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.
Ignorance or experience? When you look at an image like this you have to wonder. How does a person stand calmly in a doorway when the end of all things is apparently approaching from behind? Was this a rogue wave of which the lighthouse keeper had no knowledge, or had he weathered dozens of storms and knew exactly the tolerances of his tower? Either way, he probably got really wet in the next frame. Ignorance or experience…it’s said that ignorance is bliss–why not experience?
When Mother Teresa was asked by someone to pray that he would find clarity, she refused. When the questioner asked why, she replied that “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When he commented that she always seemed to have the clarity for which he longed, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity, what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
From the outside in, trust looks like clarity because someone who really trusts can calmly stand in the doorway of a wave-besieged lighthouse when all others are running and screaming. From the inside out, the person who trusts has no more clarity than we’ve got, but their trust tells them that somehow everything will be just fine–or more to the point: everything is fine. We spend our lives looking for certainty in an uncertain age. But every age is uncertain, because life is uncertain: certainly not what we expect. Until we truly experience the certainty of God, we’ll be forever scanning the horizon for waves and ducking for cover at each swell. Or we’ll move to Idaho and dig a bunker.
Ignorance [unknowing] is better than clarity if at least it gives us bliss.
But trust [experience of the certainty of God] is the only thing that takes us home.
A friend called and asked if I would speak to a friend of hers–a cancer patient who was staring down a hard road of chemotherapy and radiation. I didn’t know him or his family, but my friend said she thought he could really use a chance to talk through some spiritual issues with which she knew he was struggling.
I said if he was willing, I sure was, and our first two conversations got all the basics out of the way: I learned about his condition, how rare it was and how difficult to treat. How he was only 38, a construction supervisor who had been let go after several months of inability to work, having to move his family into his mother-in-law’s home because finances were so tight. I learned about his wife and two small boys and how they were dealing with his illness–wife pushing through with busyness, boys young enough to be oblivious… And little by little I began to hear about him, about all that had to be going on inside. But with each little personal glimpse, he’d smile and take a sip from the water bottle he always had near and quickly say that he just had to push through, fight on no matter what.
Then I got a call from his wife saying that the chemo had worn a hole in his esophagus, which couldn’t be closed with surgery without too much risk, which now meant he couldn’t do radiation anymore, or perhaps the other way round… But like the moment on a chessboard when you can see two or three moves ahead that you’re just checkmated no matter where you move, there was no more that could be done. She said he was too weak to come to our offices now and would I come to their home, and on the way over, acutely aware of the significance of the moment, I began to plan the conversation as I often find myself doing, then forced myself to stop. To just show up and respond to what he actually had to say instead of any of my best imaginings was all I could do. What could I possibly say of value to someone in checkmate that didn’t come out of our moment together? What could I possibly bring in from the outside that could be relevant…other than myself?
He met me at the door and already looked older and thinner. Moving slowly, he took me out to the back patio where we sat under a slatted cover in bright sunlight, only the water bottle between us. The smile was gone, but he led the conversation with his fight on attitude until I asked him pointedly how he was really feeling. He simply said, “tough.” That the hardest part was the thought of leaving his family—his wife, the boys. Then he stopped and stared for a couple beats and out of the blue asked, “Do you believe in guardian angels?” And his voice broke, and his curtain parted, and I saw that everything he was, all emotion and hope and everything he was fighting for lay in that one question. Would his family be protected, guarded, guided without him here? Would he, could he possibly be assigned to that task? What would be his role, his purpose, his identity after checkmate? The sum of all fears in a single, seeming non-sequitur.
I said yes I do believe, though I don’t know how it works. No one can know how it works, but I believe in a God who protects and guides and guards whether through angels or us or anything in between. And then, out of the blue, I remembered a moment in first grade Catholic school when a girl in the row next to me asked the nun if she would have her dog in heaven, and I wondered if I should share my own non-sequitur with him, if what was coming to me out of our moment was of any real value or relevance. I told him the nun simply responded, “If you want your dog, you’ll have your dog.” See, that’s it. We don’t know how it works, but in God’s presence there is no felt need. In God’s presence the sum of all our fears has no meaning. If you want your dog, you’ll have your dog. If you want your family protected and guided, they will be–in ways we just can’t know right now.
