silence

Our world has been flung into a peculiar quiet, and we know not what to make of it.  Life within ‘The Great Pause’ finds us confronted by our craving for noise. More truthfully, we are coming to see how all the noise of our hustling and bustling serves to drown out the clamor within. As we’ve learned from the movies, “it’s quiet—too quiet!”

Streets without traffic, gridlocked minds; public venues stilled, private venues cacophonous; bodies idle yet pent up. There is no telling when this infernal quietness might end. Whoever said silence was golden? It isn’t! Silence is foreboding, if anything. Even monks don’t like the stuff. They spend their whole lives “acquiring the taste.”

During my undergrad I memorized a lot of Scripture. I was part of a group that heavily emphasized it and have never regretted the storehouse it has been for me. During one study group, we agreed to memorize John 14:6 and Luke 6:46. Of course someone got it wrong and committed Luke 14:6 to memory: “And they had nothing to say.” We laughed about this and, naturally, all agreed to memorize this verse as well.

We do have nothing to say. Our politicians and pundits and so-called ‘talking heads’ have seldom been so flummoxed. Even the wise in markets and theology and psychology and science are at a veritable loss. I know I am, middling though my wisdom be. O but we want to say or hear something—anything!

In actuality, it isn’t as though we have nothing to say. There is some good stuff being said; and a lot of rubbish also. But there is saying and there is saying. It’s the second one that is in scarce supply at present—like toilet paper and rubbing alcohol.

I’m fond of a vignette that is found toward the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has invited his three close companions John, James and Peter on a hike to the summit of an arid mountain in northern Galilee. Atop the peak, Jesus suddenly begins radiating light like a sun. Even his clothes became white as light—as Mark put it, “whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” He was transfigured; the Greek word is metamorphoō; altered from one state to another; something humanly familiar became something altogether apart. Some might say holy. Certainly dazzling.

Moses and Elijah showed up too! The three of them had a conversation about his impending “departure.” And Jesus’ three fellow hikers were gobsmacked. Speechless. Or nearly.

True to form, Peter opines, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” And he has a recommendation, “If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Luke offers us readers a parenthetical: “(He did not know what he was saying.)” Peter was saying something but he was not saying anything.

Without warning, and while Peter was in mid-saying, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.'” Isn’t that just perfect? Something marvelous and ineffable was happening, but Peter’s incurable instinct was to speak—surely something must be said or done or? Peter, you don’t need to say anything or do anything—save listen.

I was on a walk with my dog the other morning, and I found myself asking God to teach me to pray. I just haven’t felt like I’ve had the right words for a while now; nor the right heart; nor mind. I walked and walked. My dog looked for squirrels and smelled the bases of trees and lamp posts and poked her nose into shrubbery. Soon I was nearing my home, and the walk was nearly complete. I had blown it! Thirty minutes of disjointed thinking and still none of the right words at all.

Nearing an intersection, I realized that I had not even been consciously in the presence of God. And I found myself saying, “God, help me learn to enter your presence.”

Maybe I hadn’t blown it. Maybe he was teaching me to pray.

The writer of Ecclesiastes offers counsel for entering the presence of God: “let your words be few.” But he says more: “draw near to listen.” God doesn’t begrudge our talking so much as our lack of listening. He has something to say. I think I mostly keep talking because I don’t totally believe this, and the roaring on the inside and out leave me so afraid.

Silence is that terrible and titular prowling monster of Shūsaku Endõ’s novel, “the stillness of the night” which forces us, as it forced Rodrigues, to rightly name both the agony of groaning beyond our doors as well as the abyss of questions gaping within us. A moment of truth. A stark one.

None of us asked for this. Who knew silence could be so disquieting? But the world around us is speaking volumes presently, and the world within us is speaking volumes as well. In the former case, I believe it was Rousseau who remarked that the thoughts of modern man had become so preoccupied as to make him incapable of discerning the cries of the needy on the streets outside his own home. With regard to the latter, Parker Palmer laments our aversion to self-listening. “We listen for guidance everywhere except from within,” he says. And he continues, “if I am  to let my life speak things I want to hear, things I would gladly tell others, I must also let it speak things I do not want to hear and would never tell anyone else.”

Only then, Palmer says, we can hear the “words that arise when the inner teacher feels safe enough to tell its truth.” God is offering ears to hear—as king David wrote, “you have dug for me an ear.” God is digging us ears right now, like it or not.

