A few years back I wrote a book called Spiritual Rhythm. The title is vaguely misleading. The book is really about seasons of the heart: the way our inner lives are seasonal, cyclical – the lush abundance of summer, the crisp anticipation of autumn, the stark coldness of winter, the riotous awakening of spring. For everything, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, there is a season. He means, not seasons in nature, but seasons of life – joy and sorrow, loss and gain, war and peace, and so on. In the book I tried to chart that territory, to sketch out the contours and touchstones, the rhythms and textures, of each season of the heart. And I noticed that the seasons are no respecter of persons, or of age: I’ve met cash-strapped 80-year-olds giddy and playful as schoolboys on a dinosaur hunt, and I’ve met well-heeled 20-year-olds gloomy and weary as grave-diggers.
Almost all readers who have given me feedback about that book have responded to only one aspect of it: winter. The stuff on winter has awakened in them an ache. Or, better: it’s given them language to name and understand, at least in part, the deepdown ache inside them, the ache that nothing seems to banish. They carry a sadness that even the most joyful moments do not fully quench; they live under a dread that no amount of good news ever entirely breaks, scatters, lifts.
The thing is, I wrote that book when I lived on southern Vancouver Island. The reason that’s significant is that, well, I didn’t know what I was talking about: southern Vancouver Island doesn’t have a real winter. It has a mild diversion toward chilliness, a brief flirtation with the cold. It glances winter. It plays with it the way a bored cat plays with a gaunt mouse, batting it lightly, with no intent of eating the thing.
Now I live just outside Calgary. Here, winter is a lion that swallows you whole. I know I have whined about this a lot. But the cold here is a brutal fact, and it’s talking me some getting used to. For instance, yesterday my nearly new hot water tank quit. I have a good friend in Edmonton who moved there 15-years-ago from the same place on Vancouver Island I’m from, so he understands my pain. And he’s a plumber. So I called him, and he walked me through a series of diagnostics before we hit on the problem: the air intake for the water tank had frozen inside the house.
Inside. The house.
“It’s pretty common in these parts,” he said.
Oh. Okay. Right. Air ducts freezing inside your house is common. Why didn’t I think of that?
I’ll tell you why: because it’s ridiculous.
There are problems related to coldness that until a month ago I never could have imagined. How could I? Why would I? My biggest weather-related issue on Vancouver Island was waiting for my lush green lawn to dry out enough so that I could cut it in January. Here, I don’t expect to see that thatch brown lawn again until May.
Meanwhile, I face months of thawing out things inside my house.
I’m actually thinking of writing a sequel to Spiritual Rhythm. I’d simply call it Winter, with a subtitle like, Growing Hope When Nothing Else Will Grow.
But to qualify, I first I have to survive one of these things.
Prospects are not good.
Before I moved to Alberta 3 months ago, I thought the bottom part of a thermometer was just for show. The sub-zero scale, I reckoned, was like the speedometer on my Hyundai: measuring, at the uppermost reach, mere hypotheticals. The thing couldn’t actually go 220 km/hour – that’s just there for aesthetic purposes, to fill in the rest of dial. Plus, it looks impressive.
Now I find out, too late to turn back, that Albertans actually use the bottom end of the stick. Minus 5. Minus 10. Minus 17. Minus 28. Apparently, there’s limit to how far down the mercury will go.
And it’s only November.
When I complain loudly to the locals about this, they smile a thin smile. “Wait,” they say, “until winter hits.”
Winter? This isn’t that?
I came from Vancouver Island, where a cold day meant you put on a sweater under your wind breaker, and maybe postponed your golf game. Block heaters? Ice scrapers? Snow tires? Parkas? We’d heard of such things, but few of us had any first-hand experience with them.
November’s been my crash course. The other day I almost died walking to my car. The coldness skewered me. My toes and fingers turned numb. I pictured someone finding me hours later, my tipped-over body frozen in mid-stride, a thickening lacework of frost gathering on the blueing marble of my skin, my eyes wide with terror.
I made it, in case you were wondering.
So it’s been an education, if that’s the right word. This morning, I wrote some of these thoughts to a friend, a native Albertan. “At least,” he wrote back, “we’re not in Edmonton. It’s brutal there.”
The funny thing is, he’s the third person in 2 days to say this very same thing to me. At least we’re not in Edmonton. Such, I’m learning, are the consolations of the half-frozen.
But still, it’s cold here. To be fair, I’d been warned. But – like with most things – reality has a distinct force to it that theory can never quite capture. Minus 28 in real-time is much more, shall we say, impressive than minus 28 as a mere idea.
