Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stanley Nailed It

I read this line from Stanley Kunitz last night:

All creativity is a process of giving meaning to what is on a universal scale meaningless.

If I had known that line a couple days ago, I could have saved all the words of my last blog entry. Stanley nailed it.

All of which reminds me of Ecclesiastes 6:11 - "The more the words, the less the meaning."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Don't Worry, Donny

Today seems as good a day as any to talk about meaninglessness. I love the line in the movie “The Big Lebowski” when some men with German accents attack the Dude and his friends and Donny asks, “Are these the Nazis, Walter?” and Walter answers, “No, Donny, these men are nihilists. There is nothing to be afraid of.” At another point Walter says, “Nihilists! I mean say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, but at least it’s an ethos.”

I love Walter, Donny and the Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” Take the advice of a friend and watch it. With them and the nihilists in mind, I read the book of Ecclesiastes today. Have you ever read it? It’s tucked away right between Proverbs and Song of Songs. The book begins, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Yes, that’s in the Bible. The old King James and other versions use the word “vanity” instead of "meaningless," but I think “meaningless” packs more of a punch. “Vanity” makes me think of personalized license plates and being conceited; “meaningless” makes me think of nihilists.

Ecclesiastes asks, “What makes life meaningful?” Is there are a more important question to ask?

A problem I have with Christian interpretations of Ecclesiastes is that we tend to lay some sort of Christian message on top of it that doesn’t recognize what the author was saying at the time the book was written. Ecclesiastes is the wisdom of the ancients, written hundreds and hundreds of years before the time of Christ. I pulled down a couple of fairly conservative reference books today and looked up what they had to say about Ecclesiastes and I was disappointed. One of them said:

Apart from the assurance of future judgment and life after death furnished by the historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the future after death is dark and obscure.

Of course you think that, but the point, to me, is that this book wasn’t written by someone familiar with Jesus. Plus this book is still scripture to Jewish people – people who don’t agree about the “historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.” The book meant something when it was written and still means something to Jews today. Take off your Christian glasses and try and figure out what that is. And while you are at it don’t make “assurance of future judgment” sound like something to look forward to. Judgment is scary! I mean what if there is a future judgment and it goes the way of the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 instead of being about having an orthodox belief system. That isn’t comforting.

Then I read this critique of Ecclesiastes from another source: The book contains the philosophical and theological reflections of an old man, most of whose life was meaningless because he had not himself relied on God as he should have. Ouch. I know from personal experience, and from hearing it from hundreds of people, that we get “should on” way too often. Getting “should on” is another way of talking about letting another person define reality for you, being manipulated or influenced not by your own sense of what is right but by trying to meet the expectations of someone else. “Should” is an indispensable part of creating guilt. Let’s leave “should” out of it for the moment. This book is not by someone who should have been different. (Talk about judgment!)

So what the heck is Ecclesiastes about? I’d encourage you to read it for yourself. Go ahead; it will only take 20 minutes or half an hour. I’ll be right here when you get back.

(Musical interlude – I’m humming the Jeopardy theme for reasons not clear to me)

What do you think? Can you believe that’s in the Bible? (As long as you’re reading different parts of the Bible, go ahead and read the Song of Songs, too. It’s a lot of fun.)

This morning I got a kick out of thinking about “there is nothing new under the sun” while I sat reading in an office chair by electric light, listening to the washing machine whir in the background, while Gretchen was in another room watching a flat screen TV and my computer and cell phone sat on the desk next to me. Obviously, there are some new things under the sun, not just since Ecclesiastes was written, but since I was in high school. Heck, we didn’t even VCRs then and our car had a big old 8-track player. So, technology has changed. But has the core of being human changed? Has the question “What gives meaning to life?” changed? I think not.

My interpretation of the book is that the answer is found in 3:12 – There is nothing better for people to do than to be happy and do good while they live. Life is fleeting, everything and every thing is temporal, the future is not only unknown but unknowable; so live well in the present moment. To be alive is to live with hope, and to be fully alive is to know God. I think that’s it.

What do you think?

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I was in Spain from last Saturday until Thursday – in Catalunya, actually: Barcelona, Banyoles, and Platja d’Aro. We had an all-Europe Young Life conference, and I got to be the final speaker on Thursday morning. I talked about my struggle to hear the voice of God that says “I love you.” We were celebrating communion to end our time together, so I combined communion and hearing God’s voice by borrowing a bit from Henri Nouwen’s book “Life of the Beloved.” In that book Nouwen talks about the spiritual life as one where we gradually grow in our ability to hear the voice that tells us we are loved, and then says the life of the beloved is marked by the same movement as when Jesus takes bread at the Last Supper; that like the bread we also are taken (or chosen), blessed, broken, and given.

I want to tell you the story I used for “broken,” and some more thoughts I’ve been having about it.

