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Or Not at All

“there was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;

And all the air is filled with the pleasant noise of waters.
(William Wordsworth)

Late last week in West Virginia, sometime past midnight, I awoke to the sound of rain drumming on the skylights. The rustling trees, now fully leaved, provided a muted background, like static from an old AM radio station. I lay awake, not bothering to look at the clock, not wanting to return to sleep. Enjoying the storm. It took me back a long way – to the Sixties – lying in my bed in New Jersey listening to Top-40 radio. Before the Beatles and Rolling Stones, listening to long forgotten artists. WKBW, Buffalo, 50,000 Watts blanketing the northeast with a clear signal to the Jersey Shore when it caught the skip, crackling static when it didn’t.

Some years ago, I went back to New Jersey, about a five-hour drive north. Perhaps I’ll go back to the old neighborhood again, but I have no desire to gaze once more on the house where I lived. There is a family there, but not mine. I am reminded of the final lines of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Home No More to Me:” “Birds come and cry there and twitter in the chimney –/ But I go for ever and come again no more.” In some ways, Stevenson’s poem is a sad, nostalgic, song (Recorded by Ralph Vaughan Williams as “Whither Shall I Wander”), but it concludes with an important reminder. Wherever we have been, for no matter how long, the earth abides. The heather will bloom for someone else. The stream will flow slowly by the house and the door as it did in our childhoods, but it will be for someone else.

Living changes us. The lad who played in fields of red heather, listening to the moorfowl, is not the man now gazing at a country cottage. “Lone let it stand now, the friends all departed/ The kind hearts, the true hearts, that loved the place of old.” Memories abide. People move on. Happiness is found in the present. No remembered past or dreamed future will complete us. I have been in the houses of the wealthy where the tension was suffocating. I have been in the homes of the poor where laughter was contagious. In the one, kind hearts, true hearts, that loved the place had departed. In the other, they filled it. Happiness is a choice. It does not come as resignation in the face of unfulfilled desire, or hope for an uncertain future, no matter how noble these may be, but happiness always comes in the recognition of gifts present in love.

Jesus reminds us that God always intended us for an abundant life – not necessarily abundant position, power, or possessions. There is a seldom sung hymn that we would do well to recover. “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.” Counting blessing is a wonderful exercise. I have come a long way from New Jersey and from quiet nights spent with WKBW playing softly in the background, but I have been blessed along the way with abundant life.

My thoughts did stray to those long-ago nights, but in the drumming, West Virginia rain, they soon returned to the now, to all I am grateful for. In the morning, sipping coffee on the porch, I listened to the river, to the air “filled with the pleasant noise of waters.” I looked at the forest in the morning light, blinded by uncountable diamonds dripping from the leaves. And I recalled once again what I have always known: we were made for the world, and the world was made for us. And I remembered lines from another of William Wordsworth’s poetry: “the very world, which is the world/ Of all of us, – the place where, in the end/ We find our happiness, or not at all.”

