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The door did not open smoothly into Mrs. Liu’s “Homestyle Chinese Cooking and Original Fish and Chips.” Hanging about halfway open, it took an extra pull to fully open the door, but in that momentary pause, that subtle catching where the warped screened door met the upraised floor, the smell of fried wontons, General Tso’s Chicken, and English fish and chips assailed you.  Surrounded by low-rise office buildings and paid parking lots, Mrs. Liu’s single-story, nineteen-fifties’ corner building hardly merited a casual look. Indeed, if you had not been told about it, you would not be there. Four card tables with folding chairs on cracked asphalt tile with its black rubber cement showing, the friable, nine-inch tiles that only seem to have come in brown and pale yellow.

But the center piece of Mrs. Liu’s was the buffet. An ancient sheet-metal steam table, hooded with dimly lit fluorescent lights. A grand display of Chinese favorites bookended with Southern-fried chicken and English Fish ‘n Chips. Mrs. Liu’s had indeed been a fish and chips place, with Southern fried chicken and greens served up for good measure. When she bought it, Mrs. Liu converted the small restaurant to a Chinese takeout, one indistinguishable from every other takeout in every strip mall in Virginia. It was not an immediate success.  For weeks, long time customers would come for lunch, survey the menu and leave. They came for fish and chips, dripping grease and malt vinegar. She put them back on the menu.

Gradually, as former customers moved on, Mrs. Liu removed the old items. Mrs. Liu’s became a Chinese takeout, but one with the incongruous name of “Mrs. Liu’s Homestyle Chinese Cooking and Original Fish and Chips” still painted on the glass front. For years it was one of my favorite lunch stops, but I moved on. Thirty years later, Mrs. Liu has moved on too. I went by that corner yesterday and found it unrecognizable. Glass office buildings tower above the last remnant of the old neighborhood. Mrs. Liu’s building, surrounded by a chain-link construction fence, is being demolished, along with the barbershop and variety store that made up that small corner of Arlington.

We all move on. A chance encounter, an old song on the radio, or a short cut through an old neighborhood – suddenly we are thirty years in the past. Sometimes that past is a place to fondly dwell for a few minutes.  Sometimes not. Baudelaire’s poem, “Spleen,” famously opens with the line, “I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.” The young Baudelaire compares his mind to a chest stuffed with mementos of life: balance sheets, writs, golden curls, and love letters. Common things, but things given a particular color, a particular flavor by each of us. We are a collection of life events, stacked one upon another, each one creating a memory.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes gives wise advice when he writes: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil.” That requires intentional living. More than home style Chinese cooking and original fish and chips, I remember the friends and colleagues who shared lunches with me around those card tables. I remember an era, and I am aware that I am creating an era even as I write. Intentional.

I’ve moved on from “Mrs. Liu’s Homestyle Chinese Cooking and Original Fish and Chips.” I’m still moving on. How will this day, this moment be remembered? That is a question worth asking.

“—Night is drawing nigh –“

For all that has been – Thanks!

To all that shall be – Yes!

(Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings)

A new little book by Ian Markham and Samantha Gottlich came across my desk, and I took the time to read it. Dr. Markham is Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary and Samantha Gottlich is a student of the same institution. The book, Faith Rules: An Episcopal Manual[1], is not only an introduction to the Episcopal church, it is an introduction to the basic idea of Christianity. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael B. Curry, begins his Foreword, “The truth is that none of us have ever lived before. From the youngest infant to the oldest elder we are novices, kindergarteners, beginners at life.” Faith Rules, designed for those new to the faith and, in particular, new to the Episcopal Church, presents 67 rules for life. They are deceptively simple. In reading them, I am reminded that no matter where we are in life, no matter how experienced or knowledgeable or sophisticated, we haven’t been here before. We are novices. Always novices.

Rules 2 and 6 struck me as jumping right to the heart of the matter. “Walk, linger, and marvel,” Rule 2, reminds that though the world has been here a long time, we matter. More than a simple assent to pausing to smell the roses, Rule 2 is an invitation to stop where you are and experience the mystery of creation and to “risk seeing things differently.” Rule 6, Allow yourself to pray,” is just that. In the pausing and the really seeing, we are connected, if only momentarily, to the transcendent all around us. It is just here, in that connection, that prayer happens. In the silent reaching out, God is both felt and experienced. This is true prayer, and it is the beginning of something. Always novice and master, foolish and wise, we are with God once again for the first time. As Markham and Gottlich note, “Now we are living our lives on multiple levels – both in the immediate moment and the deeper more textured level of the transcendent. Welcome to the world of faith.” (Italics mine)

But faith struggles alone. We struggle alone. Mother Theresa said, “There are thousands, millions of people who die for the lack of bread. There are thousands, millions of human beings who grow weak for a little love because they would like to be recognized, even for just a little.” Rule 15, “Add two years to your life – go to church,” reminds me of the writer of Hebrews’ admonition, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another …” (Hebrews 10:24-25a (NIV)) Here, in the company of like-minded believers and seekers, in their love and encouragement, we meet in community the God we have met in private. And as we receive love, we are invited to give love. Mother Theresa also wrote, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a God who is sending a love letter to the world.” And that is good for us all, receiver and giver — body and soul.  If you are wondering, that is why two billion people go to church on Sunday.

