Wednesday, August 31, 2005

For Marnie on Our 9th Wedding Anniversary


The house is quiet and you are sleeping – you and two others who were only a hope to us on this day nine years ago.

I just went downstairs to find a little volume of poems by Wendell Berry. The book bears the title The Country of Marriage and I thought I might find something to quote: something more beautiful than what I’m able to write on my own, something that spoke with eloquence of the love I feel for you and the life we’ve shared for these nine years.

I found the book – but not a poem. Berry doesn’t sound like me. Better said, I don’t sound like him (unfortunately. I’d love to write like that).

This is a little book you gave to me, but I had forgotten when. As I thumbed through the pages, finding nothing for you in the poetry, I found something from you. A brief sentence you had written on the title page. You always like for something to be written inside a book when you give it (and receive it). Even now I think of the first book I gave to you early in our dating days. I was so formal and careful. You were under-whelmed with what I wrote as I recall, and it was indeed under-whelming.

But there on the page bearing the words The Country of Marriage, you added a few handwritten words of your own. “We’ve entered this wonderful world and country.” And then the date – September 1, 1996. You gave this to me the day after our wedding. I had not remembered that. I can only guess that you had bought the book before our wedding and you gave it to me that day. As I remember September 1, 1996 we didn’t go in any bookstores. We’re both geeky sometimes, but not that geeky.

Here’s something that strikes me as fitting. As I searched in the basement office for The Country of Marriage I came across another book entitled Blink (by Malcolm Gladwell - not about marriage). The title of one book speaks to the title of the other. Our nine years in the country of marriage seem to me like a blink. Our seniors may smile at that because they’ve got 20 or 30 or maybe even 50 years to reflect upon – but what is true of decades is no less true of a decade minus one.

The other day you told me you had found some important video tapes – our wedding, your ordination, my ordination. I think about nine years and it occurs to me that in the same sanctuary where we were married nine years ago, I was ordained nine years prior to our wedding. And on that warm Sunday evening in May of ’87 you were seated in the choir loft singing with the choir. It causes me to marvel at what I would have never dreamed on that night. There we both were, in the same sanctuary, seated on the platform behind the pulpit (as we so often are now) but without the slightest idea of what would take place in that same room nine years later. Did we even speak to each other that night in 1987? Your father placed his hands on me and prayed or said something. He knew no more than we did. I would not even know he had participated in my ordination were it not for the video record of it.

(Those two who were only “hopes” to us nine years ago have come into the study. They are very real and wanting some attention. I’ll finish later).

In May of 1987, kneeling in the sanctuary, I could not imagine what God was doing or was going to do over the next nine years. On August 31, 1996, standing with you in almost the exact same spot, the same was true. I was certain and remain certain of our vows, but we had no idea where the next nine years would take us – to our little house on Jane Street, to our semi-rural home in North Carolina, to the stomping grounds of our youth in Atlanta; growing from 2 to 3 in Houston, and then becoming a foursome in Raleigh. God has been so good to us.

This day of our anniversary is marred by the images and news of destruction and loss on the gulf coast after hurricane Katrina. There’s a slight sense of dissonance in sitting comfortably in front of this computer, now with sunlight streaming through the windows, meditating on the string of blessings that runs through our years of marriage. There is and always will be much in the world that is broken. Today these words from Calvin Miller resonate with me as words that are right and honest.

And though the floods of life may come and the waters of life threaten us, (this) scripture still stands: “Many waters cannot quench love, rivers cannot wash it away” (Song of Sol. 8:7).

So these nine years, as I think of them this morning, speak so clearly to me of grace. The gift of grace that you are to me; the ways you bring life to me and our home; the laughter and determination and restless zeal; the ways you parent our children; the grace of seeing you use the gifts God has poured into your own life. These nine years speak of the grace that is hidden in the mystery of time; grace that does what we never dreamed of.

