All posts by bsdulaney

How to Move a Foundation

The first flaw in our new home build was a big one!  Before we broke ground, I had flagged off several possibilities for how to situate the home on our house site.  I met with the builder, and explained that we’d chosen the option with a north-northeast direction (the stakes with two flags)—NOT the direct north-south orientation (the stakes with one flag).  Within a couple of days, the foundation sub-contractor had come in and carefully pinpointed the exact corners of the house footprint.  I was so excited to go see, with precision, the view out my bedroom window, and the location of the front porch!  But as I stood in the field on the “front porch,” it didn’t feel quite right.  I pulled out my compass.  Sure enough, the house was oriented on a due north-south direction.  He’d used the wrong set of stakes!

Thankfully, no footings had been dug, no concrete had been poured.  The contractor owned his mistake, and paid the sub to come back and spend another day laying out the right footprint for the house.  Four lightning-quick weeks later—after the basement had been dug, the footers poured, and the basement walls poured—I stood on the front porch space and thought, “What if I hadn’t caught this mistake?  What if we discovered it now, and had to rotate the entire foundation of this house twenty-two and a half degrees towards the east?  It wouldn’t be happening—unless I had a magic wand!”

We were a week and a half into pandemic isolation at that time, and everything was wrong.  I couldn’t visit my parents’ house.  My carefully-laid plans were trashed.  I was forced to interact with people through a screen.  My introverted batteries were drained by the incessant noise of a house full of children.  I watched helplessly as my remaining months of sabbatical leave were being hijacked by increasing family and work demands.   Outwardly, I tried to be positive.  Inwardly, I was a little boy who, halfway through enjoying a banana split, found that someone had replaced the bananas with dill pickles, and was forced to keep eating it.  I was angry, bitter and resentful.  My recurring thought was, “No!  This can’t be happening!”  But it was.  And I couldn’t do a thing about it.

I also couldn’t do anything about my “No!” orientation to this new normal.  I wanted to change my heart—to learn to say, “Yes!” to what was happening—but couldn’t muster the willpower.  In my heart-of-hearts, I knew this change was essential if I was to survive this pandemic without going off my rocker!  So I went looking for the magic mystery pill which might move my heart.  I prayed the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can…”  Nothing happened.  I doubled-down on my daily, twenty-minute centering prayer sessions.  Nothing changed.  I opened my Bible, looking for a word of grace that would open the skies of my soul to rainbows and sunshine.  Nothing.  I even added a second day of fasting for the week (one of my Lenten disciplines).  Nothing changed.  The ground of my being was as firmly fixed as a two-year-old being told to share his toys:  “NO!  I refuse to accept this!  I will not surrender!  I will NOT give in!  I demand my old life back!”

Then one Wednesday it happened.  Sometime mid-morning, as I was responding to some urgent emails, my youngest son came in asking me to help him with his spelling.  “Sure,” I said.  After we did the spelling lesson, he asked, “Could you help me with these long division problems?”  “Yeah, sure.”  Later, as I was helping my kids make lunch, it occurred to me:  Something is different here.  My heart had shifted.  I found myself embracing reality as it was—not as I wanted it to be.  I felt joy as it dawned on me:  “My whole orientation has changed.  After weeks of, ‘No!’ I am suddenly saying, ‘Yes!’ to what is.”

The foundation of my life shifted that day.  I’d been helpless to reorient the house of my life.  And yet, by a power greater than myself, I now found myself on new footings, with my whole approach and perspective changed.  I had moved from opposition to acceptance, from pessimism to trust, from despair to hope, from self-centeredness to love.  Jesus said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).  I like to think I had commanded the mountain of my own life to be moved, but that wasn’t true.  It was God’s doing.  But the mustard seed of my faith did play a part.  I longed for a new orientation, and gave God space each day to work at making that happen.  Through spiritual practices, I was giving God the time to do some demolition in the basement of my life, and to do the impossible:  to dig new footers.  God could certainly do that without my efforts–whether instantly, or over time.  It’s God’s work, but still…it also involves me.

