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Black Bear Collision

I ran into a black bear.

No, that’s not exactly true. What actually happened is that a black bear ran into me.

A few weeks ago I was on my way home from a Young Life meeting in New Haven. It was dusk, around 9:00 p.m., and twilight was just beginning to fade to night. I was cruising along in my little Kia Soul when not far ahead of me a hulking black shape suddenly came barreling out of the ditch to my left. Before my brain could really register what was happening I could see the round head and brown snout of a black bear. I braced for impact, but it must have slowed its forward trajectory at the last moment. It only struck me a glancing blow to the driver’s side door. As I braked to a stop I couldn’t believe what had just happened. A black bear had run into me! Looking in my rearview mirror I could see not one, but two bears in the middle of the road, one smaller and one larger. I turned around in time to see the smaller bear cross the road and disappear into the tall grass. The larger bear began running down the road away from me, turned into someone’s yard, and eventually vanished into the woods. It seemed to be okay. I hope it was. I’ll never know for sure. I continued home, surprised (a black bear ran into me!), sad (no one wants to hit a black bear!), and bewildered (did that really just happen?!).

In retrospect, I wish that I would have done something differently. I don’t know what exactly. Perhaps I could have driven slower, braked harder, swerved more sharply. In the moment of crisis maybe I could have done something different. But I just wasn’t prepared.

Looking back on the bear incident, I realize that it illustrates how I too often live my life. Unprepared. I’m never expecting the bear out of the ditch. I’m never ready. Yet bears come at me with surprising regularity. Crisis moments occur, large and small. A disagreement with my wife. Rude or mean-spirited comments online. Responsibility shirked. Unexpected interruptions. In these and a hundred other moments I want to respond with kindness and grace, with courage and compassion. But I don’t. I’m unprepared. And so, more often than I care to admit, I react in ways that don’t reflect the person that I want to be.

I pretend that these bumps and bruises of life, these incidents and accidents, are black bears rushing out of the woods unforeseen. I tell myself that there’s nothing I could have done. It all happened so quickly. How could I have known? I continue on my way surprised (I can’t believe that just happened!), sad (I don’t like the way I just reacted), and bewildered (why does this keep happening?). But the truth is that these conflicts and offenses are the stuff of life. They happen all the time. And it is possible for me to be prepared for them and to respond to them in the spirit of Christ. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes “The disciplined person is the person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.” It would be foolish of me to think that I could show up at the pool in Rio and compete for an Olympic medal. I’m not prepared. I haven’t trained for it. Similarly, it is foolish of me to think that I will be able to respond with kindness, compassion, and justice to the challenges of life when I haven’t trained.

So there it is. The reason that I am not able to act in the moment is that I am not a disciplined person. In the moment of crisis I don’t act like Christ because I haven’t practiced acting like Christ. I haven’t adopted the training, the discipline of Christ. Acting like Jesus in the challenging moment proves to be exceedingly difficult when I haven’t been living like Jesus.

Shortly after my bear collision I stumbled upon a short except from Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines on the Renovaré website. He says, “It is part of the misguided and whimsical condition of humankind that we so devoutly believe in the power of effort-at-the-moment-of-action alone to accomplish what we want and completely ignore the need for character change in our lives as a whole. The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy.” In other words, we humans tend to think that when called upon we will somehow magically be able to do what needs to be done regardless of our preparation or experience.

When I go back to the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) I discover that Jesus had a lifestyle that embraced certain practices, disciplines if you will. He had developed habits of prayer, silence, solitude, submission. And it was the Spirit-formed character of Jesus, developed through the regular practice of these disciplines and others, that allowed him to say or do the right thing, the compassionate thing, the just thing, in the moment of crisis or conflict. And it will be the same for me. I can go on believing that black bears come barreling out of the ditch every day and there is nothing that I can do about it. Or I can cooperate with the Spirit of God and train myself, discipline myself, in the lifestyle of Jesus. Doing the small, quiet, everyday things that Jesus did, so that I will be prepared in the large and small crisis moments of life to act like Jesus.

That is why I set an alarm on my phone to remind me to stop and pray several times a day. That is why most mornings find me taking a quiet walk through woods and fields with no earbuds, no distractions, just listening for God. That is why I set aside time everyday to read in the Gospels and the Psalms.