Mindfulness is a way of life. Sadly, many Christians have been hesitant, even fearful, of learning the techniques which together allow one to practice mindfulness because of their association with Buddhist spirituality. These techniques are universal in application and no religion can rightfully claim ownership of them. The spiritual traditions of all the world’s major religions, including classical Christian Spirituality in the Western Tradition, recognize the benefits – spiritual, psychological, and physical – of living an intentional, focused life, while making time for deeper levels of prayer.
Mindfulness is not a mythical or mystical state. It is living intentionally in the world, moment to moment, aware of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Joseph Goldstein, in his book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakiening, writes that among the qualities of mind necessary to approach this more disciplined spiritual life are: ardency, clearly knowing, and concentration. Ardency is nothing less than desire to achieve something different, to go beyond one’s current limitations. It infuses daily activities with enthusiasm, even passion, and it prepares for the long haul. Clearly knowing is being fully aware of every moment: aware of actions, thoughts, and motives. No one should suddenly find oneself on the bus without knowing how one got there and where one is going. Lastly, the practice of mindfulness requires concentration. The mind, as has been said by someone, is “a restless wanderer.” Intentional living requires concentrating all the faculties.
Perhaps it is the lack of these three qualities: ardency, clearly knowing, and concentration, that prevent so many Christians from experiencing the full life of the Spirit. After Paul writes to the Galatians of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, he encourages them (as he does in the eighth chapter of Romans) “to keep in step with the Spirit.” So many of us don’t know how to do that. Walking with God is walking in the Spirit. That requires a desire to be in communion with the God who sends the Spirit. It requires being aware of our own thoughts while listening for the voice of God. Lastly, it requires concentration to keep the mind from wandering among endlessly changing thoughts and ideas – ardency, fully knowing, and concentration. Mindfulness is a path to Jesus in daily life.
Prayer and Scripture reading are the staples of most Christians’ spiritual and religious lives. But what happens between those times of prayer and study? How do I live in communion with God through the real presence of the Holy Spirit in every aspect of my life, throughout the day? Mindfulness. Also known in the West as practicing the presence of God.
The novelist John Wyndham wrote in The Day of the Triffids, “When almost half a lifetime has been spent in one conception of order, re-orientation is no five-minute business.” Practicing the presence of God through mindfulness is no five-minute business. For most of us, it involves changing the habits of more than half a lifetime. It is possible. It is worth it.

When asked in 1910 to write an essay for Harper’s Bazaar defining the turning point in his life, Mark Twain responded with characteristic humor, but not before pointing out a profound truth about human life. We are never the product of a single turning point; for whatever event we select as the most momentous in our lives, it is itself the result of circumstance piled upon circumstance, bringing us finally to that defining moment. As Mark Twain wrote, “Circumstance furnished the capital, and my temperament told me what to do with it.”
There is more than a grain of truthy in what Twain says. Someone once remarked that there is a certain “thrownness” to life. There are those rare individuals who wake up on their sixth birthdays and resolve to be doctors or lawyers, but most of us have far less planned lives. That is not to say we don’t have choices – it is to say the choices are often determined by circumstances and our temperaments – those deeply ingrained patterns of thoughts and emotional reactions we label as coping skills.
The question is not whether we are subject to these external and internal forces; I think that is beyond argument. The question is: Are we slaves to them? Twain, deeply cynical toward the end of his life, would say yes. Many modern psychologies would agree, arguing for the unalterable nature of personality – our deepest held traits, both acquired and genetic. I disagree. What is at issue is inertia. Changes in outlook and coping skills rarely occur quickly and never without sustained effort, but such changes are not only possible, they are promised in the New Testament. When Paul writes to the Romans, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” he means it as an attainable goal. But how do we attain such a transformation, one that relieves us from the often tyrannical influences of circumstance and temperament?
Transformation begins with temperament. How we react to the circumstances in our lives determines the trajectory of our lives as much as the circumstances themselves. Family, professional, and social relationships provide a window into the workings of our temperaments, and it is in those relationships that we find a road map to change. How do others experience me, and how often is my experience of others an unfair projection of my own needs and prejudices? There is a way to find out.
Few of us practice listening. We hear, but we do not give the other our undivided attention. Much needed information is lost, information that might change our understanding, attitudes, and behaviors. There is a potentially transforming exercise. Make a concentrated effort for the next forty days to truly listen to everyone you talk to, but especially at home and at work. Resist the urge to speak – as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” I take that to mean gentle, wise, and sparse. Pay attention to what is spoken and left unspoken, what is verbal and non-verbal, what emotions are expressed and what emotions seem to lie beneath the surface, and what attitude toward you the speaker projects. Note your emotional reactions to what the speaker is saying. And above all be gentle with yourself, we are often not responsible for what others think and feel about us – that is a function of their own circumstance and temperament. Do this for a few days in different situations and I guarantee that a window will begin to open into your temperament: how it is experienced outwardly by others and inwardly by yourself.
We need not be slaves to either the past or the present. Tomorrow has the potential to be a turning point but only if we overcome the inertia that keeps us stuck, repeating the same behaviors over and over. “Circumstance furnished the capital, and my temperament told me what to do with it,” can be as true for me as it was for Mark Twain but only if I can harness the power of my temperament to effectively use that capital. Forty days of listening – can it make a difference? With wisdom and patience. “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.” Patience will be the hard part.

