Tuesday, March 20, 2018

White upon the slippery reins

It was Thoreau who wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Pink Floyd took the quote a step further, picturing a woman seeing off the soldiers as they depart for the battles of World War Two:

She stands upon Southampton dock
With her handkerchief and her summer frock
Clings to her wet body in the rain
In quiet desperation, knuckles white upon the slippery reins
She bravely waves the boys goodbye again.
(Pink Floyd, "Southampton Dock / The Final Cut")

There is a sense in those quotes that we are up against something far more powerful than ourselves, something we cannot overcome and so we are quietly resigned to frustration. The pain and suffering of the day seems to overwhelm us and our dim efforts seem like the desperate flailings of those already defeated.

I don't know about you, but I've lived many, many days like this.

One of the things I've been pondering this winter (and by the way, happy first day of Spring! It's snowing beautifully as I write this in Minnesota ...) is some specific ways in which I have contributed to my own defeat and frustration over the years. In part I've been greatly helped in this pondering by some of the teachings of the Enneagram. If you're new to it, the Enneagram can be an intimidating and complicated thing to get your mind around. If you take the time, however, it can be incredibly helpful. The Enneagram says that there are nine basic types of people, each described with a number. Each has various strengths and weaknesses. One of the most helpful aspects of this system is that you can learn how your type functions at its worst, or least mature, and at its best.

Without going into too much depth, I am a "9". One of my basic characteristics is that I find it incredibly difficult to advocate for my own needs. Frankly, I don't deal well with conflict. Instead, I often retreat into quiet reflection -- brooding? -- instead of speaking up about what I want. Many days here is what it looks like: Something comes up that I want or need. I think about it at length -- "pondering" is sometimes a way to avoid action -- and eventually, I may even mention it to those closest to me. This can be something incredibly simple, like "I want to buy a pickup" or it might be something that makes me feel terribly vulnerable, like "I need you to touch me" or it might be something at the very core of me, so much so that it's hard for me even to get my own head around it: "I need a sense that I'm making a significant difference in the world." Each of us has all kinds of needs. That's not the point.

The point is that when I mention this need to anyone, especially to those closest to me, it feels like I'm screaming it, like I'm shouting from the rooftops. The more this particular need is near the core of my being, the less likely I am to repeat it. If it feels fairly trivial, I might bring it up in conversation once in a while. But the deeper it is, the harder it is for me to get vocal about it. I'll bring it up, but here's the reality: When it feels to me like I am screaming out my needs, I'm probably just mumbling in my coffee cup. The statements are so loud and so important inside my head that I feel like I'm selfishly shouting others down.

Reality is, all those people are preoccupied with their own needs, their own concerns, their own perspectives and responsibilities. While they may hear what I say, it's hard for them to value my needs. And really, it's my job to advocate for those things I need. It's my job to be vocal and persistent about my perspectives.

Some of you are reading this and saying, "Duh. Of course that's your job. Why are you writing this?"

Others are shaking your head and thinking (though not saying out loud), "No, no, no -- I can't do that. It's too frightening to get vocal about my needs. What if nobody hears me? What if I go to all that trouble and nobody cares? And what if all it is, is self-centeredness on my part?"

This winter, as I said above, has been a good time to be reflecting on these things. I've spent a lot of time reviewing things over the past few years I should have said much louder ... insisted on, even. There are many statements I should have parked on in relationships at home, at work -- everything from preferences about daily activities, to deeply held dreams I longed for but rarely shared, or only shared quietly, to deep needs to find healthy ways to cope with my own struggles and pain.

So I'm learning to get louder. I'm learning to intentionally voice my needs outside my own head. I'm learning to take responsibility for the things I want and the limits I need to set. I'm learning to walk away from people who don't respect my voice when I do speak. I'm learning to speak and act and choose rather than simply pondering.

It's challenging, to say the least, because this is one of my most debilitating weaknesses and one of my most deeply entrenched patterns. But if I own it, if I step up and advocate for myself, life no longer has to feel like quiet desperation. I do in fact hold the reins in some sense, and while I can't -- and don't really want to -- control others and their responses, I can make choices. That may well be what Thoreau's "mass of men" were missing.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Enjoying the day

The season is turning. Slowly, ever so slowly, the frost is working its way out of the ground. A skunk woke up the other night and though we didn't see her, you could smell her all over the campus. Normally skunks don't like their smell any more than we do, so the odor probably means she ran into a coyote or a dog as she was waking up from a long winter's nap.

