Over The Rainbow
Something died in the guts of our house. As it ripened and decayed, Denis searched for it in among the cobwebs hanging behind the furnace and over the walls of the ancient stone cistern of the basement. I don’t like to imagine it swarming with worms and maggots, but I can’t help it. The smell has pooled in fetid swirls at the top of the stairs and drifted through the vents into the little studio apartment where Aunt Ruth has been living. (She was spared this offense since she is currently with Marsena and Jeff.) Denis’ office is in the finished part of the basement, but he’s been forced to work in our living room or the back porch where he tries to balance computer, books, and a cup of coffee on his lap. When I can’t avoid the basement, I hold my breath, run downstairs, rotate laundry, run back up, and arriving at the top where it’s the worst, frantic for oxygen, I suck in a huge cloud and gag. Two weeks and it finally abate. We really have no idea, do we – all those rescue people we see on TV, digging through rubble, masks on their faces – until some trapped little animal dies and gives us a minute taste, the smell of death? We just don’t know.
Here’s another little unhappy affair: Summer has been unkind to my potted flowers. Last May, I tenderly placed them in a mixture of soil guaranteed to give me banks of red dahliettas, cascading petunias, and mounds of apricot begonias. I gave them tiny little fertilizer balls, and water, and every day I told them how beautiful they were. Whatever it was – my lack of attention to spider mites, dead-heading, sun-dried heat waves, they’ve faded away. Even my potted rock gardens which usually survive the hellish atmosphere next to the asphalt driveway are dead, brown crisps. I cut them all away.
Are these parables, metaphors, reflecting deeper ruin, I wonder? I admit some sweetness. Like, I think my cascading sweet potato vine will make it to fall. It is spreading its oak-like, burgundy leaves over the edges of the pot, and throwing itself across the lawn. That’s hopeful, but not quite enough rainbows and light to heal life. So from a dusty summer I’ve needed some wisdom and hope from others. It’s sort of random, but some of you might find unexpected nourishment, like I have.
The Speed of Life
Denis tells me that for years filmmakers have used slow motion to indicate speed, great speed. We know the hero is moving faster and faster because the movement on the screen slows almost to a stop while the background blurs. The movie The Matrix was the first to take this idea artistically one step further by depicting blinding speed with stop-action photography. So, in the beginning of the film, when Trinity leaps into mid-air to defend herself against the agents of the Matrix, her action was frozen as the camera made a 360 degree pan around her while she was suspended in stillness. Then it resumed real time which played the action so fast the eye couldn’t see it. But we knew that, though she was frozen for however many seconds on the screen, it had taken place faster than we could see. When Trinity stops moving, everyone knows her stillness represents the very opposite of what is actually happening.
Sometimes life wears you down and you get a hunger for something you can’t explain or name, and then someone identifies it through art, words, or example. Thus, The Matrix’s Trinity and David Wenger’s recent words on spiritual retreat connected with my heart’s desire for stillness. To stop the speed of life. The mystery of rest with its connections to spiritual renewal and creativity have always fascinated me. Wenger quotes at the end of the essay: “To go forward faster, you must be very still.” This is so counter-intuitive to how we live, I barely comprehend the idea. But I sense the truth of it, the reality of God’s ways behind the metaphor, and his offer for a different way to look at time. I need to hear and know God in stillness.
Finding Stillness by David Wenger
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.” (Mt. 11:25)
I had been eagerly anticipating my retreat for several weeks. I was calling it my “stillness retreat” because that is what God was calling me to do; be still. The weeks leading up to this time were full of activity; I was tired and my spirit, body, and soul were longing for rest. Thoreau, the smallest cabin at The Hermitage, seemed to be the perfect place to go for my stillness retreat.
I didn’t need to take much with me for the 24-hour period. My eating plan was simple, bread and water. It reminded me of my first Poustinia retreat at Madonna House in Washington, DC years ago. “Poustinia” is a Russian word meaning desert and was introduced by Catherine deHueck Doherty, founder of the Madonna House Apostolate. Poustinia describes that time and place given to abiding in God’s presence in silence and solitude. At Madonna House, the fare is simple: bread and water. It was during this Poustinia that I actually tasted bread for the first time. It was plain but bursting with flavor. So, I packed some bread that I had made and filled a thermos with water.
