Thursday, February 25, 2010

Popcorn, Firelight, Knees and the Night

Munching popcorn by the fireplace, we sat knee to knee enjoying the silence that was interrupted only by...
...the sound of the chewing,
...the clattering of Barrington's feet on the hardwood pouncing after a charitable kernel tossed in his direction,
...and the music of each other's voice. 

It was midnight; youthfully late for two middle-agers more accustomed to fading out during Letterman's monologue; illumined only by the fire and the extant string of Christmas lights on the deck railing I haven't been intrepid enough to ski or snowshoe or mush a dogsled across to unplug.  The play had run long -- two 10-minute intermissions before the final curtain call some three-and-a-half hours after the opening lines were spoken -- and it had been funny and poignant and somehow evocatively enigmatic. 

Perhaps, then, we were as hungry for some reflection on the script as we were for the popcorn; or perhaps the sub-zero shuffle to the car parked blocks away from the Civic Center had exhilarated us beyond sleepiness; or perhaps it was just one of those rare and delectable moments in which time is suspended and the frozen night is a velvety embrace, capacious and reassuring...

...and the touch of beloved knees by firelight is all there is in the universe.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Trickle of Inspiration

It was 7-degrees this morning when I left for work -- cold enough, but by now familiar territory for the mercury this winter.  The lake along the roadside is iced over, and so covered with snow that without the entrance sign announcing the true identity it could easily be mistaken for another whitened cornfield resisting urban sprawl.  Winter has been hard on us this year -- "us" being practically every living thing.  Deer have foraged in vain.  Eagles, according to farm reports, have resorted to carrying off piglets.  Fish are oxygen starved.  And the rest of us are simply worn out and cranky from all the shivering.

Driving on, I noticed something strange.  On the far side of the river that feeds the lake -- as if hugging the outer bank -- open water was moving.  It wasn't much -- a streaming ribbon perhaps 3-feet wide -- but nonetheless water rather than ice.  There is probably a simple explanation -- a power plant, perhaps, spilling off artificial warmth -- but the simple inspiration of it forestalled any further inquiry.  I slowed in the morning traffic, retaining the view as long as I could.

Life, opening up rather than closing down.
A trickle of inspiration.
And the tiny flow of it was just...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Starting the Morning on an Empty Stomach

The disclosure form the receptionist handed me after I checked in indicated, among other things, that the procedure for which I was scheduled could possibly chip a tooth, puncture my stomach, or even kill me. I found it a fairly off-putting and disconcerting way to begin, but having fasted through the night and morning and suffering acutely from caffeine-deprivation crankiness, I was in no mood to back out now. Beyond the whole "possibility-of-death-as-a-side-effect" thing, I did have one serious concern. Following the description of the "mild sedation" in store for me, the disclosure form noted that the drugs involved "might prevent me from remembering the procedure." I found that possibility completely inadequate. I wanted an iron-clad guarantee that not so much as a residue of memory would remain. After all, what about this procedure did I want to hang onto: a doctor I knew only superficially and two nurses that I had never met were about to shove a garden hose with a camera attached down my throat for a little "look-see." Nothing about that little exercise sounded even remotely like something I would someday want to tell my grandkids about. I was not interested in vague or partial or foggy memories of the moment; I was interested in the total absence of them.

One bright spot in the description was that, unlike the colonoscopy I had thoroughly enjoyed two years ago, this procedure would only take a few minutes to complete -- 10; maybe 15 at the most.

I looked around me in the waiting room, into the faces of half-a-dozen others who were similarly and palpably euphoric about the privilege of beginning their morning this way. Eyes occasionally darted nervously around the room, but never into other eyes. Eye-contact with others seemed implicitly prohibited, as if deep down there was a shared sense that the photography session waiting for us beyond those doors was somehow pornographic. Most of us, after all, tend to be fairly discreet when it comes to exposing our colons and esophagi. When my name was called, I felt moreso than saw the furtive glances of sympathy and solidarity from those around the room momentarily distracted from the out-of-date magazines they were pretending to read.

After reciting my name and birthday for the 4th time since arriving, I donned my lovely gown and offered my hand to the nurse for what proved to be a lengthy excavation project in search of a vein. "How are you doing?" she repeatedly asked, but I was too busy trying to have an out of body experience to answer. She seemed so proud of me, once the jabbing was completed, that I had only lost my color; I hadn't actually fainted. I felt so proud.

Soon after, two other total strangers wheeled me into another room where so many wires were attached to me that I began to feel like a home entertainment center. The doctor came in, expressed his own interest in the date of my birth, emptied a couple of syringes into my IV, indicated that we would be getting started shortly, and once again left the room. "Fine," I thought as I closed my eyes for a second to gather my spirits and wait.

When I opened them a minute later I started to encourage the nurse to get this show on the road. I was ready to get this over with, after all, and get on with making up for lost coffee time. But then I realized it wasn't the nurse, after all, sitting nearby, but Lori asking me how it went.

"It's over?" I queried.

"It's over," she responded.

"Well it's about time," I responded before dozing back off to sleep.

So, what happened? The truth is that I haven't the faintest idea. I don't remember a thing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Grace in the Serendipity

Perhaps it's because we had not merely low expectations, but actually none at all.

