Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Just When We Were Feeling Famished

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10)

Snow last Friday and rain today.  More of the latter is predicted tomorrow -- all of which is purposeful, if the prophet is to be trusted.  God sends the nourishment, he asserts, to accomplish rejuvenating and sustaining work, and will not be deterred until its done; though some tardiness seems to be at play.  I haven't heard an update in recent weeks but I surmise we are still well below our customary and seasonal watering.  Heavenly moisture is behind schedule.  The snowy-ice pack that in other years threatens Easter Sunday's crowded parking lots is this year a timid and blotchy veneer cowering in the shade.  There has been an eery and odd sort of mildness to the winter this year -- not altogether unappreciated in this more commonly frigid zone, but disconcerting nonetheless.  Is it a mere anomaly -- a gift of sorts as a respite between severities -- or an augur of new normals to come?  The answer is debated.

The prophet, however, is less interested in climate change than glimpses of the sure and greening work of God that reaches out and touches not simply earth and seed, but similarly the sower and the soul aching, in their own way, for signs of life.  Bread for the table, but the spirit no less. 

There is, I think, a kind of genius to the placement of lent each year in the waning weeks of winter -- days customarily gray and uninspired in which the ripenings of summer and the colors of autumn are all but ground out of memory by the grittiness of winter and the sheer exhaustion of getting by.  We are weary in these days, and wanting; anxious for blossoms, but schooled by frostbitten buds in years past not to get our hopes too high.  Late winter breeds a kind of numbness laced with low expectations that can even gray one's prayers. 

And then lent arrives to remind us that, whether or not we can discern it, the rain and the snow is accomplishing something vital...

...as is the Word of the Lord that is similarly soaking in, breaking open, and reliably -- assuredly -- giving rise to the very Bread of Life within and among us.

Just in the nick of time.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Conservative Confusion of LIberals -- or Vice Versa

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:5-7)
I confess that I no longer understand the words.  "Liberal."  "Conservative."  They don't seem to mean much anymore.  The stuff that Isaiah is talking about, for example, sounds these days like the "liberal" agenda.  But as old as they are, as deeply embedded as they are in Judeo-Christian traditon -- making them, as it were, "traditional" -- why wouldn't they be considered "conservative"?

I understand that "fiscal conservatives" lean toward the tighter fist school when it comes to uses of money -- especially public tax money.  Having just spent time yesterday with our tax preparer I am certainly sympathetic just now to the idea of lower taxes.  That said, I am rather fond of public schools, police departments, fire departments, road crews and the like, in addition to all those "regulators" so disparaged these days.  I certainly believe we should expect the best of one another, but everyone benefits from the attention of multiple eyes helping us stay tuned to what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature."  Left to our own devices, any of -- all of us -- can be tempted.  The recent/current financial challenges of the nation and world weren't brought about because of too much regulation and supervision, but arguably too little.  And darn those mean and pesky inspectors who found deadly bacteria on all those millions of eggs a couple of years ago, making life miserable for those nice chicken farmers who were just trying to eke out a profit by cutting a few hygienic corners.  The fact is, we need accountabilities, and those who hold us to them.  Even football games have referees who occasionally throw a flag.  We may not always like their calls, but I haven't met many fans who seriously advocate their absence.

But I wander far beyond my expertise.  I am the first to admit that there is much I don't even pretend to understand about public policy.  Surely there is a balance between "liberty" and "supervision," and if there are those hyper-suspicious souls who nudge us toward the latter, I suppose we should be grateful for those more "conservative" types who speak up for the former. 

But more and more often these days the word "conservative" refers to advocates of certain moral biases, which I think is admirable.  I am a fan of moral grounding and morally guided trajectories of social interaction.  So I don't really mind the way that each of the candidates currently vying for the chance to unseat the sitting President is turning cartwheels trying to convince the voting public that he is the "true conservative." What surprises and confuses me, however, is that instead of sounding like Isaiah -- or Jesus, for that matter -- advocating vigorously on behalf of the "least of those" among us, and programs that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and clothe the naked, and bearing persistent witness to the holy imperative to remember our intrinsic connection to one another; instead of focusing the question on how "I" might best embody and further such concerns as an expression of my calling -- priorities which I would have thought would be the true conservatism -- they sound surprisingly "liberal," flagrantly casting aside these ancient and traditional concerns in favor of trying to tell others what they can and can't do, who they can and can't love, and how they ought to take care of themselves.