I’m writing this to let anyone who reads it know that I am a blessed man, that God has been kind to me far beyond my deserving.

I’m writing this to let you know that I love you and I love the nine years we’ve shared. What will the next nine, or next one, hold? We will live by grace and continue to make our way through the country of marriage.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Finding Your Way Home (wrap up)

Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell

Two sons, both far from home.

The younger removed by miles, impatient in his youth, having no regard for his father’s honor or the family’s reputation. The elder son stays close to home, but the joy of being in the family has been replaced by duty. When it’s time to celebrate, he can’t come in.

As Jesus tells this story, we never see what the elder son decides to do. But in the story of the younger son we see that there are a couple of different ways to find your way home.

Some time after leaving home, the younger son ran out of money. At the very same time the economy took a terrible turn because of a famine, and he began to be in need. He took a job feeding pigs, but the job didn’t pay. He was hungry and he envied the pods that were given to the pigs.

In this state of need and hunger, the younger son comes up with a plan. He devises a speech that he will present to his father. Kenneth Bailey summarizes as follows: “having failed to find a paying job in the far country, he will try to obtain his father’s backing by becoming gainfully employed in his home community. He will yet save himself by keeping the law. Grace is unnecessary. He can manage himself – or so he thinks.”

The younger son does not return home out of remorse. He is driven by hunger, and he has a plan whereby he can make things right.

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott recounts a time in her life where she was falling apart. Her life was an absolute mess – a relationship with a married man, too much alcohol, too much drugs, the wheels were coming off. In desperation she called a priest. Gradually, and with the help of this priest she made it through this dark time, and years later she asked her friend the priest to tell her what that first meeting was like when she had called him in her desperation. He told her
Here you were in a rather desperate situation, suicidal, clearly alcoholic, going down the tubes. I thought the trick was to help you extricate yourself enough so you could breathe again. You said your prayers weren’t working anymore and I could see that in your desperation you were trying to save yourself.

“In your desperation you were trying to save yourself.” When the younger son is hungry and in need and no one will give him anything, that’s what he does.

But there is another way to come home. While the younger son was running through his money, and then feeding pigs, his father seemed to know that someday he would return. His father also knew that if his son did return, there would be great shame and rejection from the village. The only way to avoid this was to get to his son before the neighbors did. So he waited and watched, waited and watched, until the day came. While his son was still at a distance, he did something unheard of. He ran to him. By getting to him first, by embracing him, he demonstrated publicly that there was reconciliation. The rejection of the neighbors was no longer fitting because the father had received his son and brought him home.

The son had a plan to become a wage earner; to work hard; to make things up. But there is a better way to come home, and that way is to simply allow the father to bring you home. This is grace. You don’t come home with your plan for making things right. The father comes to you, and he brings you home. He comes to you and he removes your shame.

This is how we are saved. Jesus comes to us. As Paul wrote it, though he (Jesus) was equal with God he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but he humbled himself and took the form of a servant. He came to us and submitted to death, even death on a cross.

There’s a scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which family, friends and people from NASA have gathered at the home of commander Jim Lovell as they anxiously wait for the astronauts to return home. They are all gathered around the TV and the newscast is showing a piece of an interview with the astronaut in which he is telling about his experience as a naval aviator, trying to land on an aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan.

Because of combat conditions the carrier was blacked out – no lights. Lovell had no radar and no homing signal. When he turned on his map light the entire cockpit shorted out. He was surrounded by pitch blackness, he had no idea how he would find the carrier. Then down below in the ocean, he saw a trail of green. The carrier was churning up algae in the ocean, a phosphorescent green algae trailing behind the ship like a carpet. If Lovell’s cockpit instruments had been on, he would have never seen it. Lovell concluded the story by saying, “you never know what events might transpire to take you home.”

