Harperella Hunting

Saturday was hot. One of those humid, sulphurous, late-Summer days that turns an ordinary walk through Allegheny bottom lands into something to be borne, never enjoyed. Deep in the woods, beside the river, the smell of mold and decay mixed with the sulphur that made the region a haven for those Nineteenth-Century Americans “seeking the cure.” Slapping mosquitos and paying little attention to what lay ahead, I stumbled into a spider web, rising from my knees to my above my head, spanning the trail. As I swatted my way through, a fist-sized spider rushed toward me along the last remaining upper support. Just short of my nose, she abandoned her attack, disengaged, and floated gracefully on a barely visible lifeline to the leaves below. I lost sight of her as I tried to clear web fragments from my eyes, nose, and ears. I do not dislike spiders, but I hate the feeling of invisible silk strands clinging to my face. For the next hour I had the sensation of being crawled upon – a feeling made more intense with every imagined bug and tick that proved to be real.

I had left the house in good spirits, angling through the woods toward the river on my annual Harperella nodosum survey. Harperella is a small aquatic plant found in very few places, and although native to the Cacapon River, it has been rendered nearly extinct by a succession of hundred-year floods. I suppose it is of no particular importance, at least not in terms of property value, but I hold out hope that some isolated plants might have established a freehold along the little piece of riverfront I claim. So I continue to look on the cobble-margins of the river for a thin, small plant with wet feet, its tiny white flowers opening to the full sun, testifying to the resilience of life. But I found more spiders than Harperella, more ticks than white flowers.

We often overlook the fact that in the Genesis creation story mankind was created on the same day as all of the other animals, and God declares the whole creation good, not just our part of it. Some things, like harperella, are worth finding and protecting just because they exist. In the case of harperella, the task is made easier because they are delicate and beautiful. James reminds us that we are all too ready to embrace the beautiful, the powerful, and the important at the expense of those less fortunate.  A walk down any city street should remind us that not many of us are special. But we are all part of that sixth day that God declared was “indeed, very good.” Take that walk, even in the midst of recession and war, there is much to celebrate in the people we meet and there is much to be done if we are truly to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As I walked back to the house I stepped off of the trail to avoid a new, large spider web. Along its margin a fist-sized spider worked quickly attaching new strands, rebuilding what I had destroyed. Resilient creature, that spider. Perhaps we are all more resilient than we give ourselves credit for being, but it doesn’t hurt to have a little help and a little love from our neighbors now again.

I often take a sunset walk through the Chapel Garden, or as I call it: the chapel ruin. Diffused, shadowless sunlight, that midway point between light and darkness – like slack water between the tides, deadens contrast and softens the hard, brick edges. There is something timeless in this the close of day. Perhaps that is why I always think of “Little Gidding”, T. S. Eliot’s last poem of the Four Quartets, whose opening sentence contains one of my favorite words, sempiternal, a word whose sound seems heavy with quality in contrast to its quantity-laden synonym, eternal. The ruin at sunset stands sempiternal beside its successor.

In the parish of Little Gidding, the Church of Saint John the Evangelist (1714) stands on the site of its predecessor. No chapel garden marks Eliot’s brief haven where Charles I, a “king at nightfall,” fleeing toward the gallows, stopped to rest his lathered horse. Nor are there visible marks of the lives of generations who took their vows before the church altar; who breathed out silent prayers for their infant sons and daughters as they were marked with the sign of the cross; who stoically recited the liturgy for the burial of their dead; who in their time lay silent before that same altar.

Neither kings nor yeoman hallow a place. That task is given to time alone.The new seminary chapel will shortly become the beloved chapel, the place where generations of students will worship together and where they will learn the art and craft of ministry. But they will also know that something else, something worth remembering, stood here among these ruins, once a place of worship and ritual, now ghosted by soft-edged memories in the dying light.

We are the makers of memories. Contemplating them in some future chapel-garden of the mind, what will the not-yet-living imagine of us, the long-dead? Near the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth responds to news of his wife’s death: “Life’s but a waking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Sound and fury and futility – a life lived for oneself in lathered haste, strutting and fretting ourselves across the stage, mistaking quantity for quality. There is another way, a way based on the three great loves: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; a way that leads beyond ourselves to a life of meaning; a way to a life lived abundantly in the sempiternal moment. In the words of Eugene Peterson’s Jesus: “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.” (The Message, Mt. 10:39)

A life worth remembering is a tale full of sound and fury, told by lovers and loved, signifying everything.

