Category Archives: Contemplations

Immensity

I am reading Three Cups of Tea these days, that now-famous story about a stranded mountain-climber who stumbled off one of the harshest terrains in the world into the arms of an accommodating village in Baltistan. Deeply grateful, he later returned to build a school for the children of the people he had come to love in the tiny village of Korphe, even though the town sat on the edge of one of the most forbidding, remote places on earth.

I ducked into Barnes and Noble the other night and bought this on impulse because, frankly, I am trying to figure out what work God has for me in the world, and I want to read about the great works of other people. Greg Mortenson’s story, and his years of hard work and haphazard living and trips back and forth and half-starts makes me feel better, and of course, inspired. But something that has haunted me the whole book, something I felt I needed to understand in order to get down to the soul of this story, was the whole why of mountain climbing in the first place. It plays as a theme throughout the tale- the allure of these sere, murduerous mountains, the climber’s drive to reach the summit despite tortures no medieval dungeon every conjured- frostbit, pleurisy, lack of oxygen, months of near-frozen living. As I was falling asleep last night, I found this quote by a mountaineer friend of Mortenson’s:

In the quiet of the hospital, I pondered the lessons we have learned. Everest is a harsh and hostile immensity. Whoever challenges it declares war. He must mount his assault with the skill and ruthlessness of a military operation. And when the battle ends, the mountain remains unvanquished.

Somehow, in that quote, I understood the drive to climb the world’s most dangerous mountains as a quest as much of the spirit as the body. I realized that Mortenson’s all-else abandoning determination to build his school took the same singleness of purpose it would take to scale Everest. The impulse to a great work of kindness for the people of Korphe was kindred with the impulse to ascend an impossible mountain, to try, to dare, to fight.  I began to see climbers as people of vast hungers who must, must push beyond the easy valley life and ascend, up, to the impossible. In that realization, I finally understood these mountain climbers. And I realized that it is with their very grit that I want to live my faith, and each day of my life.

God is the Everest I will climb. His kingdom is the strange, far-away land that I am willing to leave every comfort of my easy, comfortable valley life to find. I’ve realized lately that I’m hungry for a work. A task that will demand the whole of my life and effort. That hunger has taken lots of different faces in the past couple of years. For awhile, I thought I could sate it by study. I applied to everywhere from Oxford to the community college in town. But never did I feel at peace. I’ve written essays in torrents of words (especially of late), trying to fulfill this hunger for a purpose. I’ve dreamed and planned endless things that never came true, but helped me stay sane because they filled my mind. And, I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do. But reading this book has made me realize that the hunger is a holy thing. That I was meant to work my heart and soul and strength out in the search for my God and in service to his beautiful kingdom. The hunger I finally understand in the mountaineers is the hunger I want to cultivate within myself into a determination to dare greatly for God.

Because truly? There he always is, on the periphery of my sight. This mountainous, pure, shocking Eternal that almost frightens us. The sheer, snow-capped beauty of him is, for me, a siren call in the moments when I remember to look up. I think we all of us carry an ache for his holy air every day of our lives. But I don’t think many of us set out to climb him. We watch from the safe distance of normal valley life. We honor his immensity, but we stay at home were ease is guaranteed. Maybe that is good and right in its own way.

I want to be a climber though. I want to know my God, I want to enter the terror and pure light of the heights of his real presence in this fallen world. That’s what I’m realizing through reading this book. The impulse of Mortensen in climbing and humanitarian work, the impulse of Mother Theresa, and Brother Andrew and any entrepreneur is the impulse to move beyond the small we see and dare the great we know is waiting beyond. Mountain climbers know something true about the world, they understand that we must dare great things because there is a true and great beauty to be had if we will fight our way to it. I want their spirit in my living.

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Thin Places

People, I’m sorry. I’m pretty much writing a book via post these days. This is so long, and so involved, and I hope very much you don’t find me to be a hopeless navel-gazer. Just know, I’m figuring out my whole life. (Yes, you can smile.)
First, I must, must say thank you for the deep and heartfelt comments last post. What stories you have lived, and what deep beauty you’ve found in the midst of it all. Thank you for what you shared and how you sent courage pulsing into your posts so it could pulse back into my heart. You were bountifully honest in what you wrote about; struggles, hopes, and uphill run toward redemption. I love how there was (for me at least) a sudden flash of friendship across the internet wires. I owe several of you emails, and they are coming… very slowly, but surely. For the moment though, I have to let all of you know that you are making me think. Hard.

