Our Ordinary Unmysterious Lives

Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery
those moments when we suddenly know there is a God
about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –
accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.

And more crucially:

definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering

that come into every life, and that tend to destroy
any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.

~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel sanctuary by Barb Hoelle

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. 
No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.

It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

walking to church in Tokyo


A World of Crowded Cups to Fill

sphere of pillowed sky
one faceless gathering of blue.
..

… I’m tethered, and devoted
to your raw and lonely bloom

my lavish need to drink
your world of crowded cups to fill.
~Tara Bray “hydrangea” from Image Journal

Like in old cans of paint the last green hue,
these leaves are sere and rough and dull-complected
behind the blossom clusters in which blue
is not so much displayed as it’s reflected;

They do reflect it imprecise and teary,
as though they’d rather have it go away,
and just like faded, once blue stationery,
they’re tinged with yellow, violet and gray;

As in an often laundered children’s smock,
cast off, its usefulness now all but over,
one senses running down a small life’s clock.

Yet suddenly the blue revives, it seems,
and in among these clusters one discovers
a tender blue rejoicing in the green.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Blue Hydrangea” Translation by Bernhard Frank

Dwelling within a mosaic of dying colors,
these petals fold and collapse
under the weight of the sky’s tears.

This hydrangea bears a rainbow of hues,
once-vibrant promises of blue
now fading to rusts and grays.

I know what this is like:
the running out of the clock,
feeling the limits of vitality.

Withering and drying,
I’m drawn, thirsty for the beauty,
to this waning artist’s palette.

To quench my thirst:
from an open cup, an invitation,
an everlasting visual sacrament.

Bread Broken

The bus releases you beside the bakery
at 5 AM. His light’s on. You can smell
the secret life of bread– the russet brawny
shoulders rising in the pan, yeast swelling
yearning toward croissants, pretzels, braided
curls of challah.
You give the baker money,
he gives you a loaf. Neither of you can say
the mystery you share like lovers. You shyly nod
and bear your loneliness to work
in helpless hands. Whatever it is, you can
not explain the one thing that matters.
You break
his bread at noon and fling it toward frozen
ducks on the millpond and you awaken
from what you’ve been.
You want to be bread broken.
~ Jeanne Murray Walker “Baker” from Pilgrim, You Find Your Path By Walking


We all harbor mystery; oftentimes we can’t even decipher what is in our hearts, much less communicate it to another. Breaking open may be the only way to reveal it but that can be too much for even the strongest of us.

We are not a mystery to God. We are transparent as shattered glass to Him when we are opaque to ourselves and others.

He knows our comings and goings, where our cracks are and where the glue continues to hold in what has already been repaired.

Most of all, He knows Himself what it means to be broken to feed others – flung and woke — even for those who turn their backs to a meal to freedom.

Corn Rows Flicking By

It was one of those days
when the sun poured gold
into the air, and flecks of
light floated in shafts that
fell through the branches
of yellow leaf and green.

We’d had dinner at a place
on the edge of a lake, and
now we were going back
to town. There was a simple
way to get there, but she
didn’t take it. Instead, we

drove the country roads
with the corn rows flicking by,
each one visible for a half
second, then gone. “Hello,
hello, hello,” they said, then
“Good-bye, bye, bye, bye.”

The soybeans, we agreed,
had turned burgundy overnight,
but it was the cornfields we
watched, as if we were waiting
for the waters to open, as if
we might cross over Jordan.

~Joyce Sutphen “Country Roadsfrom After Words

Traveling the country roads around here
can feel a bit like seeking the entrance
to the promised land:
we can see it,
just over there,
glowing with so much potential.
We haven’t quite found the way,
it flicks by so quickly.
It’s not yet our time, so
we tread hungrily on the outskirts
almost tasting the promise
and waiting for the invitation to come.



A Bright Sadness: Let Mercy Rain

Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, 
we recover our true humanity, 
and at the same time we are delivered 
from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, 
and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. 
By being partakers of Christ incarnate, 
we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from The Cost of Discipleship

On this Maundy Thursday
we are called to draw near Him,
to gather together among the
hungry and thirsty
to the Supper He has prepared.
He washes the dirt off our feet;
we look away, mortified.
He serves us from Himself;
we fret about whether
we are worthy.

We are not.

Starving and parched,
grimy and weary,
hardly presentable
to be guests at His table,
we are made worthy only because
He has made us so.

The cup and the loaf
You beckon me close
to commune
Like fruit on the vine
crushed into wine
You were bruised
Broken and torn
crowned with scorn
Poured out for all

Chorus:
All my sin
All my shame
All my secrets
All my chains
Lamb of God
Great is your love
Your blood covers it all

I taste and I drink
You satisfy me
With your love
Your goodness flows down
and waters dry ground
like a flood
Let mercy rain
Saving grace
Poured out for all

My sin, not in part
You cover it all,
You cover it all
Not in part,
But the whole
You cover it all,
You cover it all
It’s nailed to the cross.
You cover it all
You cover it all
And I bear it no more
You cover it all.
~Allie LaPointe and David Moffitt

A Bright Sadness: Stitched With His Color

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

~W.S. Merwin “Separation”

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.
~2 Corinthians 1:20

…you can read my heart, I hear you say:
For once be present to me, I am here,
Breathe in the perfect love that casts out fear
Open your heart and let your yea be yea.

Oh bring me to that brink, that moment when
I see your full-eyed love and say Amen.
~Malcolm Guite — “Amen”

We become restless and uneasy in our separation from God, broken and empty, feeling unknowable and unloveable — we need mending and stitching with God’s colored thread.

Our answer to Him should be “Yes”, over and over.

God tells us “Yes”, again and again, that we may know Him as He is one with us, part of our lives’ weave and tapestry.  Mere mortals like us experienced God born of flesh, as He walked, ate, slept among us.

Christ became the Yes, the consistent thread in our lives, the covenant God made with us. Still we pull away and say “No” as the unloveable are wont to do,  regularly and emphatically.

When young Mary was told the implausible and incomprehensible would happen to her, her response was not “No way–go find someone else”.  Her response was “Behold the willing servant of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.”   

She says, in essence “Yes!  And Amen!”

How often do we respond with such trust and faithfulness, accepting Christ as the ultimate “Yes” from God, who ensures our everlasting salvation?

Let it be. Let Him run through our lives like a thread that never breaks. Let our Yes be Yes.

The Ministry of Presence

 

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.

It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.

My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.

But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.

~Henri Nouwen from The Practice of the Presence of God

I do find myself too wrapped up in the trappings of the “useful” life – meetings, committees, schedules, strategic priorities – and forget there is so much living usefully that I neglect to do.

There needs to be more potlucks, more “oh, by the way” conversations, more connections “just because”, more loving people as I hope to be loved.

Wish I could invite you all over for breakfast. We’d have a wonderful chin wag.