Yesterday I was driving a friend from hospital to a sober home in Huntington Beach
following the map-voice from my phone and so immersed in conversation that I only suddenly became aware of this building filling my windshield. Hadn’t been at this intersection in decades possibly, and it all flooded back in an instant. Count up four rows of blue glass and back some thirty years, and I am sitting behind the window near the middle as communications director for a health care firm and had just seen Marian for the first time as a temp hire placed just outside my door. She only sat there for three months, and I didn’t see her again for over four years, but next Wednesday is our 23rd wedding anniversary, so you know there’s much more to that story.
Amazing how life moves us in ever widening circles, bringing us back again and again like time travelers to scenes that highlight our passage. Sitting there waiting for the light, the man behind the windshield and the one behind the blue glass are the same, but would the young man looking out approve, identify with the elder down at the intersection? Looking up, would the elder welcome such youthful approval or see it only as evidence of life long lessons unlearned? At the intersection waiting for the light, it’s hard to know such stuff. But twenty three years next Wednesday with the woman who knows us both…
I’ve got that going for me.
We had to put our dog to sleep today. Part of our family for fifteen years and the dog our boys grew up with, but what we’d been putting off for months couldn’t be put off any longer this morning. Never had to do this before; it happens very fast, and I can still see her face in those last moments. In this subdued mode all day, thoughts of the the dog I grew up with inevitably came to mind…and a story I’d written about her and me. This won’t be for everyone, but if you like short fiction, maybe give it a few paragraphs and see…
I remember the first time I saw Sheba.
Of course we didn’t call her that then. She was just the tiny, almost insignificant piece of white fur trying to balance itself in the bottom of the brown paper bag as we peered down between the two big hands which held it low enough for my little sister and me to get our faces over the edge. And I didn’t so much wonder then, but later, why the bag. Why he didn’t just carry it around like people usually carry puppies: in their arms, or peeking out from under a jacket—unless it was to make sure that he got all the way to the front door without warning parents to keep their children well away before they could produce the wailing “eeeeee” that was coming from my sister’s throat and preceded any serious begging. I suppose the proper vowel sound for such an occasion would have been an “aaahhh” or “ohhhhh,” but my sister even at that age wasn’t much for convention, so she said, “eeeeee.”
And we stood in the doorway, my sister and I, looking down at the white shape poking around at the brown paper trying to find a solid spot to stand on, and listening to the deep voice aimed well over our heads to where our parents stood quietly with sort of a tired, resigned look on their faces, as if they knew what was coming and how could he do that to them, being a fellow adult and all.
But maybe he just didn’t know about all that because he was still too close to not being an adult yet himself, and then being new on the block, having just moved in with his wife and they not having any children of their own. Anyway. he kept right on, my sister and I listening to the words sailing over our heads telling how his wife had a dog, a little mongrel named Angel which wasn’t much bigger than a puppy though it was full grown and how much she loved the dog and cried when it swallowed the fish hook and died the day before and only cried more when he brought the little white puppy home and said to take it away, she didn’t want it. And I wondered if he’d brought it to her in a paper bag also, and if not, maybe if he had, he wouldn’t be standing here with it in one now.
But anyway, he said it was all paid for and he’d just have to take it back to the pound unless maybe someone wanted it and then he wouldn’t have to, and then after his wife was better, he could get another one for her. But he didn’t have to do that either, because after his wife got better she got a baby instead and didn’t need a puppy anymore.
And my sister was just getting going good, and our parents looking more tired than ever, what with our six eyes against their tired-looking four, and two of ours being the loudest in the business; it wasn’t even fair.
We got to keep the bag too.
Another email thread, another peek behind the curtain to see what may be relevant…
6/2/15, 5:52 AM
DM: Have you ever taken a side street on your journey? I have done so and it is turning out to be quite the cul-de-sac, and it has actually taken me quite a while to get back to the main path. I guess the way to describe my detour up the side street would be discouragement…
6/3/15, 1:34 PM
DB: Yes, I’ve taken many detours. I’m beginning to wonder if our latest project for the non-profit is one of them… Remember, though, that nothing is lost unless we lose it, learn nothing from it. That is, we judge our detours as detours because they don’t take us where we thought we were going, don’t serve our agendas or the outcomes toward which we’re working. But outcomes and agendas are not why we’re here. If we’re here to learn how to connect, how to be one with everyone and everything (as I believe Jesus is showing us), then detours are just as useful and valid as main paths. In fact, from the point of view of connection-as-purpose, a detour is indistinguishable from a main path.
