Recently, a friend who was slogging through a deep grief, shared some sermons with me. It caught me off guard, because our conversations during walks or coffee doesn’t usually come to specific points. We usually wander around ideas of faith and philosophy with with subtle ambiguity, and a spritz of a wry humor following close behind.
The sermons were buoyed by poignancy, and filled with slicing truths. What I mean by that is the preacher didn’t play patty-cake with God, but held the tension of life close to his heart. He shared his ubiquitous tight-wire between his pain and peace, failure and flourishing, mourning and comfort. Yet those tensions didn’t excuse him or me from taking action.
They had the effect of a simmered stew of Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, with Psalms of seasoning sprinkled in.
Quite honestly, when a sermon comes to a close with pragmatic faith choices, as I believe they should, hives appear on my soul. I stubbornly scratch and scratch wishing I hadn’t heard the application points. I suppose it might be the Romans seven syndrome. The Apostle Paul’s word toss. “I do what I don’t want to do, and that which I want to do, I don’t.” Romans 7:15 The old do-do dance I know all too well. But often it is more than that, the floating around conclusions, the avoidance in the void is the road I most travel.
“It’s how I do, Lord.”
“Really, Hmmm. Come out onto the floor. Let Me show you some different moves.”
“But God, look at me! Two left feet time and time again.”
“You do know the music is going to stop eventually, right?”
“Well, standing, back against the wall, isn’t using the music to its fullest.”
When there’s a possible “out” or a way of loosening a grip on “my baggage,” stubbornness rises up and I stiff-arm God. We get used to our carry-ons don’t we?
Back to my friend. Any other person sharing sermons with me wouldn’t have the same effect. But his current state of raw grief coaxed an expectation on my mind and heart.
He is ripped open, receive what has spoken to his wounds.
As I listened to one sermon, then another, a vulnerability rose to the surface, and like a steroid shot, began healing the hives. Honestly, I was a bit rattled. Scared of commitment. Afraid of relationship, especially with God. I know. I know. God is love. God so loved. John 3:16. But my experience has its influence on me to the contrary. I’ve pinballed my way through Christianity…hitting bumper after bumper with a reactive-attachment when it comes to God.
In one of the sermons the preacher talks about ‘getting over it.’ At first what seemed like an avoidant approach, an end-around of sorts, turned into ‘getting through it’ to ‘get over it.’ Get it all out on the table. Or—Get out on that dance floor while the music is still playing.
I guess the conclusion is I can’t dance holding the baggage or stiff arming the invitation.
My verse of this year (partial verse, I should say) is “Come unto Me.”
Did you know the first miracle of Jesus was at a wedding? Water to wine. Finer wine. I think there might have been some dancing. Isn’t it funny how the music lasts to the end? Even when the chairs and the gifts are put away there are a few hold outs on the floor begging for one more song.
There is a base camp. Tucked in the foothills. Nestled, as it were, in sight of the mountain peaks, frosted and ominous above the tree line. Cleft in view of the valleys where shadows are as much of the landscape as those protrusions which birth them. This is the base camp of the soul. A place carved out of the bustle of life with its highs and lows, the EKG existence of trying to establish a baseline.
I don’t live in the Sierra Nevada’s. I’m in Michigan. In each house we’ve lived in, I’ve staked out my claim. One time it was under the basement stairs. Another, a corner of the living room. Once I had an office—a luxury for sure. The desire was for place. A setting in which the heart was heard. My own. The department of the interior.
Reading, writing, and arrhythmia. A bible and a journal are always nearby. Sometimes I read out loud when my wandering mind is flooded with the tasks of the day. Poets, dead or alive, are given their due honor. Essayists flesh out ideas like a Rueben…little bites of thought to chew on. But when the basecamp is warm, lit just enough to see what open heart procedure is needed, that is when God attends.
I’m finding over the past few years all that is needed is a space, a place to give opportunity for the interior life to be checked and nurtured. Maybe you’ve figured this out already. In the end, the heart of the matter is the heart of the matter.