Most of the winter, deer were scarce around here. I'd see their tracks but rarely glimpse them. Yesterday morning a half mile east of here a doe and four fawns (rapidly coming up on their one-year birthdays) sauntered across the road in front of me. This morning at first light, the same group (probably?) wandered through the meadow below my cabin on their way back to bed. I suspect this is the doe and twin fawns I have seen here quite a lot, along with another pair of fawns that likely got orphaned along the way. At any rate, they're out and about more during daylight hours, and it's fun to see them.

I was looking out at the lake in our youth building this morning and saw the bright flash of a cardinal in the trees. I know they're here, but they rarely come to my feeders.

So things are changing around here -- the patterns of the wild things and the humans alike. It's fun to have a front row seat.

I've been deep in conversation for most of the last day or so with my daughter Mathea. We compare notes on how the seasons change internally as well as externally. We've been playing with metaphors and comparing notes on music and making plans for upcoming adventures. It's great fun, and sometimes piercingly painful and others, incredibly joyful. The way relationships should be, I guess.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I don't have any particular pondering to grind through today. Instead, I'm deeply grateful for the good things in life, whether they are comfortable all the time or not. Life is an incredible gift full of diverse joys and sorrows, and it's a good thing to live it to the fullest extent possible.

So we just got back from sliding around the trails on the 4-wheeler. And we had one burning question when we started out: With two of us on board, and the St. Patrick's Day sunshine beating down on the hillside and the snowmelt keeping the mud as slick as possible, will we be able to get up that one hill way back in the woods?

Answer? Yes -- but it was quite a ride.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Where is your focus?

This is a little outside my current train of thought on this blog, so please be patient.

I've been thinking a lot lately about a Bible study series from many years ago called "Crossways." It was developed by Dr. Harry Wendt and used ingenious symbols to communicate important biblical principles. The symbol I've been thinking about lately is his symbol for human beings after the fall.

Before the fall (before our choice to sin, whether you believe that occurred at a moment long ago in human history or that it occurs in each of our lives repeatedly, or both) Wendt symbolized humans with two red arrows coming out of the human figure, which stood with upraised arms, representing praise. The red arrow -- symbolizing the direction of our love -- went skyward, toward God. But en route, it went outward horizontally, representing love for other humans. This symbol encapsulated Jesus' statement that the first and greatest command was to love God, and the second command was to love one's neighbor. (Incidentally, in Wendt's symbology, God was pictured as a circle with four outward-pointing arrows of love.)

Once sin entered the picture, however, Wendt's symbol changed. Now the human figure's arms were squarely placed on hips in an attitude of defiance. The red arrow symbolizing the direction of human love came out from the person, then circled back around into that same person. In other words, instead of lovers of God and neighbor, we became, bound by sin, lovers of self. The focus of our affections and our attention were squarely on ourselves.

So here's a picture from the Crossways material that incorporates all I've described so far:

Here is why I have been thinking so much lately about these symbols. The last few weeks I've been running up against people who are focused on their own sinfulness so much that they lose focus on God's love in Jesus Christ. When asked about this, they certainly agree that Christian faith is all about Jesus. But listening to daily conversation with these individuals, I almost never hear them talk about Jesus. I hear them repeatedly talk about sin, about habitual sin, about our accountability for sin, about taking every thought captive so they will sin less frequently, and about punishment for sin. Very rarely does Jesus make an appearance in their conversations.

Here's my difficulty with all this. As I listen to these people, who without a doubt long to be good Christians, I see how clearly their focus on their own sin keeps them operating in the right half of Wendt's picture. Their focus is almost entirely on themselves, though they would say that they just want to get rid of their sin so they can be closer to God. (I'm reminded of a woman I knew many years ago who kept a careful diary of how many minutes she spent in prayer each day because she wanted to be known as a person of prayer. Her focus was sadly much more on herself than it was on prayer as a way to grow in relationship with God.)

All of Christian faith is built on the foundation that we are not able to deal with our own sin -- that's why Jesus took it for us. That's the whole reason for the cross. That's why our task is to accept the overwhelming gift of God's grace and mercy and forgiveness -- and then live lives of freedom in response to God's gracious gift.

It's a dangerous thing to focus too much on our own sin. I asked one of these individuals why they talked so much about sin and so little about Jesus and his gift of grace. His answer? "Grace is assumed. It's inherent in everything I say!"

