I'm reading a wonderful little book by Henri Nouwen called "Reaching Out, The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life." It's coming at a great time, when unlike most of the people I know, my life is amazingly tranquil. Yesterday I spent an entire day at peace, with not much to motivate me, and amazingly enough, no anxiety about not having more to do. I can feel guilty about the calendar being so empty, this extravagant gift of time in what is often a busy and hectic season. But yesterday, I was just able to live in the quiet and be.
Nouwen encourages his readers to move from loneliness to solitude, a way of being at peace in one's inner core. This leads to an ability to be hospitable, offering a free and open space for the stranger. The third movement is one that connects us to God in a deeper and more profound way. I happen to be reading concurrently "Into the Region of Awe, Mysticism in C. S. Lewis," by David Downing. I'm caught in a new way by the desire of those in the mystical tradition who, over the years, have sought to bring themselves ever more fully into the love and light of God. I think my soul is ready for this, is starting to desire the desire to be in the presence of God, basking in the glory of the Light of Lights.
Peace and light beckon like pole stars. They offer to guide us deeper into the gift of love we celebrate this season. May we find what we seek, and receive what is given this Christmas.
Until next year...
It's still fun to be me! Especially now that I've made peace with my poet wannabe self.
The Dilemma of a 51 year-old Former Lit Major
Or “A Tribute to Ogden Nash”
I’d like to pen a poem whose words
Dazzle lexophilic nerds.
The problem is, my mem’ry won’t
Cooperate, and so I don’t.
I settle for vernacular
(and hope it’s still spectacular.)
Some crows swooped into my neighborhood this morning. I couldn't help but wonder...
Do you know how to love a crow?
I'm not quite sure I truly know.
Would it be good enough to see
And name him, resting in my tree?
Let fall the way I’ve used his name,
“Oh, crows!”( They’re always first to blame
When corn is snatched from furrowed fields
Diminishing the harvest’s yields.)
And let the name be just the word
That helps me place this jet black bird?
Is this the way to love a crow?
To offer space? Let birdness show?
To notice how he swoops and swirls,
Is pestered by those silly squirrels?
Is this the way to love a crow?
Is this enough? I'd like to know.
Have you ever been in the dilemma where what you want to give and what the receiver needs are at odds? I often go shopping with a friend of mine who loves to buy clothes for her family members. The problem is that her taste and the taste of the giftees don't always match. There may be satisfaction as my friend buys something that she imagines will look wonderful on the recipient, but in reality, the gift will only be exchanged or put in a drawer until it finds its way to the Salvation Army drop off bin.
So what to do? For instance, as this Christmas rolls around, I find myself reluctant to be giving the gift of independence to my adult daughters. Are they really sure that they wouldn't prefer me to give them advice, for instance, or a lovely evening at home? The gift of independence may be delightful for them, but it leaves me feeling rather hollow. Yet if I love them, I know that I need to give them this gift; it allows them to become the healthy adults that I desire them to be. And I'm wise enough to know that if I don't choose to give the gift, independence will be wrested away from me anyway, resulting in broken edges and scars that bring their own pain.
In the midst of Advent, I find myself pushing the story forward to the Atonement, the real reason that Jesus came to earth. In some mysterious way, the death of a perfect human, who was also God with us (Emmanuel) was the gift we needed if we were to be able to experience a full and joyful life. But even Jesus, who willingly chose to come to earth for this exact purpose, realized that there was a personal cost to giving this gift. I think that's what we see happening in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus struggles through the physical and emotional pain he was going to incur on the cross.
I cannot in any way plumb even the first few feet of what this sacrificial giving cost the the Savior. But when I am open to giving gifts that seem to have no benefit to me, or are painful, or strip me of the comforts that I want, I think I am putting my toes in the ocean of God's willingness to love me at any cost.
Lately there's been a lot of press about how our food gets to our tables. We're encouraged to think about the life of the chicken or cow before it shows up as lunch or dinner. Was the chicken raised in a crate or the cow confined to a stall all of its life? There's a new connection being made between the quality of life of the animal before its slaughter and our own quality of life, one that's worth some extra cost and even a little inconvenience.
Which makes me wonder about the toys we buy for Christmas presents, or indeed, any of the mass-produced products which fill myriads of shelves during the holiday season. Under what conditions are these items produced? What is the quality of life of the person on the line, looking at day after day of putting the same piece on a doll or tape recorder, and then passing it along?
These aren't earth-breaking thoughts; people have been writing, making movies, protesting, trying to enact legislation around these issues for quite some time. In fact, since the dawn of the age of industrialization there has been a critique of the human cost of mass production. What got me thinking this morning came from more personal reflections.
I feel like I am waiting for a certain type of energy to return, the energy that allows me to be the "productive person" that I once used to be. The sort who would have a million projects going at once, pride herself on the amount of things accomplished in a week, love the adrenalin rush of completion under deadlines. The only problem was that I had to become a machine in order to keep up with my self-imposed quota. And I did so at the cost of being a true human being. Like Dr. Faustus, I "sold my soul" to the devil of accomplishment and reaped the reward of the bargain.