“Guard your heart, above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” Proverbs 4:23
Do a biblical search on the word heart, and you’ll see the place of prominence of which it is given. God thinks our interior is important.
Take in this little ditty I read yesterday.
“God signifies an alternative impulse – to sacrifice rather than grab, to love rather than lust, to give rather than take, to pursue truth rather than promote lies, to humble oneself rather than inflate the ego. In all creation the hand of God is seen; in every human heart, in a blade of grass as in great trees and mountains and rivers; in the first stirring of life in a foetus and in the last musings and mutterings of a tired mind.” Malcolm Muggeridge
After I read that I was reminded of a Wendell Berry poem.
Thirty More Years
When I was a young man,
grown up at last, how large
I seemed to myself! I was a tree,
tall already, and what I had not
yet reached, I would yet grow
to reach. Now, thirty more years
added on, I have reached much
I did not expect, in a direction
unexpected. I am growing downward,
smaller, one among the grasses.
Wendell Berry from Entries
These dudes knew. They had a base camp, I know it. Now, think of someone you know, famous, or in your circle of friends. You can pick out the basecamp people, can you not? There’s something. A lowness, a humility, a longer attention span maybe. All characteristics I long for.
Jesus often left the crowds for the “lonely places” yet he was never alone. The department of the interior was high on the priority list. If Jesus, why not me?
I rattled through two sleeves of upscale buttery, saltine crackers like a couple of clips from a machine gun. This was after I found an old war flick, A Bridge Too Far, recounting the failed mission of WWII code named Operation Market Garden. I just wanted to veg, find a bit of relief from a busy weekend. Eventually I fell asleep in the glow of sound and fury.
Back in the day it was peanut butter banana toast and Gilligan’s Island. It was an after school relief from junior high, that prison of halls and doors and peer pressure positioning. I’d make it home to lounge in the sunporch, give my pimpled persona a rest, and watch the Skipper run into the tree for the umpteenth time.
Such a pattern still exists if I let it. The space is there to get spaced out, relieved of the duty of adult living. I mean don’t we all want to escape some of the realities of the “real?” But is escape and relief the optimal way through?
Right before the Covid lockdowns last year I went to a men’s gathering in the mountains of Colorado. Buena Vista to be precise. Buena Vista means beautiful view, which it definitely was. So beautiful that there were times I wept at the scenery. Throughout the weekend the idea of choosing between a way of relief and a way of restoration was posited. In hindsight, I came away with the realization that I was using.
I began noticing the carbs of comfort, the plopping in front of the T.V., being strung out on the news cycle like crack cocaine and using social media as affirmation of my existence. I had become a hollow man. I was using, and it manifested in–“squirrel!”– and punching new holes near the end of my belt. When my kids had to use my first name to get my attention something wasn’t right.
I needed restoration. Relief serves a purpose, sure, but often it leaves a hole. Escape drops everything for a bit and leaves me empty handed. But restoration, I found, replaces, refurbishes, and refills. It’s not a substance but sustenance.
Our interior life needs consistent restoration. It takes more effort than relieving ourselves. Sorry for that image. But seriously, find the things that restore. Some of you are way ahead of me on this journey. I’m getting there.
Here are some restorative acts in which I engage:
Cutting down on news intake.
Reading and journaling.
Hugging my wife and maintaining eye contact.
Listening to music.
Hitting some trails with a friend.
Getting out in nature in general. (So thankful for my job in that department.)
I’ll end with this. Over the weekend I went to my mother-in-law’s to pick up a piece of furniture she no longer needed. Walking into her house is like swimming in sunshine. Excess of color, artwork everywhere I looked. I found that when I left I felt lighter, happier, and comforted. I told her so. She is versed in restoration. Her life hasn’t been all bright and cheery, but you wouldn’t know it upon entering her gallery.
I pray you will find the avenues of restoration to fill you. What are some of the restorative acts you pursue?
