Walk the Crooked Road

In her fascinating musings on the exodus story called The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on the Exodus, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg weaves insights from Jewish tradition, mystics, and contemporary psychology into her often-compelling but sometimes dense tome.  Especially interesting to me was her take on the inevitably of struggle, utilizing the Israelites and their long exodus journey from slavery through a wilderness.  She calls this the “crooked road” of the wilderness, wrought with questions, confusion, and failure along the way.  She writes:

Their “crooked road” into the wilderness gives them, paradoxically, a freedom to think, to ask their subversive, sarcastic questions. It gives them, also, the outrageous freedom to “zigzag,” not only geographically but intellectually, emotionally.  The road that is akuma (“crooked,” “devious”) threads through places of vision and faith and, adjacently, places of doubt and revision. It makes possible a journey that is like a graph curve (a modern Hebrew meaning for the word, akuma), zigzag lines joining highs and lows, discontinuities that are intellectually baffling to the reader, but that are presented by the narrator in a matter-of-fact, empirical spirit: this is the way it was; this is the way it is. These discontinuities cannot be avoided, or dispelled.

In our chronological arrogance, we might think ourselves more wise than the former slaves who traversed the wilderness terrain, less prone to fail or to get it wrong.  But this “empirical spirit” tells a story, our story, a story where our walk or our doctrine cannot be perfected.  No doubt, we continue to walk.  And we continue to theologize.  And we speak what we believe.  But we do it knowing that our way is crooked.

Our best theologizing only approximates God’s truth.

Our best days only hide our deep blemishes.

Our most noble acts conceal selfish ambition.

This is the way it was.  This is the way it is.

Her words invite you and me to tremendous self-compassion.  We beat ourselves up for our failures.  We feel that gut-wrenching ache of humiliation when our concealed self leaps to the fore, exposing parts of us that we despise or fear or simply prefer to remain in hiding.  Her words invite us to extraordinary compassion for one another, with whom we disagree and misunderstand and resent.  This compassion is the soil of real forgiveness.

We are living paradoxes.  And we don’t know how deep the rabbit hole of contradiction goes.  This is an empirical reality.  It’s a theological belief.  And yet, it does not often lead us to humility.  More often than not, those of us who believe in man’s crookedness most deeply are the least compassionate, the most condescending, and more apt to be “blind guides, straining gnats while swallowing camels” (Matt. 23:24). I count myself one much of the time, sadly.

On the crooked road, our waywardness requires humility.  It requires community, because we need help, a hand to pull us out of the ditch.  It requires honesty.  And it requires intense purpose, a single-minded focus on entering that new land, rather than creating false oases along the way.

So, walk the crooked road.  And be mindful of those stumbling along the way next to you.

Practicing Wholeheartedness

A personal theme for the past 2 years or so has been living with wholeheartedness. If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably noticed the theme coming up time and again in different contexts.  The launching point for it, of course, has been David Whyte’s excellent thought that “the antidote to exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness.”

This is always challenged in practice, however.  So, as I prepared to vacation this summer, I was thinking about how getting away might impact me.  Would I find myself, as I typically have, depressed on the last day of vacation?  Might I find that I really didn’t rest as I had hoped to?  Would my vacation be a long-awaited respite only to bring dread as the end approached?

I’m delighted to say that I’m back, refreshed, and rested.  But I’m also delighted to say that I didn’t crave this vacation like I have in the past.  Nor, did I dread its end.  In fact, many things were different.  Here are a few reflections:

First, I’ve tried to live with more of a sense of presence and wholeness daily, rather than working busily and exhaustingly up until that ‘salvation’ called vacation.  Strangely, on the day we left, I told my wife that I really wasn’t excited to go, that living in the present felt so good that I was a bit afraid to lose this sense of presence in the busyness of our packed two weeks of activity.

Second, I didn’t take 10 books on this trip, hoping to read what I hadn’t gotten to in my busyness.  Rather, I had only the books that sat on my iPad Kindle, which were opened just a few times.  My goal was to stay connected, to God, to my own heart, to my wife, and to my kids.

Third, I prepared well in advance not to run away.  In other words, when you live without wholeheartedness, as divided and fragmented and ‘not yourself’, you can’t help but want to get away to ‘find yourself.’  No doubt, rest and solitude is necessary, and aids this process.  But everyday American life affords little opportunity for real, daily solitude, especially for those of us with children.  Therefore, I wanted to live more wholly daily, mindful of the fact that it would mean that I had to confront my patterns of escape, numbing, and coping which have stifled me spiritually and relationally over the years.  Preparation helped me to live more wholly throughout the year, enabling me to leave for vacation rested already, in one sense, and able to really enjoy the time with others.

Finally, I found that living this way was not merely self-help.  This has enabled me to live more missionally, more mindful of others and more engaged with my family, my neighbors, and my world.  When I live a fragmented existence (busily working to achieve, to gain approval, to meet demands, to avoid my own issues), I live disconnected from others.  Paradoxically, the need to meet everyone else’s needs disconnects me from those who I am called to love and serve.

This experiment in wholeness has been fruitful, particularly over the past two years or so.  It’s an oasis in the desert, but I’m also aware of my own propensity to manufacture disaster in my own life, amounting to even more fragmentation, self-sabotage, and more.  I pray for God’s grace to continue in the way of wholeness, knowing that I can be extraordinarily creative at practicing dividedness, as well.