After the Mountaintop: So What and Now What?

Two of the questions everyone seems to want answers for are: “So what?” and “Now what?” Those are the questions that beget action. They need a response.

We were just talking about “mountaintop experiences,” or those experiences where something has opened up for you, you have seen (been shown) and felt something that changes you, or that changes everything. Now what? If you have this incredible experience and then just go back to things just the way they were, then what good is it? What was it for?

You’ve got to act. You’ve got to do something. What that something is is different for everyone and inherent to who we are–it involves our unique talents and passion. It is what defines us.

Over the past couple years, I’ve had St. Paul on my mind, especially gearing up for a study on Romans this fall. Most of us will never know Paul’s clarity or conviction. His mountaintop experience was an encounter with the Risen Christ that left him blind for a few days, and completely transformed his life. He went from being an all around not-so-nice guy to being a prolific letter-writing, missionary master, New Testament first ballot hall of famer. Even changed his name.

What we take from our game-changing experiences doesn’t have to involve evangelism, like Paul. It could be anything–working with kids, creating art, pushing yourself and those around you to be better, kinder; inspiring others through… what? That’s for you to decide. But it involves change. It involves action. It channels your passion. It engages your talent. It calls us to pass it on, to pay it forward.

I know I sound like a broken record at times. We’ve all got our soapboxes to stand on. I come back to a lot of the same things: being outside and experiencing God’s creation. I find peace, have some of my most profound thoughts, and talk to God when I am running, hiking, or walking. I am inspired, uplifted, and overflowing at times when reading and/or writing. And I am lit up beyond words in small groups of great people.

Over the past 10 years, some of my most meaningful experiences and relationships have been come from a group of early morning runners, which has created oddball adventures, lifelong friendships, and ultimately even helped me find a home at Christ Church Easton.

I love this notion that N.T. Wright has in “Simply Christian:”

“We honor and celebrate our complexity and our simplicity by continually doing five things. We tell stories. We act out rituals. We create beauty. We work in communities. We think out our beliefs… In and through all these things run the threads of love and pain, fear and faith, worship and doubt, the quest for justice, the thirst for spirituality, and the promise and problem of human relationship. And if there is any such thing as “truth,” in some absolute sense, it must relate to, and make sense of, all this and more.”

Drink from that fire hose for a bit. When I think through those five things and how they relate to my life, I think back on some of my best memories and look forward to meaningful experiences to come.

“So what?” and “Now what?” I feel like as individuals and as a society, these are questions we constantly ask and come back to. Sometimes they can leave us stuck in the starting gate wondering what to do. And sometimes they can call us to action.

Mountaintop Experiences

Sometimes hospitals can be mountaintops. Mountaintop experiences are those moments or experiences in our lives that rearrange things, change our hearts, bring us closer to God.

Two years ago today, while visiting her mom’s family in Pennsylvania, Ava had a seizure that led her to be flown by helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. I was sitting in my sun room at home at 9pm, and got a phone call, and was on the road within a few minutes.

She spent 10 days in pediatric intensive care and all told about a month in the hospital between neurology and the rehab unit. After EKGs and MRIs and who knows what other acronyms, the likely diagnosis was that Epstein-Barr Virus had gotten into her spine, and caused her brain to swell and provoked that and subsequent and ongoing seizures. The doctors, nurses, and technicians at Children’s were rock stars, stayed the course and sent Ava home to conquer 5th grade. Since then, she has been on medication to manage her seizures and we have learned a bit about the world of provoked epilepsy. Ava’s has been a good story, with her making honor roll at school, playing sports, and living a mostly normal life, albeit mornings and evenings feeling like a pharmacy.

Mountaintops are what you make of them. The main thing I remember is the amazing support, prayers, good vibes and good deeds from so many people. It redefined what community meant to me. What Ava went through, and her attitude, and watching her come back to herself gave me a sense of gratitude I wouldn’t have come to any other way. It showed me first-hand, the way a community of people praying can change the heart(s) of the people being prayed for. I have been in a constant and growing conversation with God since (not that I always listen the first time or catch what He’s saying).

Yesterday’s Gospel reading and sermon at Christ Church Easton were about a mountaintop experience–Luke’s story of Peter, John, and James witnessing Jesus’s transfiguration, “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”(Luke 9:29). You can’t get much more mountaintop than that. I like how Frederick Buechner brings transfiguration back to everyday life:

“Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”

When I think back to two years ago in the hospital and getting home, I have seen that look on a face. It was there in Anna caring for her sister; it was there in Ava getting home, excited to see her friends and start the school year. And because of that mountaintop experience, when I remember to look with the eyes of my heart, I see it now.

