Clearing Space

A couple of days ago I noticed some interesting shadows in the evening light. The setting sun cast images of swaying trees and silhouettes of dancing leaves into the house. The most picturesque shadows were on the kitchen wall, below a board full of mementos. I set it up years ago to display children’s art work, but in more recent years it has held newspaper clippings, photos, and memorabilia from their activities. I wanted to get a picture of the light and shadow on the wall, but once I had my camera I realized there was too much clutter in the frame. Posters, newsprint, and a handkerchief hanging from the bottom of the board interfered with getting a good shot, so I quickly removed them before the light changed. I ended up with something kind of interesting:

I’ve been meaning to dismantle that board for over a year. Its role has passed. I’m still proud of my young adult children and their accomplishments, but it’s not about displays. The newspaper is yellowed, the medals are dusty, and the whole thing has been there, unchanged, for so long that no one even sees it any more. But the job I had been putting off—what do I do with all that stuff when I take it down, anyway?—is now underway.

It’s not an insurmountable job to remove the miscellany and open up the wall space, but it does mark the end of an era. Actually, the era has already ended and I’m just now catching up. The board was a simple and effective treatment for an abundance of artwork: a piece of matboard with clothespins glued to it, held on the wall with thumbtacks. It’s still in good shape. If you live nearby and need a way to display your children’s creativity, I’ll be happy to give it to you.

It feels odd to get rid of something that’s been part of the furniture for so many years. On the other hand, it will open up a lot of wall space. There’s something exhilarating about clearing out the old and making room for the new. I’ll enjoy the open space.

I wonder what will go there next.

The Seasonal Work of the Soul

Ecclesiastes is the source of a beautiful passage that has been on my mind in recent days:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to throw away;

A time to tear, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

These words may sound familiar if you know Pete Seeger’s, “Turn, Turn, Turn” from the popular recording by the Byrds. The words set to music convey a beautiful sense of everything held safely by the author of life.

This passage is around 2500 years old, but it speaks timelessly. Its wisdom is in accepting the variety of circumstances and challenges that arise as life unfolds. It passes no judgment as to what is good and what is bad; what should be sought and what should be resisted. It’s a radical kind of acceptance that differs from resignation or passivity as a response. It’s about not wasting our energy in trying to deny how things really are.

No single approach is right all the time. Life is too changeable, its phases too fleeting. What’s required of us in one stage may be all wrong in another. It doesn’t mean we were wrong before or that life mistreats us when it requires something new. We spend years raising children who will leave to make lives of their own. We devote ourselves to careers that eventually come to an end. We expend ourselves on work that is all too soon forgotten. Yet life goes on. Perhaps we have always cast away stones, but we may be required to gather them together, regardless of how strange it feels. If we’ve spent our lives in silence, it may be time to speak, as uncomfortable as it may be.

We don’t make the seasons in which our lives unfold, and it is beyond our power to change the forces that are so much bigger than we are. Life flows through us, manifesting in different ways at different times. We try to respond to the needs of the season, giving ourselves over to what the time calls for.

Ecclesiastes consists of “The words of the Teacher.” The title given to the speaker is a translation of the Hebrew Qoheleth, which is sometimes rendered “Preacher.” The Teacher, or Preacher, reminds us throughout the book that everything changes, everyone dies. Nothing is permanent; no one is spared. The flow of time and seasons carries us in ways that are non-negotiable. Within our lives we make choices, but the context in which we live them is given.

The Teacher also knows that ultimately we can’t get ahead. We don’t beat our fellow players or the game. Life is bigger than we are; all we can do is live it. “Vanity of vanities,” laments the Teacher. “All is vanity.” Yet in spite of the frustrations and reversals that make up so much of our days, he sees that God grants the gift of enjoying life.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes has more questions than answers, which is probably why I love the book. What he does know is that we are given work to do, and our best hope is to find enjoyment in it. Be humble. Be grateful. Do what we can. Fix what we can. Let go of what’s out of our hands. Accept both our lot in life and the gifts from God that allow us to take joy in it.