I said good-bye to my family and headed out the door. There on the back stoop were two empty garbage cans waiting to be returned to their place outside St. Joseph’s Barn. I figured I could deliver them on my way out to Thoreau. I walked down the path, pack on my back and a garbage can in each hand, when I was stopped by my eight-year-old son, John Mark, calling after me, “Dad, you’re not supposed to find anything to do.” I chuckled and went on my way, garbage cans and all.
When I got out to Thoreau, I settled in by unpacking my bag. Journal, Bible, bread, and water. Oh no! I forgot a pen. I looked around Thoreau for a pen but found nothing. “Well,” I thought, “I can just walk back and get a pen, it’s not that far.” Then I heard it again, “You’re not supposed to find anything to do.” Yes, that is what I am to be about here, not finding anything to do. The pen was forgotten; there would be no journal entries while on retreat.
At various times throughout the day I thought about going here or there, just to look at things. I wondered if the path in the woods to St. Gregory’s Abbey was visible and where the Hermitage trails needed attention. I wondered how it would be to walk the mile-long labyrinth at GilChrist. But with each thought I heard John Mark calling after me saying, “You’re not supposed to find anything to do.” And so I sat in the sun and watched a turkey come by, I heard the squirrels scampering in the woods and deer snorting as they discovered my presence. I lay on my back and looked up at the sky and the trees blowing in the wind. I slept often. I tasted bread and water. I sat still for long periods. This was my stillness retreat.
When I got home the next day and recounted my retreat to my family, I realized how much the time was defined by John Mark’s admonition to me the day before. I was amused by the thought that John Mark served as my retreat director. Though how to be still was hidden to me before I began my retreat, it was revealed to me through this little one who said, “You’re not supposed to find anything to do.”
Being still is good practice in actively trusting God to tend and care for all that concerns me as husband, father, friend, and caregiver for The Hermitage. As a friend said about being on his own stillness retreat, ‘By doing nothing, I get things done. To go forward faster, you must be very still.’
David and Naomi Wenger are co-directors of The Hermitage in Three Rivers, MI. Their mission is to provide a revitalizing place of retreat and prayer – a place where people come away to scripture, silence, and refreshment. You can learn more about their unique community online at www.hermitagecommunity.org or by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sleeping For Life
“The consensus that prevailed until recently was that sleep is for the brain not for the rest of the body. But sleep really affects everything. We are not wired biologically for sleep deprivation. We’re the only animal that intentionally sleeps less than we need to.”
– Eve Van Cauter, Sleep Research, University of Chicago.
The Sorrow of Parents
A friend writes about the fear and trepidation of mothering:
When my son was young (until the age of 19, roughly), I spent much of my life in despair over the failure I was making of being a mother, because of his attitude and behavior. My husband told me two things that have remained credos and lifebuoys:
1. All you can do is the best you can do; nobody can ask more of you than that.
2. You can’t very well do what you think is wrong, can you? (This was his response when I told him I had no idea if we were doing anything right, because there was no evidence.)
Corollary: Almost nobody wakes up in the morning and says, today I will wreck a nuclear power plant and release lethal doses of radiation. Or, today I will harm or hurt someone at this hospital. Or, today I will make my child miserable, with lasting effects. People, in the main, purpose to do the right thing, excellently or shoddily, but the right thing, as they understand it.
My own worst nightmare is that my inadequacy as a parent, and some of my specific thoughtless, destructive words, and bad decisions, will have life-long, even generations-long destructive power over my children’s lives. I’ve tried hard to meet the minimum requirements, but from my son’s colic to pediatrician’s pronouncement: “some people are just not cut out to be mothers,” on through the years of my son’s brilliant, terrifying, autonomous subversion of all authority, and into [another child’s] colic and (I fear) maybe over-medicating the colic just so I could survive six months of 18-hour-days of crying, and then learning disabilities and A.D.D. – big breath – I’m convinced I never met even the minimum requirements. Never mind that my adult children are interesting, compassionate, biblically shaped, engaged individuals. I see that as grace and evidence of the Lord’s faithful provision. The belief that I will never be good enough goes back into my misty past and is the reason I clung to my husband’s, “All you can do is the best you can do. Nobody can ask more of you than that.” With time, I came to believe that my best would never really be good enough. But, if I comprehend The Fall rightly, the Lord’s job is to work with my imperfect efforts toward his purposes, and sometimes his perfecting work won’t be discernable to me.
