At several different junctures in my life, Parker J. Palmer has befriended me and mentored me through his writings (in particular, The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak). I have never met him, nor have I ever heard him speak, yet I have found a healing resonance in his written words that have helped me in my vocation, my depression, and my faith. On Sunday, therefore, when I passed the table in the hall at church where there is always a stack of Christian Centuries and saw he had written the cover story, “Taking Pen in Hand,” I picked it up and brought it home.
I will take it back, I promise.
I was pulled, in particular, by two paragraphs, which means here come a couple of long quotes.
All of our propositions and practices are earthen vessels. All of them are made by human beings of common clay to hold whatever we think we’ve found in our soul-deep quest for the sacred or in its quest for us. If our containers prove too crimped and cramped to hold our treasure well, if they domesticate the sacred and keep us from having a live encounter with it – or if they prove to be so twisted and deformed that they defile rather than honor the treasure they were intended to hold – then our containers must be smashed and discarded so we can create a larger and more life-giving vessel in which to hold the treasure.
Doing that is called iconoclasm. It is a good thing to do when it needs to be done. Failing to do that is called idolatry, which is always a bad thing. So even in the church, we need to commit conceptual suicide again and again – if we are serious about the vastness of the treasure in comparison to our flawed and finite words.
Though I might suggest we would do well to read that passage at any or all of our churches’ annual meetings, the real power of the words hits me on a more personal level. Yes, one of my favorite quotes from the Chronicles of Narnia is that Aslan is not a tame lion. Yes, I have preached more than one sermon and had more than one conversation about the wild, untamed God to whom we belong. Still, I read the article and thought to myself, “It’s been a long time since I let God catch me by surprise.”
This blog is a couple of months away from being five years old. I feel good about my writing here and wish I had managed to turn a couple of my ideas into books. I’m back to teaching for a living and cooking for family and friends in a way that I feel I was built to do. My marriage is my favorite thing about my life. I keep playing my guitar and wishing someone would stop me on the street and ask me to be in their band. I have felt free of my depression for a year and a half and I am grateful. I am learning new things about what it means to be family in these days. Life is good.
And I wonder.
I wonder about the man I have talked to a couple of times at the grocery store who works with refugees from Nepal who are trying to make a new life here. I am showing the kids at school a movie about the continuing, though invisible, crisis in Darfur, Sudan, which I have kept up with for years and written about occasionally. I still think about opening a café like One World Everybody Eats where people pay what they can – or maybe a food truck, just because I like food trucks.
I’m not restless or unhappy, and I wonder – because people like Palmer speak to my heart:
“Why write,” said Jose Oretega y Gasset, “if this too easy activity of pushing a pen across paper is not given a certain bullfighting risk and we do not approach dangerous agile and two-horned topics?”
And why believe in God if the God we believe in is so small as to be contained and controlled within our finite words and forms? The aim of our writing about faith, and of our living in faith, is to let God be God: original, wild and free, a creative impulse that drives our living and our writing but can never be contained within the limits of who we are and what we think and say and do.
However the circumstances play out, I want to be caught by surprise. I love the imagery in that phrase: caught – like a child is caught when he or she falls, or a person is caught by a camera in that serendipitous moment where the image reveals a lifetime of feeling – by surprise – as though God was waiting to turn on the lights and yell when I come into the dark house at night.
I’m praying for the grace to open every door with a sense of anticipation. After all, Aslan is not a tame lion.