A Tent in the Mountains (Until You Hear)

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I couldn’t sleep the other night so I crept out to our couch. I kept the lights off and read with a book lamp so as not to wake my wife. I’m working my way through the Russian authors. Which is about as helpful an antidote to insomnia as teaching drum lessons might be for a hangover.

I’m having trouble praying again. Sorry to be a broken record. But faith is a journey, right? The further a car travels, the more it needs gas. And I earnestly want to believe that God hears. But the fuel light is on.

After an hour of reading, I was still awake. I got up to get a drink of water, placing the book open and face down on the floor by the couch. The reading lamp bent under the spine, still pouring light onto the pages. I groped in the darkness until I reached the kitchen. I filled a glass with water, and turned to make my way back. But the scene gave me pause.

The apartment was shrouded in darkness: everything except the lamplight under my book. The light beneath the pages made a glowing pyramid, piercing the darkness with its light. It reminded me of one of my favorite paintings- my sister’s work actually. She’s remarkably talented; it’s a painting of tent in a winter mountain landscape. The scene is dark save the light from the tent. Well, that and the aurora borealis dancing above it. A tent in the mountains and the borealis dancing above- she captured it exquisitely. Someday I’ll put my grandkids through college by pawning it off to a dealer (I’m kidding of course; I’ll probably use the money for a sports car).

I came across a poem by Donne this week; one of the lines stuck out to me. An idiomatic version of the olde English reads: “Hear us! For until you hear us, Lord, we know not what to say.”

It’s been a hard year. A damn good one too. Headaches, laughter, breakdowns, tears, kisses out the door and nights with take-out and sitcoms: this is the stuff of life. And it’s tiring to feel empty yet overflowing with it all. Because- let me tell you- the borealis of life’s winter nights are magnificent. Before she fell asleep tonight my wife whispered: “you know I love you, right?” Like she was worried I might forget and drift off without knowing.

I couldn’t and I didn’t. But I stand in the kitchen, looking at the only light in the room, curled under itself on the floor.

And I believe he hears.

So I start by saying: it’s crazy that you do hear; sometimes it seems like you don’t. Still you hear me. Me like a lonely tent in the mountains. Me like a tired wife, lying in bed next to the imprint in the sheets left from her husband’s stirring. Me like the prayers I can’t pray because I’ve forgotten how to forget that I’ve no clue how pray. Me when all I can do is breathe and cry and smile and read Russian authors until the late AM.

Who but you could hear this? All the good, bad and beautiful, this life.

I don’t know. But I know you do. Because I know what to say.

I say that the world is harsh and welcoming like frostbite and bright tents. I say you’re mysterious and gentle, like a wife as she sleeps. And you’re sharp and bright, like the lamp light on the floor.

I say you’re magnificent but distant, like the borealis in winter’s sky. And I say that when I reach heaven’s gates I’ll ask if there’s room in your holy city for just one more. And if you say “no” then I want to be able to say that I still believe in you. I want to. But I’m not quiet ready yet (if I’m honest).

And if the golden streets are too crowded – if you’ve not yet a room prepared- then I’ll take my tent. I’ll take my tent and I’ll walk back out the pearly gates to the mountain range in the distance. There I’ll sit. In my tent in the mountains. And my light will shine in the darkness as it’s own little tribute to your presence that I see dancing in, among, above and with your beautiful city.

I looked at the light. I took a sip of water. And I silently thanked God for paintings and sisters, cool glasses of water, lamplight and insomnia. I thanked God for the words he hears- the ones I’m learning how to say.

I turned off the light and went back to bed. My wife sighed when I laid down, still asleep, but like she knew. Like she knew that he’d heard.

I was asleep in minutes.

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Forgiving God, Forgiving Me

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The sophomore poetry notebook was a thing of legend in my high school. It required that students collect and analyze a plethora of works from various different traditions. I’d I entirely forgotten about the affair. Until I found my notebook a couple weeks ago.

In addition to studying canonical works, we were also required to write several pieces of poetry ourselves. Dear God, was that a painful read. I can’t remember writing most of mine, but they all must have been crafted sometime in the twilight of hormonal despair, perhaps after my parents had grounded me or unjustly revoked driving privileges (damn mailbox was too close to the road anyway). Turning the page from Frost to a sheet of my pimpled angst was like being taking a bite of sensuous cheesecake right before being jolted with a cattle prod.

Thus, and understandably, I went to tear out the pages with the mind to burn them. But then I paused and reconsidered. I think I understood, somewhat at least, how a parent might enshrine childhood photos of their kid looking- by all standards- ridiculous.

“Mom, not the fat, pre-braces picture. Really?”

“Oh, but don’t you look so cute?”

The act of begetting- it seems- is coupled with forgiveness for pudgy doofuscity.

