Friday, October 31, 2008

Today and the Rest of Your Life

In The Covenant Home Altar this morning, Randolph Thompson, pastor of Community Covenant Church in Calumet Park, Illinois, had a sentence that is worth both repeating and pondering. Reflecting on Deuteronomy 34 and the story of Moses’ last days, when the Lord let him see from the heights the whole of the Promised Land before taking him home, my pastor brother wrote: “When you look at your day, try to see it as one day that comes together with the rest of your life to help you reach your destination.”

Why is it, I thought on reading both the Scripture and the meditation, that we spend so much of our time and energy every day as if what really mattered were tomorrow and the next day and the next? Surely we need always to be thinking ahead, yet failing to use this day, today, as part of all that—a foretaste of what is yet to be--is probably to miss not only its own meaning but its blessing as well.

To draw a parallel: I have not met my brother Randolph, but today and through this week, given his Home Altar meditations, I now know him nonetheless as a joint heir of all the things we have yet to inherit as members of the Covenant and the larger body of Christ. And because he has reopened my eyes to the importance of today in the scheme of my life, I have written him an email to say thanks and thus hopefully, on the same day, bless and lend perspective to him.

“When you are converted,” Scripture says, “strengthen your brothers and sisters.”And do it “more and more as you see the Day approaching.” On this day, then, without neglecting whatever larger vision the Lord may be supplying you, seize the opportunity to see the hours given you as an integral part of “the rest of your life to help you reach your destination.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Table Grace

Everyday things have a way of speaking, not least in one’s home. They make no noise, for they have no speech. Nor do they insist on your attention. They are just there, whenever and wherever “there” is—whether permanently, semi-so, or even temporarily.

Just now, as Fall has come and harvest time, we are greeted at table by this fall scene. Halloween, children might naturally conclude, excited as they are by pumpkins and all their anticipation of “Trick or Treats.” Fall Mums potted in a etched vessel complement their splendor, with fallen leaves lending further reminders of the dazzling colors nature has been displaying outside.

But for me, Lady Graceful, as she is named, takes center stage, even if off somewhat to the side. Standing calm and statuesque, a bouquet of her own in hand, she remains as seasons come and go, placing before me what is not only appropriate to each season but appropriate to each meal as days come and go and seasons change.

Our Lord, the Creator of all things animate and inanimate, loved to be at table. And being there fully whenever he was there, he had eyes to see all around and ears to hear what was really going on in all that was going on. I pray this day that he will make me as attentive to life in all its forms, neither careless in passing by life’s table settings nor thoughtless in receiving the human gifts of food and friendship shared daily around them.

Do you offer a prayer of thanksgiving every time you sit down at table? We do, often in Swedish, as we were taught when young: Goda Gud, väl signa maten. I Jesu namn. Amen! ("Dear God, bless this food. In Jesus' name. Amen.")You do it in your own words. What matters is not the language but the offering of it and the spirit in which it is offered.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Biography in Broader Sweep

Patricia Hampl, in I Could Tell You Stories (Norton, 1999), offers a wonderful and thought-provoking insight into biography as seen and structured by a number of well-known authors. In a chapter on “Czeslaw Milosz and Memory,” Hampl notes how in framing his own story as a Polish “memoirist” (a writer of memoir), Milosz “is after something different from a story in the usual narrative sense.”

“The solution of the contemporary American imagination in regard to identity is to ‘seek the self,’ uncovering its hidden psychology to ‘get in touch with the unconscious….’" Milocz charts a different course. "Instead of thrusting the individual into the foreground one can focus attention [rather] on the background,” he writes, i.e. on evaluating one’s personal experience as preserved in memory “in the perspective of the changes one’s milieu has undergone.” He is, after all, Polish, and must be understood in that context.

For Milocz and other Europeans like him personal story is hinged to the history of the nation—i.e. to the larger geo-political context in which one’s life has been lived. “He has located the best grace of a memoir,” Hampl writes, “a method which allows the self to function not as a source or a subject, but as an instrument for rendering the world. In Native Realm [his biography] Milocz does not seek a self; he seeks to use a self.”

Surely we all have need to tell our life story in one way or another. Hampl’s point in lifting up Milocz is simply that it is “the fusion of two narratives—the one personal and the other public—that creates a powerful call and reply which achieves poetic form.” After all, what matters in the long run are the insights drawn from relating “the bruised word of our own relentlessly psychological culture” and the more “impersonal” landscape of history.

So what is the point? Tell your story, but do not rob it of the broader contexts in which it has been lived. Let place and time and your ethnic/national/religious rootage contextualize your story--offering both as the rivulet life has made you to be in the broader stream of human history.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Moral or Moralistic?

William J. Bennett, a well-known Washington lawyer, TV commentator, and editor some years ago of The Book of Virtues (Simon and Shuster, 1993), is now hosting a new TV show with invited guests that exchange views on contemporary life. In a recent session focusing among other things on the current political scene, one of his guests, a professor whose name I have forgotten, made an interesting distinction between our being “moral” as Americans and “moralistic.”

America, he contended, has always thought of itself as a moral nation, not without its faults to be sure yet a model nonetheless in its devotion to and concern for morality. “I worry about that claim,” the professor said, “because I wonder if that’s still true. I think in recent years we have become more of a moralistic society that a truly moral one.”

A moral person or society, he held, is one that has a due sense of its own sins and shortcomings. The tone and tenor of our individual and societal conversations—political, economic, social, and religious—seems rather to be increasingly moralistic, less thoughtful, less civil, less willing to be engaged with others. Moralistic individuals and movements of every sort come increasingly to common life with their minds made up, often by others who have convinced them that “We’re right and you’re wrong!”

Consequently the interplay between people and groups focuses more on winning than on coming together for the common good. Images trump substance and the goal becomes to tear down opponents rather than engage them and seek a higher wisdom—which is morality.

The professor’s concern is worth pondering. Am I and are we still people of deep enough moral persuasion that we can resist—in ourselves and others—the rampant tendency to hide behind self-serving moralistic attitudes and ways? Can we hope for our leaders to be such if we ourselves are not? There is no shame in having convictions. But there is great shame in being too proud of them and self-assured.

God’s will for each of us and our nation is clear: If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).