Our standard navigational instruments are the things we rely to make our own way home; those things that we look to or depend upon to tell us we’re o.k. That might be our money, our connections, our smarts – whatever. And sometimes those navigational instruments simply aren’t working. It’s then that God goes to work down in the deep places. This is the work of the Spirit leading us home.

The God we come home to knows us even at a great distance; he runs to us and meets us where we are. He takes our shame and brings us home. And there’s no better way to get there.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Finding Your Way Home: A Meditation on Luke 15:11-32

Like all children, my children love stories – and like all parents I often find myself the story teller. Sometimes the stories come from books: Dr. Seuss, Frog and Toad, Magic School Bus, Curious George. But sometimes the stories are stories I make up. These are never very good stories as far as stories go, but my children love these because there is always a little boy or a little girl in the story. They love these stories because they know they’re in it. They see themselves in the story.

The same is true for us and the parables of Jesus. Truth be told, we like stories too. And when we hear parables we see ourselves in the story. This may be why Jesus’ teaching ministry was so powerful. The gospels tell us that he never taught them without a story. And the gospels also tell us that people were amazed at his teaching. When Jesus taught, the crowds gathered around him, on one occasion pressing him so badly that he taught from a boat pushed out into the water. In his teaching people found themselves. They heard God’s voice and saw their lives.

Of all the stories Jesus told there are none that show us our lives and God’s nature like the story of the prodigal son. There are so many dimensions and levels to this story, and we can easily find ourselves connecting with it in a number of ways.

Many of you resonate with the waiting Father. In the three stories that Luke 15 clusters together, there is a person who loses something: A shepherd searching for a sheep, a woman searching for a son, a Father waiting and looking every day for his son.

To lose something is painful. Earlier this summer I lost a marriage license. As the wedding ended I reminded the couple that I needed the license. They reminded me that they had given it to me at our last meeting. I pretended to remember this and then went straight to my office and looked in my files. I had the envelope to mail the license but no license. I searched everywhere. (Let me add at this point that if you’re reading this and I did your wedding earlier this summer – I’m talking about someone else). The county office involved helped us correct the situation, but about two weeks ago I was moving my office and guess what I found? I felt great rejoicing just like the stories describe.

But your pain may be far more serious than the irritation of losing car keys or a marriag license, especially if (like the younger son) someone you love has gone off. It may be your child. You thought you had raised them to value certain things or to be a certain kind of person, and then one day they made it perfectly clear to you that they weren’t who you thought they were and they had no intention of being who you wanted them to be. They might not have left, they may still be under your roof this very day – but you feel like you’ve lost them.

Some of you have lost a spouse. The person you love has re-directed their affections. They may be in love with their work. They may be in love with someone else. Whatever it is, they’ve gone to a far country, and even when they’re at home they are distant.

There are children here today who have lost their parents; children who perhaps hold on to a hope that Dad or Mom will come home. They may be waiting for mom or dad to get home from the office; they may be hoping they’ll come home again to live.

Our experiences of loss help us connect with the waiting father. But as Jesus told these stories it was clear that we are not the shepherd or the woman or the Father. In this story we are to see ourselves in the sons. We are the ones who need to find our way home. The parable we commonly refer to as the prodigal son is actually a parable about two sons. The story Jesus tells falls into two scenes or acts that focus on each son – both of whom need to come home.

This is obvious when it comes to the younger son. He disgraced his father and his family by asking for his inheritance before his father was dead. His request in effect said “I can’t wait for you to die.” This was far more than a personal insult to the father. The entire community would have known this. He disgraced his family and alienated himself from the community. After this request he had to go to a far country. He couldn’t stay there.

But the older son is also in need of finding his way home. At the end of the story, when the father throws a party for the younger brother, the older son cannot come in. He stands off at a distance – angry, resentful.

This is where we find ourselves. Some of you are far from God because at some point in your life you became convinced that God and faith and religion were the major barrier to having a good time and enjoying the good life. You decided you’d had enough. You walked out on it.

