Finding meaning in chaos

I saw it on Buzzfeed: 27 ways to get your sh*t together. Who knew there were so many. Or that my sh*t was so deep. According to the Urban Dictionary, when our lives are ‘together’, our thoughts are straight and our futures under control. We’re living life with purpose and conviction. It sounds good to me.

I don’t like mess. I don’t like things out of control. Chaos drives me mad. I prefer life that’s ordered. I like to know where I’m going and to move there with purpose. The trouble is, sh*t happens. I’ve learned the hard way that chaos is as much part of life as order is. No matter how careful the plans, things go awry—aspirations fizzle, relationships break, and schedules overheat. Regardless of how together we are, our daily lives are ordered and random, fortuitous and unfortunate, and often all in the same hour.

When it comes to the language of spirituality, chaos gets a bad rap. It’s assumed that a centred life is one that moves progressively away from chaos: the journey to meaning is a journey to serenity. While it sounds great, it’s rarely true. In fact, I suspect more and more, a good dose of chaos is par for the course in a meaningful life. Even more, the disordered sh*t is as spiritually formative as the together kind.

In my experience, the demonisation of chaos has at least three side effects worth naming. First, it can leave us feeling like failures. If we constantly assume chaos to be a sign of dysfunction, we become blind to moments of beauty that are part of our daily, disordered lives. The fact is, it’s often in chaos that we laugh most heartily, feel most deeply, and reach out most readily for the help of others. Second, it can deny us genuine opportunities for growth. The hard truth for me is this: things flourish in the midst of chaos that die on the ordered vine. Chaos begets life and wisdom; chaos begets patience, humility, forbearance, and dependence. As much as I hate to admit it, I grow as much in chaos as I do by quiet streams. Third, it can stultify creativity. It’s a fact of nature that in the midst of chaos the dynamism of growth flourishes. Some of the most astounding beauty in the world flows naturally from bedlam.

Certainly, for a religious bloke like me, there is one more affirmation of chaos that is the most startling of all. The sacred text of my faith makes an unavoidable point: chaos can be the power, the wisdom and the freedom of God in our midst. An element of chaos, it seems, is the stuff of life with God. Apparently, I can’t live without it.

To soar or to plod

I am often troubled at the disparity between aspiration and reality. In heart and mind I aspire to noble things. I close my eyes and soar on unseen currents of possibility, the plains of mediocrity a distant speck. But in body I tread those plains every day, and often at a snail’s pace. “The mind wants to live forever,” Annie Dillard writes. “The mind wants to know the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel.”

That’s harsh judgement of the body, and one Dillard doesn’t own. But I feel it. The trivial concerns of now distract while higher things float by. Perhaps a more generous confession is the struggle to hold in tension two inclinations: to lift my vision to what can be and to embrace what is with gratitude. Resolve verses presence, aspiration verses contentment. Who will win today?

My better inclination rejects such competition: aspiration does not discount the gift of now. No doubt, the distractions in life are numerous. I can Facebook my way to nothing of consequence and barely know the loss. That said, I can also soar while plodding. Today can be imbued with a holding sense of hope, for now and eternity are one. After all, the plains are where I live and those eggs are my sustenance.

“I press on toward the goal,” the apostle Paul says, “for the prize of the heavenly call of God.” And then he returns to the dishes. That’s good news for me. Perhaps my spaniel-like traits are not so bad after all. I press on. I aspire. I hope. And yet I do it here, in this place, and now, in this moment.

 

 

Faith & God

Faith is a fickle thing. There are moments in our dealings with God that the conversation is fertile and believing instinctive; and others when the seed of faith shrivels in the hand. There are moments when intimate language flows and seasons when it feels like heaven’s doors are bolted — ‘the Great Wizard’ is out.

Experience tells me that such fickleness is standard. It’s par for the course in believing. Yet reading through the psalms this past month, I come away with this sense: while faith may be capricious, God is not.

I cannot claim to understand this God. But in both the acclamations and accusations of the psalmists, there is something consistent about God’s being that holds when life, and even faith, fails.

In preparing prayers yesterday for another occasion, I came across these familiar words from Frederick Ohler. Aspirational perhaps. Regardless, there is something about them that resonates today.

AWE – FUL

Great and holy God
awe and reverence
fear and trembling
do not come easily to us
for we are not
Old Testament Jews
or Moses
or mystics
or sensitive enough.

Forgive us
for slouching in Your presence
with little expectation
and less awe
than we would eagerly give a visiting dignitary.

We need
neither Jehovah nor a buddy—
neither “the Great and Powerful Oz”
nor “the man upstairs.”
Help us
to want what we need …
You God
and may the altar of our hearts tremble with delight at
Your visitation

amen.

