within limits

Every time I’ve told anyone I was taking a month off from life, there’s been a lot of shifty eyes, dirt-kicking, and trying to explain on my part. “I’ve got things to take care of down South.” “My lease is up, and I have people to see, and the family’s taking a vacation, and it’s just easiest not to come back until October.”

I didn’t want to simply admit that my heart has been crying for months to go home, just to be in the South and not in the city, for reasons I don’t entirely understand – and that I felt like I would break if I didn’t give in.

A few days ago I sat across from one of the people who has pushed me hardest as a scholar and as a person, reciting my excuses, and after an hour of catching up with one another he had few words for me except to say: “Don’t feel guilty for one minute of this time off. Get in the habit of seizing your rests and your Sabbaths, or you’ll never find a way to be grateful for them.” And at first, I didn’t take this as such profound advice; the idea of Sabbath-taking has been important to me for a long time. Even during grad school, I did everything in my power to take off one day a week. But the more his words stuck with me, swirling and resonating with the book I recently stumbled into about Sabbath, the more I had to admit that after several years with this theme playing through my life, I still haven’t gotten the point.

Much of human life and thought is an attempt to contend with, or to avoid contending with, our own finitude. And not just in terms of time, the search for immortality; we flail against the obvious fact that we cannot extend ourselves to infinity in space (by building empires), in work (by inventing technologies), in understanding (by building philosophies and worldview-systems to encompass reality).

Often I think we are so convinced of our ability to become infinite, and so habituated to trying for just a little more, that we don’t even know we are chasing such an absurd goal – but we are. We are terrified to admit that we have limits, especially in areas that are central to our identities. “I’m the boss here; I couldn’t possibly need advice.” “I’m the relationship-builder around here; of course I can be all things to all people.” Little gods.

American culture – let alone New England culture – doesn’t encourage people to say “I can’t”. Christian culture can do likewise, failing to distinguish between circumstances and projects into which we are called – and for which we are empowered – by God, from burdens we heap upon ourselves. And so even after I had made the choice to put aside career-building and money-making just to breathe and be with my family, I couldn’t let myself be empowered by that choice and instead, called myself weak. Soft. Less than.

And in some sense, the point is that I am those things, and there can’t be shame in it anymore. I am weak and soft and less than infinite, and I’m glad that we’re being honest about it. I think it’s time to retrieve an All-American phrase and apply it to life in general; I think it’s time to live within our means. Is it really getting ahead if you are constantly testing the limits of your emotional, mental, and relational reserves? Have you really made it if your life pushes you beyond your capacities for kindness, for joy, or for peace? Is your dream of being king of the mountain really fulfilled just by being last to collapse on top of the heap?

God commands us to rest if only to force us to sit and watch the world continue spinning without a bit of our help. But that agonizing realization can be the most freeing gift – the gift of pure delight in those things we already have, when we put aside striving for the things we don’t.

As for me, this September off is about living within the spiritual and emotional resources given to me, and about simple gratitude for the opportunity to replenish them in myriad ways while I’m back home and on vacation. It’s not self-indulgence as much as it is surviving as the person I want to be: a person of hope, of trust, of tradition, of faith, when I am beyond my ability to produce these things within myself. And giving myself over to the place and people who have been calling to me, I find they are pouring them into me more and better than I can comprehend.

Waiting beneath a vast swath of Arizona sky, I finally have no choice but to admit how very small I really am, how little of the world’s hardship and how small a fraction of its blessing I can actually hold; but finally without my frantic hubris, I’m able to hear a limitless love humming: here, I’ve got the rest.

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notes on a clear moment

At 12,000 feet I stopped to scruffle the ears of the happiest dog I’ve ever seen. It was the high point of my hikes in the Rockies last week, a couple hundred feet above the freezing alpine lake where my boyfriend was swimming and hollering to every columbine and rockslide in the range.
“That’s his happiest place,” I told the dog’s owner. “Really cold lakes.” She didn’t seem to mind the whooping anyway.
We chatted about where we were from, and I let slip: “I almost didn’t come out here to Colorado.”
“Really?!” she said with more incredulity than seemed polite.
“Yeah… I kind of needed to work this week.”
She nodded in that way that says ‘I hear ya’, and then said the thing I’ve heard echoing ever since: “Yeah, but that stuff is always there.”

That stuff is always there. Always something to save for and spend on, always some voice saying you haven’t done enough. Always the world will measure you in clock punches and bank accounts – the moments you take to love and celebrate and simply be in awe, those moments are always marked ‘stolen’ on that ledger.

That ledger tries to whisper ‘the mountains are always there’ – advises trading today’s wild chances for imagined somedays when the time is right. Here, that ledger says, in work and pennies saved, is the place for a young person. Life bright is the privilege of people with heavier furniture and lots of kinds of bank accounts, whose futures are secure and whose vacation time is dearly earned. Adventures have to cost you, worried days and careful saving for everything else first.

The thing is, at 12,000 feet, with jagged heights punching ever higher, temperatures plummeting from 80 to 40 degrees after dark, wind scrubbing the trees from rock faces and leaving only miles of wildflowers – it doesn’t take an avalanche to know that nothing is secure and everything is precious unearned gift. Here are the stark and solid things insisting that these are the facts, escaping these truths an illusion; the world’s ledger lies.