Some of you are a long way from God and you’ve been in church all your life. But though you’ve never walked out you’ve lost the capacity to enter into the joy, the celebration of being a child of the father. You’ve become dutiful.

Your distance from God today may be the distance of youthful rejection; it may be the distance of duty without joy – but whatever it is, the parable calls you to find your way home. That can happen in two ways and we’ll take a look at those in the next post.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Smart Fish

Fishing with John at Watercolor

"Come, follow me, Jesus said, and I will make you fishers of men" (Mark 1:17).

"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32).

Last week on vacation we were either in the water or on the water. Most of the time we were in it – swimming in the ocean or (most often) in the pool near the house where we were staying. On two mornings we were on the water. We spent some time Kayaking on a 200+ acre lake, and when we’d had enough of that we spent a little time fishing from the dock.

I was impressed with whatever kind of fish might have been in that lake. These were smart fish. The fishing poles provided to my kids were simple cane poles with a line and a hook. Nothing fancy. The boat-house also provided a small plastic container of bait – small shrimp and shrimpy-like parts. I would place a shrimp on the hook and John would lower the bait into the lake. The red and white floater attached to the line rocked gently in the water, and then it bobbed, tugged from beneath. John jerked up on the line – but no fish. What was noticeable was the diminished form of the shrimp. The fish was eating without taking the hook.

John lowered the bait back into the water. Again the floater disappeared for a quick moment, and we attempted to set the hook only to pull the shrimp from the lake nearly gone. Something was getting a meal. We repeated the steps outlined above and this time drew a bare hook from the water. Can fish laugh? I imagined this fish (these fishes?) snickering, calling their fiends over to the feast.

Indeed they had a feast. We kept feeding them shrimp, they kept eating, and nothing was caught.

Jesus told his first followers that he would give them a new reason to wake up every day. Instead of pulling fish out of the Sea of Galilee, they would bring men and women into the Kingdom of God. I’ve wondered about how that works these days. How do the marginally churched, the cultural Christians, or outright pagans come to be followers of Jesus Christ?

The Church seems alternately anxious and oblivious to the question. The oblivious are losing members. The anxious are packing the house – but is it possible they’re dropping a hook, providing attractive bait, but not really catching disciples? Generalizations won’t work and don’t help – but our culture is not too different from the lake at Watercolor. There are plenty of smart fish out there. They know how to sample our programs, they like the ramped up sounds of our praise and worship, they’ll listen to a speaker who knows how to lift their spirits without burdening or taxing the mind. How much of what we’re doing is shrimp on a hook, there for the tasting and taking with out much risk for the fish?

It may be that less is more. On the day John actually caught a fish someone said to us, “you need a smaller hook.” They gave us their pole, a pole with a small hook, and we baited the hook with a smaller piece of shrimp. Did it really make a difference? I don’t know, but my son pulled a fish out of the water.

Jesus said, “if I be lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” Ultimately, Jesus brings people to himself when he’s lifted up. Programs won’t do it, worship that rocks won’t do it – though both have a place in the life of the church. What we have to help us fish for people and bring them into the kingdom is Jesus. Telling his story, living his life.

We’re surrounded by smart fish, but the call Jesus gave to Peter and Andrew hasn’t changed. And just maybe there’s something to be said for smaller hooks.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

No (or few) Explanations Needed?

They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage (Nehemiah 8:8 NLT).

As we were getting ready to leave for the beach this past weekend I grabbed a copy of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow and threw it in my bag. As it turns out, I’ve been enjoying Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies this week. Still, while taking a quick look at Berry’s novel, deciding whether I really wanted to pack it, I noticed a page placed just before the table of contents. It read:

Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company of other explainers.

Those words got my attention in as much as I’ve been preparing to preach on the story of the prodigal son. This is an intimidating parable. Richard Allen Farmer, with well over 20 years of regular preaching under his belt, said it took him that long to feel ready to preach on the prodigal son. I can understand why.