The next time that I see that big black head and brown snout in my window, I want to be ready.

Vigil

Three weeks ago I attended a candlelight vigil on the town green in Middlebury. Over 200 of us gathered in the twilight to honor and mourn the 49 people who were killed and the over 100 injured in the Orlando massacre.  A few of our local clergy offered prayers. Someone sang “There is a Balm in Gilead.” The names of the victims were read as a candle was lit for each one. Then three final candles were lit and three final prayers offered. One for the first responders who courageously assisted at the scene of the carnage. One for the families and friends of all those killed and injured. And one for the perpetrator of this atrocity. As our local Catholic priest lit this final candle the rain that had been threatening all evening began to gently fall. We all stood solemnly as the rain softly washed over us. Then we sang a last song together and slowly dispersed into the night.

In the three weeks since then the carnage has continued unabated. Just in the past few days over 20 people were killed in a bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh. More than 40 lost their lives and over 200 were injured in a bombing at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey. And over 200 were killed and over 200 more injured in a massive car-bombing in Baghdad, Iraq. I have not attended any candlelight vigils to honor these hundreds killed and injured. To my knowledge there have been no local vigils. No candles lighted. No songs sung. No prayers offered. No moments of solemn reflection. I admit this to my own shame. Here in my little bucolic corner of Vermont it seems that I have the luxury of scanning headlines and moving on, watching from a distance, largely unmoved. Call it “compassion fatigue”, or apathy, or something much worse.

But I’ve been reading lately that God is not unmoved. Through the prophet Jeremiah God thunders, “Stop murdering the innocent!” (Jeremiah 22:3). I’ve increasingly gotten the uncomfortable feeling that God thinks that this murder and injustice, though it is so far away, has something to do with me. That I am connected to it. And that God expects me to do something about it. Seventeenth-century poet and preacher John Donne understood this when he wrote, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Dr. King understood as well when he wrote from the Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

I’m coming to see that it was my family that was gunned down in Orlando and Dhaka. My brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters who were bombed in Istanbul and Baghdad. I cannot continue to let these deaths sweep past me unmourned, unwept. God weeps over them all. So must I. These atrocities will continue until we decide that they are unacceptable and summon the courage to act for justice and peace. Until we see that the risks of not acting are greater than the risks of acting. So I’m deciding to speak for those who are being silenced and to act for those who are being restrained, trusting that the work of justice is God’s work and that God will walk this path with me.

Intrusion

Chirping and chattering. Squeaking and scolding. Various birds and small scurrying rodents like the chipmunk in this photo call to one another all along my morning route. It struck me today that what I think of as simply my daily walk, my exercise and meditation, is an intrusion to others. Every morning I disrupt the lives and routines of these creatures. It’s not my intent to cause alarm or anxiety, but I do just the same. For a few minutes they all go on high alert. Chipmunks run for cover in last fall’s leaves or an old hollow log. Birds fly higher up or farther away. Squirrels scramble up trees and leap to safety. I stride on, intent on raising my heart rate as well as theirs. I rarely stop along the way except perhaps to snap a few photos. But I’ve learned that when I do stop, the atmosphere slowly changes. As I stop walking, slow my breathing, and eventually become still and silent, the creatures around me gradually begin to relax as well. At first they remain on alert, carefully observing me. But as I remain quiet, only listening and breathing, they begin to resume their normal activities. They start to feel safe. That they can be what they are and do what they do. And as long as I am at rest we can all just be. Eventually I have to continue my walk and the stillness is broken again. As I walk on I think about how my presence makes an impact, and it’s not always the impact that I intend. I move too abruptly, speak too much, walk too fast. I stir things up, producing anxiety and alarm. May i be a purposefully peaceful presence, helping calm minds and contributing to an atmosphere of trust where everyone can simply be who they are.

Saturday

It is a gray morning. They say that the sun will come out this afternoon. That the clouds will break up and give way to golden light. Perhaps it will. I don’t know. All I can see is that the morning sky is a soft pale gray on this silent Sabbath. Everything seems shrouded in a gray veil, as if in mourning. Gray mourning.

