To Find Christ, Be Like a Dog
On the windowsill beside the armchair where I sit in our sunporch, is a stack of books and my Bible. The stack rotates frequently, depending on the class I’m taking or the ideas that are interesting me. Right now there is the heavily underlined memoir from Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine, a book about play (because I am still learning to play) by Brian Edgar, On the Road with St. Augustine from James K.A. Smith, which I am still slowly reading through interspersed with a translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Sarah Ruden. There is a book I’ve reread every year for the past few years by Quaker writer, Parker Palmer, and a biography of Eugene Peterson. There is also a stack of children’s story-book Bibles, a book by Brene Brown a friend sent me, and a Lent Devotional by Walter Bruggemann. The newest addition to the windowsill is a pair of reading glasses with +1 prescription, their early entrance into my life I blame upon the stacks of books I keep around me.
It occurred to me this morning that many of these authors were authors I was once warned about. Eugene Peterson and “his watered down Message translation,” with the translation always put in air quotes to signify some disdain. Brian Zahnd and the echoes of “emergent” back in the early 2000s. Books from Saints and about Saints when “Aren’t we all saints? Why do they get a special dispensation?” Criticism of liberalism found in Brown and Bruggemann, criticism of literalism found in some of the story-book bibles (ironic, if you think about it).
These are the friends who light my way in some ways. It is not so much that I was in the dark before—although what is dimness if not a little bit of darkness and what is sanctification if not growing a little bit clearer, a little bit brighter? I realize now, when I survey the stack, that many of these writers and thinkers point often to their former selves or younger selves and have a tenderness toward themselves for what they did not know then. That same tenderness can lend, if we’ll let it, to a tenderness toward our future selves, too, knowing we’ll know more then than we know now.
When we first moved back to New York, for about a year we heard the rumblings of slander and gossip about us, that we were not to be trusted, that we did not take God’s word seriously, that we didn’t take sin seriously, and that we had a liberal agenda. I found this incredulous at first, because anyone who knows us knows we take God’s word more seriously than anything—including the United States Constitution and church membership covenants. Anyone who knows us knows we are almost too introspective about sin—our own and others. We deeply care about sanctification, truth, righteousness, and grace. Yesterday Nate took me by the shoulders and said, “I would like you to stop apologizing for not doing anything wrong,” to which I replied, “I’m sorry.” We are many things, but none of the above.
My incredulousness, though, led quickly to grief. A kind of grief I haven’t shared too much about and won’t. But a grief that also led to life eventually, and not death. Oh, it led to death for sure, death of some relationships, hopes, conceptions, and more. But ultimately it’s leading to life, a different life than I expected, but a better one in some ways. A slower one than I wanted, but a deeper one.
I realized recently though, that even though my name belongs nowhere near the names of the aforementioned scholars, saints, and servants, progressive sanctification means eventually you will change and if those around you are slower to change or just haven’t gotten there yet or maybe never will, the charge against you will be of some kind of apostasy or heresy or liberalism or legalism. You will be reviled and falsely accused. If the Kingdom of God is ever widening, ever progressing, ever growing, while still remaining grounded and rooted and firm, Christ followers will eventually receive the revulsion of those who only want the kingdom to be one or the other.
After years of eschewing The Chosen for stupid snobbish reasons with no basis in anything, Nate and I watched both seasons in the weeks leading up to Eastertide. I will never forget the scene in the last episode where Jesus gives Matthew the map to himself. It won’t have the same power if you just watch this clip without having watched the entire two seasons before (which you should, right now, because it’s free). But when he turns to Matthew and says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” well, I just don’t know how to talk about that without crying.
It’s been making me think of all the people I’ve heard reviled, all the voices who were learning their faith one step at a time, who were sniffing out the way, finding the people who looked like Christ, all the pastors who changed, all the parishioners who pivoted, and all the writers who regretted, but who kept on going forward into what God had called them.
And I felt strangely comforted.
My literary agent, John Blase, reminded me of a section in Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson this morning, where Winn shares a reflection of Peterson on a poem by Denise Levertov. Here is the poem:
Let’s go — much as that dog goes,
intently haphazard. The
Mexican light on a day that
“smells like autumn in Connecticut”
makes iris ripples on his
black gleaming fur — and that too
is as one would desire — a radiance
consorting with the dance.
Under his feet
rock and mud, his imagination, sniffing,
engaged in its perceptions — dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction — “every step an arrival.”
And here was the reflection:
"The imagery spoke to him so deeply because he had been that dog for decades. His life and work had been more like tracing a scent rather than following a map. Discovery, not direction. In all those 55 years, Eugene never truly mapped his future, never tried to lay some ordered path toward a clear career goal. Intent? Sure. But haphazard, too. The whole meandering journey had been a dog sniffing the wind, the next whiff being the only real clue."
“Intently haphazard,” John reminded me this morning, this is the way we go. This is the way of faith. It is not that we have a roadmap the disciples didn’t have and so our journey should look clearer or cleaner than their fumbling footsteps. No, they had the scriptures and they had God incarnate with them. And we have the Bible and we have the Holy Spirit with us.
We’re still sniffing it all out, we’re still engaged in our perceptions, and we’re still, with every step, arriving. This is the work of the Christian in the world. To arrive today, to arrive tomorrow, and to keep on arriving, despite what others say about us along the way.