When we find ourselves falling into disconnection, then we need to redirect of course, but we can do that on the detour as well as what we consider the main path without leaving either. I’m working on becoming much more aware of how I judge my moments—remembering that there are no insignificant moments except those as judged by agenda, that all moments are equally sacred once we find connection within them. And though I joke about our latest project, whether it succeeds or fails as judged by our agenda is insignificant against what we learn of connection through the process….
DM: A pastor mentioned in a recorded message that God loves when we knock and sometimes allows us just to keep knocking and knocking. I would describe this as asking God a lot of questions. And sometimes if you ask long enough, and keep at it long enough, you will get some answers back.
DB: I’m thinking more and more how important it is to remember that God never withholds anything. We may experience a perceived lack of response, but God can’t possibly be more present than he is right now and every moment. He literally is the air we breathe and the lungs with which we breathe it. It’s just a matter of us tuning to God’s frequency, which is what knocking really is–not to gain God’s attention–we already and always have that, but to fix our own on him. And to begin to learn that any answers we get will not necessarily be specific to questions as asked, but will most likely break the line of questioning and evoke what is needed to show us that the most important questions in life don’t have answers. Only the experience of asking.
DM: One of my pet peeves are songs we sing at church. I asked one of the worship leaders if he was ever conflicted that the songs that we sing so boldly are not what we experience for the most part. I don’t think he understood what I was asking and came up with a predictable response. The following Monday or Tuesday night I was driving and put on one of my favorite worship songs, which was asking for God to show up in His glory. As I pulled into my driveway, I felt the Spirit telling me that he would never just show up because we ask in a song, but that his presence would be experienced if people asked for the reality of the songs every day in their morning awakening and in their evening lying down, if throughout the day they kept this desire before them. I really was quite devastated by this because who is telling people these things? …we sing these songs so flippantly without realizing that we could actually experience them…
DB: This relates perfectly to the above bits. God doesn’t really ever “show up.” He’s already and always here, but we aren’t, so God comes in and out of focus. Big distinction to make. I know scripture describes God showing up and leaving, hiding his face, but that’s a typically Hebrew idiomatic and anthropomorphic way of speaking that is important to express as part of our human experience—as long as we remember that our music and our worship and our asking is not an incantation to bring God somewhere he’s not, but an experience to bring ourselves into presence with him: always here, always now. What you experienced in the car was just that: a tuning in that brought you to a new insight within Presence. Beautiful. And you may already know this, but I think it’s an important enough distinction to mention again: God is always here, always now, and always pouring out everything there is to pour…
Changes the way we think and choose if we really know this.
These days I do a lot of informal counseling and mentoring by email, phone, and even text. We all do, I’m sure. Some of these conversations reach across specific circumstances and personalities to speak to common human experience in such a way that with permission and anonymity, I thought it would be interesting to publish some brief slices, little peeks behind the curtain to see what may be relevant…
Hey brother Dave.
Watching over a baby this morning, like every other morning, and I’ve already used up most of our nap time with prayer and a little reading. Expect he’ll wake up any minute, and he has croup so I’m being very attentive. In an attempt to get grounded this morning, I read a blog post of yours focused on time and light changes at 5AM…so many of your thoughts and questions seem familiar to me…
I feel lost right now. In the summer, my purpose was to reconnect spiritually and write. I loved it. I had time, time enough to make myself available to serve others, and time enough to serve my desire to get some of my thoughts out on paper. Since I got back in my school year routine, taking care of a grandbaby I adore, time is precious and harder for me to manage.
Here’s where I’m going with this. When you came to the part in the blog when you said that your son’s sticker on your arm was, in effect, proof of life…that cut through the clutter in my head and went straight to heart. I want to believe that there’s meaning in the minutes of my days, but the clutter in my head tells me I’m doing it wrong. It draws attention to the ticking clock, my lack of productivity, lack of clarity, lack in general.
