Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Restiveness of Desire

(Note: While I began this entry on Saturday the 20th, I wrote the bulk of it on Tuesday the 23rd.)

"For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives just as we are and in the neighborhoods in which we live, not the ascent of our lives to God whom we hope will approve when he sees how hard we try and how politely we pray."
-- Eugene Peterson, Eat This Word

"Those who think they have arrived, have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it. Those who think they are saints, are demons. An important part of the spiritual life is to keep longing, waiting, hoping, expecting. In the long run, some voluntary penance becomes necessary to help us remember that we are not yet fulfilled. A good criticism, a frustrating day, an empty stomach, or tired eyes might help to reawaken our expectation and deepen our prayer: Come, Lord Jesus, come."
--Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary

HUMMINGBIRD ANNUNCIATION
...I've often shrunk the world to my desire
That everything will be all right,
A crude defense meant to exclude whatever
Is uncontrollable. I turn away, afraid to be
Empty enough for something to enter.
-- Robert Cording


I've often told artists that the worst thing that could happen to them is instant wealth or instant poverty. To be struck with either would be cruel. Humans are adaptive creatures but they're not machines, and for even the saintliest among us instant wealth or poverty--waking up one day as a spectacular multi-millionaire or utterly destitute--would be an unkind, temptation-addled experience. I will probably never doubt the truth of the first. Instant wealth, if accompanied also by fame and power, would jack with our brain. Without the ability gradually to grow character muscles to handle that kind of weight we'd go crazy, as if somebody had injected two pounds of undiluted caffeine into our bloodsystem.

But I'm beginning to think that near instant poverty might not be a bad thing. I don't mean a Jobian instant poverty with a house burned to the ground, family taken by fatal accident, loss of all possessions and the contraction of an incurable disease--all at once. That would be, well, cruel. I mean a more garden-variety near instant poverty. This could include the temporary loss of job and income. It might be a prolonged illness. We might suffer the near fatal accident of a loved one. Or maybe it'd be a nasty bout with depression or an extended period of loneliness. What I have in mind are experiences that severely limit us. They force upon us a radical simplification. We cannot go on with life as usual and are compelled to stop.

It's what the old mystics called purifying fires. It's what we might call a very effective Master Cleanse.

Why are they desirable? Because they can wake us up out of the stupor into which we might have fallen. Bedeviled with feelings of boredom and fatalism, the twin feelings of the anti-Garden, we find ourselves rolling in and out of our days in a mindless way, numb to the deepest, subterranean desires of our souls because we no longer trust God. We haven't given up on everything, we've only given up on the things that pain us most deeply. Our subconscious thought pattern is this: "I'll always be this way. You'll always be this way. Life will always be this way. God will always be this way. Don't try to change anything, don't hope, it's too big and too much, just keep going."

This of course is the perennial lie of the Satan. Lucifer cleverly tricks us into accepting a false cantus firmus for our lives, a false base line: you're stuck and you'll always be stuck with these burdens and fears; it's too hard to change; it's not worth it and you'll unquestionably be pathetically alone if you do try.

When we experience a near instant poverty (NIP), or what Nouwen calls a voluntary penance, our foggy-headed life comes to a stop. We wake up. I've got the symptoms of a NIP. Finances are tight. The job is uneven. Our first year of marriage is teaching me how able I am at being selfish. And the questions visit me daily. Do I really trust God with the unknowns of my life? Am I loving well the people around me, or do I just think I am? What's grounding my sense of being a man? My ability to accomplish? People's approval of me?

I'm sitting at my home desk in a very, very cold house. The temperature is around 48 degrees--inside. Outside it hovers in the middle 30s. My fingers are blanched and numb. Three white candles keep me company while KMFA, our local classical station, broadcasts its marvelous "festival of carols" in the living room. Phaedra is wrapping presents for the nieces and nephews, turning a prosaic activity into a magical art that would make Martha Stewart proud.

Bread dough is rising on the kitchen island. A chocolate satin pie I made last night sits in the fridge. My PG-Tips tea loses its fight against the cold air. Earlier in the morning I read a devotional entry by Annie Dillard. In it she talks about her visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and I think her point is to say "See how glory comes out of debasement," but mostly she comes across cranky. It's like she wrote the piece in a bad mood.

The day outside my window is overcast and quiet, with a clammy fog drifting through our back yard. It's the last week of Advent.

