(Don't) Trust Your Instincts

Throw open every window. Stir up the dust from every ledge and let it dance in the glancing sunshine as it blazes in and draws honey-colored grids elongating themselves along the floorboards. Breathe in the blend of grass and dirt and daffodils—death made life—as the breeze blows in through the screens, turning the inside sweet with outside scents. Sense the warmth fall over your shoulders as you sit with your back to the big window taking in a book. Shine a light in every dark corner, beat out the musty upholstery, and shine up every window pane.

Spring has finally winged its way to us in the midwest. And with its lightness springs up a lightness in me.

Except, well, this is always when I get sick. Inevitably, each year just as the world is breaking open with life, I start to feel a little like death, and it causes me to do the very opposite of what spring beckons us all to do. Instead of throwing wide every window I find myself wanting to shut them tight and bolt the sash, pull closed the curtains and keep the sunshine at bay as I try and nurse away a headache or the sniffles or the vacillating sensations of a fever. When I feel sick I want only to sit in a dark room by myself. And don’t dare disturb my hermitage or risk certain churlishness or childishness.

In the 18th and 19th centuries doctors often advised their sickest patients to spend some time away, prescribing a stay in the countryside or by the sea. Sitting on the beach is just about the very last thing I’d like to do when I have the flu, but I wonder if they might have been on to something. When I get sick, popping a pill or two and holing up in a dark room somewhere feels like the right thing to do, but I doubt it does much to make me better. Pulling apart the curtains and opening every window might just be the best thing, reminding me how good and bright and beautiful the world is beyond these walls. I may not feel like seeing sunshine when my bones ache with fever, when my body groans against every movement, but might getting better be a bitter pill?

This spring my sickness is of another sort. I’m heartsick. Heavy. The words of the Psalms have rarely read so true.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Psalm 32:3-4

Everything that felt effortless is now effort-full, exertion holding up all the heavy things that once felt light as air. Cynicism has been scratching at my thoughts. I’m tired and feeling a little sick all around the edges.

Thus far my instinct has been to retreat, to hide, to seek out dark places. I’ve been craving more and more time alone, longing for the dust to settle, drawing closed the curtains on friendships. I think it’s a self-preservation reflex.

Our reflexes don’t always reflect what’s best for us.

This prolonged retraction is not producing what I might hope it would. I’m not becoming better. In fact, the opposite is probably more true. Yesterday I was reading an essay by the visual artist Makoto Fujimara; he wrote about a time when he had followed his instinct and allowed his art to become his world, to define him. He said:

The more I focused on myself, the less I could find myself. A schism grew inside between who I wanted to be and what I did.

I find the same to be true as I try and define myself in this diminution, this instinct to make my world smaller and safer and more controllable. I’m discovering an even wider gap between the person I want myself to be and the person I am. I become a version of myself that I like less and less. As I retract, as I retreat, I find myself being less of a husband, less of a father, less of a friend, less of a follower of a Jesus, less… full. As I try and grow greater I am less.

That sounds familiar.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16:25

There’s little room in grace for self-preservation. Grace gives. Grace gives even when we feel we have little to give. The widow’s mite makes little sense if we believe in scarcity, but nothing good is scarce in God’s kingdom. Everything is rather upside-down when it comes to the gospel. Or inside out. So I’ve been wondering if I need to let more of the outside in.

When I give away what might be hard, might I uncover what is easy? When I die to the things I feel I want, might I live a life that feels more full? When I want only to curl up on the couch and sleep, might I find rest in heading to the basement to play make believe with the kids? When I want to take a path to my office that promises peace and quiet, might I stumble into life by bumping into a friend? What if I tried giving more? What if I expanded rather than retracted? What if I left the front door open with a welcome mat outside?

There’s a little voice inside me that has been telling me to open up the curtains and let the light in, unlock the windows and let the breeze blow, remind myself what’s past these walls and feel some lightness again.

Last week, as I was knocking out the storm windows and opening up the house to spring, I saw a spider on the windowsill. It lay upon its back with all eight of its legs pulled in tight, curled in toward its abdomen, dead. I think I can do better.

Almost There

He squinted, deepening the creases at the corners of his eyes as he raised his hand to shield them from the late afternoon sun. In the distance, past the lake that lay silvery and shimmering in the valley, he could see the shore rise up to a ridge, and beyond that the rolling hills that lost themselves to haze and the horizon. He realized he’d been standing there for quite some time, almost afraid to blink, worried that the world laid out before him would wave into a mirage and be gone. The heat rising up unrelentingly from the desert sand underneath his feet was suddenly tempered by a breeze, and he finally dared to close his eyes. 

He remembered all the miles, the distance, the heat and the thirst, the wondering and wandering. He thought of the climb up this mountain, an ascent to an end that would mark a new beginning. His breath was slowing, finally coming back to its regular rhythm after the exertion. He opened his eyes again, thankful that they hadn’t dimmed in his old age. Surely it must be some kind of grace that they’d stayed true enough to let him see the land before him undiminished. 

