Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Trouble With Certainty

Help Me Listen

O Holy One,
I hear and say so many words,
yet yours is the word I need.
Speak now,
and help me listen;
and if what I hear is silence,
let it quiet me,
let it disturb me,
let it touch my need,
let if break my pride,
let it shrink my certainties,
let it enlarge my wonder.
-- From Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle


Since I, along with most of us, "hear and say so many words," in later postings I want to write more about words, about what they can do, and what they can't. But let me start by explaining why I wrote, and pray, for God's silence to "shrink my certainties."

In short, it's because certainties so easily interfere with listening and hearing words, especially if they convey something different than we're certain about - new ideas, another view, a difficult perhaps unanswerable question, a challenge to a cherished if partial truth. Words have a tough, often impossible time shrinking our certainties. Silence does that better if we can listen deeply to it.

The other reason for my petition is that there are many fewer certainties in life that I think or certainly wish there were. As a kid growing up, grown ups would often repeat that old adage, "The only certainties in life are death and taxes." Well, apparently for lots of people who find ways around them, taxes are not so certain. And while dying is certain, are we really sure that death is? Permanently?

I confess I like and want certainty as much as anyone. But when we kick back and quietly ponder it, are our opinions, convictions, creeds, allegiances as totally certain as we insist they are? Well, honestly mine aren't! Does that disqualify me as a person of faith? Please, God, it doesn't.

In fact, I believe being totally certain of much would be more likely to raise questions about my faith. To me, faith is not a state of certainty but a process of trusting and daring to walk when and where we can't see, going toward and with an Other who's ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts. Faith is about listening beyond certainty for something different, new, liberating, some ongoing creating/creative spirit, some quiet summons to live compassionately, humbly, generously, boldly, gratefully and with a strange, even joyful openness to the mystery of God's grace.

Before you read one of Wendell Berry's most profound and moving poems about that mystery, I'd like to quote and emphasize its closing lines. "That we do not know you/ is your perfection/ and our hope. The darkness/ keeps us near you."

So, I trust, does the silence and listening to it.

To the unseeable animal

My daughter: “I hope there’s an animal somewhere than nobody has ever seen. And I hope nobody ever sees it.”

“Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they're dark and the foxes
have crept up to their edges.
I have come across pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have waked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.”
Wendell Berry
--From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint Press)

Think about it, Ted

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Love's Austere and Lonely Offices

No one needs to be reminded that these are tough times for most of us. With that comes a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Under the turmoil are often questions about God: What God is doing, if anything; Why does God let these painful things happen to us; Why doesn't God make things better; Is there a God anyway? Those kind of questions come up when our lives or world seem to be going down for whatever reason. And we want answers. But the truth is that answers are hard to come by, especially clear, simple, measurable answers. Why? Because God isn't obvious. God is sneaky.
I was born and raised during The Great Depression to which people compare our present economic difficulties even though the comparison doesn't really fit. During most of those years we lived in South Dakota. In addition to the Depression, the midwest was also plagued by the Dust Bowl which blew much of the prairie states into Colorado and Montana. Hoboes came to the back door of our house offering to do some odd job in return for a meal. The best my Mom could do was a half peanut butter sandwich for nothing. In summer the dust drifted up against abandoned farm buildings. In winter, it was snow drifts and ice cycles. Our house had a coal bin in the basement next to an old furnace that generated heat that rose up through a single large grill in the floor above. From there, the heat was supposed to circulate through the rest of the house. That was always an iffy process.
In any case, the present tough time reminded me of those boyhood days. It also reminded me of a poem that in many ways portrays my father and my relationship with him as I remembered it as a young adult. Here's the poem.

Those Winter Sundays
Sundays my father got up early
and put on his clothes in the blue-black cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know,
of love’s austere and lonely offices.
-- Robert Hayden

As I've gotten older, I realize more and more how much that poem fits my Dad. I believe it fits a lot of Dads. Maybe your Dad comes to mind in some way as you read the poem. One way or another, we learn what we didn't know "... of love's austere and lonely offices." Perhaps then it won't be such a great a stretch to stay watchful and discern some ways God is about achingly performing on a larger scale "love's austere and lonely offices." And even being thankful. After all, among other names, don't a lot of us call God "Father"?

Think about it. Ted