It is not the mountains that are always there. It is our pretense at productivity, greed and striving and proving and obliviousness to this very real world beyond the rim of the screen – these will go on when pollution chokes the columbines and the glaciers fade.

Yet grace requires only that you accept it, and the mountains require only that you go. Test the voice, and nature will prove its falsehood to some part of you that simply knows beyond knowing. Only go.

tuning in to static

Maybe a psychologist would yawn at this – I’m sure I’ve heard it preached a thousand times – but I’d fogotten it lately:
One of the primary tasks of adulthood is deciding which voices get to stay in your head.

I’ve done a lot of exhausting, exhilarating work on this in the past, confronting those ghosts squatting in my home, inviting their nasty friends to parties at 2 A.M. Of course I’d let them stay because they knew how to skulk around the edges of my vision, and because they were terribly, terribly frightening. But when you screw your courage to the sticking-place and put on your boots and go up to the attic to confront them in hand-to-hand combat – they might still say horribly painful things but, looking at them directly, you see they have no bones. The voices that have claimed authority over you are glorified puddles of sound and memory. One by one you look at the middle school bullies, the coaches with their own sad pasts, the grotesque cartoons pretending to be your parents at their worst; you calmly inform them that their presence will no longer be tolerated and, eventually, you watch them dribble away through the floorboards.

Then you forget how hard it is when the voices do have bones.

I’ve done some academic work on virtue ethics, which says that the things we do and the groups we join shape us fundamentally as human beings. There’s all kinds of research about this, theorizing and scientific studies alike, all these people thinking about what this basic truth means to us, and especially what it means for education; but what I wish someone had taken the time to distill down for me back when I was eighteen and worried about school is this. The voices you listen to day in and day out will always, always take up residence in your head.

Thwpid-img_20150717_110802275.jpge voices I’ve read in books and sat under in lectures for the past two years have been different from the voices that used to talk to me about God. I wanted to hear from a new set of people, and I’m glad that I did. I’m grateful for their presence with me, the ways that they have expanded my view of the world and posed questions about God I hadn’t thought to ask before.

Yet they didn’t often draw me towards the God who captivated my heart and mind in earlier years. They didn’t often nurture the mystic in me, the pray-er who was born in a barely-remembered year when a Sunday School teacher said Jesus came to have a relationship with you. That naive wonderer wasn’t really invited to the conversation. My teachers said, “worship brings us closer together as a community,” which is true, but they didn’t say worship delights the heart of God because God is eager to be delighted. They said, “God is on the side of the poor and oppressed,” which is true, but they didn’t often say God is with all those who hurt. They said, The Creator loves all creatures, but they didn’t bother with the truism we all need to hear every, every day – Jesus loves you.

It wasn’t exactly these academics’ job to take responsibility for my spirituality. It’s just that I didn’t have much time or space for any other voices amidst the joy and intrigue, pain, confusion, and discomfort of studying mysteries, wrestling with tradition, confronting injustice every day. Theory, vocabulary, confusion, accusation, discord, and doubt took up residence in my mind and battled daily with testimony, hope, trust, humility, simplicity.

When the words of my pastor stopped sounding like Jesus cares about you and I started to hear God cares about your unruly beliefs and behavior messing up His system – I was incredibly distressed for a while; my last trusted voice was gone. Too weary to keep up the arguments, I quit going to church when I graduated from my program. I committed to the newfound silence.

Utter, blessed silence.

Just two jobs, a boyfriend, summer fun with friends – life as an American twentysomething. Not too much to make sense of. To be honest, for the first half of this summer my life has been as close as it’s ever been to those of the unconcerned-oblivious “religious ‘nones'” people keep worrying about. If you want to talk to me, I said to God, you’re just going to have to do it. Not in a “you big jerk” kind of way, just finally throwing up my hands. It’s not that I wanted to be all agnostic and lazy; I just didn’t know another way to heal, to trust a single voice competing for my allegiance.

I’m finding out that this is an OK thing to do. You have permission to just wait it out with God.

Life with God is a curious dance, a back-and-forth between pursuing God and just waiting to be found. Being called to put some effort into something, and letting go of the things you do under your own power. Analyzing, thinking, considering and formulating with the good brain God gave you – and listening, calmly, into mystery.

My heart has its own insistent little voice with a high-school-principal sort of question: What is the meaning of all this?! And now that I have finally found myself too weary to keep chasing down rabbit trails, I am making peace with my own helplessness to summon answers. I wouldn’t say that God has spoken to me audibly quite yet; it is more that, the less I fear the silence, the less empty it becomes.

I was just getting habituated to my lackadaisical heathen existence, starting to forget what exactly had ever been so important about this church thing, wondering if God was about to drop some crisis into my life so that I would care more – and then came a nudge, do this in remembrance of me. And up I went on Sunday to the church down the street I’ve never visited. There is the voice of the reader, deep and wide, scripture tumbling glory and grace over and over as if they are the same thing. The lackluster preaching while I study the stained-glass windows. And these gifts: The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, your cup of salvation. This voice, this food, I do not struggle to analyze; this food I believe utterly.