Once upon a time, I did spiritual activities because they made me feel good.  (To a certain degree, that’s still true.)  But I’m understanding more and more that prayer, scripture reading, meditation, etc. are less about the immediate results.  These practices deepen my capacity for grace—a grace which can build a foundation that’s firm and solid, and yet flexible, nimble and resilient.  It can even take a poorly positioned life, uproot it, and reorient it in such a way that it will stand through the storm, and even dance in the rain.  Sure, I still have moments when I shift back into old ways.  But in the end, grace prevails.

A Feast of One

I believe in the power of Christian community to grow faith and the spiritual life.  As a preacher, I’ve often said with certitude, “There’s no such thing as a single, solitary Christian!  You can no more be a solo Christian than a finger lopped off from the body.”  But five weeks into COVID-isolation, I’m rethinking the connection between believer and body.

To be fair, Jesus calls his followers into community.  During his ministry, Jesus’ followers numbered as many as seventy-two people.  The new covenant of his blood was shared at table with the Twelve.  He asked Peter, James and John to stay awake with him as he prayed in Gethsemane.  Hanging on the cross, Jesus told (presumably) John that his mother, Mary, was now John’s mother—creating adoptive family among the disciples.  As I like to say to people joining the church, “Jesus has called you into communion with himself—which means you’re stuck with all these other people Jesus has gathered to him.  The church is the laboratory in which you learn how to love the unlovable.  It’s where Jesus schools us in how to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

I still believe these things to be true.  But this season of social distancing has opened my eyes to something else equally as true:  separation and solitude are just as essential to faith and spiritual growth.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  I stumble over the word “daily.”  The choice to follow Jesus is not a once-and-for-all moment.  It’s a daily decision.  A choice to seek God—to read the scriptures, to be in prayer, to be still in God’s presence, to listen for Christ’s voice, to do whatever foolish and risky thing that voice may be calling you to do (without putting others at risk, I would add!).  As a student of contemplation, I believe this also includes periods of solitude.  Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days.  With regularity, he retreated from the crowds to deserted places to pray.  If Jesus did this to stay grounded in God, how much more do I need to!  Jesus included this part of the journey when he said, “Follow me.”  Imitate me, and how I deepen my capacity to know, love and obey God by spending time alone with God.  Relationships are built on trust.  And trust takes an investment of time.

On Easter our family worshiped with Trinity Church, Boston.  (Thank God for YouTube!)  While in seminary, my wife and I frequented this grand church’s Holy Week and Easter services.  As we settled into the live stream, we were a little disappointed.  Except for some inspiring organ music, with images of their stained-glass windows, none of the prerecorded service was in their beautiful, cavernous sanctuary.  It was all done from the rectory and homes of the parishioners.  Dozens of choir members offered Zoom-like anthems and hymns from the safety of their homes.  (Even the organists played from instruments in their own studios!)  Various clergy offered prayers and readings from their home offices.  I began to sense how beautiful and touching this was, in itself.  Even when driven asunder by pandemic, the church was being the body of Christ.  The church is not a building, but a people.

But what unhinged me was the “communion” liturgy.  Sitting at his dining room table, with a plate of food (including a bottle of Tobasco and shaker of LSU Geaux Dust; he was obviously a Louisianan!), the rector explained that the meal they would experience was not the customary eucharistic celebration.  He explained how God was present in each home, at each table as people gathered for their Easter meal.  What followed was a long series of parishioners who’d snapped video sitting at their dining room tables, with food on their plates, and drink in their cups, reciting a portion of a rewritten eucharistic liturgy.  Some tables included parents and children, or spouses and partners.  But many had only one place setting, only one person—an icon of how social isolation has led some into solitude.  As the pastor concluded this liturgical mosaic, he evoked as a gift those who gather at a table where their only companion is the Risen Lord.

For all the beauty of community and communion and fellowship—from sanctuaries filled with thousands of worshipers, to home-based small groups—at the heart of the Christian faith is the individual abiding in a relationship of trust with the Living Lord.  Without this, the community of faith is not much more than just a community.  Perhaps those of us in the church have become so enamored with the beloved traditions, institutional grandeur, inspiring music, high-impact productions, fellowship events, feel-good missions, etc., that we’ve taken our eye off the main thing:  people who seek, encounter and follow Jesus in their daily lives.  The real work of discipleship—the life of faith—is learning how to listen for and follow the Spirit’s leading Monday through Saturday.  This is how the church gets imbued with the fragrance of Christ.