His head went up and down as if in agreement or at least understanding, but he took a sip from his water bottle, and I watched the curtain close again. His mother-in-law sent me an email just last week to tell me he had died suddenly in his sleep the day before. I’d like to think that our talks helped. That in his last few weeks, he came to trust things he couldn’t possibly know. I can’t know if I helped, but I do know that now the tables are turned: that he now knows what I can only speculate, that he has whatever dog he wants, and that there are certainly some questions I’d like to ask him. But not yet.
Last Saturday I was honored to be asked to officiate the wedding of the daughter of a good friend of mine. Amid the usual pre-wedding chaos of last minute setup, groom waiting impatiently for his best man to arrive (late because he was actually at a store at that moment buying a pair of black shoes to go with his suit–I am not making this up–nice shoes, though), bridesmaids primping and attending the bride in her beautiful dress, photographer flashing in all directions…a little girl, about four years old caught my eye. Gorgeous little thing with huge dark eyes and long dark hair. Turned out to be the flower girl named Madeline who wasn’t going to throw petals but carry a bunch, she told me.
At the climax of the ceremony with bride and groom facing each other in front of me, I ask if they have their rings. And in that breathless moment when you could hear a pin drop as the best man in his new shoes and the maid of honor are producing the bands and giving them to the almost new couple, a little flower girl voice pipes up at full volume, “I want a ring too!”
It takes a while to recover from that kind of laughter.
Now I get to thinking that we have and always will continue to to draw on Jesus’ parallels between children and Kingdom, but sometimes a moment just rises up and slaps you in the face with its simplicity and unselfconscious exuberance. We all want rings too, don’t we? We all want to be brides and grooms in beautiful clothes at the center of attention in that breathless moment before launching into new lives and new love. We all want rings too–but how many of us will just blurt it out in front of a big room full of people?
Why is it only the four year olds among us who have the audacity to announce their hearts’ desires and fully extend toward them. It’s not so much about not caring what people may think as much as not even being aware that anyone is watching or listening at all as we move fully extended toward life and love and all the things that really matter. It’s about being so immersed in the dance that nothing but I and Thou and the Music exist as we reach, with everything that is in us, for new life–creating beautiful lines of expression in the process.
If this face doesn’t make you smile right now, then something’s really wrong. There was a line I remember from a movie I forget that went, “If it’s bad news, I generally do believe it.” I think that sums up much of our human condition. We are conditioned to believe bad news and minimize or rationalize away the good. Either we don’t think we deserve it, or we’re afraid it won’t last. And whether we believe we’ve blown too many chances or taken too few risks or good guys finish last or bad guys are never blessed, we often put up impenetrable force fields between us and the possibility of simply sitting in a field and letting the breeze blow our ears over our heads.
Does your faith life make you feel like this?
Difficult times do occur, and tragedies come without warning, but most often the distance between us and that field is a simple willingness to be there, present in whatever field we find ourselves. God is everywhere, but everywhere is just one place–this place, right here, right now. When we hurt, when the moment hurts, we run from the pain and ironically from the only source of comfort we will ever know. To lean into the moment, to be present even to difficult circumstances is to also be present to God’s spirit, the Way through the difficulty. When you find yourself rehearsing the same dark thoughts and feeling the same dark feelings, at the moment you become aware of them, take a breath and lean in–really look into someone’s eyes and hear them, really see the scenery around you, feel the task at hand, immerse yourself in each breath, and let God blow your ears around. Take just a moment’s vacation from your bad news, so you can begin to believe the good.
Repeat as often as necessary.
Last Sunday we talked about the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who under the most difficult of conditions remained not only steadfast in his own faith, but found the presence of God and therefore beauty even amid the horrors of the darkest days of the second World War. He was a light and a comfort to his people and helped them live rich and meaningful lives despite their hardships. He repeatedly refused offers of escape from the Nazi imposed ghetto and concentration camps in order to remain with his people and was eventually shot to death by camp guards.
Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943)
When we look at his picture, we see someone who seems so alien to us–at once ancient and culturally incomprehensible. But surface differences aside, he represents the epitome of a spiritual leader, pastor, rabbi, priest: a shepherd who wouldn’t leave his sheep even in the face of personal danger, a follower who continued to see the presence of God regardless of circumstances. For any of us desiring to truly follow our God and help others follow as well, Shapira is not alien at all, but as close as our next breath. There is so much more that connects than separates us when we begin to understand that our circumstances don’t dictate our awareness of God’s presence–our awareness of God’s presence in each moment dictates our perception of circumstances.
Thanks to my friend George Jenkins who sent this interesting shot that got me thinking…
Sometimes the difference between possible and impossible is just a matter of perspective.
What is God’s will for my life?
As a pastor, this is probably the question I hear most, often in anguished tones. When uncertainties overwhelm, when meaning and purpose are just words devoid of meaning and purpose, fear sets in that the life we are living is not the life we ought to be living. Bearable only so long. But in looking for God’s will as an unknown out there somewhere to be found, we have already assumed that it is a what, an object, a fully formed plan in God’s mind. As insurance against the risk of a wrong choice, we want to know in advance what course to follow, what job to take, what school, what spouse, what career. God has the plan but he’s not telling, so we must figure it all out and execute perfectly or our lives will never be what they ought to be. Pressure.
But is God so coy with his will? Does God play hide and seek with the most important thing we need to be fully human? In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the word for will is sebyana, which literally means pleasure, desire, delight, deepest purpose. Turns out God’s will is really his bliss: what delights him and causes pleasure–never separated from himself as object is separated from subject. Turns out that God’s will is not a what at all, but a how, a way of living life always revealing deepest purpose. And there is no doubt about the how of God’s will; he is shouting it from the rooftops, full volume, full extension. To simply leave people better than we found them; to love them as we love ourselves; to forge unity where we encounter separation is everything we’ll ever need to know. The rest is commentary.
I don’t know that God cares what we do. But he cares deeply how we do what we do. It’s the how that defines us, not the what. And with the right how, any what will do. But if this is true, then what do we do? What do we choose from all the dizzying array of choices each moment presents? I think Joseph Campbell, the great teacher and writer on comparative religion and mythology said it best:
“My general formula for my students is ‘Follow your bliss.’ Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.” “…if you do follow your bliss…the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
Turns out we mostly get it backward–desperately looking for the life we ought to be living when all along, once the bliss we’re following has become the same as the bliss God is following, then the life we ought to be living is always the one we already are.
In my message Sunday, I let slip that I’d just passed my tenth anniversary as a pastor, and that at mile markers along the way, you tend to take some time to parse the journey a bit. It occurred to me to wonder whether I had been “called” to ministry or just chose it for myself and whether it really mattered. And throwing around terms like being called or annointed or gifted or led caused me to want to riff on the peculiar way we Christians use language, which is now being called “Christianese…a language used in the Christian subculture and understood easily only by other practicing Christians.”
What these terms and phrases mean to us versus what they may actually describe of the mechanics of God’s involvement with humankind is for another time. Right now I just want to have some fun. Sharing the following list of Christianese translations Sunday, I got so many people asking for them, I’m putting them all right here. They’re just pulled from the internet and anonymously written as far as I can tell, so can’t even give credit…
As a public service, here are some common phrases used in the church, along with their English-language equivalents:
Christianese: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Translation: “I’m totally clueless.”
Christianese: “If it be God’s will.”
Translation: “I really don’t think God is going to answer this one.
Christianese: “Lord willing . . .”
Translation: “You may think I’ll be there, but I won’t.” (more…)
If you’ve never doubted your faith, you’re not taking it seriously enough. Some thoughts on the proper place of doubt…
Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.
Faith keeps many doubts in her pay. If I could not doubt, I should not believe.
Henry David Thoreau
Faith which does not doubt is dead faith.
Miguel de Unamuno
Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.