I’m not exactly sure what Berry meant about “attempting to find a text” or “subtext” but I understand his aversion to explainers. I say this as one with a proclivity for explaining. For me there is a close connection between teaching and explaining. I guess Wendell Berry would number me among the “explainers.” I’m not apologizing for this. In fact, I have allies in the work of explaining, Ezra the priest being one of them.

After the exiled Hebrews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt its walls, they took a break to listen to Ezra read from the Word of God, the books of Moses. This was no perfunctory snippet as prelude to Ezra’s lengthy exposition. Ezra read from the Law from early morning until midday, “and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:3). Ezra was aided by a small army of priests who helped the people understand what the Law meant. They would read from the Law clearly and explain it. Some translations say they “gave the sense” of the reading. Here is one of the earliest examples of expository teaching.

But back to Wendell Berry’s grousing and the story of the prodigal son. As helpful (and necessary) as good expository teaching is, the last thing I want to do is “explain” the parable of the prodigal son. As a novelist and poet, Berry knows that efforts to explain and dissect a story or poem often do violence to the story or poem. Something is lost, namely the power of the story or verse. Stories and poems do their own kind of work in the mind and heart. They don’t sit there motioning for help like people on a rooftop during a flood, hoping a good explainer will find them and lower the rope of analysis to rescue them. They are quite capable of taking care of themselves, thank you.

I admire Ezra, but I admire Jesus more. And Jesus did very little explaining. He did a great deal of story telling. And those who first followed Jesus and heard him tell those stories chose to tell us about Jesus by telling more stories. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t explain much, even when some explanation would be helpful. For example, our questions about the “meaning” of the crucifixion and resurrection would be less perplexing if the gospel writers had done a little more explaining. Thankfully, there’s always Paul, who excelled in explaining and exhorting.

At the beginning of part three of Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, she quotes a line from Martin Buber. “All actual life is encounter.”

That’s what teachers are really after – an encounter. Specifically, an encounter between the listeners/ congregation and God. Even as Ezra read from the Law, the people responded with worship. They bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Something was happening that didn’t allow people to simply sit and think about what they had heard. There was encounter, worship.

Inevitably, I’ll end up explaining some aspects of the prodigal son story. Frankly, parts of it need explaining to 21st century listeners. Hopefully, the explanation won’t bleach the life out of the story. Hopefully, by the Spirit, there will be an encounter with God. And hopefully, whatever happens, folks will have a little more patience and grace than Wendell Berry.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Solitude, Community, and "March of the Penguins"

“He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22:41).

Last night Marnie and I took the kids to see March of the Penguins. The movie is a documentary about the long trek made by Emperor Penguins when it is time to mate and bring new little penguin chicks into the world. This isn’t something that they’ll do just anywhere. There is a nesting ground, a particular place that they instinctively know how to find – but getting there requires a very long walk, nearly 100 miles. This is amazing for an animal that, for all practical purposes, has no legs and takes steps by tottering back and forth from foot to foot.

To make the journey they join together, forming a massive community of black and white as they trudge toward their destination. At one point the little pilgrims formed an extended line that seemed to stretch out endlessly. As they moved across the barren and brutal terrain of ice and snow I wondered about Moses and the exodus out of Egypt. What did that look like?

Of the many beautiful and powerful scenes captured by the film makers, the parts that remain firmly lodged in my mind are the images that captured the critical role of the collective gathering while telling the story with pictures of a single penguin or one particular couple.

The journey that forms the plot of the film is one that cannot be made by a solitary penguin. One image showed an Emperor penguin, who through circumstance or weakness or old age had not managed to keep pace with the group. The solitary black figure continued to trudge across the expansive frozen wilderness. The vast emptiness of the scenery served to punctuate the loneliness of the image. The narrator, Morgan Freeman, explained that the fate of such a solitary traveler was to simply disappear into the whiteness surrounding it. Being separated from the community was a death sentence.