I can't find a New Testament preacher who spoke in this way -- focusing exclusively on sin, but assuming God's grace as a given. The New Testament writers all focused on God's goodness in sending Jesus as a gift of mercy and grace to deal with the issue of our sin so we could be free to live in relationship with him. My heart is heavy for these brothers and sisters who are so burdened by their own sin and feel such urgency to deal with it that they are seemingly blind to the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Like starlight reaching for the sky

Had a great time tonight burning a big pile of buckthorn. In the spring and summer it's pocket gophers, in the winter it's buckthorn. So this fire is a minor victory in an ongoing campaign against the invading aliens (X-Files, anyone?). The fun, however, is watching the "sparks released by firelight  / sail on vapors overhead / while I turn wearily to bed," with a huge expanse of stars spanning from horizon to treeline and the Milky Way like a bright pathway through the middle of it all.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

My good and God's glory

I've never been big on that whole thing Facebook does where it says "four years ago today ..." or "seven years ago today ..." and reminds you of what you were posting back when. Sometimes it's entertaining, but until recently I haven't really been stuck on calendar dates. I'm happy celebrating my birthday sometime the week of, and pretty much the same with Christmas or any other holiday. But the past many months, I've gone through some pretty significant life-altering things, and I've noticed that my emotions tend to ride the one-year-later roller coaster pretty hard.

I have been pondering today what the takeaway is from this past year. Pain, frustration, hopes and yearnings and disappointments galore -- what is God up to in all that?

First, I'm going to park on the fact that God is faithful. There is an insidious voice inside my heart that over and over again wants me to believe that God has been playing dice with my life. This little voice wants me to say I've never really heard God speak or experienced his guidance -- all the times I thought I did were just coincidences paired with my overactive imagination. But if I take that to its conclusion, there are so many things that are hard for my inner agnostic to explain: supernaturally perfect timing in dozens of interactions and conversations; key words that were spoken by what I thought was God's Spirit, then reiterated within a day or two by a preacher, a friend, an enemy, a song on the radio; unlikely decisions I made or risks I took because I believed I was stepping out in faith and contrary to all expectations, those actions bore good fruit; doors of opportunity that opened over and over, sometimes in spite of others trying to slam those same doors. There's a lot for my inner agnostic to explain, if I start to believe he's right. Objectively I have to say there's evidence for God doing good work in all these things.

I'm not saying that this past year and more has been easy. Far, far from it. But when I am tempted to disbelieve in the goodness and sovereignty of God, it's helpful for me to take a step back and remember all the good he's done this past year as well. And that's just the good I know about! I've often shuddered to think what my life must have looked like this past year in the spiritual realm. What attacks were thwarted that I didn't even see? What oppression was broken without my knowledge? What plots were foiled by God because he has chosen to love me and show mercy to me? I have a hunch that if I could see those things, I would fall to the ground in worship -- because just the little fragments I've glimpsed along the way amaze me.

So I'm choosing to default to Romans 8:28, that promises God works in all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purposes. And while I make a ton of mistakes and fail more ways than I can count, I do love him, and he has called me for his own purposes. Deep down, I'm still confident in his faithfulness to keep his promises. So I will choose to be delighted in him, to commit my way to him. He is faithful, and while I might not understand all his agendas, I trust that he is working for my good and his glory. One year, or four years, or seven years later, that's not a bad place to park.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thinking about writing ...

I've been pondering this matter of writing, as you might expect, the last few days. (The last few decades, to be honest, but let's try to stay focused, now.) Rereading my last blog post I was disturbed because it sounds (at least to me) like all I do, ever, is sit around angsting about whether and what I should write.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If that was the case, I would do far more writing than I actually do. The fact that most of my life is a mess of "doing" -- doing laundry, taking care of my friend's dog, buying groceries, or the many and various things I do that qualify as "work" -- means that I have this luxury of pondering time without feeling undue pressure to accomplish something. Thinking about writing becomes a fun thing I do at the beginning or the end of the day, partly because I have no pressure from an audience or any other kind of deadline to produce a written product, so I have the luxury of ideating about writing rather than doing the hard work of writing.

So after a long, busy day of work and necessities yesterday, I had an hour or two in the evening while puttering with a few other things to come back to this business of pondering the work of words. I read a little poetry (rediscovering Yeats, for one) and some online articles and a little Tolkien. You see, reading is the fuel of writing, and you have to read something with substance, I believe, to write things with substance. In the midst of those various readings I pondered more about this business of writing.

Then I set that carefully aside, because today I have a couple big tasks at work and I need to be disciplined about my time and mental energy.

A few weeks ago my daughter and son-in-law were visiting and they made a comment I've been rolling around in my head ever since. They said, "You could probably make a living writing -- but not if you set out with that as your goal. You just need to write what's in you to write and let it happen."