I find it all more than a little confusing.  I used to be pretty good with words, but I seem to be losing my grip.  Words like these -- liberal, conservative -- just don't seem to make any sense anymore.  It's enough to make a guy surrender his sesquipedalian credentials and do something radical -- or old fashioned, depending on your bias -- like volunteering at the food pantry.  Or growing something they can give away.

Perhaps this is part of my Lenten discipline:  remembering, and getting it straight.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Breaking a Spiritual Sweat

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.  (Joel 2:12-13)

The heart is usually the safest organ in the body politic.  We protect it as though it were the Holy Grail.  Ask me to change my clothes, rearrange the furniture or paint the walls, but please don't ask me to change me.  It has become a kind of truism that when a church recognizes the need to change it opts to revise the By-laws.  My guess is that the tendency isn't confined to churches.  "All of our problems could be solved," we convince ourselves, "if we could just hit upon the right marketing plan."   Or sign out front.  Or organizational structure.  Or fresh programmatic initiative.  This is the cosmetic surgery approach to transformation -- institutional Botox -- that views our only ills as superficial. 

I shouldn't travel too far down this cynical or condemnatory path without acknowledging that externals do have significance.  What we do matters.  But as Quaker writer and thinker emphasizes, the "outside" of us needs to be a accurate reflection of the "inside" of us, reflecting a wholeness that isn't intrinsically divorced.  It isn't enough to simply tighten up the wrinkles; we won't finally nip and tuck our way into spiritual order.  Better polling data and slicker brochures won't finally suffice.  Painting the nursery, for example, isn't nearly as important as more genuinely loving the kids who are brought there.  Posting "all are welcome" on the parking lot sign won't really matter if we don't, in fact, welcome all who come -- and "all" can turn into a rather colorful lot. 

That's why Jesus relentlessly called attention to the inside as well as the outside of human faithfulness -- how we pray in the closet, not just on the street corner; what goes on in our hearts as well as our hands; what we think as well as what we say.  Or as my favorite singer/songwriter David Wilcox once derided the misguidance of his parents, "you taught us well not to kick under the table; kick under your breath instead."  That wouldn't have flown at Jesus' table. 

And that's why the prophet Joel implored the people who were trying to get on God's good side not to tear their clothing as a sign of their repentance. It was their heart that needing tailoring, not their wardrobe.

But that, alas, is hard; and usually painful.  Couldn't we just sing cheerier songs or add some octane to the ceremonial flame and fizz? 

Not really.  Hearts, not garments; the very veins of my soul, not just my social veneer.  That, I think, is the message of which the season of Lent  -- and the ashes of this Wednesday that inaugurates it -- try to remind me; and why I begin it by taking such a deep breath.  As the garden is teaching me, growing anything I might be excited to eat requires care not just of the plant but of the typically less-than-perfect soil in which it is sown, and that usually requires breaking a sweat. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

When the Moments Swell Larger Than Life

The ancient Celtic notion of "thin places" is increasingly recognized -- those specially evocative locations where the membrane separating heaven and earth seems breathtakingly thin.  We resonate with the idea because we have stood in such places.  For my Mother heaven draws near along virtually any beach with their almost hypnotic and undulating intersection of surf and sand thresholding an endless expanse of horizon.  For others it is the golf course and interplay of tree and bunker and fareway and green.  For me it is the mountains -- sun-splashed hillsides of vertical palettes; moist and musty trails illuminated by dappled light squeezing around leafy canopies above.  If Vermont in autumn isn't heaven itself, it is at the very least a place incredibly, heavenly thin.  We return to such places year after year for their predictable and reliable renewal.