Our world has been thrust into a bright cloud of sorts—what one medieval mystic called “The Cloud of Unknowing”—and it is ours mostly to listen. What are the honest and uncomfortable questions yearning to be asked? How is our world making its deepest needs known? Is it possible that if we remain with such enigmas—patiently, curiously as those “drawing near to listen”—we may end up hearing something unexpected from the mouth of God? Only one way to find out. Shhhh. None of us like being shushed, but don’t we all need it from time to time?

Perhaps silence is golden, or, rather, a smelting by which something golden might be extracted from so much dross. Those damn monks are probably onto something!

The Table Leaf Rule

When I was a young boy, my mom would produce this wonderful little object. It was a piece of varnished wood perched upon rails, which she would hook like cleats to the bottom 3 steps on our carpeted stairway. I could climb to the third stair, sit on its slick surface, and shoot to the bottom. It was my little indoor slide, and my mom would employ it thus when she knew I needed to burn off some excess little-boy-energy.

What I didn’t know was that she was repurposing said object. Its intended purpose was actually equally wonderful—a section of wood which could be inserted into the middle of a table to magically produce more spots! The table itself had secret machinations of gears and locks and nubs that allowed it to be expanded outward to receive and integrate this extension. The object in question was of course a table leaf.

These leaves create table space where there is not enough. My in-laws have a table with improbable abilities of augmentation—interlocking slats that slide out to welcome a seemingly endless amount of dining real estate. Whenever I am called upon to extend this table, I find it almost comical. Nevertheless, when the table has reached its lengthiest proportions, it is quite a marvel to have so many important guests gather around it.

The table leaf is a marvelous device; one which might even instruct us in ways of equity and justice. Can it even be repurposed thus? I believe it can and must. Continue reading “The Table Leaf Rule”

doubt

In Jude’s epistle, we find a rather simple yet important injunction, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” (v. 22) This would remind us that doubt is an ongoing reality among the people of God, and that the people of God have but one best treatment: mercy.

Mercy is that otherworldly quality of God that moves kindly toward others in any and every form of difficulty without condemnation. It does not come asking for explanations, only an entry point for help—be that encouragement, prayer, mourning, or even one’s quiet presence. Mercy is curious and patient and humble and attentive. A rabbinic tradition names thirteen attributes of God’s mercy; among them are a mercy that averts human distress, and another a mercy for when the distress has already begun.

This is how doubt is handled. Continue reading “doubt”

stinging

When I was a young boy I was stung by a centipede—stung, or bit or whatever it is that centipedes do. It was like a little shockwave; made my finger swell up and throb.

I didn’t know a centipede could administer something so painful; they can be nasty little creatures, that’s for sure. I’ve never looked at centipedes quite the same way since.

He (or she, how does one know?) was trying to escape off of an ant hill upon which I had put him (or her). Many human boys do such things. Why? Just to see what happens. A little gladiatorial circus.

What happened was that the ants began swarming the centipede: attacking it like a hoard of minions in a Kung Fu movie. They were probably just trying to defend their home. The centipede was fighting for its life; writhing and stinging and contorting itself in a desperate attempt to escape the onslaught. And he (or she) succeeded and began scrambling away across the sidewalk.

That’s when little boy me reached down and swept the centipede back onto the ant pile. And that’s when the centipede stung me—or bit me, like I said I’m not sure which is the right term. It hurt so much! But still I sat and watched as the ants, this time, successfully overwhelmed and killed the fierce little bug.

I’ve never looked at a centipede in quite the same way since.

Advent IV | Wonder

 If there is one word which most of us would like to significantly reduce from our usage, it must be “like.” I used it twice in that opening sentence.

This word would relegate our lives to simile; serving as a membrane between our sensory and spiritual participation in a textured existence. It may reduce chaffing, but it also blunts our humanness. Our lives were never intended to be similes. It’s like we feel this each time we say like. (The word simile actually means similar, or like.)

Yet Advent presents us with the ineffable—that which cannot be worded. Its the prophets who got most dumbfounded: thrones like jasper, skin like blazing amber, lakes like crystal. Theologians call these beatific  or “blessed” visions—visio beatifica—and they inarticulate (v.) us all. Maybe we use like so much because we’ve forgotten how to be speechless?

Continue reading “Advent IV | Wonder”

Advent III | Joy

Did you know that honeybees dance? They do, and their dance has a name: the waggle dance. But its the reason for their dance which makes this fact truly sublime.

When a worker returns to the hive from a successful pollen reconnaissance, she gathers an audience of other bees around her and does a conspicuous and choreographed series of spins and shakes. “Why?” you ask. The dance is a map. That’s right, this dance—the waggle dance—is the way bees tell one another where to find a bounty. This waggle dance is how bees preserve their colony. They dance for survival.

