A Time of Longing

I’ve often heard Advent described as a time of preparation and waiting, but my friend Barb Kollenkark recently described it as a period of longing.

I suppose that makes sense. We are, after all, waiting for the coming of a child, and I’m sure parents-to-be would confirm that those nine months contain a great deal of longing.

A woman who is pregnant is “expecting.” During Advent we expect the birth of Christ in our hearts. That’s a strong word, with a lot of faith and an element of demand to it. We’re not wishing, we’re expecting.

I so often consider the object of my desire to be a conclusion: the completion of a project, the settling of a decision, the ending of an uncomfortable emotion. But in that delivery room, all parents are hoping for a beginning, not an ending.

Life is a continuing unfolding, and that’s what parents want for their children. Not a straight path, not without difficulties, probably messy, but at every moment the potential for growth.

And so with us and Christ. The coming we are longing for is not a consummation, though we often get ourselves into trouble in big and small ways by searching for fulfillment in everything from alcoholism to the salvation that might arrive in the next email or Facebook post. Not that I’d know anything about that.

What arrives on Christmas, what we’re waiting for, is not an end to yearning but a deepening of it. We are finite beings with an infinite capacity for love, multiple teachers have said, and on Christmas we will receive at least two things, regardless of what is under the tree: a historical example of someone who will show us what our hearts are capable of and that ability itself, which is to live in the evolutionary moment we’re in, to live into our longing, into our true selves in God.

That’s something worth expecting.

From Cats to Poetry to Existence—Gratitude

It’s time for the annual gratitude edition of this blog, which begins with a big Thank You to all who read it. Here we go!

Warm things: clothes fresh out of the dryer, cookies fresh out of the over, tea, the moment of stepping out of a blustery or snowy day into a heated house.

Existing: The odds against it are—according to diligent internet research—1 in 102,685,000, and that’s just the human genetics bit, which doesn’t include the messiness of whether atoms would form at all, much less life.

Eating together: the way sharing a meal builds connective tissue between people, whether we know each other when we sit down or not.

Cooking: chopping vegetables, watching onions fry, the smell of baking bread—maybe I just really like food.

Farmers and ranchers: without whom the previous two items would be highly problematic.

Tranquility, serenity, peace, and joy, as Mark Nepo defines them in this quote I recently happened upon: “After all these years, I’m beginning to see that tranquility is the depth of being that holds what we think and feel, not the still point after we’ve silenced what we think and feel. Serenity is the depth of being that holds difficulty, not the resting point after we’ve ended difficulty. And peace is the depth of being that holds suffering and doubt, not the raft we climb on to avoid suffering and doubt. This leads us to joy, which is much deeper and larger than any one feeling.”

Poetry, because a poem can both break your heart and break it open and because something about forming one helps people recognize their own voice, even those whose voices are largely ignored.

The spectacular sycamore tree on the road into campus who has conspired with the morning sun to become a burst of yellowness this time of year.

Whatever it is about cats that makes us think it’s funny when they destroy things and gives us a “get out of required duties free” card when they’re on our laps.

People who work in industries that don’t stop during the holidays: ER nurses, doctors, and staff; garbage collectors; police officers; moms and dads; restaurant workers; EMTs; snowplow operators, and many more.

Family and friends: the true building blocks of life.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

God Loves You, Really

God always loves us just the way we are, and I often say, “No thanks.”

If you’re like me, when you read “just the way we are,” you hear “the way we ought to be.” God will love me when I maintain a peaceful mind, keep all my plants alive, and eat more vegetables. The thing is, God would rather not wait until we’re perfect because though God is infinite, we are not, and I may never become an expert plant tender.

This whole perfection thing, Cynthia Bourgeault says, has been misunderstood. We’re not aiming for perfection. We’re aiming for wholeness.

And wholeness includes those parts of ourselves we don’t much like, the parts we haven’t loved enough, to paraphrase David Whyte. The problem with not loving ourselves is that then we use our faults as a barrier between us and God. We point to them and say, no, I’m broken, I can’t let love in. God is ready to go outside and play, and we say, look at all the work I have to do first.

