Baby, the Rain Must Fall

It's been raining pretty steadily for some while in St. Louis. The summer sun arrived like a big yellow balloon, then ducked out. While our flooding hasn't reached the epic scale of destruction seen in other parts of the country, we're soaked. 


Trees and plants have it over us when it comes to adjusting to the weather. What they lack in freedom and consciousness, or other highly touted human virtues, they more than make up for in rootedness. I caught this weeping willow in early spring, struck by how the leaves seemed so thirsty, as if each branch were a straw destined to suck up all the remaining light of that day's dusk. The tree glowed as if its very sap were light.


I guess, in a way, the willow was coursing with light. You remember learning all about photosynthesis in grade school, right? How plants convert sunlight into chemical energy that gets stored up as fuel? They take in carbon dioxide and water, then with the sunlight's energy they turn this into fuel for living that emits oxygen for us to breathe. Without trees and plants, no life as we know it. They filter our air, maintain our planet's oxygen levels, and supply all the necessary organic compounds for most all of the energy necessary for our lives. Talk about human/non-human interdependency! Plants exhale through the lungs of their leaves the very oxygen we breathe; we, along with the other animals, exhale carbon dioxide which the plants "breathe." Optimally, we serve each other with a kind of synergy. You might want to run all this by my son, the high school Biology teacher, to be sure--but it's close enough for horseshoes.


Trees do what trees do. Trees don't sit back a make decisions to hog more oxygen than they need. They don't grab up sunlight by the leafy fistfuls and hoard it away in vaults as mine. What trees and plants take, they do so with the "intent" of giving back what the world needs. Their giving and taking are unitive, you might say, one bleeds into the other. What they give is as vital as what they take. 


Humans? Not so much. A little thing called freedom means that we must decide. And, of course, these decisions have consequences. Global Warming is primarily a problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Picture a giant blanket, trapping heat and warming the planet up. We are the ones who have wrapped the planet in this blanket. The ways we do this are legion: the burning of fossil fuels for energy, cutting down and burning forests for pastures or plantations, certain waste management and agricultural practices also contribute methane and nitrous oxide to the warming process. Trees and plants continue to pump out oxygen for our well being, but we're creating too much carbon dioxide for the planet's capacity to filter and balance. Of course, I'm trusting the 97% consensus of the world's scientific community on this one. I'm naive like that.


But back to the rain. The other day I was walking Maya the Wonder Dog in a light rain and met this little blonde-haired girl of about five or so. She was dressed up in pale pink and blue, like Princess Ariel, with pink boots on, a pink backpack, and a pink umbrella. Think pink. She stood at the end of her driveway, twirling her umbrella in the rain. As I approached, she complimented Maya, said my dog was so pretty. Maya, as she is wont, took all this in stride. Then Princess Ariel added a little confession of sorts. Just right out sighed, "I don't know what to do in the rain."


Sometimes I don't either, honey. I, too, catch myself just standing there beneath the dark and gathering clouds: African-American church burnings; corporate greed and injustice; the slaying of innocents in the forgotten neighborhoods of our cities; the martyr of Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya; ice caps melting like wax into the ocean; a black church in Charleston, SC opens its doors to a young white man for a prayer meeting and then, well, the White Supremacist rain falls. All this rain. Not to mention the garden variety rain that falls on all of us humans, despite our politics: depression, loss, layoffs, damn cancer, bills, aging, accidents, etc.


Sure enough, I'm grateful when the sun parts the clouds for a spell. And it does: Pope Francis’ long-awaited encyclical on climate change; the lowering of Confederate flags; the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage; an African-American church in Ferguson, MO raises a new roof after being burned to the ground during the riots. But I know the rain's gonna fall, in fact, must fall: life is consequential. I know this in my bones, as surely as I know the power of fear mucking up my marrow and gnawing away at the chambers of my own heart.


What constitutes rain and sunshine for me may not be the same for you. In fact, I have many friends and relatives for whom the above examples might be flipped completely. But whatever our politics and values, I trust each person's capacity before God to figure out what to do when it rains. My Baptist tradition calls this Soul Freedom: we are both responsible and response-able. When the rain falls, we can stomp off and pout. We can stay inside and stew. Or we can dress appropriately, even dress up, and greet the day and what it brings with our best umbrella in tow. Why not follow the weeping willow and soak up the sunshine as it comes, as we can? Why not stay innocent enough to keep venturing outside and greet whomever comes your way with a heartfelt compliment and a humble, honest exchange?