Frederick Ohler, Better Than Nice and Other Unconventional Prayers, Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

I’m certain … sort of

I like certainty. When it comes to life’s detail, I don’t care for the open-ended. I prefer decisions made and plans settled. What’s more, I’m a sucker for those who speak with clarity and conviction. Why, then, do I react so strongly to a particular certainty in belief? Why do I resist those who claim a singular authority in religious faith or political ideology?

Late last year I sat with a small group of Christian leaders. Our task was to share the ‘values’ that undergird our ministry and the nature of our ‘authority’ in leadership. When my turn came, I said something about my values including room for conversation, difference and doubt. As for my authority, I thought it came from my ability to listen for the questions that life presents and to discern the truth amidst them. As I spoke, the man next to me shifted in his seat. Clearly he was agitated. Before I could finish, he blurted, “What a load of tosh!” The group flinched. Tosh? It was so long since I’d heard the word, I was more baffled by it than I was by the force of his voice. “What your people need from you, brother, is a man who knows what he believes.” He leaned forward. “All this talk about doubt and difference and discerning truth …. we have the truth. For God’s sake, preach it!”

All tosh aside, he had a point. The truth of God in Christ is not up for grabs, not for me anyway. There is a certainty in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” that sits beneath me in ministry. But this certainty is never one that precludes the possibility of questions left hanging or of truth discerned in unexpected places.

There is a brand of certainty alive today that renders everything black or white. It’s a certainty that repels doubt and, most tragically, refuses to listen. It’s as though all questions have simple answers and, once answered, cease to be questions. In my experience, though, there are questions of faith that never get answered, not completely. Besides, I’ve always thought questions worth having are worth keeping.

An unflinching certainty can be harsh, even ugly. At its worst it’s demonising, excluding, superior and humourless. I remember when living in the States reading the words of a retiring Baptist journalist who said this: “One of the most frightening things about the so-called new right and, for that matter, the new left is … the absolute humorlessness of their crusade. There is something scary about the crusader who is never for a moment aware of his shortcomings, the partiality of his insights, the finitudes of his being, the actual narrowness of his angle of vision.”

I feel the same. When there’s no place for the possibility of error, negotiation or compromise, what’s left is scary: I know and you don’t; I’m right and you’re wrong.

I must be what Patrick Henry labels an ironic Christian; one who has an “abiding suspicion of no-loose-ends answers.” I do have this instinctive sense, and a lifetime’s experience to back it up, that life is always more complex than straightforward, more nuanced than obvious, more fraught than simple. What’s more, there is something compelling about the virtues of gentleness and humility that speak with a certainty all their own.

“To be both ironic and Christian,” Henry says, “is to know, with a knowing deeper than doctrine, the simple, unnerving truth that the visage of faith is not the happy face but the masks of comedy and tragedy, alternating, unpredictably, between laughter and tears, sometimes crying and laughing at the same time, or even, on occasion, crying because it’s so funny and laughing because it hurts so much.”

 

51OJ6Ye4YkL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World, Riverhead Books, 1999.

 

 

 

Enlightenment

‘Where shall I look for Enlightenment?’ the disciple asked.
‘Here,’ the elder said.
‘When will it happen?’ the disciple asked.
‘It is happening right now,’ the elder answered.
‘Then why don’t I experience it?’ the disciple persisted.
‘Because you do not look,’ the elder said.
‘But what should I look for?’ the disciple continued.
‘Nothing. Just look,’ the elder said.
‘But at what?’ the disciple asked again.
‘At anything your eyes alight upon,’ the elder answered.
‘But must I look in a special kind of way?’ the disciple went on.
‘No. The ordinary way will do,’ the elder said.
‘But don’t I always look the ordinary way?’ the disciple said.
‘No, you don’t,’ the elder said.
‘But why ever not?’ the disciple asked.
‘Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,’ the elder said.

61AXC0291ZL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Joan Chittister, There is a Season, Orbis Books, 1995.

Image: 5 o’clock rush by Dave Carswell, Melbourne Street Photography

Taller than me

He’s taller than me. I said it couldn’t happen, but it did and he is. He’s my son and I look up to him.

Before having children, I imagined having children. In particular, I pictured my role in raising a son and the impact I’d have upon his life. My responsibility was to shape his mind, character and faith. For me it was a calling and one I approached with equal parts privilege and trepidation. When I first held him in my arms, I understood my vocation afresh. Fathering was a sacred trust. I would be his dad — his guide and provider, someone he could always depend on, a man to emulate and look up to.

It’s all true of course. At our best, we fathers are those things and more. So are mothers. Deliberate or not, we are formative agents of influence. As a pastor, I see it played out every day. The gulf between those who have been parented well and those who haven’t is wide. But what is equally true is that as we shape our children so they shape us. Now as I look up to my son, I know more deeply just how much he has formed me. The truth is, I am a different person for having him in my life.

