Have Mercy

Brendan is Frederick Buechner’s tale of the sixth-century Irish saint told through the eyes of Brendan’s loyal friend and follower, Finn. I struggled, to be honest, to finish this book. This sixth century Saint seemed to have little to say to me, for my life in the twenty-first century. I was lost in the language and images of sailing the world over 1500 years ago, however, there were moments that truths of humanness in relationship trumped the obscure settings.

Finn was the one I listened to through Buechner’s crafted voice.  He was a constant companion to Brendan on journeys to the end of their known world and beyond. Finn literally left his new bride and young son behind to continue his whole life as a faithful observer and confidant. On the last page of the novel Brendan speaks his final dying words to Finn.

I fear the presence of the King, Finn…I fear the sentence of the judge.

Remarkably, Brendan’s life had been one of continually seeking to do and be God’s servant in every way and Finn intimately witnessed this journey.  Finn’s words in response after Brendan’s death are more remarkable.

 As to the sentence of the judge, I’m not one to know nor even if there be a judge at all. If I Finn, was judge I’d know well enough though.

I’d sentence him to have mercy on himself. I’d sentence him less to strive for the glory of God than just to let it swell his sails if it can.

 While the ways and extreme of Brendan’s striving are far removed from my own, I, too, want to take Finn’s words to mean the same for me. Somehow, I, too, want to learn to cease striving and rest in God’s provision. That’s the powerful thing about stories; we locate and make sense of our own lives in someone else’s words about their own.

Today, I planned to spend the day in contemplation; it is just the dog and I here.   I went to early Eucharist at the local Episcopal Church where the liturgy supports such contemplation and I don’t know many people there so there is no need to chat. During the brief sermon, the rector said something that spoke to my needs for this day.

You see, I’ve felt a great source of joy in my new job. However, I’m beginning to wonder. I’ve been working really hard on some things—and I have so many ideas for teaching and for writing and for making friends and supporting colleagues and making this house more comfortable and sustaining goodness in all those communities. I am pushing too hard—expecting and considering too many things. The trouble is that I am thinking about doing much more than I am actually doing. And, am I doing things that matter anyway?

I want to have mercy on myself; to strive less for my own glory that I’m not sure I can always distinguish from the glory of God. What does Finn mean just to let [God’s glory] swell his sails if it can?

In his sermon today, Joe said we don’t have to work harder. Sure, there are some limiting habits we might need to change. The Holy Spirit is doing the real work. He was talking about the larger church, actually, but maybe there is a bit of truth in there for me as well.

In Wishful Thinking Buechner writes,

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s noting you have to do.

 We don’t earn God’s favor but live into it; to let it swell his sails if it can.

Desiring and Imagining

Jamie Smith explores these three verbs in his chapter “You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies.”

Image             Unfold                        Occupy

Smith understands each as a doing. First, we are called to image God so that image is a task or mission rather than a characteristic. Secondly, we are called to unfold creation’s potential. This is our task as image bearers. Lastly, we are called to occupy creation; to be a faithful presence, people who occupy creation and remind the world that we belong to God.

Smith argues that we are called to “image God” and that ruling and caring for creation includes “cultivating it, unfolding and unfurling its latent possibilities through human making.” Maybe we begin by imagining or glimpsing God’s imagination regarding how we might unfold and unfurl possibility in our own lives.

For me, coming to this new place and position did unfold over time or maybe even was imagined in unacknowledged ways all my life. Was the process culminated in landing here in this job and place after all that struggle to find the “right one” or was it a mutual finding?

I think of how this place is bits and pieces of things I imagined as the “good and perfect life” over the years without actually knowing or consciously searching for this kind of place.

All my life I have been drawn to these mountains. As a child my dad was from a different part of Eastern Tennessee and we visited the Smokey Mountains often. My husband and I met in these mountains and have longed to return. Volunteering in Eastern Kentucky, vacationing in Western Carolina and North Georgia, and visiting friends in Western Virginia have fueled those longings. The low clouds hovering in the mountains, the cold mountain streams and the embracing presence of tall trees; however imagined, actually living here was a continuously visited possibility. And now I look out each morning on the Holston Mountain Range and walk up steep inclines to enter my office that looks out on a similar vista. The Appalachian people I read about are my next-door neighbors, people I go to church alongside, and colleagues and people whom I am honored to learn from and teach. Virginia is a few streets away and Western North Carolina an hour’s drive in more than one direction.mountain-view-king

At my daughter’s graduation from Hanover College—a place with many similarities to King—I remember a visceral tug as I watched the faculty in full regalia lead the graduates through the crowd. Those robed people represented the pinnacle of my love of thinking and knowing in a tangible way. Maybe it was a longing I didn’t even know about then—that was before I even considered a Ph.D. as a wild and crazy thing to consider. Now here I am in a similar school where that same practice happens multiple times a year. I was the robed one on a recent August morning as we, the faculty, in all colors of regalia, filed into the chapel behind a bagpiper for opening convocation where an honorary degree was being conferred.

Finding out that this place existed is filled with synchronicity. The Buechner connections: learning about the Faith and Culture center’s lectures (formerly the Buechner Center), imagining what it would be like to be able to be in such a community, listening to student lecturers who drew from Buechner’s writing to make sense of their own lives. Finding this University as an aside to finding the Buechner Writing Workshop at Princeton led me to consider a faith based community as a place to teach, without even realizing what I was imaging. Even though I felt like a fish out of water in connection with the other workshop participants, many of them clergy, I realized how much the corporate worship in a community of scholars fed my soul. The chapel at Princeton is in a circle of buildings with a large grassy area in the middle where I sat or stood each day imagining this as a place of wonder and creative thinking and spiritual rest. Not even considering that I might actively look for a “Christian” or faith-based institution, I wondered how and perhaps longed for faith and scholarship to be whole in me—a “hidden wholeness” as Parker Palmer calls it. Remembering the Princeton Chapel and grounds, I see the King Chapel and oval as a lived fulfillment of my imagining.

chapel

A few weeks spent tutoring adults at a GED center in Eastern Kentucky for the Christian Appalachian Project were in the same summer I attended my first spiritual formation retreat in Indiana and went to digital storytelling camp in Colorado. These were formative events that led me surreptitiously to my dissertation work and now I am occupying this place as remnants of storytelling, teaching, and formation continue to be part of what I do in new ways.

 Perhaps that is at the essence of what Jamie Smith says about being called to unfold creation’s potential. Being attentive to how our desires, our work, become aligned with God’s desires.