Odd, isn’t it, how talking about what is broken in our lives brings us closer? Makes friends of strangers. Maybe our pain makes us more honest, more “real,” like the Velveteen Rabbit who had all his fluff worn off by the love and loss of his boy, but went from a cloth bunny to a flesh and blood rabbit, with eyes that could see and a heart that beat. Could it be the same for us? Is struggle (and the admission of it) the thing that makes me real? The pain I so despise, is it the force that turns me from a mist of illusions into a real, living soul? Real to you all, real to everyone else as a person. But also, real to God?

I was reading about Iona the other day (the famous, Celtic abbey in Scotland) and saw it described as a “thin place.” Madeleine L’Engle said that there is something about that jutting, wind-bitten little rock of land that allows a few more drops of God’s presence to slip through than usual.When I read that phrase, it got right into me with pincers of desire. A thin place. A place so lovely, God is touchable. I could have taken off for Scotland that instant because Iona, in all its myth and beauty, seemed to promise that it could make God and me both feel real. That lonely, aching want for a true knowledge of God’s presence is a hurt I carry just beyond the busyness of my mind. It’s the want I’ve cried over the hardest in my knee-popped moments of utter truth. And I cried all the harder in those times, because I assumed that beauty and perfection, a lack of pain, were the way to God’s presence. The more I struggled, the more defeated I felt. If I could only be truer to my ideals (healthy food, sleep, hours of contemplation, extra reading, less modernity), escape from the noisy people, the constant needs of ministry, the bee swarm of modern culture that crowds my life, I could create thin places for myself. If I were only at peace, God would come.

Then came my knee, and the post, and your comments. To my shock, all of it has been a thin place. In your letters, I’ve felt the love and care of God. In my own, more honest quiet times this week, I’ve been sustained through crazy conference days by a love that comes under and beside me when I least deserve it. But it upends all my expectations. I am more honest and in more struggle than ever, yet God is here.

What I begin to see is that there are thin places already in my life, but I have been slow to see them. They are a far cry from Iona’s ethereal beauty or any ideal of a quiet life that I have held. I have rarely welcomed them. But I see now that my thin places are the hours in which I have questioned, struggled, and grieved. Times like this week, but if I am honest and look back, almost without exception, every dark time in my life has been a space of God’s sudden presence. In pain, the usual murk of living grows a little thinner, my distraction eases, and I come face to face with God. Whether in my knee-popping epiphany, or seasons of intense loneliness, or even in watching the grief in Haiti (something very much on my mind), these moments demand truth. Circumstances like those scatter all illusions and take me right down to the wire of what is true. Thin places. In an earthquake where children die, either God loves us and is good, or he’s not. When I am at my end, either God truly is with me, or he’s not. The places of pain demand an answer from my soul. In that minute I face, abruptly, the true landscape of myself, and in it, the presence of my God.

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Speak what we feel

This might get kinda long. Sorry. Something about conference season and the sudden upending of schedule and home life often catapults me into epiphanies. Being away from home makes one vulnerable to prolonged thought. I love, and dread this season. It comes every year, this round of travel and speaking, trips in hotels, trips in cars… a riotous wrangle of adventure, exhaustion, friendship, ministry, and probably, madness. This year, however, was remarkable for starting with a bang. Actually, it was more of a pop. And it came from the general direction of my knee.

I was in the house all alone just as dusk poured darkness in through all the windows on the eve of the conference. Upstairs, in my room, I was whirling about to very loud music, attempting to turn the exercise of packing my suitcase into an aerobic dance. To the blood-quickening uillean pipes of Rock Island, 1931, I put my foot down for a vigorous pirouette, but to my unbounded surprise felt my leg buckle and my knee give an astounding pop. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor, back against my blue wall, legs at odd angles, my right ankle twitching. It was ten minutes before I could move. I was stunned. I rubbed my knee. I tried to calm my ankle. I rocked back and forth as feeling came back and everything went sore. Finally, I decided that whatever popped out must have popped back in.

