Like clockwork, at first light every morning I see deer strolling and sometimes skipping (okay, I just saw one running!) behind the back fence of our property. Yesterday two deer leapt over the fence and sauntered just a few yards in front of my study window. This morning I think of Psalm 42:1 – “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” My mind goes there because of a passage I read this morning in The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty, by Martin Schleske – a book I’ve been reading and rereading over breakfast.
My wife would probably say that I pant after books. But so does she. We both love the knowledge, wisdom and entire worlds that reading opens up for us. I left well over half of my books in Schenectady when we moved to Michigan. In my last post I mentioned the 168 mile Chicago trip to buy bookshelves at an IKEA store for my stripped-down library. Please don’t feel sorry for me (you probably aren’t). I still have hundreds of books on my Kindle that don’t require any storage space.
So why am I stuck on/in this one book by Martin Schleske, a German violinmaker, with all the unread and partially read books on my shelves and Kindle? It’s that good. I only seem to be able to digest a few paragraphs at a time. And when I come to the end, I keep feeling compelled to start over. (A few days ago I started over for the third time. Like I said, it’s that good.) Martin is very good at what he does. He’s a master craftsman (and writer). Some of the best violinists in Europe buy his instruments, or ask him to figure out what’s wrong with their Stradivarius. And he’s a follower of Jesus, the passionate kind, but not the kind you can theologically label.
Early in the book he describes how, just after his apprenticeship, he and another violinmaker panted after just the right kind of wood for their violins. They’d heard rumors of a place in the Bavarian Alps where a cliff at the timberline had been hit by a violent storm and countless enormous fir trees lay uprooted and broken. On a cold winter day, after hours of strenuous mountain hiking, they left the marked trail and fought through knee-deep snow to find the cliff. It was an incredible windfall (literally). Looking back, what they did in the dead of winter was dangerous and reckless. Chain-sawing these huge trees into quarter-ton sections, they tried to get them to roll down the mountainside and wedge themselves into a convenient crevasse. With horror that watched one of the sections bounce over the crevasse and plunge into the valley below. (Fortunately, no one was hurt.) As they listened to the logs bouncing down the mountain, sections from two of the trunks produced a dull, wooden thud upon impact, but the logs from the other tree “emitted a sound like a ringing bell. And the sounds lingered on, free, bright, and clear.” In that moment they understood what the luthiers of old meant when they distinguished “singers” from “non-singers.” Singers are the mother lode for violinmakers.
A violinmaker does not accidentally happen upon marvelous tonewood. Our search for treasured timber became a metaphor for the pursuit of something deeper and more meaningful. If the sound of a good violin requires traveling such difficult paths and putting in such arduous effort, how could the sound of our lives demand less? Did not God give us a longing heart so that we would search for him? This pursuit will change our lives from the ground up. In the Psalms it says: “You who seek God, your hearts shall live” (69:32 NKJV). This verse does not speak of finding but of seeking. The wood is to my violin as a searching and listening faith is to my life.
Authentic life is not a path through the lowlands where things grow quickly and are easy to find. No, life’s trail leads through the rocky places, through adversities and impasses. The many ways of searching for God all have one thing in common: passionate longing. A spirit devoid of passion is a dangerous enemy of faith. Growing accustomed to what one already believes is a subtle form of unbelief. Life slows to a stop, powerless.... The soul loses its hope by conforming, and the spirit is left with no questions. Life becomes bland when one accepts everything and therefore reacts to nothing. Conforming, in biological terms “adaptation,” is when the cells’ response rate decreases until they stop reacting at all. Our set answers in spiritual matters, however calming, lead us to become lethargic. We no longer react authentically. The end result of adaptation is stagnation.
I said in a previous post that some things I write may be controversial. This is one of those places. In my experience, what many if not most churches (of all kinds) offer is a kind of Christianity that grows in “the lowlands.” It may be appealing at first, partly because it’s easy to access, but it’s also easy to neglect or abandon when life becomes busy or hard, or when the earnest among us sense a disconnect between the values of many Christians and the values of Jesus.
So when a colleague of mine shared with me recently that his son had stopped going to church because of the overwhelming support of evangelicals for Donald Trump, I could understand why. Even his father, a pastor, could say, “I get it. Just don’t stop seeking.”
I also understood when Anne Rice, who died recently, author of Gothic literature, erotic literature and later Christian literature (I love her novels about Jesus' life) abandoned Christianity twelve years after she returned to her Catholic faith. In a message posted on her Facebook page, Rice said she was "out."
In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
Later she pointed to Gandhi's statement: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." She also wrote, “Maybe commitment to Christ means not being a Christian.”
Recently I was saddened to hear that the Christian musician Audrey Assad had abandoned her Christian faith. I’ve always liked and respected her music. It doesn’t settle for “the lowlands.” Apparently a critical moment for her came when she asked a priest about a book she was reading by the spiritual writer Richard Rohr, and the priest quickly responded by calling Rohr a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
So why am I still a Christian? Actually, a few decades ago I had for all practical purposes jettisoned my Christian faith for a combination of psychology and a hodgepodge of spiritual traditions and practices. What drew me back? Reading a small book on the Lord’s Prayer by Evelyn Underhill called Abba while on retreat. There was depth here. It took me an entire week to read 70 pages.
So, for a variety of reasons and circumstances, I decided to go deeper into my faith and the biblical story rather than leave the story. And the Story that I’ve discovered is so much richer and interesting and hopeful than the story I learned and sometimes preached in the lowlands. It’s the truest story I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. And as my friends at the Bible Project keep saying, it’s a unified story that keeps leading to Jesus.
But passion, I’ve learned, can never be taken for granted. It can dissipate through all kinds of “dissipations” and distractions. A halfhearted search for God, at whatever point we are in life, will mean we are forever losing ground. As they say in AA: “Half measures availed us nothing.”
I’m learning that passion for God requires being passionate about the search itself.
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
Where do you find yourself with Christianity or faith in general these days?