Falling in Love with the Sea

The Open Sea
The immensity…

French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said: ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks…rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” 

Anna is on her death bed. She has battled Alzheimer’s disease for almost 10 years. She hasn’t recognized her family for quite some time and this reality has left her terrified, confused. She is often angry. She believes a host of people are trying to trick her. Every unknown day arises again the next with all the same complexity and uncertainty. As her caregiver assists her in preparing for sleep, she hears Anna sing just outside her door: “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”

She has forgotten every sermon she ever heard.

Every bible verse she ever memorized.

Every note she ever took in every bible study.

Every family member’s name.

But she remembers all the verses, word for word, of this great hymn. Why?

A young man in his late twenties battles with a choice. In his circle of friends, he has made the acquaintance of several lovely young women. He dates regularly. These women are delightful, intelligent, captivating. He looks forward to a time when home and family give him better reason to traipse to and from a busy downtown office day after day. A better life picture.

Erin is a Princeton post-doc student. Her dirty blond hair, cheerful demeanour, razor-sharp mind, and engaging repartée have been his regular experience of her. He’s reminded regularly by family and friends just how perfect she is for him. All the “pieces” fit together in a game too big to lose.

Brynne is girl-next-door pretty. Slightly chunky, but still shapely, and full of energy with a quick wit and uproarious sense of humour. Although not as book smart, she is equally intelligent. She is loud, often abrasive but never mean-spirited. She is funny, usually in embarrassingly public ways; opinionated, inadvertently pitting people against one another. She is clumsy and goofy and forgetful and messy and dangerous to his professional reputation.

And he can’t stop thinking about her.

What is happening here? All the facts line up in such a way as to present Erin as the obvious choice for a long-term relationship. Everything “fits.” She fills well the checklist on any relationship course he’s ever taken. Against his better judgment and flying in the face of the facts, Brynne rises to his mind continually. Something about her haunts him, chases him, wants him.

In our current church culture, we usually pose as the primary question of Christian discipleship “what do you believe?” And, pursuant to that question is the presupposition that you need all the facts before you can make an informed decision. I’d like to suggest however that an even more fundamental question is “what do you want?”

James K. A. Smith in his book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” suggests that we are what we want. “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person…”

What we often generate in our churches is a fill-in-the-blanks doctrinal checklist that amounts to a legal transaction. It is more Descartian: “I think, therefore I am,” than biblical.

Our young man in question will of course do well to know his own heart to navigate whatever his future relationships hold. But in his inexplicable desire for Brynne over Erin, despite appearances to the contrary, we find a key to how God seeks to relate to us.

“Discipleship [then] is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” Even the demons believe and shudder. Knowing facts is easy. Retooling the human heart and its longings is not. But, it is our truest path. That is my call: to work in the Spirit’s process of forming a kingdom people by means of the gathered community in worship.

St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Our discipleship is less about information than it is transformation.

We don’t instruct people deeper into kingdom life. We inspire them. The heart knows what it loves and that is what forms the foundation of our actions and our habits. Our journey is one of inspiring and shaping our heart’s deepest desires, bending them ever more toward Christ and his kingdom.

Our journey is to discover the beauty and holy peril, oddly comforting, of being adrift with God on the vastness of life’s open sea. 

 

Lord, Saint Augustine once said we’re created by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Sometimes the way to you can seem cloudy, or grown over with thistles and weeds. We thank you for our longings. We love because you first loved us. You’ve built it into our DNA. Help us not to be afraid of what most deeply moves us, even if that isn’t lofty or what we typically think of as holy. Instead, grab hold of our hearts and shape them, Lord. Form in us a new and undeniable passion for life with God and others. And that, Lord, will be our truest joy. Amen.

 

Glimpses VI: peering into the abyss

A truth many of us would rather not face is what I will call “lostness.” St. John of the Cross speaks at length of the dark night of the soul in his classic by the same name. But, since I’m not St. John, or perhaps saint anything, and my understanding of such things is limited, allow me to share my own rudimentary gleanings.

I’ve often mused that, if a person can say with confidence they are in a dark night, they’re not yet in a dark night. Nasty and ghoulish perhaps, but not what I mean by lostness. Dark means just that. Light has gone. Dark has come replacing sure steps with foundering ones. A way forward succumbs to guess work or less. Destinations become forgotten in a haze of bumping into walls not of our own choosing and which we cannot see anyway. As such, we lose not only orientation but the reasons for our non-whereabouts. Soon, we lose hope that light will come again and, at its worst, lose the desire and ability to see life as anything but one’s present bleak experience.

I am told that in situations of torture, people will sustain terrible beatings and then are placed in dark cells for weeks at a time. Painful sensory overload is replaced by unspeakable deprivation and loneliness. The non-existence experienced in these holding periods becomes even worse for the victims and they literally yearn to be beaten again. At least something is happening. Besides, even bad company means we’re not alone, the worst of all punishments.

Such is the lost-ness of lostness. Ostensibly, this is where God does God’s best work on the soul. When the senses have vacated their steadying influence and only a hollowed out vacuum remains, we are left with but one choice: believe anyway…or not. The sheer pointlessness of it all needs to sink into our being in order for us to be stripped of our need for pin-point accuracy in all our dealings. God alone rules here for, alone, there is only God. For we do not exist. Or so it seems. It is both the worst and the best thing God ever does in the human soul. A sweet cruelty, the pangs of which remain indelibly etched within.

A particularly poignant biblical picture of how best to weather such places of struggle is the aching repartee of Jesus with his Father in the garden of Gethsemane. The king of the ages, a long way from anything that was home, has just gotten comfortable with this broken, mortal coil. He loves us but is now asked to give it all up. For something even far worse. Perhaps with little idea of what “to be raised on the third day” might actually mean.

What is the intended result? In time, an eternity to us, a wink to God, we become shining trophies of grace. Not shiny like cheap flea market brass trinkets. But the rich, robust pewter and silver serving trays fit for royalty. The fickle fetters of sense and emotional agility that throw us under the bus when we’re not looking have now bowed to a deeper well. Unseen, but oh so quenching.

But not before we do a lot of fist shaking, weeping and finally giving up. That’s when rescue is sweetest.

 

Prayer of one who is lost

Hello…anyone,

can I call you God? or god? or what?

I am sick. My soul is sick and I am crushed.

Are you there? If you are, are you good?

Are you to be trusted?

Are you the one I should be looking for or do I wait

for someone else? something else? somewhere else?

How much does guilt, shame, blame

fortify this place of thick, impenetrable walls?

Am I wise or even smart to hope when all I see is

blackness; sorrow draped in the sickly posture of dreams forgotten,

of light full shaded?

Do not speak to me of Job like the others.

He is a fairy-tale, a mockery to me,

a dream of dust and ancient woes

far removed from this Halloween of hellish delight.

He does not speak anymore and,

unlike his, my book has an ending yet undecided,

murky, unmoving like a lake long dead.

Perhaps no ending will come at all?

Perhaps there is no book?

Picturesque dreams no longer peek into sleep otherwise uninterrupted.

A mind instead, in broken time, refuses better context,

mocking lost memories of what I once thought was life.

When a heart bitterly refuses whatever comfort felt like,

to what do I cling? Is this to be my rebellion? My condemnation?

Am I headed for hell because of these questions?

Because, frankly,

the questions are hell enough.

For what it’s worth,

help me through one more day, this day,

if indeed there still is such a thing.

* * * * *

Is this you right now? What practices might be helpful as you and God seek to navigate this dark time?

Do you have a support system in place? Others who can be co-sojourners with you?

Share some of your own dark night experiences.