I was brought to faith in a church that valued knowledge and the intellect. Within the confines of my birth family, I watched my parents enflesh this knowledge into action. And certainly it affected me…clean your room, take out the trash, mow the lawn, study hard, do good, care about folks and treat them with respect and love. We certainly took action as a church, but I confess I learned more Law at the church house and the “words to build a life on” in the midst of a family headed by a Mom and Dad who guided me in the direction of doing, not just knowing. Which brings me to the busy intersection of heaven and earth, an overlapping of time and space where the holy meets the profane, the common enables the transcendent, the weakest become the most powerful, a place where bulldozers of certitude idle quietly leaving room for the simple actions of folks moving mountains with teaspoons of action. However, action in our lives can become predictably boring, and our religious ritual can become dry, sacred jars of clay holding only stale air. This reminds me of a story about my cousin Tyler playing youth baseball.
Tyler hitched his baseball pants with his left hand while holding the bat with his right raising a light gray swatch of polyester that looked like newborn hippo skin. He sniffed the gusting Oklahoma air and sauntered to the batters box. Resting the bat barrel on the red dirt and the handle against his belly, he placed both hands over his helmet ear holes and wobbled the helmet purposely on his head. Then, taking a cue from big leaguers, he grandly flailed his right arm in the crucifix, touching his forehead (the Father), the lower middle of his chest (Jesus Christ), and the left shoulder (“Holy”), and the right shoulder (“Spirit”). Then Tyler stepped into the batters box looking for a connection of bat and ball… a meeting of baseball physics with the metaphysical.He struck out on three pitches and as he strolled back to the dugout, muttered in an audible whisper that was heard by grandstand parents with elephant ears, “Well, that didn’t work.” This elicited much hand-over-mouth laughter, the muffled laughter an honest acknowledgement of what they knew. Sometimes religious rituals are nothing more than talismans of superstition and it was funny because it was nakedly true coming from the lips of a nine-year old boy who had just struck out. The laughter acknowledged that humor is funny only when it inhabits a moment of recognition.
For many of us, we have our own youthful epiphany, a moment of naked honesty spoken aloud inside the protective cocoon of naivete. But as the patina of adult reality washes over our souls, that youthful honesty yields to a paralysis of responsible dullness. We are inhibited by orthodoxy from the admission,“Well, that didn’t work.” And so we wrestle with the contradiction of living with one foot in heaven and one on earth. One is a Universe aligned with perfection and the will of the Creator, the other a multiverse strewn with the cluttered will of many. Can we ever really escape the reality of that intersection?
Can we ever really escape that moment of contradiction, the freedom to voice laughter at our doubt framing the truth? Or do we continually battle our fear of the unspoken using talismans of faith, rituals, superstitions? How do we best express our fear that the Master of the Universe isn’t paying attention to our attempts to be heard? Our pain and loneliness that sometimes causes our hands to cover our mouths…a paralysis of sorts, that comes from our fear of expressing doubt aloud, and that results in our lives being lived without ever really saying out loud what we really think. We sometimes live with a muted dullness, a silent affirmation of our unredeemed brokenness. That state of mind evoked by the image of a character in a Chekhov short story. His name is Mihalivitch and he concludes that his life is, “dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water–weeds grew in a tangle. And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right.”
And yet it’s in our divinely aligned nature to question and long for this world to be redeemed, to be fair, to be set right. So often our talismans of the physical world are necessary, they are lubricating our spiritual bodies, steeling our souls for confrontation, for encounter, for connecting the heavenly ideal with the broken world at it’s very intersection. Our physical movements often prime the pump of our spiritual natures.
Here are some examples: Abraham Heschel commenting on his civil rights marching days with Martin Luther in Selma, Alabama said that not only was he praying, “When I marched in Selma, my legs were praying.” Ronald Reagan’s biographer, Edmund Morris commented once in an NPR interview about his subject and how he makes decisions, “He thinks with his hips.” I’m also thinking of how the posture of prayer can invoke a greater movement to action. Once I prayed under the shadow of the Washington Monument lying prostrate, face in the grass, with a dozen friends, praying for one another’s families and our country and for each other to be better men…men of action. The Jewish faith says, “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought,” and, “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.” And Abraham Heschel once again, “Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind—these are all a drive toward loving the One who rings our heart like a bell.”
Which brings me to this. Sometimes I find it easier to find this intersection of the holy and profane outside the walls of church rather than inside the walls of church. I saw this recently at a Paul McCartney concert. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts and impulse overwhelming the heart…and I’m not even a huge Paul McCartney fan. But I do love the Beatles song, Golden Slumbers and I sang it at full voice with 20,000 folks at the BOK Center a few nights ago. It was the sixth encore song and folks refused to leave the arena. They longed for more. It was clear the ethos of this song resonated throughout the arena. People believed the words.
Once there was a way to get back homeward, once there was a way to get back home, Sleep pretty darling do not cry, And I will sing a lullaby, Golden Slumbers fill your eyes, Smiles awake you when you rise, Sleep pretty darling do not cry, And I will sing a lullaby. And then the segue to “Carry That Weight”, and the last words of “The End”… And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love, you make.
If you think this isn’t part of the collective consciousness of an entire generation of people then you weren’t at that concert walking out in one of those rarefied moments of collective joy. People had utter happiness etched on their faces, tears in their eyes, they had just experienced their lives again, meaning had been articulated through melody, harmony, song. If you think that ethos is polyanna or didn’t somehow affect culture, watch Chris Farley interview McCartney thirty years later in a Saturday Night Live skit.
I’m not suggesting that you sing Beatles songs aloud, nor forsake symbols of faith and ritual. Perhaps I’m saying we need to take more chances…that our legs should pray more…that we should taste dirt and smell grass as we pray…that we think more with our hips, that we long more, dare more and sing more burning songs that drive us toward the one ringing our heart like a bell. And in the end, the love we take, will be equal to more than we can ever imagine or deserve.