The speaker scheduled for the day -- a very high profile, oft-published author -- lives in Washington, D.C. and, as everyone had been seeing on the news in recent days, Washington D.C. was buried under something like 5 feet of snow. Travel was impaired. The speaker would not be appearing. The organizers were suddenly faced with a problem: an event full of registrants, at least many of whom had attended precisely to hear this absent speaker, and the better part of a day's schedule empty and needing to be filled. Hardly an enviable moment.

Out of curiosity I showed up. Looking around the largely empty room I concluded that such curiosity was in conspicuously short supply. Most had slept in. The sparse group was called to order, introductions were made, appreciations were voiced for the substitute's willingness to step into the snowy void, and she began.

Those of us who actually attended had made a fairly inexpensive bet. The presentation was divided into two parts by a social hour of refreshments. If the first half of the presentation was a dud, the exits were clearly marked. My guess is that everyone had scoped out the nearest doors, and fully expected to use them sooner rather than later. As I indicated before, we didn't merely have low expectations, we had no expectations at all.

Perhaps, those are precisely the moments when the best things can occur. There are no barriers, no pre-determined -- albeit unspoken -- hurdles to leap. There is simply the vacant ground, clear of obstruction, on which something beautiful can be built.

And for the next two hours or so, that's precisely what happened. It was wonderful. It was engaging, compelling, entertaining, and enlightening. In fact, I will buy the recording -- something I don't usually do -- in part because I want to hear the insights again, and in part because I want to share them with others.

I don't know why I have to keep learning this lessen over and over again: that God and holy grace routinely appear in the most inconspicuous, least expected places -- stables, mangers, children, often cranky church members, and yes, last-minute substitutions.

Sometime I hope to finally comprehend -- finally get it -- that faithfulness typically has less to do with "right belief" than it does "right expectations."

What are we watching for, in the full expectation of seeing? Perhaps the answer, at least for those have any joy at all, is the very radiance of heaven in life's most serendipitous moments.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Applause of the Heart Rather than the Hands

The gospel story this coming Sunday recalls the experience of Jesus, under the watchful eye of a small cohort of his disciples, transfigured on a mountaintop while praying. In what was, by all accounts, a luminous moment -- Jesus' very visage momentarily radiant and his clothes, according to the text, dazzlingly white. And then, the story, continues, he was joined on the mountain by Moses and Elijah, heroes -- centuries-dead icons -- of the faith. It was, apparently, breathtakingly spectacular. And how did Jesus' audience react? Initially with speechless awe, and then with clumsy, but understandable, reverence. "It's good that we are here," Peter finally said. "Let's just hang out for awhile and soak it all up."

I'm thinking about this story in part, of course, because I'm scheduled to preach on it in a matter of days. But it also came to mind as we drove home tonight from the worship service. The opening service of Minister's Week, the annual lectureship of the seminary I attended, is reliably powerful. The University choir traditionally sings, the congregation of ministers and spouses actually sings the hymns with gusto, and the preaching -- unlike the majority of our own -- is routinely top shelf; and again unlike in the majority of our own sanctuaries, the ratio of people to lumber is closer to parity. There are, in other words, usually any number of "mountaintop" moments in these gatherings, and tonight's opening worship was no exception. The choir, the organ, the orchestra were all exhilarating, and the preacher had something to say and said it with power, conviction, and craft. Admittedly, I didn't notice anyone looking radioactive, and if Moses and Elijah attended I overlooked them in the crowd. But it was, those moderations notwithstanding, a high and heady -- lofty -- evening.

And, as recipients of it all, we didn't have any better idea how to respond than the disciples. For his part, Peter gushed on about how great it all was and how they ought to just bask in the glory. For our part tonight, we...

After almost everything.
Except, I suppose, the Lord's Prayer.
After each of two musical anthems.
After the sermon
After the postlude.
We didn't remain long enough to confirm it, but the applause may well have continued into the reception that followed, in response to the coffee and cookies.

Through it all, I ached for silence.
My soul reached for the space to simply soar.
I longed to sit with the power of the moment and feel the enlarging echo of abundance.
But instead, we rolicked and clamored into the holy clearing and filled it up with clapping. Prodigally.

Hear me out on this: I'm not condemning; merely lamenting. The reaction I wished for is no more "right" than the one we delivered. It is natural to want some way to give voice to our affirmation and appreciation, and we have limited tools. Silence -- the holy ache of awe -- is the language of my soul, but I know that the heart speaks in many tongues. Sometimes, I recognize, those tongues are the palms of our hands. Unfortunately, these two alternate expressions are mutually exclusive. If I am indulged with the benefits of silence, then others are deprived of expression. If the many indulge their preference for a more voluble appreciation, then I am deprived of mine. I understand the dilemma. There is no perfect response, we are not all the same, and we can't all have our way. As a result, we clumsily stumble through; clapping, some of us, while others of us try desperately to hang onto to the ephemeral thread of what, only seconds before, resounded with a power of its own.

And so though I would have loved to hear the echoing grandeur in the moment that was its own, it's quiet now; and if I listen carefully -- if I cock my soul just right -- I still can just make out the rising voices in the song, the instruments swelling around them, the congregation lustily singing, and the Word,

inspiringly spoken,
and finally...

And the only applause comes from the valves of my heart, quickened and, just for a moment, beating faster.