The Revised Common Lectionary, a compendium of Biblical passages read in churches each week of the liturgical year, today includes the following verse:

“For our momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure and proportion….” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Meditating on scriptures like this can bring to mind interesting thoughts and images, as it did for me today:

Affliction weighs too much sometimes,
enormous gravity that hangs on limbs and ligaments;
shoulders slouch and legs shuffle.

Odd then that such hardship fortifies us
not for the succor of relief but for another weight,
that being glory.

As lilacs have endured the heft of winter cold
that they may then be burdened with the fireworks
of fragrant flowers

so too will we be resurrected in seraphic Spring,
bursting with great blooms of glory,
extravagant beyond all measure.

“Sermon on the Mount” by Aurel Naray. Image: http://www.hungarianartmastergallery.com

Blessed are the destitute, the desperate,
the bankrupt and impoverished,
the penniless, insolvent and exhausted,
all those who know they lack.

Blessed are those who bleed,
cut by the knives of race and class;
blessed are the aberrant,
eccentric, odd, and offbeat,
peculiar, queer, or freakish.

What, though, of the stiff and solid,
punctilious and diligent,
respected and presentable;
what of those who sit on
straight-backed chairs counting silver,
stashing it in sacks?

Which group will be welcomed
into the coming kingdom of rejoicing seas,
elated fields, and delighted, singing trees?
In the teeter-totter world
where the lowly are uplifted
and the pompous are pushed down,
open my hermetic seal to let
the pressured air of pride hiss out.
In emptiness alone
can I be filled.

Here is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6, written after I had been hiking on wooded trails in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

I walk among the fallen trees
recumbent on a mat of leaves;
no matter that they once reached high,
they’ve yielded life, surrendered pride.

One day I’ll join them, lying down
and, north or south, it’s still the ground
that will receive my tired limbs
consumed by rot, or felled by wind.

Until that day I’ve no complaint;
I’ll watch the clouds, receive the rain
divide my share by spilling seed
to sprout out from the teeming peat.

I’ve cast my bread, and it’s come back
in countless ways; it’s only apt
that God be praised, for it is he
who planted, nurtured, treasured me.

Image from newengland/today/Aimee Seavey

I live life in a bumper car
swirling around an amusement park corral.
Collisions will occur, whether by intent
or accident. Some impacts may be jolting
but family and school, church and community
have so swaddled me in a robust ring of rubber
that I bounce off whenever there’s a clash,
startled but essentially unharmed.

Some people have no bumpers to absorb the shocks,
just flimsy metal sheets that collapse on impact.
Those who flee in fear to the furthest corner
they can find are of this sort, as are those
who in pain and fury try to inflict
as many dents as they endure.
There are also the courageous.
Though unbuffered, they take it as duty
to venture out each day, knowing
that wounds await but
commending all to God.

 

I am practicing the discipline of writing a poem every Sunday; I’ve posted a couple of them on this site. I’ve recently finished reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of the poems I’ve written were in response to Dante the pilgrim’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. For example, in Canto III of Paradiso, Dante arrives at the lowest sphere of heaven, where he encounters Piccarda Donati, the sister of an old friend of his. He asks whether she is satisfied here or instead yearns for a higher position. She replies that she is completely content, telling him to:

“think carefully what love is and you’ll see
such discord has no place within these rounds,
since to be here is to exist in Love.” The Portable Dante, tr. Mark Musa)

Dante reflects, “Then it was clear to me that every where of Heaven is Paradise.”

It seemed to me that Piccarda’s mindset could serve us well here on earth, that we, too, can everywhere live in God’s love, if only we look at the world through that lens. As I wrote, I thought about walking the day before through a park. The calendar still said winter, but spring was clearly afoot. Here’s the poem:

If “every where of heaven is paradise,”
then what in all creation is excluded?

Today’s a joint where winter bends towards spring:
snowpiles wounded by the warmth
bleed bracing rivulets;
the sun’s become a bright and blushing debutante;
trees yet unbudding stretch tall so golden rays
can trace their fuzzy silhouettes;
marsh grasses from last summer weave tan tangles
that, like oldsters everywhere, murmur
about their former days of glory.

Where can I go that heaven won’t infuse?
Even in a darkened room
sunlight pokes its fingers through the blinds
and, in the splay, blissful dust specks dance.
So I sit in my cell as in paradise.
To be here (or anywhere)
is to exist in love.

 

 

In a remarkably short period of time the coronavirus has changed how people throughout the world are living their lives. Here in the U.S., we are exhorted over and over again to practice social distancing—to stay home as much as we can and, should we have to venture out, to remain at least six feet away from those we encounter. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases tells us that we’ll need to practice these restrictions for several more weeks at minimum. That degree of restriction will be difficult for many of us to handle.