What kind of season are you living, and what kind of work does it hold?

Chaos and Creation

Lately I’ve been reading Barbara C. Sproul’s Primal Myths, and enjoying her insight into creation stories from around the world. As she explains in her introduction, creation stories offer a glimpse of the infinite and unknowable by showing how that absolute reality permeates the world we know. The stories are concerned with the world we experience and its connection to the ground of all being, which lies beyond our experience. Creation myths express the spiritual truth that “the Holy is here as well as everywhere; it is now as well as always….The Holy is immanent as well as transcendent.”

There are many stories of beginnings, but I love those that show the world created out of the chaos that precedes all existence. The creator, standing outside of the categories of being and not-being, encounters a primordial sea of pure potential. From the abyss of unrealized possibilities the creator speaks a word, gives definition to an idea, and confers upon it existence. The creator fashions what has never been from the chaos of all that might be.

Sproul makes an interesting distinction between two kinds of chaos, one full of potential and the other a force for tearing down. A generative expression of chaos is very different from the forces of chaos that threaten to destroy. In Sproul’s words, the chaos that precedes creation “is a fruitful pre-order rather than a negative dis-order.” They’re probably related, but that’s another post.

The chaotic sea of potential is not something to resist; lingering there expands possibilities and allows a new vision to emerge. If we want to do something different from what we’ve done before, we can’t insist on putting thoughts and plans in order too quickly.

At the same time, to thrive we need structure that promotes health and well-being. We need enough order to support our basic needs, so that our attention can be freed to pursue what feeds the soul. A fruitful pre-order is necessary for creative work, but the chaos of disorder gets in the way.

I like to write early in the morning, before I do anything else. It’s a small-scale dip into the primordial chaos, when words carry news from another realm. I do that knowing that when I’m ready I can start the coffee brewing, turn on the computer, get breakfast, a shower, clean clothes, and move into the day.

But in the midst of my early-morning writing today, the power went out. No coffee. No internet. No hairdryer. No light in the bathroom. It made the morning a new challenge, requisitioning more attention than the usual routine requires. I set aside my work early to contend with the changed circumstances.

In a small way, this is an example of how disorder leaches energy from creative work. Establishing the rudiments of life requires effort in the best of circumstances, but without some kind of structure for support it’s hard to do more than get the basics covered.

There’s a limit to what I can control, and there’s only so much I can reasonably (or willingly) do to make life orderly. But I’m working to keep the distinction clear between the pre-order I need to encounter and the disorder that works against me.

What kind of relationship do you have with chaos?

I Don’t Believe in the Same God the Atheists Don’t Believe In

I still read the old-fashioned newspaper, the kind you can carry around and spill coffee on and it’s no big deal. One of the things that keeps me connected to the local paper is Paul Prather’s religion column, one of my main motivations for reading the Saturday morning paper. We don’t approach religion the same way, but I look forward to his thoughtful reflections, his candor, and his utter lack of pretension. And he’s a good writer.

His most recent column is worth passing along to you. He looks at the thread of anti-religious thought threading its way into Western intellectual life through the proponents of the “new atheism.” Here’s a quote from Prather’s column:

The irony is that this current brand of aggressive atheism is just another form of fundamentalism. These particular atheists are zealots on the subject of faith who see no shadings of gray, only black and white. They’re dead-set against religion but weirdly obsessed with it.

It’s a subject that Karen Armstrong also addresses in her excellent book, The Case for God. (I’ve written about Armstrong’s book in the posts, Opening to the Sacred and A Church of Unknowing.)

There are some received notions of God that I’m all for rejecting. But the range and complexity of religious experience makes a simplistic dismissal of religion irrelevant to any thoughtful conversation. It’s short-sighted to deny that the source of spiritual and artistic inspiration—silence, awe, reverence, connection, inspiration—have a place in a thinking person’s world view. It’s not simply a denial of the existence of God, it’s an impoverished view of humanity.

