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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.”

By the Ford of the Jabbok

Only in dreams is a ladder thrown
From the weary earth to the sapphire walls;
But the dreams depart, and the vision falls,
And the sleeper wakes on his pillow of stone.
Josiah Gilbert Holland

The sleeper wakes on his pillar of stone is an apt metaphor for the lives many of us lead. How many mountains have we climbed, how many Rubicons have we crossed, how many ladders to heaven have we ascended, all in glorious technicolor dreams that fade with the morning light? In “Gradatim,” Josiah Holland writes: “Heaven is not reached at a single bound;/ But we build the ladder by which we rise/ From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,/ And we mount to its summit round by round.” These words, used as both the first and last stanzas, are bookends. Between them, Holland reminds us that life is lived not in dreams but in action. Jacob’s vision of angels at Bethel ascending and descending from the sapphire walls is not an answer to his desperate situation – his frantic flight for his life from his brother Esau. It is an occasion for God to renew his promise to Abraham and his offspring, Jacob. But Jacob awakes to a hard stone pillow and miles to go before he reaches the safety of Laban’s household, where he will toil, almost as a slave, for fourteen years.

Each new day brings its own toil and troubles, but each new day also brings with it the possibility of growth and change – and always, the possibility that God will act in new and powerful ways in our lives. This was the promise of God to Jacob at Bethel, and it is God’s promise to us. Patience is a virtue shared by few, but patience is precisely what is required of us. Jacob’s flight would not have been necessary had he not cheated Esau of his birthright and the patriarchal blessing of the firstborn. Impatient, he tried to take by guile what was already promised – God’s rich blessings. One can only wonder how the story would have been written had Jacob been content to remain the second son and allowed God’s blessings to accumulate.

God is active in our lives, but he expects us to do our part. Passivity is not a virtue. No one whose feet are firmly mired in clay ascends to heaven. Holland writes that heaven is not reached in a single bound but we must build our own ladder and mount it rung by rung. Although God is present to guide us and to lead us to his rich blessings, he expects us to climb.

Later in Jacob’s story, returning to Canaan, he stops the night at the ford of the Jabbok. There in a dream he again encounters God, this time in the guise of an angelic being with whom he wrestles until daybreak. Jacob does not come away unscathed. He is given a blessing and a new name (Israel – one who struggles with God), but he is also given a lifelong limp. We too are called to wrestle with God. And like Jacob, to cry out to God, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” That is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ parables about persistent prayer. Prayer is intentionally seeking the one who blesses, sometimes seeking him in praise, sometimes in quiet listening, and sometimes as one who wrestles with God. But Jacob is reminded that he wrestles with God only because God allows it. In one deft stroke the angel dislocates Jacob’s hip, causing him to limp for the rest of his life.

Prayer is work but not work to be taken lightly. It transports us into dangerous realms where a single touch may mark us for life. Here we meet the God whose arm moves the world, the God who invites us to wrestle – not only to wrestle with him but more often to wrestle with ourselves. Here in the inner sanctum of prayer, we come face to face with our naked selves. And it is the self who wounds. God has promised to hear, promised to answer, but not before the work is done. It is only then that God answers, in his own time and in his own way. What would God have us learn? Who would God have us be? Those lessons are often learned only on the banks of the Jabbok, where God comes first to show us the sapphire walls, then to test our wills, our strength, and our faith. Those who dream by night wake to stone pillows, those whose nights are spent in the garden of prayer wake to a new world.

Is something in your life not going well? Do you know you need to change but find you can’t? Maybe it’s time to pitch a tent by the ford of the Jabbok, to enter the dangerous realms. “Heaven is not reached at a single bound;/ But we build the ladder by which we rise/ From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies …” The ladder is prayer.

Porcelain Shepherds

When we behold the child in the manger, porcelain or plastic or perhaps a woven corn-husk figurine, nestled among Joseph and Mary, three wise men, a shepherd, a smattering of camels and sheep carefully arranged on a mantle or coffee table, do we go back in our minds to that winter night? In this, the biggest of holidays and the busiest of seasons, the crèche, with its tiny figurines, often goes unnoticed, one among many decorations, plain when seen against the lights and glittering ornaments of an artificial tree. But perhaps, just perhaps, that is as it should be. For the Jesus of our crèche calls to us from a stable, after all. The first Christmas, announced by angels as the world slept, was witnessed only be shepherds. Unlike the wise men, these simple folk brought no gifts, for they had none to bring. Each brought only himself and his capacity for wonder and awe, his capacity for joy, and his capacity for worship.

There is a shepherd in one of our manger scenes, a small, three-inch, porcelain figure from Italy – a shepherd who, holding his hat in his hands, directs his gaze perpetually downward. He waits silently in his box for the Christmas season; he waits to be placed near the manger, so that his eyes may behold the Baby-Jesus.

We are not porcelain figures, boxed and stored on a shelf, waiting for December to see Jesus. The child, now grown up, now the Risen Lord of Easter, calls to us daily, promising that through the Holy Spirit he is always with us. He needs no special day. We do. We need special times, special seasons that refocus us, that redirect our gazes to the one who came to us on a cold winter night so long ago. Yes, it is proper that our manger scenes are unadorned and seem plain when viewed against the lights of Christmas because this Jesus comes to us plain, simple, without pretense – he comes to us as he is. He calls us to come as we are, not the people we project to the world, but to come as a simple shepherd, hat in hand, our gaze forever fixed on the one whose heart is fixed on us.

We are indeed molded, not of fired clay, but by all that we have experienced: love and loss, joy and sorrow, triumph and failure. But unlike the shepherd we have the capacity for change, the capacity for movement, and the capacity for growth. We can heal, sometimes slowly, sometimes painfully, but we can heal. Perhaps this season, on a quiet December evening, we might sit quietly before all of those tiny figurines and remember the words of Helen Lemmel’s hymn:

O soul, are you wearied and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn you eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

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