Yet this baby grounds me, to experience, to love, to connection. What’s my problem!? Rhetorical question, and if I were you I would avoid it…
Ah, sometimes I just want to hug you like no tomorrow and tell you it’s alright…it’s alright now and will be alright forever. I think I’m getting to the point that I realize there’s no way I can do all this wrong as long as I’m trying to do it right. I suppose the only wrong way to live this life is not to live it at all. To be paralyzed by fear into complete non-connection. Even if we’re misguided, if we’re trying to connect, we’re still moving toward the light—maybe just a bit slower than we otherwise could.
Mostly, the wrongness we perceive is just that: a perception laid against some expectation or standard we carry around in our minds. What is really important in life? Productivity? Creating things that will outlive us? Nothing wrong with that, and those of us who produce well are the ones we know about and recognize as having accomplished something meaningful. But the meaning is not in the thing produced. It’s in the experience of life from which the thing is produced. The meaning is real whether the thing is produced or not. Production feels good; it stokes the part of ourselves begging for attention, and all things being equal, produce as much as you can if that’s what you enjoy. But things are not always equal, and we have to give ourselves permission not to produce when that production gets in the way of the connection that gives us meaning in the first place.
Holding that baby, that proof of life, if you let it, will give you all the meaning you need right now. All the meaning there is. You won’t be holding that baby long. It will be taken from you by time and circumstance. Then there will be some other proof of life for you to hold. But it all points to the same center. I suppose the ultimate productivity is recognizing the meaning in that center and doing whatever it is that connects us to it.
All this has to do with letting go of the image we have of ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. We see others doing and producing the things we think we should be doing and producing, and it makes us restless and unsettled and no longer present to the baby in our arms. But if we can let go of all that even just for the moment we’re holding the baby, then we can find the meaning that may produce something sometime later on–a product, a thing that someone else can hold in their hands and recognize as pointing to meaning. Or not. Doesn’t really matter, because in the end, nothing survives but the connections we made with the babies we held–of whatever age or species.
It seems to me you’re exactly in the center of the right place at the right time. But when circumstances shift, you’ll be in the center of a different right place and time. It’s up to us to make the circumstances right simply by abandoning ourselves to them, immersing in what they can show us of the center of that meaning. Right now, the baby is everything. Let it be everything, and you’ll start to get that sense of how everything is alright and will always be alright, if you allow.
I have to remind myself of all this daily. Or put another way, my good days are the days when I do remind myself…
Rain is falling outside the open window at my desk. Seems ages since I’ve heard the sound in the midst of this drought. I can almost hear the earth gratefully absorbing each drop, feel it slide all the way down like a cold drink on a hot day. Hard to work with my attention continually drawn outside. School children and parents walking to school under umbrellas; a little girl’s voice cuts through: my hair’s wet. So I give up for a few moments to write this. Reminds me of another moment just over twenty years ago that I captured in a journal entry. Before blogs, before another twenty years of life. But I can’t say it any better today…
Monday 2/7/94, 6:35 AM
Storm has been coming for two days. Right on schedule, storm is here.
Not much of a storm right now, just a gentle rain in the gray outside my half-opened window. The rain is hard enough to make continuous sound, but still light enough to hear individual drops. As I listen I can hear where they are falling: on concrete or the wide leaves of shrubbery, on the steel drums of the barbecue pits. I can hear where they are in space: some close, others falling into the middle distance of the courtyard, others much softer, blending into delicate white noise several hundred feet away. Little drops have made it through the maze of barren branches to directly hit their targets; other, larger drops have collected on branches or rain gutters and hit with a heavier splat.
It all makes a beautifully spacious music. I can’t tell you how pleasing it is to sit here in natural light and just be here sitting in natural light. Sitting. Listening. Trying to write, but drifting back off into the rain.
This storm has been coming for two days. I heard about it Saturday morning. After the rain Friday the air was clean and the patches of sky between the high, shifting cumulus formations were very blue. The way it only is here after rain. Immediately after. And I thought about this storm still hundreds of miles out to sea, squalling uselessly over the face of the water, unheeded except by satellites passing overhead and occasional ships underneath. After all, the fish couldn’t get any wetter.
