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!

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”

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 David 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 so. 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 suckered in. 

Lately I’ve been thinking about the pangs of Advent and how it inconsiderately commands attention to all our most elusive longings. Advent is so troublesome.

For instance, two thousand years ago some shepherds were just minding their own business, when an incommodious choir of angels showed up singing,

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Of course, they could have said “not interested”—the way you rebuff a flyer on the streets—but, against their better judgement, they said, “let’s go see.” And they did. 

So here we are, two millennia later, still trying to make heads or tails of what they saw. The fractures of our world finger out into every relationship, every arena, every crawlspace of our souls. It’s just everywhere.

The Jewish idea of peace is far more textured than that of a placid mental state or even a lack of clashing. It is shalom; wholeness, rightness, things as they ought to be. If you asked some Jews today about their purpose in life, they may quote the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam: “repair the world.” That is another way of admitting that our world is in such need of repair. What a tall order! Of course Jesus gave that his own spin, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Children of God are, it would follow, to bring shalom to this forlorn world or die trying—being, more often than not, the latter, whether by full or fractional degrees.  

Being a peace-welcomer, let alone peacemaker, resembles Charlie Brown’s hapless placekicking career. Somehow Lucy always convinces him she’s not going to yank the ball away sending Charlie thudding onto his back. But she always does. Do we dare lift up our hearts to peace? Aren’t we bound to go thudding onto our backs in a world like ours; a world where St. Nick himself could end up in a physical altercation over doctrinal disagreements? If St. Nick can’t stay off the naughty list…

And what did those shepherds find in Bethlehem? A crying baby. Not unlike our short-fused friend on the bus. Then they went around telling people he was their only hope. (Ah, hope. I’m coming for you next.) I would wager their own expectations of this child were woefully misshapen. But what did they know?

A few days later, Mary and Joseph presented him at the temple. An aged man named Simeon approached them. He too began to sing:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.

It had a good ring . . . until he offered some parting remarks (no longer in song):

This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.

Simeon, you should have stopped while you were ahead! Who knew Advent was such a yo-yo? It always has been. We’ve all harbored questions about that piercing sensation. No real sword pierced Mary’s soul. Only anguish and grief and dismay at what this world was capable of. Simeon understood how piercing these things are.

So did Jesus. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he said. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus wasn’t referring to an actual sword either, but to strife and enmity. “A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Ironically, he does seem to sing this part, but I can only imagine it in minor keys.)  What a weird concert this becomes.

We recall an earlier verse, delivered by the weeping prophet Jeremiah: “The prophets and priests alike both practice deceit,” he laments,

They have dressed the wound of my people lightly,    Saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

The peculiar peace of Advent is no light dressing of wounds. In fact, the peace of Advent is an indictment of such superficialities. Advent peace must plunge painfully deep, and we can feel it. It plunges like a sword. The sword becomes a scalpel. How else can we explain the fact that we’ve never seen stanzas like this, from the beloved and familiar hymn “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”?

Above its sad and lowly plains,
   They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
   The blessed angels sing.

And man, at war with man, hears not
    The love-song which they bring;
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife
    And hear the angels sing.

We’re hesitant to sing such lines. It feels like bad manners. But they were penned by pastor, author, abolitionist, and activist Edmund Sears during a period of great turmoil in his life.

The year was 1849, and he was coping with a painful ministry failure and the grief of engulfing social injustice . After 7 difficult years pastoring a large congregation in Lancaster, MA, he underwent a nervous breakdown. More than that, his society was roiled by the evils of slavery which pained him excruciatingly. The controversy in those days was over the Fugitive Slave Act. By 1850, it would become required of authorities in non-slave states to capture escaped slaves and return them to their bondage. Awful days. Sears was forced into a time of retreat, and sought refuge as a part-time pastor in a previously-held pulpit of Wayland, MA. One can read his travail in the lyric,

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
   Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
   With painful steps and slow

The hymn was Sears’ own way of bringing Advent peace to bear upon the sad cacophony of his world; a poetic balm upon his own deep wounds, as he convalesced from personal collapse. Sears didn’t just need Advent, he really needed it. So do we, but the peace of Advent plunges deeper than most strife-sick patients will readily consent. It plunges deeper than any would ever ask.

