Knowing the River

Every day, I fill a pitcher with water from the tap. I appreciate being able to drink when I’m thirsty, and sometimes remember to be grateful for the rain that fills the river. Water sustains my life. It becomes part of me; I am intimately connected to its source. But sipping from my glass does not allow me to claim the river.

 

Red River Gorge

 

Going to the river is an entirely different experience. In Kentucky there are hundreds, thousands, of places where I might walk along the banks or step among the stones above the water’s surface. Where the water flows clear I can look through to pebbles lining the riverbed and fish darting among them. Where stones are slick with algae there’s always a chance of falling in. I can wade in the shallows or perhaps swim in a few places. The deeper, swifter water requires a vessel and some companions. A guide is helpful where the river churns white.

A close-up look at water’s edge is unlike the changing perspective from a boat, or the wider scene from atop the palisades. Even with a view from the air I can see only part of the whole river. Its long path is too much to take in at once, and yields infinite variations according to time, weather, and season. A blue line labeled on a map is easily found, but tracing the map is not the same as knowing the river.

It’s terrible that many rivers are so polluted we can’t swim or fish in them. Individually and collectively, our hubris has sullied what we need to survive. Yet even these tainted waters remain essential. We filter out the toxins the best we can, reclaiming the water we must have to live.

I can’t simply fill a glass with water as a way to know the river, much less hold the river in my hand. Neither can I quote the Bible and expect a scriptural sound bite to convey its teachings. Discernment is an important aspect of grappling with scripture; it’s not as simple as fishing out a pertinent chapter and verse.

The Bible is not a code of law or a constitution from which we draw off rules as we would draw water from the tap. Scripture is a conversation, an exploration that began thousands of years ago. It contradicts itself. It speaks in different contexts. Scripture is rich and varied, and to engage with it is to create an opening for wisdom.

To wield the Bible as a debate tool is to miss being part of its life-giving flow. Scripture can be experienced in a thousand ways throughout a lifetime, but to use it against others is to waste it. It would be absurd to throw a glass of water in someone’s face and declare that I’m acting on behalf of the river.

A line of scripture can offer hope or inspiration. It can be a reminder of the richness to be found in the entirety of the Bible. But separated from its context the passage eventually becomes a stagnant pool. Water separated from the flow of the river grows foul and breeds pestilence.

I am grateful for a glass of water. I am humbled and in awe of the river from which it flows.

 

 

Compassion and Ourselves

I keep thinking about an article I read from the Atlantic recently, “Alcohol as Escape from Perfectionism” by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Its poignancy comes from Johnston’s ability to put her finger exactly on the place where the determination to live up to an impossible ideal leaves us vulnerable.  Intellectually, I know that unreasonable expectations are unhealthy, but I didn’t expect to be so deeply touched by the place in life she describes.

Third Street Stuff Wall Ishiguro  2013-11-19

My children are young adults now, and I have grown since they were children. But as if it were a coat hanging in my closet, I can still wear the sense of responsibility from those years, and I can easily wrap myself once again in a state of mind that said I was never doing enough, or doing it well enough.

I thought there was a right answer for how life should be lived, and my job was to reach that answer, claim it, and make it work. That applied to having a family, making a home, serving the community, and somehow finding my own work. There were standards for living a good life, a worthwhile life. They had to be met. I couldn’t have told you that’s what I believed, but it was the water I was swimming in. There were things I was supposed to do. Whatever it took, I had to find a way to accomplish them all. Except, of course, it wasn’t possible.

Measured by the distance from where I thought I should be, my life fell short.  I fell short. All I could see was the gap, what wasn’t done, what I hadn’t achieved, where I hadn’t reached.

Where did that come from, that certainty about what I was not? The dismissiveness about what I was? Who pointed to that place out of reach and said that was where I should be? Who insisted that nothing else mattered as much? I don’t know why I was so unkind to myself.

As a young mother, Johnston would sip wine to ease her transition from the day at work to the evening and its responsibilities at home. It was a pleasant ritual, then it became a necessary one. She wouldn’t give herself a break on what she expected of herself, but she would pour herself some wine. Genuine self-care wasn’t part of her world, but she kept wine in the fridge. Until little by little, the wine took over.

I didn’t rely on wine, but I nonetheless recognize the state of the soul that Johnston describes—the refusal of compassion for oneself. I turned my back on myself and accepted what the world said: Just get it done. All of it.

I wish I could have told my younger self that I was good enough, that my needs mattered, that kindness to myself was not the same as self-indulgence. But perhaps I can pass that message along to someone else who needs to hear it.

It doesn’t always come naturally to show ourselves the kindness we would offer to a good friend, but there are good resources that help. My thanks to Lisa Gammel Maas for pointing out the work of Kristin Neff on self-compassion.

May you be well.

