Jesus said, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”1 The passage comes in the middle of a discourse about the coming Day of the Son of Man, when great judgment will come against the land and all will flee to the hilltops to escape. Many scholars see in this passage a hint of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, but that is surface stuff. The wisdom is reflected in all major religions. Islam teaches the sovereignty of God who makes weal and woe, and to oppose God’s will is to bring doom upon yourself. Hinduism and Buddhism speak of the mirage that this life is, illusion that hides the truth that is to be sought instead. Daoism scorns any sort of life lived in tomorrow rather than the eternal moment of now. All of them cast our living in a larger context over which we ultimately do not have control. Those who try to make their lives secure play at being God, which is always an exercise in futility, as all idolatry is.
Our culture is security-obsessed. Insurance, law suits, and rules about safety first all serve a place, but when liability issues drive major corporate decisions we fall into what Edwin Friedman calls the rule of the most anxious.2 Pretending that we are truly the masters of our own fates, or the captains of our own souls3 is foolishness. Oh, there is a level at which our free will is truly free and we can choose against incredible odds, but we ultimately only rule our own souls, not our fates. Fates fall in the hands of many, and we have no ultimate control over anyone but ourselves and our own choices. The truth is that we hang in time with a thousand swords below us, and in the final day we command none of them.
The human soul was not made for mastery. It was made for faith. Faith is surrender to a relationship with the ultimate mystery of the Now. It speaks and listens, it acts and reflects, and it knows itself to be one of many, yet in that many one. From that place we do not have to make our lives more secure than is possible, and we need not worry about tomorrow overmuch. St. Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”4
Now, in the final analysis, is far more compelling than the regrets of yesterday or the fears of tomorrow.
2Friedman, Edwin. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 2007
3Sorry, William Earnest Henley! (Poem titled “Invictus”)
4II Corinthians 6:2
“He’s dumb as a box o’ rocks,” I’ve heard said about other people. I know what is meant, and sometimes I’m tempted to use the phrase on myself. But I don’t because I don’t agree. Oh, the person may truly be a few cards short of a full deck, but I’ve got a box o’ rocks and it’s anything but dumb. There are rocks in there that trace my path through life. There’s a piece of quartzite I picked up from a stream in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, one of the three places in the world where people regularly live to be 100. There’s a limestone rose from a ranch in south Texas. There are rocks from New Zealand, Indiana, Washington, Peru, Argentina and Scotland. I carry a rock in my pocket. It has green and red stripes in it that remind me of the path pebbled with rocks on which I journey through life.
Rocks are anything but dumb. One of my favorite rocks in this area is Cooke’s Peak, standing tall over the desert 30 miles southeast of my house. She is steep and tall enough that she can cause death and destruction of you fall off of her. On the other hand, she is tall enough to snag clouds and make it rain or snow, giving life to the desert on her flanks. She makes a life for a myriad of plants and animals, and if we could understand her words she would tell of war and peace, famines and plenty, floods and gentle rains that she alone has survived.
Rocks are solid. Jesus tells a parable about two houses, one built on sand and the other on rock. The image of a Rock resounds through the Christian faith tradition as a symbol of the presence of God, the source of water and judgment (the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone) and of Christ himself.
If rocks are dumb they are the holy fool that hide wisdom available only to those who will allow their stony hearts to be cracked open by the Rock.
This morning Cooke’s Peak sat shaded into grey by a heavy haze in the air this morning. She looked like she was a 100 miles away instead of 30. It seemed it would take me a week to walk to her, rather than a couple of easy days. We say she looked “distant.”
Atahualpa Yupanqui, Argentine folk singer, wrote, “A qué le llaman distancia, eso me han de explicar.”1 (What people call distance they need to explain.) The second couplet continues, “Solo están lejos las cosas que no sabemos mirar.” (The only things distant are what we do not know how to see.)
Our friends from Palomas, Mexico need to get a visa for Honduras to go on our mission trip next month. Honduran consulates are available in Dallas, Houston and Monterrey, Mexico. I looked on Google Maps. Their closest option is Dallas. All the rest are more “distant.” Sometimes I feel “distant” from my wife, other times I feel close. I miss her most when she feels distant, so in a way she is closest when she feels far away. People tell me they feel “distant” from God, yet the Christian concept of God places the divine presence in everything that exists, making God closer to us than our own hearts.
Clearly the eyes of the head are not enough to know “distance.” They are only movie cameras hooked up to our Central Processor that makes sense (or nonsense) of what comes in through them. The spirit sees what the eye cannot see. The heart knows distance differently than a map. I would like to think that the eye of God sees through all of these lenses at the same time. I would like to imagine that occasionally I am granted to see through those eyes and see how in the end we are all one, and yet we are all exactly who we are. I would like to think that you have these moments, too, and that this is when truth is best known.
What people call distance they need to explain.
1 Song by that name, title song to an album published in 1995.
This morning I put bird feed out for the Avian Serengeti in our front lawn and it was about 15 minutes before the first few birds appeared. There is a Cooper’s Hawk and sometimes a Sharp Shinned Hawk that frequent the place. Bird-hunters, these big-and-little brother versions of one another have learned that humans who maintain bird feeders lay out a smorgasbord for them. I didn’t stop to look around, but I could bet you that the local eater-bird was hiding in a shadow nearby and the eatable birds knew it. There are consequences to being seen.
It makes me think about the shadows that hide beliefs I dread to face within. Ancient moments, seen through the lens of my mind and heart at the time, create half-truth demons that make my own truth hide. Hiding truth has its consequences. It walls off parts of my world from view. It pinches my relationships into strangeness. Most of all, it is tiring. Lies are tiring. Maintaining them is like carrying a stone in your pocket that every day grows a little bit bigger and a little bit heavier. You don’t notice at first, but if you ever stopped and compared you’d be appalled. There are consequences to being unseen.