Finally the voice of the organ breaks loose from hymns for the postlude, alternately twinkling and roaring majors and minors: It is true! Life is a dramatic and weighty thing. We all struggle to survive, and all break through to show ourselves glorious from time to time. Those battles below the surface are real battles, but you will win if you can only keep fighting; keep waiting; keep believing that the Lord will fight for you. You need only to be still. This warm day means everything, everything, and that is all there is to know. 

I walk home, alone, in companionable silence.

if you walk to people with love: an interview with Emily Neumann

“A lot of Quakers today, like many people in religion, kind of struggle with compartmentalization: you do your activism work, and you do it with other Quakers, but how do you bring the spirituality piece into it?”
–      Emily Neumann

The Pipeline Pilgrimage was built around this question. The twelve-day, 150-mile walk incorporated 120 people throughout its course, with a small group of young adult Friends (Quakers) at the core. The group followed the route of the proposed Kinder-Morgan natural gas pipeline through New Hampshire and Massachusetts in order to connect with the communities that would be affected. Though the motivating factor was initially a concern about climate change and the United States’ use of resources, the goal of the pilgrimage was primarily to listen, not to protest.

At a time in my life when Emily’s question was heavy on my mind, I stumbled upon a news article about the pilgrimage and in my excitement sent a fangirl sort of message when I found out one of the organizers lived in my area of Boston. We met on a summer evening to chat about the walk, ending up on a friend’s porch steps.

Going back over these words, I am struck in particular by the Quaker-ness of Emily’s very grammar. She talks about “working against” the pipeline, but never about “fighting” it; she insists that the best work we can do is always the work we are led into. This is activism that isn’t just faith-based, but faith-suffused – a bizarre and beautiful thing. Here is our conversation.

LG: How would you describe, in a few sentences, what you were doing?

EN: One of the things we were trying to do with the Pipeline Pilgrimage was trying to be really intentionally spiritual, and Quaker, and seeking about it – less about opposing the pipeline and more about doing something that’s really inherently Quaker, which is just seeking; not seeking answers, but just seeking. Rather than in a way that’s gonna strategically problem-solve something – we oppose the pipeline, so we’re going to stop the pipeline with this walk – it was more about building community, being very intentional about the spirituality piece, very intentional about the way we walked together.

Our walk was very much – we want to walk all together; we want to walk in silence, oftentimes for an hour in the morning. We want to be very much together in our struggle with what to do about climate, what do we do about this pipeline, what do we do about climate in general, about this thing that’s full of fear and terror.

One of the side benefits was that we walked into communities – not very wealthy communities, very rural communities, they’ve got their own politics going. And there was a lot of struggle to unify them on this. They felt very isolated from the other small-town communities that were working on this; and one of the things that we did by walking through was to help them realize that, no, they’re coming from another town that is fighting this. These are people who are coming from outside of this community to show solidarity, and they’re doing this thing that is giving up so much time of their life, and so it really helped bolster their feeling of not being alone, giving them energy to keep working against this pipeline.

And it also brought attention to climate change. Where a lot of them are sort of Not In My Back Yard – it’s dangerous, it’s not something I want to see or think about –they were much more easily able to catch on to the climate work, too, because we weren’t yelling. We were just walking in, saying we were against this pipeline, and we’re against this pipeline because it’s climate related. But we’re also here as  a very religious community. We stayed with churches for the most part, so they understood who we were and what we were doing – that we were doing it from a religious perspective, that was very empowering, I think.

LG: I think it was that listening aspect that really captivated me just in reading about it, because I feel a lot of distress about the polarization of politics and… everything else in America.

EN: One of the interesting things was that we got honked at, and oftentimes it was a positive – like, hey, we see you’re there, we’re really happy you’re there. And that was really gratifying. But we got this guy, when we were walking along this very busy road, this oil truck honking at us. And oil trucks are so loud, we couldn’t tell if it was friendly or not; but it turns out he showed up at one of our community dinners that we had at various churches along the way. This die-hard Republican, very NIMBY about it because it was going through his property, but really passionate about it – he had showed up at this potluck dinner at this Unitarian Universalist church. We did not expect to meet any of the people who were honking at us, and it was the oil truck guy; we just happened to be sharing the story, and he was like, “That was me. It was friendly.” It was just an affirmation – if you walk to people with love, they will return it towards you – like tenfold.

pilgrims at the MA-NH border

Climate Change: An Invitation to New Life? pipelinepilgrimage.org

LG: Was there anything else unexpected that happened, or that you learned, on the pilgrimage?

EN: One of the things that came out of it for me was it felt renewing in terms of climate change for me, but more than that I felt really reconnected to my spirituality, to Christianity.

I think this ties back to, like, what is spiritual activism and what is secular activism? Because secular activism, you work out a strategy in terms of power plays – how do you exert the most pressure on particular people in power, how do you target decision-makers in companies. Lots of strategies, rallies, things like that. And those are all great tactics, but how do you access the power of the light within – of God? How do you access that kind of power, where do you access it from? And the pipeline pilgrimage was kind of trying to explore some of those questions. I wasn’t able to be like, I know what the next Quaker action should look like if it’s not just going to be a walk with a lot of meditation, how it will be “effective” – but it did feel very renewing in my own faith, in the leading that I’m working on, in my faith that I can be a spiritual leader within climate work. That I can bring that perspective. I don’t know what that way is, but [I have faith] that there is a way, and if I stay true to that, it will happen.