In the world thousands of miles away from our home there is unrest. Forbes announces another plunge in home prices. Proposition 8 seethes on the western coast. The Illinois governor confirms our cynicism about what politics really is about. Christmas in Orissa, India, will be bleak, we're told. Fires burn on the streets of Athens, Greece. The Virgin Mary is portrayed as a drag queen in a street theater stunt hosted by the city of Amsterdam. Evangelicals resent Rick Warren for agreeing to give the invocation at Barak Obama's investiture. Countless families are about to get into a fight on Christmas day, overcome with their various disappointments and resentments.

And the stores and the TV commercials tirelessly plead with us that this is a season of peace and goodwill to men--and would you mind buying our product. But they've got Jesus wrong so they've got Christmas wrong. And the Church comes to our rescue by offering us Advent first, what it has nicknamed the Little Lent. Perhaps, though, it's the Little Unrest before our true rest can be won. "Sometimes we forget that God comes to us," writes the Catholic priest John Powell, "not only to give us peace but also to disturb us." So much of our holiday frustration comes, I think, from a frustration of our expectations. I expect one thing, somebody in my family expects something opposite and our clashing expectations drain and dishearten us. Again the Church extends to us a life vest. It offers us a song we can sing endlessly for four weeks in Advent, "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus."

From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.

Let us find our rest in thee. It is a good prayer for us to be chewing on. And there is the other Advent hymn that teaches our hearts to desire rightly, "Love Divine, All Love Excelling." The second verse reads:

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into every troubled heart.
Let us all in thee inherit; let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.

The 17th century German Lutheran Valentin Thilo spiritedly reminds the Christian of his part in this work of heart-cleansing. He has him sing, in his hymn "Ye Sons of Men, Oh Hearken," the line: "Put the desires of your heart in order, O human being!" Advent is a time when we as Christians get to examine closely the gunk in our hearts. Last night Phaedra and I got into an argument about money. Our voices raised their loud and insistent acclaims--me the fiery Italian, she the dogged German, both of us blessedly stiffnecked and endowed with exceptionally strong emotions. After the durm und strang had settled, we realized we'd both gotten our feelings hurt. And we were both afraid. But gunk got out. Unrest was purged and a sober-minded, humbled rest returned to our hearts.

As I go into an afternoon of eating an Italian feast with my family and the wild west of opening presents with kids I am comforted by something Brennan Manning once said about Christmas. He said Christmas was for people who know they are shipwrecked. Those who know that every day is a day in which they wake up and acknowledge their poverty of spirit are those who can experience the sweetest happiness of Christmas.

I leave you here with Manning's words and pray that you will know the warm, tangible, reassuring presence of Jesus in the days to come. When things start feeling like they're spinning out of control or a little tinge of disappointment threatens to steal your joy, remember, this is Advent. It is a season of unrest and rest. It is the descent of God to your neighborhood, your house, your family with all the good and the bad. It is a season for you to struggle, with all the grace of God, to keep yourself empty enough for something, for Someone to enter.

May the peace of Christ guard your heart and mind this day and evermore.

"Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don't order "just a piece of toast" when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don't come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don't be contented with a 'nice' Christmas when Jesus says, 'It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.'

"Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

--Brennan Manning, "The Shipwrecked at the Stable," in Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus
(PHOTO: Phaedra takes a picture of me, Skye and Bronwyn making peanut-butter and chocolate chip cookies for the family feast.)

5 comments:

Shane Tucker said...

Hey David, my name is Shane. I've been aware of you for a number of years and have been waiting for the right opportunity to come to get in touch with you. It seems that time is now. I'd love to chat with you at some stage in the near future if you're willing. Is there an email address I can send a private message to? Below are some links to give you a picture of who I am.

my blog:
http://wwwdreamtoday.blogspot.com

my network:
www.dreamtoday.org

my writing place:
www.risenmagazine.com

my paid work:
www.ciyd.org

Every blessing in your labours and loves!

micah said...

thank you for this entry! lovely. my fingers are trembling with you. i especially loved brennan manning's quote.

- a shipwrecked believer

w. david o. taylor said...

Shane, as soon as I get over the bend of my grad school applications I'll give you a shout-out and we can have a proper chat. But thanks for saying hey, especially from Ireland!

Micah: thank you. I'm shipwrecked with you.

Shane Tucker said...

No worries David. I look forward to speaking with you at some stage. Will I make an attempt to reconnect at a specific date? When would you like me to do so? Or will you pull an obscure message from the recesses of your saturated cortex and connect with me when you're free?

Blessings on you and yours!

livingpalm said...

I have been simmering in the juices of this beautiful meditation since you posted it. I just wanted you to know.