Then he heard a voice, one he knew well.

“This is the land I promised. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”

A journey not yet complete had come to an inexorable end. Almost there, but not quite. Still, Moses would not be the only one of God’s people who would never lay foundations in the soil of the promised land. There was, of course, a whole generation that had squandered the favor of God, who had been forced to wander until the last of them had passed. Also, there were the tribes of Gad and Reuben. 

Months before, when the Israelites had first encamped on the eastern shore of Jordan near the opening to the Dead Sea, the leaders of these two tribes noted that the land in which they’d stopped might be favorable for a permanent settlement. They’d gone to Moses and asked if they might be allowed to stay, preferring to make this land, situated so close to the promised land, their lasting home. 

At first, Moses had been incensed. He accused them of trying to abandon the rest of the nation. He worried it would demoralize the whole population. After all, the work would not be over once the people had crossed over the Jordan. The promised land was full of people and cities that needed to be fought and conquered. He saw history repeating itself, remembering that this exact kind of cowardice had forced them to wander for forty years. He confronted them, saying, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here?” 

But Moses had misunderstood their intentions. The leaders of Gad and Reuben assured Moses that they weren’t abandoning their brothers. In fact, though they wanted to call the land east of the Jordan home, they pledged to cross over with the rest and fight mightily to free the land the Lord had promised. Then and only then would they return to live in the land they’d grown to love, the land they longed to call home. With this promise of bravery and valor, Moses agreed to let them live in this place that was not quite the promised land, this place that was almost there. 

Today, that place is modern day Jordan. A couple weeks ago I spent some time in Jordan. I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by a profound sense of “place,” a feeling made even more acute by the fact that I happened to be reading through the end of Deuteronomy during my time there. That part of the biblical narrative tells the story of hundreds of thousands of Israelites, refugees, people who were fleeing blatant oppression in the hopes of making a new life somewhere else. Then they find themselves on the cusp of that new life, camped on it’s shores, as they prepare to cross the Jordan into the promised land. 

Over the last decade, Jordan has been inundated with refugees from Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, people who have fled their homelands to escape persecution, warfare, and oppression. The population of Jordan has boomed, with some estimates claiming that more than 40% of people who now live in Jordan are refugees. 

But many of them don’t want to be there, at least not forever. Many of them have a dream of making it somewhere else, or of being able to go home; they hope to make it to their promised land. They’re almost there, but not quite.

And what I saw during my time there is that there are many Jordanians who are committed to helping them, Jordanians who are proud to call the land east of the Jordan their home, but who are willing to fight to help others find their own place in the world. I saw many Christians—churches, pastors, volunteers, translators, and case workers—who are like the modern-day tribes of Gad and Reuben, heroes who are trading their own comfort in order to go to battle on behalf of their brothers and sisters.

Perhaps it is the legacy of the land that causes this beautiful piece of history to repeat itself. But more likely, it’s because of the love that the Spirit of God puts in the hearts of his people, a love that considers the pain of others and that fights for our sisters and brothers even though they may hail from different nations or from different beliefs. 

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Matthew 25:35


I pushed on the red wooden door, and it pivoted forward heavily on its hinges. I stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind me as quietly as I could. I stood blinking in the darkness, and it took me a little while to see that I was standing in a kind of foyer decorated in dark wood paneling. I pressed against another door to my right, and it swung into the cavernous room with a creak. I took a few more tentative steps, my shoes squeaking slightly on the polished stone floor.

I sidestepped into the last row and knelt down, the old wood complaining under my weight. I’d just come in from the blinding light of the plaza, and as my eyes adjusted the room slowly expanded in all directions. For the first time I saw I wasn’t alone. A handful of other people were kneeling in a few of the farther pews. 

The cathedral was a stark contrast to the streets outside. 

I’d woken up early my first morning in La Paz, my sheets too scratchy and the bed too hard to turn over and fall back asleep. I’d dressed quickly, had a quick breakfast in the lobby of the hotel, and stepped out into the morning sunshine. It seemed as though I’d been the last to wake. The streets were already full of people. Men in their suits and on their cell phones. Teenagers in school uniforms with backpacks slung over one shoulder. Mothers with sunglasses tipped back on their heads, holding a coffee in one hand and tightly gripping their child’s shoulder with the other. Old women bent over under the weight of huge bags of potatoes and fabric. And everyone running every which way, everyone in a hurry. 

I stepped into the swarm and began exploring. I wandered up streets and down alleys, and since La Paz is built into the hills of the Andes, I walked up and down a lot of hills. The city seemed chaotic with cars and people. Black exhaust poured into the morning sun on every street. Cars at a standstill honked needlessly at one another like a pack of geese. 

