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Marbles of Polished Stone

The sun has not broken through the clouds and probably won’t today. Misty rain is in the forecast, but I doubt if we will see any. This morning does not smell like rain. Not that it matters to most people one way or the other. The traffic passing my office window is normally heavy this time of morning and doesn’t disappoint, but I don’t hear it anymore. Three deer walked across the parking lot earlier, also oblivious to the traffic. We have become accustomed to the noise, to the congestion, to the artificiality of life lived among millions of people, to wildlife hidden in plain sight.

I tried my hand at gardening with middling success. I envy others whose creations mirror some imaginative Eden. But I am blessed to live in a metropolis whose manicured gardens and green spaces provide opportunities for long walks in all seasons – opportunities to reengage my soul with a greater-than-myself, to reenter the world, and to rediscover sympathy for and relationship to all of that world. I believe most Americans have not lost that sympathy, that engagement, but my years of counseling others have taught me that they have surely misplaced it. And they won’t find it by walking alone in a garden, however beautiful. In his unpublished journals, John Muir wrote: “Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.” What a beautiful but sad expression of modern life, marbles of polished stone, touching but separate. Some blame modernity itself for creating the conditions that breed isolation and loneliness. I think not. There was no isolation machine in the industrial revolution, no technological imperative that brought us here, “on the world, not in it.”

There is nothing inherent in modernity that creates isolation and loneliness. There is nothing inherent in beautiful gardens that restore the soul. We are profoundly disengaged from ourselves, and only by restoring that connection can we be made whole enough for relationships. That sense of disconnection, that sense of hopelessness, is perfectly captured by the Psalmist: “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of thy cataracts; all thy waves and thy billows have gone over me.” (Psalm 42:7, RSV) Few of us have not been in that dark vale, deafened by the cataracts that threatened to overwhelm us. There is no more poignant description of depression in all of literature. David, alone, hiding in the mountains, oppressed, hopelessly longing for what he has lost, is us.

Sören Kierkegaard, no stranger to melancholy, identifies the cause of this unease with life as a despair of spirit. The spiritual, the immortal, in each of us becomes disconnected from the physical, the temporal, that lives and has its being in the world of sense. He calls this “the sickness unto death.” For Kierkegaard, it is nothing less than estrangement from God – the great existential crisis of humanity. We are in the dark vale, deep calling unto deep, deafened by the cataracts, longing for what we do not know, while the still small voice of God calls us home. Calls us to the only connection that can fulfill us.

Ironically, God does not call us out of the world but deeper into it. In filling us, God does not consume us; he provides us with the possibility of meaning. He opens our eyes and unstops our ears to another of John Muir’s truths: “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” And we, in God, each have our turn in this grand parade as the round earth rolls, and ultimately, each of us is eternal.

Once we are grasped by God, we are in the world, not on it, and we can never again be separate, rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone.

 

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Fog is a cloud that is too lazy to get up. I wondered why I was up so early on a wet, not-yet-Fall day. Autumn in the mountains came before the calendar, and on the path to the river, every brushed leaf brought a new shower. A doe bolted off to the right, crashing through the underbrush, soon joined by unseen others. Breakfasting wood peckers attacked the dying ash trees, stripping the bark in large chunks, looking for the emerald ash borers. I counted dead ash trees as I walked. One, two, three …. I stopped counting, depressed. The damage has been heavy this year.

Dawn is a good time for pumpkinseed, beautiful sunfish, not much bigger than your hand. Together with bluegill and the occasional rock bass, they make up a trio of fighting fish well worth an early morning trip to the river. Barbless hooks make for difficult landings, but minimize damage. The still warm water felt good on my legs as I cast the first fly in the gray morning light.