What is God teaching me amid this crisis?  That perhaps I’ve got it wrong in assuming that gathering Christians together is somehow the way disciples of Jesus are made.  Mike Breen put it this way (and, if you’re a church person, I’ll warn you that this is hard to swallow):  “If you make disciples, you always get the church.  But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.  We need to understand the church as the effect of discipleship and not the cause.” (Building a Discipling Culture, p. 5)  Jesus told his followers, “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).  But about the church, Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18; also see 1 Peter 2:4-5).  Jesus builds the community of faith—not us.  It is an outgrowth of individuals who seek and follow Jesus to the point that they find themselves in communion with others who are doing the same.  As they say, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

In this respect, the church is a grace—a gift that Jesus is giving to the world.  He collects each of us one-by-one, folds us together, salt of the earth, quietly slipping in the yeast of the Spirit, kneads the dough of our collective lives, lets it rise, bakes, takes, blesses, breaks and gives us as the bread of life to a hungry world.  It’s not something we can make or fake.  It begins with Jesus’ initiative.  He comes to each of us with the invitation: “Follow me.”

Here is a gift for the receiving.  If you’re a seeker of God, offer some of the bandwidth of your life to Jesus…daily.  If you’re a formerly-regular church-goer, let your hunger for Christian community drive you into the desert…daily.  Go for a walk with Jesus.  Speak with him about what burdens you.  Listen for his voice in the silence.  Break open your Bible and read it.  Try doing what you sense he’s asking you to do.  Sure, when the time is right, connect with others online.  (I’ll say more about this in a future post.)  But perhaps your calling now is to enter into your closet to seek Christ in this intimate space.  Allow grace and time to deepen the trust between you.  It’s been my survival strategy in this crisis.  Yes, I can’t wait to gather with people again—my Jesus-peeps, neighbors, friends and family.  But for now, I press into the desert of social isolation, trusting the One I meet there will press me back into community when the time is right.

Sepulchre of Life

On Sunday, my small group community (meeting online) read the story of Jesus’ suffering and death from John 19.  My heart was stirred by Jesus’ tender burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  We were invited to write or draw a prayer in response to what we heard.  I sketched the niche upon which a body would’ve been laid, which looked remarkably like a table to me.  From this image emerged this poem/prayer.  I offer it to you on this Good Friday.

Sepulchre of Life

In a dark cave

hewn for the dead

hewn for the dead

a stone table

white in the midnight

hard, firm, stable, static

hidden from view

cradles the lifeless lover

the wounded warrior

the emaciated magician

the crucified king

One defeated

never again to be defeated

soon to rise and become

the unlikely and unthinkable

creating life from a garden of rocks

the womb of countless tombs

even the stone of my heart

chiseled for the living

chiseled for the living

 

The Pandemic Passover

I have a childhood dream that’s long haunted me.  In the dream, it was just after dusk.  I was standing on the front yard of my childhood home—the very home where my family and I now live.  In the growing dark, a flash of light burst over the mountains to the southeast—like distant lightning—followed by a rumbling boom.  I could hear the distant sound of hundreds of voices crying out in agony, sending chills down my spine.  My imagination, forged during the waning years of the Cold War, knew exactly what had happened.  A nuclear bomb had been dropped on our county seat, snuffing out hundreds of souls in an instant.  As unlikely a target as Floyd, Virginia was to the USSR, it was profoundly real and terrifying in my mind.  I had heard the cries of the dying and bereaved, but from my home, where I was safe and secure.

New York City’s numbers of Coronavirus deaths just surpassed the number of people killed on 9/11.  And the figure continues to climb—not only in NYC, but even here in Virginia.  My mom called me to tell me that a member of my home church had tested COVID-19 positive.  (Thankfully she’s well enough to self-quarantine at home.)  But thousands more are not so lucky.  Each morning I learn of someone else who’s been diagnosed with—or fallen victim to—the virus.  This morning it was John Prine—a familiar voice forever stilled by a deadly, silent force.