 

Faith, Wonder and Surfing

Faith and wonder are siblings. They begin in a curiosity, a fascination with something beyond us that we can’t fully comprehend, but we want more. Maybe they are intertwined, spinning around each other like a spiral shell.

Some people may feel like they outgrow either or both faith and wonder–they fill their minds only with facts that fit inside what can be understood and categorized. And there is little time for things that don’t fit.

In his book, “Simply Christian,” N.T. Wright works with the metaphor of hidden, living springs. He says to imagine those springs paved over with concrete so thick the springs couldn’t penetrate it, and that a complex system of pipes was built to use the water, chemicals added, and the water was controlled and brought to people, so that they didn’t have to do anything to get it. Useful, regulated, controlled, right to your door with no work. No thought. Wright posits that an explosion, something between a volcano and an earthquake taking place, that none of the water regulators could explain. The water, he says, is “‘spirituality,’ the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.”

I started reading Wright to get to know the man behind Bible study guides that we will be using for classes on the Gospel according to Matthew and Paul’s Letter to the Romans this fall at Christ Church Easton. It has felt pretty quickly like I may have found another member of my tribe of writers–Thomas Merton, Frederick Buechner, Henri Nouwen, John Eldredge, Anne Lamott–who look at the world through a lens of faith.

The other book in my beach reading stack this week is Victoria Erickson‘s “Edge of Wonder: Notes from the Wildness of Being.” I’ve written about it a lot, think about it even more, and try to live and spark it when I can, but I often feel like wildness, passion, wonder, is the thing we (I) have the hardest time keeping in sight when daily work and life can keep us (me) so focused on what needs to be done–all good stuff, but all demanding time and attention.

Erickson gets us back to the wonder within us. “Are there equal parts magic, contentment and quiet beauty when you’re just being simple?  If not, then wait for it.” She writes about walking, something I see also in running:

When I walk,
I can no longer feel
fear or weight
or worry or pressure,
as they vanish
beneath the rise
of movement,
breath and creative fire.
To me, walking is
recharging my life.

This morning I ran barefoot along the beach in Ocean City. This dance of spirituality (Wright’s water), faith, and wonder spiraling in my head; my head which wasn’t clearing itself as it was directed.

I passed a stretch of beach where people were learning to surf, kids and adults. I stopped and watched for a bit, and smiled. In a world where there are a million options for things to do and demands on our time, people are learning to surf.

If I want to play Wright’s metaphor into the physical world, where water is spirituality, that’s a response that makes me happy. Be in it, be a part of it, learn to ride it. We know the ocean is bigger than we can see, we know it is beyond us, and so, we learn to surf.

Faith and wonder both start from within us. They are a part of us, our response to something bigger than our minds, which we want to know more about.

Show Me How to Live

Our senses are gateways to the world. What we see, hear, smell, touch, taste give us our world, in part. And our senses have memories.

Walking the dog the other morning, I was overwhelmed by the smell of honeysuckle. It transported me back to being a kid, building forts in the marsh, sections of which were absolutely and wonderfully overgrown with it. The smell of steamed crabs has the same effect.

The feel of cut grass under bare feet, or hot sand, or gravel under toughened summer feet. The first time my daughters’ newborn hands wrapped around my finger.

Our senses cue up a lifetime of memories in our mind’s eye and in our souls.

And there is music. Our lives have a soundtrack. Mine is different from anyone else’s, though certainly we share songs and groups with others. Anyone who rode in my car during high school heard their share of the Beastie Boys “Paul’s Boutique,” The Specials, Public Enemy, The Clash, and Metallica.

Getting to North Carolina for college, it was meeting Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog.

I don’t generally sing, but to this day when Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” comes on the radio, much to my daughters’ cringing, I am belting it out.

Cornell and Vedder are still on about every running playlist I have. But Cornell is integral.

We all get to those rough places in our emotional lives. When I was driving four to five hours a day back and forth to DC, in what came to feel like a soul-less grind, and my marriage was crumbling around me, it was Cornell, Tom Morello and Audioslave. Played so loud the windows and dashboard shook. It was the angst, the wail Morello’s guitar, the reach and pitch and emotion and questions in Cornell’s voice.

You gave me life
Now show me how to live.