None of these things happen automatically. With regard to church, Markham and Gottlich write, “The weird thing is that you must actually go. You must get up on a Sunday morning, slip into some clothes, and go and stand with others in a congregation. Believing this stuff from a Starbucks or on the golf course or while reading The New York Times in your bathrobe isn’t sufficient.”  The really weird thing is that the same thing holds true for the rest of your spiritual life. Don’t expect to smell the roses when you are stuck behind a Metrobus, enveloped in diesel fumes, or expect to hear the still-small-voice of God over the pounding base in your earbuds. There are rules for faith just as there are rules for the rest of life.

Three of them are very simple, 2,6, and 15, take a moment to linger and marvel at the world, be open to your being in conversation with God (He is trying to get through.), and know that there is a place where others share your longings loneliness loves joys hopes dreams faith. It is called church. Episcopal Baptist Roman-Catholic Methodist Presbyterian Orthodox Pentecostal. There is one near you.

[1] Ian S. Markham and Samantha R. E. Gottlich, Faith Rules: An Episcopal Manual (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2016).

William Alexander Percy’s hymn, “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee,” (Number 661 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal) discomfits many.[i] “The peace of God , it is no peace” is troubling because it does not fit our triumphalist image of the Kingdom of God however much it fits our experience. Strife is closed in the very sod of our existence; life is complex and messy. There is a reason the apostolic witness univocally makes perseverance both a hallmark and a cornerstone of the Christian life. Without perseverance, without a commitment to something greater than oneself, life stands always in danger of becoming a sodden walk on a gray day. Paul can say that he has learned to be content in every circumstance (whether reviled, beaten, shipwrecked, or imprisoned) only because he no longer measures his life by an external standard. He has made peace with himself by accepting himself in the love of God.

E.B. White begins the last chapter of Charlotte’s Web, “And so Wilbur came home to his beloved manure pile in the barn cellar.” But Wilbur the pig is anything but resigned to a life of meaningless existence in a dark cellar. He has learned to love and to be loved, and in both the giving and receiving of love, Wilbur has learned to live, to pay attention to the moment, to see beauty where others see only strife closed in the sod.

“Life in the barn was very good – night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure and the glory of everything.”

Swallows and rats and sheep and spiders and manure. The dreams of neither the rich nor the poor, yet the stuff of real life lived in a messy world. There is no easy acceptance of life, no joy in simple acquiescence. It takes work to see beauty in both the passage of swallows and the smell of manure. Faith may be effortless in good times, but it takes real work to maintain that faith and trust in the face of trial. Yet it is only in the embrace of faith, the experience of persevered faith, that empowers us for all circumstances. He who begins with contentment, may end in despair. But he who begins with the struggle for faith in despair, ends with contentment. A sodden walk on a gray day or the glory of everything?

They cast their nets in Galilee just off the hills of brown; such happy simple fisher folk, before the Lord came down.

Contented peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.

The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray but just one thing – the marvelous peace of God.

 

 

[i] “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee,” William Alexander Percy (1885-1942) Copyright Edward Marks Music Corporation.

 

As the number of candidates dwindles the decibel level rises in every cafe in America. A Presidential election is a passionate affair. Battle lines are drawn, forces marshaled, and fierce defenses made of party and platform – often in tones more suited to a shouting match than a debate. When logic fails to convince, personal attacks, abuse, and contempt quickly follow. Listening to one of these confrontations quickly reveals a cardinal rule of coffee-house political debate: grant no merit to the other candidate’s platform and admit no fault, not the slightest ambiguity, in your candidate’s positions.

In another context, what I have heard loudly proclaimed like Greek tragedy, with echoing chorus, would have the elements of a shared delusion. Only once in fifteen years of clinical pastoral work did I encounter this fascinating psychotic disorder, but it stands out in memory precisely because of the unquestioned statements and unchallenged assumptions of those involved. Critical thinking, present in other aspects of their lives, was placed on hold in the defense of their shared vision of the world – a bizarre one at that. Passionately held beliefs need not be bizarre or even unhealthy. A given belief, no matter how cherished, might not be the only lens through which one can look at the world, and one political solution might not be the only way to solve a problem. It is like photography, where multiple aperture and shutter speed combinations give exactly the same exposure. You can get to the same picture through multiple routes. But not if one view blinds us to all other possibilities.