* The wonderful artwork above is by the inimitable Pat Gerhard, and is found on the wall of the warm and welcoming Third Street Stuff and Cafe in Lexington.

Prayer-Filled Air

At the edge of the parking lot at Third Street Coffee is a section of tall chain link fence. It might serve as a divider between lots, but its primary role is that of connection, just as the coffee shop serves to foster community. The chain link canvas is a place for statements to be made without words, a place that emanates prayers.

 

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

 

Mostly it holds small padlocks, an echo of the love locks attached to bridges around the world. The practice apparently arose from a poem called “Prayer for Love” by Serbian poet Desanka Maksimovic.  The result has been bridges where so many couples have attached locks as a symbol of their love and devotion that the cumulative weight threatens the structure of the entire bridge. The locks, meaningful as they are individually, become more than the bridge can bear and have to be removed. The fence at Third Street invites Love Locks for Lexington, a sign of commitment to this city.

The image of all those locks, the public statement that the love they represent matters, has power. The symbol of commitment, locked together in love, has power as well. An outward manifestation of an inward grace—that’s the definition of a sacrament. Perhaps that’s the best way to think of this expanse of chain link. It’s a structure that supports something sacramental, an organically arising symbol of devotion. The practice hasn’t been handed down through the ages, but is something rising up, like blades of grass.

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Also on the fence is a line of brightly colored squares of cloth, embellished with simple designs. What can they be but prayer flags, sending prayers and blessings into the world with every passing breeze, through every fleeting glance.

Some devout Buddhists turn small cylinders they carry with the words of a prayer tucked inside, or spin larger wheels built into the walls of a monastery or placed in the river and powered by water. Each spin of the prayer wheel sends the words into the universe, an act of merit for the one who offers the prayer. Prayer flags work the same way, releasing blessings into the air as they flutter in the wind, the air filled with prayer, thick with blessing, a palpable presence, the people changed by breathing power and grace, day and night.

Appropriately enough, there are coffee mugs on the fence at Third Street, too. There are more, of course, inside the café where it’s noisy with talk and laughter and music. The air is filled with the aroma of coffee, and bustles with the delivery of fresh Peruvian beans in a cardboard box, the opening of doors and scraping of chairs, the sounds of connection, conversation, the exchanges that change a day, change a life, change everything.

 

 

Science and Creationism

On February 4, Bill Nye (“the science guy”) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis) will meet at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, to debate the question of the world’s origin. At least that’s how the debate is billed. But the real fight is less about what happened eons ago than about what’s important now.

Calculus and Cross

Advocates of creationism are concerned about the authority of scripture. And for something to be authoritative, it must be true. So those for whom scripture is important are naturally concerned with it being true. Of course, there are different ways to express what is true—through poetry, metaphor, myth, drama, literature, music, art, and more. But in our culture we tend to equate truth with scientific fact. To our detriment, we often treat science as the single measure of what is unassailably true.

This is how the waters get muddied: authority=truth=science.

But this equation leaves us impoverished. This is because science deals only in facts. Science can give us all kinds of valuable information. It helps us understand the world around us, invent new technology, and make our lives better. But science cannot assure us that our lives have meaning. It cannot give us hope or courage. It cannot give us a sense of belonging or of being loved. Science cannot ease our fears or teach us what it means to live a good life. Spiritual questions and longings are part of being human, but science is not designed to address this aspect of human existence. For grappling with spiritual issues, we need the kind of truth we find in religion.

There are two creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. They vary in terms of the order of creation and the focus of the stories. But the writers of Genesis placed them side by side because those contradictions do not matter. The stories aren’t there to talk about the chronology of the universe. How would that help us? These stories have something more important to convey: that creation is good, that we are placed on earth by a loving God who cares for us and wants us to have what we need. We need that kind of assurance, which religion can offer and science cannot. Scientific claims take nothing away from religious ones—they address different realms of inquiry.

The fear is that if our culture accepts the scientific explanation of creation, then we are rejecting the divine message in Genesis. But these two ways of considering our origins are not in competition. Science is not fit to answer questions about the meaning of our lives. Religion is not equipped to address the physics of the universe.

Nothing is gained for science in denigrating the human search for meaning. Nothing is gained for religion in denying the discoveries that science has gained. People need both.

It’s interesting that Nye is makes something of a moral argument for taking on the difficult role of participating in this debate at a potentially hostile venue. His concern is that children be able to learn science. As he told NBC news:

“We’re just trying to change the world here, and draw attention to these forces in our society that are trying to get creationism in science textbooks. My argument is, this is bad for the country, bad for our economy. We can’t raise a generation of science students who are not scientifically literate.”

The Bible is not made to be a science textbook. Neither is a science textbook equipped to serve as a Bible. They don’t undermine each other, at least they don’t have to. There is no reason why these areas of human endeavor cannot co-exist.