The French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing from the trenches of WWI, said that so few of the soldiers were willing to give their suffering to God. I used to think that because God wants our suffering, God wants us to suffer, but now I think it’s quite the opposite.

Jim Finley says that when you touch pain with love, it disappears. God wants to transform our suffering into love.

It often seems impossible to us that our failings can not only be lovable but also be and become love. It’s impossible for us to work this transformation ourselves, but God can handle it. Really.

So how do we offer our suffering to God, what does that mean? We can’t just wrap it up in a neat little gift box, stick a bow on it, and shyly hand it to God next time we run into each other. Or maybe we can. All that’s needed is a willingness to let love be more important than anything else, a lot of patience, and some attention to the ways God is pointing us toward the “dump your suffering here” drop off station.

Still, this may be a little harder than watering the plants.

God’s Will: Greater Unity, Greater Love

While trying to process the U.S. presidential election results, I picked up a book of Hafiz poems. I closed my eyes, asked for what I needed to know, and opened at a random page.

Here’s what I got. If you’re like me, you’ll love the beginning and want to throw this blog across the room somewhere in the middle. Just keep reading.

There Could Be Holy Fallout

We are often in battle.
So often defending every side of the fort,
It may seem, all alone.

Sit down, my dear,
Take a few deep breaths,
Think about a loyal friend.
Where is your music,
Your pet, a brush?

Surely one who has lasted as long as you
Knows some avenue or place inside
That can give a sweet respite.

If you cannot slay your panic,
Then say within
As convincingly as you can,
“It is all God’s will!”

Now pick up your life again.
Let whatever is out there
Come charging in,

Laugh and spit into the air,
There could be holy fallout.

Throw those ladders like tiny match sticks
With “just” phantoms upon them
Who might be trying to scale your heart.

Your love has an eloquent tone.
The sky and I want to hear it!

If you still feel helpless
Give our battle cry again

Has shouted it a myriad times,

“It is all,
It is all the Beloved’s will!”

What is that luminous rain I see
All around you in the future

Sweeping in from the east plain?

It looks like, O it looks like
Holy fallout

Filling your mouth and palms
With Joy!

Let’s talk about God’s will for a minute because that was the part that made me think, you have got to be kidding, except in slightly stronger language. I tend to think about God’s will in human dimensions, which in election terms would translate to God picked a certain candidate to win. Given that political systems rarely if ever reflect the kind of justice that wisdom traditions describe—regardless of which group is in power—I think it’s safe to say this can’t possibly be what God’s will means.

This poem still speaks to us almost 700 years after it was written because God’s will is always the same. It is self-emptying love, as Richard Rohr would say, the manifestation of love in space and time. We are manifestations of that love, all of us—the people we agree and disagree with, the ones who love us and who hate us, the animals, insects, plants, planets, black holes, etc. “It is all the Beloved’s will!”

Hafiz isn’t recommending submission to situations that injure our hearts and souls. He is urging us to get a wider perspective, to remember that we are all in this together and that there is something larger than human choices and actions moving in and through creation. We can pick any issue we want to divide ourselves over, but in the end it won’t work.

God wills ever greater unity, ever greater love. That’s what we, collectively, are growing toward. We don’t have any choice. That’s what God does, and all of us are manifestations of God.

If we can get clear on this—individually and together—Hafiz tells us, and I agree, that our destination is joy. Bring on the holy fallout.

Wooden Kabuki

Human beings are kind of strange. I most recently thought this at a Bunraku puppet show that my mom and I went to see this week.

Bunraku is basically kabuki with puppets. In other words, we created wooden figures to emulate our own bodies, but it’s hard to make a Bunraku puppet do kabuki, maybe harder than it is for an actual person to do it. It takes three people to manipulate one puppet.

These black-clad people march the puppet around the stage and make it jump, dance, or weep. You know the people are moving the puppet, but it feels more like they are serving the puppet—not like enthralled minions but rather with love, as if they are lining their actions up with the puppet’s instead of the other way around.

Because the audience was unfamiliar with Bunraku, the puppeteers gave a demonstration of how they move the puppet together. The moves are not choreographed in advance. The two people moving the legs and the left arm follow the lead puppeteer according to subtle signs: the movement of his legs or the direction the puppet is looking. Sometimes. Other times they just have to be in tune enough to know his intentions.

