I’ve never been very good at Lent. I understand that it’s a beautiful gift to the Church. It’s a time of “bright sadness” (Alexander Schmemann) and “shadowless light” (Wendell Berry), but as someone well acquainted with the darkness, it can be an interesting and challenging time.
I chose to give up Facebook and Twitter for Lent, and it’s ridiculous. I find myself instinctively typing in the URL only to come to the login page and remind myself that I logged out for a reason. But Pascal was right. We hate to be alone with our own thoughts in the quiet. So, I find myself checking my email almost compulsively. Youtube gets a lot more screen time. That might be the next to go.
Why do I have to distract myself so readily? Be still, says the Lord. Still? Still still? How long, O Lord? How long must I be still? Until I know that he is God, despite the roar and foam and swelling of life’s raging ocean.
For Lent, I’m stumbling through my resolve to walk firmly. Mindless scrolling is the thing to go, I think. Logged out of Facebook, Twitter, and usually Instagram. We’ll see. But what I love so far is that I’ve reignited my friendship with pocket notebooks. After lifting this morning, I snagged some pancakes at the local IHOP before my first meeting of the day. I had a beautiful 45 minutes to burn, so I wrote and wrote. I drank some Psalm 37 and let the ink spill back out on to my Moleskine.
I’ve come to a realization about myself. Most days, I run out far too quickly. I’m up at 5:00am on my “training days.” I lift. I sweat a little. I maybe have an energy drink or some black coffee. I fill up on a slow churn bucket of Scripture and a little prayer. And by 3 or 4pm, I feel the darkness pressing up from where I locked it. That’s why I think it might be helpful to return to the daily office.
Matins. Noonday prayer. Evensong. Compline. I used to think of them as sets to pump my way through each day, trying to get each rep better than the last. I’m starting to see it more as mid-air refueling. My capacity just isn’t as great as I think it is. Or maybe I’m just flying too fast. And every now and then, a goose flies into the engine. But I’m going to keep flying. I’m not sure I was ever taught how to land.
This is not a comeback attempt at a worn down, underused blog. Those sorts of things are like attempts to start a diet or stop smoking “on Monday” or “on the 1st”. Such ventures wither. This is an attempt to claw out my cluttered thoughts, to smear some of my pent-up affections onto a white page. And what really frustrates me lately is my half-heartedness when it comes to the pursuit of beauty.
Now, the woman I married is my definition of beauty, in a sense. That pursuit has ended and she is the culmination that daily inspires. But when it comes to letters, the belletristic quality that pushes me into the next page, that itches through my bones until I find just the right chord or just the right phrase or just the right smell? I’ve forgotten how to long.
I think that’s the problem, honestly. I could probably blame social media or any number of new technological anesthesia, but hearts grow cold over time and through remorseless neglect. But when, in the course of human events, you stumble across the prologue of the Lord of the Rings, something wakes up in your chest. It feels like an increased heartbeat, a rhythm placed where it probably didn’t belong. Or in a bland and stuffed state of mind, eyes completely half-closed, a song about Vincent Van Gogh (your long-lost kindred spirit) spills through the sand in your head. Or a Trappist monk in Kentucky, dead these past 49 years, reminds me that I was born into a mask and suddenly I’m “woke” and desperate for a good cry or a knife fight.
What do you do in those moments? A Gustave Doré painting, Eeyore the Donkey, and a French poodle in a Steinbeck novel all remind me that God fashioned my heart uniquely? The most motley choir ever assembled reminds me that I am not my emotions, but my emotions are not the misfit toys that I have exiled into the cellars of my rational mind.
I’ve got a lot of fiction on my reading list. No one spoil the new Star Wars for me. I’m learning to long for the good stuff again and I think God is pleased that I’m rediscovering his gifts.
This weekend was supposed to be a restful sabbatical for my wife and I. Four times a year, the ministers at our church are given four-day weekends and are told not to do anything related to work. We don’t meet anyone for counseling or discipleship. We don’t do sermon prep. We don’t plan upcoming events. We’re just supposed to relax and recharge.
The day before the sabbatical, I got hit with a cold. I don’t get sick often, so a 101 degree fever was enough to do me in pretty thoroughly. My wife came to the rescue and I spent most of the weekend moping around the house like a wet cat, fiddling with the thermostat, and coughing up the demons that had intertwined snot tumbleweeds throughout my lungs.
I got a very few things done that I wanted to get done. My dad, brother, and I managed to cut lumber for a bookshelf on a day I could cope with, but the project remains unfinished. A stack of very interesting (and no doubt refreshing) books still sits on the coffee table unread. Actually, it’s not a stack anymore. The dog knocked them over with her tail and now it’s just kind of a failed Jenga pile. A fine metaphor for the weekend, I suppose.
But recharged or not, refreshed or not, I still have a job to do. Whether I’m at 100% or not, come Tuesday I need to press in, shoulder first, to the workload with all the Protestant work ethic a non-denominational minister can muster. That’s all anybody can do.
The ideal isn’t always realized. Sometimes you go back into the fray with just one boot on. Life is mostly rough drafts and near misses. I’m learning to be okay with that and the process is slow.