How very different from yesterday, a bright, hot, humid day portending a sticky ending to an endless summer. A summer that started mild but refused to leave. I stood waiting for a bus, breathing the heavy air, already sweating at seven-thirty in the morning. I started to walk home from the garage where I dropped off my car for service, but weighed the hot, mile-long walk against the $1.60 bus fare, and opted for the luxury of hard plastic seats and air-conditioning.

Oddly, for someone who loves the quiet and the fresh smells of the forest, I am completely at home in the city. I love the smells of restaurants and bakeries and the smell of diesel exhaust. I love the noise – taxi horns, the squeal of bus brakes slowing to the curb, jake-breaking semis and dump trucks, the intermittant sound of sirens, and the never-ending chatter of millions of people I will never know who share the same small space I call home.

Perhaps I just love life. Whether unloosing a shower from a lightly brushed shrub in the forest or smudging freshly laundered khakis on a metro escalator, I am alive and in contact with my environment. Not merely drifting through the days, silent and alone with my thoughts, but engaged with the senses God gave me to enjoy the color, the sound, the taste, and the texture of this world. That isn’t to say that I don’t share the emotions and the aches and pains common to us all, but I take the time, if not always, often enough, to find beauty.

I am often silent, but I am never alone. I have learned, through long experience, the truth of the psalmist’s words: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” I am never alone because I am never without God – in all times and all places, in the babel of a city or beside a river bank. I am convinced it is this God, the one we call Jesus, who makes a beautiful life possible, even in the hard times and hard places. Because I have also experienced, through a long life, another of the psalmist’s truths: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

So, on a foggy, wet morning, I took a walk with Jesus. I have spent many years with Jesus fishing for people, but sometimes, Jesus and me, we just go fishing.

 

 

Following the infamous Brown Synod of 1933 and the failure of the church to address the Arian Legislation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer confronted the Confessing Church: “One man asks: What is to come? The other what is right? And that is the difference between the free man and the slave.” Bonhoeffer critiques the church’s failure to stand its moral ground, and when faced with the challenges of National Socialism, its failure to guard the boundaries between what is properly the message and the mission of the church and what is the legitimate role of the state. For Bonhoeffer, the problem arose far in advance of the Nazi movement. It began in the Nineteenth Century when the church ceded the field to a developing historical consciousness that denied the church any role in the public sphere, relegated religion to the private, interior realm, and proclaimed autonomous reason the natural successor to God. Christian apologists allowed the secular world to define the terms of argument and to refuse to allow any segment of modern life to be reserved for the church and to be walled off as the legitimate realm of God.

The result was not freedom for mankind. When there is no moral compass, human beings are at the mercy of the Spirit of the Age. Slaves. Mercifully, that spirit may at times be benign, but at others, like prewar Nazi Germany, it may be the personification of evil. How is it that a modern, highly industrialized, highly educated people did not see what was looming before them? They weren’t looking.

In Walking, Henry David Thoreau praised “sauntering,” a walk in the surrounding fields and woodlands to reconnect with the world of nature – or as the naturalists of his age would insist, the essential world. Thoreau does not advocate a mindless, leisurely stroll. Far from being preoccupied with the endless stream of thoughts that occupy most of our waking hours, Thoreau wants the walker to reengage the world at a deeper level. To pay attention. To learn to see the world critically, not as a blind follower of an ideology, no matter how seductive, but with fresh eyes and true discernment.

The walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land than is described in their owners’ deeds, as it were in some faraway field on the far confines of the actual Concord, where her jurisdiction ceases and the idea which the word Concord suggests ceases to be suggested.

How often have we found the world to be far messier than the one our simplistic ideals describe? Utopian visions, left or right, never quite match their owners’ deeds. We find the actual Concord quite unlike the idea of Concord, and here is where the Christian must learn to stand – in doubt and uncertainty. Moral certainty fit the Middle Ages, but we cannot go back there. In a letter from Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer quotes a popular German song: “If only I knew the way back, the long way back into the world of childhood.”  There is no way back to the world’s  childhood, when one looked in awe at an inexplicable world. We must accept our maturity and accept responsibility for the world we have created; we can no longer plead ignorance.

