learning to trust the celestial brightness that has nothing to do with sight...

It is Advent - and Dianne's pain has still to be diagnosed. In some ways, this journey feels more like Lent than Advent, but that is the part of the wisdom of practicing the liturgical year: we get to practice living in the confusing and hard places in the trust that they are not the end of the story. A sentence from Barbara Brown Taylor's most recent book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, really speaks to me right now. (My "understanding" of God) feels more and more like a devoted relationship that we are less and less able to say anything about (than anything resembling a creed or even a "thing.")

This comes in her reflection of "the dark night of the soul" and the way St. John of the Cross speaks of God as "nada" - literally nothing in Spanish:

He teaches by saying what God is not, hoping to convince his readers that their images of and ideas about "God" are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing. If this is a disappointment to some of John's readers, it comes as a great relief to others... After years of teaching other people what words like sin, salvation, repentance and grace really meant, those same words began to mean less and less to me... I do not believe I am describing a loss of faith in God here. I believe I am describing a loss of faith in the system that promised to help me grasp God not only by setting my feet on the right track but also by giving me the right language, concepts and tools to get a hook in the Real Thing when I found it. To lose all that is not the same thing as spending eleven months in a dungeon (like St. John.) It may not even qualify as a true dark night of the soul, but it is without doubt the cloudiest evening of the soul I have know so far.

This resonates with me. It is what I began to experience - and then realize - in Montreal. Most of the old words don't matter to me. I don't think they matter much to most other people either. I read earlier today while waiting to hear back from one of Dianne's team of doctors that when preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber was recently on NPR's interview with Teri Gross - Fresh Air - she said: “I don’t care if people believe or not. I just don’t think that should be the basis of belonging.” (In fact) I don’t feel responsible for what people believe; I feel very responsible for what they hear (i.e. for my preaching)."  Tony Robinson, in his weekly meditation, went on to add:

So Teri Gross asked, “Are you more concerned about people’s actions than their beliefs?” NBW: “I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no. TG: “That wasn’t the answer I expected.”TG: “That wasn’t the answer I expected.” NBW: “I don’t monitor people’s behavior, I’ll put it that way.” I loved this exchange, especially the part where Gross says, “That wasn’t the answer I expected.” She had expected a kind of typical liberal and American answer along the lines of, “What people say doesn’t matter; it’s what they do.” That sounds so robust and no-nonsense. Gross expected that. But NBW said, “I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no,” and they both broke out in laughter.

What we hear from NBW is not an indifferent pastor or theologian. What we hear is a
person who is clear about what she is responsible for and in some measure in control of (the sermons she preaches), and what she is not responsible for or in control of, i.e. what other people think, believe and do.This seems to me a healthy shift for pastors and churches. So often Christianity has been seen as somehow trying to make people believe this or that or do this or that. Which is to take responsibility for stuff you can’t control. Your job as pastor/ preacher is to take responsibility for the stuff with your name on it: what you preach, teach, say and pray. What people do with that is up to them. NBW describes her preaching as “confessional.” She shares/ confesses her faith. People listen in; do with that as they will.

In joy and suffering, in times of celebration and trial, I don't really know who or what God is - or how God works - and at this point in my life I don't care. I cannot explain grace nor can I summarize what it means to be buoyed by a love greater than myself. It is a relationship and that is about all I can say. I can sing about what it feels like in the Advent carols. I can listen for clues of how others have nourished this relationship in the stories of the season. And I can grasp a ray of light in the obscurity of this journey. But not much more. And oddly, at this moment in time, that is more than enough. Elsewhere in Learning to Walk in the Dark, Taylor adds that there is, indeed, a light in the darkness - but it comes from within the darkness. "... tonight it seems equally possible that the grace I need will come to me in the dark, where I too may learn to see the celestial brightness that has nothing to do with sight." 

Right now all I can do is be present with Dianne's pain - present and quiet - present and patient when I can. I can hold her. And pray silently for her. And hassle her doctors if necessary. But mostly it is sitting together in this darkness and trusting relationships born of love. Maybe that does sound like Advent after all.


ddl said…
Holding Di in prayer (and you). The last paragraph that you wrote says it all. Take Care.
RJ said…
Thanks DDL... more as it unfolds. Thank you, Peter, for your loving note, too.

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