A pastor-friend pointed out to me how President Trump referred to the pandemic as a “plague.”  “I’d not heard it referred to in such biblical proportions,” he said to me.  “It’s gotten me to thinking a lot about the Passover.”  In case you fell asleep during that flannel-board lesson in Sunday school, when Moses returned to Egypt demanding that Pharaoh free God’s people from slavery, the Lord unleashed ten back-to-back plagues on the people of Egypt.  (Think rivers of blood, frogs, boils, locusts, darkness…great stuff!)  With each successive plague, it seemed Pharaoh was going to give in, and release the Hebrews.  But then, his heart hardened, he’d change his mind.

Finally God took the gloves off with the tenth and final plague:  the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt.  To spare the Hebrews, God commanded that they sacrifice a lamb, prepare it (along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs) as a special “farewell” meal before fleeing Egypt.  But note an important detail:  Blood from the lamb was to be smeared on the doorframes of their homes.  “I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals…. The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12-13 CEB)  Sometime after midnight, “a terrible cry of agony rang out across Egypt because every house had someone in it who had died” (Exodus 12:30).  The next day, the Hebrews were set free from their slavery.

As I write, many Jewish families will gather at table in their homes to recount this story through the Passover Seder.  And as I post today, many Christians will strive to find ways to gather and recount Jesus’ Last Supper—what was, too, a Passover meal.  Unlike in Judaism, Christianity’s remembrance meal has long been celebrated on altars in sanctuaries, presided over by clergy.  While little will change in Jewish homes, Christians are left with the discomforting lack of an altar-table, struggling to find ways to re-constitute a meal which (in most denominations, at least) they cannot do apart from the physical presence of the church.  Even if they have bread and wine—and maybe even some cutting-edge preacher leading a virtual blessing—nothing can take the place of a bunch of Jesus-followers called together to break bread and share the cup.  There’s just no substitute for the real thing.

I find myself wanting to be Jewish.  I yearn for a familiar feast in my own cozy home.  I long to be reminded of how, despite death being unleashed around me, I am safe, and God is firmly in control.  I’m hungry for spiritual comfort food.

And yet there are thousands being forced to choke-down the bread of sorrow, washing it down with the cup of suffering.  Dreams cut short.  Promises unfulfilled.  Death visited on the just and the unjust.  While the angel of death will pass over many homes, most of us will know someone whose life ended as a statistic.  We will hear and join in the “terrible cry of agony” that rings out across the world.  And the story will not end with some joyous celebration of our liberation on the far side of the pandemic.  No.  There will be too many funerals that had been postponed.  Lament will be our song.

It’s such a cold comfort.  Much like that Passover Jesus shared with his disciples.  He holds up the bread, and tears it in two.  “This is my body, broken.  Eat it.”  He puts the cup into their hands.  “This is my blood.  Drink it. It’s for you.”  The One for whom these men had abandoned all things, with whom they had shared three astounding years, was going to die.  He was going to die on the gallows.  Splayed out and strung up naked on a cross like a discarded side of meat.  A perversion of justice.  Not so unlike a deadly virus that stalks unseen, taking some lives, and sparing others, without regard to title or position, wealth or status, religion or creed.

That’s where God shows up, and takes off the gloves.  The gloves come off not to deal out death and woe, not to dispense justice and right the wrongs, but to expose the divine hands and heart to the wretched terrors of human existence.  To take nails into the palms, just as thousands did in the centuries of Roman oppression.  To take the anonymous and terrifying death experienced by thousands still today.  For me, it’s a discomforting truth; but true, nonetheless.  If I permit it to sear my soul, and permeate my consciousness like that childhood dream, it will transform me.  By a raw grace, this truth will bring me down to the dust my own unimportance, my utter lack of control, and my own mortality.  And if I allow it, this grace can save me not from death, but for life.  Sure, it’s not comfort food.  But it’s enough—sufficient to use a terrible crisis to free even hardened hearts like mine.

Destination Be Damned!

After quarantining our family of six at our 1,100-square-foot-home for two full weeks—with only one bathroom!—I knew it was time for an escape. A volunteer at the food bank had told me about this hidden gem of a park with miles of mountain biking trails. Being only a forty-minute drive from our home, I told the kids on Saturday to load the bikes onto the Suburban. “We’re blowing this joint for the afternoon!”

