Corona-daze: Finding Our Hope

We all need reminders, in the Corona-daze, of Gospel basics. We leave outside (where they belong) the blustering prognostications of the fundamentalist naysayers and return to the simplicity and impossibility of eternal grace. The Gospel, birthed not in shame, but in love (remember John 3:16?), is a never-ending well of nourishing goodness and hope.

Lean into it my friends.

Find there your home,

your hope,

your calling,

your courage.

God came among us.jpg

Photo by Karen Hughes (taken in her backyard!)

7

7.jpg

Seven deadly sins.

How’s that for a conversation starter? Equally robust topics for family night be Nazi surgical techniques or the best fecal matter for fertilizing roses. How perfect for those post-dinner gatherings on cold winter nights. “Hey kids, gather round. We’re gonna talk about the quickest way to eternal damnation. Oh, and bring me a beer.”

Good friend, colleague, and all-round good egg, Laurie Jackson, just published her first book, “Little White Lies and the Seven Deadly Sins.” It isn’t an ivory tower dive into the pool of hamartiology (look it up, I dare you.) It is something better.

40601913.jpgBy her own admission, she doesn’t cover any new territory here. Instead, it reads like a conversation with Erma Bombeck while eating overripe watermelon over the sink. It’s sweet, immediate, fun, and some good juice runs down your face while ingesting good stuff. It brings the rather heavy topic of sin into a more amicable place in ways both funny and insightful.

And, it’s got me rethinking the whole topic. Sin isn’t exactly my first choice of hospitable, or even accessible party chat. And, it sucks as a Scrabble word. But the Bible seems to have rather an obsession with the stuff. It pops up like the drunk uncle at a wedding, inserting itself into otherwise polite company with slurry, spitty banter and totally short circuits our drive to the buffet line. It is as ubiquitous as it is exasperating.

Frankly, these days, I’m stuck knowing how to deal with the ramifications of this word and what it represents. The conservative theological pundits have a hard-on for it and can’t stop bemoaning how genuinely rotten is everything and everyone. Sin rules the day they cry through horn-rimmed glasses, shame and potluck on their breath. We just need to “get back” to God’s word and repent, repent, repent, feeling like shit the whole time. The guiltier we feel the better. Their Gospel: I’m shit. God’s not. Jesus took a good beating from his Dad for me. If I’m okay with that, I’m not shit anymore.

The progressive idealogues are, by contrast, tacitly unconcerned with any notion whatsoever that shadows, scraped knees, or even bad smells could possibly exist in so sunny a universe. If we just skip together, prancing hand in hand, hearty choruses of “We Shall Overcome” on our lips, no boogey-man will assert itself. We do not sin. We are sinned against (although I could never figure out who was first to get the ball rolling). I need only speak positively, even about the most heinous cell-blocks, and all will magically heal, rendering us all Pollyanna-happy. Their Gospel: I’m good. God is in question. The conservatives created a mess. Together, we’ll get this shit cleaned up. God’ll get a passing nod by the religious among us.

And, for both camps, the currency of faithfulness is outrage. I’m either pissed off at the sinfulness of everything everywhere, or I’m pissed off at those who are pissed off at everything everywhere. I sin in my self-righteous indignation at sin, forcing others into my thinking on the subject, or I sin in my satisfaction of not believing I’m a sinner in the first place. How’s that for a rabbit-hole conundrum?

Both feel a little insipid frankly, and neither give a particularly satisfying understanding of either sin or, by extension, grace.

As Laurie and others have stated, sin  translates as missing the mark. It’s an archery term. People who shoot arrows are intentionally aiming at something. They’re scrutinizing outcomes. Their desires are set upon something good. But, in our efforts at bull’s eyes, we miss every time. 

archery.jpg
Picture found here

Here’s why I love this word. It actually indicates something wonderful about God, and also about us. It tells us that God cares enough to help us in our aim. But it also reveals a universal longing in the heart of humanity, one that takes aim at what it most desires. Augustine once said “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” We naturally aim at what our hearts most desire: peace, fulfillment, happiness, union with the divine.

