Monday, December 28, 2009

Time To Head For Home

Go with me (Lord), to keep me from getting lost,
or being too reluctantly ashamed to take the first demanding steps
that will be the beginning now of that lifetime journey
to the self I so passionately long to be,
to those I love and lost awhile,
and to those in the shimmering web of this human family I'm in for good,
and so to you, who, I'm praying,
waits to welcome and go limping home with me.
An excerpt from My Heart In My Mouth: Prayers For Our Lives

In Alice McDermott’s novel, Charming Billy, two older vets of World War II sit smoking in the dark on the porch of an inherited, rundown little house on the shore of Long Island. For the first time ever, they'd spent the day walking by the sea and in a nearby village. They are awed by the experience. One of them says , “... It makes you wonder what else you don't know yet?"
“Plenty.” the other answers.

As they sit thoughtfully in the darkness, the first one, named Billy, thinks to himself about something he could not explain, wondering: “ what else did he not know about yet that would strike him ... in the very first moment of apprehending, of seeing and smelling and tasting, as something he could not, from that moment on, get enough of and could never again live without.”

Billy's thought, there in the darkness by the sea, reflects a sense of awe that's at least vaguely familiar to us for it touches on the deepest longing of our human hearts. Surely all of us have known some moment, perhaps many moments, of apprehending, of seeing, smelling, sensing something we cannot get enough of and yet can never again live without.

How has such a moment happened for you? Maybe when you’ve stood at the window with a cup of coffee and watched the early sun run its fingers through the tree tops, or when your heart pounded with the sensation of falling in love with someone, or when you watched brave little legs carry a reluctant little face off to school, or when you gathered in tears with a few others around an open grave into which the casket of someone you love was being lowered as you hopefully commit her or him to life beyond death. Or maybe the moment broke in through a doctor's diagnosis that ripped away the taken-for-granted facade of your life, or in the shudder of an accident which reminded you of how fragile it all is, or when a phrase in a prayer or in a song became a keyhole you glimpsed another world through, or in the "Why?" of a youngster's insistent curiosity that suddenly made the world new again for you.

Those moments are clues to the awesome mystery of all we do not know yet but long for. Those moments sneak in through ordinary times and ordinary places, feeling like an soft tap on the shoulder, or a ripple of the soul, or the sudden flutter of a breeze out of nowhere, or like a mother’s voice in the distance calling you home.

How have such moments affected you? Or have they, do they? Maybe not much because for most of us the trouble is we too quickly turn away from them, dismiss them as just a bit of sentimentality and quickly get back to the rush and clatter of business as usual. We don’t trust such moments for what they are — a key turning the lock on the vault of our heart of hearts, opening them to the deep longing we keep stored away there. And yet, by God’s grace and patience, those moments keep happening when we sense something we cannot get enough of and can never live without, the great pull of the mystery of all we do not know yet, or ever know completely. It's the pull of awe. Whatever spirituality and religion involve, awe is at their source and awe is what those pregnant moments bear.

So I suggest that, as we take the first steps through the door of the New Year, we gather up those moments and attend to some of them and the longing they open in us. If we do, we might begin to realize that they point to what the image of
home means to us most deeply. They might also remind us that home is not so much where we leave from, as it is more where we are always leaving for because our longing is for the home which embodies belonging, being accepted, held accountable, forgiven, strengthened, loved, and no human home quite brings that off but only hints toward.

The old mystic, Meister Eckhart, was right when he said, “God is at home. We are in the far country.” Then isn't home what we long for, perhaps glimpse in those moments, and back out of them - if we pay attention. That longing throbs most deeply in those moments when the mystery of all we do not know summons us by making clear that we can never settle down in what is past, or even what is present, but need always to break our necks, or habits, for home. And isn’t turning and heading toward home what faith is about? How do we do that? Several ways, of course. Choose your own. But choose! Begin to move toward what you most long for.

One thing you might include in doing that is to pray. I believe those moments of awe when we sense something we cannot get enough of and can never live without are a call to pray. For whatever else it is, whatever way we do it, prayer fundamentally is a referral to a transcendence, to a power greater than our human power, to a God who cares about us; that is, to One who call us toward home, and to whose call prayer is our answer

A few years ago, I discovered Ann Lamott’s delightful, insightful book, Traveling Mercies. Ann comes close to what prayer is when she writes, “Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’" At least those prayers are addressed to God and are an honest, no frills first move toward. But when you think about it, you realize Ann’s on to something profound because when you start fairly regularly filling in the blanks of “help me” and “thank you,” you’re pretty much up to your breaking neck in prayer.

Once, in desperation, when my garments of sophistication and religious propriety were pretty much shredded, I often prayed that “Help me, help me, help me” prayer about the future and what to do about it and in it. I would go over options and worries, and then one morning it came to me, a kind of nudge, a glimmer. I don’t want to overstate the case, but for a few moments, and then for days after, including now, the words, “Be who you are” kept knocking softly in my head. At first I thought that must be my idea but I’m not that smart or that confident. Then I thought it sounded like some self-indulgent New Age slogan that had seeped in when I was unaware, Or maybe was a condensed, slightly altered version of the trite, misleading Army recruiting slogan, "Be all you can be." But, like the biblical Jacob, my resistence couldn’t shake the words out of my wrestle with the angel of awareness: "Be who you are."

Then it dawned on me to ask, “Well, who am I?” And I said to myself, “Now Loder, there’s a question to occupy you for a while, and shape your prayers.” So I’ve come to realize, more all the time, that what I can’t get enough of and can’t live without is the promise that I am one of God’s kids being called home. An old kid, yes, not a little one, just as my kids are not little anymore, but are still my kids. And I’m old enough to know this much for sure: the way home to what I can’t live without is littered with tough issues and challenging choices about what it really means to be one of God’s kids. It’s littered with all I don’t know about being that kid yet, and all the ways I screw up what it means a dozen times before lunch every day. But I've also moved on to the "Thank you, Thank you, Thank you" prayer as much as the "Help me, help me, help me” one. God is home, we are in the far country. Don't you suppose that, moment by moment, we need to be about breaking our neck for home?

Think about it and have a blessed new year full of awesome moments. Ted


  1. I think the question "Who am I" is somehow related to Jesus' challenge Ask, Seek, Knock. To me that's one of the scariest challenges in scripture. It says that I have what I've repeatedly asked for and desired, and that if I lack something, it's because I failed to ask, and be-asking. As another year passes, who am I is a hard thing to face up to.

  2. A good question "Who am I". I think it's somehow related to Jesus' advice to ask, seek, knock. That verse, for me, is one of the most challenging in scripture. It means that who I am is the result of what I have asked for, sought and continuously knocked out in my life so far. If I don't like who I am, whose fault is that? But it also holds out hope that I can change. I guess that's a good thought for the beginning of the year.