I came into a sunny plaza full of hundreds of pigeons making a cacophony of cooing as they fought over the seed being spread by a mother and her three little ones. The storefronts along the edge of the plaza rattled noisily as they rolled up their metal gates. And the traffic that swung around the circle revved and honked at random. 

And then I spotted the cathedral on the far side of the plaza. I felt like it was calling me.

A few moments later, as I knelt there in the the back, I could still hear the honking and the occasional motorcycle roaring by, but it was all muffled. The chaos felt a million miles away. The massive room was quiet enough that I found myself a little self-conscious over the sound of my own breathing, hoping I wasn’t disturbing anyone. In the quiet I could even hear the sounds of the paintbrush a workman was using to revarnish the woodwork along the base of a nearby wall. 

I looked up and realized that the room wasn’t really dark at all. Light streamed in through the round windows high up in the arches, and the stained glass windows were lit up in every imaginable color. 

In the quiet and in that multicolored light I realized that I’d been running. The last week had been spent in the city of Oruro capturing a story so that we could share it with people back home. Our small team and I had spent day after day running here and there, hunting down locations, hurrying to catch the sunrise or the sunset, and ticking off our to-do list. And I hadn’t had a chance to sit and soak it all in. In the course of the week we’d done so much. We’d shared laughter and tears. We’d seen hope. And we’d heard heartbreaking stories. 

And like the world outside that cathedral it was noisy and blinding and choking and beautiful and alive. But to really take it in I’d needed to step inside a sanctuary. I’d needed a little quiet. I’d needed a place where I could contemplate, and cry, and break it all down, and put myself back together again. Part of me wanted to stay there, take up residence in that quiet place. But outside the world was still spinning around in that plaza, and I was destined to join it again. As I stepped out into the sunshine again I felt fresh, and free, and ready again, not nearly as weary as when I’d first entered. Back when I didn’t even know I was weary. 

My home. My life. Our world. It all seems a little chaotic right now. Some of us are right in the middle of it. We’re running. We’re hurrying up hills and down dark alleys. We’re fighting good fights, and sometimes we’re just fighting. We’re laughing and crying and shaking our heads and shouting. And that’s life. And we’re doing all we can. 

But sometimes we just need quiet. Sometimes we have to seek out a sanctuary. Sometimes we need to let our eyes adjust and let our breathing be heard and let the beating of our hearts slow down while the world spins as wild as it wants. 

And we’ll step out into the sunshine again, to be sure. We can’t live in the sanctuary forever because, frankly, we’re called into the chaos. But for our own good, for goodness sake, before we let chaos consume us, look for a sanctuary. 

The Lord's Prayer

Our Father
Who art in heaven
hallowed be thy name.

That name,
The name we cannot tame,
And would not aim to try.

For your name’s above all names,
Relentlessly shows its fame,
And effortlessly holds its claim.

Your name it is holy.
Your name is the only
One that can
Be known as the I Am.

And so we stay
In your presence,
And we pray
Here in deference
And we ask:

May Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done.
It can be done;
It will be done;
The work’s begun

On earth
As it is in heaven

In you and me,
Friends, can you see
The we that we would be
If he’d not set us free
To be the we
That he
Can make us be?

Our lives are exchanged.
Our hearts have been changed.
Our passions rearranged.

And he has beseeched us,
Unleashed us,
Bequeathed us

The keys to his kingdom,
The work that must be done.
Here and now
We can plant and plow
He will show us how.

So don’t wait.
Don’t hesitate.
Don’t let it percolate,
Or let time confiscate
The power
We have in this day and hour.

My brothers and sisters,
We cannot resist this;
It is our existence
To become his assistants,
To make exchange,
To enact change,
To rearrange,
All in his name.

So that when we say,
“Give us this day
our daily bread,”

We mean instead:

Please, God, give unto us
The things that you have for us
That will make us victorious.

But first we must attend
To the things we must amend,
And the ways we still pretend
To be something other
Than the life you’ve uncovered.

So search our hearts and know us,
And show us
The brokenness in us.

Bring to mind our lapses,
And forgive us our trespasses.
Let the light of your face
My disgrace.
The trappings of this place
By the power of your grace.

For it’s by you we live
And give
As we forgive.
And choose not to pass judgments
On those who affront us
who trespass against us.

Perfection forgave us
And gives us
The means for forgiveness
Of others.

In your mighty name
Remove all our stains,
And precede us,
And lead us 
not into temptation
towards your redemption
Made possible by your preemption
of death.

Father, please deliver us
From evil
that may hinder us.

For we find ourselves connected
To the power that resurrected.
That power
It has seized us,
It frees us,
Sin flees us
because we have seen Jesus!

My mind cannot fathom
The wonder that can come,
That has come
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power,
And the glory.
For ever and ever

See a performance of this piece.