Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Prayers from the River and Waterfall

In her memoir, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day said: “Joy and sorrow, life and death, always so close together!” 

My experience mirrors hers. I remember the first time Amanda performed in a little preschool choir—how happy I was to watch her stand with her friends and sing those nursery rhymes, and how sad I was that such simple pleasures do not last—not for the children, and not for their parents.

And, I remember how my eyes filled with tears when Eliot got his first hit in a little league baseball game—I was so glad for him to get on base, so sorry that the world is divided into winners and losers, and so troubled that our kids learn far too early in which category to place themselves. 

Joy and sadness often come together.  We weep at weddings and laugh at funerals.  The borders between grief and gladness are not clear and fixed.  We laugh until we cry, cry until we laugh, and laugh to keep from crying.
Life is usually troubled and joyful, simultaneously.  I think that’s why the Apostle Paul urged his friends both to “rejoice evermore” and “to pray without ceasing.”  Pray about the troubles.  Be glad about the joys.  In all things, lean into the nearness of God. 

Frederick Buechner, in an interview, spoke of the struggle he has, as he ages, not to allow the losses and diminishments he has experienced to color his whole life.  He admitted to feeling “shadowy and sad, geriatric . . .  Yet I don’t want to write out of the shadowy part of myself, but out of the part that is still young and full of joy.” I am struck by Buechner’s determination to write out of his joy.  He’s well acquainted with the shadow of grief, but he’s drawn toward the golden light.  He chooses gladness. 

We can choose to keep company with gladness, even when it feels natural to side with sadness.  I want, though, to be careful with this claim.  There are seasons in some people’s lives when clinical depression and/or addiction interfere mightily both with their capacities to perceive reasons for happiness and joy and with the powers of will to open themselves to those reasons, even if they perceive them. I am not suggesting, in the least, that people who need the help of medical treatment for depression should be able to “snap out of it” or “sing out of it” or “pray out of it.” 

I am talking, instead, about the choices we make as part of ordinary life—and the bog of depression and the prison of addiction are not the “locations” of  ordinary life—life with problems and possibilities, losses and hopes, disappointments and delights.
Some of us can box ourselves into ways of looking at the world which prevent us from choosing gladness, even though we could.  We’ve developed a habit of privileging melancholy.  It’s a habit we can unlearn.  Delight requires a discipline, a discipline.  In her story The Wide Net, Eudora Welty said, “The excursion is the same when you go looking for you sorrow as when you go looking for your joy.”  The discipline of delight attunes our senses to joy.

We have very limited choices about the pain that comes into our lives, but we do have many more choices about whether we will allow it that pain completely to cloud our vision of the glory and goodness that are just as surely and truly a part of life.

The “discipline” is not new and it is not hard to explain.  It is really hard to put into practice, and I am such a novice.  It involves letting every experience of life become the raw material for communion with, wrestling with, or resting in, or giving thanks to God.  It means praying by living and living by praying. 

In Psalm 42 are two beautiful stanzas which I am sure I do not fully understand:

Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls;
    all your massive waves surged over me.
By day the Lord commands his faithful love;
    by night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life (CEB).

Here’s what they mean to me just now:  God cascading, abundant, and powerful love is always sounding, and there is something in me which resonates to that sound, no matter where I am.  As I draw near, God washes over me with, and immerses me in, the ever-flowing love.  It reaches me and restores me, like night songs along a river.  My prayers become witnesses to, questions about, and praises for what I learn about life when I lie next to God’s glad river and rest near the waterfall of Spirit.

These prayers are echoes of those night songs of God’s love. They help me to “see” and to “hear” my life as God has seen and heard it and as grace and mercy have washed through it.  Slowly, I learn to see and hear what God sees and hears more simultaneously and “in the present moment." The more we see and hear life with God, the more we will see, hear, and feel the numberless reasons for joy, even the joy the seeks us through pain.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fear Keeps us in a World Smaller than the One God Loves

Fear often runs and ruins our lives.  It causes us to hide our truest selves, hedge our deepest convictions, and hesitate to use our finest gifts.  Fear makes us obsessed with security, status, and success. It makes us reluctant to venture beyond the walls of the familiar, and it bars the way to meaningful friendships with people whose experiences and viewpoints are different from our own.  Fear causes us to live in a world so much smaller than the one God loves.

When I was a boy in Atlanta, I often visited the Grant Park Zoo.  The zoo’s most famous resident was a gorilla whose nickname was “Willie B.” in honor of a former Atlanta mayor, William B. Hartsfield.  I always sent to see the massive gorilla, and it always made me sad that he lived in a glass cage instead of in the jungle.  These days, I wonder if “Willie B.” was sad, too; or had he been captive for so long that he had lost sight of a world beyond the narrow confines of his cage? Had he surrendered his desire to run free?

The God made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is always flinging open the doors to our cages.  We don’t have to be paralyzed by fear.  Love sends us and goes with us into God’s vast, wonderful, troubled, and beautiful word, the world God sent Jesus to reclaim and to heal.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The River Says

I got to the river today. 

I didn’t, as I often enjoy doing, head to Madison County and hike the mountain trails which ring the French Broad near Hot Springs.  Instead, I parked my Subaru at the old “transfer station” and ambled along the path to the “Race Track” park and then made my way back.  It wasn’t a long walk, and, because my energy was ebbing a bit, I didn’t make great time.  What mattered, though, was that I was at the river. 

Ever since I was a boy, walking the flood wall next to the Ohio River with my grandfather, there has been something restoring to my body and soul about seeing and hearing the water flow.  

After my walk, I sat for a while and listened and, not unexpectedly, given where I was, I heard William Stafford’s poem “Ask Me” echoing in my mind and heart.