Philemon is a beautiful little letter nestled into the back half of the New Testament. It’s somewhat controversial in that it touches on the issue of slavery, but it’s also been wonderfully challenging for me in its depiction of love. Paul is an old man, writing in the final act of his play, and in the seventh verse he says to Philemon, “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”
That line strikes me as particularly lovely because it’s written from a friend to a friend. This is what friendship is. A friend is a source of refreshment. What does refreshment mean? I think Paul defines it here as a type of love that gives joy and comfort to those near it. A love that comforts. A love that gives joy. That is refreshment that soaks deep into one’s heart. It is refreshment given between those who live together in the family of Christ.
That sort of love is not easily found and it is not easily given. It grows over time as friendship blooms. It can also be found through words on the page. We have no reason to think that Paul ever met Philemon in person. We have no record of Paul visiting Colossae (where Onesimus and, therefore, Philemon lived). Perhaps Paul knew him before Philemon lived there, but it’s at least safe to assume that most of their friendship grew via correspondence. We know that Paul planned to visit Philemon, but we don’t know if that ever happened.
My point is that refreshment can happen face to face or through ink on a page. The wonderful thing about Christian authors is that they never finally die. Their bodies may turn to dust for the moment, but their souls live on and one day we will see them again, flesh and blood. John Calvin is still alive in heaven and his words still exist on paper and so, through his words, I can develop a type of friendship with him. I can be refreshed by his love through his words.
But the other half of God’s people (the ones that are still alive on this earth) can also bring refreshment. We just have to spend time together. That is one of the great benefits of friendship. Friends provide joy and comfort in a world that rations those pleasures out sparingly. And so when we find them and when those friendships grow, it’s refreshing.
Don’t live dry and worn out. Find friendships in dead authors. Find those friendships in living people. Find your refreshment.
The folks over at For the Church were gracious enough to publish some of my thoughts. I hope they are of some help.
The days are just packed. Yes, folks can wear busyness as a badge of honor and that’s regrettable and foolish. But sometimes, the days can just get to you. There’s always another “one more thing” that comes along.
Our sump pump died today. The reasons why are silly and the story is tedious, but it threw my whole day off. I had a list of tasks that I needed to get done at the office and some things that absolutely had to be done at the office and my day started with me bailing dirty water out of the sump basin with an old tupperware container.
I was finally able to get to church by mid-morning and blow through a few hours of work before going back home to meet the plumber (an excellent and knowledgeable master tradesman). I bought a new sump pump, a new check valve, and some PVC pipe at Lowe’s and ran back home. But then, the plumber had to drive back to his shop to get some tools he didn’t have for the job. That’s fine. It happens.
He leaves and I’m working from home again, furiously trying to return phone calls and reschedule missed meetings and fire off e-mails. Then he comes back to work on it and life keeps up its frantic barrage. Time after time, little interruptions pop up beneath my chin. Some of them were welcome and wonderful. Some of them were aggravating. Dozens of those little (and big) needs broke through the lines of my well-ordered schedule.
But that’s okay. I mean, I don’t feel okay about it yet, but at least I know it’s okay. And that will help me feel okay about it sometime soon, I’m sure.
During the onslaught of the urgent today, I caught myself muttering, “Life is full of interruptions.” Then a C.S. Lewis quote came to mind: “What one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life, the life God is sending one day by day.” So sure, I could look back on today and lament the fact that so many things today got in the way of my job or my life or my plans. But if God is sovereign, then there are no such thing as interruptions, right? Life is for me as God gives it. And if he gives to me what look like interruptions?
That’s life. And life is ultimately good.
I haven’t been into breakfast for a while now. I think I stopped eating it in college. Over the years, I’ve been rebuked and scolded for this in varying degrees of shock and incredulous outrage, but I haven’t felt the need to change. I just don’t wake up hungry. Breakfast, as a meal, hasn’t made sense to me in years. I just ate dinner last night, so why should I need to eat again first thing in the morning? I’m usually still stuffed from last night. And if I’m not, a fried egg on toast can solve that. No more, but often less than that does the trick when necessary.
That might be strange, I know. We’re taught three square meals a day, but that schedule hasn’t worked for my appetites since I left home for college and started timing my own meals. A few years ago, I found a kindred spirit in the writings of Robert Farrar Capon. He and I would’ve probably disagreed on many a theological flavor, but when he writes about food, it’s deliciously accurate. His quasi-spiritual cookbook, The Marriage Supper of the Lamb, articulated my thoughts on eating schedules and habits eerily well. And when he touches on breakfast, I rejoice to find my thoughts in another man’s words.
“If it were not for the propaganda of the horse-feed barons, most of us would probably be more than content with fruit and coffee” (Marriage Supper, p.146). Yes and amen. And it seems that his intuition wasn’t too far off. New research suggests that breakfast isn’t the vital and crucial building block to a life of health and happiness that Kellogg told us it would be. Perhaps breakfast really is just time to be left alone with one’s thoughts (with coffee and crust).
Exercise, of course. Eat breakfast or don’t, if you’re not a growing child or a highly active person. If you do, thank your Creator. But don’t die on that hill. And either way, let’s all keep our voices down before we’ve had our coffee.