The Privileged Avenue

There’s a peace lily on a stand in the corner of our dining room that’s twice the size it was the last time I took notice of it. It has new, white flowers unfurling themselves. I stopped and admired it for a few moments. 

I stopped and looked.

The alarm goes off. The day flies by. Breakfast together. Drive to work. Home from work. Dinner together. Stories. Bed. Our rhythms are the stuff life is made of, but the familiarity means I can all too easily miss the beauty. 

Looking and seeing aren’t exactly the same thing. Everyday I look at my family, my kids. I don’t always see them. This week I’ve had a few moments when I’ve stopped and really admired my kids for a moment. I’ve seen them. 

Finnden: Dad, can I tell you a joke?
Me: (Half listening) Sure. 

My expectations were low. His jokes are usually ones he makes up, things like What did the moon say to the sun? Stop shining! You’re too bright! They’re not really funny because they’re not really jokes. But this one…

Finnden: What do you call a pirate with two eyes, two hands and two legs?
Me: I don’t know.
Finnden: A beginner. 

A little laugh escaped my lips, not so much at the joke but at my astonishment. When did you learn to tell a joke?

I came home from work and Ona, the youngest, barely two, came running from the kitchen, yelling, Daddy, hurry, I hungry for dinner!

I paused in the process of putting down my bag and looked at her. That was a full sentence, I thought. Sure it was a garbled mess, unintelligible to anyone but Karen and me, but she’d given us a glimpse of just how much her mind was at work. 

The most profound moment came while I was putting together a little photo book to send to both grandpas for Father’s Day. I scoured through all our pictures over the past year or so and put them in an album, and as I looked at them all there together I was seeing my kids anew. I saw them when they thought no one was watching and when they were putting on a show. I saw them being silly and being kind. I saw them being pensive and deliciously weird. Each of them came through so clearly, and in a way that was so definitively them, that it took my breath away. Frozen in place like that I finally stopped and saw and admired them in all their created glory, marveling at how much they were not mine but their own.

Perhaps there is nothing in this world as powerful to break selfishness as is the simple act of looking at our own children. In our love for them we are given a privileged avenue to feel as God feels—to burst in unselfishness, in joy, in delight, and in the desire to let another’s life be more real and important than our own.
-Ronald Rolheiser

Rest

Sometimes ideas are borne out of inspiration and sometimes out of desperation. Ideas rooted in inspiration come most often when I feel I've been given something, something I can also give, something to say, something I can audaciously add to the world. 

But the ideas that come from desperation, while not being more true, are certainly more raw. Those ideas are often what my heart most needs to hear, the messages I need to receive, and the process of making them gives me the very selfish opportunity to repeat them to myself over and over and over again.

Life has felt like a blur lately, everything moving quickly past, and I’m not sure if I’m the one running or the one standing still. 

In the midst of it I’ve been reminded of an invitation Jesus extended to his friends, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Those words feel like some kind of sigh, an unwinding of tension, a chance to press pause. 

I wanted to make a piece that felt like a release, an exhalation, a sense of quiet, and even prayer. 

Thank you to Jenny Potter, Andrew Schuurmann, and the incomparable Meena Cho on cello. Even the process of making this with all of you felt like an invitation to a quiet place.

(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