Hobgoblins in Winter

There’s a certain value in tears. Life in the vale is sweet, but so often salty. There are times when the sun is full and the air is warm and even the nights are full of honey and moonlight.

But we cannot always live in those perpetual springtimes. Especially after great tragedies or relentless circumstances, we find ourselves in “the winter of our discontent,” even while our hair is more pepper than salt.

I’ve heard believers in Jesus say that depression is simply an issue or evidence of unrepentant sin in your life. Just read more Psalms and double down in your prayers, and the melancholy will lift. I can’t decide if such an understanding is cruel or only naive.

But going on four years now, I’ve found it’s more like a grey hobgoblin, a mixture of neurochemistry and one sorrow treading upon the heel of the first. Eventually, he slides off your shoulders, but it’s only to slink away to find a cozy shadow. It’s not to beat a panicked retreat to the abyss, never to return again. I have developed multifaceted strategies for prevention, but the best real time treatment, I’ve found, is to not leave the house and just go to bed.

We don’t talk about it in the Church. Evangelicals, in particular, get nervous around it. Depression is one of those sadnesses that Christ will undo someday. But until then, we must learn keep each other warm in the winter.

I Have a Confession.

Jack has this awesome essay collected God in the Dock in which he looks at the phrase “miserable offenders” in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a stark pair of words that comes from the general confession portion of the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies.

But Lewis asks, is this morbidly introspective? All this confession and gloomy naming of sins, isn’t it all just the sad pathologies of repressed and guilty people working itself out through religion? Not at all, he insists. It’s actually healthy. The alternative to not looking your own sin in the face is to constantly have your nose in the sins of others. Lewis says it’s like the difference between the pain of having a tooth that needs to be pulled and the pain of the tooth having just been pulled.

He then offers the text of the Ash Wednesday collect at the end of his essay. It’s a beautiful prayer that is worth repeating in full:

“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 That is the prayer that begins the season of Lent. And how can we worthily lament our sins if we mumble over them in a fuzzy, vague sense of not living up to our full potential? We face the full truth that we are, despite our best efforts, “miserable offenders” that need forgiveness. This is not just a Lenten discipline. This is a daily practice. Or at least, it should be.

What’s refreshing to me is that Jack practiced this. While he was careful not to prescribe it in his public writings, he himself went to confession. It might surprise Protestants to know that the Church of England has procedure for confession. But unlike in the Roman Catholic system, the Anglican priest proclaims what God has done and reminds the penitent of what the gospel says.

Lewis used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, went to confession weekly, and took an annual retreat for a few days as part of this worthy lamenting. All this seems fairly dry and rote to a great many evangelicals, I’d bet. Anything “liturgical” must be dead and boring and lifeless.

But one of my favorite passages in Jack’s writings is in his little Letters to Malcolm (a book which horrified his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien). Every church service, Lewis argues, has a structure of acts and words. Even if it’s just announcements, three songs, and a sermon, that’s a liturgy. But what about the structured rhythm of day-in, day-out church calendar days playing out over and over again in the same way? Can any confession nestled in such mechanical practices be genuine?

It can be as genuine as learning to dance.

“As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God” (Letters to Malcom, p.12).

Once the movements and the words become part of you, part of your habits and your heart, the Holy Spirit begins to play the melody while you dance the rhythm. God uses those simply practices of confession and prayer and responsive reading and kneeling and singing and who can say what else.

Corporate confession, private confession to a pastor or trusted friend, a prayer whispered or screamed to the Father- these things are far from rote and mechanical. They are as shot through with life as the four seasons painting a forest awake through a whole range of natural, daily, and yearly patterns and systems.

Whatever your spiritual rhythms or your liturgical tradition, confession is like coming up for air. It’s the disciplined joy of coming in from the cold. It’s firelight in the dead of winter. I remember before I became a Christian, I would mumble a quick incantation after I knowingly sinned. I would curse (often only in my head) or say something hurtful and then I would immediately say, “Father, forgive me.” A dead heart, asking his genie for a little relief from his guilt.

But what a different picture we see in St. Luke’s Gospel, where that prodigal son “comes to himself” in the pig sty. He prepares this very moving speech in which he essentially confesses and worthily laments himself to be a miserable offender to his father. But he doesn’t even get to finish his confession before his father showers him with eager affection.

He hates nothing he has created. He is the God of all mercy. And as Henry Newman rightly observed repeatedly through his career, one of our main tasks is to rest in our status as the beloved. We are the beloved of God, lavished with his great love because of the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior and King. While we confess our specific sins specifically, while we are still a long way off, our Father runs towards us.

It’s not an exercise in self-flagellation or repressed guilt or dealing with our woundedness. It’s the turning from darkness and being wrapped up by the hearth. It’s the knowledge that you are loved even those who have miserably offended the one who loves you so relentlessly. It’s the nonsensical nature of grace.

Selah

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.

סֶֽלָה

Mid-Air Refueling

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.

I’ve Forgotten How to Long for What’s Beautiful

vangoghmuseum-s0176V1962-1920This 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.

A Failed Sabbatical

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.

Find Your Refreshment

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.

Those Maddening Interruptions

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.

 

 

 

Horse-Feed Propoganda

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.