From this point on, I’ll only be updating the blog over there.
Thanks and Love,
This week I started Lauren F. Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. I love Lauren Winner. Girl Meets God was one of the first books that gave me hope that I could write about Jesus and actually be a good writer at the same time. Every time I see her name on an article in Books and Culture, I open to it first. She’s my girl.
That’s why it’s taken me far too long to get my hands on her new book (which was released in January). I finally got my act together and it arrived in the mail this week. Every slow moment since I’ve been giddily sneaking peaks at its pages.
I’ve never read much of W.S. Merwin’s poetry and I don’t know why. I guess I’ve just never yet made my way to his work. But in one of her first chapters, Winner quotes this poem and it gives me goose bumps and is just the poem about gratefulness that I’ve been seeking out for a long time. So, on my next library trip, I’m snatching some Merwin. And today, I’m giving you this little taste of grateful:
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
Oh. My. That poem. I can’t read it enough. It needs to be framed in every room and framed in my brain. And I want to say it all day long so I don’t forget that sometimes saying thank you is the gift.
Today, because I spent last night exhausted and grumpy–it was one of those loooong days of mothering–I’m reposting what I wrote for Mother’s Day last year. As I reread this post, I was surprised that I had been thinking about earnestness vs “snarky emotionlessness” even then. Happy Mother’s Day to the mamas out there. Eat some chocolate and go to bed early, okay?
* * *
Sunday is Mother’s Day. Chris’ step-mom just sent me a Mother’s Day letter her grandfather had written to his mother from a foxhole in World War I. It was so gentle hearted and earnest. He even told his “Mother dear” that come morning he would “steal out from my little dugout and take some fresh flowers with dew and I’ll wear them all day long and each time these little bells tinkle over my heart they will be chiming my love for you.”
Of course, our culture cringes at earnestness. I’m convinced that our ironic snarky emotionlessness is our greatest fault as a generation. I’m just as guilty as anyone in sarcastic love-showing. I’m much more comfortable telling a friend I love them and then adding in a little snide joke just so the love doesn’t get too uncomfortable.
But, there’s something in a mother’s heart that longs for her grown son, away at war in a foxhole, to pick some flowers (sprinkled with dew if possible) and wear them all day in her honor. Doesn’t that just choke your heart up a little?
A couple of months ago I had a conversation with a friend who was sharing a little about the suicide of a close friend of his. It had been almost a year since his friend had died and he was contemplating calling the man’s mother. My friend said, “Micha, she must have such a feeling of rejection. To lose a child that way, even a grown one–must feel like all you gave was for nothing.”
That caught me off guard. I’d never gone farther in my mind than the immediate suffering of that kind of loss. I’d never considered how a mother might feel as though every thing she had provided for that child (his very life!) was not only unappreciated but rejected.
I looked at my friend and considered the process I was in (still am in) of teaching August to use the potty. I thought of the hours and days spent coaxing and convincing, of cleaning poop out of his underwear, the stories read and told on the potty, the stickers—all for what? To make him a man who can thrive in this world. To grow him up.
Of course, we don’t keep count of what we do for our children. It’s ridiculous and rarely even something we consider (except on really bad days!). But that thought hasn’t left me.
I don’t need my kids to thank me. What I long for is for them to take what I’ve given them and multiply it: I want them to give themselves away in service. I long for them to use the minds I’ve whispered the ABC’s into. I hope the hours we spend pretending will build them into men who create beautiful things. I’m teaching August to be kind to friends, to share, to introduce himself to someone new. My hope is that he’ll love people, hold tight to dear friendships, and forgive with sincerity.
And I hope that the moments I wait for him in the park while he picks and picks and picks flowers, off in some unknown toddler world, will result in the kind of grown son who picks early morning dew coated flowers in my honor on Mother’s Day, wherever he is: foxhole or not.
“It is easy to recognize the bitter spirit of wickedness which creates a barrier to God’s grace and opens the way to the evil of hell. But equally there is a good spirit which frees us from evil ways and brings us closer to God and eternal life. It is this latter spirit that all who follow the monastic way of life should strive to cultivate, spurred on by fervent love. By following this path they try to be first to show respect to one another with the greatest patience in tolerating weaknesses of body or character. They should even be ready to outdo each other in mutual obedience so that no one in the monastery aims at personal advantage but is rather concerned for the good of others. Thus the pure love of one another as of one family should be their ideal. As for God they should have a profound and loving reverence for him. They should love their abbot or abbess with sincere and unassuming affection. They should value nothing whatever above Christ himself and may he bring us all together to eternal life.”