Audioslave was and is catharsis, solace, energy. When I moved down Bailey’s Neck and got my feet back under me, and would run the wood-lined back roads, it was Audioslave time and time again.

Show me how to live.

In finding a job in Oxford at the community center and re-embracing a community that helped raise me, in moving back to town here, and running through town and up Oxford Rd.

Show me how to live.

The night Ava had her big seizure in Pennsylvania and was flown by helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh; as I buried the gas pedal driving through the night it was Cornell and company playing in the car to keep me awake and focused.

Show me how to live.

As we all returned home, and I was filled with gratitude for the outpouring of support and prayers from friends and family and strangers, and I found church and faith, and would shuffle a playlist on my runs, I could hear:

You gave me life
Now show me how to live.

In hearing and finding a calling and Christ Church and being in small groups and building a family and community of faith through our Alpha program, I hear the same words.

I’ve never met Chris Cornell. His death isn’t like losing a family member or close friend. There isn’t a hole in my life in that way. When David Bowie, Prince, or Lemmy died it was sad to lose great artists. But they weren’t a part of first team soundtrack of my life.

We come to know artists through their art. When we find those artists whose work resonates and enlarges our souls, we know it. We connect with them in ways that makes our own struggles and questions seem relevant for someone else; we feel less alone. Like together we tap into something bigger–in the best art we can feel connected; at times maybe we can hear God’s message for us.

In the end, I’m best leaving the words to Morello, who knew Cornell well. The poem Morello wrote to Cornell after his death is beautiful, moving, and open-hearted and minded. Go read the whole thing. But we’ll leave his last words here:

You’re the clear bell ringing, the mountains echo your song

Maybe no one has ever known you

You are twilight and star burn and shade 

 

Difference Makers: Christ Church Easton’s Alpha Weekend

Faith is not a sprint. The Holy Spirit is irrational and real. And sometimes, finding ways to nurture and stoke a community of faith and love; something that feels like a family, is about the best way you can spend a weekend.

Christ Church Easton‘s Alpha Weekend was a retreat suited for people who would quickly tell you they don’t do church retreats. I know because I was one of those people–I’d never done anything like it. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone at the end of the weekend who didn’t feel like they had been part of something totally unique, moving, connecting, and Spirit-filled.

The Alpha Course is billed as a sort of introduction to Christianity. It’s about understanding and building a relationship with God, not about hitting the books or simply learning facts. It was created in London and since Nicky Gumbel took it over in 1990, it’s become a bit of a global phenomenon. It’s designed with people who don’t know much of anything about church in mind; who maybe never thought they’d have a need or interest. Each meeting is centered on food, fun, discussion, and laughter. In my experience, it’s as much a personal and group adventure as it is a course.

At Christ Church, Kelsey Spiker, who heads up the youth ministry, was gearing up to lead a Teen Alpha Course. Fr. Bill Ortt and Jana Leslie liked the idea of running an adult Alpha at the same time, for any parents or others who were interested. What followed was 100 people–roughly half kids and half adults–who signed up. On Saturdays, after the 5pm worship service, the whole group sits down for dinner together, eats and laughs and connects, then breaks up into groups to watch a video and discuss. I signed on as a leader, and I’ve seen some pretty cool things go on each Saturday.

Which led to the Alpha Weekend away.

My daughters are part of the Teen Alpha group. The three of us were a part of about 60 people who headed out to the Claggett Center in Adamstown, Md–an idyllic setting in Maryland mountains.

It was a weekend to unplug from the distractions of everyday life; to refocus energy and attention; to connect with each other; to grow together in faith and understanding.

The youth movement took nature walks, played basketball and impromptu capture the flag, and made the most of the Claggett Center campus on a rainy Saturday. The adults went between group videos and discussion and unstructured time for reflection, with everyone coming together to eat, and morning and evening time to pray. As someone who generally prays by myself in solitude, there is something about praying as a community that transcends anything I can feel on my own.

Saturday evening, the rain let up and everyone gathered around a fire. There is a core of this group who radiate music and just being around them is being around a concert ready to happen at any moment. That night it was Grace (yes, that kind of Grace, but also a person), a soft-spoken 18-year-old arts student, who opened the song flood gates with a guitar and a song called “Difference Makers.”

It’s easy to think of a retreat as an escape. This wasn’t. The death of an Easton High School student preceded the weekend and was on hearts and minds of everyone. While we were there, word came in of a tragic death of a young child of somone’s close friend. People’s lives, loved ones, joy, pain, questions, sorrow, searching, and happiness were all present. And all real.