So this morning, while drinking coffee (of course) and reading (of course) some substantive things to center my heart in Jesus, and spending some time in conversation with him, and then revising today's presentation, and collecting my notes for the meeting after the presentation, and thinking through what doors need to be unlocked and at what time, and when will I get that big oak tree cut up, and can I get by one more day without doing dishes (probably not), all the while, along with a few other really important topics, I am rolling around this business of writing. And pondering how best to translate that into action.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Wrestling with writing

I have been wrestling for a very long time now with the craft of writing. Sadly, this rarely means that I wrestle to put down words on paper or my computer, crafting sentences and paragraphs (though that of course happens at times) but most of my wrestling is trying to figure out the reasons for and dynamics of writing, my own writing. There is a lot wrapped up in this, and it may take me a while to process. If you are not an artist, you might not want to read this lengthy diatribe. But if you pursue anything artistic -- whether your craft is words or woodwork or stroganoff or photos or the art of excellent conversation -- I hope you will find something of value in these reflections.

I used to believe that writing something down for public consumption -- having a work published, really -- meant that the work must be in a sense permanent. If you didn't have a corner on some unchanging truth, why publish it? Books, after all, are eternal. Exhibit A, I just finished rereading Homer's Odyssey. And I am currently reading a little book written down by a guy named Matthew in the first century A.D. in Syrian Antioch. How can I not believe that writing needs to be permanently true? 

That lie -- for I have come to believe it is absolutely a lie -- is debilitating. It paralyzes the writer and creates a block that is difficult to overcome. It is the lie of pragmatism, that says something must be useful to be beautiful, and that the cost / benefit analysis trumps all. Why build a table when you can buy it at Ikea? 

I've shifted my thinking on this. I have come to believe that writing need not be pragmatic or permanent -- the vast majority of the Odyssey no longer connects contextually with my current world as a reader in the 21st century -- but to be good writing, it must be a signpost, however temporary, pointing to something transcendent. And the Odyssey certainly meets that challenge. That is not to say all writing needs to be overtly philosophical or literarily sophisticated, not at all. Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are and A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh are some of the most transcendent works I know, though they are often dismissed as "cute" by those who should know better. (It is a very blustery day outside as I write this and I am smiling to think how many layers of meaning are wrapped up in Roo's joyful, plaintive request, "Can I fly Piglet next?") That statement (not the one about flying Piglet) has become incredibly important in my own thinking about writing -- that a work of crafted words, whether it be an essay, a poem, a short story, a novel, a book-length argument, or a worthwhile magazine article -- or even a blog post -- is well written and valuable to the extent that it functions as a signpost, however temporary, pointing to something transcendent. (NOTE: This is not to exclude the goofy, the humorous, the lighthearted. There is as much transcendence in our laughter and our delight as there is in any of our ponderous tomes.)

This is why reading things from a context other than your own is especially valuable. There's a cross-cultural move in reading the words of another writer, of delving into the soul of another person, especially if they live in a context or time other than your own. Though I have never been to Afghanistan, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner had a powerful impact on me. And though I was not alive in the 1800's (though my daughters might believe differently) Tennyson's "Ulysses" stirs my soul to its depths every time I read it. 

These ideas are fairly straightforward. Most of us can point to writers whose works have stirred us deeply, and we might not be embarrassed to use words like "transcendent" to describe their writing. But I said at the outset I was struggling not with reading but with writing. What does one do with one's own writing? And how does one stay motivated to write, and is that even the right question? There is a sense in which writing something down, especially if you have the audacity to let another read it, is like firing a bullet from a gun. Once fired, the bullet just goes -- it has no brain and no conscience, and the written word is a little like that. It just flies out into the void and impacts where and as it will. The strange -- and often uncomfortable -- change in metaphor is that one's own written words often function like a boomerang that circles back and hits you in the back of the head. Or the heart. This is not a bad thing.

The closer your writing comes to expressing your heart's own encounter with the transcendent -- with the deepest meanings in life, with encountering God, with death and guilt and suffering and love and joy and discovery and significance and brokenness -- the closer your writing comes to tapping any of these transcendent elements, the more likely that it has the power to come back and impact you, yourself, in powerful ways. Of course, most of us who write struggle to read our own writing. Like a carpenter looking at his own work, we see only the imperfections. We encounter our own words like someone who first hears their own voice in a recording and blurts, "That's not me, is it?" There's a shame and sense of inadequacy that we have to get past. If we can set this aside, however, if we can be gracious with our own imperfection and finitude, we may be enriched by the beauty of our own writing -- not least because reading your own writing, especially at a bit of a distance in time or context lays your own soul bare. It's a journey of self-discovery not for the faint of heart, because you feel the crooked knife of your words sliding between your own ribs, and you know it's also out there for everyone to see. Like Anna Nalick sings, "And I feel like I'm naked in front of a crowd / 'cause these words are my diary screaming out loud / and I know that you'll use them however you want to." And yet, there is also a joy, a pure and thorough joy in reading our own words when they capture something exquisite, if we can suspend self-condemnation and fear. 

