Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Promises To Keep - Chapter Five -The Longing Way Home -

Once started, even a blog-book takes on something of a life of its own. What's been written poses the ever new question, "Where do I/we go from here?" Sorting that out requires a lot of wondering and thinking. And time. At least for me.

Since I excerpted the title of this chapter from a Robert Frost poem, I'll use a quote from another in this little preface. "The Road Not Taken" begins, "Two Roads diverged in a yellow wood/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler, long I stood/ and looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth…" The final stanza is: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --/ I took the one less travelled by,/And that has made all the difference." (1)

As in life, so in writing, there are always choices to be made, diverging roads to take, and Frost is right, it makes a big, though not necessarily"all," the difference, which you choose. As did the poet, I "... looked down one as far as I could …/Then took the other as …/ having perhaps the better claim…" The path I chose constitutes this chapter. You may decide I should have chosen the other one. If you do, let me know why. I'll try to address it the next chapter.

Thanks for hanging in with me. Ted

You probably recognize that the title of this chapter is from a familiar Robert Frost poem,
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. It closes with these evocative lines: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep./ But I have promises to keep./ And miles to go before I sleep./ And miles to go before I sleep."(1)

It seems like a prayer, doesn't it? Who can't relate to the almost reverential feeling and tone of the verse? Who doesn't identify with pressure of feelings gathered in the pivotal word, ""But …" on which so much in the future turns, one way or another. "But …" carries the critical weight of choosing, again and again, between the enticing lure of "lovely, dark and deep," and the hopeful call of "… promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep." Don't you imagine that repetition of the last phrase is a whispered awareness of the strange power and mystery of promises?

Frost's poem speaks to our hearts. These feelings, this decision, this seminal realization are profoundly familiar to us. In some compelling way this is our recurring inner conflict, our struggle, our dogged, if mostly sub-conscious, determination: "But I have promises to keep./ And miles to go before I sleep."

And yet, even as we identify with the poet's promise keeper, a tumble of questions follow: "What promises do we have to keep?" "How do we keep them?" "Why do we make them?" "What happens if we don't keep them?" The list could go on, along with our answers. So would an inevitable joust of comparisons, conflicting judgments, confusing arguments and turbulent frustrations. Our proposed answers wouldn't necessarily be wrong. But they would be premature, partial and shallow because we'd be missing the basic question.

That question is: "What is a promise?" That question ushers us into the mystery of our deepest longing for, and our elemental connection to, God and each other. It's a connection that can be ignored, muted, disguised, dismissed but never totally broken. A promise is an echo of our longing for that elemental connection. It's a move in a direction which meets our primal need to be truly with an "other" or "others," just as a young tree in the shade begins to lean toward the sunlight in order to live and grow.

Even more enigmatically, a promise signifies a reflexive response to a sense, however dim, of longing's reach toward us as well as ours toward it. The more heartfelt the promise, the greater it manifests both of those dimensions of longing, though we may remain mostly unaware of that. A promise is not a specific legal contract. Spoken or unspoken, a promise is a commitment to a direction toward connections that are indispensable to life's deepest meaning. Nor does the probability that we are only dimly, if at all, aware of those elements being involved in a promise mean they are not intrinsic to what a promise essentially is.

What I'm getting at is this: a promise is an undertaking entered into by at least two persons. Certainly one of those "persons" may be, in some way must be, that essential part of one's own self which is accessed through that inner dialogue we often refer to as "talking to yourself." Even so, a promise can be made within one's self, by one's self, for one's self but it inevitably relates one to others as well.

The point is that in every instance a promise is relational, made by one person with or to him/her self and/or another person. It is confirmed by one's self and the other or others. In some sense it is kept and/or broken by both parties, however unequally. A promise establishes a bond or coherence between the persons who are party to it and who trust that it will be kept. If, or more accurately when, it isn't kept, all the parties involved suffer some degree of injury or loss.

Here's the heart of the matter: redressing and working through the injury or loss of partially kept, or totally broken, promises is a crucial part of the ongoing process of making and trying to keep promises because no human promises are fully kept, nor do they ever completely satisfy the need for which they are made.

That is so because the persistent but myserious longing that suffuses our finite promises is not slaked by either the partial keeping or breaking of them. That truth does not diminish the importance of promises or our need to make them. In fact, the very partialness of the keeping or breaking of our promises tends to amplify our longing. That is what takes promises out of the realm of the inconsequential or trivial. Promises are intimations of our inborm longing for those sustaining, meaningful connections which are the essence and energy of hope, love, joy, justice, life and a relationship with God.