Jesus’ caution to his disciples is still good advice: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” To be wise as a serpent is to be discerning, to question what we hear, especially those dogmatic assertions that admit no other viewpoint, those propositions presented as universal truths, yet lacking supporting evidence, and those demagogic statements that create false dichotomies and belittle those who dare to differ with us. To be innocent as doves is never to be naïve; it is to be mindful of the impact of our words and to put in the forefront respect for the one who stands before us. There must always be room for acknowledging heartfelt disagreement while preserving relationships. The alternative is rigidity and an unshakeable, Pharisaical certainty that embitters and isolates.

We have a right and even a duty to state our opinions. But Dag Hammarsköld’s aphorism ought to govern our social and political discourse. “Only tell others what is important to them. Only ask them what you need to know. In both cases, that is, limit the conversation to what the speaker possesses. – Argue only in order to reach a conclusion.” Too often we argue to win when consensus is clearly impossible. We argue to dominate. Too often we parrot what others have said about matters about which we have little, if any, personal expertise. If we limited the conversation to what we possess – our own expertise – we would be silent.

“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one,” is sound advice going far beyond oath-taking and truth-telling. It is a call for tempered speech in all contexts. It is nothing less than a demand to acknowledge our own limitations; to stand by our beliefs while defending others’ right before God to stand by their beliefs. To prayerfully seek wisdom and guidance from the one who has promised to provide it is our only defense against being drawn into the shared delusion, the folie à deux, of social and political discourse.

I Am Not a Patient Man

I am not a patient man.

Forty years ago, in the gathering dark of the short-grass prairie, I straddled a barbed-wire fence. The ominous rattling sounds froze time. My gloved hands pressing down the wire, carefully keeping the twisted steel barbs at bay, my ropers firmly planted in boot-high Johnson grass, I strained to listen. There is something disorienting about twilight in the Oklahoma plains. Sounds are here and everywhere. Locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets, previously only background noise, seemed deafening as I sought to pinpoint the one creature in the vast American plains that mattered.

Not far away, on a nearby rise, stood my car, outlined with the peculiar brilliance of a backlit object at sundown – thirty or forty yards away, at most. Between me and it lay a menace, a something to be avoided, a something not to be ignored.

Once heard, the buzzing of a rattlesnake is not forgotten. The impulse to flee is the most common reaction. It is also the most dangerous. Even a big, aggressive rattler, if given space, will move away, seeking cover. Even a small, retiring one will strike if threatened by sudden movement. Sometimes there is nothing to do but wait.

The Apostle James enjoins us to be patient and to bear up under provocation, whether those provocations are due to people or events. This is wise behavior but behavior not easily mastered. Waiting is among the hardest of all human enterprises. How quickly we would see an end to our troubles! God has promised to be with us, to answer our prayers, to intercede for us in this world. But how often our prayers are met with silence; how often our hopes for quick resolution are unmet; how often some evil goes unchecked. It is easy to give up. David faced this situation again and again, sometimes because of his own mistakes, most often because of others’ ambition and greed. It is in the midst of one of these trials that he utters these words:

[13] I am still confident of this:

I will see the goodness of the LORD

in the land of the living.

[14] Wait for the LORD;

be strong and take heart

and wait for the LORD. (Psalms 27:13-14 (NIV))

David expects to receive divine help, not in a future world, but in the world we live in. He is also at a place where action is either impossible or will be ineffectual. All he can do is wait. But David waits in faith. Looking back over his long life, David remembers God’s gracious gifts, God’s powerful interventions in his life. He has learned to expect victory, even victory in defeat. This is indeed the hardest of lessons to learn. “I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” in spite of all evidence to the contrary. I will wait in faith.

Nothing comes harder for me than waiting. But I have learned the necessity of James’ advice. Often there is nothing to be done but to patiently wait, and to continue to trust in God, whether in the midst of our busy city lives or on the Oklahoma plains.

I waited a few minutes after the buzzing had died away, then crossed the fence and headed for the car. Walking slowly at first, senses alert, I looked for signals of danger. Seeing and hearing none, I picked up my pace. In the cooling air, the last glow of sunset lit the horizon, the deep purple sky gave way to the black of night, while above and behind me a million stars shone. Things can change in a single moment, but oh how far away that moment seems until it arrives.

I am not a patient man.

A Haiku Life

I remember sitting in a junior high school English class, pencil drooping in a slack hand, blankly staring at a white ruled sheet as the minutes ticked by. I had been introduced to the Japanese poetical form of haiku, and I was failing miserably at my first forced-attempt to write one of these mini-poems. In desperation, I wrote out the one five-seven-five syllable stanza required and handed it in to the teacher. Mercifully, I don’t remember a word of it. After collecting the assignment, the teacher read them, then called a select few students to read aloud the best of the lot. Mine wasn’t one of them.