Once the eggs have been laid they must be carefully guarded from the cold by remaining hidden under a flap of skin between the father’s feet – a kind of fleshy pouch that envelops the egg until it hatches. Yes, the Fathers do this. Once the mother lays the egg, she transfers the egg to the male. The male guards and holds the egg for about eight weeks while the females make the 100 mile walk back to where they came from. There the females will feed, and return, making the walk yet again, to feed their chicks.

As the males wait, the days shorten, daylight all but disappears, and winter unleashes its nastiness. The only hope of survival is in the group itself. The males huddle, turning their backs to the harsh elements, taking turns at being in the warm center of the community. The film described this gathering as a new organism – hundreds of penguins forming a singular living entity for the purposes of survival.

My wife likes to jokingly remind me that in marrying me she saved me from the life of a monk. I won’t acknowledge it to her – but she’s right. She’s not very accurate because even monks live in community. In fact, community is at the heart of monasticism. But I know what she’s saying. She keeps my inclination to solitude in check. She loves a party, lots of people. She helps me by prodding me to at least go the parties. But more than that, together she and I have been blessed with a little community of our own. I can’t imagine my life without her and John and Anna. Not all people find community in marriage and family, but they’ve got to find it somewhere. What marriage and family save me from is myself. They puncture the lie that “life is a story about me.”[1]

March of the Penguins not only said something to me about my family, but it had powerful implications for the church and what the church ought to be. Life is not a journey that we can make in isolation from others. Moreover, the life of faith is not something we can do well on our own. The image of the isolated penguin and the picture of the huddled fathers both conveyed one message. To be alone is to die.

The spiritual life is peculiar in this way. It grows in solitude, but it shrivels up in isolation. Dallas Willard observes that solitude holds a place of primacy among the spiritual disciplines. Solitude gives us distance and perspective. In solitude we find freedom from “ingrained behaviors” that are set against God and life in his kingdom.[2]

But isolation has a way of eroding the life of the Spirit by turning the self in on itself. Isolation is nothing but self in which God shrinks and moves to the background while the self and all its quirks and fantasies and fears grow large.

On the night of his arrest Jesus did something that we would do well to imitate. Of course, we do well to imitate everything that Jesus did, but this is especially interesting. As he sought out solitude, he took three friends with him. The gospels tell us he was in anguish, and when you’re in anguish you need people around. And yet, you need the space of solitude. Jesus went out with the twelve. As Matthew tells it, he left them but took Peter, James and John. He asked them to “keep watch with me” and then he went a little further. Luke omits the presence of Peter, James and John, but he uses the vivid phrase “a stone’s throw.” In this scene in Gethsemane, solitude and community mingle. Both are necessary.

Emperor Penguins and Christian disciples; neither do well alone. We need others around us, even if “a stone’s throw” away. We need the rhythm of solitude and community – always careful that solitude not become isolation.

Marnie, John and Anna – along with my parents and my in-laws, brother and sister, and others whom God has given to me. And the Peachtree Presbyterian Church. After last night I see myself waddling and tottering like a penguin and I can’t imagine the journey without them.

[1] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 182.
[2] Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, 160-61.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

"Don't Move Until You See It"

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him (Psalm 37:7).

You don’t have to be an athlete to have a favorite sports movie. I’ve never placed a foot in a boxing ring, never been in the same room with one as far as I know, but I love Rocky (the sequels get increasingly predictable). I never played football, but I love Rudy and Remember the Titans. And what about The Rookie and Hoosiers and Seabiscuit? I even felt a surge of adrenaline at the sappy Disney film Racing Stripes. There’s just something powerful about contests of skill and strength and endurance. They are inherently dramatic.

This past weekend I re-discovered one of my favorite sports movies. The sport is chess. The movie is Searching For Bobby Fisher. I don’t play chess, and I’m not going to argue whether chess is actually a sport. Seems to me it has as much right to be called a sport as golf or bowling. Definitions aside, the movie evoked in me some of the same responses as those other films. Strange as it may be, there’s some high drama in this movie.