Part of our pain for our children is that we can’t know the whole story, with the Lord’s beneficence revealed. Part of the Lord’s grace for us as parents is that we can’t know the whole story. If I had known, I would have turned in my track shoes.
– Name withheld
How Deep, How Wide?
Walt Mueller, who directs the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, (CPYU) recommends this book in a recent blog: Come Back, Barbara by John Miller.
I just finished a personally challenging book by John Miller and his daughter Barbara Juliani about Barbara’s 8-year prodigal journey and the lessons learned by her pastor-father as he struggled to make sense of it all. It’s an amazing book full of rich and helpful insights. It’s almost impossible to pick one small passage to pass on since there are so many. Still, here goes. ‘The key to winning a lost child, or any lost person for that that matter, is to reach the conscience. The primary way to do that is by building a friendship based upon truth and love. But to do this God’s way, Christian parents must constantly work to rid themselves of negative feelings and attitudes toward the erring child. You cannot deny the past, of course, for you have been hurt – and hurt many times. You must learn to accept the past and not cram all these negative thoughts into the basement of your life, close the door, and deny them. Crippled parents – those who have never had the basements of their lives thoroughly cleaned – will inevitably interfere with Christ’s work in the child’s life. Christ wants to reach the young person, to find that lost child, for he loves that wandering spirit. But the spirit’s convicting work will be severely hindered by a parent’s unconscious rejection. The parent can have all sorts of bad memories festering in the mind and, as a result, close the eyes to the rebel’s need for love no matter what he or she is doing. Parents, therefore, must cultivate their relationships with their own heavenly Father, because only from him can parents learn to forgive, bless, and love. So get in touch with our holy Father, keep in touch with him, and then you are most likely to learn how to get in touch with the wayward child and to keep in touch in a way that will reach the heart. Ultimately, allowing God to love you is the only way you will succeed in showing love – tender love, tough love, patient love, seeking love, forgiving love, and “doing” love. Such love eventually triumphs.’
God and Conferred Happiness
Love may triumph in the very, very end, but there are no guarantees about how badly it’s going to hurt. I’m reconciled to the path of suffering and discipline God promises to all who become his children – for myself, that is. But for those I love dearly? Spare them, please. I become a bleating sheep crying woe. Like a good shepherd, Packer grasps my wooly face with both his hands commanding me to stop it. From his book, Knowing God: “[God] will not take into His company any person, however orthodox in mind, who will not follow after holiness of life, and those whom He does accept He exposes to drastic discipline, in order that they may attain what they seek. (Heb 12: 6-11) Scripture does not allow us to suppose that because God is love we may look to Him to confer happiness on people who will not seek holiness, or to shield His loved ones from trouble when He knows that they need trouble to further their sanctification.”
Ah. Drastic discipline.
There’s another aspect to love. It’s the love anyone needs, the love we hope God might grant us if only he didn’t know so much about what we really look like with all our clothes off. You can back the following quote with scripture, doctrine, and creed, but no one explains God’s commitment to love us any better than Packer: “There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me.”
Returning From Exile
I like Li Young Lee’s poetry (I recommend The City in Which I Love You) which is tender, hard, beautiful. Of his work/calling he says: “I would like to be known as a poet of reconciliation, a poet who made it back from exile. You see, I have children, so everything’s at stake. My final report to them can’t be that our true human condition is homelessness and exile. Of course, if that’s what I ultimately discover, then that’s what I’ll report. But my hope is that someday I will be a poet of blessing and praises. I need to find my way home, and I need to get there authentically. …What troubles me are the ethical implications of projecting into the world an “I” that is less than the best of who I am, a presence that might even be toxic in one way or another.”