Thankfully, my body rebelled. It crashed and burned (an early "hell"), setting me on a course that has been years in the making. I've had to relearn what it means to live a life that's as human as it can be - a life that is full and healthy on all levels, spiritual, physical, mental and emotional, and that has appropriate times of action and reflection. I'm starting to realize that if I live into the fullness of God's tri-fold love: giving-love, enjoying-love and creating-love, my desire for productivity will be appropriately met. God, out of love, desires to create with me. And in the generosity and wisdom of His love, not only will He determine the pace, but He will provide the raw materials for the creativity. Best of all, at the end of the day, He will set aside the time to enjoy the finished product. We'll kick back, put our feet up, grab a cup of whatever brew you prefer, and smile with delight at the fruits of our labor.
There is something about the full-bellied "Ho-Ho-Ho" of the Santa Claus we encounter at Christmastime which embodies a joyful heartiness. Perhaps you've experienced this positive energy in the presence of a friend or relative - someone whose infectious chortle or powerful guffaw leaves you believing deep down that things are not as dire as you'd previously thought. This indefatigable cheerfulness is often housed in a strong physique, making these friends welcome companions on a late night walk through an unknown neighborhood, or in tackling that unpleasant task that's been on your to-do list for the past several years.
In yesterday's Sunday School class, I was introduced to Marva Dawn's book "Truly the Church" (a study of Romans 12). As the teacher read to us, I was struck by Dawn's premise that Christians should be full of hilarity, a concept she draws from the phrase in verse 8 which in the context of spiritual gifts states: "if (one's gift) is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully." I've always interpreted this phrase as meaning one shouldn't give up on being merciful and become grumpy with the task. Since mercy is reaching out to those in pain or difficulty, it can be wearisome, taking its toll on the one extending mercy, like taking out the daily trash, only more so. So I assumed Paul was saying, "Hey, don't complain, just keep at it!"
But Dawn states that the idea of cheerfulness here comes from the Greek word which is also the root for our English word "Hilarious." And that this hilarity is anchored in the deep, deep conviction that a Good and Powerful God is in control. Instead of seeing the mercy-giver as one who is obediently plugging along, the picture that comes to mind is being rescued by someone strong and ebullient.
"Yes, little lady," says the huge giant of a man, his hands full of calluses, his clothes a little worn, his eyes twinkling underneath a threadbare flannel cap. The weather-worn face glows in the morning sun as he reaches down to pick me up from where I lie. I grimace. My ankle is probably swollen, maybe even broken. I've been out-of-doors since yesterday afternoon and feel weak and shaky. "We'll get you out of that trouble you're in and back to the farmhouse in a jiffy. The missus'll cook ya up some grits and eggs and bacon and hot coffee (probably put in a little brandy) and maybe a piece of pie. You hold on tight, now. Ever'thing's gonna be jus' fine."
I wonder how often my image of God includes that of hearty, confident joy as he willingly extends His limitless mercy. At Christmas, I am prone to imagine angels singing their joyful tidings like the Canterbury Cathedral Chorus, with rounded vowels and close harmonies that echo and reverberate off the stone and stained glass. Powerfully ethereal, it touches my heart. But if I think hearty, I need to go back to Whoopi Goldberg and the chorus of nuns bringing down the house with their rendition of Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.
There are many flavors of joy. But when things seem desperate, we want to be saved by someone who is strong and confident. We want to piggy-back onto a profound confidence that "all is well, and all manner of things will be well" (the familiar refrain of Julian of Norwich). When we're in need of mercy, we want to be rescued by a hearty God, full of power and a deep-seated joy.
Early this morning my husband and I talked with our oldest daughter, who is returning from a week long visit to Cambodia. One of her goals in life is to travel to all 7 continents. At 28 she's well on her way, having added Asia to North and South America, Africa and Europe. Her voice was animated. Cambodia was all that she had hoped for. The people were wonderful, the food was tasty, inexpensive AND gluten-free, and the friend she went to visit was a wonderful tour guide.
Desire can be a powerful motivator. The desire to go to Cambodia spawned a lot of creativity, as Aletheia figured out how she could acquire miles to make the trip affordable. It required imagination and hard work. On the other hand, lack of desire, often masquerading as noble, may really be an unhealthy acquiescence, giving up or giving in.
I remember the first Christmas that my hyped-up anticipation of the joy I would receive from my Christmas presents was not met. The packages had all been opened and I looked around the room, filled with family, cousins and grandparents, empty boxes covering every inch of floor space, and felt...empty. My desires had been unmet and the uncomfortable feeling of being dissatisfied dogged me the rest of the day. I made a decision. I was going to stop hoping for Christmas to be much of anything. I would assume that I probably wouldn't be happy with what I received, and so ward off the disappointment that would inevitably be a part of all Christmases to come. As a strategy it worked, but I'm not sure my life was the fuller for taking that path.
We can't flee from our desires. Neither does God want us to stuff them in a sack and bury them in the backyard. Rather, we should treat them as signposts, letters from our souls. They help to tell us what we need and perhaps the direction we should be heading. They spur us on to creativity and imagination. They make us think about what it takes to be fulfilled. Perhaps on the surface they are unrealistic, or even harmful in their immaturity. But they spring from something essential to our very nature. Even the desire to have power, for instance, may be telling us about the capacity we have to lead. And the desire to have a significant relationship may showcase the ability to love deeply that is knit into the core of who we are.
In one of my favorite psalms, the poet assumes that God has planted desires in his heart and that God is responsible for the filling of those desires. "May God grant you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed." says David, in Psalm 20, verse 4. A good prayer for us all, not only at Christmas time, but every day of our lives.