 

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see

The people of the world

Exactly at the moment when

They first attained the title of

‘suffering humanity’[1]

At the age of 72, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved into a house outside Madrid. Nearly deaf and increasingly isolated, he painted fourteen murals referred to as the Back Paintings. Never intended for public viewing, these murals provide a window into the soul of a man consumed with anxiety over his fear of recurring mental and physical illness and his despair at the ongoing turmoil in his beloved Spain. The paintings were eventually stripped from the walls and transferred to canvas for display in Madrid’s Prado Museum. As a body of work, they are disturbing, but the most famous, “Saturn Devouring His Son”, is grotesque. A large painting, 2.5 feet wide and 5 feet tall, it immediately commands attention. Many interpretations have been advanced to explain the profound disillusion evident in the painting, but the two most compelling are perhaps both correct, Goya’s own experience of inhumanity at the hands of his fellow human beings: daily in the home, daily in the marketplace, and daily on the national stage – humanity eating its children. Though not as dramatic, this profound sense of loss is evident in all the Black Paintings, especially “The Pilgrimage to San Isidro”, the great crowd, open mouthed as though wailing, lacking all joy, pushes relentlessly forward. A masterpiece, but a profoundly sad one.  Standing before these paintings in the Prado, one word comes repeatedly to mind: hopelessness.

“In Goya’s greatest dreams we seem to see,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti forcefully translates these images into American life, asking the question: When did we attain to this moment; when did we become suffering humanity? It is, for Ferlinghetti, a question of individual and national importance.  We have lost our way, sleepwalking through life: “on a concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards / illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness.”[2] No one is immune from suffering, real suffering that comes from loss and grief in all their forms, but we are never forced to succumb to the despair of the Black Paintings; nor must we take refuge in imbecile illusions of happiness; nor must we wait, like Keats’ Geek lovers, frozen an arms-length away for eternity.[3]

and I am perpetually waiting

for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn

to catch each other up at last

and embrace

and I am waiting

perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder.[4]

The answer lies in surrender – not to despair, but surrender to life. The prophet Jeremiah wrote to the ancient Israelites: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer. 2:13, NIV) Before each of us lies a choice – a stark choice. Jeremiah likens life without God to life in a parched land. Dependent on water for survival, we return again and again to the cracked cistern, hoping that this time it will be full of clear water, only to find the same shallow, stagnant pool, its water seeping away as we watch helplessly. Feet away, flows a clear stream. This is the stark contrast, drawn by Jeremiah, between life as suffering humanity and life in God. As a pastor, I’m repeatedly asked by people if such a life of hope and joy is possible, and if so, why hasn’t God given them that life. My answer is Jeremiah’s: He has, you just keep going back to the broken cistern expecting a different outcome. God remains rooted beside each of us pointing to the clear stream, quietly inviting us to drink.  That drink will change everything. God offers, but he never forces. It does not matter at exactly what moment or what incident translated us into suffering humanity, but it does matter if we stay there, alone, growing deafer, increasingly isolated, painting murals of our darkest fears. The alternative is to step out in faith and put our lives in the hands of a gracious God. “ For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Isaiah 30:15 (NRSV)

This is the message of the Gospel, and this is the meaning of Easter. God at the moment when he first attained the title “suffering humanity.”  God, in Jesus, is offering, but he never forces.

 

 

 

 

[1] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, [In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see]

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn

[4] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I am Waiting”

 

Heaven and earth are not benign;

 

Take ten thousand things as straw dogs.