So Jesus would weep over Jerusalem:

If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.

… you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.

The Mishnaic context of tikkun olam is actually quite severe: “to remove detestable idolatry from the land, and utterly cut off false gods—to repair the world in God’s kingdom.” The peace of Advent comes to those who have worked their way through all the gods they can think of in a futile search for peace. In this way, Advent first tears away all light dressings.

And the peace of Advent can be received or, as is typically the case, not. Those who receive it receive with it an intermingling of mirth and mourning. “Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!”

Later, in a book marvelously titled Foregleams and Foreshadows of Immortality, Sears would write,

Descend into your heart, and you will find there a deep and unquenchable instinct—one which belongs to the spiritual nature…
It is the instinct for home.

Let the instinct of home be destroyed, and man would be utterly demoralized, or hopelessly insane. His life becomes aimless, and he wanters in spiritual vagabondism, he knows not whither or for what.

The peace of Advent is a promissory note. It occurs to me that any meaning of the word note my be apt. At the same time it serves a s stinging reminder that here there is no enduring peace; no true home.

One of the most provocative things our Savior ever said about peace was just before the part about the sword. “As you enter a house, greet it.And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.” What can that mean?

Children of God enter habitations of the world offering everlasting peace; an Advent peace, meant (I’ll admit, the shepherds had it right) to be shared. It is the peace of God’s homecoming within us. As we walk in his very footsteps, we are consoled by his company. As we walk in his very footsteps, we rejoice and mourn together at peace welcomed or spurned. If we must receive back our peace, it is never without sorrow.  “If you had only known on this day what would bring peace…”

Surely we understand. Jesus understood. So many grow jaded. Even those believers of the Advent message can be numbered among them. Advent is a desperate cry to come out from our jadedness—like the cry of a child on a city bus, or a baby in a manger. It is a cry in the wilderness—in our wilderness—to sojourn alongside the Prince of Peace.

It may not always sound like a song, but it is. Maybe you’ve been singing it under your breath? Advent could be for you a permission slip to stop and listen and long for home. 

O rest beside the weary road,
   And hear the angels sing!

The Sacred

There is a disconcerting passage of Scripture that starkly illuminates the concept of sacredness. I vacillated over whether to draw upon it for this post, but couldn’t divine (pun intended) how this might take shape apart from it.

It’s the story of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant (in 1 Sam. 6 and 1 Chr. 13). For the uninitiated (or those only initiated by Raiders of the Lost Ark), the Ark was an ornate chest of sorts containing a number of sacred objects collected during the Israelite’s miraculous escape from Egypt: some manna, a staff that budded (and once turned into a snake), and the tablets of the law. Above all, however, it was said to be inhabited by God’s Presence.

During Israel’s early monarchy, the Ark was relegated to an almost superstitious object—toted into battle like a talisman. God caused this misuse of the Ark to result in its being captured by Israel’s Philistine enemies. It was eventually returned and took up interim residence in a hamlet called Beth Shemesh, at the house of a man named Abinadab.

Then reverent king David decreed that the Ark should find a more honorable home in Jerusalem. He entrusted the task of transport to two men named Ahio and Uzzah, Abinadab’s sons. In a profoundly practical frame of mind, these two men hoisted the Ark up onto an oxcart—sending it along in much the same fashion as it had come to them. (See 1 Sam. 6)

And so it was that the dwelling place of God’s Presence came bumping along out of Beth Shemesh en route to Jerusalem, heaved lurchingly along by oxen. At a point just outside Jerusalem the cart hit an uneven patch of road, and the Ark began to teeter. Observing this, Uzzah reached out and braced it with his hand. Here we encounter the episode that is likely troubling for us, and was undoubtedly troubling for those present.