When I don’t believe in the same God that the atheists don’t believe in, it’s hard to take seriously their critique of religious thought. Yet many people seem to. Ironically, the counter to their pseudo-rational message is the thoughtful voices of those with a deep understanding of what religion is and their experience of it. The world needs the clear thinking of those who value their faith.

What God do you not believe in? What helps you name the God you know?

Seeing Those We Meet as an Expression of the Divine

A friend recently shared with me her sense that everyone we meet is an expression of the divine. Maybe that’s what is implied in saying that we’re all children of God, but her way of stating it captured my attention.

A day later I was on a plane for New York City, and her words remained with me while I was traveling. As other passengers claimed their seats, I considered the greater connection we shared. In that light, the aircraft seemed a container of sacred space.

In the city, among rivers of pedestrians filling the sidewalks, the press of engines and car horns through the streets, and the whoosh of full subway cars gliding by, I moved in close proximity to thousands of other people in a single day. So many souls; I was one among many. It changes everything to remember that each one is a way of seeing God. When the light changed at the street corner, I joined the wave of people washing across the avenue, part of the ocean of humanity in that city, upon this earth.

Thinking of other people as expressions of the divine lets everyone in. It shows that adopting tunnel vision regarding what I want is to choose a kind of blindness. All these people line the walls of that tunnel, each with their own ways of manifesting life. Each one matters. When I open my eyes, I see that every place where our lives intersect is holy.

Yet sometimes it’s too much, letting in all that humanity. Their energy clashes. Their oblivion is painful. They make such a mess, leaving chaos behind wherever they go. Like the trash blown up against the curb early on Sunday morning. Like the young woman dropping a gum wrapper on the stairs of the subway in front of the old man sweeping up and spitting a round of Spanish in response. There are reasons why we block out the press of life around us.

But if people are the diverse expressions of a divine commonality, we inherit a connection to all of them. Other people are the sea we’re moving through, whether we’re fighting the water or swimming in it. We, too, make up this sea of life. We’re part of a miraculously varied and endlessly energetic creation. The diversity we see out there is within us as well, and the expression we give to it makes us an integral part of the whole.

We really are all in this together. Why is it hard to learn a truth so old and so familiar?

The Moment of Creation

Lately I’ve been immersed in creation stories. These tales of the world’s beginning offer delightful images–from the universe on the back of a turtle to a spider’s weaving the world–unique and meaningful to the culture from which they emerge. They speak poetically of the meaning and value of life on earth, through the way they describe its origins.

Surprisingly often, they also share elements in common. Many stories begin with the loneliness and longing of the creator, and often involve wresting order out of chaos. Sound familiar? These themes echo through creation of any kind.

The ancient accounts of how the world was created hint at humanity’s deepest understanding of how something new comes into being. These rich stories offer brief sketches of the mystery of the creative process, and connect creativity to the source of life.

The story below is an example from the Hindu tradition. It’s part of the Nasadiya, or “There Was Nothing” hymn from the Rig Veda.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water bottomlessly deep? There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night, nor of day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond. Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.*

Creation is the work of the gods in these stories. When we echo this process in our own endeavors, we find that the human work of “little c” creation is also a monumental undertaking, if on a smaller scale. To bring something new into the world, we must transform the raw material we find within ourselves and in the world around us. Great effort and imagination is needed for the alchemy that changes experience into art. We need an infusion of divine energy to carry it out.

Beginning next week, I’ll be leading a workshop designed to gently lead artists of all kinds into their own creative process. Over a period of four weeks, we’ll look at how creation stories can inform the way we approach our work and encourage us in our creative efforts. We’ll allow the elements of the stories to move us into the work we long to do. The workshop is called Archetypes of Creation, and is offered through the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Kentucky.  I’d love for you to join us.

What in you is asking to be brought into the world?

*This story is quoted by J. F. Bierlein in Parallel Myths, p. 37-38. Ballantine Books, New York, 1994.