 

This cryptic couplet begins the fifth chapter of the Dào Dé Jīng, Lăozĭ’s classic exposition of Taoist philosophy. Like other Chinese classics, the Dào Dé Jīng is ambiguous. Classic texts are often open to multiple interpretations, but despite attempts to soften this couplet, it appears to be straightforward, if uncomfortable. “Heaven and earth” refer to the created universe as we see and live in it. The final phrase – “are not benign” –  can be translated not kind or not benevolent. Here, it seems to carry the meaning of not having a kindly disposition, not being gracious, gentle, favorable, or fair, and more than a little threatening. This idea is further developed in the second half of the couplet where “heaven and earth” treat all things as “straw dogs.” Straw dogs were just that: miniature dogs carefully crafted from straw. They were finely dressed and decorated for placement on the altar for religious rites, then promptly and unceremoniously left in the street. Disposable. The universe is not benign and shows no favoritism.

 

 How often have we looked at the world around us and thought the same thing? Longing for a rational world, balanced and fair, we confront a world that continues to disappoint us.  Lăozĭ’s response is for the Sage to be detached; we might say, “go with the flow.” Does that satisfy? I think not. Jesus pointedly reminded his followers that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. In short, we all live in the same world, and to that end, it is neutral. Rain and sunshine come and go, independent of our actions, but Jesus repeatedly admonishes us to be very careful how we live under those constraints. People are not straw dogs.

 

 How we treat others determines to a large extent how we will be treated in return. The old adage: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is a universal truth, repeated by the wisest of every culture in every age. Paul sums it nicely when he writes to the Galatians: “Love your neighbor as yourself. If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” It would be simpler if we always knew we were devouring each other before it was too late, but how often has a remark, a misunderstanding, a disagreement matured into a near shouting match with neither side exactly sure how they got there. People as straw dogs.

 

 Universal laws may be neutral, but we needn’t be. Lent is a particularly appropriate time to move beyond self-reflection to self-monitoring. The oriental idea of “mindfulness” is a good place to start. It is nothing less than intentional living, paying attention to desires, feelings, thoughts, and attitudes throughout the day. It is a commitment not to get there without knowing how and why I got there. Living every moment in the presence of a benevolent God who created “the ten thousand things.” Self-monitoring may just lead to a whole other way of life where even straw dogs are treated with reverence.

 

Perilous Birds of the Soul

A late night brought me home to a cold and starkly-bright, star-filled night. The fog came during the early hours, and morning coffee found me gazing through dining-room bay-windows at the gravestones, shrouded in mist. The thin tree line that defines the border of our yard and the cemetery appeared and receded, fading in and out. From the mist a doe in winter gray materialized and slowly grazed our wet grass. Her quick glances at the window told me she knew I was there, but her unhurried movements told me she knew she was safe. Generations of her ancestors have lived on the seminary campus– wary but safe.

I shifted to the living room to follow her movement into the front yard. More ghostly still, she stood silhouetted against the lamps that light the road circling the chapel, itself faintly lit in the fog like an unfinished Monet. In that moment, two worlds converged. Hundred-year-old graves in a wooded grove merged with the massive walls and towers of a modern architectural wonder – both slightly out of focus and off hue.

I thought of a line from Ecclesiastes: “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” There are moments when the fabric of the world seems to stretch thin and we are acutely aware of the mystery that is creation. Cherished times when even the familiar and ordinary are newly beautiful. Such moments pass too quickly with the rising sun. The deer depart and the traffic returns. The sights and sounds of the day overwhelm the vision of the mist.

That too is the subject of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. It is not only in our hearts to understand the world into which are born, but too make sense of it, to find meaning in the ordinary. To do so we must pay attention to the moments, lived one at a time. The mist of the morning does not obscure the familiar, it merely takes it out of focus the way squinting at a rose takes away the harsh lines, revealing red to be not one color but a profusion of tints and hues blended by a master painter.

Finding meaning is more than an intellectual exercise. It begins with learning to see with the inner eye of the soul: learning to see beauty in the familiar and finding space for the unbidden revelations of an invisible world. The invisible world is all too real, peopled by those we do not notice, crowded with structures we pass daily but have never seen, filled with sounds that go unheard.

Of angels, Reiner Maria Rilke wrote in the Duino Elegies:

I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,

Knowing about you.