With the rain, Saturday was a day largely spent indoors. So when the sun came out Sunday morning, I ate breakfast quickly and hit a hilly hiking trail at Claggett. I wandered through the woods until I found a stream flowing downhill, and hopped onto rocks and followed the stream to the river. I sat next to the river, listened to birds, felt a breeze on my face and prayed for a while. Until I realized I had to get back for the morning’s movie, “How can I make the most out of the rest of my life?”

With a book in my hand, wearing jeans, I hit the trail running, smiling and laughing like a kid, making it with a couple minutes to spare.

I am a note taker–never leaving home without a pocket notebook and pen. The weekend was filled with things to write down:

“Prayer is a two-way conversation.” – Nicky Gumbel

“Jesus didn’t come to make life easy, He came to make people great.” – NG

“You’re not saved by doing good; you are saved in order to do good.” – NG

“The Holy Spirit is completely irrational and totally real and relevant.” – Fr. Bill Ortt

“The inspiration of the Holy Spirit isn’t found on page 101 of the prayer book.” – Fr. Bill (meaning it isn’t as simple as just opening a book)

After the movie and group discussions, morning worship service was filled with song and Spirit. People who don’t generally speak in front of groups shared gratitude and thanks for having a church family. We left the Claggett Center, and the weekend, fully charged.

This past weekend, we were back at Christ Church. Fr. Charles Osberger, a guest minister, led the Alive at Five Saturday service. He talked about his own experience with Alpha, saying, “the love of God is present like surfing on a wave.”

Building on a theme, he prayed that we “have the Scriptures open to us in ways that stretch and deepen our understanding.” And he noted that, “When God moves from a God ‘out there’ to a God inside us, it is like igniting a fire.”

That fire, the feeling that something is starting and building, that’s what it feels like is at work right now at Christ Church. With Alpha, but that’s only part of it. It’s something that is hard to put into words, but something you can see and feel. It’s people making a difference in each other’s lives. It’s people trying to walk their walk and live God’s love. It’s struggles, failures, challenges, and successes. To use a Christ Church notion, it’s “real hope, real grace, real joy, real God.”

Tangents and Timing

I waited until I was 45 to meet William Stafford. Sure, I’d heard of him. Maybe run into him at a couple parties (figuratively). But there is no reckoning, or quickening if you are a “Highlander” fan, until it is time.

Tangents seem to be the most direct route to my soul. Stafford is a writer who I have known I wanted to, and needed to read for probably 20 years. I have read bits and pieces and read articles about him, but haven’t made a point to dig in. And then he appears in a birthday compilation of thoughts, memories, and musings, writing about Great Blue Herons.

So I take the hint and find a greatest hits book that has that same poem in it. And reading Stafford it is instantly clear that he has his own unique place in my tribe of soul writers.

Timing is everything. I’ve seen it and felt it countless times: I read something or hear a song that seems cool, but doesn’t resonate. Until I have had the experience that makes the lid blow off it, and it drives directly to the heart and makes a home there. Until it is time, it doesn’t make sense.

Stafford is like that. I needed a birthday reminder to get in touch with him. Scripture is like that. For more than 40-some years, I have read spiritual tomes and everything I could get my hands on. But it wasn’t until last year that I knew it was time to immerse myself in the Bible. And now, finding the connections between the Old Testament, Gospels, epistles, and seeing how God’s Word becomes living words in our lives; I know I wasn’t ready for that search, that journey, those connections, until I was.

At Christ Church Easton, we’ve finished up our Lent Bible studies, which came on the heels of an Ephesians group. We’ve still got an Old Testament study underway, and Alpha groups, but I look forward to what’s next, what direction groups will take this fall.

But first it’s Holy Week and Easter. And spring and summer. And spring break for the girls. It’s finding the soul tangents and being led to follow them. Those tangents can be adventures, people, paddling, reading, traveling, sunrises, birds. They are the threads God puts in our lives, puts in front of us for us to follow.

He Speaks in Silence

Much of this spring has been scheduled, busy, on the move. All to the good, but jam packed with it. And so it has been the unscripted moments that stand out.

Tucked into our readings for an Old Testament class at Christ Church Easton, was this wisdom from 1 Kings 19:11-13:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

When Elijah hears the sheer silence, he knows God is about to speak to him. It strikes me as absolutely and beautifully profound that he lets the pyrotechnics of the wind, earthquake, and fire go by, but knows God in the silence. He speaks in silence.