Now on to point 1A of this chapter which so far as been mostly an attempt to clarify the nature of longing itself and to introduce promises as one expression of that longing relative to human connections. Herb Reinelt is my very dear friend going back to our days at Yale Divinity School where we began our shared experiences and theological dialogue. Herb got his Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at Yale and went on to be a university professor while, for family reasons, I had to give up my fellowship and drop out after one year of Ph.D. study. That tilted the scale of theological proficiency Herb's way. But it also unleashed my own less academically constrained theological imagination. The result has been that over the years our friendship and dialogue have been a treasured gift and an abundant blessing to me.

With that background, I quote the following except from what Herb recently wrote to me about my blog: "I think … we yearn (long) for what Royce called the Great Community. That community would be the home that we yearn for beyond our individual homes. It would included the joy of reconciliation with God (which HRN* saw as the work of Christ and the church) and the reconciliation of ourselves with others and the whole creation. I suspect that you would agree … *H. Richard Niebuhr, a seminal theologian/professor at YDS

"You say that 'best friends' can't cure being lonely, I agree, they are not a complete cure, but they are a partial cure. They are real (though partial) answer to loneliness and, insofar, a foretaste of the Great Community. We really do long for them, not just for God. One might say that we can't get right with others unless we get right with God, but I think it also works the other way. Your emphasis is on longing as the way home to God, but I want to say that the longing for God is not all we long for; we equally long for each other and the longing for the other can be the way home to God."

As always, Herb makes thoughtful and stimulating comments. For the most part, I agree with him, with one key exception with two related parts:
1st, I do not contend that “… longing is the way home to God, only that it is a primal connection to God and that and paying it attention is crucial;
2nd, I agree "that the longing for God is not all we long for…" but I don't agree that "we equally long for each other …" I think longing itself reflects a primal connection to God and thus is the genesis of all other corollary forms of longing as well as pervading them, however faintly. I agree there's an inseparable connection between the longing for God and all other longings, but I don't agree that they are equal or identical. That may seem to b a relatively insignificant difference but I don't think it is.

Here's why I don't: To make longing for any finite other equal to our longing for God sooner or later results in nagging disappointment and disputation In response to the fear and anger of our disappointment, we are prone to ramp up our investment and loyalty to the finite objects or subjects to which we attach our longing until our investment and loyalty becomes blind, idolatrous. Our over investment frequently results in the kind of destructive behavior and dogmatic claims which are corrosive to the "Great Community” which I view as essentially the whole human family. Consider, for example, the partisan rancor and divisiveness that is tearing at the fabric of our country and the world right now.

As I see it, it isn't possible for any finite subject or object to fully satisfy a longing for an eternal being or relationship. When that truth is ignored, tit can, and often does, result in idolatry, generate arrogant claims and counter-claims of certainty about the particular, finite subjects or objects of our"longing." Thus, in the service of our little gods we fall into divisive conflicts between persons, members of families, groups, religions, causes, political parties, social or economies classes, nations.

The problem is that our anxiety driven claims of certainty make us self-righteously defensive and evokes destructive reaction to, and from, every other "particular, finite claims made for the objects or subjects of longing." Part of the destructiveness resides in our refusal to openly acknowledge our disappointment over finite broken promises we make or are made to us in response to our longing. So we stop short of "addressing and working through the injury or loss of (those) partially kept, or totally broken, promises …" - i.e. our particular, finite expressions of our "longing." Rather than doing that, we become increasingly dogmatic about our claims and hostile to those of others, and via versa, ad nauseam. And there's sin's fertilizer.

I believe that all we finite beings need to acknowledge that we cannot claim infinite truth for ourselves or our dogmatic positions or promises. Something, Someone, namely God, is more, and in crucial ways other, than any or all our finite longings or promises.

Realizing and accepting that can lead us to a process of reconciliation; that is, of addressing and working through the injury or loss resulting from our partially kept promises and the inadequacy the objects of the misplaced attachments of our longing. That is the ongoing challenge of being, or becoming more human as creatures who carry the image of God but not the fullness of God's being or truth. I believe most, perhaps all, expressions of longing and the promises they generate carries a trace of our longing for God to varying degrees, if and when we pay it attention.