The Biblical book of James has a number of disquieting passages. Perhaps the most disturbing for many Christians occurs in the first chapter where James adamantly asserts that the one who doubts can expect nothing from God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. (James 1:5-8)

But is it reasonable to expect to be free from doubt all of the time, to never entertain moments of uncertainty, to be always convinced of the absolute truth of one’s convictions? We have all known such people, and most of us have found them insufferable. What then is James saying?

First, this admonition comes to those seeking wisdom and guidance in the midst of various trials. James says, echoing the writer of Hebrews, if you want God’s help, you must first believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him. He leaves no room for the “if you exist, then …” prayer. But what about those creeping doubts that assail all of us? Those sudden, unspoken fears in the night that there really is nothing there? This is the question that so many parishioners have brought to me over the years.

We often overlook the role that doubting plays in coming to that place where we can claim belief as our own and not as something we have inherited from our parents or that has attached itself to us as part of our social fabric. An unquestioning and unwavering belief in anything that has not been rigorously examined stands on shaky ground at best. Among the early Baptists Distinctives was the then novel idea of Liberty of Conscience. Each individual has both the right and duty to come to faith in such time and manner as is dictated by conscience. And that examination of conscience may lead legitimately to reject all forms of faith and religion. Such self-examination is often painful and always requires a stubborn resignation to see it through when cherished beliefs come into question, when the dogmas of youth are confronted with new and sometimes fearful alternatives. We must then be content to dwell for a while in uncertainty. Yet as Sir Francis Bacon wrote over four –hundred years ago in his treatise on learning, “Another error is an impatience of doubting and a blind hurry of asserting without mature suspension of judgment.”(Bacon, Advancement of Learning, p. 65)

“Mature suspension of judgment” is a wonderful phrase. It describes the state where we are free as intelligent human beings, without first abandoning our beliefs, to question what we have been taught, to look at evidences, to consider alternatives, to read from our own sources, and ultimately to exercise that cherished Baptist Distinctive: Liberty of Conscience. If we are too quickly content with the unexamined faith, the unexamined life, we are forever inauthentic human beings. We believe what someone else has determined that we should believe, and we have abdicated our God-given right to choose for ourselves.

Where to begin? Begin with those Bible passages you never read. In my experience, we avoid those passages that hit too close to home, that raise a nagging voice in the back of our minds, that sometimes come to consciousness unbidden. Here is the beginning of real faith, here in the land of doubt where certainty gives way to possibility.

“[I]f we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties.”

I once knew a woman who maintained that the Y-chromosome is a birth defect. Arguing with her was fruitless. She would tilt her head to look at me over the rim of her glasses and state unequivocally, “It’s a miracle that any boy makes it to adulthood.” Having raised several children, she knew whereof she spoke. It was her son who, at twelve, dared me to ride my bicycle over a small cliff at a nearby sand quarry. Things are often higher than they seem. I survived with my honor intact, but I couldn’t put full weight on my right foot for two weeks. Try hiding that from your mother.

That small, missing piece of the X-chromosome that differentiates males from females probably contains the instructions for judgment and almost certainly contains the instruction set for span of attention. Most of us eventually come around to developing both but not before we’ve had our share of misadventures – nearly all of them avoidable, like not riding your bicycle over a cliff just because your friend said you wouldn’t in front of your other friends who had no intention of following you. We grow up. But we grow at different rates and achieve different levels of maturity. For many of us, the desire to fly our bicycles never really leaves us, but those instruction sets that bedeviled us in our youth, once mastered, become the building blocks of our lives.

It is our nature to grow. How we grow is only partially determined at birth by our genes. What we are – our height, our eye color, whether we are skinny or stout – is very much beyond our control, but who we are depends on what we do with all of the elements of our lives. There is a famous quote by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a line delivered after a falling out with his friend Thomas Sheridan, “Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in Nature.” We may not suffer from an “excess of stupidity”, but we all have taken a great deal of pains to become something and often that something is not true to our nature. The who we are doesn’t correspond to the who we were meant to be.

