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March 2015

At Recess

About 4:30 last night I woke to the sound of coyotes yapping and howling. It was an eerie sound, much less soothing than the sound of rain on the roof or the calls of owls, both of which I have heard while here in southeastern Arizona. Their revelry lasted only thirty seconds or so, and while it sounded like a pack of maybe twelve ravenous canines right outside our door, it was probably only two or three who could have been a thousand or more feet away in an adjacent wash that snakes down from the Santa Catalina Mountains. They are ventriloquists, throwing their voices in ways that make them seem more proximate and numerous than they really are, which is another way of saying they are deceivers. But whatever they were doing out there, my slumber was over. I lay there.

The coyotes went silent, the owls took up the song, their questions lingering, repeated for emphasis, perhaps, or sociability. I'm full of questions too. When you awake in the night and lie there questions seem to come easily, ones that lay beneath the surface of the rattle and rub of life. They percolate up to consciousness. I turn them into prayers, some sensible, some inchoate. I'm a little out of my head, semi-conscious, and yet the Spirit takes my sometimes unintelligible scribbling and translates it into a final draft, so I don't worry about it. I ramble on.

But that was last night, and this afternoon I am sitting on the veranda talking with my son about orbital dynamics, or astrophysics, or some little subject like that, punctuated by chips and guacamole, a subject we can both understand. He is like a wise owl on these subjects and I am a coyote, saying little, but dangerous. I make a lot of racket for maybe 15 seconds, yet he holds forth longer, owlish, with less bluster, more nuance. He just explained something to me that I do not understand. I need an explanation of the explanation. But my mind is lazy. I ate a chip. He went back to typing. Heat rises from the top of his head. I know it is there because from the time he was a little boy his head would get hot when he thought real hard. And he's thinking pretty hard. Me, not so much. He's telling me about a spaceship passing by Jupiter, ejecting a cube-sat (that's a baby satellite, a swaddled bundle of. . . instruments) which is thrown out to crash on the surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa, how a door opens and it being spring-mounted is cast out. Like a jack-in-the-box, I say. And he agrees. That's my contribution. And I'm sure I bungled that explanation, but await his dissertation for the real stuff.

Just before dawn, as I lay there working on world issues interspersed with meandering prayers, the birds woke. At home I never hear the birds as I do here, where there is a cacophony of tweets and chirps and flutterings that signal sunrise. Excitement, expectation, joy. Before long, light tinges the curtain pulled over the patio window, and it glows. The owls sleep. My family sleeps. I lay there looking at the ceiling.

A few days ago, I remember, I was riding a horse in the foothills of the Catalinas. I was first up, on Susio, right behind our Sixties-ish guide, Frank, who has lived here all his adult life. I am a tentative rider, lacking temerity, and the horse knows it. And unfortunately for me, Susio has a habit of wandering to the edge of the trail, threatening to brush against cholla cactus, falling into a small ravine, or God forbid falling off the edge of the trail and rolling down the mountain, crushing me or filling me with cactus needles. In theory I know Susio knows this trail better than me, and yet I don't fully trust him. I'm watching him. An owl watches me. Along about dark, I hear a mockingbird, running through his Top 40, and I suspect that I am the subject of his derision.

I tell Frank that we are fresh back from the Desert Museum, and after a pause, he says his favorite animal is the otter. He says that when you see the otter "you just gotta smile." I give assent. You somehow can't imagine a bad day for an otter. I remember the otter that we saw earlier in the week, how he surfaced and rolled over on his back and smiled a whiskered grin at us, how we smiled back. But Susio is going off-road again, and my reverie is ended.

My son is still tapping away on the keyboard. A breeze lifts my hair and I look out to the city, east to the Rincon Mountains, covered by a fuzzy haze which I know is dust, swept up by the winds. I'm on vacation, I remind myself. It's like elementary school recess: the bell rang, and I ran out, free, where I can think about anything I want, light out on a whim, and spend time with friends, which are, and always will be, family --- my wife, my son, my daughter. If this sounds disjointed, if the transitions are blurred, if the transmission crackles like a radio transmission from Europa, it's a testimony to a mind unhinged, at recess. Let me stay a little longer, please, under the moon and stars and satellite sky of this desert. I'll be in soon.


An Antidote for Acedia

“The Bible is full of evidence that God's attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us--loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is ‘renewed in the morning’ or, to put it in more personal and also theological terms, ‘our inner nature is being renewed everyday’.”

― Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work

Acedia, as Kathleen Norris writes about in The Cloister Walk, is what the medieval monks referred to as the “noonday demon”, that heavy omnipresent sense that nothing matters, when you are numb to pain and joy, listless, depressed, and indifferent, when joy shrivels up and seems incapable of resuscitation. By God’s grace, I have not known such pervasive grayness, but I have touched its hem.

I experience such feelings at times when, on waking in the morning, in the twilight, I sigh at what the day may bring. In these times, the story I hear is one of monotony, sameness, and weariness. In her children’s devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, Sally Lloyd-Jones paints a picture of just what this is like. The picture is of a young boy sitting up in bed, head bowed and pensive, with an ominous, swirling dark cloud of thoughts pressing in. Her point is that we often experience unhappiness because we are listening to ourselves rather than talking to ourselves. Talk back to the darkness, she says, and “remind yourself of what is true, and who you are, and who God is and what he has done.” And it is in the literal and spiritual darkness that, when you can see only the murky outlines of the lamp, the chair, or the somnolent cat, or when you can’t see beyond the day, that you remember scripture, if you have any imprinted on your mind, when you take one single verse into your thoughts and roll it over and over, examining it from all angles, anchoring your thoughts to it. A verse like “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you” (Deut. 31:8, NLT).