A couple of weeks ago when we drove from Grand Rapids to Chicago O’Hare for our flight back here, I found a great radio station on the rental car’s XM radio. It was a station that played folk rock songs from the 1970s. I spent that decade going through junior high, high school and college, so the popular music of the 70s connects with some pretty deep places inside of me. I heard songs that I love that have more or less disappeared from other radio stations – songs by Harry Chapin, Elton John, James Taylor, Carole King, Jim Croce, Linda Ronstadt, and many others. I was having a great time listening to these songs until they played the single most heartbreaking song from the 1970s – Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” That song always gets to me – the story of 29 men dying in a Lake Superior shipwreck is sad enough, but Gordon Lightfoot’s voice and the haunting melody of the song do me in. He has a line where the cook comes in and says, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed you” and then the cook comes back and says, “Fellas, it’s been good to know you.” He sings about how the ship would have been safe if it had put only 15 more miles behind her, and that all that remains are the wives and the sons and the daughters. But the most devastating line to me is simply this, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes?”

I rode along I-94 in Indiana crying for about ten miles after that. My family has learned that’s just the way I am, and they gave me a Kleenex and time and space to be in my own little world of grief.

There is no satisfying answer to his question about God’s love in the midst of human suffering. If there were an answer, we’d all know it by now.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when something terrible happens? This makes me think of Haiti right now, and my reaction to the tragedy there. I don’t know if you are like me, but I find it terribly difficult to want to read or watch the coverage of the disaster in Haiti. I’ve been asking myself this question lately: “Why is it easier for me to feel the weight of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald than the disaster in Haiti?” It’s like I can get my mind around the loss of 29 men much easier than I can get my mind around devastation that affects millions. I’ve been thinking of a line I read in Amsterdam at the Anne Frank museum – that one Anne Frank is easier for people to understand than the totality of the Holocaust. It is easier for us to hear and understand the horror of Anne Frank’s story than to try to imagine the suffering of six million people.

I’ve also been thinking this – while millions suffer in Haiti the rest of us go on about our lives unchanged. I spent a few days last week in a hotel room with an incredible view through some palm trees of the Mediterranean. I ate paella and had good Spanish wine and tapas and life was good. It was very, very comfortable. The world has been incredible rearranged for one country while life goes on for the rest of us. Isn’t that also a reality that is undeniable but somehow patently unfair?

A quarter century ago, after the ceremony on the day that Gretchen and I got married we got into a car to ride to the reception. We pulled out away from the church and as we rode down the street I saw a guy I went to seminary with named Hank mowing his lawn. There was this surreal juxtaposition there – my life had just changed forever while life went on unchanged for Hank. He can’t tell you what he was doing in the late afternoon on August 23rd, 1985, but I can. Hank would have to take my word that he was mowing the lawn.

I’m just trying to put this together and don’t know if I need to any more than this. While one of us sits by the ocean under a palm tree, another’s life turns in a direction that they never imagined, and I wonder if there is any connection between the two. That’s what I’ve been musing about on this Saturday morning.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stanley, Maury and Jerry

We are back in frozen Europe. I know the US is cold, but I wonder if people in the US realize what is happening in Europe. Well, do you? England, which rarely sees snow, is frozen over. It was -17 Celsius in Scotland last night, which I think converts to -394 Fahrenheit. The BBC is abuzz. The UK doesn’t have anywhere near enough salt. Rumor has it that they will stop serving margaritas until the crisis has passed.

Part of me thinks that there have to be more compelling subjects to write about than the weather, but a greater part of me sees the wisdom in the words of Stanley Kunitz – a poet whom I was recently introduced to by a reader of this blog. Kunitz said, “Weather is a form of communication. There is an exchange between the self and the atmosphere that sets the tone for the entire day…Each of us is a very sensitive keyboard.” So, against a frozen Dutch backdrop…

Yesterday there was a very strong wind here, and I braved the elements and took Maury out for a walk. He dons a blue argyle sweater for such occasions. I put on long johns, which sadly didn’t stop my glasses from freezing to my face. In spite of the cold and wind, I saw a dozen people on bicycles and lots of people skating on the canals. I was surprised at one point to hear a splash to my left, and turned and saw that a heron had landed in an unfrozen spot next to a culvert that went below a road. Apparently the road kept the canal from freezing at that point. The ducks have all disappeared from the canals (where did they go? Spain? Africa?), and this lone bird was the only wildlife I saw. The heron looked large, proud, fierce, and defiant. This is the sort of animal you have to be to survive out here on your own. I am no heron – although I have to admit I feel alone on this side of the Atlantic a lot. But I don’t feel anywhere near as strong or ferocious as this heron looked.

A short time ago, Maury and I ventured out again. It is yet another endlessly gray day – sometimes I think the earth has swallowed the sun. The temperature was similar, but we didn’t have the wind, and since my glasses weren’t hurting my face, we took a walk almost twice as long as we did yesterday. We walked down a path where the bank of the canal is actually an apartment building. The heat from the building keeps the water warm, and there was a long stretch of water that was not frozen. And there were the ducks. I tried to count and had totaled over 75 when I gave up. It looked like all the ducks from all the canals have come here. I don’t know much about ducks, but I imagine at night these guys all huddle close together and keep each other from freezing. Even if they don’t, it’s a nice image, and I’m going to think the ducks all work together to survive.