As we pulled into the I.C. Dehart Park, the tired landscape dimmed my hopes. The tennis courts seemed abandoned for at least twenty years. Despite freshly-mown grass, and a fairly new playground, the place was a graveyard for old Eagle Scout projects, and well-meaning tourism campaigns. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake in bringing us here. But when I realized we had the entire park to ourselves, I felt a sense of relief. We wouldn’t even need to think about social distancing!image000000

Our two teenagers jumped on their bikes and disappeared into the woods. Since both of us were still recovering from the flu, my wife and I suggested to the younger two boys that we take a hike. Looking over the hand-painted trail map under a weathered kiosk, our collective eyes gravitated to the black trail with a point marked “Waterfall.”

Before we even finished the quarter-mile walk to the trailhead, my youngest son let out a big sigh and said, “My legs are SO tired!” Inside I was screaming, “Suck it up, Buttercup! We’re going on a hike! If you can’t take it, I’ll be happy to leave you sitting here by yourself under this cedar!” My better self uttered some encouraging words: “But just think about it: We’re going to get to see a waterfall!” Satisfied by my (hollow) promise, he soldiered on.

Fifteen minutes into the hike, I found myself in my Indiana Jones mode. “Oh my gosh! Do you see that pile of old, handmade bricks? This is an old house site.” Thinking that it might be a long-forgotten root cellar, I veered off the trail to check-out this mound of dirt on the forest floor, my younger son close behind.

Meanwhile, my wife, Kim, and middler-son pressed onward. By the time we rejoined Kim, Isaac had already zoomed ahead of us all by at least a quarter-mile. This is his m.o. in nearly every situation. He has an irrepressible compulsion to “get there” ahead of everyone else. Ten minutes later we saw him. He was still on the trail, but the trail had looped back to within twenty feet of where we were hiking. “Why don’t y’all just cut over here through the woods? You’ll get there faster!” The younger-son implored us to do it. And honestly, there was a part of me that wanted to take the shortcut. I was already sweating profusely. With no leaves yet on the trees, the sun was bearing down on us like in a hayfield in mid-August. But my gut told me not to take the easy way out. I muttered something incoherent about the journey not being the destination, and pressed onward. My middler-son said, “Suit yourself,” and walked on in the opposite direction.

In the next half mile of trail, we came upon what was, no doubt, the “waterfall”—an unremarkable slanted rock face with a small stream of water trickling over it. Just below it were a few cliffs that provided just enough coolness to be a pleasant place to stop and rest. Knowing he was within earshot, Kim called to the speed-treking son. He yelled something incomprehensible back, and kept moving.

The three of us sat down by the spring-branch. We drank from our water bottles. As I sat there, this precious little yellow flower near my feet caught my eye—the first flower I’d noticed beyond the redbud trees that splash the Appalachians in March.

IMG_9064It called to me, this tiny burst of color amid the debris of dried leaves and lifeless twigs. It seemed to say, “Pay attention.” Like a hushed herald of spring, this silent sentinel standing watch by the tomb beckoned me to see what I was too quick to tromp past in my determination to find a worthy destination. Suddenly a veil was lifted from our eyes. Kim discovered periwinkles making glacial tracks in the sandy stream bottom. I saw fresh-green fiddleheads emerging from the waste of spent ferns. Younger-son uncovered a crawdad hiding beneath a rock. Middler-son eventually grew bored of waiting for us down the path, and came back to find us. He, too, joined the fun of exploring the quiet revolution happening right under our noses.

The remainder of our hike was an expedition of discovery. Michael pointed out a beech tree still holding onto its dead leaves from last summer. I found the fuzzy tufts of wooly adelgids attacking a young hemlock. Kim caught an eastern fence lizard. And everywhere we looked, miniscule flowers like drops of color fallen from some fairly paintbrush—placed there by a force much greater than us, trying to slow us down long enough that we can really see what is happening. Spring is emerging. Easter is come.

Over the previous two weeks, I’d traveled each day aiming to “just getting through this”—of surviving a pandemic, enduring social distancing, persevering through this season of emptiness, lifelessness and death. But when my eyes are constantly straining forward to what I cannot yet see, they are blinded to what is right here. Destination be damned! In a small yellow flower growing from the humus by a small spring branch, I can almost hear Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God being among you (Luke 17:20-21). “Be present to what’s here. Now. That’s where the Word speaks. That’s what really matters.”