There is a moment that I reach for again and again in my imagination. It is the moment that the woman at the well is cured of her thirst and cynicism, her isolation and withered imagination. It is a moment between breaths; the old breath abandoned above the waters of baptism and the next taken in newly as she rises from beneath the muffled murk of her old life. In that moment, what did she see? In the overwhelming noonday light, for a woman drowning at the bottom of a dried up well she and her lovers had dug, a strange gleam shone through.
I do know this: she saw a Face seeing her – in a moment of rarified beholding, she saw herself beheld in love. Many days I cannot see that face. I think every song I’ve written the past few years has been about searching for it.
Who was I before I met you?
Some part of me had not yet come to life,
But when I first heard you say my name
There came a spark struck in the darkness,
And it grew into a flame!
Oh Lord, do not hide your face! Make the light of your face to shine upon us; grant us your peace!
Seeing ourselves in the faces of friends
It is September now and the first hints of Autumn are arriving. Just before I left home in the heat of early July I wrote to a friend in an email:
I’m leaving tomorrow, so I’m doing all the last minute cramming before I hit the road, but I do believe we are somehow ‘made out of’ the people who love us well, who make room for us and our stories, and who persist in bringing God’s bright face before us when we get buried. I cannot do it on my own. The Lord knows it. The Lord works his life into me in a lot of ways, and one of the biggest ways is through the gift of dear friends.
That was over five thousand miles of highway ago, lots of house concerts, long conversations, van repairs, and visits with friends old and new. I’m asking myself lately how does God work his life into me? (or work me into his life?) How do I understand what I am called to do? Even on the simplest most practical levels, how do I stay alive and sane? Even in this very moment I want, in many ways, to run away from life, to vanish into some hidden nook away from my own swirling thoughts, the unavoidable risks of being known, and from the weariness of being “distracted from distraction by distraction”.
Back in July, not long after I left for the road, I spent a few days with my friend Luke Ash and his sweet family. Luke and I have known each other for a few years, and one night I was opening my book up to him a little more and sharing my story more deeply. I told him about places in my life that felt hopeless to me. Places where I can no longer imagine the possibility of the good I’d once dreamed of.
“What did you say?” There was a fierceness in Luke’s face.
“Well, you know, this is just the way things are.” It seemed plain to me that because of particular failures, deaths, and grief my life had taken on a certain inevitable shape.
“That’s garbage!” he said. I was a little shocked. “That’s the voice of the Accuser; not the voice of the Lord.”
Though startling and a little painful, there was relief too as if some dislocated bone had popped back into joint. As long as those sad thoughts remained unshared in the closed circuit of my own head, they seemed entirely plausible, even inevitable, but as soon as they were voiced in the presence of a loving friend, friendship provided the contrast I needed to see what was true.
Isolation is blinding; reality is negotiated in relationship.
I had been reading my own story wrong until my friend Luke read with me, taking a red pen and marking up the paragraphs that didn’t belong. We all need loving editors. We need safe people with whom we share our open books. We need friends who help us read well, and who take a red pen to the lies that have withered our capacity for faith. Even Jesus himself was glad to have “every word that comes from the mouth of God” to navigate deception in the desert.
How terrifying it is to lay our books open before another. Much of the time I’m too tired to read. Too tired to write. Other times the pages feel like a hot iron against my palms, and I want to close the book to everyone, even to myself. Adam is given the task of naming the animals in order to understand his own distinction from them, and he understands the kind of thing he is when he sees himself in relation to the woman he wakes to behold.
To read our own stories well, we must read in context – with an other.
Who was I before I knew you?
We only know ourselves when we are known.
So strange to think, for I did not know I could
Be who I am till you arrived and
You loved me as your friend.
Reading our stories together
My friends Bubba and Eva host our small group in their home on Sunday nights. We’ve had lots of conversation the last couple of years about what it means to be made in the image of the Trinity. If God is three persons in relationship, what does it mean to be a person? Eva asked me to help with the music for vacation bible school, and I, trying to better learn this stuff myself, wrote a song for the kids:
God made Adam,
But just one person
Was all by himself!
Cause you can’t be a person
Without some more people,
So God made a family!
So we could live like God lives
And love like God loves:
A little picture of the Trinity!
Whatever it means to be a person, it requires other people. There is no personhood without relationship. Even within the Trinity, the Son can’t be a son without a father, and the Father can’t be a father without a son. The language God has given helps us understand that the identity of each is bound up in the other. Maintaining interdependence in love is the only way to participate in the lively individuality that individualism cuts off.
It’s true, we are each a stranded thread
Till we are woven in;
Knit into a family there’s a chance to find out who I am.
Facing one another at the family table
God has made us in his fundamentally relational image, and “it is he who has made us, not we ourselves.” For me, eating is a constant reminder that my life originates from outside of myself. Schmemann says,
“Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into himself and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood… this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfilment: ‘… that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom’.”