Andrew Elphinstone was an obscure individual, even for a theologian. He was born Armistice Day of 1918 into the margins of royalty. He was educated in theology at New College, Oxford and ordained to serve as a curate. He wrote one book, which went through one printing after he died relatively young of from an ailing heart condition. I found a copy of his work in my school’s library. It’s not been checked out in several years.

Said Elphinstone: “Perhaps God stands…not only as the bestower of forgiveness, but as the Father who even stoops to invite the forgiveness he cannot deserve in order to make it one degree easier for man to be drawn into (his) love.”

I’ve been doing a lot of running lately. Luther once remarked that baptism was the drowning of the old self during which one quickly discovers that the bastard can swim. In my case, the bastard is a dual athlete. Which is to say that when I’m out running, as of late, I feel as though I’m trying to outrun my demons. That sounds (overly) dramatic. But sometimes I feel as though I spend all day in the libraries of my mind, and by the end the stacks of comprehension are closing in on me. And so I run. Which is nice, because I enjoy it. But I do wish my brain wasn’t claustrophobic.

Because when I look at my notebook – at the scraps of near unintelligible chicken scratch that I once submitted as ‘poetry’- I see nothing wonderful. I see angst, and self-righteousness; emotionally vague terms bathed in gruesome attempts at iambic pentameter.

And yet, I can’t throw it away.

I want to say the world is beautiful and I want to say that all poetry- even my own- is good. But sometimes I wonder if the world is the demon God is attempting to outrun, and the race leads to the cross. Elphinstone’s words haunt me, almost as much as my crappy poetry.

But maybe God is in the poetry, together gasping for breath over the miles of good earth we run to escape the bad demons we cannot leave behind. Maybe God is not the author of injustice, as we’ve struggled to presume, but is in fact the perpetrator. In every discrepancy He is the judge and the judged. And the demons I’m trying to outrun are God himself in my heart, begging me forgiveness so that he might then save me. It’s startlingly humble of him; a paradoxical of humility only God could attain. Such lunacy might even be called ‘grace.’

And even still I struggle to believe it.

I want to say that the world is beautiful. But sometimes all that can escape my lips is “I forgive you.” I forgive with the fear that I will also be struck down, for I know I am asking first to be forgiven. But the love that brings me in is the love that allows me to be judge, allows me to be angry, allows me to run and yell and scream and write poetry that makes Billie Joe Armstrong sound like goddamned Shakespeare.

If I can forgive myself for such poetry, if I can withhold my hand from its destruction, then maybe, just maybe, I might also forgive God for forgiving me. Forgiveness is eternity dripping from mortal lips; just come down from the cross- you’ve made your point! I want to believe it’s possible. I hope it’s possible.

But if not, then I’ll burn the damn thing. Trust me, its good riddance anyway.

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Iceland In Photos & Prose

I’m not much of a photographer and despite years of training there are not words that can adequately surmise our summer in Iceland. But I managed to snap a few photos during our time in the country. I’d like to share them now along with some words of others who carry a pen more eloquently than myself. Their wisdom has echoed in my heart while we’ve been in the country, a reminder to me of how experiencing a new place, a new culture and then attempting to do ministry in said location is always a humbling experience. I carry them with me as we leave today.

So here’s a summary of our time in Iceland, in the best way I know how:

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“Perhaps these thoughts of ours will never find an audience

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Perhaps the mistaken road will end in a mistake

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Perhaps the lamps we light one at a time

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will be blown out, one at a time

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Perhaps the candles of our lives will gutter out

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without lighting a fire to warm us.

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Perhaps when all the tears have been shed

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the earth will be more fertile

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Perhaps when we sing praises to the sun

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the sun will praise us in return

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Perhaps these heavy burdens

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will strengthen our philosophy

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Perhaps when we weep for those in misery

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we must be silent about miseries of our own

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Because of our irresistible sense of mission

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We have no choice.”

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(Shu Ting, Translated from Chinese by Carolyn Kizer)

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My time in Iceland has been informative, humbling, wonderful, educational, inspiring and memorable all at the same time. I hope I had as much as an impact on the people and country as they had on me. Perhaps I did, perhaps I didn’t. My hope for this is just a prayer on the wind of this beautiful place as we leave here today.

I’ll close with sharing the following music video from one of my favorite artists. I saw this video several years ago, when I’d just begun dreaming of coming to Iceland. As it turns out, it was filmed not far from where we spent most of our time while here. And we actually drove through several of these locations and visited some of the sights as you may recognize from one of the pictures above. The song beautifully sums up my time in the country more than I ever could:

“…and at once I knew I was not magnificent
High above the highway aisle
Jagged vacance, thick with ice
I could see for miles, miles, miles.”

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Bless Ísland, takk fyrir allt.
(Goodbye Iceland, thanks for everything)