LG: I’ve been thinking a lot about how people of faith  can lose that perspective that we’re going to be the weirdos, we’re going to be the people that have hope when there is no hope left – or that we need to be; that that’s how we came into this –

EN: Yeah.

LG: But we get caught up in the strategies and the concrete. And the thing for me is believing that it is those small actions and the seeds you plant that you never see, that do actually change the world.

EN: Yeah. And then, I feel like people do actually forget that Jesus was a radical activist, and that he inspired his followers, his disciples – instead of just going back to their own thing after he died because the Roman empire decided that he needed to be killed – his disciples created a new religion.

Like, they could’ve just gone back to doing what they were doing, but they had been transformed by the faith that they had, by Jesus coming to them. I feel like that’s forgotten. It’s really important to remember that by being faithful to what you believe, by being faithful to what transforms you, that’s where those seeds start – that’s how spirituality and religion can transform the world.

There was this woman who walked with us, she said she kind of felt like she was grieving the land by walking through it. And that felt really honest to where she was, and it felt honest to the enormity of what we’re facing, and it felt really true to the kind of work that we’re doing.

LG: Yeah. And that [grieving] is important work.

EN: Yeah.

LG: I think the slowness of it, too, is something that we lose. That it’s hard to face, and it takes time to face it. I think people who have gone through some of the grief and the fear are impatient with other people who have not done that work.

EN:  I’ve worked through some of the fear, I’ve done some of that work, so I’m not frozen by fear –and I have faith that I can help other people get there. It’s meeting people where they are and getting them past that hump of frozen fear. Getting them to the point of having faith that they can take action, and even if they can’t solve the problems of the universe, it’s still really important to have faith that you can be moved to do the work and you can do your part. Maybe together you’ll help move other people and slowly we’ll have a giant movement of people and it’ll be great, I don’t know – but I do have faith that I’m where I need to be.

EN: Did you have any other questions?

LG: You know, I really just wanted to hear you say that it was good.

EN: (laughing) It was good.

LG: And that it worked, in the sense that you connected with people.

EN: Yeah. If you open yourself up to the transformation, and open yourself up to the faith of doing the right thing, I feel like it comes through. And I think we affected the communities that we walked into, but they really affected us at the same time. Which really felt wonderful and powerful.

You can find the New England Young Adult Friends at their website or Facebook page, or visit the YAF climate working group for resources.

The rest of you

There is the you that people see, and then there is the rest of you.
– Brennan Manning

The rest of me doubts and doubts and doubts, my faith and the trivial things people say and God and especially myself. The rest of me is gripped with fear of the future as she shrugs my shoulders when others ask about it. She is terrified that half the people in her life will find out that she’s a religious prude, an out-of-touch mumbo-jumbo moralistic weirdo, and that the other half will find out that she’s a backslidden liberal beer-swilling heathen. She waits to be judged as she learned to judge, listing shoulds and crafting airtight moral systems without a pause to say, ‘yes. life is harder than it looks.’

The rest of me longs for tenderness but comes up only with analysis, longs for God but comes up only with theology, longs to forgive and musters only resignation. She daily asserts her bigness while hiding behind her smallness. She equivocates, rationalizes, and then does the selfish, lazy thing.

She hopes. She harbors the most outlandish wishes, for herself and the whole entire wide world, that she hardly dares whisper to the hardwood floors of this empty house. Hopes to be remembered for listening, to be recognized for writing, to hear the voice of God again and again. Hopes for “spiritual awakening”, I glibly say, but what she means is an awesome rumble of freedom and love spilling over from city to city, drowning greed and fear. All these she keeps in the walls, moving the hiding spots and changing the passwords on her kryptonite.

She is very frightened. She never stops trying to argue her way out. She clings tightly to her judgments of others, and she is often more baffled than drawn by Jesus. She has been keeping me from writing for all my life.

She wants only one thing: to protect me.

Funny how you can think you’re being honest when really you’re hiding. How you can wander over to God, petulant, demanding he fix everything roiling inside your gnarly, spiny urchin-heart, without ever letting him crack it open. I’m gonna hold on to my rock-solid armor, I say to God without really meaning to; you just magic your way in there, fix things up inside, and I’ll take care of keeping them that way. I’ll stand the sentries. I’ll fortify the defenses.

Tenderness.

The word catching me up lately is tenderness. To resist hardening – here is a real kind of strength. How many of the niceties of polite society – and even the unspoken agreements between close, close friends – are aimed at allowing one another to preserve some desperate bravado, pretending not to notice others’ soft spots? Ask about the facts, never the feelings.

Tenderness – I was overwhelmed when grad school began, utterly weary of feeling for others. A few years of intense volunteer ministry and personal troubles had all the great tragedies of the world piled onto them – hurricanes, slavery, warfare and the death of Oscar Romero. Really, we were all overwhelmed by the hurt in the world, in our worlds. But diversions were afforded: cynicism, anger, alcohol, busyness, theological arguments and workarounds. It was good not to be raw all the time. I learned a great deal.