But at least we’re not in Edmonton.
Most technology baffles me. It’s to me what Russia was to Churchill – a mystery inside an enigma inside a riddle.
I think my deficiency is genetic. If certain skills are partly genetic – making a cello weep, spanking a fastball deep into outfield, dancing high on a tight rope – then, I guess, so is technical proficiency. The ability to manipulate all the secret esoteric intricacies and mysteries of iPads and smart phones must be only half acquired. The other half – the genetic part – we either have or lack.
I lack it. I’m deficient in techno genes.
We just acquired our first flat screen TV. It’s a thing of austere beauty. The only problem is neither my wife nor I can figure out how to make it work. It turns on, but the channel program is all black emptiness. We read the instructions carefully. We fiddle the buttons endlessly. We wave, like a magic wand, the control stick at the screen, trying to pull a bunny from a hat. Or just trying to get a signal.
I’d chalk it up to some glitch in the TV, except for two things: my son had it working before he left town; and yesterday.
Yesterday, I tried for the second time in two days to engage two friends, both far away, in a conference call. Both times I got hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of technology. Other people find these things simple, intuitive, child’s work. Me? I find them enigmatic, elusive, bedeviling. It’s like threading a needle with oven mitts.
But here is my consolation: the stuff of the heart requires no technical skill. To love deeply, to listen attentively, to pray earnestly, to give generously, to extend grace – all take skill, and work, and resolve, and discipline, just none of it of a technical order.
My son is coming back later today. He has the genes for technology (don’t ask me how). So hopefully he’ll do his thing, and soon the Great Portal will open. He’ll explain it to me, but likely I’ll forget. And my next clash with technology, I know, is only a matter of time.
But I’m thankful that, though sometimes it takes technology to talk with a friend, it takes none to be one. And we all got the genes for that.
The Christian life has two basic shapes: cruciform and eucharistic. It is about giving and thanksgiving. It is about dying to self, and abounding in gratitude. Like Christ, we are called to live cruciform lives – arms stretched wide in giving and receiving. And through Christ, we are released to live eucharistic lives – arms stretched wide in thanking and rejoicing.
Here’s an irony: almost all deeply thankful people, at least that I know, have less of everything – less health, wealth, beauty, opportunity: everything – than entitled people. That’s because their thankfulness is not so much a response as it is a choice. It’s a resolve. It’s a conviction. They choose thanks over complaint, over coveting, over self-pity. In the eyes of the thankful, all life is eucharistic – literally, a good gift, a good grace (though sometimes well-disguised). They choose, therefore, over and over, to give thanks in all things and for all things, sometimes in spite of many things.
And they also choose the obvious outworking of thankfulness: generosity. Real gratitude always engenders rich generosity. Eucharistic living always flows into cruciform living, a life of giving yourself away. God lavishes his grace upon us, not that we would bottle it, but that we would channel it. He’s not looking for holding tanks. He’s looking for sluices. Grace abounds so that it might overflow.
This weekend is Canadian thanksgiving. It is a good gift – a eucharist – to yearly be reminded: be thankful, be generous. It’s an even better gift to daily live thus.
A friend posted on facebook this week a video of a young man singing his heart out on an Interstate in southern California. His windows and sun roof or wide open, and he chimes happily along with a song spilling loud from his car. “Fill me up, Buttercup,” he shouts for all to hear, bobbing and weaving to the beat. Traffic is thick, so drivers and passengers to the right and left take notice. He invites them to sing with him. Many do.
It’s brilliant. It’s a little outbreak of the kingdom of God: infectious joy invading a world of grinding routine, gruelling tedium. One man singing subverts a thousand stone-faced commuters, and calls them back to wonder and thankfulness.
I always loved the 60s musical GodSpell, despite its theological shortcomings. Jesus shows up in San Francisco during the height of the Flower Power era. He is the proto-hippy, a bell-bottomed, peace-sign wielding, afro-sporting vagabond grooving to the scene. All that is hokey and oddball. The movie’s genius, though, is this: Jesus comes singing, and keeps singing. And those who follow him hear the song – in the midst of dance recitals, board meetings, traffic jams, domestic arguments – and drop everything to join him in it.
Three biblical texts converge around this theme – well, more than three, but these three I find especially compelling. The first is a question God asks woebegone, sore-afflicted Job:
Were you there… when the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:7).
The second is the picture of God that the Prophet Zephaniah gives to frightened, disheartened people:
Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing (Zeph. 3:16-17).
