Roots

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As a young boy, my grandmother would often tell me, with her full blown mid-western Michigan accent “pick up your feet.” I would often turn around, look at her, my face becoming flush with embarrassment that I did not in fact “pick up my feet.” It was such stupid advice, common sense. A person cannot walk unless they pick up their feet. I am not sure if I was a lazy walker, wore shoes too big, or as many children was just prone to not watching where I was going, but my grandmother was correct on more than one occasion. I had stumbled many times, in her presence or otherwise, and the stupid, easy, solution to avoid it in the future was “picking up my feet.”

There is nothing like the wisdom of grandparents, and nothing like their passing, and our aging, to make us appreciate their words. Now, at 38 years old, I hear her words echo in my heart, “Nathan, pick up your feet.”
Back then, she was concerned about my physical well-being; today, her words dig a little deeper.

This week, I found myself as many of you have at least once in your life, on a narrow walking trail. It was one of those windy, bumpy, spider web riddled trails that tempt you to question why you made the walk in the first place. I have been on many of these trails, no more than 1-2 feet across, weeds infringing on the path, trees toppled over as their large root systems leave a gaping hole where the path once was. I used to walk them with my grandfather and father. I have walked them with friends. This one, I was walking alone.

This was a new path (here’s an analogy we can all sermonize over), one traveled by many but never by me. I decided to follow this trail because I needed to listen. I am not sure what I was listening for, but I needed to listen.
The path is on the property of a retreat center, a place where intentional space is crafted and fostered in order to provide the silence one needs to hear God. One of the mottos here is: Here God is in the Silence; Hear God in the Silence. The retreat space is replete with holy reminders of an All-Other that seeks to speak to us if we can be still and silent enough to listen. I had suspected earlier in the day that my soul was ready to listen, but I did not expect all I would hear.

I made my way upon the entrance to the path, and followed a steep trail down worn out wooden steps, over rotting supports that provided steps in the dirt, and through bridges slowly deteriorating. The dirt on the path was smooth and soft beneath my feet once I made it to the bottom. It was a rich, dark, top soil, that had been pressed down as smooth as pavement, and giving off a wet, earthy, mossy smell. At one point, I stopped to notice an earthworm that was crawling across the moist earth.

As the trail progressed, I came to a flat bottom just a few feet from the river. The sun was piercing the canopy of the trees, a butterfly had flown across my path, and I could hear birds sing their choruses in the swaying branches. I was almost entranced by the natural beauty of the forest, allowing myself to be lost in its system of life, until my foot hit a familiar obstacle: a root. I noticed that on this part of the trail the path was riddled with roots. With each intentional step, it seemed I had to play hopscotch with the forest root system. Some were large, some small, and some multiple, but none of them were going to move on account of me.

Suddenly I heard my grandmother say, “Nathan, pick up your feet.” A smile came over my countenance. There, in the woods, I stopped. I began to listen.

I heard a still small voice say, “In life, we can be so attentive to the good things of the world, of creation, the good things we are doing, that we can still stumble, even on a path clearly worn and already traveled…a path left for us to follow.”

Roots may be a fact of forest trail exploring but sometimes we wish we could curse them the way Jesus does the fig tree that refused him lunch. The last thing we need is harmless forest foliage to deter our progress.

I was on this trail being intentional about taking in EVERYTHING around me, not wanting to miss the voice of God, but I still had to watch where I was walking! Stumbling along the path of life can happen even as we engage in good things. The lesson was this: never take your eyes off the path, even when you have your eyes rightly on other tasks. There is a destination calling to all of us, but even as we are doing our best to get there, we can still stumble along the journey and prolong our final arrival. There could be a pesky root, sticking up in a well-worn path, waiting to break your toe even as you think you are making a full stride.

The smoothest of trails and most beautiful scenery can still be filled with silent treachery.

After having my moment, my theophany of the root, and I began to press on, thankful that I had allowed myself to be attentive. The path eventually began to wind back up the hill and along-side a small waterfall. I had made my way through the flat surface and its occasional roots without scuffing my shoes or tripping over myself. Now, as I made my way up a small ravine, the roots were larger and more damaging to the path ahead. Some of the path was clearly not a path at all. It was more a less a used to be, washed out path, that was now a hazard for elementary age school children.

I pressed on through the lost trail and noticed something different about the roots.

In the first half of the trail, the roots were hazardous. The roots were rises in the smooth path that led down a steep ravine and through a flat forest bottom. Those roots could have caused me to stumble, fall, and perhaps ruin my best pair of jeans (or worse). But then as I began to walk back up an opposite side of the hill, I noticed I was using the roots as steps. The roots here were still roots; they were still hard objects, jutting out from beneath the soil, but their incidental function was different. These roots were not hazards; these roots were helpers. The path, being severely washed out in places, didn’t have formerly man-made steps, but it did have roots that would become steps. There very things that could have once caused me harm, were now helping me get to my destination. Hegel would call these roots dialectical; I’ll just call them paradoxical grace.