I was thinking of all of this when I read the lectionary passages that a large number of churches will read this Sunday (or would read if they could have services). I was particularly struck by the psalm that the Revised Common Lectionary uses this the fourth Sunday in Lent. It is Psalm 23, David’s psalm of thanksgiving for God, the shepherd of his flock. It begins as follows:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.  (Ps. 23:1–3, RSV)

That passage speaks to me in this time of trouble. Many now fear want; David tells us that the shepherd anticipates the needs of his sheep and makes provision for them. It’s interesting that the first thing the shepherd has the sheep do is lie down. That suggests that what the sheep needs most is rest and stillness. Though I’m partly retired, most of the time I have a variety of projects going on, so rest is usually in short supply. Maybe the coming weeks will be a time to stop the busyness and “lie down.” And then I might discover that I don’t need to look elsewhere for green pastures; God has already provided them where I am.

Once the shepherd has brought the chaos we’ve created to a halt, we are more inclined to hear his voice and follow him as he leads us beside still waters–places of peace and refreshment. I’m inclined to be on the outlook for tumultuous waters, and I find plenty of those in the news stories that my phone, computer, and TV direct me to every day. The challenge will be to push those aside and notice the still waters I’m being led to walk beside. Following him there, my soul will be restored.

And that in turn will prepare me to be led in the paths that are right for me. For some of my life I think I’ve been on such a right path; other times I’ve strayed far away. I didn’t set out to stray; I was on a good and healthy path, then I wasn’t, and was uncertain how that had happened. Perhaps I stopped listening to the shepherd. Perhaps he wanted me to just lie down for a while, to let him take care of me until I relaxed and trusted enough to see what was the best path to take going forward. I hope I can use the next several weeks of social distancing as a time to lie down in God’s good pasture, follow him beside still waters, and, restored, listen to his guidance for the path ahead.

 

I recently went on an Alpha retreat at Maranatha Conference Center near Lake Michigan. We could walk down to the beach, and, though the day was cold and blustery, many of us did, and climbed from there to an outlook deck. Here’s the view from the site:

The stiff wind blowing off the lake reminded me of the description of the Holy Spirit as breath or wind, and the tumult of the waves reminded me of the chaos that, according to the book of Genesis, the Spirit hovered over at the beginning of creation. The next day, I wrote the following poem about that moment:

Come Holy Spirit

The breakers roil, but I am heading up above them,
climbing wooden stairs in search of a deck floating
atop the hill, levitating amidst the bare-branched
trees. I leave a bit of breath behind on the climb,
but, summiting, I’m met with a greater breath, wind
across the waves, rushing through the pristine space
vast between the scudding clouds and troubled waters.

I spread my arms, mindless of the cold, gathering
as much as I can of the robust wind, for it recalls
the fullness of God’s hovering, fecund Spirit
above the primal deep, world-birthing, propagating,
molding, making, all-creating. Let the sea in all
its fullness roar. Breathe on us, Lord, that we may
be renewed. Come Holy Spirit, come, I pray.

I recently read Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. For her, the regular, mundane events of our daily lives are practices that shape our souls. She finds the spiritual significance of such apparently unpromising candidates as making the bed, brushing teeth, and getting stuck in traffic. In a previous post, I wrote about her experience with losing keys. In this post I’ll reflect on one of these familiar events pregnant with meaning, namely eating leftovers.

Most of us, I would venture to say, have more unremarkable than memorable meals. We eat the same thing again and again. Sometimes, as with Warren, it’s reheated from the night before. Her taco soup was just a quick and easy way to feed the family, and reheating some of it for lunch was particularly uninspiring. Yet such humdrum meals are important. Warren says,

“Thousands of forgotten meals have brought me to today. They’ve sustained my life. They were my daily bread.” p. 65

I, too, mostly eat what’s unremarkable. My diet is rather monotonous–usually oatmeal and boxed cereal for breakfast; fruits and veggies, yogurt, and bread for lunch; and soup and a salad for dinner. It doesn’t take much preparation, is cost-effective, and is environmentally friendly. It’s simple but nutritious. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to remember the specifics of any of those meals eaten more than just a few days ago.