We are not our politics. We are not the culmination of whatever occasions of rain or sunshine we've experienced. We may vote Red or Blue. We may be black or white. We may be seen as rich or poor, smart or dumb, religious or atheist, gay or straight, strong or weak, lazy or industrious, etc. But none of these things describe us at our roots. Their descriptive powers can't reach that far.  They are, at best, impermanent indications. Provisional. Partial. Ways we identify ourselves as best we can according to our own lights. But beyond and beneath all this identifying, positioning and posturing rests how we are beheld by reality. And all the major religious traditions call each and every one of us Beloved. The revealed religions call us God's Beloved. Beloved, come rain or shine.


But being Beloved does not end the conversation. It begins it anew with from a renew ending. We look out each day and enter each moment from a future of welcome and restoration that only God can pull off. We live much like this blog lives. When I wrote this yesterday, I thought I was finished (with the previous paragraph). But things happen with blogs when they go live. It's called community. Loved ones like Fred Wear and Steve Hollaway read what you've written. They comment wisely. Other things happen. You sleep on it, in the Colorado desert, then can't sleep, then wonder about your life and life itself beneath the stars of your hermitage which seem to glow brighter and brighter as the moonless night wears itself out into morning and you grow more still. You wake up and determine that your blog is beautifully incomplete.


You want to say, again, that being Beloved is enough, but not enough to end the conversation about the rain. Your friend Steve reminds you that biblical rain, occurring as it does in the desert, is always a good thing, and that, yes, "It falls on the just and the unjust," said the Apostle Paul, who likely did not have an umbrella but nonetheless believed in an impartial God. Your friend Fred reminds you that facing off with Global Warming, while necessary, may not work in the end. He knows of things you do not. (He's a rocket scientist. Yes, really.) He speaks of large complications, volcanoes and the vagaries of sun spots and flooding. He names the mysteries of the Milankovitch cycles and the Maunder Minimum. He reminds you of the "year without a summer" possibly caused by the explosion of Krakatoa. He even touches on aircraft contrails and their dramatic effect on the earth's temperature. Even trees themselves toss off carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they die. Did I know that there were quadrillions of tons of methane-hydrates on the floor of the ocean? I did not. He says, however, it remains prudent to limit and reduce our human contribution to carbon emissions, though we may not detect a positive change in the next century.

Something your friend Steve says reminds you that this blog actually had its beginning with your remembering a Horton Foote film from way back, Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965). There was a song with the same title, but it's the film that stays with you: black and white footage, grit, a small town in south Texas, two lovers (Lee Remick and Steve McQueen) whose love is not enough. It's all beautiful and sad. One of the reviews by a critic from the New York Times faulted the film for allowing us only to see "that these two people are frustrated and heart-broken by something that's bigger than the both of them. But we don't know what it is."


I'm no film critic, but I'm wondering if what's being named as the film's flaw isn't actually its great strength. It might be that life has never been about figuring it all out in the end. Maybe our "need to know" is as simple as knowing  that we're up against something bigger than all of us. Maybe knowing this--being open-eyed, overwhelmed and out numbered--is both our peril and our glory, for it calls us to face together the insurmountable as the Beloved.


Which means, I guess, that every day the conversation continues, as does our conversion, that we get frustrated with things and each other, that our heart sometimes breaks, that we back up and try again, revise our lives, come rain or shine, because we place no faith in the odds--we only trust the One who makes all things new, come rain or shine.







Lost in Translation

Paul Tillich's Bust in New Harmony, IN
Paul Tillich's Bust in New Harmony, IN

In October of 2002, I first visited New Harmony, IN. My sense of the place back then was fuzzy. I had a bit of a bead on its meaning: I knew that it had been founded as a religious community in the 19th century, but mostly what I knew was that one of my heroes, the great theologian Paul Tillich, held the small town in high esteem.


So that day I was burning east on I-64, enroute to Richmond, KY, where I'd been invited me to speak to students at Eastern Kentucky University. I decided to call up my buddy Guy Sayles, who at that time was the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of Asheville, NC. He actually answered! Guy suggested that I visit New Harmony along the way, then added, "You know, I heard somewhere once something about Tillich's heart being buried there." Well, it was all over. I was already looking for the next exit to New Harmony.