Searching For Bobby Fisher is about a seven year old kid, Josh Waitzkin. I guess he’s what we would call a prodigy. After observing some men playing a rapid game of chess in a park, he gets it. He grasps the game, understands it. He’s gifted. Among other story lines, the movie tells of his rise in the national rankings.

As with almost every sports movie, the drama reaches its height in a contest that takes place at the end of the film. Josh has encountered a player whom he fears. Another incredibly gifted kid – but different than Josh. This kid is like a cold predator at the chess board. He has quiet ways of taunting. He isn’t playing a game, he’s hunting. His face is expressionless, like some kind of shark staring at you from the other side of the board. After battling his fears (and they are multi-layered) Josh ends up facing this player for the national title.

They play each other countering move with move until Josh looses a key piece, the queen, to his opponent. He’s appears to be stuck, slightly shaken. As he eyes the board his teacher is in another room (with all the hyper-competitive parents) watching the match by video feed. At this very moment his teacher sees the way to victory. He speaks softly as if coaching Josh.

“You’ve got him Josh . . . it’s only twelve moves away . . . don’t move until you see it.”

Oddly, the drama of the game is unfolding as two people sit quietly across from each other. The action is captured only by movements of the eyes, movements that reflect the workings of the mind. As Josh gazes at the board he remembers a time when his teacher abruptly swept the board clean, knocking every piece across the hardwood floor, forcing Josh to visualize the moves in his mind. Now with a national title at stake, Josh creates a vacant board in his mind and sees the moves unfolding.

All the while, his teacher coaches with a whisper “don’t move until you see it.”

It takes strength to wait. At some level we all know this. Many of us confess to not being patient people, not being able to get still and wait. It’s torture. Thus, actually waiting demands a certain kind of strength. We know this, and yet our culture has given us a de facto definition of waiting as weakness and passivity, a form of laziness. But you can’t see deeply into things, into life, when you’re hurried. A frenetic life doesn’t allow a person to visualize twelve moves ahead. Eugene Peterson observes that “patience is a difficult condition to come to terms with in a technology-saturated culture that is impatient – worse, contemptuous – of slowness.”[1]

When we’re stuck, not sure what’s next, shaken by a direct hit life has dealt to us, patient waiting is excruciating. But our biblical ancestors understood that waiting patiently before the Lord is required of those who desire to live whole and well. Isaiah reminds us that those who wait on the Lord will be renewed in strength, mounting up with wings, walking, running without growing weary. How often does the Psalmist resolve to wait patiently before the Lord? Granted, this waiting isn’t always something the Psalmist delights in. Sometimes the question is posed, “how long must I wait?” (Ps. 119:84). Still, waiting is the fundamental posture of a prayerful life. We bring our requests, our needs, our lives before God, offering them as a sacrifice, waiting in expectation (Ps. 5:3).

And yet, the life of faith cannot be all about waiting. The counsel of Josh Waitzkin’s teacher doesn’t always work for those who seek to life a life of faith, following Jesus. If we resolve to not “move until we see it,” we’ll likely never move. In our waiting before the Lord we rarely get full disclosure, all twelve moves, the winning resolution. Sometimes we simply have to make a move. Moves 2-12 remain a mystery, but we can take step one. That God asks this of us is seen in his call to Abraham. “Go to a land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1) The movements of the Spirit cannot be discerned like the movements of a chess game. It’s far more mysterious, like wind, moving where it will.

The Christian life is lived in this tension. We wait patiently, not driven by the demands around us or the anxieties within us. And yet we are not content simply to wait, and waiting until all the moves are clear is often a failure to trust. Living in this tension constitutes the drama of our lives, real life drama.

And in these ordinary, daily dramas, far more than a national title is at stake.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 337.