Unfortunately, something is askew. Something keeps tugging at our arms as we line up another shot into the great unknown. Sin is the annoying guy making all those rustling and taunting noises right before we take our swing down the fairway. We aim for something because we’re made for God and long to return to God. We miss that something because sin somehow gets in the way and we’re wide of the target every time. We could call sin “aiming for the right thing in all the wrong ways often enough that the wrong thing feels like the right thing.”

That is until God steps in. God intervenes and removes the shackles, weights, magnets, and distractions pulling our arrows asunder. In Christ, the arrow of our longing has finally reached its target.

The destination is Christ himself.

The 7 Deadly Sins are merely the church’s creative means of naming the primary stalls in that effort toward aiming at God’s heart. For those of you following along in Laurie’s book, here’s a quick review of those: Pride, Envy, Anger, Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth.

So then, here goes an armchair theologian’s look at…7.

To See or Not to See…

To see or not to see....jpg

We’ve all heard the old adage, “one only sees what they want to see.” We easily and quickly make judgements on our perceptions of things, not always on the truth of things. It’s always been that way. I’m guessing it will always be so to some degree.

Some will see only a page full of black dots. Others see the number hidden in the middle (they kinda piss me off!) Some see the brown barrenness of parched desert. Others see the miracle of life which is possible even in austerity. What is to one a beautiful optical illusion is to another a confusing mess of nothing at all. One sees thirst and death. Another sees possibility and survival.

It is a remarkable feature of human nature that, on the basis of perceptions and in the interest of either self-preservation or the pursuit of fulfillment, we succumb to the process of other-worldly fabrications. Given our predisposition to see only selectively, we sometimes live our lives labouring under misapprehensions.

For my part, I have often built an enormous mental-emotional web of shadows and half-truths and desires and make-believe. A construct on whatever I think is true. It is mental, because so much of who I am and how I behave is conceived and constructed in my mind. Emotional, because, just like yours, my head and my heart are inextricably linked.

To think something is true is, correspondingly, to feel something as well. If I think a loved one is still alive after some long absence, it creates hope, expectation. To believe that same person to be dead is to create despair and hopelessness. If we believe the person to whom we’ve been communicating is still on the other end of the phone, we’ll happily blether on until the bleak reality dawns!

Conversely, to experience an inexplicable hope, is to believe all to be well in our little world. In the world at large. If we feel weighted down, we either have a need for companionship, a change of scenery, or mood-altering substances (my preferred M.O.!) Moreover, we will believe it to be so because, in such moments, the universe may appear to us at the time, a toxic and malignant place, unfit for habitation.

Our brains are a complex lump indeed! From the minutiae in our head comes the fodder for our palaces or prisons. All is either benign, malevolent or benevolent on the basis of what we believe to be true or false.

Perhaps the entire goal of grace, and with it, the contemplative enterprise, is constructed to help us monitor, manage, even master the cognitive dissonance we experience – the chasm between what we observe, what we know (or think we know), with what we experience?

It seems that God’s intention in the Gospel is to gift us with a mental-emotional equilibrium in a universe that, to our physical eyes at least, makes little sense. God seems to be trying to get our attention focused away from what we see and onto what we have yet to see. Or, better, what God sees.

For example, if I see endless amounts of unpromising, fruitless work – God sees a garden. If I see endless hours of frustration, ignorant bumbling and non-Sunday school language – God sees the end product of my labour – a new staircase, or a table. If I see fatigue, poverty, and unpredictability – God sees relationships, children, and the warmth of family.

To say then, “I see,” is no longer just a physical act – observations in time and space of what is immediately before me. In the infinitely broader perspective of God, contextualized in the Gospel, “to see” is simultaneously to hope, to rejoice, to weep with joy.

For, to see as God sees, is to inhabit all things at all times at one time. Things are not only as they appear to me now. They are shown to be what they will be then.

It is there, in that place of seeing through God’s kaleidoscopic eyes, that a universe –  sometimes tasteless, flat and hopeless – becomes a sumptuous feast of possibility. Only then do I experience something counter-intuitive to what I “should” under my limited experience. My heart and head agree because God has introduced them to the broad spacious land – the realm of God. My earth and God’s heaven, kiss.