It has been coming all this time. While I had lunch and read. While I came home and worked at the computer until 11:30. While I was running yesterday morning before church. While my pastor thundered his sermon. While I bought a friend a birthday present and then worked again at the computer until it was time to go to the birthday dinner.
And sometime while I slept, it arrived. The leading edges of the cloud system looked blindly down as the monotonous face of the water gave way to white diagonal lines of breakers dissipating against the sand and then to the strip of coastal highway beyond the sand and the six, short miles of rooftops and parking lots until it looked down and did not see the little, wooded courtyard outside my window.
Sometime while I slept the wind picked up a bit. Sometime while I slept the first drops began to fall.
All this without my knowledge or permission or volition. While I lived my last two days. While I slept. I simply wake up to the gift of this beautiful sound. To an hour of precious solitude with my window and my Lord and these words–that you had no idea were being written for you, while you lived your life and slept, and that have been on their way to you ever since; until the pages were placed in your hands to sit on your shelf; until you first cracked the cover and waded through page after page until you came to this very word.
And then moved on.
I am told the storm will last until tomorrow. Then we will have another clean, blue day. Eventually we will have another storm. I don’t know when. I am glad not to know such things. To wake up and find that storms need nothing from me, but graciously include me in all they have to give.
Eventually we will have another storm. I will try to spend some time with it also.
Love isn’t love if not freely chosen.
Love isn’t perfect until it sets the beloved perfectly free.
So the ability to choose not-love is absolutely necessary for love to exist…
…which means the evil done in the world is really proof of love…
Have I overstated this? Maybe. Not sure. Increasingly don’t think so.
Since we’ve been writing on cave walls, evil has been a problem. Why do we do what we do? Why is it done to us? A whole branch of philosophy, theodicy, is dedicated to justifying God’s existence in the presence of evil…a real problem for those who believe in only one God. Polytheists can have good gods and bad gods—problem solved. Atheists have no problem at all, of course, and agnostics just shrug. Monotheists have Satan, but that doesn’t let God off the hook; buck still stops at God’s desk. If there is only one God who is all powerful and all good and yet evil exists, pick any two, but you can’t have all three. If God doesn’t stop evil, he’s not all good; if he can’t, not all powerful.
We grieve and rage over the evil we see in the world and in our families for good reason—we cry to God to relieve us of the evil that we and others create as if it never should have existed in our universe. Evil is always painful, sometimes unspeakably so, but what would a world really look like without evil ever chosen? Only place you’d ever find absolute uniformity of choice would be where there is no choice.
Choice is the key ingredient, the part of us created in God’s image. Without a free choice, love is not love. If it’s coerced or purchased in any way, it’s a violation at worst, a transaction at best, but how is it love? And if Merton is right, if love is really identification with the beloved from which all loving behavior and emotion flows, then the choice to see ourselves as intimately connected, one with each other and God, must be no less free.
If we’re really not preprogrammed, if our choices really are free, then it is a mathematical certainty that some will choose one way and others differently. That’s the nature of choice. I know how Genesis reads, but as idiomatic Hebrew expression of God granting the beginning of choice in the Garden, seems to me the possibility still exists that people choosing all sorts of different paths was also part of the plan. That the evil we create is a necessary component of the interaction of faith and love, that wounding at the hands of life’s evil is essential to the endurance that produces a perfect result—a depth and maturity as James describes at the beginning of his book. And though it’s characterized as a curse, it’s not God doing the cursing, it’s just us in our fear, not yet ready to make choices in love.
In other words, the evil we create in life is actually proof of the possibility of perfect love…proof that we, as beloved, really have been set perfectly free to choose. The only way to know a choice is free is to have freely chosen every alternative. And once we’ve freely chosen, we learn for ourselves which choices point in the direction of life.
What if God really is love?
What if love really is the perfect freedom to choose to connect, to identify, to hold the beloved in the same breath we hold ourselves? To see beauty instead of weakness or risk in the vulnerability necessary for connection? What if real love can or will only create that which is equally free? Free to love back. Doesn’t mean our unloving choices are not evil. Just necessary. Proof of freedom.
Proof of love.
And what if we believe this enough to actually live it, become free enough to set free?