What’s that? No, it’s not gray like the donkey. The donkey was another gray entirely. A deeper, richer gray. Quite lovely. So lustrous. Did you happen to touch it? Its coat was soft and smooth as velvet. My God! Was that just six days ago? It seems a lifetime. Hosanna indeed. What a fool I was. . . what fools we all were. Except for him. I noticed that he was crying, but I never asked him why. Now. . . .

Yes, you’re right, their faces did turn gray, just for a moment, before they became purple with rage. All those coins rolling around on the temple pavement, doves taking flight, people scrambling to scoop up the money. Their money. How they hated him. He was fierce that day.

Waterpot? The sky reminds you of the gray stone waterpot? What are you talking about? What water–oh, of course. That waterpot. The one we chased for an hour through the crowded streets of the city. More than once I thought we had lost it! But in the end it led us right to the perfect place. A spacious room for our gracious host. Perfect place to eat the Passover. And he poured water from that very pot to wash our feet. He washed our feet. I should have been kneeling before him, not him before me. We all should have knelt.  Should have listened and understood. . . . We never should have gone to that damned garden. We should have known. Should have seen it coming. Should have stayed awake. Should have protected him. Should have. . . .

The sky is a cold, stony gray. I see that now. But not like the stone waterpot. No. It’s gray like that great gray stone that they rolled over the gaping mouth of the tomb. To seal him in. Cold and gray as death.

They say the sun will come out again. But I don’t know. All I see is gray.

Infidelity

Yes.

I admit that over

the past several weeks I have

grown increasingly infatuated

with Spring.

But Winter, dear,

it’s not entirely my fault.

You’ve been so distant and aloof,

rarely putting in an appearance.

I honestly thought that

you’d already gone.

 

Well, if you must know,

Spring has been stopping by

rather frequently.

She’s so young and vivacious,

she fairly glows!

Yes, she can be immature and silly,

but I like her giggle.

You should hear

the promises she makes.

It’s enough to make

a man blush.

And her green is so

alluring.

 

Then this morning

I was sitting at the breakfast table when

you swept in,

imperious as always,

but absolutely beautiful,

glistening in the morning sunlight.

I almost gasped.

Winter, darling, your charms are still

delightful.

Why have you been so

unavailable?

 

Spring will be coming by soon,

you’re going to have to leave.

Please go.

She could pop in any time now

and it would be awkward

if she found you here.

 

But, Winter, love,

this morning you were

so captivating . . .

I couldn’t

look away.

 

 

Winter or Spring?

Today was another weird day here in Vermont. Record-setting warm temperature, green grass, and muddy roads. In early February. It’s still winter, according to the calendar, but the weather could lead you to think otherwise. I don’t claim to know what is going on. The whole El Niño thing seems to be having its way with us. But even without that phenomenon, it’s clear that our four seasons flex and contract year to year. They don’t always stay within their prescribed 90 day boundaries marked out by the solstices and equinoxes. The order doesn’t change. Spring always follows winter. But the actual duration of each season can be unpredictable.

The same is true of the spiritual seasons of my life. They aren’t limited to 90 days. A season can last a few weeks or stretch on for years. And I don’t have a vernal equinox on the calendar to let us know that I am moving from winter to spring. So how can I discern my season? In her eminently practical Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun devotes an appendix to exploring seasons, ages and stages of transformation. She includes a helpful chart of the seasons of the spirit which lists some key questions, primary longings, and signs of the seasons. Some signs of winter include feeling stuck, angry, or distant from God. I’ve been there for a long time. But something has been shifting inside of me, and I’ve been wondering if spring might be coming soon. Calhoun says that spring is marked by a desire for more of God along with a greater awareness of longing or awe. That desire is budding in me, and it is giving me hope that this winter is turning into spring. Summer is marked by a passion to belong and grow. And autumn is the season of bearing fruit, taking initiative and utilizing gifts.

Last week I wrote about the importance of knowing our season so that we can avoid disorientation, disappointment and confusion. Each season has a purpose and is an opportunity to grow in different ways. When we know our season we can embrace and engage it with greater intentionality. And we can cooperate more fully with the Author of the seasons.