My love affair with Paul Tillich began in Jonesboro, AR, as a sophomore Philosophy student at Arkansas State University. I was caught up in a renewed relationship with God, due largely to the loving community at the Baptist Student Union, and the very patient and nurturing ministry of our two campus ministers, Benny Clark and Glenda Fontenot. I was also being mentored at the time by two deeply faithful Professors, Scott Darwin and Chuck Carr. This was the first Christian community I'd ever been a part of that actually encouraged me to think, and to think hard, to trust the authentic questions as gifts from God. We read theologians like Emil Brunner, Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich, as well as other exciting writers that stressed the relational adventure of faith: Robert Raines, Keith Miller, Bruce Larson. We took poet Rainer Maria Rilke's words to heart: "Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer" (Letters to a Young Poet 35).


When I first arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary in the fall of '79, I saw that Dr. George Stroup was teaching a class on the theology of Paul Tillich. Though I'd no real sense of what all this entailed, and was armed only with a surplus of passion and only a cursory understanding of two of Tillich's thinnest books, The Dynamics of Faith & My Search for Absolutes, I knew with something akin to evangelistic fervor that I had to be in this class. This meant a trip to my advisor's office, which is how I first came to meet Dr. Daniel Migliori. He did the best he could. Really he did. But even though he knew better--I'd not yet taken any classes yet, much less the requisite Introduction to Theology--he relented. I was in! And in heaven--until class began. Then I was lost--in deep and sinking fast, struggling to dog-paddle while all the others calmly whistled as they backstroked past me. Seriously, they knew how to spell ontology. They casually used words like Weltanschauung as smoothly as I quoted Lynyrd Skyynrd.


So I did what I always do when I'm in way over my head, I used my head. No, I moved into my head. My faith became largely a cognitive pursuit. I cannot tell you how terrifying and refreshing this was for me. For a while. Years, really. Until the walls of that room began to close in. Although I've never lost my love for the mind, for what Alfred North Whitehead called the "adventures of ideas," I ever so gradually came to see faith as even more, as a surrender to the larger life of God's Presence that envelopes and fills and holds all things. This is a living Presence that speaks a relational rhetoric, which may include any idea that's truly worthy of consideration and consent. Of course, many ideas aren't. I wouldn't give you two cents for a mindless faith, any more than I would for a faithless mind. That's where Jesus' advice to be "wise as serpents and gentle as doves" comes into play.


But back to New Harmony. I exited, in hot pursuit of Tillich's heart. I stopped repeatedly, but instead of asking for directions, I asked for Tillich's heart. Could they tell me where it was buried? Well, not quite, but they'd be glad to direct me to the state hospital. Finally, a raspy-voiced woman behind the Quick Shop counter said she'd heard there was a park named after some guy. It occurred to her that I might find that heart there. So I went where she pointed and found, behind the Red Geranium Restaurant, tiny Paul Tillich Park, sitting in a little grove of spruces. I walked along the winding mulch trail, stopping at each granite stone inscribed with lofty quotes from his writings. Then I came to this massive bust of Tillich overlooking a large pond. Here were buried Tillich's ashes.


The place was serene and silent. He was all head. His neck seemed so tight, so small, as if one stiff breeze might sever him from earth altogether. The sculptor, James Rosati, had created a startling image of exactly how Tillich had impressed me. All that time I'd spent reading Tillich had left me high and dry, perched anxiously in my head instead of nested in my heart. But where was Tillich's heart? 


Tillich's heart is not buried in New Harmony, only his ashes, but New Harmony lived in Tillich's heart. (Just think of Tony Bennett and San Francisco.) On the Day of Pentecost, June 2, 1963, Tillich stood near this exact spot and said: "I, Paul Tillich, give my name to this place, and dedicate the ground of this a new reality, conquering what is estranged and reuniting what belongs to each other, in the power of the Spiritual Presence." In his heart, he loved the relational power of Christ's New Being, however partial and tragically expressed its manifestation in history.


My good friend Guy Sayles sent me on a wild goose chase for Tillich's heart. Instead, I found his head--and a great reminder of where I'm so apt to bury my heart. And I was sent back to what matters most to me. Its not the big ideas, great books, or speaking in footnotes--it's folks like my buddy Guy Sayles, or friends like Benny Clark, Glenda Fontenot, Scott Darwin, and Chuck Carr, who live out their stout faith with both head and heart, allowing each to engage the other as they throw themselves headlong into following Christ. In fact, I don't know of anyone who does that as well as Guy does. He may not know diddly about where Tillich's heart is buried, but I keep on listening to him, because he scouts things out, and you never know what waits at that next exit--only that you can trust it to warrant all you are--body, mind and soul.







I'm Gorgeous Inside . . .