And I am reborn.

Seeing is believing, say the scientists. Believing is seeing, say the theologians. Being is both seeing and believing, say the mystics. Some cannot believe unless they see. Others claim to see and not believe. Still others claim to see what they don’t believe. Others will not believe whether they see or not. Confused yet? Yeah, me too.

God’s deepest reality? All of us belong in some way along the continuum of belief, sight and experience. God journeys with us wherever and whenever that is.

All that to say this: one’s emancipation comes most readily not from a change in circumstances, but in the readiness, and ability, to see. To awaken. I have often said that, behind and beneath and around everything we see with our physical eyes, is a pervasive spirit of glory.

The light and beauty and truth of God subsumes all things into itself. And, from time to time, there come moments of lucidity, of universal benevolence, when one becomes aware of the overwhelming perfection of it all. A built-in beauty not always immediately apparent.

But such moments are frightfully rare. They are gifts, shards of translucence and splendour, reserved for the unasked-for moments of clarity; when the paleness of our present reality, gives way to something else entirely. When it does, simply observe.

Rub your spiritual eyes and let yourself be roused from slumber. Wachet auf (wake up) as Bach might intone! Awaken to God’s tap on your shoulder. Throw off the covers. Stretch. Say nothing. Speak not a word. Just drink. Drink deeply of this stream. Let it do its work. For, once it’s gone, there is no telling if or when it may come again. But its nourishment is ours to keep.

Forever.

____

Amazing image found here

 

 

The Price of Home

I’ve been stung. Poisoned. Nothing flora or fauna. By a book. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s got me thinking again about our notions of ‘home.’

Poisonwood Bible.jpg

Tuesday, December 26th. Boxing Day. It’s strange, just saying those words can produce such intense homesickness. A progressive, Canadian family living in a regressive, Trumpian America. Similarly, Nathan and Orleanda Price and their children, Rachael, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May – in equal measure, a family displaced; a little collective of courage and fear, lived in a world of nothing but frontier. Their only certainties were the uncertainties of daily survival in a world that cared little either way.

Their meager, not even daily, meals of eggs or mash, perhaps some chicken if someone took pity on them, removed any vestiges of the stolen or manufactured expectations as whites in a black world. They were equals among those who typically served their every whim, seen or unseen; an unexpected balance that would save them from their own extinction. Hmm, something to heed here I think.

Were they there because of some high calling of the gospel? Was it their great Christian frontier where, in their own stumbling way, they could add to the Roll Called Up Yonder? Or, was it something deeper, more primal? Were they there to befriend the enemy? To make peace with the devil? With their devils? With their gods? With God?

The complexities of their call beckon me to consider my own. Like the Prices, I am a man equally displaced, despite possessing a shared border and the lack of intermediary ocean. I have asked the question, precariously and ad nauseam, where do I fit? We all do at some point.

With no small shame, I spent an entire childhood fearing and hating this place, giant land of giants. America, the baffling. In my estimation, she never lived up to her own press. But she sure loved to talk about herself, unendingly, all with a suspicious eye on the unprepared listener’s awaited response of teary-eyed gratitude. Anything less was travesty or treason. For what exactly? Was I the lucky recipient of her gracious light or should I hide with the others in her long shadow cast over a pathetic world who, apparently, needs her?

Now, some seventeen years later – a generation, a lifetime, and I am faced with questions the answers to which would have been clearer back then. Frankly, I don’t know that I ever really knew the answers. Hell, I don’t think I remember the questions. And, even if I did, to have answers at all render such questions glib and facile.

Instead, I’m left trying to decide whether my “answers” are to be found in the questions themselves. Perhaps I am meant to find better questions? Like that one. Perhaps the answers to any question is the the readiness to ask anything at all? How thoroughly cliché. How unsatisfying.

Perhaps.

Like the Prices’ life in Kilanga, Congo, do we follow whatever calling, intuition, demons, indigestion, lead us to believe in anything beyond ourselves? How pure is anyone’s rationale in the final analysis? At times even the animals seem well beyond us. No complaining. No seeking, and therefore, no disappointments. Just Live. Survive. Reproduce. Die. Repeat.