The individual Christian and the collected church are the mechanisms by which God acts in the world. This is the world of everyday concrete existence, the essential world, our Concord and its confines. Here, the church stands not at the edge of her jurisdiction, but in the middle of the village, calling the people to a more genuine humanity – the goal of God’s kingdom, not as Utopian ideal, but as pragmatic demonstration of the power of God to transform. We can no longer restrict Christianity to the inward life, neither can we force adherence to a moral code. But the church must take its faith to the streets, to the public square, to reinvent its language and praxis for real people in a modern age, always proclaiming an incarnated Christ. Not asking: What is to come? But always asking: What is right? Always asking: Who is Christ for today?

The world has come of age, but it still needs to hear: Sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura.

“What is truth?” is the question of a cynical man. Confronted by local authorities demanding execution for Jesus. Pilate enters a brief but telling exchange with both the authorities and Jesus. Pilate asks the accusers, “What charges do you bring?” Their answer is evasive, “If he were not guilty we would not have brought him to you.” When Pilate attempts to hand Jesus back them, those sent from Caiaphas, the High Priest, respond angrily, “But we can’t execute him!” Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus is no more illuminating. Pilate begins with an accusation posed as a question. “They are your people. What did you do to them?” Jesus’ enigmatic response, declaring his kingship of an unknown realm, elicits the famous question: “What is truth?”

Pilate suspects the authorities of attempting to use his position and Roman power to further their own political plans. He suspects Jesus of having run afoul of their agenda, whatever it may be. Truth is submerged under hidden motives, undisclosed agendas, and shadowy deeds of accusers and accused alike. For Pilate, truth is as unimaginable as innocence.

Five-hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Confucius was asked by one of his students what he would do if he achieved his goal of rising to the upper levels of government administration. His answer: “Rectify the names.” It simply means that correct language and truth are synonymous. Right action, in any sphere of life, is a direct consequence of a commitment to speak truth.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands the citizens of his kingdom to refrain from swearing oaths. This widely misapplied passage is explained in explicit language by Jesus. “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be “Yes,’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from evil.” He asks, then answers his own question. No one trusts your ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to be without some qualification, some ulterior meaning or motive. Why must you swear an oath? No one trusts you to speak truth without some further attestation – usually one bearing consequences for perjuy.

Pilate understands that there is no objective truth in his world. His response to Jesus is coldly cynical. “Don’t tell me, young man, about truth.” How often do we hear the same sentiment expressed. Truth has become whatever we want to believe it to be. What we call “fake news” is not often fabricated out of whole cloth; usually, there is enough verifiable information to give these stories respectability and to argue for belief in them. We are prepared to ignore the obvious omissions, distortions, and defamations, because we are seeking to confirm a belief we already strongly hold – “confirmation bias.” In the end, we are left like Pilate with only hidden motives, undisclosed agendas, and shadowy deeds. Truth is what we need it to be.

Jesus declares to Pilate and to us that he came into the world “on the side of truth.” Furthermore, he declares that those who would be his disciples, those who would listen to him, must also be on the side of truth. That requires commitment to a new worldview. One that values objective truth over all competing ideologies, whether they are religious, political, or secular, Utopian versions of both. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to a life of truth. “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” For Paul, “conversation” extends beyond speech. Every word and subsequent action must be a search for and a commitment to truth.  Correct language and truth are synonymous. Correct conduct is truth enacted. Rectifying the names is conversation seasoned with salt.

We live in a world painted in shades of gray, leaving us to ask, “What is truth?” Jesus allows no such cynicism. Let your ‘Yes” be ‘Yes” and your ‘No’ be ‘No’ is not a suggestion. Jesus demands truth as a way of life. There can be no room in our conversations for hidden motives, undisclosed agendas, and shadowy deeds.

 

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.