One morning this past week, I did just that, anchoring myself in a verse I first memorized, to my recollection, in my college years, the one that begins with “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, in all your ways acknowledge him” (Prov. 3:5-6). That refrain drowned out the minor key I awoke to, called me back to truth. Yet another morning I lay there for 30 minutes allowing an incessant litany of burdens to darken my thoughts. It takes an act of the will. It takes Spirit-enabled music that allows me to skip to a better track, a brighter and truer song. That’s not acedia, I know. That’s the skirt of acedia. And yet the remedy is the same.  Scripture is the primary antidote.

But there’s a powerful if lesser tonic that Norris calls attention to, and that’s the natural world. It's what happens when I get up and walk outside. Fifteen years ago, post-surgery and struggling with anxiety, that was about all I could do. Arising in the dark and listening to the rhythm of footfalls, to the breaths I took, even to the beat of my heart, I reminded myself that I was alive and might just live. I let my mind rehearse memories and reflected on the imprint of life in a particular place and moment, about the fascination of moving water, smooth rocks, and tadpoles under bridges, about wading in the pool under the railroad overpass as a child with my grandmother looking on, about the numerous friends I had, about how the hinges of my personal history had, inexplicably and wondrously, all swung open to God. And in that rhythm, in that focus on the particular, on the minutiae — purpose, direction, meaning, and thankfulness would well up. Joy would awaken. If God is fixed on little things, if His eye is on the sparrow, then so should I be fixed. Love the particular and you will see the love of God.

One of the most profound and impactful pieces of writing I have ever read is one by Frederick Buechner, one I read in a devotional of his writings called Listening to Your Life. It's about an an ordinary morning and his awakening to its life, to his life. I imagine he too awoke that morning rehearsing the cares of his day, yet arising he began to listen to what was happening:

"Creation is underway. Breakfast is underway. Steam from the kettle is fogging up the windows. The cat mews to be let in out of the wet. Getting her bathrobe hooked on the knob of a drawer as she tears by, my wife throws up her hands: 'Is it going to be this kind of day?' With my ear to the radio, I try to catch what the weather will be. Somebody is crying while somebody else says it is her own fault that she is crying. We break fast together, break bread together fast, with the clock on the wall over my wife’s head tick-ticking our time away, time away. Soon it will be time to leave for school. Soon enough it will be time to leave."

The antidote for acedia? The timeless words of God. The God-loved particulars of creation. Attention that grows love. Love that breaks out in joy.  Walking in Word and World with eyes wide open.

 

 


What If. . .

71Br5rRCICL._SL1110_"What If. . .," the 2010 direct-to-DVD Christian film starring Kevin Sorbo (and not to be confused with the 2014 mainstream theatrical release, "What If?), is an "It's a Wonderful Life"-like story of Ben Walker, a successful, self-centered CEO of a major corporation who, fifteen years ago, left his college sweetheart Wendy (Kristy Swanson), and ultimately his faith, in order to pursue a lucrative business opportunity, abandoning seminary for an MBA.

When Ben's car breaks down on the way to the airport, he is visited by an angel who tells him that he needs to see what his life would have been like had he followed God’s calling. Suddenly, Ben finds himself in an alternate reality, married to Wendy, with two daughters, and getting ready for church on a Sunday morning, where he’s scheduled to give his first sermon as the new pastor. After the usual shock, disbelief, and attempt to escape, he comes to grip with his faith, realizing that he has missed his calling.

Yes, I know. We have seen the story before, and this is not a movie that has any unpredictable twists to it. It is entertaining and heartwarming, another lesson on the value of taking stock your life and reconsidering the direction in which you are headed. But Les Miserables it's not.

But I am not here to critique the movie. We can find many Christians who render scathingly critiques of this and many other Christian cinematic offerings as sentimental, cliche, hokey, and poorly produced and acted. These critiques often have some validity, and it is true that life is generally more complex than the narratives of these movies lead us to believe. However, I found "What If. . ." valuable as an indictment of my own heart, which is more jaded and cynical than I thought.

Ben Walker's life dramatically changes, and my impulse is to disbelieve it or call it simplistic, perhaps because I don't sufficiently believe that God can change people. Wendy prays a heartfelt prayer for her doubting husband, and I feel. . . what? . . . embarrassed by her sincerity, at the childlike nature of her prayer, at the spectacle of someone praying a sincere prayer onscreen? And when Ben begins to read the Bible I question his sincerity in a time when you rarely see a Bible read in a mainstream movie by anyone who is not mentally disturbed, bigoted, or judgmental. Feeling these emotions, I realize anew that we live and breathe the air of a disaffected time, when people have lost hope for "change," when having been disappointed by ministry leaders, pastors, teachers, and (naturally) politicians, we look askance at every assertion of faith.

"What If. . ." may follow a predictable narrative, and perhaps change is often halting and fragmented and incomplete, and yet this movie and others like it remind me that faith and prayer and radical change are possible, that the same God who appeared to a rebel Saul can, virtually overnight, remold him into a faithful Paul.  And when a nagging voice in my head suggests that this kind of change doesn't happen anymore, I remember that even in my lifetime I have seen Watergate "hatchet man" Chuck Colson come to faith and found the life-changing ministry of Prison Fellowship or seen more than one man I have known give up alcohol and philandering to return to a faithful wife. Yet, this age is so suffused with the lies of fatalism and cynicism that a regular remembering prompted by the Word and the testimony of others is necessary to counter it.

"What if. . ." real change is possible? The testimony of Scripture is that it is. I need to remember that.  And this decent movie is also a welcome reminder that God still changes people.