And. Yet. What is learning if we do not learn tenderness? What even is wisdom if there is not compassion first? We students have been allowed to confuse righteous anger with blind rage; our learned pomposities, too, have been indulged, along with our self-soothing tactics and addictions. Never have we simply been with our wounds, hurt together and waiting for grace. We have been too eager to protect ourselves. We have built bridges across the valley of the shadow, bridges that bear a dangerous resemblance to the tower over Babel.

Yes, I do need protection. I am only skin and sinew and some utterly unuseful bits of squish, blood flowing impossibly close to the surface – and that is why every thought of self-preservation is a lie. I do not need the protections of my other self; she wants to help, but she only creates messes. A child alongside God in the heart’s garden, encouraging easy weeds that choke late-blooming flowers, and stomping on spiders that would have consumed pests sabotaging the fruit. And here is God in a floppy hat, pulling her close, sitting her down, teaching her wisdom and patience without fear and pride.

That way lies much pain, Jesus said, but that way lies also the wide and long and high and deep love of Christ. To hide one’s heart in God – tenderness wrapped in tenderness – there is the daily task. To leave aside hardness and will, let oneself be moved even to tears – there is the invincible folly of Jesus.

the duty of delight*

Ah, Easter. With Boston’s highs in the low 40s all week we will declare it springtime anyway; eat silly amounts of chocolate fertility symbols; and rediscover that magical time when overinvested liturgical types go around reminding everyone that Easter is not a day but a season of fifty days – then forget all about Eastertide by day fifteen.

Of course they have a point. Even a lot of evangelicals these days put so much effort into Lent: Ash Wednesday, the fasting, Lenten devotional booklets of all sorts, then the reenactment of the Holy Week drama. It is a marathon – a good, edifying, strengthening marathon – of piety. We excuse ourselves from the effort of celebration now that we’ve finished the hard part. The only thing we know how to celebrate for weeks at a time is the World Cup or maybe the Olympics, and we only muster the energy for that every four years – with a good couple of months’ buffer after the exhaustion of Lent.

wpid-wp-1428428218809.jpegBut Lent is supposed to be a season of preparation, so what is it preparing us for? One day of pastel dresses and ham and potatoes? Relief that we’ve taken care of that religious stuff? Business as usual?

We need a better theology of celebration. Once upon a time I was shocked to read this passage in Deuteronomy 14:
“22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23 In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 24 But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; 26 spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. 27 As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.

28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”

Who has ever even considered spending a tenth of their salary on strong drink for a pilgrimage-party nearly every year? Maybe a few times in your life you’ll spend that much on a wedding (whole ‘nother post) or really special vacation. But there it is, kind of overshadowing the “provide for the priests and the poor” bit: a commandment to the Israelites to take a portion of their harvest, not to save and scrimp and dither about spending wisely, but to celebrate extravagantly. This is not a passage on all things in moderation. It’s about a cycle of fasting (storing provisions for the poor) and feasting (oxen and rejoicing). Neither is complete without the other.

The circles I run in tend to be pretty big on “fasting from yourself”. There are the wild-eyed “Radical” evangelical Shane Claiborne types, the remember-your-sin borderline guilty types, the social gospel types, the conspiracy-theorist anti-corporation homesteader types. I love all of these people dearly, identify with all of them at times, have (literally) preached the fasting message against selfishness and consumerism from Tennessee to New York. But fasting doesn’t have to be the dour, self-righteous thing it turns into. Because it turns into a comparison thing, a guilty thing, a never-enough thing.

How often, too, have I heard Philippians 4 preached – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!” – in a tone that manages to be vaguely threatening? Something along the lines of, “If you’re not joyful, you should probably check in with the Lord to see if your relationship is really as OK as you think it is… just saying…” The excitement  that that exclamation point is trying to convey (because it practically jumps off the page in Greek) turns into this bizarre guilt trip encouraging everyone to hide all their negative feelings next time they come to church.

But Paul didn’t mean for this to be a hyperspiritualized litmus test of faith any more than Deuteronomy tells the nation of Israel to only spend their tithe-pilgrimage-money on really holy stuff. I think God commands God’s people to celebrate because we are so prone to forget that religion is not just about self-denial. And because, to be honest, it is a bit of a burden to celebrate really well (the baking! the family!). But the even bigger point about the whole cycle of fasting and feasting is this: as the literal and figurative seasons of life turn around us, God provides enough for everyone if we would only accept our duties to receive and our duties to give. This world, properly seen, is a world of abundance and grace and rain that falls on the just and the unjust. There is much to be thankful for even in the fasting times; and in the times of feasting, an overwhelming bounty of thanks to be given. The feast does not betray the fast; only to snub the feast, to refuse to share and rejoice in the lavishness, would be to betray the spirit of the fast. Denying yourself does not end in reflecting on how you can never do enough for the poor or whatever; it culminates in the dawn when Jesus has done it, the absurd hope we have that even death cannot put an end to the great gifts of a God who multiplies loaves, forgives sins, places the lonely in families, who never runs out and isn’t afraid and woke us up again this morning.

When we skip the outrageous-grace-party half of the cycle, we accidentally wind up like the disciples, pinching pennies and disapproving of wasted perfume. But when we embrace it, we live into a new world – proclaiming that we are sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Nate is sending me a new classical music piece to listen to every day, and we he is building and planting a garden as I finish up a lot of writing this month. Other ideas for how to celebrate?