But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars

Took even one step down toward us: our own heart, beating

higher and higher, would beat us to death. Who are you?

Who are you? For Rilke, the world is not a tame place. There are passions to be felt. There are levels of encounter, love, and laughter that seem beyond us, belonging to the region of the angels. But these angels are not the childlike cherubs of Raphael, they are fierce creatures of light – indeed, deadly birds of the soul – yet curious, envious birds, lacking the capacity to feel the heart of a human being encountering a world he was made to dwell in. I am not a creature of heavenly realms; I am a creature of the earth. I belong to the dust from which I came. I embrace that dust in all its guises: the doe in the yard, the cemetery down the hill, the tower across the street, and the everchanging cleaning ladies that weekly empty my trash. If I listen, I can hear the song of life in them all. They are not invisible.

Encounter, love, and laughter belong to this realm. It is not only archangels that are perilous. If we take one step into the world, fully alive to that world, our heart might beat us to death, but it would be the sodden gray-man who dies, leaving behind the perilous, deadly bird of our own soul, yearning to fly in realms of light. That is the life we were created for, for God looked upon the world he had created, and said: “It is good.”

Orion’s Belt is high in the winter sky, and the crescent moon is too bright and perfect to be real. Somewhere nearby a doe in winter gray has bedded for the night. If I squint I might see an angel.

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

 

 

Jesus of the Stable

We seem tired. As we eagerly follow the President Elect’s cabinet announcements and simultaneously prepare for challenges to the electoral vote in key states, we cannot help but wonder what the future holds for such a divided country – a country struggling to find its way both at home and abroad. Walt Whitman’s unrestrained nineteenth-century-optimism, his faith in the American Spirit fueling the world’s most powerful industrial engine, has given way to palpable unease. Leaves of Grass seems to describe a fantastical country: “And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero.” How quaint that sounds; how untrue.

Whitman’s America was not so different from ours. Following the horror of the Civil War, the tragedy of the Lincoln assassination, and the divisive battles over reconstruction of the South, the nation experienced the Long Depression, beginning in 1873 and continuing in some form through 1896. It was a worldwide period of economic malaise, punctuated by financial panics and cycles of retraction and high unemployment. Political scandals and corruption fed the emerging print media almost as much as the economic news. When people of today say, “We’ve never been here before,” or “We are in uncharted territory,” they simply don’t know our history.

No one chooses to live in hard times, and in such times, unease (and even fear) are normal reactions to the uncertainty and growing sense of danger felt by so many. This season of Christmas, however, offers us a moment to pause, to take a deep breath. We’ve been here before, and we have more than survived: we have triumphed.

Feeding nineteenth century Americans were both faith in the ability of humankind to innovate and to overcome all obstacles and a faith that there was a purpose lending dignity to life – both individual life and national life. It is this latter faith that, all evidence to the contrary, can sing with Whitman “there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero.” Such a faith must depend on more than commitment to an economic system or a democratic ideal. Fine in themselves, they do not provide ultimate meaning, and it is only in ultimate meaning that faith finds power.

Ultimate meaning must be found inside. Jesus invites all of us to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” There is no suggestion of abandoning the world in this invitation. Rather, it is a call to re-engage the world from a new center, one grounded in the presence of a God who declares himself for us. That is the message of every Christmas, the message of the child in the manger: “We are not alone.” The God who made himself present in the Jesus of the Stable is present still, and he has promised to make himself known to all who ask. That is the meaning to be found inside and the ultimate meaning in which faith finds its power.

Rather than once again bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, why not adopt another attitude? Go to your local shopping mall and marvel at the world’s largest economy. Be impressed by the number of people shopping for others. Ask yourself, “Where is the Jesus of the Stable in this scene?” I think you will find him everywhere. The next questions are what difference does that make for me? and what difference can I make? Faith finding power.

We seem tired, but we needn’t remain so. Difficult times don’t last forever. Each day I get to choose anew how I will live. That is free will. That is the gift of God.

“Each day the first day: each day a life.” (Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, 126).