It is paying attention to those varying degrees, some more basic and compelling than others, that enables us to discern the value, direction, integrity of the longing and its consequent promises or intentions. For example, to say that nothing totally satisfies our deepest longing is not to say that the longings we have or the promises we make are irrelevant and unimportant to our decisions or how we attempt to live by them. On the contrary, the efforts we invest in making and trying to keep promises keep us linked to our deepest longing if we keep evaluating the direction they take us.

Recognizing and accepting the claim of that if are the work of trust and love . Ignoring that if leads to hypocrisy. self-righteousness and dogmatism. Our capacity to keep setting and resetting the direction we take in our lives forges a link to Grace. It focuses and shapes our thinking, deciding and actions in intensely relevant but not totally explainable ways. It is a fundamental ingredient in reconciliation with others, and God.

The directions we choose to take are the most essential component in life. The efforts we invest in making and trying to keep promises keep us linked to our deepest longing if we keep evaluating the direction they take us. Recognizing, accepting and implimenting the claim of that if are the work of trust and love . We may long for others in ways that are destructive to them and to ourselves when we make them objects, when we use them, exploit them for our own gratification or advancement.

We can make corrections in our directional course and the relative state of our promises by referring to our spiritual orientation's GPS. That orientation is linked to our longing for God however dimly or falteringly we might discern it as being. Through the process of referring to that GPS, or spiritual orientation we are able to keep resetting and going in a direction toward some gripping vision of the good, or of what matters most even when we never quite get "there" because we're not exactly sure where or what "there" is." We just sense* when were heading in the right direction, when it's "right" or "just" or "peaceful" or "beautiful" or "loving" or whatever is truly precious to our hearts. *See references to David Brook's book coming up later in this chapter.

The truth is that never quite getting "there" and yet with an innate urge to keep "pushing on" is what it means to be finite, mortal beings. The process of "pushing on" is what is profoundly hopeful about us and life. As we go, our lives are laced with , experiences, hints, intimations, interludes of wonder, of joy, of sacredness, of grace. All of them are transitory but none-the-less genuine, powerful, encouraging, inspiring and real. Moments when we're aware of "The Great Community," as Royce and Herb put it, are not occasions to stop but inspiration to go on.

Okay, okay, I agree that this chapter has become increasingly abstract, dense, murky, somewhat irrelevant, not very helpful and needs a good editor. Truth is that I've spent many weeks going back over this draft and trying to edit it which proves that I need a good editor. This is not meant as a some kind of obsequious apology. It's a sincere explanation. You have my hearty permission to do whatever editing on your own that might help me out here. Meantime, I’ll try to clarify my thoughts by first repeating three key ideas from a few previous paragraphs which may have been lost in the screech and screen of words around them:

1) "I believe most, perhaps all, expressions of longing and the promises made by them carry a trace of our longing for God to varying degrees, if and when we pay it attention";

2) " The directions we choose to take are the most essential component in life. The efforts we invest in making and trying to keep promises keep us linked to our deepest longing if we keep evaluating the direction they take us. Recognizing, accepting and implimenting the claim of that if are the work of trust and love …"

3) "We can make corrections in our directional course and the relative state of our promises by referring to our spiritual orientation's GPS. That orientation and process is linked to our longing for God ... we can keep resetting and going in a direction toward some compelling vision of the good, or of what matters most even when we never quite get 'there' because we're not exactly sure where or what 'there' is."

In the context of those statements, I'll try to lay out some more specific ideas about what I mean by them. *I start by referring to David Brook's recent, fascinating book, 'The Social Animal". Among other pursuits, Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times and a weekly commentator on PBS Newshour. The sub-title of his book is "The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement" and the examination of those sources constitutes the purpose his book. If that purpose seems vaguely reminiscent of my purpose in writing The Longing Way Home, you're on to the reason I'm referring to it. I'm not above hooking my tail to a celebrity's kite.