And the third is the story of Paul and Silas in the book Acts, two men bleeding from a scourging, locked and manacled in the inner cell of a dank prison because of an act of compassion they committed in the city of Philippi:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).
I bet they were, those other prisoners. Who does this? Songs in the night. Songs in the face of brutal suffering. Songs breaking out in the midst of conditions that invite anything but singing – sores from head to foot, threats from powerful enemies, violence from an oppressive system. Traffic on a grid-locked highway. They don’t complain. They don’t curse. They don’t rail against the system.
GodSpell, for all it got wrong, got this right: into this mess and pain, the great Troubadour comes singing, singing, singing, and the kingdom opens to all who hear and join him.
It snowed in the Rockies Wednesday night, and Thursday morning dawned bright. The white on blue made the mountains taller and closer: it pushed them skyward, pulled them eastward. They loomed in all their wild holy beauty, vivid, huge, daunting, inviting. Driving to work, I almost swerved into the ditch from sheer distraction.
All around here are roadside signs that announce, starkly, grimly: “Distracted Driving Laws in Effect.” At first I thought they were targeted at cell-phone users. Now I’m thinking they’re meant for people spellbound by the scenery.
This is my third week living in Cochrane, working in Calgary. Three weeks is still a raw beginning. But day by day, the land becomes known to me, the house settles into a comforting sameness, the rhythms of the work place feel more natural. The strangeness of it all gives way to familiarity.
A good thing, and not.
I taught a lesson last week on the theology of new beginnings. I’d never really thought about it before, but now I do a lot. What struck me is that the Bible is written largely for a transient people: Adam and Eve forced out of Eden, Cain exiled from family, Noah abandoning society, Abraham called out of Ur, Jacob fleeing Beersheba, Joseph dragged out of Canaan, Moses escaping Egypt, David running from Saul, and on and on and on. God watches over a displaced people. Strangers in a strange land. And Jesus comes as heaven’s refugee, as divine vagabond. His refrain: “Foxes have holes, and birds often air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
“Come,” he says, “follow me.”
Which means seeing new places, meeting new people, often. It means saying hello a lot.
There are many skills and attitudes for this, but this I’ve found huge: wonder. The downside of familiarity is the loss of wonder. We stop noticing, stop beholding, stop being curious, stop being in awe. The beauty all around us – in landscapes, in situations, in conversations, in people – becomes mere backdrop. Spectacle becomes mundane. Sighing and yawning replace having our breath taken away.
These three weeks have reawakened in me wonder. I see with fresh eyes, hear with unstopped ears. I sometimes gasp in astonishment. I know in time this will grow dull, but I intend to keep it alive as long as I can.
So Distracted Driving laws be damned: I choose awe.
Apologies for my long silence.
It’s been a summer of upheaval and dislocation – none of it bad, all of it stressful. Since I last posted anything here, June 14, I have changed both location and vocation: from Duncan, British Columbia to Calgary, Alberta; from pastoral ministry to academic work. I traded the Pacific Ocean for the Rockies, the pulpit for the lectern.
I spent the summer in-between: not a pastor anymore, not a professor yet; not from Duncan for long, not in Calgary for a while.
Then last week we moved, and I started work. I write this the morning after my first class – a three-hour marathon that I have to repeat 14 more times. I drove home last night both exhausted and grateful. Three hours is a long time to try to hold anyone’s attention. The students were engaging, curious, insightful, and stayed admirably awake. But me? I was reeling.
I kept having to remind myself not to preach. Me instinct for that roots deep. I speak a text, and my mind crowds with illustration, application, exhortation – all my pastoral impulses run amok. This isn’t entirely a bad thing in a classroom – after all, students need to be doers of the word, just like the rest of us – but I could see the look of bewilderment on several faces. Should I be writing this down? Will this be on the final exam? Is this related to your last point?
It’s going to take me a while to get the rhythm for this. Right now, I’m in-between.
Around us, a household slowly emerges from a maze of boxes, thanks mostly to Cheryl’s tireless efforts. The space, inch by inch, gets colonized with our furniture, our pictures, our presence. (My office at work, on the other hand, looks like one of those rooms from a bombed out library in WWII. Alas, my efforts at conquering it are less heroic).
Part way through last night’s class, I asked each person to introduce themself, to tell where they were born, and to say what place they now called home. I was last to go.
“My name is Mark,” I said. “And I was born in Calgary.” Then I flinched answering the last question. “And what place do I call home?”
I wanted to say Duncan.
With a shock of sadness, I knew it’s not so. Then with a shock of joy, I realized what is so: I’m already here. I’m no longer in-between.