Why do we do this? Why do we carve puppets and train for years to be able to move together as a whole to bring that puppet to life when we could just watch a human being do kabuki far more gracefully?

The show started with a plain puppet—no clothes, no face, just a three-dimensional outline of a human being—that came out and interacted with the audience, bowing and shaking hands. One man looked as if he wanted to treat the puppet with respect and act appropriately. One woman beamed with delight. Each person clearly interacted with the puppet, which displayed a definite personality.

Maybe this question is no different from asking why we write books or make movies or paint representations of our world on canvas. There must be thousands of answers. Perhaps one of them is that we are creators, and when we do these things, the spirit of the One in whose image and likeness we are made flows through us, through our work, and through those who shake hands with the puppets.

There’s No Escape

A friend and I were talking about our limitations the other day, our differing resistances to God. While we both want to surrender to the spiritual stream like a leaf floating on the surface of the water, content to go where the current takes it, we see ourselves as fighting upstream or trying to stay rooted in the mud.

I think we missed the point, though. We’re not the leaf—we’re part of the flow. All of us are the current and the water molecules. We were seeking to surrender to something external when all that’s needed is to recognize our true nature. As Richard Rohr says, you are what you seek.

This is somehow, incomprehensibly true even when we are in full resistance mode. And I do mean incomprehensibly. How can we be the flow that is God on the days when we’re mean or self-centered or just plain crabby?

I don’t know, but it must be true: in God we live and move and have our being. That statement contains no qualifiers. Not “sometimes,” not “when we’re fully present,” not “when I’ve been so good I’m sure my third eye is going to open any minute.”

To claim that we’re not that flow is like saying, today, I choose not to be a carbon-based life form. Not gonna happen. Today, I choose to be separate from God. Sorry, not up to you.

Does this mean it doesn’t matter when we’re impatient or unkind? I ask questions like this a lot, but they’re kind of stupid. The people on the receiving end of our misery-making—including ourselves—can answer that question. Of course it matters. It’s just that there’s room in God for all of it, and when we see that none of our faults can change that, we’re more likely to say, with the Sufi poet Hafiz,

I do not want to touch any object in this world
Without my eyes testifying to the truth
That everything is
My Beloved.

Or perhaps when we get even more daring:

All I know is Love,
And I find my heart Infinite
And Everywhere!

Poems “Today” and an excerpt in the introduction from The Gift by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

Warning: Prophet Ahead

Habakkuk is one of the more succinct prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. He thinks the world is pretty much of a disaster at the time he’s writing. I’d summarize his brief story this way:

Habakkuk: WTF? Seriously?

God: Wait for it.

Here’s the thing, God doesn’t say that Habakkuk (let’s call him HK from now on) is waiting for a five star meal and a cushy retirement. At the end of the book, HK basically says, even though I might starve, “I will rejoice in the Lord.”

What could inspire someone to say that? No fruit, no olives, no flock, no herd—not usually the moment people throw their hands in the air and shout, “Hallelujah!” But that’s what HK says he’s planning to do, no matter what.

HK is apparently a little more stable than I am. Some things that throw me off of the whole rejoicing in the Lord thing with remarkable ease and blistering speed: missing a deadline at work, wondering what my purpose in the world is, letting food spoil in the fridge (yes, seriously, planetary destruction starts with one rotten jicama).

Abraham Heschel suggests that HK sensed God and so encountered “infinite goodness, infinite wisdom, infinite beauty” (The Prophets, p. 183). That sounds good. I could go for that, preferably not while starving.

HK would tell me to get over the “preferably” part, that starving or not starving is not the most important thing. That doesn’t mean God wants us to starve. It does mean there’s something else going on all the time that we’re often not paying attention to.

Jim Finley says, “God protects us from nothing while sustaining us in all things.” According to that master of etymology dictionary.com, “sustain” comes from a word that meant “hold” or “uphold.” We are held in goodness, wisdom, and beauty all the time, regardless of our outer circumstances, regardless of whether or not we notice.

I react to this idea with resistance, but think how much it might transform our lives if we really, really believed it, if we took HK seriously. That’s why you have to watch out for prophets.