In an article on his book, Brooks writes;"Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologist, economists,and others have made great strides in understanding the inner workings of the human mind … A core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. The conscious mind gives us one way of making sense of our environment. But the unconscious mind gives us other, more supple ways. The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q. It allows us to tell a different sort of success story to go along with the conventional surface one." (2)

In the Introduction of his book, Brooks further sketches out the profile of that "different sort of success story." This is what he writes: "If the study of the conscious mind highlights the importance of reason and analysis, study of the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception. If the outer mind highlights the power of the individual, the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people. If the outer mind hungers for status, money and applause, the inner mind hungers for harmony and connections -- those moments when self-consciousness fades away and a person is lost in a challenge, a cause, the love of another or the love of God." (3)

There's an intriguing connection between Brooks' commentary on the unconscious mind and my exploration of longing. The basic connection is reality and nature of love and it's time to make that clear. From shared experience, we might agree that love is an obvious form of longing. But are we now also ready to see that longing is itself a form of love, a love that is not so much romantic as it is the principle direction we are strangely or mysteriously summoned to seek. Longing is the form of love that is the source of "the invisible bonds between people” because it is a element of creation itself and an invisible bond between human beings and God.

When we respond to our longing by choosing a direction that rejects, distorts or dismisses those invisible but real bonds we violate ourselves and others. I believe the lives of all of us, certainly including mine, are scarred and marred by the many occasions when we have foolishly or selfishly chosen a damaging direction for ourselves which has also hurt others. In so doing we become less than human to some lesser degree. In the long history of theological discussion about whether Jesus was fully human or fully divine, or how much of each he was, more recently some have proposed that Jesus was the most fully human of us all, and the rest of us struggle to become more fully human. The love of God that haunts our longing and is revealed in Jesus helps us in our struggle.

Let me clarify my understanding of love. Love is a feeling, of course, but more than that it action. Love is what we choose to do, how we choose to live, how we choose to relate to others even when we don't "feel" drawn to them. We can choose to love our neighbor as ourselves and love our enemies, even when we don't like them, just as we don't like ourselves sometimes. Love is work in all aspects of life, from intimate family relations to close friends to neighbors to anonymous people who are poor, sick, hungry, of a different gender, age, sexual orientation, race, nationality, belief system or lack thereof, the whole human family.

I've long insisted that justice is love with its sleeves rolled up. That's one of my most felicitous statements and succinct ways of putting it. Love is most fully revealed in the life of Jesus who is mistakenly portrayed elsewhere as meek and mild because that is not what love is or how it acts. Love is gentle, tender, patient, humble and kind. But love is also direct, honest, bold, assertive and forceful. Love is risky, brave, creative, innovative and holds itself and others accountable. Love is longing for the fullness of life with God which issues in just, peaceful, joyful relations with others. felicitous

Moving toward the end of this chapter, I refer to another of Herb Reinelt's views of longing: "The "Great Community" is the redeemed community in its relationship to God; it is not just human to human relationships … But I do want to hold that sometimes we get closer to God by following out our longing for God and sometimes we get closer to God by following out our longing for others … I think that the longing for God can arise and be felt in our human relationships. And that seeking loving relations to others is a way to become aware of God."

I agree with my friend but with a question or two. One is, Doesn't using the word "redeemed" to define human to human relations, or the "Great Community," unnecessary, even unfortunately, raise issues about the limits of that community and who determines those who qualify to be included in it. I put that question, and implied answer because in utter disregard of the mysterious reach of God's grace, so many persons and factions presume to claim that right for themselves? Hence, because of that mystery, I believe loving neighbor and enemy as ourselves means that we should recognize that all human beings, the whole human family, are to included in that community, at least is so far as the direction, concerns and actions that emanate from our primal longing for God are concerned. Justice seems to me to be an imperative applying to all of us, even though in our finitude we fall short in its implementation. I pretty sure Herb agrees. If he doesn't he should and owes me a cup of coffee for his dissent.

The other question is, How can we get closer to God by following out our longing for God? I’m not sure I know how to do that as an independent enterprise. I think Herb is persuasive in suggestion that our longing for God necessarily involves following out our longing for others and I agree as long as the two are not seen as separate, or equal. For another example: A life devoted to prayer and meditation, either solitary or in a reclusive community, may be a calling for some, but even in such instances, the prayers are at least partly for others, thus confirming the invisible bond between people.

Though prayer is essential for all of us, we also need to be part of the answer to our own prayers if we are to live the direction of our longing and love. To do that necessarily involves making choices and taking concrete actions to extend justice to everyone. Yes, we live in a complicated world in which our choices are mostly in the gray area. But that is not a reason to defer or bow out. Most often unjust conditions and those who suffer them are clear and compelling enough for us to risk action to try to address them. But love without risk is empty.