* with apologies to Dorothy Day and Fr. Greg Boyle.

lullaby

You wake up sleepy and go back to bed. You wake up again and it is snowing, it is grey, it is Monday. Your exercise is all work and no play; lunch holds no spice; learning begets no wonder. You try to read and gain no knowledge, no insight from the flat and flimsy thing that is the writings of a great medieval mystic. You scroll twitter resentfully. And finally, you are rude to your boyfriend without provocation.

Back to facebook, you are tagged in photos, look at your boring ugly face what a miserable person and then you are stopped.

wpid-fb_img_1427860645024.jpg Arrested by this portrait, frank, lovely. Here you are as someone saw you once upon a moment, beautiful.

We are only children, after all, and these days we are destined to crumble through don’t cease to visit when fits and tantrums cease to be acceptable. But at the end of a no-good, very bad effort we may sometimes find grace. Perhaps a lullaby of a photo unconcerned with common-sense blame, only humming that the world declines again tonight to end; no, this is not the end of the world.

Cry your little tears for their own sake but fall and fall quickly to sleep. The morning brings new sun, new chores, new apologies; for though this is a world sometimes determined to overwhelm, it yet holds photographers who chase down the light and lovely in others with determination greater still. Such are the best great hopes of the small.

My very best friend lives in Connecticut. She might take your picture if you ask.

On smartphones: an excursus on coffee

I harbor a deep and abiding hatred for Keurig coffee brewers – the devices that deliver a single fresh-brewed cup of coffee in about a minute with the push of a button. To the many devotees of the Keurig whom I know, this confession may come as a bit of a personal affront; why, they might demand, should I expend precious energy resenting a machine that can perform such a miracle? As several of them quite sensibly said, when the coffeemakers first came out and I first began ranting about them: “Don’t get one then.”

My irritation, though, was not only with the sighs of neeeeed inspired by the coffeemakers in people who, weeks or months earlier, had been quite content not to own a thing they hadn’t imagined existed. Nor was it only with the inferior (but outrageously expensive) coffee produced, the bizarre noises that seem to be necessary for the Jetsons-like effect of the process, or the ecological disaster that is the unrecyclable K-cup. Rather, I have come to realize what my initially almost-unexplainable discomfort with the Keurig’s popularity really reveals: the Keurig, like any tool or technology, is the physical instantiation of a whole mess of assumptions. In this case, they’re assumptions about machines, about humans, and even about coffee which, to my mind, make the Keurig the culmination of the entire phenomenon called “late modernity”. Here are a few of them:

A machine should be designed to look nice and perform efficiently, not to perform well or to be easily understood and repaired. Watching a Keurig make coffee for the first time has an awe-inspiring effect precisely because we do not know how it works – and we do not want to know. In late modernity, we prefer and expect that our machines will work magic for us using mechanisms that are completely hidden, and would be inscrutable to us if they were not. In place of concern for whether a thing is well-made or even useful we have taken up an obsession with surfaces and “design” as exemplified by the impeccable tastemaking of Apple, Inc.

Individuals can and should expect to be able to choose between many options at any given time. The Keurig user never again has to share a pot of coffee with that one colleague who makes it way too strong. In fact, the brewer can be used to make any number of hot drinks: mediocre coffee, mediocre tea, mediocre cider, and mediocre hot chocolate can all be yours. Nor must anyone ever feel silly again, trying to make one cup of coffee in a large drip coffeemaker when she is the only one at the breakfast table. A large, shareable pot of coffee is really rather undesirable when everyone has her own preferences, schedule, and needs. I have been to a catered dinner where a line snaked around the room as an attendant made one cup of coffee at a time in an effort to offer more drink choices (at the expense of time for convivial conversation over dessert).

The laws of physics should be manipulated to minimize wait time. To make a good cup of coffee requires a certain (rather small) number of minutes which we refuse to acknowledge we “have”. We prefer to make a terrible cup of coffee by blasting hot water through a plastic capsule of powder. The value of technology is in speeding things up, not in making them “better”. Things can always be faster.

Throwing things away is preferable to cleaning them. From start to finish, the Keurig hides those pesky coffee grounds from us, containing them so there is no measuring, no spilling, and no ugly waste (that we can see). Compared with the value of being protected from our own waste and saving the time required to clean anything, the cosmic demerits of throwing out an impenetrable plastic capsule are immaterial. In fact, we have come to expect this of ourselves: “In the ‘nowist’ life of the denizens of the consumerist era, the motive to hurry is partly the urge to acquire and collect. But the most pressing need that makes haste truly imperative is nevertheless the necessity to discard and replace.” New moments, new desires, new opportunities require that we abandon anything old, bulky, or high-maintenance.

It does not matter where things come from. The powders in K-Cups bear only a glancing relationship to coffee beans, milk (for lattes), tea leaves, apples, or chocolate, but this is no matter. The authenticity of the ingredients or depth of flavor derived from “real” foods has little value compared with the ease of acquiring a similar, pale and limpid cup made from dried, processed, and imitation foods.