“Ask Me” is one of the poems Stafford wrote about the Methow River in Washington State.  He imagines standing riverside on a bitingly cold day with a friend and inviting that friend to ask him some hard questions:

               Some time when the river is ice ask me
               mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
               what I have done is my life. . . .

Think about how real, trusting, and honest a friendship has to be for it to sustain such a searching and vulnerable conversation.  To give voice to our fears, to admit that we have failed, and to acknowledge that we aren’t living the lives we were meant to live require much more courage than we can often muster.  And, we have to trust that the person who hears us loves us so fiercely and so tenderly that he or she will not reject, judge, or condemn us for how we feel.

               Some time when the river is ice ask me
               mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
               what I have done is my life. . . .

The poet promises to hear the heart of the other: “I will listen to what you say.”

Next to that frozen river, these two friends meet in ways we all too rarely meet each other: in honest, respectful and mutual love.  When words are spent, the poet says: 

               You and I can turn and look
               at the silent river and wait. We know
               the current is there, hidden; and there
               are comings and goings from miles away
               that hold the stillness exactly before us.
               What the river says, that is what I say.

On the surface, the river is ice, frozen and immobile.  On the surface, a human life is stuck in mistakes and failures to be and become.  Far beneath the surface, hidden from the eye, even a frozen river flows: there are comings and goings from miles away. 

And here’s what I believe: deep down in the heart of the person most stuck, most paralyzed, and most lost in the chill of lovelessnes, the Spirit of Jesus flows.  Here’s what the river says, what the Spirit of Jesus says:  

You are alive in the world.  My life, my energy, my vitality surge and move in you.  So, live your life and live it now, fully, and freely.  Live it passionately, compassionately and adventurously

You are forgiven: don’t let regret freeze you into place or guilt paralyze you. 

You are loved—I love you—so don’t let fear hold you down and hold you back.   Love the world, love your neighbors, love the strangers as I have loved you.

That’s what the river—what the Spirit of Jesus—says: you are alive, so live.  You are forgiven, so celebrate.  You are loved, so love.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Random Thoughts About Love

Love is not so much the opposite of hate or indifference as it is the opposite of fear.  It is fear which gives rise to hate, indifference, and insensitivity, and also to isolation, loneliness, and uncertainty. 

“Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Love embraces, reassures, and opens us to one another and to the world. 

It is possible, even though the possibility sometimes seems remote and unlikely, to be loved for who we are, not merely for the work we do and the roles we play.

The capacity to love and be loved depends on vulnerability. 

Vulnerability calls for courage, risk, and trust.  

We know love’s strength most fully when we are most empty.

Love is the womb of faith, the light of hope, the condition of peace, and the music of joy. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Making a Home in Exile

Here’s a paradox about human nature: we look for home in a world where we never feel fully and restfully at home.  That paradox explains why even the most settled and contented people have moments when they wonder if they will ever arrive where they most want to be.  It’s why everyone can imagine what it would be like to be an exile—how it would feel to live in a place that seems a long way from home.

Almost all of us ache for a truer experience of being known, welcomed, and loved—a greater sense of being home.  That ache has important lessons to teach us.  As C. S. Lewis said: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”   Literary critic George Steiner put it this way “We are creatures of a great thirst, bent on coming home to a place we have never known” (Grammars of Creation, p. 20).

We’ve all been parched by that great thirst, and we know about unmet desire, unsatisfied longing, and unfulfilled yearning.   There’s a refugee in all of us.  We want to go home. 

The prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 29) once told a band of exiles that they would have to make their home in a place that wasn’t their home.  In the place of your exile, he wrote:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

There are steep challenges in these instructions.  For one thing, God called the exiles  to love and pray for their enemies:  “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord ion its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  The exiles would live in peace, only if they made peace with their enemies.  Their gardens would flourish only if the conditions were right for everyone’s garden to flourish.  Their destiny was lined to their neighbor’s destiny, even if their neighbor was also their captor.  Like Jesus centuries later, Jeremiah said: “Love your neighbor and love your enemies, even when neighbors and enemies turn out to be the same people.”

When we make our home in exile, we don’t pretend it isn’t exile.   We love our enemies, but we recognize that they are enemies.   They might become our friends, but they might forever be our enemies, but we love them nonetheless, which means we pray and work for God’s best for them.  We still yearn for and seek our better and true home.  When we live by mercy in conditions of brokenness, we don’t minimize the brokenness, but we do make the most of the possibilities for restoration.  We seek peace, but we seek it because we know we don’t have it. 

For another thing, God urged the exiles not to keep postponing their lives—the time for them to live their lives was while they were alive--which was the present moment. 
It’s easy to defer and delay our lives, because the conditions aren’t right.  After all, we’re not yet home.  The irony is, however, that change doesn’t happen if we wait on the conditions to be right.  The only way to effect change in the present and the future is to immerse ourselves fully in the present moment.

As we live creatively and faithfully in the here and now, we take heart from the knowledge that we will not always live in exile.  God has promised to take us home.  Jeremiah’s letter to the refugees included this encouragement:  “For thus says the Lord: ‘Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’”

There would be a home-going and a homecoming for the exiles.  And there will be for us, too.  We won’t so much go “back home,” but forward, at last, to our real home—the place we belong, which is the place that satisfies the longings of our being.

In that true home, love puts our fears outside the door. Hope sings to us amid all the suffering and dying.  Mercy gathers up the shards and fragments of our shattered hearts and puts us back together.  Grace holds us while weep over our painful regrets and shed our shameful tears, and, having cried ourselves into weary silence, continues to cradle us while we rest.  And, joy surges in us, an inexplicable but undeniable joy.