Saturday, December 31, 2011

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“The first noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds …”

The shepherds always seem to be on the edges of the nativity scene. Off to one side or another standing watch over the sheep or the donkey or maybe even the camel if the three kings aren’t up to the job. I’ve always had a soft spot for the shepherds, and I always try to edge them as close to the manger as I can in our little set. Those poor old shepherds know something. I’m sure of it.

For years when I was a kid, I misunderstood the use of the word “certain” the traditional carol “The First Noel.” I thought it was the verb. The carol wasn’t telling us which shepherds; it was telling us that the first noel happened to “certain” them—to make them sure of something. I love that. Even now, I hear it this way.

I love those shepherds in their certainty. As for me, most often I am not certain. I find myself waffling the instant I say something: “Well, I this is how I see it, but I can also see the other side.” In a postmodern age, it’s not unusual to do this, to be aware of options, to stand in the gray haze of infinite possibility rather than to stick your neck out and stand solid on one thing that makes you certain.

This isn’t all bad. I think it’s important to be aware of how power structures influence narratives, how we are necessarily limited when we speak by our own points of view. I also think it’s a very good thing that the church is growing in its acceptance of doubt, becoming more honest about the mysteries and paradoxes of the life of faith. We need to hear those things.

But we also need to hear that sometimes, on the edges of the action, are people who might have had an experience—as fleeting or inexplicable as it may be—when they were sure of something, when God’s love was real to them, when it all made sense. This coming year, those are the stories I want to hear—starting with the shepherds, and coming back to you. Because in those stories is life. I’m certain of it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Advent: Finding the Way Home

There is a stretch of country I drive on my way to work where the sky blends so seamlessly into the land that it’s hard to tell where the horizon is. When the sky is overcast, it’s even more difficult.

I wonder how I’d find my way if I were out in one of those fields in a snowstorm, blinded by the monotony of white. What anchors would I search out to help me find my way? a bit of fence or some dried brown grass on the crest of a hill? The fewer things there are in a landscape, the more desperately each one matters to show you where you are.

During times of tragedy we are stripped to essentials. The familiar anchors of belief seem far away and we are left numb, lost, with few signs to help us find our way home. We wander in the far country of despair, unsure of anything solid we can hold on to.

And this is Advent: the world waiting in quiet blindness, familiar anchors fading into white. It’s the moment before. What happens next changes the story forever, when into that nothingness, something solid, wrapped in flesh, is born. But for now, we wait. And the sky grows heavy with our longing.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Holy Pause: Remembering 9/11

Ten years later and the news, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, is “too much with us.” Bombarded with images of burning towers, stories of heartbreak and recovery, and endless analysis, I find myself desperate for a little more quiet, a little more space to reflect and remember, to sit with nothing but the clear blue sky and images and memories that are already too vivid in my mind.

Ten years later and when I look at the familiar skyline of my childhood, I still see only absence: the place where the towers used to be. And instead of filling that space with anything else, I would like to sit in silence. There is a different way to do this than what we see in the news.

In his post-9/11 reflection, Writing in the Dust, Archbishop Rowan Williams tells the story from John 8 of the woman caught in adultery. The tragedy seemed to have only two movements: guilt and death. It was an overdetermined narrative—with one way the story could be told, one way it could end. She was guilty and she should die for it, and the teachers of the law were waiting because there was no way Jesus could get out of this one.

So much of the news around 9/11 has had the same feel for the last decade. There are sweeping words used, black-and-white analysis with “good guys” and “bad guys,” and seemingly only one way for the story to end. The political scene has grown increasingly polarized, and there is more rigidity than ever in our debate. Is there a different way to do this? Is there another way to talk about tragic events that leaves room for the presence of the word? We might take a cue from what happens next in John 8.

Instead of playing out that moment the way everyone expected it to go, Jesus bends down and writes in the dust. Williams writes, “He hesitates. He does not draw a line, fix an interpretation, tell the woman who she is and what her fate should be. He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently” (78). The story ends the way no one could have imagined: the accusers a little less self-righteous, the woman, freed in love, given the gift of a new life if she will take it.

This anniversary date, I wish for the same thing—for a moment of hesitation, a longish moment with space to tell this story differently, a holy pause to make our debate more compassionate, a chance to write in the dust of so many lives lost the promise of love arising still, new life out of ruins, hope from impossibility.

This 9/11 you won’t find me watching the special reports or reading the newspaper or listening to endless analysis on the radio. You will find me sitting outside someplace under a wide blue sky, taking a holy pause, letting the emptiness speak in sighs too deep for words.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Being Present

Recently I went on a retreat. One question from my spiritual director has stuck with me. She asked: “Is there a different way to be present to an issue other than getting tangled up in it or ignoring it?”

I didn’t know at first how that could be possible—to be present to a concern without trying to solve it somehow or getting trapped in the intricacy of its emotional cords. More often I am guilty of thinking too much about things rather than not enough. More often I spend my time trying to solve or understand a situation. But to simply be present to it without doing that? It felt too much like laziness or neglect to me, failing to do the hard work needed to move forward. Yet as I have sat with the insights from the retreat, that is the one I keep coming back to, which must mean there is some truth there for me.

I remember the chair in the middle of the woods I sat in for a long time at the retreat. And then I look at a chair in my living room. I wonder how I can invite these questions and unresolved issues in, have them sit in the room with me in one of those chairs, even offer them a cup of tea, but not feel obliged to pull them apart or get sucked into their pull. Just to be present with them in a new way that is neither neglectful nor anxious but aware, calm, and hospitable.

I think it may be possible to do that; I also think it may be important for me to try. Not forever, because sometimes you do have to just dig in and work at something. But given my make-up as a person, it’s less likely that I would ignore something forever than it is I would simply sit with it in silence, like an old friend, and wait quietly for what is going to happen next, with our without my worrying it into being. To simply be present. And be still.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Resurrection in the Dark

“Until we discover a new vision of the Savior, a savior who has risen out of our disappointments, we’ll never understand Easter.”
—Craig Barnes, Christian Century, March 13-20, 2002

After seeing the snow start to melt, the people coming outdoors on bikes, with dogs, walking together after the long season of indoors, I find this time of year it’s not hard to believe in resurrection.

It’s much, much harder in the dead of winter. In the dead of anything. How do we believe in resurrection there? But it is the places we are least able to hear the news of resurrection that we most need to hear it.

I am come to think that resurrection takes place not with a blast of trumpets shouting “Christ the Lord is risen today” amid the joyous songs of the faithful, but more the way it happens in the gospel of John: with a whole lot of running around, weeping beside a grave, and terrified people locking doors because they don’t have a blessed clue what is going on. That is how Easter begins. In the dark.

And that is how Easter still begins today—in our disappointments, in the death of dreams, in the exhausted depression that too much grief can bring. In those places, we are not surprised to find ourselves worried, confused, weeping in the dark. We are surprised to find every now and then that we are capable of hope, able to love others deeply enough to forget ourselves, able to experience comfort we-know-not-how, and able to go on living in spite of it. Resurrection hope may come as inconspicuously as the first shoot of green after a long gray-brown, but it is no less worth celebrating for its subtlety.