I also cried. I think the shock of it (and I hate to admit this, I hate to cry) brought the tears. The pain was low grade, but I was shaking, scared at what I might have done, and as I sat there, trying to straighten my leg and stand, watching my toes twitch, I almost wept. Big, babyish tears. I asked myself if I was two years old and my brain very calmly answered no. I asked myself if I intended to let a little knee drama cow me in future from daring rescues, hikes across the English moors, or relief work in a war-torn country (all of which I plan to do). Of course not. I gingerly hobbled my way to my red chair and sat there. I took deep, decisive breaths. But each strong, calming suck of air into my lungs came out shredded into a sob. I couldn’t stop.

I thought I was just being irrational. For whatever reason, physical pain is the hurt I am least able to philosophically bear. I feel slapped across the face by it. I am more of a wimp at being sick than I like to admit. I mentally rolled my eyes at my weakness and let the tears come. But then the worst pain died down, and I was pretty sure nothing was broken. I kept on crying. Harder. I couldn’t stop. My throat ached, but so did my heart and I was bewildered as to why. It took me ten more minutes to suddenly realize I wasn’t crying about the pain. I wasn’t even crying over the shock or the scare. I was crying about things that had happened two weeks ago.

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Perpetua

St. Perpetua of Carthage, at Notre Dame.

I have been reading about a martyr today. She rivets me. A young, vibrant noblewoman, married, and with a tiny, nursing baby, she was condemned to death for her faith in Christ. She lived in Carthage, right in the earliest centuries of Christianity. My reading today was marked by humble curiosity. Perpetua was one of those martyrs who seemed to have had the light of the sun in her eyes, who, for the most part, faced death, loss, and rejection with an almost Spartan refusal of grief. I don’t feel I am quite so brave. By all accounts, she was a determined young woman, who would not recant her faith before the Roman ruler even as her father grovelled before her, her newborn child in his arms, begging her to yield. Condemned to the die in the arena by the attack of a mad cow, she was so stunningly joyful, so full of song and this hope like laughter,  she apparently didn’t realize she’d been thrown by the animal. She was brought back in to be kept for a later death by sword and had to be convinced that she was wounded.

I must admit. For awhile today, she stymied me. I have been sitting in my chair this morning, yearning to know how, how, she was so full of joy. I’ve read stories like hers before. I always thought that her sort of joy, her steel-faced faith was a teeth-clenched willing. She must have had willpower on a marathon scale to smile like that. I thought that she was simply stronger than me. Only way I could ever be like her was to gut up my sorrow and quit feeling sad about the world. That will never happen. Down came the guilt.

And yet, wait. I know without doubt that joy like that cannot be gutted out or gritted through. A hope like that cannot be scratched out from the the gravel of a frail, human self. Not one of us, even sun-faced martyrs, has that kind of strength on our own. If there is anything I have learned this year, it is that left to themselves, humans, all humans, are pitiful. We are so fallen. Hope and joy and beauty have to come to us from a source beyond ourselves. Like a spring of water, or the rising of the sun on darkened land, joy must come to us. Perpetua’s brand of strength had to be one that lived outside of herself. Abruptly, I understood that Perpetua was not stronger than me. She was more in love.

What can bring the sort of joy that makes a violent death and the loss of your child something to laugh through? Only an absolute belief that you are irrevocably loved. Loved by a Father whose mercy and power insure that all of you, body and soul and mind and heart, will never be abandoned, but healed in the end. Only by knowing the love with which you are loved to be the one true fact of the universe, a truth that will burgeon into a new heaven and earth of beauty even when all else fades away. A love in which all lost things are kept safe for a future redemption.

I realized that Perpetua was glad, downright drunk with joy so as to be oblivious to pain, because her eyes saw only the God who loved her. The fact of his affection was so real and true to her that in the prison and arena, in the dark hours of the night before she died, in the moment when she kissed her baby goodbye, she saw the good that would come instead of the bad that was happening. It was love that gave her Herculean strength. It was God’s face fixed in her mind that she saw instead of the leering arena crowd. It was his presence growing closer as her life flowed out that she felt instead of her broken body. I think in those agonizing moments of death, her trust in God’s love enabled her to glimpse the end of the story, the redemption that would come. And so, she had no reason to be afraid.