Coffee is a caffeine-delivery system. We don’t care much for the quality of our drink because the drink is only a means to an end. It is a surreptitiously-snatched “treat” to get us through an interminable day, or a substance we treat (with respect to caffeine) in a manner similar to abusers of wine, in Robert Capon’s estimation: “Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one’s system… With wine at hand, the good man concerns himself, not with getting drunk, but with drinking in all the natural delectabilities of wine: taste, color, bouquet; its manifold graces; the way it complements food and enhances conversation.” The addictive qualities of coffee, likewise, have come to overshadow the conviviality of the coffeehouse or the savored subtleties of flavor afforded by various growing regions and roasting methods, which historically made it so valuable. Demand for caffeine in coffee form has, in turn, driven prices down so that a labor-intensive luxury food has become a commonplace whose existence depends on the exploitation and degradation of workers who have, in all likelihood, never seen a Keurig.

By insisting that a machine for brewing coffee can have moral significance, I do not mean to condemn all instances of its use. It must be said that I harbor no animosity or ill-judgment towards Keurig users, and I readily acknowledge that certain situations or certain life patterns may make the Keurig a good choice of hot-drink-production apparatus. Moreover, like most people, I am quite willing to abandon all matters of principle in situations I consider dire, and will happily accept a cup of Keurig coffee on mornings when no other is available. I only wish to raise the point that it is worth asking questions before rushing to adopt an expensive space-age apparatus: What do we lose by being too busy for fresh-ground coffee from a drip machine or French press? Is the convenience of a K-Cup really worth the money ($40 a pound)? What exactly makes the Keurig so desirable, and what does that say about our way of life? And what is coffee really for? Though we have learned to regard everyday choices and the pursuit of real, full enjoyment as trivial, it might yet be important to return to Capon’s meditation on sin and human vocation:

“Wine is not – let me repeat – in order to anything but itself. To consider it otherwise is to turn it into an idol, a tin god to be conjured with. Moreover it is to miss its point completely. We were made in the image of God. We were created to delight, as He does, in the resident goodness of creation. We were not made to sit around mumbling incantations and watching our insides to see what creation will do for us…Creation is God’s living room, the place where He sits down and relishes the exquisite taste of His decoration. Things, therefore, as things, are inseparable from God, as God… Poor earth, poor stars, poor flesh. Without a Giver, they never become themselves.”

By forever turning the ends of God’s good creation into means, by asking that machines hide work that can be enjoyably done by human hands, by prizing the choices of individuals over the complex rewards of sharing, does it not seem that we late moderns commit the sin of continually rejecting a priceless gift?

as we are overcome

or, a pause without resolution.

This semester I am writing a thesis about Christian virtue ethics and smartphones, so now more than ever I am constantly observing and wondering where all this is going. It would be easy to condemn much about smartphones, social networking, and constant connectedness wholesale, dismissing the many ways these things can enrich our lives. It is also easy to wholeheartedly embrace these new wonders, turning our minds over to be augmented, scattered, overawed, and manipulated by turns. What is difficult is to really understand new technology and use it wisely. For better or for worse we have stolen fire from the gods – now what?

Even the most enthusiastic adopters, I think, are ambivalent about some aspect of the information age. We have concerns about interpersonal relationships, our ability to pay attention, our privacy, our own use of time. But overall, we think, who are we to complain about Progress? It is many people’s job to encourage us not to think about these things, and we are relieved to let them hide our worries from us.

Those of us who think about them anyway are familiar with a pile of stories about earlier inventions. People found reasons to oppose the use of writing, the printing press, railroads, the telegraph. These stories are often trotted out by people with some interest in promoting new technologies; “What silly reactionaries!”, we are meant to say. Some of them, to be sure, were just naysayers, fearful of all change. But some of them raised important points that could have led to wiser adoption of these things. I, like most literate people, am quite glad for the invention of the printing press; but I often wish that my own childhood (and the nascence of modernity) had kept alive more embodied and emotional practices, ways of knowing, ways of connecting with the rest of the world – alongside the miraculous, beautiful practice of sitting in a chair alone, following line after line of argument and story, learning of the viewpoints, lives, desires and loves of people one would have never otherwise met.

Five hundred years later, we had only begun to fully grasp everything movable type had done for us – all the ways it changed our species – when TV and radio came along. We had barely even noticed TV’s effects on us when the Internet sprang out of scientific labs and into our homes. It took over a century for use of the printing press to become widespread; today, change is truly exponentially accelerated. It will be much more than five hundred years until we can understand today’s revolutions of high-speed internet and microcomputers. It is nice to think that we will figure it all out in time, that we only need space and grace to iron out the wrinkles in our new way of life, and to some extent I believe it. But at this rate, we can have no idea where our technology will take us if we do not shape it and use it according to our own well-defined intentions. In the meantime, I do not think it is unreasonable to be completely exhilarated and terrified; the rate of change and the power of our tools has moved far beyond a human scale, a human capacity to manage the emotions, responsibilities, and totally novel situations that are occasioned everyday by our newfound powers.

Just consider one relatively small new world we have created. Many days as I scroll through Facebook, I am filled with envy and irritation at people’s posts; self-doubt in the face of their successes; despair at the ideas and priorities of some friends, and their abuses of their power to broadcast them. I wonder if it is wrong to experience compassion fatigue as I am bombarded with updates on illnesses and emergencies, deaths, breakups, depressions, and job losses – not to mention the neverending barrage of armchair activism. I use the “unfriend”, the “hide”, and I consider an exodus from this spastic microcosm of bare acquaintances and husks of old friendships. But the draw of connection, the instinct not to abandon people to anonymous has-been-friend status, is too strong. I know it is too much for me, but I cannot look away.

