Here are a few gleanings from my recent reading and meditating:
Jesus was never in a hurry, according to everything we know from biblical history. So why are we, especially when we claim to be doing His work? I’ve seen more frenetic, impetuous activity in churches than I care to recall. I believe it was Gandhi who said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
I’ve often thought of God as someone who knows me better than I know myself. But do I really believe that? Far too often I think I have a firm grip on everything about me, only to discover, much to my chagrin, that I really don’t understand my attitudes, biases, motives, and unconscious drivers at all. It was Oswald Chambers who wrote, “We have to get rid of the idea that we understand ourselves; it is the last bit of pride to go.”
Psalm 120 seems to be describing how I feel toward politics, the media, and most self-proclaimed “authorities” these days. The Hebrew poet wrote, “Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues. Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace, but when I speak, they are for war.”
Thomas Merton once prayed a prayer that is beyond the reach of most of us. “O Lord, let my eyes see nothing in the world but your glory; let my hands touch nothing that is not for your service.” I can’t even begin to imagine how I could do this, but it’s a goal worth striving for. So I’ll try to see the handiwork of deity in nature and also (more difficult!) in human nature. And I’ll commit myself to random acts of kindness each day, even if those actions are only a smile to a stranger or a text to a faraway friend.
I used to think that the answer to the stress of life was to “get away from it all.” Traveling to a lovely spot away from the city, surrounded by the wonder of the natural world, was almost always refreshing, but it never quite measured up to my expectations. This happened time after time, and it began to weigh heavily on my soul. So I consulted with one of my mentors, who told me, “Russ, your problem is that wherever you go, you always have to take Russ Clark with you!” He called my escape routine a “geographical solution,” and he kindly informed me that this never works. Oh, he admitted that walking a mountain trail or viewing a gorgeous sunset have their value, but the real answer to the issues that trouble me and everyone else is found within. In the deepest place of my soul, away from all distractions, addictions, diversions, and denials, there is a quiet spot with room for only God and myself. And until I can see the wisdom in this, I’ll be paying a lot of money to resorts and retreat centers that offer something they can’t deliver.
Here in Florida we can look down upon the spot where Eastern Lake, a fresh-water coastal dune lake, meets the Gulf of Mexico. The waters intermingle and create a marvelous and rare ecosystem, filled with plant and animal life that seems to thrive on this shifting balance and imbalance of Nature. We’re told that the fish who swim these waters have to be hardy and resilient in order to survive, as they’ve done for thousands of years.
I see this as a parable. The Gulf is the sea water that covers the earth with its vast reach and boundless flow; the lake is a body of brackish water that spans acres rather than miles. The Gulf is the immeasurable realm of the Spirit; the lake is our limited and tainted life on this planet. And we are at the point where they meet.
What happens to us in this meeting of the waters? We hear the call of the ocean and we long to move in that direction, but we also realize our limitations, many of them self-imposed, and we settle for the safety of the small rather than risk a step toward the breakers. I wonder if this is what St. Paul meant is his letter to the Romans, when he wrote, “I have a desire to do what is right, but I cannot carry it out. I keep doing what is wrong. What a wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?” And he then comes to the consoling conclusion that only God can do that.
I’ll write a lot more about this in the days and months ahead. It seems to describe my quest, especially as I try to live a life that pleases God and also makes a difference in my circle of family, friends, and community.
We’re in a season of the church year that many call “Ordinary Time.” It is observed after the Feast of the Epiphany, in January, and again after Pentecost Sunday, in the late Spring. The term used to bother me, for reasons I never could quite explain, even to myself. But as the years went on, I began to feel at peace with this liturgical expression, and it seemed to be a good reminder that most of our days are lived in ways that are quite mundane. Oh, by the way, that word “mundane” comes from the Latin which means “world.” And so it is; there are times when we’re lifted by Christmas carols and by the memory of the great acts of God. But most of the time, we’re so earth-bound that it makes our feet (and our souls) ache. And yet, it is only in the commonplace where we can see if any faith we claim is able to pass the test of relevance.