I want to be in love like Perpetua.

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Snow Day on the way to TN

Twas a chill and stormy sky as we drove into a brooding, plainsong dawn.

Eighteen hours, one poor little car whose windows refused to unfog, four Starbucks stops, and one Agatha Christie Poirot audiobook later, we arrived to shelter. Home. Primal comfort. 15-bean soup and Ezekiel bread.

And today, sleep. Coffee. More soup. And a walk.

Gnarled old sidewalks with lace draped over their wrinkles. Crunch, crunch, crunch…

Dark, bare branches, silent, writing a song into the sky.

Snowlight, the first sun of the day to break through, fragile as a child with all of its brisk, young laughter.

Home for P.G. Tipps and oven-warmed shortbread. A last bit of sun.

And candlelight. Dinner. Sleep. And a new snow-day morning tomorrow.

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Little Lent

The black, star-studded space of the night stared in the front window, silent… and mine. An empty circle of time and a vacant house had fallen in my lap for one blessed evening. Five unplanned hours to fill with light or action as I chose. But I couldn’t. I left the rooms dark. A headache forced me into unwonted hush, turned me from the chatterbox of TV or the blaze of a downtown cafe. I locked the doors in resignation and trundled upstairs to my bed. I set a favorite Christmas album to playing and lit three candles, but left all else in darkness. Laid down. The deep, unhindered peace of solitude sidled up to me, but I pushed it away. This was not how I wanted to spend my evening. Pain and irritation pulsed in my temples. A pack of worries scuttered through my brain and my mind leapt after them. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth in protest at my lot.

But then, alleluia.

A new song played with a lone voice in a slow, single-word chant. It was as much a cry as a song, the sort of sound I imagine rocks or strong trees might make in the wilds if God appeared suddenly amidst them. That cry caught me by the wrist and dragged me out of my self-absorbed protest and into the present. My eyes came to sudden focus and I sat slightly up in the dark, aware, waiting. And it all came; quiet crept in first, like a shy child nestled against me.  Shadows stepped out from their corners with warm faces and gentle hands. The lilt of the candlelight was a voiceless melody that caught the hands of my Irish carols and made them laugh. I saw the room around me and felt its presence so intently it was almost foreign. My soul lurched to its feet, abruptly aware of beauty in every atom of the darkened room, and of its Giver, whose name the song was blessing. But do you know what my soul said first?

“I’m sorry.”

Penitence took me by surprise. A flash flood of contrition rose in me as I saw abruptly that glory had been all around and I was unaware. Disgruntlement had dimmed my ability to see and grasp the beauty waiting for me in the unexpected quiet of that night. God, in every tiny light and note, had been with me, but I had not been with Him.

In that scrap of a minute, I saw my whole life writ large. That smidgen of beauty livened me to all I had ignored of late, all the minutes of joy and quiet that I had destroyed by my anger. My headache and frustration were small things perhaps, but they were the iceberg tips of a frenzied mind, a heart that had come unmoored from God. My past week had been one tumble of busy hours in which I was by turns stressed, irritated, and often, slightly outraged at life. There was no peace or yielding in me; my disquiet had blocked every path down which grace might walk. Beauty itself could smack me in the face and I would have smacked it back.

I have heard that in liturgical churches, Advent is sometimes called “Little Lent.” I thought of this as I sat in the dark. The great Lenten fast before Easter is a time of repentance, a time to clear away and renounce anything that would hinder the light of the risen Christ from flooding our hearts. But Advent is no less a time of preparation. The Christ child is coming, has come to us. God is here, glory hovers in our minutes and minds, ready to fill us with unwavering joy. But the dim paths of our hearts must be prepared. In that wakening moment in my room, I saw how cluttered was my road, how distracted I was by my own expectations of what life should be, what I deserved, what I desired.

So I repented, and still do. From so much busy worry I can’t be still. From anger at my less-than perfect days. From the tyranny of a self that demands days, hours, people, and God to behave as I desire. From hands unwilling to serve. I’ve decided to embrace the Lenten aspect of this Advent season. I’m doing a few practical things like banning computer and details from my early mornings and evenings. I’m committing to a few, fixed moments of full-souled prayer. But mostly, I am striving to make my mind, heart, and soul clear. I choose to begin this rich, rejoicing season by a ruthless sweep of the overgrown paths of my heart so that light can walk straight into my soul.