For me -- and I can't say if this is true for other writers -- the fear is less about being judged (though that is a tremendous and debilitating fear) as it is of being ignored, of being irrelevant, of not so much being shelved for later as just of being forgotten. (Note: There is also, of course, the danger of being entirely too captivated with one's own writing. That's a topic for another post.) So I have written pieces that encapsulate as much of my soul as I can pour onto paper in one time, carefully crafted and thematically arranged (the example I'm thinking of at the moment is a series of reflections primarily about hunting and Jesus, imagine that!) and I've timidly test-marketed it to a couple dozen people. The trouble is I don't know what to do with this piece of writing, yet it feels tremendously important to me. I keep hoping someone will read it and say (like Tolkien's Niggle hoped someone would say of his painting) "Absolutely magnificent! I see exactly what you are getting at! Do get on with it, and don't bother about anything else!" Just like I'm uncertain of the value of my own soul, I put this piece of writing (or any piece of writing more significant than a grocery list, and by the way now that I think about it I'm a little careful about sharing my grocery list publicly as well -- writers can be a little neurotic about words) out for an audience, even a carefully chosen audience, and I hope people will approve. I knew an author years ago who said writing a book is a little like walking naked on stage and saying, "Well? What do you think?" I probably would have shelved this manuscript myself except for the one person who read it and really seemed to get it. To value it. And now what? At that point I have to think maybe this piece just needs a little more work, like I need a little more work, but I still have doubts about the manuscript and about myself and about the universe. 

So one just has to learn to write in the face of doubt. And then to read one's own writing boldly in the face of doubt. Or, perhaps, not to write at all, to dismiss it as a particularly self-indulgent bad habit. That's really the discernment required, and it comes back to Oswald Chambers' writing this morning -- is this a call from God? Is this the particular niche for which I am created? Or is it just something narcissistic to be dismissed on the grounds that, as one person said after reading the manuscript cited above, "You think too much!" And even that response was far, far better than a few people closest to me who completely forgot to read it after I'd shared a copy with them.

Having tried, I don't think I can not write. The growing collection of partially finished manuscripts that clog my notebooks and my computers and my file folders -- fragments of poems and stories and essays and sermons and much, much more -- are like a tremendous reservoir of myself, and like I don't quite know what to do with myself most days, I'm not sure how to steward these words. I've burdened others with my words, giving stories and poems as gifts, turning them loose and letting them go. Occasionally I wish they'd come back because a narrative won't let me go and it seems to be trying to teach me something, so I wish I had it in hand to work through more completely. There's a story that had its spark in my mind fifteen years ago on an island in the Boundary Waters about a man whose life gets turned upside down and he ends up wintering there in the unforgiving northern wilderness. These days that story seems prescient at the very least, and I have been toying with the idea of working it beyond the short story I actually wrote down once but have since lost, and into a novel. It hasn't gone past the toying stage as yet, but it doesn't seem to want to let me go. Maybe one of these days it will come to fruition as well. 

There is a deep, deep hope in all this. It is a hope that Tolkien developed in his essay, "On Fairy Stories," and N. T. Wright has written extensively about in Surprised By Hope and other places. It's rooted in the biblical promise of 1 Corinthians 15:58 where, after a lengthy exposition about Jesus rising from the dead and what it means, Paul seems to turn a sharp corner and concludes, "So then, my brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for you know that in the Lord your work is not in vain." Tolkien says that our calling as humans is to be sub-creators, created in the image of the Creator God, putting all our gifts to work in imitation of his creativity and glory. In some sense, our artistry, our craft, will become part of the new heavens and the new earth promised in Jesus' resurrection. In this context, in this broken reality, our artistic pursuits serve as signposts pointing toward transcendence, toward truth and beauty and goodness, toward God, however implicitly or explicitly. And as a writer, you may find yourself preaching to yourself as often as not. The preacher always preaches the sermon that the preacher needs to hear. 

Yet there is a promise of fulfillment -- a promise that God stewards these words, that he gathers up the bedtime stories and the manuscript fragments and the forgotten old poems and the carefully crafted social media posts that are done out of a sincere heart that pursues truth and longs for the glory of God. There is a promise that God will keep these words and, like Niggle's painting, he will someday incorporate them into a greater new creation that is richer because of your art. In the meantime, in this broken world and in our broken souls, our words -- in all their incompleteness and imperfection -- can read us and point us toward transcendence. 

And that in itself may be reason enough to keep writing.