As I said earlier, in long past moment of inspiration, I came up with the insight that justice is love with its sleeves rolled up. I've insisted there is a priority and distinction between longing for God and longing for others, but there is not, indeed cannot be, any disconnect or separation between them. If there is, it leads to a misdirection of life and the risk, if not inevitability of idolatry, of raising some non-God to the level of God. In case you don't remember my reference to Martin Luther’s definition of our “gods’ and the constant risk of idolatry, here it is again: "Whatever you give your loyalty to and get your sense of worth from, is properly your God."

That said and that distinction made, I hold. as I think Herb does, that longing is first a stirring in us of love for God which, either faintly or intentionally, moves us toward loving others as ourselves by working toward justice for all. Loving some others is certainly easier and more enjoyable than loving others as well as enemies, for God’s sake -- and there you have it, “For God’s sake”. Genuine spirituality, or the persistence of longing, necessarily has a social application. All good subjects or objects of our loyalty don't have to become idolatrous if we keep alert to how easily that can happen.

The possibility, yea, the probability is that in working in the direction in which our longing calls us, we can nurture and expand relationships, community. We can at least limp on in the direction of our longing and partially our promises to love one another. But longing unheeded or disavowed, or its elusive quality yet holy persistence reduced to dogmatic certainties, will curdle it and diminish us as those seeking to become more human.

The "promises we have to keep" are claims of justice and compassion and peace to which love summons us in all our human relationships And always, "There are miles to go before (we) sleep. And miles to go before we sleep."

Please know that I am not naive or innocent. I do not in any way believe, think or claim that what I propose is easy, or simple, or a cure all for the challenges, complexities, hostilities and conflicts of our society, our country, our world. (More on that in the next chapter.) What I am attempting to do is present a way of seeing ourselves and each other, of recognizing glimmers of the longing we experience as bearing some degree of what it means to throw the "little ounces of our weight, to tip the scales of humanity toward justice" and leave the outcomes to God.

So this last question, perhaps the key question of all: "What are the promises made to us that keep us?" That's an enormous question and we'll keep encountering it as we move on toward the "home" alluded to in the title of this blog-book. Essentially, I believe the short and concise answer is the history of Israel and the life, example, teaching, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are the promises that keep us. From those two reveal sources come other dimensions of awareness just as daylight reveals what darkness covers.

I am deeply moved and strangely sustained by Marilynne Robinson's beautifully written and spiritually inspiring novel, Gilead which has rightly been called “a hymn of praise. Two brief images she shapes for us carry, at least for me, what I mean by those “dimensions of awareness f the mystery of the promises that keep us in our Longing Way Home.

Gilead is essentially the reflection on his life by an old Baptist minister, Reverend John Ames, who has spent his life in Gilead, a town in rural Iowa. It is full of awesome insights. One of them is this written in a letter to his prodigal son: “They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. I know she didn’t really study my face … But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something and I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face … It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider it to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.”(4)

I don’t think we have to be as old as John Ames to grasp, or be grasped by, the powerful longing and love this old pastor expresses in that scene. “… nothing more astonishing that a human face,” the faces of those you naturally love, the names faces of those you see every day, faces of neighbors, even of enemies, your own face. Each face, each person “has something to do with incarnation.” Each is the embodiment and challenge of what life is about, what it means. Each reflects at least a little of what we long for, and the promises of God that keep us.

The other awesome insight John Ames writes somehow follows on the first. “This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success, I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day. Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind though my eyes …”(5)

Like Adam? Maybe partly, as in Adam’s amazement at creation, and of course, Eve’s as well, and that’s what old Ames is directing our attention to, really. And yet, perhaps not necessarily like Adam who missed the point of it and lost his direction. I confess that too many days, I stumble as he did. But not every day. Not when I pay attention to my longing and try to follow it as best I can, not being like God, or trying to be. But trying to be more fully human by rolling up my sleeves and embodying love of self, neighbor, enemy, the whole human family by trying to do justice. That’ what I think it means to trust the promises that keep us.

How about you?

(1) The Poetry of Robert Frost Edited by Edward Connery Lathem Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1969 p.224
(2) The New Yorker magazine, p. 27, January 17, 2011
(3) The Social Animal - David Brooks - pg. xi - Random House, New York Copyright 2011
(4) Gilead - Marilynne Robinson - Farrar Straus Giroux / New York Copyright 2004 pg.65-66
(5) Ibid - pg. 66

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