The Lord Is My Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
In ’61, my studio apartment, called the womb, got a bit tight through no fault of my own. The force of nature pushed me out through the tunnel of love. I choked on air for a moment or two, and cried. “Here I am, now what?” The sounds of a beating heart, fluids coursing around, and a muffled voice from without was snatched away.
Her words were instantly glued to my being along with dark chocolate eyes gazing at me, the center of the universe…for a time. Such a helpless little human, but she was right there when needed. Mom. Separation anxiety lulled with lullabies. Cries displaced by coos of attachment over time.
Honestly, I remember zero about how it all came down. I had no control over which sperm out of gazillions would hit the surface of the egg first. Choice? I definitely had none. The mess and pseudo violence of birth my Mom and I endured, well, it happened, by design. Call it destiny. Label it mystery or miracle, or both. Admit it, we all try to comprehend the science fiction feel of human inception, and come up wanting.
I wept when my children were born. All four times I wept with them, and my Barbara who bore them. It’s such a humbling and holy experience. Ask any parent. You’re most likely remembering those miracle-mystery moments right now.
Thus far intelligent design is inferred. I tried to leave God in the background. It ain’t easy when fiddling around with grandiose concepts like these. Being human was and is never our own idea, let alone conceiving another human. In view of my religious beliefs, I can’t leave all this up to chance. I’d rather take a chance on faith, than have faith in chance. Pascal’s Wager and all that.
“Pascal’s wager is an argument in philosophy presented by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, theologian, mathematician and physicist, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). It posits that humans bet with their lives that God either exists or does not. Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God.” Wikipedia
Anyhow, I’ll try to keep this tight rather than to obtusely pontificate toward ubiquity. Wait. What?
I like babies. Apparently God does too. The rescue of us came through Immaculate Conception, and a baby designed and destined to bring tidings of comfort and joy. I won’t mention the mind blowing idea of it all. All this to say that every birth quiets me down, down to take pause and become humble and grateful.
The big white van, a.k.a. Big Bertha a.k.a. airport limo, was traded in for a red truck, a.k.a. Clifford. As more of our children fan out to put their own dents in the world, ours is shrinking. I remember when my mom had to learn how to cook for less. The crockpot was downsized to a pot. What a bummer. Crock was one of my favorite meals. Barbara continues to adjust to only five kids at home. Six, including me.
Anyway, my plan was to get a pickup and a dog of my own and cruise around town really slow. One of my favorite movies is Grand Torino. In it Clint Eastwood has an old Ford F-150 and a dog. Strangely, the guy I buy autos from looks like a young Eastwood. “Do you feel lucky, punk?” he would say as he showed me around the used car lot. Not really.
While peaceful transfers of power are fresh on our skulls, my transport of power shifted down to an extended cab where my 18 year old, 6’5” son, looks like “Elf” squeezing into the back seat. I have to admit that new things don’t carry the excitement they used to. Must be over time our sensors get a bit worn out. New doesn’t satisfy like it used to. I’ve talked to my peers and find they carry the same attitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful to have a red truck. The fact is, the thrill isn’t the same as getting a red Radio-flyer wagon as a pre-pubescent, skinned kneed boy. Why not? I mean, where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Have I become one of the walking dead? Is youth really wasted on the young? Is desire thrown into the glove compartment?
Let’s get more dumpy, shall we? Every now and again I think of all the packages I’ve set on porches. The next day, there was empty boxes set out. I’ve been at it for over thirty years now. I’ll wager that much of what was in those long ago deliveries are now in the trash bins of the world. At the least, Goodwill is cranking out a living from all the material girls…and boys.
Is there a point, or poignancy? Clifford gets me from point A to point B. Yesterday I threw the remnants of a new wood floor in the bed of the pickup among many other dilapidated items to haul to the transfer station. I look forward to going for drives with my honey. There’s something about seeing a couple in a pickup truck that spreads a smile across my face.