My quiet evening is past, but I have kept its hush. I have made, and guard, a silent space inside of myself where I sit, waiting. I scurry around my days, but my angst about life is shrinking as quiet fills me. Lights begin to flicker in my darkness. The shadows in my heart shift and music begins to play. A new song comes that fills me with a joy like light. My eyes are changed and I begin to see God reaching out to me in every instant of existence. I smile.

Christmas can finally come. The way is clear. Let the blessed season begin.

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Slow-grown grace

I nearly cried in an auto shop the other day.

It started on a morning that felt like spring. There was sunlight clear as water, and an early wind that played on my skin and set the dead pine needles at my feet to skipping. I saw none of it though. I stood, eyes shaded, in the country lot of an auto shop and saw only the screwed up mouth and squinting eyes of my mechanic. He was circling my car, prodding my injured bumper with his foot, assessing the damage that my run in with a snowbank had wrought several weeks back. My teeth grit tight together. This repair had thrown a wrench in my careful budget and I knew that this car repairmen could easily get the better of me. I have no idea what mechanics are talking about and I have learned this the expensive way.

“Well,” he finally said, “You’re definitely going to need some work done. If you just want to drive it though, I can have my body work guys fix the bumper for now.”

I nodded, and then steeled my arms.

“How much will that cost?”

Quiet stepped into the space between us, and I thought he hadn’t heard me. I made myself look up to speak again, but found him already looking my way, head tilted.

“You know what, I’ll just do it for free. When you decide to get the major repairs done, come talk to me. This is on the house.”

That’s when I got tears in my eyes. I turned so he wouldn’t see. I had so dreaded all this; my incompetence at cars and the unexpected cost. The burden of one more detail I didn’t know how to handle. And then this grace walked in, this unassuming care handed over by a taciturn man in a gray jumpsuit. It struck me silent. My throat ached with thankfulness.

Part of it was that this was the third such kindness I had received in a week. Five days before, in minor crisis of trust and sick of my own fretting brain, I had outlined to God exactly what I needed and then, in an act of tremulous faith, dismissed my angst from my brain. I felt a little shocked when the next day, one of my prayers was abruptly answered by an unsuspecting neighbor. Then a friend presented me with an unexpected gift. And now this generous car man had answered yet another of my secret requests.

What struck me hard though, stung my eyes as I sat in the disorganized little waiting room of the auto shop, was the meek, sweet way these gifts had come. So unlike what I had expected. I think I am a bit of a two-year-old when it comes to prayer. I am insistent, direct, and occasionally throw a fit to be sure God notices my desires. I also have an image in my mind of how I think God ought to answer me. I want prosperity rained down, now, on my head. I want a flashy gift of ease to arrive on my doorstep and send my troubles packing. I want it free of strings too.

I find instead that God cares for me through the love of people. One by one, their friend-sized offerings of time, or care, or provision come to my life like seeds, and their kindness begins to grow, slowly, in the soil of my heart. The harvest is help in my trouble, yes, but also a comradeship that will bear fruit beyond this minute of need. I saw that, suddenly, in the auto shop. No supernatural bolt of ease could give me the friendship, the neighborliness that grows up between people who give and receive gifts in grace. God’s answers to my prayers don’t set me in an autonomy of blessedness, but instead bind me to the goodness of the people around me.

The auto mechanic with his repairs. The long love of my parents. A book given by a friend. Even my pet-sitting job, providing just enough extra to help with what I need and sparking rapport with my neighbor. I couldn’t have known to ask specifically for any of these things. My blind, toddler-like desire would have left me rich and friendless. God knows though, that I need love and fellowship, a humble heart, and a soul knit to my neighbors, just as much as help in practical matters. So, it wasn’t just the free car repairs that made me cry.  It was knowing that I had a double gift. I woke up to find a whole garden of kindness sown into my heart with each bit of help. Those gifts will bear fruit in my soul. I will be nourished by apples of friendship, and herbs of neighborliness far beyond this time. And out of that harvest abundance I will turn around and give a few seeds myself.

That is an answered prayer worth a few happy tears.

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