It was this time last year that Jim Harrison died. He has been a literary and life hero/model of mine for 20 years or so, and I have been thoughtfully and randomly reading in his books, “The Shape of the Journey” and “Songs of Unreason” since. I came across this last week in the latter:

Don’t bother taking your watch to the river,
the moving water is a glorious second hand.
Properly understood the memory loses nothing
and we humans are never allowed to let our minds
sit on the still bank and have a simple picnic.

Sitting on the still river bank for a simple picnic. Again it’s the stillness and the silence that houses the profound moments. Where we let ourselves catch up.

Running has always been a listening time for me. Even with music playing into headphones, there is a stillness and silence in the motion and the head space that I crave. I have been on the shelf from running this winter, but managed to sneak in a couple five mile runs of late, unscripted, unscheduled, when time and weather have cooperated.

Tuesday was one of those days. After picking Anna up from lacrosse practice, I ran around Oxford, watching as the sun wound down, then grabbed the girls and Harper and hit the Oxford Park to catch the sunset. The clouds got the better of the horizon, but it didn’t matter. It was getting off script, taking advantage of an evening, making a few moments.

Life has its landmarks–those big, defining moments that we measure and remember. God is in the majestic, the heroic, the can’t miss pyrotechnics that leave us in awe.

But I’m trying to cultivate and make the most of the in-between times, unscripted, still. Those times when He speaks to us in silence.

Seasons, Journeys, Treasure

I dig the seasons changing. There is something to that elemental shift that stirs my soul. These warm days of walking home for lunch and feeling the sun on my face; longboarding to work; thinking about sunrise or sunset paddleboarding on the horizon; putting tomatoes in and mulching gardens; seeing the return of green grass. I’m looking forward.

This is maybe the first time I have fully paid attention to the changing seasons of the church: from Advent to Christmas, from Epiphany now into Lent, looking to the Passion and Easter. Another new thing for me is leading a small group as we journey through Lent.

At the Ash Wednesday service last evening at Christ Church Easton, Father Bill Ortt gave out some information on what Lent is all about. Among other things, I like getting into the word itself:

The word Lent is derived from the old English word “lente” meaning “Springtime” or “lencten” referring to the lengthening of the daylight hours. In the agricultural sense, it is a time when fields are prepared to receive the seeds for the crops to be planted. On a spiritual basis, we might look at it the same way. There is much work to do to break the ground compacted by the weight of the winter period of “death” and there are weeds and obstacles to remove. And yet there is good to be found in the preparations, because it is preparation for new life. In other words, this is more than a good thing.

Lent is a preparation. Lent is also a journey. Lent is a journey over a period of time, 40 days, and it is also a journey over the terrain of the soul.

This morning, thinking about journeys, I went back to a book I pick up a lot for those kind of travels, Jim Harrison’s “The Shape of the Journey:”

It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone’s
story: but the shape
of the voyage: how it pushed
onward in every direction
until it stopped

It’s not the destination, it’s the shape of the voyage that defines it. And can define us. In Walter Brueggemann’s “A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent,” he offers this prayer for today:

Self-giving God, call us to walk the road of
newness–a new self, a new society, a new world,
one neighbor at a time. May we have traveling
mercies this Lenten season. Amen.

We are each on our own journey. Some are fortunate enough to help others in their travels, some people help us along. Where our paths intersect, and where we can travel together, those are great times. This kind of trip can be lonely and rough and we need help.

The Ash Wednesday reading from the Gospel of Matthew had some really key traveling advice. Something we may want to take to heart. Matthew quotes Jesus, who talks about not storing up treasures on earth–material things, money, fame, success–but storing up “treasures in heaven,” those things that light the soul, that put us in touch with something bigger, that connect us to God:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This Lent, this spring, as we set out on our journeys; may we find and store up the right kind of treasures and know our hearts; help our fellow travelers on their way; and all know traveling mercies, as Anne Lamott and Brueggemann call them, remembering it is the shape of the journey at least as much as the destination.

A Tale of Two Buildings

Let’s be up front: this isn’t really a tale of two buildings. It’s more what they represent. They are buildings, but also emblems. The cabin and the church.

The Cabin

It is so easy for me to be a hermit. An active, outdoor hermit, mind you–wrangling sunrises with coffee, running, paddleboarding, looking for birds. I like to hermit in the John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thoreau style.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to daydream about finding a cabin like this one from Cabin Folk and holing up for a good stretch with books, notebook, trail running shoes, binoculars, backpack, you get the idea. And I would enjoy that and likely recharge a bit.