Honestly, Clifford is the object of my affection for now. It’ll wear off soon enough. That’s okay. Things are to be appreciated, taken care of, utilized, etc. It’s a used truck and it is designed that way…to be used, not as an object of idol worship. Except maybe when I’m idling at a light next to another truck hoping they’re envying me rather than the other way around. Just joshing…kinda.
We’re about to look over our shoulders and attempt to frame a year which seemed like a decade. The overabundance of information has dulled its own edges. We’re left scratching our heads wondering where the truth lies. Truth lies. Hmmm.
I really want to write with the goal of resolution. You know, tie up 2020 with a nice bow and archive it in the attic. When we hit a deer, square on, in the early hours of this disheveled year, I should have known… I shy away from giving credit to omens or karma, but we all here revert sometimes to how our year began with a synchronicity of headlights, eyes, and a doe flying over our car like a reindeer.
A yearly update used to roll off my fingers. Well, almost yearly anyway. One thing I’ve come to grips with is the consistency of my inconsistence. This year, being one in millions, and millions, and millions, I think I’ll try to hit some bullet points–if there are any bullets left, that is.
I don’t need to write about masks, except to say when I find them in parking lots or by the side of the road, we’ve all been wearing them out (I mean that in the broadest sense imaginable.). Social distance? May I say, we’re still going the distance? Throw in politics, protests, lockdowns, economic duress, violence, and the static electricity of media, and voila! A goulash full of goo.
Stop! Geez Jer, you’re always holding a half empty glass of prune juice. I’m actually considering a prune juice regimen. Do they make prude juice too? Wait. What?
Anyhow, we’ve attempted to put the fun back in our dysfunction around here, with much success. I began with laughing at myself, which is where all humor is better off birthed. Bent souls all are we with creased personalities, depending on which fold comes into view, we see to it forgiveness or gratitude is applied.
Our family is like a stew, thick and rich with history. When everyone brings it home for the holidays, it’s like adding water. A broth gives the dysfunction freedom to float around in the soup of us. We had such a wonderful Christmas knowing this is our family, birthed, adopted, and simmered together to warm us all. What a God given grace and mercy.
As we headed toward winter, hospice showed up. 2020 was finding it hard to breathe, think, and hang on. Let’s say there is no fun in funeral. One friend’s grandmother quietly passed away. Then my sister Ellen lost her fight with dementia. Then another friend lost his son through brain cancer.
Death is not proud, and this year, humility was summoned time and again. Our faith was needed, and the Object of it was found faithful. God holds our grief and questions. Tensions get our attention if we make space to ponder and pray over them. I’ll have to admit making space isn’t always my first choice. Who wants to feel pain and loss? Yet, whatcha gonna do, stuff or ignore it through a plethora of escape modules? Yeah, sometimes.
Then there’s the two of us. Barbara and me, navigating this year closer than ever. We always discuss about being on the same page and what that looks like. We admit our differences–more as time passes. Barbara, boots on the ground, verbal processor, queen of diplomacy, and observer of the wide array of the world’s offerings. Me? Well, I continue to internally ponder, ten feet off the ground, and twenty paces away. My non-verbal processor looks for ways to button up thoughts, and find that the button fell off in the wash. Kinda like 2020.
I gotta say though, we are more we than we ever were. (Can I buy a vowel?) I’m super thankful for all the grace God has dumped on us. Mercy too. Oh, how we need both! Our goal is to finish well, and grow until our time is up. I love her deeply.
A few more words to wrap up, button up, and then buckle up, because you never know when a deer might make a run for it.
Can I say it now?
“Hindsight is 2020.”
Listen, as we drive further into 2021, if we make space for it, our rearview mirror will eventually frame the most poignant events.
I pray the good, the true, and the beautiful will manifest in all our lives. I hope the two greatest commandments will be housed in our hearts this year… Love God, and love our neighbor.
Happy New Year!
My verse of the year: “Come unto me…” Jesus Matthew 11:28