–The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 72 (emphasis mine)
“It is easy to recognize the bitter spirit” because it always creates barriers. It creates barriers between me and my kids when I’m too busy to listen, when I’m too impatient to notice their needs. It creates barriers between me and the cashier when I’m too harried, too frustrated, too distracted to recognize that she needs a stranger to simply look her in the eye, recognize her value. It creates barriers between me and my husband because I forget he had a day of demands and excitement and frustration and wasn’t just away frolicking in grown-up land.
Mostly, the bitter spirit creates barriers between me and God because he is always in the work of giving and I am only able to notice when the walls are down between us. If I build up the barrier of bitterness, I can’t see anything. That’s when I miss the joy, that’s when I’m stuck in my own head and forget to notice that the world around me is on fire with goodness.
So, how do I fight the bitter spirit? What is St. Benedict saying to his monks about what it means to “cultivate” the “good spirit” that frees us from evil, that brings us to God? I love the image of cultivating. It’s so simple, so agrarian.
To cultivate, we break up the soil. We prepare our souls for God’s presence. I used to think that in order to prepare myself for God I had to confess every indiscretion I had possibly committed. I used to think there was no room in my messed up soul for God until I had worked hard to remove every fallacy. Then, I realized my sin was much deeper and more complicated than I ever could have understood. My bad motives were all mixed up with the good, my conscience was braided into my guilt. I couldn’t work hard enough to fix myself to make room for God. I needed grace.
So, if making space for God doesn’t mean doing surgery on my own sin, what does it mean? What does it mean to see myself as I really am and let grace work itself out in me?
I think maybe Benedict works backward here. It might be helpful for me to turn this around for us. Think of this as a cycle:
Valuing “nothing whatever above Christ himself” leads to having the “good spirit.” The good spirit leads to the possibility of “outdo[ing] each other in mutual obedience.” That leads patience in tolerating each other’s weaknesses, which leads to fervent love. Fervent love leads to “sincere and unassuming affection” for the one in authority over us. That sincerity and affection is a sign of the good spirit, a sign that Christ is valued above all else. And it goes around and around in a cycle.
Cultivating isn’t just breaking up the ground, making space. It’s offering attention to the plant. It’s weeding out the things that want to take over the ground, bring destruction. It’s removing the pests who plan to eat from the fruit before it’s ready. It’s watering daily, pruning, waiting on the plant to absorb the sun’s good nutrition.
If we are to cultivate the “good spirit” in our lives. We cannot sit idly. We must make space. We must weed. We must battle it out with the pests. We must accept water, wait on the sunshine. All of that cultivation is work; but it is not lifeless striving. There is a difference between working to shape our souls into people who value nothing above Christ and living with great guilt over our failures, beating ourselves up and missing out on the joy of letting the sun soak in and change us.
The way of grace begins with Love. The way of guilt begins with shame.
How do we value nothing above Christ himself? We recognize daily in greater and greater amounts the dearnesss of Christ’s love for us. That love is our motivation to the hard work of weeding out what’s broken within us. That love is the motivation that allows us to tolerate first our own weaknesses and (once we have seen them and know how desperate we are for grace) tolerate the weaknesses of others in our lives. Then we can love fervently. Then we can care for the ones in authority over us. And then the cycle starts again.
We only have one more chapter of Benedict’s Rule to cover next week. For eight months we’ve been working our way through this centuries old manual for communal living and life-giving faith. And I feel like this is the question it comes down to: What are you cultivating? (What are you giving your time to? What are you making space for? What are you loving?)
God is calling us to cultivate: We make space for God through prayer, through intentionally paying attention to God at work around us. We allow God to show us our weaknesses and remove the brokenness from our lives. And we sit under God’s instruction in the scripture, in the mundane, in the community of people we’ve been given. We learn the sweetness of time and patience as God’s work plays itself out—as we grow into Christ: “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith…abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 1:7).
That’s when the “good spirit” begins to hover in our heads. That’s when we live more and more deeply into The Great Commandment. We love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength and out of that overflow; we love each other fervently, with sincerity, with affection.
Maybe someday I’ll arrive in that sweet spot of faith. And if you beat me there, will you be sure to show me the “greatest patience”?