Continue reading “The Sacred”

wrestling

A man once discovered a chrysalis tucked under a shrub in his yard. Upon inspection, he found a moth trapped inside. The little pod rocked back and forth in the mulch as the insect strained in seeming futility to be free of it. The sight of the moth’s wings bound awkwardly by the unyielding silken straps, and of its mortal struggle, moved the man to compassion—it looked to all the world to be dying. With a nearby twig he began delicately nudging away the bonds; carefully picking and prying the suffering moth from its dire enclosure.

At last, the moth was extracted. It stumbled awkwardly across the uneven ground. Its gangly, asymmetrical wings curling inward like fallen autumn leaves. The man used the same stick to place the moth up on a broad green leaf and left it to its liberation.

The next day, the man came back out and wandered over to the location of the dramatic rescue. He found the moth lying just beneath the leaf where it had been left. It was motionless—dead. Its wings still scrunched malformed atop its thorax. The man concluded wrongly it had been diseased, not knowing that it was he who was responsible for its untimely ruin. Continue reading “wrestling”

Forgiveness | #Friday500

“I, Patrick, a sinner…”

Thus begins The Confession of St. Patrick; an account that illustrates the cosmic power of forgiveness.

Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was a Welsh-Briton, who, as a “young man, almost a beardless boy … was taken captive” by Irish raiders and sold into slavery on the harsh, barbaric Irish isle. He was only 16. This took place somewhere in the middle of the 5th century, as the Roman empire suffered its rapid decline and the so-called Dark Ages began.

For 6 years he was harshly worked against his will in the land of his captivity, before making a dramatic escape. He returned home by boat to Wales and was reunited with his family and community.  He then did the unthinkable. He returned to Ireland!

Why? Continue reading “Forgiveness | #Friday500”

Sympathy

I was sitting at an American-style cafe in Hanoi having hamburgers with a few Vietnamese English-language students and a couple other Americans. We were part of a partnership program with a local foreign language university, in which native English speakers taught and tutored Vietnamese students. We often received social invitations for outings from our students, and this was one such occasion. During the course of the meal, one of the Vietnamese students made a joke that none of us Americans understood. This had happened quite a bit during our time there. Though we’d made some half-hearted efforts to grasp one-another’s humor, we tended to simply smile benevolently and move on. I determined then and there that this time would be different!

“Ok, Ok. Back up. I want to understand this joke; I need to. We’re gonna talk this out until we understand why that was funny,” I said emphatically.

And so we circled back. At each point of ambiguity, we clarified. We defined terms and gave background and returned again and again to the simple question: Why is that funny? This went on for 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually the group of Vietnamese students were all exchanging puzzled glances, as were my group of American companions. We all began laughing at our utter futility in achieving any shared understanding of the humor of this joke—despite our determined efforts!

We had failed my challenge spectacularly and so resumed eating. Eventually someone brought up a new topic.

During my life I’ve been inculcated to value empathy over sympathy. To see it as superior. Sympathy, I’ve gathered, is some distant brand of pity, absent of real understanding. What we ought to practice is empathy; a personal involvedness of putting one’s self into the shoes of the other. I’m just not sure I agree with that anymore. I suspect sympathy is the more rare of the two, and certainly the more needed.

Every one of us is ‘pathic’; driven and delighted by our inner tides of pathos, our feelings, emotions, passions! Often we struggle to understand even our own pathos, and, if we’ll admit, struggle to really understand others—even others we really should understand like spouses and siblings and close friends. We muse in their absence, Why on earth would they do that? Empathy, at least as it is commonly understood, turns out to be a veritable impossibility, and we may be well-served to laugh at its comical elusiveness. It is sympathy on which we must depend; a kind attitude toward those we find all but incomprehensible.

Continue reading “Sympathy”