Sometimes I think the process of becoming human consists of shining light into shadows. Only when we face the truth of our half-truths can we rename them, reclaim them, and bring their wisdom out into the light. Of course, there are consequences. We must give up the comfortable bondage and the simplistic answers. We must own the pain we have alienated. It takes a lot of soul-mucking to get to bedrock, but only there can a true foundation be laid.
And then we find the stupendous truth that shadows weigh infinitely more than wisdom.
This morning the avian Serengeti of our front yard swarmed with the usual crowds. House Finches, White-winged Doves, a Eurasian Collared Dove, a Brown-headed Blackbird with a bum foot, a sole House Sparrow, and the great herds of Gambel’s Quail descended upon my seedy offering. The quail are herding in their next crop these days. One pair of birds has only one, we don’t know why (oh, the untold stories!) A new brood came in, a dozen strong, buzzing around like fuzzy bugs, pecking at everything Mommy and Daddy pecked at. At one point the two families got mixed up, but as each couple of adult birds wandered away things sorted themselves out quickly and efficiently, as if each had a specially colored feather on their heads invisible to humans by which the little ones recognized their own parents without question. What must the world look like through a quail’s eyes? I mean, come on, they all look the same to me!
They all look the same… Last Monday Karisse and I and some people from the church went to the Wine Festival in Las Cruces. The “Yarborough Band” from El Paso was playing. From their name you can predict, accurately, that every one of them was Anglo. In El Paso a lot of Anglos speak very good Spanish and they did a couple of Rancheras and “La Bamba” very well. Between those numbers the announcer made a big deal about these “White folks singing in Spanish,” but that shouldn’t surprise us because “All those white folks look the same, you know.” He got the appropriate giggles from the crowd.
We have inside eyes and outside eyes. Inside eyes see the world like others who are inside. It’s a comfortable, predictable and largely unconscious place to live, where most of us feel the most at ease. Outside eyes see another’s inside world from outside. Small distinctions with big meanings are lost. Unconscious meanings become ponderously, consciously confusing, and we are uncomfortable. Outside eyes say things like, “They all look the same to me.” In 1954 the missionary linguist Kenneth Pike coined the terms “etic” and “emic” to describe outside and inside eyes from a linguistic point of view. The terms have been generalized to Cultural Anthropology. Outside eyes see from an etic point of view, inside eyes see from the emic.
Our world has always been diverse in this neck of the woods. The illusion of being able to comfortably reside in an emic world is only tenable when propped up with social conventions of segregation. Those social conventions are fast disappearing. The need to recognize the difference between the etic and the emic is becoming a matter of survival. True community is only constructed intentionally as people reach out of their comfortable emic places and peer into the emic world of another without judgment, aware that even then it is with etic eyes that one sees. From my emic human point of view this is what the Son of God did in the Incarnation. If that is my Christian belief it is my duty to reach across the divide as far as I humanly can, just as Christ did. Who knows, maybe with practice they will NOT all look the same to me.
This morning a pair of quail came into the feeder with 8 chicks. We always love this time of year because the quail have paired up and are nesting. Watching the little puff-balls-on-toothpicks makes me smile and Karisse swoon. On the other hand, the chicks are so very vulnerable; I believe this family had 9 the last time we saw them. The possible loss was not due, I’m sure, to the parents’ lack of vigilance. This morning Daddy was chasing off White-winged Doves and other quail that ventured too near his precious brood.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that all species of animal who actively raise young are also rather fiercely protective of their little bits of promise. I do not know how conscious quail are of tomorrow, but we humans vest babies with enormous loads of prophecy. They are our future, we say, the stuff of our tomorrows. One of the primary ills of our society today can well be named simply in our treatment of our children. No wonder we are so fiercely protective.
Interesting thing it is—to protect the “now” in order to guarantee the “soon-to-be.” We instill in the Little Ones the patterns we learned yesterday in order that they might create the patterns of tomorrow, filtering those patterns through our own “nows.” In these days of uncertainty, herein lies our hope for tomorrow. A wise tomorrow takes the wisdom of yesterday, filters it through the best wisdom we have of today and recasts it for tomorrow. Tradition becomes the springboard for innovation, not its shackle. The future becomes the unexpected flowering of the past, not its nemesis.
Let our Little Ones teach us wisdom!
Cooke’s Peak, 30 miles southeast of my house, stands tall against the hazy horizon. At 8,000+ feet at the summit, she is one of the higher peaks in southwestern New Mexico. And there she stands, right there, every morning, whether I get up to look or not. It seems she has always been there.
That, of course, is not true, and on a more existential level, it can never be taken for granted. She didn’t have to be there. She didn’t have to be right there. The quail that came into the feeder this morning and stood on the half-wall around our front patio this morning didn’t have to be there, didn’t have to be right there right then, 20 feet from me through my window glass. I didn’t have to be sitting in my chair, looking at Cooke’s Peak and the quail. I could have been somewhere else, or I could have not been at all. Yet I am, and the quail is and Cooke’s Peak is, and the oak trees in the draw below the house, the neighbor’s dog that is running through the grass across the draw…none of it has to be here, and yet it is, right here, right now.
No wonder our Hindu and Buddhist friends talk about “isness.”
What Almighty Hand has cast us all into being rather than not? Cosmologists talk about the wrinkle in the universe that gives matter the slight edge over anti-matter. That’s the science, but science is the study of processes, not origins. Perhaps more poignantly, why did the Hand tip the balance toward being rather than non-being? Maybe it is to open a conversation. Deeper answers come from deeper places.
Anyway, this morning I am filled with joy and gratitude at the gift of “isness,” right here, right now.