It would be another quarter century before William Higginson’s book, “The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku,” freed students from the tyranny of seventeen syllables. Writing haiku is not really about syllable counts; it is about capturing a moment of life, a fleeting scene that draws readers into that moment in the writer’s outer world, and at the same time, invites us into the writer’s inner world. Ultimately, they invite us to notice the world around us, to participate in our own lives, to be intentional about living, and to find meaning in even the smallest things.

Perhaps the greatest haiku poet was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). One of the most famous poems in the Japanese language is Basho’s 1686 poem about one of Japanese poets’ favorite subjects: a frog.

old pond …

a frog leaps in

water’s sound

The old pond is the familiar place, a comfortable place, and there is nothing more predictable than a frog in Spring jumping from his perch as you approach. The muffled plash is audible as the frog breaks the surface of the water. Ripples begin to spread. All of this in eight words. What is at work is imagination, the telling of a story, stripped to its barest essentials, that invites us to go beyond those few details to enter with all of our senses into the moment. To notice with intention.

To live a haiku life, one tuned to the world around us, to make every moment significant, is to be intentional. It is to live such that every act, every sentence is a well-struck chord. Poetry is, after all, music.  But many of us live like guitar strings that have gone slack. Discordant, harsh, and disappointing, our lives are out of tune.

In our ceaseless striving, we miss more than the frog in the pond. Ever preparing to respond, we miss the question. Ever talking, we miss the conversation. Ever scanning, we miss the flower before us. Ever worrying, we miss the peace that could be ours. These are syllable counts, not expressions of life.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that all the worrying and striving in the world won’t add one hour to our lives. And he uses only eight words to remind us, “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” He also reminds us that our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask, and that we are always under his watchful eye. And he invites us to step into the world of faith and live. Our lives are a succession of moments piled one upon another, each one too precious to waste. What story do I tell in eight words? And how is it read by others?

Pencil drooping in a slack hand, a haiku life awaits. What shall I write?

 

It is cold today, bitterly cold. The wind adds to the temperature, already in the low teens, driving it into the single digits. A dusting of snow covers the driveway. I walk down to the house fearing that my little car might not make the grade tomorrow if it snows again tonight. The weight of my boots separates the frozen crushed-river-rock; loud crackling sounds accompany each footfall. The flooded river is the only other sound in an otherwise silent universe.

All the leaves are gone, exposing the forest. In the distance, deer graze, though on what I do not know. Ahead, the river runs high and dark and fast – too high and fast for ice to form except in sheltered margins. Along the river bank, motionless with eyes closed, a great blue heron perches on one leg. He ignores me, but he is not asleep. I come too close and in one swift movement he unfolds his seven-foot wings and is gone down river.

I brought one of my Favorite books, The Classic Tradition of Haiku, edited by Faubion Bowers. Later, in the warmth of the house, I reread Basho’s classic poem:

sleeping at noon

the body of the blue heron

poised in nobility

Through most of the year, a blue heron is a common sight, but in mid-winter an uncommon visitor. Poised in nobility is an apt description of this magnificent bird. At the same time fragile and powerful, resting and vigilant. This haiku captures the serenity of a moment, a vision of peace and tranquility, but it also challenges us: If there is a such a noble creature, such serenity in a wild bird of prey, where is my nobility, my peace? Basho is not an idle dreamer. He is a keen observer of nature and knows well the struggle for survival that is part of life itself. But Basho also knows that there is in each of us a center, a place of composure from which, viewing the world, we may regain the poise and balance that is our true nature.

The world requires action. An authentic life is one lived in the full exercise of our talents and training but not to the exclusion of all else. There is a yearning within each of us that seeks to find meaning. Even the most ambitious and avaricious among us have moments of disquiet, even fear, when truth can’t be suppressed and the great question overwhelms us: Does this mean anything? The Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

The question of meaning finds its answer in the solitude of the heart. In The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.” How many moments, piled one upon another, go unnoticed? The sound of my boots on frozen stone is such a moment, a moment to be savored, and a moment never to be repeated. And there will be other blue herons on other river banks, but there will never be this blue heron on this river bank on this frozen afternoon.

Sabbaths are made by us not for us. In an otherwise silent universe there is music because I choose to hear it; there is beauty because I choose to see it. The cares of the world are far away, forgotten for a moment, because, now, in this moment, I choose to be poised in the nobility God has chosen for me; I choose eternity. I choose to live. As Abraham Heschel writes, “The world has our hands but not our souls.”