So, what season are you in?

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What Season Is This Anyway?

It’s January 27th, mid-winter here in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. This time of year we routinely expect sub-zero temperatures, icy wind, snow and darkness. But when I stepped out my front door this morning my first thought was “This feels like spring!” The temperature was in the thirties and the sun felt warm on my face. Instead of snowbanks I saw green grass. And a chorus of songbirds accompanied me as I set out on my daily walk. It didn’t look like winter. It didn’t sound like winter. It didn’t feel like winter. It felt like spring. I broke into a smile and felt my spirit rising with hope. But within an hour the sky grew dark and the wind grew cold. It is still winter. Spring is coming, but it’s not here yet. It isn’t time.

As I walked along this morning I thought about how important it is for me to know what season I am in. Otherwise I can easily get disoriented by daily fluctuations of temperature, wind and precipitation. Sights, sounds and smells can trick me into thinking that I’ve made it through the winter. It takes a contented, peaceful heart and a steady mind to discern the season from the day.

Seasons come and go, but not quickly. Days speed by with their ups and downs, but seasons linger. In each season there is work to be done, work that takes more than a day. There are lessons to learn and growth to experience. Seasons take time and have a purpose. They can’t be rushed.

Each season has its own joys and difficulties. Sometimes in the midst of winter I may have a day, or a moment, that feels like spring. When that occurs, it is lovely. But I need to accept it for the gift that it is, without expectation or a sense of entitlement. If not, I will be disappointed when the chill wind returns tomorrow. Likewise, I may have a wintry day in late spring. But if I know what season I am in, I won’t get discouraged or lose hope. It’s okay to lean toward the next season, or carry an aroma from the last one. But I need to live in the season that I am in. Enjoy it for what it is. And know that it is passing and will come again.

By the way, as I get ready to post this, it has started snowing. But I know what season this is, so I’m not surprised, and I won’t lose heart.

What season are you in? How do you know? Post your thoughts or questions here. Or write me at

SONY DSC
Mid-January Adirondack View

 

Lost

There was a time,

so the story goes,

when people knew.

They felt it deep in their bones

and saw it

in a winter sunrise or a field of daisies

or children splashing in a spring puddle

and heard it

in the call of geese winging south

the rumble of thunder

or the giggle of a dark-eyed girl.

They smelled it

in freshly mown grass

touched it

in the smooth grain of an ancient oak

tasted it

on a lover’s mouth.

It was fierce and tender

unassailable, incomprehensible

and impossible to doubt.

But we grew wise

measuring and counting and classifying

everything

and everyone

declaring what is

and what can’t possibly be

and why

and who

and so

“We have lost our sense of our belovedness.”

 

 

 

 

December Green

When I’m walking in the woods in early December there are certain things that I expect. I expect to see and hear squirrels and chipmunks scurrying in the underbrush. I expect to see bare trees. I know that I’ll be walking on a carpet of once-colorful leaves, now various shades of brown. The chill in the air doesn’t surprise me, nor do the calling jays and crows or the honking geese. The pungent smell of the earth is familiar. I expect all of these sights, sounds, smells and more. What I don’t expect is the color green. Evergreen perhaps, but not this vibrant, springlike green. Green grass. Green moss on a long-dead log. Green leaves springing up from the forest floor. A different kind of December green.

I wasn’t unhappy with this unanticipated green, even in the very late autumn. But I was taken aback. I was ready for death and decay, but met life. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. What do you do when you encounter unexpected life? It took me a few moments to wrap my mind around it, but then I stepped back and smiled. Which seemed like the appropriate response. A deep breath, a smile, a whispered prayer of thanks.

Sometimes I think that I know how things are going to turn out. I’ve seen enough of life to know that all of us are broken in some way. And so we stumble into misunderstandings. We cloak ourselves in apathy or sarcasm as a defense mechanism. When we’re walking around in this world we know what to expect. But sometimes this world and the people in it surprise us and we unexpectedly encounter an open heart, a kind word, grace. And when we do, the best thing to do in response is to take a deep breath, smile, and receive it. And whisper a prayer of thanks. Thanks for unexpected grace. Thanks for December green.

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