Friday, January 25, 2008

Wordless Story

“Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.”
—Stephen Dunn, “At the Smithville Methodist Church”

When I was little we were taught the story of Jesus through a “wordless book” that consisted of no words, just pages of solid colors meant to represent different things. For me the struggle to find words is still part of my faith walk. There are things I have come to believe, to know on some deep level they are true. And yet when I try to find words to explain or describe those experiences, they are always so inadequate.

Sarah Groves has a song (“This Peace”) in which she describes that feeling of belief as a “whisper in my ear, a shiver up my spine, the gratitude I feel for all that’s right, a mystery appeal that’s been granted me tonight.” Her words are true and also seem to get at the difficulty in describing the way God’s Spirit works in and through us. It is a whisper in my ear, it is that deep well of gratitude that sometimes overwhelms me, it is also a kind of giving up or letting go… like someone who keeps a stiff upper lip for a long time and then welcomes the relief and hope of knowing it is no longer necessary.

When I am most convinced God is real are the times I witness the depths of our human frailty and together with that the almost embarrassing persistence of hope. It is the strength of a story that 2,000 years and lots of quiet later that makes us keep going, makes us believe or at least want to believe. The strength of a story that continues despite all the embarrassing things people have done since in the name of religion. The truth of a story that has the power to change me every time I hear it again. Yes, I believe. And I ask God every time words fail me or my heart wavers to help, help, my unbelief. Because I haven’t another story nearly as good.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Why Yes

This week we had a two-day interdisciplinary studies conference called “Thought for Food.” Along with reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, it has gotten me thinking a lot about food security, global food issues, and the everyday habits of putting food on the table for my family to eat. It’s great to be in a place where such important questions get asked, great to come home with my head buzzing so full of ideas I can hardly sleep. But making the leap from a lot of great ideas to something that gets put into action is a tough one. Is it even possible?

At the evening panel discussion, Cathy Campbell (one of the conference speakers and author of Stations of the Banquet) was talking about how often we get bogged down in all the reasons we can’t do something. Instead, she suggested, we should focus on the “why yes” list—all the reasons it’s the right thing to do, all the reasons it’s a meaningful and necessary thing to do—and that, perhaps, can get us past the line of rational and accusing reasons “why not.”

Is it possible to change something so huge and so deeply entrenched as our food system? Is it possible to keep working for change in this or any area without getting discouraged, defeated, exhausted? Is it possible for a person to change, for a community to change, for the world to change? Of all the words I heard this week, the two that stick in my mind are the two that best answer these questions and the two I will hold on to as I come against all pulls to the contrary.

Is it possible? Why, yes.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wide-Open Spaces

“Hurry and help me; I want some wide-open space in my life.”
—Psalm 38:22, The Message

“A religion without grace will wallop you with God’s image of the perfect human life; it will condemn you for not matching it in your own life. Religion clobbers you for your failures and sends you groveling in the sawdust of defeat. [Religion] tells us that we’re forever wrong unless we measure up to God’s ideal. … May grace come to convince you at the depths of your soul that it’s all right even though a lot is wrong with you.”
—Lewis Smedes, How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong?

“Herein lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing.”
—Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

The thing about impossible standards is they take up way too much space. First, there is the space for all the lines, the exactingly detailed images of the way things should be. Then there is the space for the self-recriminations and helpless frustration when reality inevitably falls short of those ideals. And when God himself is added in the mix as one more person whose stance is one of regretful disappointment, there is no room for anything that might bring life.

It is often from closed-off places of claustrophobia that I cry out to God, much like the psalmist, for “wide-open spaces.” And the moment of grace is always the moment when something held tightly is released, when something closed off breaks open. It is a moment of realizing how completely I’ve blown it and also the moment of realizing how completely I am loved still. And the times when I really get this, I feel a deep inner sense of relief, a gratitude so deep it moves me to tears. But there are lots of times I don’t get it because I am so walled off with self-contempt there is no room to be open to grace.

Some friends and I decided that we would proclaim 2007 the “year of grace”. For us this meant we would stop endlessly blaming ourselves for things that went wrong, but would just acknowledge our failings, confess them to one another, and move on. We would give grace to ourselves as we all stood on the brink of major life changes and we would willingly embrace the moments we were most aware of our weakness.

At the start of 2008, we have just come to the end of our self-appointed “year of grace,” and right away my first thought is I need another one. And another one. And I realize it is not really about a year and it is not for any of us to proclaim. Though I still find myself crushed with self-loathing, grace is what allows me now and then to rise above it and what keeps me from being destroyed by it. Grace is God himself, come down to love me. Grace is abundant, free ... there for a year of days and all the days God grants me space to receive it.