Solitude is a necessary condition for me. But I’ve come to realize it’s not enough. It’s just a beginning point, albeit one to return to. If you are one to ask life’s biggest questions and take the walk to find answers, there is a good chance that you are going to struggle at times. You are going to suffer, you are going to come up short, and sooner or later, you are going to need help. That can be a humbling experience. For me, being humbled is also a necessary condition.

It’s being humbled and needing help that sets us up for needing other people. Needing a community of sorts. Needing people who we can relate to; who understand our struggles; and who we can in turn help with theirs. In my experience, helping someone–whether it is moving furniture, listening, laughing, accomplishing a goal, or just being there–creates a feeling in me that I can’t replicate on my own, cabin in the woods or not.

The Church

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Someone who thinks and feels with us,” Goethe is perhaps describing the beginning or foundation of community. In his sermon at Christ Church Easton on Sunday, Fr. Scott Albergate posited that “The reason to go to church is to be in the company of others,” and that while in a worship service, “Hopefully it will sink into your soul–through the sacraments, songs, Scripture–that life is beyond our control.”

If you spend time in nature, or if you are at all mindful of the passing of time, disease, death, the notion that life is beyond our control is almost self evident. And it can be a heavy truth to bear. As we try to carry that with us, it can weigh us down.

Fr. Scott also pointed out that the majority of what we know of Jesus through the Gospel, he is concerned with healing and transformation. Healing and transformation, through Christ, happen through love and grace. Love happens in the world, through people. We can’t experience it alone. And when we come together, a funny thing happens:

God brings his presence ‘into the house,’ and we are called to release it back out into the world. – Pete Greig, “Red Moon Rising”

Grace is only grace because God gives it to us, He shares it. We know it as a gift and show it by sharing it with each other and others. We know love and grace in the company of others.

Two Buildings

The cabin is the place to find ourselves in solitude. The church building is the place to come together with those “close to us in spirit.” We come together to know, to experience God’s grace through each other and to take it out into the world.

I need both buildings and what they represent. I think Thomas Merton gets it right when he says:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.

Space for Grace

Tohu wa-bohu. It’s fun to say. Like an incantation you would chant while waving a magic wand over a hat. Tohu wa-bohu. It’s a Hebrew phrase from the Book of Genesis, describing the state of the Universe before God created order. “Formless void,” and “primordial chaos” are two of the translations I enjoy the most.

It’s a phrase Fr. Bill Ortt has unpacked in a couple different small groups at Christ Church Easton of late. He used it to point out that the first things that God created, in addition to light, were time and space. These were the ordering principles of the Universe. To get rid of the chaos, it was light, time, and space.

The image above is William Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” in which God creates order out of chaos. Blake is depicting God putting his orderly stamp on the Tohu wa-bohu. It’s an image I am familiar with: it’s on my left shoulder, the first tattoo I ever got, when I was 25, after my first encounter with Blake in Dr. Gillin’s British Romanticism class at Washington College. Funny to come back to it in a new way, almost 20 years later.

There is something to that need for order. When we want to calm the chaos in our own lives, we need to shine a light on things and create time and space. When things get hectic, there is a blueprint that goes back to the beginning.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.” I like Lamott for her honesty, humor, compassion; for her irreverent reverence; for her willingness and ability to shine the light on herself and laugh and make us laugh at what she finds; for her willingness to wrestle God and surrender; and for her unique and personal path and walk of faith.

Both in reading her and for some time before, I have had the notion of “grace” on my mind. Here is how Lamott looks at it:

It is unearned love–the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

There is so much there that I like. Grace is what is left when we have nothing else. It’s what is there when we are on empty. It’s foundational. It’s also not something we have alone, or by ourselves. Grace connects us to God and to each other. Sometimes that is a tough lesson to learn for those of us who are hermits by nature.

Here is another way she puts it, “Man is broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” Let’s play that out to bricks and mortar. A single brick only gets you so far. With a bunch of bricks, you can have a sidewalk, patio, house, etc. But the key to putting bricks together is mortar. And you have to make space for the mortar to join them together and make them stronger.

You have to make space for grace. If we get so busy with our lives, or so self-absorbed that we can’t see or feel grace, we are the bricks without mortar. We are the ones deluding ourselves that we can do it on our own.

We are broken. We live by mending. The grace of God is glue. We need to make space for grace.