One evening last week, my wife and I were out walking the neighborhood with Maya the Wonder Dog. We came across this for sale sign in the front yard of a nearby home. To be honest, we'd never noticed the house before, but something about the claim "I'm Gorgeous Inside" made us do a double take: no curb appeal . . . neat but rather small and ordinary . . . no Palladium windows or water features . . . just a gravel driveway leading to a single garage--but we couldn't take our eyes off the house. The sway of the unexpected promise made us pause. We took them at their word, straining this way and that in an effort to peek through the lit windows and catch a glimpse of the gorgeous home within.


So much of my life is spent as a passerby, either on foot or, often enough, in my truck. I love road trips almost as much as I love taking walks or going for a run. There's something about taking things in as an anonymous stranger that affords its own peculiar connection. I know just enough to kick up my sense of wonder. My good friend Chuck Hussung once said that when he drives by a little church just off the interstate, or standing off by itself in a field of soybeans, he always wants to know what it looks like inside. I do too. 


I want to know: Are there hardwood floors, swept and inviting, the kind that make every polished patent leather step resound? Or has the floor been carpeted to absorb the crying babies, the tears of hallelujahs and laments week after week? Are the pews hard and straight-backed, prompting a kind of severe attentiveness, or are they cushioned, forcing us to face off with our own dozing tendencies before God? Is there a baptistry? If so, what's behind it? A screen for praise choruses? A bold-faced (s)creed of proud convictions? Or is there a pastel Jesus rising from the water beneath a descending dove? I might even go beyond wondering to hoping. I hope that inside that sanctuary there's a miniature wooden church resting on the altar, much like the one in the Assembly of God church where my grandparents took me to worship as a child in Dyess, Arkansas. Maybe it too has a thin slot in the steeple. Maybe children come forward during the singing of "Jesus Loves the Little Children" and proudly drop their own offering of nickles, dimes, or the occasional quarter down the steeple's neck. What's it like inside? The tar-papered brick church with the belled turret? The white clapboard church in the Missouri Bootheel with a silver propane tank, eight trucks and two cars parked outside on a Sunday morning?


Questions like these pour in as I pass by. Truth is, I won't ever know what's inside until I venture out. I can guess, speculate, joke, wonder, hope, but I won't really know until I give up my distance and darken the door, meet the people, worship the Lord within. Even then, it might take years to sniff out what's at the heart of this or that church, just as it can take a lifetime to know what's inside a loved one's heart. Heck, I'm surprised most everyday by what I find going on in my own heart! Intimacy can be as much about the humility of not knowing as knowing. As a diehard romantic, I want to think that I know--that everyone and everything is gorgeous inside. I like to lead out with such trust and hope, that is, until I'm proven wrong. Then I try to forgive and adjust. But I'm at my best when I leave all such blanket judgments, whether positive or negative, to the larger love and wisdom of God. I'm just too apt to divvy up what God holds together: I tend to valorize my friends as Saints and demonize my enemies as Sinners, just as I'm given to overindulge my own strengths and deny, shun or shame my many weaknesses.


If gorgeous is possible, I do believe that it's "inside" that the real magic happens. When I say this, I'm referring to what many of the religious traditions call the "heart." They've taken the centrality of the human heart as a physical organ and turned it into a symbol of our life before God. In scriptural language the heart is the seat of our humanity, what touches us in the depths of all that makes up our mystery. It's what most catches God's eye, "for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (I Sam 16:7). Somewhere underneath all our competing affections, passions, desires, knowledge, and thoughts, beneath all our fears and loves, beyond all that is conscience, even all our conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, we are rooted in the One who sees us and loves us through and through. We can lean more fully into this larger life. We can bear it. We can share it. And when we do, we can gradually come to embody the mercy we seek.


If I were for sale, and my sign said "I'm Gorgeous Inside . . ." there might be an ellipsis that indicates hesitation. Then this decisive qualification would follow in fine print, or maybe italics: ". . . where I am rooted in the living love of God that reserves the right to accept me as I am and transform the brass of my imperfections into the gold known as the image of God." I wouldn't offer this as a disclaimer, but more as a proclamation. In fact, let's flip it: I'd prefer that my sign have "I'm Gorgeous Inside" in fine print, and the rest be lit up in flashing neon.


It's the beauty and initiative of God's grace that set us free to live beyond guilt and shame.  Rooted here, in a life of response to God's steadfast love, bounded on all sides by the creative, redeeming and sustaining dance of God's Presence, we're free to come clean about our small, egocentric ways. We're free to risk all that we are unto the One who continually renders gorgeous this gloriously flawed and fractured world. We're free to love as Christ loves us, inside and out.