And today. Today I watch the posts pile up and I remember the times I have sat in traffic, in the mall, in church, and wondered about all the lives streaming past me: Where are they going? What are they worried about? What are they looking forward to? What makes their faces light up and the pitch of their voices rise to talk about? Today, I feel that I can know. Snowball fights, babies, home-cooked meals, hard-won health goals, all the moments that make up the lives people live for, all the ordinary marvels of a day well-made, celebrated and shared – I wonder if the vulnerability of joy isn’t peeking out from behind the rugged, Stoic individualism Americans thought we had to live up to, laughter, light, and the things we love splashing without ceremony across each other’s screens. I do not know if the jokes shared to cheer a friend with cancer are more comic or tragic, but they are there, they are not indifference, they are all of us warring against loneliness together, and I think that to fight and fail in a hundred such battles is to win a war if we can only stand, shaking, to foolishly seek each other out once more. My breath is caught by the beauty of vacations and hikes, dinner parties and family reunions. TIMG_20140829_214138he very sites of God’s revelation are the answer, where they are going, and even the comment-squabbles take on a Muppet-like, happy character with all this life going on, this is the world, this is time, this is life. Am I really entitled to such a God’s-eye view over all the people I’ve met? I do not know, I only know it is too much for me, and I cannot look away.

the things we give away

Do you remember that time I wrote a series of blog posts about Philippians? (If you do, you officially qualify as a “loyal reader” and will get invited to VIP events or something just as soon as I’m famous.) If you actually somehow remember that time, you may also have a superhuman-enough memory to recall that I never posted the series’ final post.

One or two people asked me about this at the time, and I lied to them. I acted like I just never got around to copying, pasting, and publishing the words I had already written. Somewhere in my brain, it made more sense to sort of lie by omission in order to be perceived as a forgetful, lazy person than to tell the truth and be perceived as a neurotic weirdo. But one year later, I am willing to confess why the final Philippians post was doomed to languish in a folder all alone.

I didn’t post the final post because before it went up, I got my grades back, and I had an A minus in the class.

I got an A minus in the class, which I am not sure was even because of that project. But it didn’t matter. I had failed and my work was unacceptable and because it maybe wasn’t perfect, I kept it from you.

So, yeah, neurotic weirdo.

This same thing just happened to me again. I had lots of research for my Master’s thesis under my belt and I was ready to start writing, and then I got my first-ever reply from my first-ever journal submission.

Final decision: Rejected. My article didn’t fit in with the journal’s scope and subject matter; and the short email included NARY a “You are clearly a wunderkind, but…”

I gave disappointment about a half a second and then shooed it out of the room. I tried very hard to metaphorically toast my defeat as evidence that I was living my life and trying hard things. I even got down to some sick beats with T. Swift. But it was like I had a Charlie Brown raincloud over my head, except it was the word “Rejected” insistently hovering with its own self-satisfied finality. I kept a smile on my face, but I was paralyzed.

The first deadline for my thesis was last week, so I eventually had to sit down and start. I stared down that Word document and all the research notes I’d continued to pile up in order to avoid the writing part, nervous and sullen. I checked Facebook again, and stared at my notes again.

A sentence came to me, and I managed to begin before I’d noticed what I was doing.

I spent the next two days writing. It was fantastic. I forget how much I love words and ideas, sitting with the thoughts – one at a time, until the sentences form themselves, like butter and flour in your warm hands roll up suddenly into dough. One thought at a time, I tapped out the beginnings of a major accomplishment. I even figured out what the paper’s going to say.

I have always loved words and ideas. Long before it ever occurred to me to “accomplish” anything, it was impossible to stop me from reading books. I have childhood memories of being distressed that I could never read them all. By the end of eighth grade, it turned out I’d exhausted the young adult section. Writing, for me, is not an activity. I am always writing, somewhere in my brain, always worrying words into place. And when I actually sit down and actually wrestle them onto the pages, Eric Liddell and I are kin; I feel the pleasure of God.

Precisely because my writing is so bound up with my identity, I am all too willing to hand my work over to people who never asked to also take responsibility for all these snowflake-fragile bits of myself. I let comments on my writing send me into fits of delirious rapture as well as these depths of self-loathing despair. I toss my future, my gifts, and my heart onto a roulette wheel in hopes of winning a giant teddy bear – regardless that God’s pleasure has already been won every time I simply choose to be myself.

For Lent, I am going to write every day (not necessarily here, but somewhere). I am going to do one of those things I was made to do, without making the excuses my inner perfectionist concocts to keep me from accidentally doing imperfect things. I am going to dig into the messiness of actually doing this thing, instead of taking comfort in fantasies about doing this thing and never being hurt by it.

And even though my heart will always be in the work, that doesn’t mean I’m going to wrap it up in tissue paper and keep it in folders. But I won’t just thrust this thing into your hands, either. You can borrow the work, but my heart is in God’s library.

Literally. I’m quite sure God has a castle full of books, and some part of me already lives there. In case we all get to heaven and you want to find me, I’ll probably start with British novels.

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