The Apostle Paul reminds us in his “Letter to the Romans” that we are by nature conflicted. We are, all of us, more aware of both the desires that drive our decisions and the sure consequences that follow those decisions than we like to admit. We are rarely if ever completely innocent victims of life. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” There is a way out. Paul cries out: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” This is the cry of many of us who long for something more, somehow for things to be different in our lives, for life to be more like we dreamed it to be in the days when bicycles flew and we were oblivious to the consequences of our decisions. Paul’s answer is as relevant and powerful as it was when he first uttered it: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” There is a way back, but it requires us to surrender, to let go of the accumulated hurts and fears whose weight grounds us.

To become as children is not to return to a world of fantasy and a naïve vision of the world, oblivious to its dangers. It is to return to a world full of possibilities, a world made new each day. That is the promise of Jesus. What we cannot do ourselves is possible through a life lived in the Spirit – the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus. The Easter season reminds that the impossible broke into the world to make all things possible. We are, as in everything, free to choose what we believe, but some decisions are more destructive than riding a bicycle off a sand cliff. For thousands of years, generations have attested to the reality and power of the Living Christ. Those same generation have witnessed the misery and poverty of spirit in those who have chosen “to take a great deal of pains” to become what we now see, lonely and unfulfilled souls wishing the world was other than it seems. It still could be, but the answer doesn’t lie in broken chromosomes, it lies in the foolishness of the Cross and in the one who stretched out his arms that you and I might make our way back to our true natures, at rest and at peace with the one who created us.

When my daughter was very young, I volunteered as a docent at the insect zoo in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It is a place of screaming children – screaming from wonder and delight – and strangely absent the fear that bugs and other crawly things often invoke in adults. Among her favorite things were the tobacco hornworms (the larva of the sphinx moth). These nearly three-inch-long grubs are rubbery caterpillars with stumpy legs and odd looking eye-spots on each section. They often plague gardeners in the southern United States where they are a leafy green. The diet we fed them was lacking in pigments so ours were a deep turquoise – almost blue.

Whenever I took Tiffany to the insect zoo she would run to the glass case housing the tobacco worms, stand on tiptoes, and look through the foliage to count as many caterpillars as she could. She always reminded me of Alice in Wonderland who “stretched herself up on tiptoe and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar.” The caterpillar and Alice looked at one another in silence for some time. That is where the similarity ends. Alice’s caterpillar can talk, and Alice, not knowing quite what to make of the whole thing, ends up insulting him:

“’Well, I should like to be a little larger, Sir, if you wouldn’t mind,’ said Alice: ‘three inches is such a wretched height to be.’

‘It is a very good height indeed!’ said the caterpillar angrily, rearing itself up as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high.).”

Ouch! Not a good way to win friends. Perhaps I like Alice’s story because it reminds me of Saturdays on the National Mall when Tiffany wasn’t the only one that was younger. Now like Alice she could rightly say: “You are old father William … and your hair has become very white.” But perhaps there is another reason. Lewis Carroll wrote of this encounter for us, for those of us who once having given flight to the thoughtless and inconsiderate remark, net in hand, try desperately and unsuccessfully to capture it and put it back in the box. The Lord’s brother, James, writes: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Alice has an excuse, she has fallen down a hole into a strange land, and she can truthfully say: “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.” In a troubling way, we are not ourselves either – not the people we were created to be, and like Alice, we know it. We do not need a giant blue caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe to tell us what is wrong in our lives, what keeps us from being the people we know would make us happier human beings.

Alice falls through the looking glass into a world where nothing is quite what it seems. James reminds us that it is in the looking glass that we can see the world as it ought to be and find the way to make it so. “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.”

Tiffany learned that the blue caterpillars were harmless. She even came to a point where she would let them crawl lazily up her cheek – but only after a long apprenticeship of letting them make lazy tracks across the palm of her hand. Too many of us never get beyond the apprenticeship. James’ “perfect law of liberty” is the key to a world that does make sense, that does allow us to explain ourselves, that makes room for wonder and delight. It’s time to take a step in faith. It’s time to let the blue caterpillar wander beyond our outstretched palms.