Warren pauses to pray before she eats, offering thanks to God. This reminds her that everything we have is a gift from him. Such gratitude for things large and small is in fact a spiritual practice, one that gradually replaces the grasping hands of self-sufficiency with the open hands of receptivity to what God supplies. It’s easy to undervalue the foods we eat and the large and complex system that delivers them to us:

“This abundance, the sheer amount and variety of food and the ability to keep it for days, would astound much of the world and most people throughout history. But I have been dulled to the wonders before me. I take this nourishment for granted.” p. 68

Once in a while, when shopping at the local supermarket, I’m struck by the abundance and variety of what is there. Within those four walls is a veritable horn of plenty–foods from across the world, fresh, frozen, baked, cooked, pickled, butchered, roasted, juiced, homogenized, pasteurized, dried, or prepared in countless other ways, transported here by boat, train, plane, or truck, all available for a fraction of the money in my wallet. Most of the time, I am, like Warren, “dulled to the wonders before me.” I do a little better at the local farmers market, where much of the bounty on display was grown within a fifty-mile radius, often by those there selling it to me. Somehow, it’s easier to direct gratitude locally. especially when I receive the food from the grower’s hand. There is of course just as much reason to be thankful for food from far-away fields tended by farmers I’ll never meet.

We do not live by bread alone. As Warren notes, the central acts of Christian worship, Word and Sacrament, are comparable to the food we eat each day. “Both are necessary because both, together, are our nourishment.” (p. 63) And, like our meals, the Word of God in Scripture sometimes seems mundane or tasteless:

“There are times we approach Scripture, whether in private study or gathered worship, and find it powerful and memorable–sermons we quote and carry around with us, stories we tell of being impacted and changed. There are other times when the Scriptures seem as unappetizing as stale bread. I’m bored or confused or skeptical or repulsed.” p. 67

What to do when the Word is dry or tasteless?

“We keep eating. We receive nourishment. We keep listening and learning and taking our daily bread. We wait on God to give us what we need to sustain us one more day.” p. 67

There were times in my life when I didn’t seem to get much out of reading Scripture. For the most part, I managed to follow Warren’s advice: I continued to go to it for sustenance, just as I continued to eat foods that didn’t seem particularly appealing. And, just as food does nourish me in ways I don’t understand, the Word somehow nourishes me. Some portion of it has become a part of me, just as molecules from meals I’ve eaten have been incorporated into my cells. I’m a different person than I would have been had I not regularly chewed on Scripture–less egotistical, braver, more at peace. Both physically and spiritually, I’m sustained by God’s good gifts. Some of those gifts seem mundane, some extraordinary, but each is remarkable in its own way.

 

I recently read Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. For her, the regular, mundane events of our daily lives are practices that shape our souls. She finds the spiritual significance of such apparently unpromising candidates as making the bed, brushing teeth, and losing keys. This post is about the last of those everyday events.

When she loses her keys, Tish begins with rational problem-solving. When she still can’t locate them, she proceeds to self-condemnation, then anger and blaming others. She searches frantically, then tries to regain her equanimity with self-talk and a quick prayer. Finally she lapses into despair. A little while later, she finds her keys under the couch.

We’ve all been there, losing perspective and panicking over some relatively minor aggravation. Warren points out that such events are more than minor inconveniences. They are apocalypses.

An apocalypse is not just an ancient literary genre characterized by extraordinary creatures, destruction, and divine intervention. The root word actually means “an unveiling or uncovering.” Warren explains this apocalyptic character of her lost keys as follows:

“In my anger, grumbling, self-berating, cursing, doubt, and despair, I glimpsed, for a few minutes, how tightly I cling to control and how little control I actually have. And in the absence of control, feeling stuck and stressed. those parts of me that I prefer to keep hidden were momentarily unveiled.” p. 52

I have such apocalypses regularly. Sometimes it’s about losing something, though losses usually don’t make me melt down to the extent that Warren describes. There are plenty of other situations that are more revealing for me:

  • The train from St. Louis to Chicago is running late and I might miss the train to Michigan. I tell myself that the worse result from not getting there in time would be that I would have to reschedule a few appointments tomorrow and spend the night in a hotel that Amtrak is paying for. Still I fret for hours (and end up missing my connection by 10 minutes). Apocalypse.
  • At my mom’s house, I want to use the kitchen sink but my mom is there. I wait impatiently, annoyed that she’s not moving faster. Truth be told, in my pride I think I’m more important than her and should have access to the sink whenever I want it. Apocalypse.
  • The stock market goes into free fall. I am concerned about my investment accounts. I spend way too much time checking the latest price of the stocks I hold. I tell myself that my security depends on God rather than on my account balance, yet I’m acting as if the opposite were true. Apocalypse.
  • I’m out in the yard when a young woman wearing a sleeveless blouse and short shorts strides by. I stop what I’m doing and watch her. What’s going on in my mind? I’m objectifying her. I’m evaluating her attractiveness, as if she is of greater worth if she is curvy and cute than if she is plump and plain. Apocalypse.

