky at dusk I witnessed the other day.

I took a picture; an inadequate representation of awe.

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The hint of blue you see was not at all like that. It was bright and vibrant. A shade of blue I haven’t seen before rested beneath a faint orange ribbon visible between the dark tree branches. I cannot capture true light.

God speaking through the beauty of this day; if we only notice.

Chosen

What have I always known about my life?  I often hear people, speaking about vocation, say they have always known they had a passion for… or wanted to be…; but I’m not so sure.  Frederick Buechner  writes originally in The Sacred Journey,

By the time I was sixteen, I knew as surely as I knew anything that the work I wanted to spend my life doing was the work of words. I did not yet know what I wanted to say with them. I did not yet know in what form I wanted to say it or to what purpose.But if a vocation is as much the work that chooses you as the work you choose, then I knew from that time on that my vocation was, for better or worse, to involve that searching for, and treasuring, and telling of secrets which is what the real business of words is all about.

When I was young, maybe 9 or 10, I distinctly remember the realization that my life would involve working for God.  That is everyone’s vocation really, right?  What did I know then or sense at least that made me know that?

One is that I have always been a deep thinker– pondering my life in unforeseen ways.  Like the time we were “camping” in my backyard in our small town neighborhood of tract homes.  I think I must have been in junior high school.  My friends at the time, I don’t even remember who they were for sure, wanted to leave the relative safety of our fenced-in back yard and venture out into the neighborhood around midnight.

Even though I knew my parents were sleeping and really weren’t of dispositions to check up on me, I didn’t want to do it.  It wasn’t the right thing to do and I stood my ground; they went.

I remember my inner voice that was strong even in the face to face encounter with peer pressure.  It wasn’t concern that I would get caught; it was my own inner voice that didn’t think it was a good idea, even though I was confident my parents would never know.

What was that strong sense– God in me?  I can’t say for sure but I know for certain that a sense of God’s presence was always with me in my teenage years, lifting me above my life and propelling me forward.

What else would compel me to go to Hardin Simmons, a university over 1000 miles from my home that I’d never laid eyes on; to get on a plane when I had no idea where I was going much less how I would get from the airport to the school.

That year really was one of blind (and I do mean blind) TRUST.  I have no idea how that year changed me and maybe that is it, trust.  Trusting the ride home at Thanksgiving with a crazy hippie girl who drove a VW and picked up hitch hikers, I knew getting to come home at all was a kind of miracle even though being home was not.

Somehow I knew that year would not be more than that one year, so far away, but it gave me a taste of trust that did suspend me above heartbreaking family life.  It moved me beyond what seemed real to see myself as capable and smart and even a writer for the brief moments before my 1:00 composition class and a thinker in that biblical studies class where I dug deeply into highlighting thematically every verse in the New Testament.

That same sense of trust brought me to the large midwestern university and then to Florida for an internship– again with NO IDEA how I would make it–so many miracles really.  That blind trust seems to have waned or is it growing up?

What do I know about choosing or being chosen by God?  How do I enter that place of trust again with confidence that God is ever-present in ways that I don’t even know?

When I, like Buechner, consider the miraculous work of the spirit undergirding even my wondering and wandering around in the wilderness, my strong voice inside and my deep thinking and writing have brought me to this new place.

Fortunately I know to trust, yes, trust that I am not alone, that my real life is above just circumstances.  I will take a new step everyday into unknown places that are solid and full of incredible possibility.  Is that a vocation?