You might want to watch for yourself. Its so marvelous it may bring you to tears. (Having it narrated by the late Richard Attenborough never hurts.) This is the way joy works. It is a map disguised as a dance meant to direct others to bounty.

And the joy of Advent supremely so.

Continue reading “Advent III | Joy”

Advent II | Hope

During elementary school I participated in a reading program that I quite enjoyed. One story has stuck with me all these years later. It brushes up against the topic of hope.

The fable involves a poor man surviving a night on a snowy mountaintop with only his worn peasant garb for warmth. In performing this act, he demonstrates his fortitude to the arrogant village rich man, who justifies his stinginess by attributing poverty to weakness. The rich man—assuming any who attempted such a bivouac would either die or falter—had promised a sizable portion of his wealth to any would-be survivor. Unbeknownst to him, the poor man’s friends had built a large bonfire on neighboring hillside. Though pummeled by the frigid winds, the man gazed intently upon its distant flicker, imagining its warmth to his body. And he survived.

When the poor man appears back in the village the following day, the rich man is incredulous. Upon learning the device of the friends, he declares the prize null—the poor man had violated the rules. Despite protests, the rich man refuses to honor his promise. “The sight of fire was sufficient,” he insists.

The friends again devise a scheme. After a religious fast, the entire village is gathered to a ceremonial feast in the town square. The feast is prepared while the celebrants wait—including the rich man. Scents of broiled meats, herbs, spices, and cakes flood the square. But no food is served. Eventually the rich man becomes impatient and demands the feast begin. He is notified that they would only be allowed to smell the food. Outraged, he rails that smelling can never take the place of eating. In this admission, he loses his prior cause and is forced to honor his promise to the poor man. 

The moral of the fable seems contradictory. Yearning either holds a power that is actual or illusory. In the same way, hope contradicts us thoroughly! Yet, nonetheless, Advent shamelessly invokes it. So we must decide if we will surrender ourselves into its contradictions.  Hope is, at the same time, sublime and ridiculous.

Continue reading “Advent II | Hope”

Advent I | Peace

I was eight or nine years old when I first visited New York City. It was probably 1984. My mom had just moved to the east coast and was eager to introduce me to the big city. I was visiting for Christmas.

There’s a lot I don’t remember about that trip, but I do remember it being bitter cold and snowy, and that my throat had become raw from a hacking cough. My mom wasn’t yet fluent with city navigation, but we were trying to get to Broadway on a bus to see a meteoric new musical called Cats. After becoming hopelessly turned around, we reluctantly approached a woman at a bus stop to ask for help. This was NYC in the 80s. It was a very different place then. The woman was unexpectedly kind and helpful. She directed us to the exact stop and gave us all the details we’d need to get to our destination. The MTA bus soon arrived, and we boarded.

Entering the warmth of the crowded bus, we heard a small child crying in the back. My mom leaned over to me and said something like, “You know, people always talk about how New Yorkers are so rude, but most of them are really nice…”

As the words departed her mouth, a woman in the back of the bus shrieked at the crying child, “Shut the hell up you stupid little brat!

The entire bus fell into an uneasy silence. You know the type. And we rumbled tensely down a snowy New York City street together. You cannot transit long through this world without being jarred from illusions of peace; jarred awake into the very normativeness of its absence. Pax in absentia.

Of course we could resign ourselves to this. Recalibrate our expectations and feel justified in doing do. But then Advent comes along and ruins all of that! We find ourselves singing songs under our breath about peace on earth. If we don’t watch out, we get ourselves sucked in. 

Continue reading “Advent I | Peace”

vote

I’ve only performed a handful of weddings, only served communion a few times, however, although these activities resemble their commonplace cousins of public speaking and food service respectively, they palpably transcend all other common functions which might be named, save one: voting.

Whenever I vote I experience a certain jitter of otherworldly privilege. In a small way, not unlike eating crispy little wafers and sipping juice from tiny plastic cups, we are making something significant move—together! We become like snowflakes in an avalanche, unawares as to which might become the crashing threshold. Sure, I’m plowing through 57 judges with a simple thumbs up or down; badly coloring in some odd arrow-gap. Sure, sometimes I’m stabbing in the dark, but I’m stabbing!

The original English usage of vote was in proto-Parliamentary England. In its linguistic genealogy you would find the Latin votum, “to wish”, which is itself derived from vovere“to vow”.  And yes, in ancient Roman parlance, such vows were made before a deity. Maybe that’s why it resembles the wedding ceremony: “before God and these witnesses.”

Fill that bubble. Dislodge that chad. Rub that lamp. Make a wish.

Continue reading “vote”