I am more humble in expectation. My son has taught me that good parenting has so little to do with grand vistas and life plans. For the most part, it is borne out in the most ordinary commitments made and remade every day. As an idealist, this has been a hard lesson for me. It still is. Taking each day as it comes, showing up again tomorrow when I’ve dropped the ball today, and, more often than not, accepting that ‘good enough’ is really the best I’ll ever be. And as for those aspirations I had for his faith … they may never be exactly as I had planned. I know that now. But when I look up at my son — when I see his goodness and beauty — I am reassured that all of this is ok.

I am more present to life. Children, especially in their earliest years, have a way of grabbing you by the shirt collar and wrenching you into the moment. Even when you’d rather be elsewhere. And they do it over and over again. Nappies, nap times, feeding, laundry, reading stories, bedtime routines, homework, hockey games, and midnight taxiing — all of this shapes your focus and draws you in time after time. So much so that as they get older, the attention they once demanded from you transforms into the time you crave with them. When I look at my son I know, more forcefully than at any other moment, that now is the time.

I am confronted by my own fallibility. In so many parts of life I am competent. I speak, I lead, I write, I envision, counsel, direct and manage, and in all of this I’m affirmed. I like it that way. But then I come home. In parenting I routinely feel incompetent. In one of the most important and long lasting roles of my life I am mostly at sea. I fail as often as I succeed. All that is less than it needs to be in my character and skill-set is cast in stark relief. But when I look up at my son, I see grace in human form. I see grace at work in him, in me and in all that really counts.

I know heartache, joy and longing more intimately. No one could have told me just how much I would love my children, how deeply and passionately I would care, how proud I would be and how cut when things go awry. Sometimes love for my children makes my heart sing, and other times it hurts. Frankly, there are times when I really wish I didn’t care so much. Because love, deeply felt, can manifest in unhelpful ways, trampling over boundaries essential to growth and good relationship. Love’s most natural instinct is to step in when, sometimes, stepping away is what’s needed most. But it is love of this depth and drive that forms us as nothing else can. I look up at my son and I know that I am different for it.

Parenting is not the only path to maturity and change. There are so many other ways to travel. But it has been significant to me, a pathway on which I have been formed as much as I have formed. No doubt, this fathering business has shaped my character, highlighted my frailties and honed by understandings of faith and life as much as anything else I have done.

Perhaps looking up to him is more appropriate than I had thought.

[Thanks to my brother Mark for the photograph and to an article I read twenty five years ago that’s still worth reading: David E. Nowak, ‘Formative Parenting: Formed, Forming, and Being Formed.’ In Studies in Formative Spirituality, 1986, 7 (1): 75-90.]

Thomas Kelly on tenderness

“There is a tendering of the soul toward everything in creation, from the sparrow’s fall to the slave under the lash. The hard-lined face of a money-bitten financier is as deeply touching to the tendered soul as are the burned-out eyes of the miners’ children, remote and unseen victims of his so-called success. There is a sense in which, in this terrible tenderness, we become one with God and bear in our quivering souls the sins and burdens, the benightedness and the tragedy of the creatures of the whole world, and suffer in their suffering, and die in their death.”

267213Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, New York: HarperCollins, 1992 (1941), 64.

Go softy with yourself

When the meadows on the body turn gray

When the meadows on the body begin to turn gray, let your eyes soften toward yourself, and those who are close.

Let anyone, anything, inside who has driven you, let them retire or move at an easier pace.

And where you were once firm, and might have even said to someone, feel my muscle, or admired it yourself,

yes, now look at the way you have become, or will someday if you live as long as you want.

Many do all they can to not have to face the candle going out.

The wonder of my body aging, dying, is finding another flame within, a holy eternal

sphere, that will never go out and is more beautiful than all the form you have known—put together.

When the fields on the body begin to turn gray let your hand’s touch upon all, soften.

UnknownA Year with Hafiz: Daily Contemplations, poems by the Persian Sufi poet Hafiz, translated and introduced by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin, 2011.

Photograph by Mark Holt

A call to stillness

Coming to God: First Days

Lord, what shall I do that I can’t quiet myself?
Here is the bread, and here is the cup,
and I can’t quiet myself.

To enter the language of transformation!
To learn the importance of stillness,
with one’s hands folded!

When will my eyes of rejoicing turn peaceful?
When will my joyful feet grow still?
When will my heart stop its prancing
as over the summer grass?

Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake.
I would climb the highest tree
to be that much closer.

Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible,
the inscrutable and the everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bathed in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.

UnknownMary Oliver, Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, 23.