Simpler, but rather bleak, don’t you think?

The Price’s, like everyone, made decisions birthed of the complex hubris of their psyches. The geography of soul can be most difficult to navigate at the best of times. They discovered this in as many ways as there are opportunities to offset obstacles. Their choices reflect the long, disjointed road that seems to lead nowhere. But, in the end, leads right back to who they are, who they became. Who they never were.

After the ignominious cross, Jesus even dwelt among the dead in Hades, not to gloat over their bad choices, but to boast of their good fortunes. To give a two-thumbs-up where one might not have expected as much. If it were a movie, it was that moment when the dungeon door flew open and a rescuer reaches out a hand, “come with me if you want to live.” Or something like that.

They were as much ‘home’ as all the lucky buggers still topside and playing cards. Their long, grey waiting room had more than old magazines to keep them company. It had their own journals in which had been written, “all is well, my good grace always wins over bad living.” What’s more inviting than that? Perhaps if we remain small enough, with hearts like sponge, minds like children, and souls in tattered need, Love will meet us even in our worst places?

The mystics, who swim here, would shit to hear me speak in such ways. I think I hear them whispering under their breath, “This is good. We ask these same questions every day. But, isn’t life that much richer for asking them in the first place? The gospel has shown us that everywhere is equally our home. We just don’t know it yet.”

In times past, my life here in the land of win-at-all-costs would have felt much more Poisonwood than promise. But, in the growing light of age and calmer spiritual water it is no longer an exile. It is merely my environment in which I internalize my experience. That alone is so much more than those among whom the Prices lived knew, where surviving and thriving meant the same thing.

Now, whenever I’m tempted to bemoan my sad disenfranchisement, I consider the ramifications of the gospel of freedom. The Price. We’re all in God’s living room, which is everywhere seen and unseen.

Price in Africa. Me, here.

The price of home.  

 

 

Eyes in the Alley – Beauty from Ashes

dark_alley_bigShe fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud wring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes.

Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare, one she’d seen before. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.

She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call she wished she hadn’t “Your test results are in, ma’am. Can you meet with the doctor tomorrow?”

Ashes.

He fell backwards against the brick wall, his guts, freshly emptied of the remains of fish-dinner-a-la-dumpster. His head, swimming in too much shit wine, conspired with his stomach against all lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. These days, only shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…well, promise.

Was it only yesterday that he’d felt the warm body of a wife sleeping next to him? She had stayed with him through the final merger, the one he’d promised would bring them financial freedom. She muscled through his two affairs and the drinking that bridged them both. Now, two years, a foreclosure, divorce, and bankruptcy later, he thought he smelled her hair, the fragrance of mint intermingled in aching reminiscence. But it was only the smell of loss mixed with dog shit on his one remaining shoe. He’d lost the other earlier that day foraging for what was left of his meal, now part of his concrete pillow. And, as it began to snow, he blacked out.

Ashes.

new life from ashes II

She was desperate. It had been too long between hits and her most regular but equally violent trick had just buzzed to be let in. She frantically ravaged through her regular places searching for her small bag of white, powdered courage. If she could get high enough quick enough, perhaps he would get enough soon enough and leave her just enough to start the whole process again.

He pounded on the buzzer. Now, he wasn’t just horny but pissed off and, most likely, more violent as a result. Her lust to forget competed with his to be remembered and a battle ensued as to whose needs would be met first. She gave up. This time, a paying customer in person overruled her quest to be absent. After safely shewing her daughter away in a back room, yelling for her to lock the door, with quivering hand she buzzed him in.

He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs. It was a distance not her friend when it came to her chances of getting through this unscathed. Her door flew open, along with his zipper and a stream of obscenities. Everything aligned in a perfect storm, conspiring against her and sealing her fate. She lucked out this time and suffered only one punch before he got down to business. Through a left eye, now starting to swell, she toughed it out through one more indignity.

Ashes.