What if what we create is also free enough to choose other than ourselves?
Then maybe we become living proof of love.
And evil will continue. But so will love.
Faith and feet. The feet of faith…now there’s an association we don’t normally make–dots we wouldn’t imagine connect. Faith and heart maybe…faith and mind, faith and church, creed, religion…but feet? We venerate our Hebrew heroes of faith in scripture, read their stories, try to emulate them without ever coming to understand the nature of their faith, what they meant by having faith, or the great gulf between our notion of faith and theirs. When it comes to faith, we vote with our heads; our Hebrew heroes voted with their feet. For us, faith is what we think–it’s about what we think we believe or agree to believe. For ancient Hebrews, faith is what we do–it’s about how we live and the quality of our lives. For them, faith was never where your head could take you; it was where your feet could take you when your trust and confidence in God were secure. Faith was never relegated to spiritual or other-worldly meditations, but rooted and expressed in the flesh and blood moments of daily life.
And only there.
The Hebrew word aman means to believe and have faith, but only through trust: it means to support, nourish, confirm, make lasting. Related to aman is emet, which means truth, but only through firmness, sureness, reliability–and emunah is faithfulness as in constancy, steadfastness, stability. The word amen that we use untranslated comes directly from aman–to affirm what we believe is trustworthy, reliable, solid, lasting. Scriptural faith has nothing to do with thought and everything to do with consistent, confident action.
We think that to have faith is to have no doubt, as if faith and doubt are polar opposites. We may also think that to have courage is to have no fear, as if courage and fear are opposites. But faith and doubt are no more opposites than courage and fear. Courage is the ability to act in the presence of fear–without fear, there is no courage. And faith is the ability to act in the presence of doubt–without doubt, there is no faith. Doubt defines faith, makes it real. When we shift our faith from our heads to our feet, the opposite of faith is no longer doubt, but paralysis–the inability to move our feet. When we can move out in life as if certain things are true, even when evidence is absent; when we can live life as if all is well even when evidence is contrary; when we can look past the doubtful, fearful thoughts in our heads to see our feet still moving, carrying us toward the land God has promised, then we can place our feet in the circle beside those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Last Sunday after our gathering, as we were all milling about afterglowing, our little guy Brennan discovered the joys of a live microphone and began doing what he does best–talking. But what came out–just audible above the recorded music–silenced the knots of conversation around the room as we were all drawn one by one to that little voice. It didn’t make sense in the normal sense of that word…it wasn’t logical or sequential or even grammatical, but it created its own logic as it went along. And we could all read between the lines of a four year old mind struggling to put internal knowings into newfound language: “Love…I have my family, that’s for real…I have all my friends and that’s how I have my conversation…you are all, and thank you for that…living for Jesus…and now that you are all alive, that’s how the cross is going to…and that’s how you know it’s good to have love–Jesus.” At that point he walked off the stage, but then came running back a few seconds later to say, “Amen.”
When our children speak, we smile and nod and think “how cute” or “how touching,” even as we remain separated from and untouched by them–as if they’re little aliens having nothing in common with our world of adults. Yet Jesus quotes the psalmist to tell us that “out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have perfected praise.” Brennan’s prayer was an unfiltered look at the deepest experiences of his life. He knows what’s important; he knows what brings him life and safety, but he barely has language enough to express them. He opens his mouth and out come words he’s been taught…love, family, friends, Jesus…and he strings them together with…real, conversation, alive, thank you, and amen. He knows these sounds point to something central, but doesn’t know enough to think through grammar and syntax and logic. He just opens his mouth in a room full of people and unselfconsciously speaks, and in that speaking, praise is perfected, made complete. We think it’s cute, but of course much more is expected of us as adults–that we have to make sense, have to truly articulate our faith and our praise to make them real.
The moment we begin to understand that we can never make sense of faith or articulate our praise; that thoughts and words can never do more than point in the general direction of what’s really important; that no matter how old we get, we can never do better than Brennan or any child in expressing the inexpressible…in that moment of just letting out whatever’s in, something happens: our faith and our praise become perfect. Without understanding or making sense, we lose ourselves in a perfect moment.
Here for audio of Brennan’s prayer.