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Letters for the Road: August 2020
Of Pilgrims and Longing
I’ve been thinking recently about longing. As I consider the goal of this newsletter (“reflections and refreshment for pilgrims”) and also our current cultural moment, I’ve been wondering about longing, and desire, and their place in the Christian life.
Some of the longings that I’ve seen expressed —
Longing for coherence and meaning. The world seems wide and vast and we cannot bear such a largeness — we long for the comfort of purpose and recognition, of knowing our place in the world and our security in relation to others we love or esteem.
Longing for justice, for peace, for an end to sinful hearts and sinful societies that oppress and destroy and dehumanize.
Longing for health, and for unhindered fellowship — I would like to banish the term “social distancing”!
Longing to be known, to be seen and treated as someone with dignity and value, someone who is not just one more number in a sea of digits.
As I think about longing, I recognize in my own heart and life a connection between it and the anxiety, impatience, and anger that have quickly overrun me in the past several months. When longings are unfulfilled, especially when I feel that they ought to be fulfilled, the soil is prepared for the weeds of anxiety, impatience, and anger. When I lash out at my children or my husband (in lockdown they’re the only ones I’m seeing lately!) underneath my surface-level, obvious emotions are unmet longings. I want, but I can’t have, I covet but I can’t get what I want (James 4:2). I want peace and quiet. I want ease and comfort. When my children give me umpteen opportunities a day to discipline them, I’m angry. When my news feed declares day after day that the world is most certainly not running smoothly, I’m anxious. This isn’t what I want.
Although upon reflection I can see all this for what it is — a demanding, intolerant attitude that mistakes good things for ultimate things — in the moment everything gets tangled up. I find myself reacting, again and again, out of selfish impulse. One possible solution is to get rid of desire altogether, to purge our hearts of any wanting. Yet such a tactic forgets that many of the things we long for are in fact good things, and many are things that God promises to give us. We get in trouble when we try to take them for ourselves, in our own time.
And, it seems to me, the posture of a pilgrim is a posture of longing. To think of Christian in Bunyan’s classic, Christian presses on because of longing: he’s not where he wants to be. There’s better ahead of him, and that’s where he sets his sights. So too, with us: Hebrews tells us that the saints that came before us “were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).
Perhaps one difficulty with longing is when we forget that we are pilgrims: when we either forget that we are not there yet, but still on the road, or when we forget that we have a destination at all. In the former, we don’t temper our longings for good things with patience. In the latter, we don’t let our longings be shaped by hope.
What are you longing for? Do you find yourself more often without hope or without patience?
Last week I reflected on the Transfiguration, and I’ve been considering this oil painting by Lewis Bowman based on that event. I love the brightness of the colors and the white that gives shape to the figures of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. It’s an interesting contrast with the Rubens painting that I included with my reflection on the blog -- I love the tumult of the crowd in Rubens’, as it mirrors my own emotions about staying on the mountain versus descending to daily life. And yet Rubens doesn’t leave much to the imagination — Jesus and the others are clearly represented. In contrast, Bowman invites us to think about the mystery of glory, about all that we do not and cannot know or see right now. He gives us something to long for.
I’m trying to take a cue from Alan Jacobs’ upcoming book by expanding my “temporal bandwidth.” To do so, I figured I’d tackle a classic, but one that I’ve only ever read bits and pieces of: City of God. It’s going to take me until Christmas! Just finishing Augustine’s recapitulation of Roman history and his criticism of the Roman pantheon. Let Justice Roll Down is a memoir by civil rights activist John Perkins. I’m finding his perspective on racism and social justice unique and refreshing. In Prophetic Lament, I’ve been digging into the book of Lamentations. Author Soong-Chan Rah sees in it an indictment of the Western church which too easily rests in triumph and celebration, but has little time for lament and weeping with those who weep. Like others have done recently, he calls attention to the lack of praise and worship songs that lament injustice and suffering. From my tradition, singing from the Psalter as we do, I’ve been thinking about how we use — and could better use — the psalms of lament in worship. Reuben and I are reading The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street for his homeschool co-op book club, and we’re loving it! Great characters and that big-family feel of so many classic children’s books.
The Church is Other People: “Our presence at picnic tables and potlucks is as important as our presence at the Eucharistic table on Sunday mornings. This is not a distraction from ministry, but an essential part of it. Christian discipleship was never meant to be an isolated endeavor; it has always meant creation of, participation in, and care for community. One’s individual relationship with God is expected to shape how one functions in relationship with others, so facilitating and nurturing real, physical connections between people is a critical function of the church.”
Contemplating the COVID-19 Classroom: “It is tempting, even natural, to yearn for “an imagined past,” to the days before a pandemic. It is natural to hurry on to a “receding future” where pandemic, riots, economic downturns, and elections are past. But the unnatural thing—the miracle of God’s holy presence—is only here in our present. And when the talk and the traffic all around us rushes to the past or future, dwelling in this present does require a “turning aside” out of the mob of anxiety and alarum, into the stillness of a lit-bush-brightness.”
Embracing Our Indebtedness: Caring Well for People and Planet: “Caregiving will require us to set aside the easy and efficient to promote the wellbeing of the tiniest and oldest—the newborn in a mother’s arms and the microbes flourishing in the soil, the redwood standing tall in the forest and the octogenarian eager for a companion. It will require us to reconsider our indebtedness—to neighbors and families, to the land and all the creatures who rely on it. In many instances, it will require sacrifice. But the fruit of this work is too abundant and valuable to measure.”
Two Paths: “I have to take care of earthly things like my body and heavenly things like my soul. Yet I want some kind of whole-life living that stirs all the quiet moments and rush of wings into one full, vibrant way of being. I want to be whole, not torn into little slips of information and sound bites to be thrown at passersby.”
In high school and college one of my favorite bands was Nickel Creek. A few months ago I discovered that their mandolinist, Chris Thile, teamed up with Yo-Yo Ma and a couple other very talented musicians, and the result is beautiful.
I made this sweet potato and sausage soup last week, and I keep thinking about it, so it will probably go on the menu for next week as well! For my northern hemisphere friends, this roasted corn and chicken salad is a pretty good way to end a hot day.
We turn to you, O God,
in this season of our common distress.
Be merciful, O Christ, to those who suffer,
to those who worry, to those who grieve,
to those who are threatened or harmed in any
way by this upheaval. Let your holy compassions
be active throughout the world even now—
tending the afflicted, comforting the brokenhearted,
and bringing hope to many who are hopeless.
Use even these hardships to woo our hearts nearer to you, O God.
From Liturgy for a Time of Widespread Suffering by Douglas McKelvy
On the road with you,
P.S. This newsletter thing is new for me, but once I got over the inevitable new-thing jitters I had so much fun putting it together. I hope you enjoy what you find here, and even more I hope that you’ll feel inclined to write back! I’d love to continue the conversation with you, and to know what you’d like to see in these letters. You can reply privately (email@example.com) or leave a public comment below. Don’t be shy!