Ash Wednesday. Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. Any fuel that had provided light or heat no longer exists. It is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak picture of what many of us feel about our lives. Sometimes, life offers little more than the used up fodder of someone else’s fire.

In the Gospel however ashes become something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus reveals to us how the ashes of death are turned to the fertilizer of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.

An anxiety-ridden woman receives the call; a washed up businessman is now one with the streets; a hooker walks a tightrope of addiction and fear to survive the only lifestyle she knows

All of us are only a hair’s breadth away from ruin or reward, disaster or dream, life or lies. We’re in this together. And wherever our lives may be in ruins, God can bring about beauty from our ashes.

May it be so.

Pictures from here and here

Passaging well

Our lives are a series of passages. One tributary leads to another, which in turn yields to something else on its way to waterfall or harbor, estuary or eddy. At times we are stuck, unmoving. Or so it seems. To be stuck can actually be a decision not to decide something. Perhaps it’s a slow, deep spot before being sucked back out into the rapids where we easily lose our sense of direction and the not unreasonable expectation that we’ll fly ass over tea kettle into the frothy spray. There are even times when our boat slows almost to a crawl and we find ourselves in the enchantments of a Pirates of the Caribbean style rendezvous with delight. DSC_0019

Whatever the case may be it should be our goal to passage well. That is, when faced with life’s bone-chilling decisions, we learn to listen for the most gracious, compassionate means by which to navigate such. Bad transitions lead to less than adequate skills needed for the yet more difficult passages to come. They also create a sinkhole of insecurity since we’ll just have to face similar rapids again later but with one more failure to our credit.

I turn 50 on Monday. Sorry, just let me write that again to be sure I’m not asleep. I turn 50 on Monday. Numbers. We get so stuck on them. Especially the “decade” numbers that are supposed to magically move us on to newer, higher, greater things than we were meant to achieve in our last, apparently insufficient, decade. So, at 50, what should my “achievements” be? To whom do I speak to discover my rating for my forties? Who hands out the balloons and coffee to the five-decade newbies? It comes either with joie de vivre or woe is me that numbers are wielded with respect to age. Along with the number comes a freight train long derivative connotations, expectations, projections, assumptions, and tongue-in-cheek pathos. Pish posh says I.

I think so little about age related stuff these days. Make no mistake, I’m still vain, overly self-concerned and a bit slower maybe. But the idea that, by this age, I should or shouldn’t be something is anathema to me. I am exactly what, who and where I am. It just…is. Yes, I have goals. Yes, I have patterns and certain expectations both of others and myself. Yes, I have jetsam floating in my wake I wish weren’t so obvious. But, at almost 50, I’m happy with what life has or has not become.

I’m much more interested in being the most surrendered and loving person I can be at any given moment during these passages of my life which only seem to come more quickly all the time. I want to say hello well with a definitive eye to eye recognition of another human being equally as needy as I. I want to say forgive me well, and often, to those who have had the misfortune of discovering just how much of an asshole I can be. I want to hold people’s pain and joy well, that they invite me to do so again and offer similar friendship to me. I want to say goodbye well, with class, grace and compassion. A goodbye that puts a Gospel period at the end of a glorious sentence.

Learning to passage well has many rewards. Fewer regrets I suppose might be one. But, more than that, in the ever-expanding journal of our meandering lives, a clarity of chapter markings brings a satisfaction to the sojourner of adequate closure before moving on to another part of their story. It expresses a sense of poise and, ultimately, denouement to our lives that those whose eyes watch us for signs of the Divine are longing to see. More than anything else, how we transition through the passages of our lives reveals the level of our trust in the unseen God making Godself seen – through us. Through me.

Lord, I pray that I’ve passaged well from my forties to my fifties. Let love and kindness be the obvious characteristics of this next passage, Lord. Let the walls of this tunnel be painted with the handprints of those I’ve loved. May the wake of my boat be littered with the flower petals of other’s lives I’ve been blessed to know. May this aging pilgrim always see the best in others and give them the chances afforded me. It’s how I most want to passage.

I turn 50 on Monday. I can hardly wait.

How about you? What does your current passage ask of you? 

How might God be inviting you to passage well in these days?