But my guess is that more common, but less commonly named, are "thin moments" -- experiential episodes when the breath of heaven breezes through quite by surprise.  The key unlocking the door may be a passage of music or a flash of insight or a baby's coo or the silent fall of moonlit snow or a puppy's nuzzling sleep.  Since moving to the country the staring face of deer just out our window causes me to stop and be almost absorbed into their steady gaze.  Nourishing moments in which we cannot remain forever nor to which we can reliably return, but which reach out into the grandly normal and, catching us by surprise, feed us with awe.  Such moments may not happen often, but often enough, I suppose, to sustain us with the memory, and often enough to keep us looking; keep us hoping that some such thing might happen again.

Talking with colleagues about the familiar story of Jesus' Transfiguration, we noted all the usual clues and typical lessons -- the foreshadowing of Jesus' glorification; the alignment with heroes of the past; the white garment of martyrdom; the identifying voice of God.  I wouldn't dispute the significance of any of those clues, but if any of this report actually happened my guess is that the gift of it for those who chanced to be along was less the details of the symbolism involved and more the simple and arresting power of the moment.  As with any mountaintop experience, the value is less in what you learn in your head and more what you digest in your soul.  And something about such episodic spiritual food, served in such thin moments, keeps us going.

When I mentioned that it is a little like golf, in which even the rare and occasional birdie is enough to keep the golfer coming back, one of my friends replied with the wry observation that "we are cheaply bought."  It doesn't take much to keep us happy.

I'm not sure he meant it as a compliment, but I somehow think I'm grateful for the truth of his words. 
A red leaf.
A perfect snowflake.
The softness of a kiss.
The lilt of a doe.
The roll of a wave.
The familiar pungence of cumin sprinkled into the simmering pot.
A full moon on a snowy, cloudless night.
"I love you."

It doesn't take much to keep me going.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Because it Doesn't Take Much to Get Off Track

Other than the obvious and stated reason, I don't know why he went.  According to the Gospel of Mark, After Jesus had spent a little time casting out bad spirits and healing the ill he got up, "early in the morning, while it was still very dark...and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed" (1:35). 

It could, of course, be that Mark was simply setting Jesus up as a model for spiritual disciplines.  "Start the day off with prayer."  Perhaps; but Mark never otherwise seems to shy away from inserting explanatory notes when he senses a reasonable chance that his audience could miss the point.  If he was telling the story merely to encourage a habit, he likely would have said so -- "this was done in order to encourage his disciples to do the same"or some such clarification.

I am rather inclined to suspect that something else was going on -- like the possibility that Jesus needed to go out to this deserted place because Jesus needed what he suspected he could find there.  He had been there, after all, just a short time before.  Only a handful of verses earlier Jesus had been driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit.  There he had faced into his own demons, so to speak; clarifying and purifying his motives and distilling his guiding principles.  There, one might say, he went about the sacred physics of establishing his center of gravity.  And now here he is, back there again. 

Which reminds me that it doesn't take much to get off track.  A pebble can send the wheel into a ditch.  One potato chip tends to lead to another, and another...  Have a few successes and, if you aren't careful, you start believing your own publicity.  Never mind that his story, according to Mark, has barely begun; Jesus has already generated a tornado of intrigue and acclaim.  "The whole city," according to the story, "gathered around the door" of the house where he was staying.  Heady.  Giddy.  "They have sought me ought!" he must have thought for a moment.  "I must really be something!"  I can't help but think that during the night Jesus realized that he could benefit from a remedial trip to the wilderness -- a little gyroscopic realignment of the soul; reassessing which end is up.

And the wilderness seems to be the place where that most commonly happens -- away from the clamor; away from the seductive acclaim; out where it isn't the adoring crowds catering to your whims, but the very angels themselves attending to your deepest needs.

Because even Jesus had need to get his head together.  Twice, apparently, in the very first chapter.

I take some encouragement from that; and whether or not Mark actually intended it, some compelling example.