I can make excuses for each of these, saying that they are minor faults that don’t hurt anyone. Yet fretfulness and self-importance and greed and objectification hurt me and also affect how I relate to others. Better to do as Warren suggests:

“In these small moments that reveal my lostness and brokenness, I need to develop the habit of admitting the truth of who I am–not running to justify myself or minimize my sin. And yet, in my brokenness and lostness, I also need to form the habit of letting God love me, trusting again in his mercy, and receiving again his words of forgiveness and absolution over me.” p. 56

This twofold process–admitting how we’ve strayed and accepting God’s forgiveness–isn’t original with Warren. It comes from the time of confession found in many worship liturgies. This practice is essential to our spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being. It also prepares us for gratitude and praise. Thank God for ordinary apocalypses–when we respond with confession and trust, they are the means by which we’re being made whole.

FIRST REFORMED, Ethan Hawke, 2017. ©A24/ Everett Collection.

I recently saw the movie First Reformed on DVD (having missed the theatrical run last year). The film is writer-director Paul Schrader’s most significant work in years, and Ethan Hawke has been widely praised for his portrayal of Reverend Ernst Toller, the troubled pastor at a historic church in upstate New York. The church has only a handful of members and is being kept alive through the efforts of Abundant Life, a local megachurch whose theology and approach to ministry are far removed from First Reformed’s Calvinism (Schrader does know Calvinism, having grown up in the Christian Reformed Church, a North American bastion of Calvinist beliefs. I’m from the same tradition, and in fact attended the same church-related high school and college as Schrader did).

Most of the plot has to do with Toller’s efforts to help Mary, a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried), and her husband Michael, a radical environmentalist who despairs for the planet and is opposed to bringing a child into it. Toller tries to foster hope in Michael, using arguments like the following:

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

If you don’t find that a stirring call to a meaningful life, well, I don’t either. The problem may be that Toller is himself forlorn. He is a former military chaplain who encouraged his son to enlist. When his son was subsequently killed, his wife left him. He tells Michael,

“I can promise you that whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.”

Much of what we learn about Toller’s interior life comes in the form of voice-overs from the journal he resolves to keep for a year. His intent is:

“To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy.”

He quickly displays such mercilessness towards himself:

“I look at the last lines I wrote with disdain.”

A few days afterwards, he’s again faulting his efforts:

“When I read these words I see not truth but pride.”

He’s even critical of his criticism:

“I wish I had not used the word ‘pride’ but I cannot cross it out.”

Give it a rest, dude! Your self-loathing is getting in your way.

Toller describes his journal as a means of communication, “a form of prayer,” though he later laments that he is unable to pray. Apparently, talking to himself in his journal is an attempt to obliquely talk to God. It isn’t quite true that he can’t pray–when Mary asks him to pray for her, he does so without hesitation. He just can’t take himself before God. This is despair of the Kierkegaardian sort, not over God or the state of the world but over having to be oneself.

Toller is what the 19th century philosopher and psychologist William James called a “sick soul,” a person whose view of everything is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence.” Even if the sick soul believes that evil will eventually be overcome by a greater good (as Toller apparently does, since he leads the congregation in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which points to Christ as savior), evil is not easily dismissed. By contrast, Reverend Jeffries, the pastor of Abundant Life, exemplifies James’ contrasting “healthy-minded” religious type, the optimist who is taken by the goodness of life and dismisses the seriousness of evil. Jeffries tries to be pastoral towards Toller, but there’s no crossing the gulf between them.

A while later, there’s another revealing voice-over from the journal:

“Some are called for their gregariousness. Some are called for their suffering. Others are called for their loneliness. They are called by God because through the vessel of communication, they can reach out and hold beating hearts in their hands. They are called because of their all-consuming knowledge of the emptiness of all things that can only be filled by the presence of our Savior.”

Toller is such a lonely, desolate disciple, responding to the call but in travail. Though he states that Christ’s presence can fill his emptiness, that’s not what he’s experiencing. In his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius of Loyola describes the contrasting states of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation as follows:

“I call it consolation when some interior movement is caused in the soul, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord…. I call consolation every increase of hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Savior and Lord.” From the Third Rule

“I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad and, as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord.” From the Fourth Rule

Per Ignatius, believers typically alternate between consolation and desolation. Except possibly at the very end of the movie, Toller receives no consolation, only desolation. Perhaps his compunction and self-reproach dam the flow of God’s mercy. I am, like Toller, more inclined to be sick-souled than healthy-minded. I am grateful that, unlike him, my spirit receives much more consolation than desolation.

When true consolation is absent, it’s tempting to seek ersatz consolations. Perhaps Toller’s growing fanaticism over environmental activism serves that purpose. He spends considerable time on Michael’s computer viewing sites that document  environmental degradation. He eventually has to choose between committing a violent act that would garner attention for the environmentalist cause and protecting the well-being of someone he cares for–you’ll have to see the movie to find out what he does. In the end, he may be heading toward recovery, but he’s still an ailing soul. It’s an unflinching portrayal of what might happen to any of us if we go too long without God’s consolations.