Whoever Saint Valentine was, nothing remains of the original association between the saint and the February fourteenth celebration that bears his name. Of the several saints named Valentine, none truly resembles the mythical harbinger of romantic love celebrated with hearts, cupids, and chocolate. The day took on its current caste sometime during the Middle-Ages as noted by Jeffery Chaucer: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”Clearly, it was a lot warmer in February in those days. The ice and snow outside my window don’t invite frolicking on the hillside – that will have to wait for April. Nevertheless, every young man in love learns early that Valentine’s Day is not lightly passed over.

It seems to be an antidote for what C.S. Lewis calls the Same Old Thing, that is, the fear of the commonplace, the familiar, the predictable. That feeling of being too comfortable with one another that cries out for something novel. Change for change sake in a world desperately seeking escape from otherwise unfulfilling lives. It is the Same Old Thing that drives everything from changes in fashion to all-night vigils outside of the consumer-electronics store where scores wait to be the first to own the latest cell-phone that offers few new features. The demand for the new seems insatiable, and Lewis points out that it is not benign: “The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both.”

Unhappiness or both? The problem with seeking novelty is that is anesthetizes us to the pain of growth and inoculates us against the changes that create mature human beings. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in modern, serial relationships. In Ruperrt Holms’ 1979 hit, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”, the protagonist places an ad in the personal column of the local newspaper seeking someone to breathe new life into his bored existence. He arranges to meet a woman who shares his interests, also seeking relief from a tired and boring relationship, at a bar called O’Malley’s.

So I waited with high hopes and she walked in the place
I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curve of her face
It was my own lovely lady and she said, “Oh, it’s you?”
Then I looked for moment and I said “I never knew.”

“I never knew” is all too often the sad last-word to a once flourishing relationship. The key to keeping love alive isn’t novelty, it is intention. All relationships, whether romantic or otherwise, need attention; they need to be nourished – and that more than once a year in February. Paradoxically, it the intentional relationship, the one where both partners are committed to life together, that remains fresh, that offers daily opportunities for the novel. We have been conditioned to look for fulfillment in a changing landscape, not as a future to be worked toward one day at a time. As Screwtape writes to Wormwood:

For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant’. We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain – not as something everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.

In a Paris Review interview, Truman Capote praised Virginia Woolf with the remark:  “From the point of view of the ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence.” High praise from someone many believe to be one of the twentieth-century’s masters of English prose. Reading Capote’s essay, “Brooklyn,” one gets a flavor not only of Capote’s own skill with words but also of his gift for seeing. The practiced eye of the observer who notes every detail but records just enough to draw the reader into his world, to draw the reader into the decaying urban neighborhood he calls home. A place he loves even though he describes it so unflatteringly: “Brooklyn is also sad brutal provincial lonesome silent raucous lost passionate subtle bitter immature innocent perverse tender mysterious, a place where Crane and Whitman found poems, a mythical dominion against whose shores the Coney Island sea laps a wintry lament.”

A Mythical Dominion. Isn’t that where we all live, walls erected against the world that assaults our senses, makes unreasonable demands, and holds terrors untold for the unwary? In “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” Virginia Woolf takes a late afternoon walk in search of a lead pencil – not quite the idyllic stroll through Henry David Thoreau’s meadow and forest nor the hurried walk of the weary New Yorker heading home from the subway to the projects – home to an apartment alive with mementos and memories, insulation for the soul. Going out into the London street means leaving the mythical dominion behind: “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.”

But this enormous eye opens only for those who are ready to risk seeing the world as it is. Those for whom distinctions disappear and people emerge as they are. Only then does the possibility arise of entering imaginatively into the lives of others. “One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?” It is in the lives of others – those wild beasts, our fellow men – that we find our true calling.

Take a walk in the neighborhood. Leave the MP3 player and the smart phone behind. Forget about Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. Take a walk in your neighborhood again for the first time, a walk beneath brambles and thick trunks to the place where God dwells in the midst of his children. Truman Capote and Virginia Woolf shared a rare genius for words, but they also shared a deep appreciation for people, for communities, and for the life that is the common property of us all. Leaving our private mythical dominion behind is fearful and risky, but the world of truth waiting to be revealed to those with open eyes is a place for truly productive living – a world that may unflatteringly be described as sad brutal provincial lonesome silent raucous lost passionate subtle bitter immature innocent perverse tender mysterious, but a world desparate for a better way. It is a world, a neighborhood, waiting for love.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”



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