– from an interview in The Sun, August 2005
Aren’t all his fears true in a way? Any effort to create home outside the Garden never quite quenches our thirst for this place where all is always well. We may capture the spirit of home for a moment, then it escapes. Or is destroyed. Though I don’t believe we should ever stop trying to find it or give it, we are homeless and exiled. It won’t be until the next life when we sit down for wine and cheese by the stream to find ourselves truly, safely home. And despite our dearest efforts and deepest desires we do spread toxins – in ourselves, to those we love, and even to those we could care less about. This tragic failure of goodness returns us to Christ for cures. I don’t know any other cure for poison.
Reflections on the “M” Word
At first glance when a reader wrote to me about the “m” word referring to my last Notes From Toad Hall, I had to think. The “m” word? Margie? Marriage? Then a wave of comprehension – he was referring to solo sex.
He writes: With regard to the ‘m’ word about which we do not speak, I am not sure the act itself is ethically tilted one way or the other. For men, the fantasy world usually surrounding it is seldom anything but unadulterated lust (again, my male analysis). That pretty well places it outside the virtuous unless one can get around that. Have you read Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity? I’d love to know what you and Denis think. I’m passing on copies to the kids. She just seems like someone with whom they can identify and who doesn’t shy away from being, well, frank.
I wrote back: Men seem more captured by fantasy. Some women are too, don’t get me wrong. But a lot of women skip the fantasy and masturbation is more a matter of feeling good or reassuring yourself that you are normal or still physically able to have an orgasm. The young women I talked with discussed the lust aspect. They believed that where fantasy was involved so was lust, and therefore, it was wrong for a Christian.
The question I posed in the last Notes, Summer Issue #2 2005 (which was basically, Where can Christians go for discussion or help on this topic?) gets a short, interesting section in Real Sex. Winner begins with the story of a group of men in Boston, all professionals, who meet every Tuesday morning for coffee:
“It’s a place we can let down our guard and be real with each other, as Christian men trying to live out the gospel.” He [Tom] will also tell you that his crew spends at least thirty minutes of their weekly morning meeting discussing masturbation. “It’s one of the things we really struggle with, there’s no doubt about that,” says Tom. Tom and his buddies are not alone. Throw a stone at a group of Christian young adults, and you’re likely to hit someone who is puzzling through the topic of masturbation: Is it right or wrong? How do I break the habit? What’s going on emotionally when I masturbate? Why is this such a big deal, anyway?
Even Winner’s title for this section: “Masturbation: It Teaches You that Sex Happens Outside a Relationship” seems worthy of discussion. Another reader, a pastor, recommended the same book:
I’m reading/savoring Lauren Winner’s book, and in addition to the fact that she is a gifted writer, it is one of the best treatments I’ve ever read of the Christian’s struggle to rightly understand their God-given sexuality. If you haven’t read it yet, it is a must read. She is honest with her own story and struggle as a woman who grew up immersed in the second wave of feminism, who has had to rebuild a healthy view of sexuality as a Christian single and now newly married woman. She is articulate, thoughtful, and discerning. She has not merely reacted to her culture and her past by joining the sex police, but has rather reaffirmed the goodness of our bodies and our sexuality as central to our being made in the image of God, and to the Redemption He accomplished. She deals astutely with both the lies the culture tells us and the lies that the church has told us. She illustrates the predicament of so many of us with the story of learning to play the cello with a wrong bow hand position. She used that position for years, and then with a change of teachers learned that it was wrong. Even so, after more years of using the correct technique the old habits often asserted themselves. Winner applies this to the way we ingrain ourselves, the way we create a template (my term), which we bring to our practice of sexuality, and into marriage, and how those habits militate against chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage. The illustration was prelude to her discussion of ‘Line-drawing and Formation’ where she speaks to the matters of internet pornography, solo sex, and safeguarding marital sexuality. The best I can say of her book is that it gives me hope for continuing to cultivate a healthy, passionate, celebrative, and chaste understanding of sexuality.
– Steve Baldwin