Thanks for your patience when I was a little slow with the post today. What, my friends, is on your thankful list this morning?
Three weeks ago my husband and I watched the movie Melancholia. If you haven’t heard of the film, I’ll say this: That was probably not a good idea. (At least for me.)
It’s not a spoiler to explain that the film is about the end of the world. (There’s no suspense about that going into it.) The movie is named for the planet that eventually collides with and destroys earth. But the story of the film is about two sisters and the relationships within a family and, ultimately, about the meaning of everything. This is a movie about how the three main characters respond to (in the director’s view) the meaninglessness of life: one with grim acceptance, one with cowardly surrender, and one with almost childlike denial. None of the characters have any kind of faith.
Melancholia challenges us to ask, Why are doing anything? What does it mean that what all we build our lives around, all that we value, is capable of being destroyed in one single blast? And, if everything is going to be destroyed, does it matter whether we love each other well in those last moments? If you believe in nothing outside of the reality of matter and the physical world, how do you make sense of the vulnerability of life?
So, ummm, watching the world end is never fun, especially when there’s a child in the scene. And I’ve already written here about how much I’m over seeing depressing movies, especially since I became a mom. Like all of us, I encounter enough sadness and fear in this world, without needing to put myself in a place to be reminded of it. When I was crying to my husband about the movie a day later and begging him to tell me how he was able to go about his day as a normal human being when he had Melancholia to obsess over, he said: “Micha, this is not a shocker: You feel things deeply. I don’t.” Right, right.
But I was drawn to this movie; I needed to see the end. Now, I can’t stop thinking about those last few minutes of the film, which are actually the last few minutes of life on earth. The character Claire, overwhelmed by the loss she’s already experienced, panics to find a safe place for her young son. After giving up on that, she pulls her sister aside, asking that they do something beautiful for the last moments of earth’s existence: have a toast and play some epic piece of music, something to say all of this mattered. And in that moment, her sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst) refuses to do anything of the sort. Instead, she goes outside to her nephew and, under the backdrop of a sky full of the incoming planet, tries to calm his fears by helping him built a “magic cave,” a teepee of sticks, where he will feel safe.
I keep thinking about those last minutes of their lives, of the world. All of the characters in this movie were flawed. Justine does some horrific things and, at the same time, is vulnerable enough that we feel drawn to her and her pain. She is already hopeless so she holds no emotion as she faces the end. Her sister Claire is the responsible one, the good one. But at the end of everything, she has so much at stake—her husband and her son and her life—that she is a panicked mess. Somehow, it’s Justine, who has nothing, who is able to be present to her nephew in his fear and loss.
What does that mean? I keep asking myself. Chris and I have since had countless conversations about the hope we have, that the physical is not the limit to life. That because we believe God is good and that God exists outside of time and space, we don’t have to react to the thought that all of this beauty—the majesty of mountains, the creativity of life itself: all those glow-in-the-dark fish at the bottom of the sea, the crazy abilities of kangaroos to carry their babies in a skin pouch, the dearness of mama birds building their nests with hope and great usefulness—is for nothing or that it will one day amount to nothing. Because we believe in a Creator and, even more, because we believe in a Savior, we can hold tight to the hope that that all of this goodness, all this life, is worth living in and celebrating because God is in the business of making order out of chaos: on this planet, in our hearts, in our families, in our churches. God is making all the sad things come untrue. So even if we lose everything we value on this earth, even life itself, we can believe that God is renewing it all, reworking the story of earth into the bigger story of redemption.
I don’t know much about the writer/director, Lars von Trier. I’ve heard that his belief system is fairly fatalistic. I assume that he probably holds a view of the world that says this is all meaningless and impossible to sustain. But, even if that’s his framework, I found the care that Justine provides her nephew in the end incredibly moving and emotional. Does anything matter? von Trier is asking. And I think his answer is, Yes, loving each other well matters.
So, I’ve moved from a place of sorrow at the thought of this film, to a place of thankfulness: for the reminder that what we do with the smallest of our moments, how we choose to care for one another in details of our everyday—how we value life—is what ultimately defines meaning in this world.
And I’m grateful for the reminder that if all is lost, if this very moment our sun explodes everything—art and music and nature and humankind—into smithereens, one things remains: a loving God. And because that loving God is not bound by the rules of the universe, God’s care for us is not bound by the rules of universe either.