Almost as far back as I can remember, my Dad would wake me before daybreak in the damp cold of the Mississippi Winter. That was long before I learned to drink coffee, and he’d feed me a honeybun and a glass of milk before we left the house to drive out to the Farm in his old maroon pick-up truck. I’d be bundled in what seemed like a hundred pounds of baggy army surplus clothes he’d collected, and we’d find a tree to lean against out in a hardwood bottom while the stars receded and the sun softly approached. Gradually birds would brighten along with the light and open out into song.
Dad remains my paradigm for stillness. He would sit unmoving as Treebeard, except for his eyes (for hours!) and I would fight back my kid-wiggles. We watched for deer. We were hunting. Once, when I was eight years old, I shot at a buck down below the old spring and missed it. I cried that day, feeling like a failure.
A few years later, I killed my first deer in a field we’d dubbed ‘The Sanctuary’. This particular day Dad had set me in a treestand and left me to hunt alone. He would hear the shot from where he was and come soon enough, but before he did, I climbed down and made my way to the body of the deer. I knelt beside it in the dying light of dusk. I put my hand on its smooth grey-brown neck – warm but unmoving – and I cried and prayed a prayer of sorrow and thanks. Later my Mom would serve us that given life and I would take it into myself at the family table back home.
Though my Dad grows pine trees in order to harvest them for timber, there are parts of the forests that he refuses to cut down, even though he could profit from doing so. He believes in giving back to the creatures who are given to us, for us. Hunting with Dad taught me that my life is a gift that someone outside of myself lays down. Food was never abstracted; I learned early on that my life came directly, concretely from the death of a beautiful, bleeding, innocent other. I learned to receive that life, a point made by my own trigger finger, with sorrow and gratitude.
To me, still, I see the face of the Lamb in the eye of a doe.
Facing death, and finding a song
David Ford says we must turn our faces to the dead face of Jesus on the cross. This is a hard teaching, who can abide in it? Jesus says we must eat his flesh and drink his blood or else we can have no life in us. This is a hard word to digest! Somehow Jesus’s death faces us; I mean it gives us a face with which to bravely face suffering. When we say to God in our misery, “don’t hide your face from us!” – one way in which he answers us, Ford says, is by showing us the dying face of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus faces our death with and for us.
If we take into ourselves the love and encouragement of our friends and family, we also must admit that we have taken into ourselves the brutality of the ones who have hurt us. It is good that we can be ‘made out of’ those who love us well, but aren’t we also ‘made out of’ those who have trespassed against us? Not to mention, we also carry the hurt of having hurt others ourselves.
As a boy, Frederick Buechner bore the brunt of his parent’s trespasses against each other. After sharing some of these stories at a retreat, one listener thanked him for being a good steward of his pain. This is a mystery struck like lightning from within the shrouded darkness of the death of Jesus – that God can travel with us into the insides of our most violent pains, and without dismissing them, Jesus can take them and us into himself and bring from those depths unimaginable life. The wrong doesn’t cease then to have been wrong when good comes of it; Jesus gave his life willingly, even as he was perpetrated against. The healing that good grief brings doesn’t erase the hurt as if it had never been, rather, it is mysteriously digested; somehow the might of God is manifested when real death becomes real food and drink.
Maybe here something can be said about what the woman at the well saw? Did she see in Jesus’s face a willingness to die for her? To pour out his own life-blood like water? Josef Pieper says in his book “Only the Lover Sings”, that the lover sings because she has stayed still long enough to risk looking into the face of God, where she finds herself – to her surprise – beheld in love. The most natural response to the dying face of Jesus on the cross, is to join in the song of resurrection.
Learning to be read into the Lamb’s book of life
These last couple of weeks have been spent with my friend Luke as my fellow pilgrim, we’ve shared songs and stories on my yearly Autumn tour, traveling in my homemade RV, Vandalf the White, and stayed up late till we’d doze off, he in his bunk and me in mine, mid-conversation. Last night, “The Fellowship of the Ring” audiobook was playing and I was stretched out on the bench in the van, while Luke was brushing his teeth. Suddenly, it struck me that this little space I’d built and traveled in alone these last two years, had another life in it beside me. Here was a dear brother whose life was making itself at home in my life, and whose voice and heart and faith were in conversation with mine, making possible the shaping of new stories for us both.
The woman at the well said that she’d been met by a man who knew her life’s story cover to cover. In that moment, having Jesus open her own book to her and read it in his own words, meant her story would never be the same again. To read our story well is to read it with and in Jesus, to have him write a great mystery into our pages in blood-red ink , until our pages and the pages of the Lamb’s book of Life turn together – the same story.
Each of us is working in so many different materials and mediums to shape a habitat that can foster a moment where that ‘strange gleam’ might shine through and waken a new song in us and those we love. As you cultivate that habitat for yourself and others, I pray, dear friend, that you find the fields to be white and ready for the season of harvest to which the Lord has called us.
And one day, friend, when time has torn us,
When life has left us ragged in the end,
That holy hand who shaped us from the dust
Will send a Flame to speak our names;
We will never be the same.