I am a duck, not a heron.

Jerry Drachenberg responded to my last blog by asking how to find community. I honestly don’t know the answer to that, Jerry. I suppose you start by realizing you need it. I saw a picture of you last night as a pall bearer at a dear friend’s funeral a few days ago, so I imagine you are a lot more connected than you give yourself credit for. This much I know. Take a look at the heron and the ducks. We’re ducks, my brother, we’re ducks.

Friday, January 1, 2010


As the calendar turns today and we welcome not only a new year but a new decade, I find myself contemplating two questions, one ridiculous, and one sublime.

Here’s the ridiculous – how do Europeans, who live in a “checkless” society, know that it’s a new year? The constant reminder I used to have was writing the wrong year on a check.

Here’s the sublime question – what does it mean to be spiritual? And what is the relationship of spirituality to religion? I’d love for this to be interactive and hear from you. And I want to warn you up front that I am going to deliberately try to be provocative in what I write below.

It seems to me that the opposite of the spiritual is the material. The material world is what is seen, the spiritual world is what is unseen. The material world is our outside life, the spiritual world is our inner life. It helped me as I thought about this to think of the most openly materialistic person I’ve ever known. This is someone I have not had contact with in ten or fifteen years, but she would do things like write the purchase price of her new home on her Christmas cards. She wouldn’t have any problem violating social taboos about money and would openly tell you how much money she made or her husband made. She’s been married three times, each time trading in her husband for someone more interested in accumulating wealth. The thing that strikes me about her as I sit and think today is that she was open about what most of us do secretly. We calculate our net worth, worry if we have enough, and think about what we can do to get more. That seems to me the opposite of being spiritual, because it is fixing our minds and hearts on what is material.

Being spiritual involves qualities that cannot be easily measured. How does one measure inner peace, a loving attitude, serenity, calmness, balance, innocence or modesty?

Material things are to obtained, and the acquisition of them is always empty. They never satisfy. What is spiritual cannot be obtained, you can’t buy spirituality. It is grown over time.

My resolution for 2010 and beyond is to grow my spiritual nature and put to death my material nature.

I am having a hard time today seeing how religion contributes to that. Here’s what I mean. I can imagine some religious people who are very spiritual. Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Corrie Ten Boom, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, the Dalai Lama, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel all come to mind. But I can imagine plenty of other religious people that don’t strike me as spiritual. Osama Bin Laden, for all accounts, seems to be a very religious person. There are plenty of other religious people that I can think of – some of course aren’t public figures but people I know, and I won’t list them, but three public figures I quickly think of are the late Oral Roberts, Joel Osteen, and Tammy Faye Bakker. Religion doesn’t seem to guarantee spiritual development. One can grow old, but one can always remain immature. I can also think of some very spiritual people who don’t follow any particular religion.

I’ve intentionally tried so far to be generic about religion. Now let me get specific and talk about Christianity, since that is my religion and the religion of most everyone who reads this blog. I’ll just make some statements and let you have at me.

Buddhism seems like a better religion than Christianity at developing spirituality.

Evangelical Christianity’s main tool for the development of spirituality is the quiet time, a daily 15 or 30 minute time of individual Bible study and prayer and perhaps journaling. Stanley Hauerwas, who makes a living by making provocative statements, said, “Individual Bible study should be discouraged because on their own people almost never get it right.” What I find astonishing is that someone can read the Bible daily for twenty or thirty years and not get that it is about so much more than “me and Jesus.” Or, specifically, my sins and the forgiveness of them. That seems more materialistically focused than spiritual.

The Bible is misused and poorly interpreted. For example, how can Christians seriously say to each other, “Song of Songs is a book about Jesus’ relationship to the church?” You must have never read the book to be able to say that with a straight face. Jesus wants to tell the church her breasts are the like the twin fawns of a gazelle?

What if someone said, “I’ve read the Bible every day for ten years, but only one book, Song of Songs”? What would you make of that?

Here’s the point – the Bible is so many books at once, and parts of it don’t seem to develop our inner life at all. Stanley Hauerwas doesn’t want people to quit reading the Bible, he wants them to read with the wisdom of a community, because a community can help us find what can nourish our souls in what seems so obtuse on the surface.

To sit down by yourself and daily read through something like Leviticus or Judges or I Chronicles or even Revelation doesn’t seem as likely to help your spirit grow as reading a really good poem, watching a beautiful sunrise, listening to rapturous music, embracing a loved one, sticking your hands into the earth, folding the laundry as an act of love, seeing a baby asleep, contemplating icicles, staying out of the mall, staying away from the television, eating better, or laughing really hard with a friend.

Go ahead and call me a heretic. I’m ready for it.