Roots became helpers, coming along side me on the path, acting as stepping stones. These roots allowed me to move forward along the path.

Just two weeks ago, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. This was an unanticipated transition for me even a few short months ago, but in January, at the very strong leading of the Holy Spirit, I felt compelled to enter this new path. I was raised in the Nazarene Church, and therefore come from a low church evangelical background. I was dedicated, raised, baptized, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. My roots run deep.

At the pre-confirmation meeting, the Bishop of East Tennessee met with all future confirmands and blessed our presence in this new congregation. He noted that many of us, including himself, come from other rooms in the house of faith. He equally noted, however, that something had brought us all together and was about to make us a part of a deep Anglican tradition: another strong root system. But before we would join, he said, we need to acknowledge and bless your roots wherever and whatever they are. The roots from which you came matter because they had provided grounding heretofore in our lives and they would further function as the foundation upon which this new Anglican tradition would be grafted.

In other words: roots can become obstacles, but they can also provide support for the journey ahead.

At times we may want to curse our roots, or a root system, that would just assume have us fall as have us arrive. At other times, though, we would be stuck in the bottom of some of life’s deepest ravines without the steps provided by our roots.

Roots are powerful extensions of beauty that simultaneously have the power to give life and the power to make a once well-worn path a travel hazard. Where there are deep, muscular roots, prying open a sidewalk or pressing through a forest trail, one is acutely aware that these roots are what they are because they have survived and thrived. By extension, so too has the tree connected with them.

This week, I was walking along a forest trail, uncertain of what I would find or what I would hear. I was trusting that God was here in the silence and that I would hear God in silence. I discovered that the path upon which I stood didn’t just lead me beneath a beautiful forest canopy and through the playground of cardinals and squirrels, but it was indicative of the path upon which I now travel, a path that I will only be able to walk because of my roots.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

It’s What YOU See

its-not-what-you-look-at-that-matters-its-what-you-see

Have you ever ran across one of those quotes, or sayings, that no matter how hard you rack your brain the simplicity of the statement gets lost on you?

Usually, I get lost when reading Hegel, Whitehead, or some other abstractly concrete thinker begging me to silence all the glowing screens and focus on the ENTIRE argument. I take no shame in admitting that on more than one occasion, I not only read, but I re-read, and do so loudly, to follow the argument and make damn sure I have understood every word, every sentence, every nuance that might be hidden beneath and on top of the words.

But sometimes, when I travail against my own inclination to cohort with academic prose and I succumb to the allure of imagination, I read fiction.

Fiction teaches me to see. It teaches me to create.

It’s not an argument; its an invitation to see something that no one else sees yet is seen by everyone. It invites us into a picture shrouded with ideas, worlds and ends that are somehow conjoined together by the illusory fiction that fiction is based on seeing what the words give us, rather than seeing what the words create in us…hence recasting our angle of vision into something not even the author could have foretold.

So I read and I am shaped. I see.

I am shaped by those fictive words and those non-fictive ones, in anticipation of something I know not what but inevitably lead me to seeing as I never have before, or will, thereafter.

The beauty in such seeing is that some passages, particularly ones that don’t require a ton of exegetical context literarily, fly off the pages at us and slap us with their simplicity. They teach us to see when we forget we had forgotten.

We grew up. We put aside child play. We lost our sight.

One such passage that now sits ornamentally on the desk I pretend to write at is by American literary icon and transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I have managed to live my life without much Thoreau. This isn’t surprising. I have managed to live without much of a few things that I now find indispensable. I was 33 before I read a single word of him and this to my shame.

I am 33 now.

To the point, Thoreau is deserving of all the accolades that adorn his name, his books, his story. In his journals, he writes of seeing as only a transcendentalist can.

To risk the cliché I mention it here, the simple words that slapped me in the face, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it what YOU see.” [emphasis mine].

Thoreau’s work is full of this idea of sight, of seeing what others miss even though they are staring at the same damn thing. His work is full of a oneness of thought and rugged intellectualism that unities nature and nurture. His writing taps into that human originary desire to peel back the complexity of life and just…you know, be human in the world.

At first blush, a philosophical treatise made more sense to me than this quote. What does it mean? What romantic ideal is he describing and why does it matter?

I am always suspicious of these bleeding heart Utopian dreamers, like Thoreau, that push me to the edge and dare me to jump.

Yet, I need them.

Their logic is impervious to a logic that sees in this sentence what I see in prose, even poetic prose.

When I first read Thoreau, this quote, I think, “Of course it’s not what we look at that matters! It’s what we have been sociologically conditioned to see! We see only what our lenses allow us to see!”

Allow a simple American sports analogy.

It is common parlance for someone to say, as if to commend their sight, “I call it like I see it.” This once simple sports confession by umpires has now become common vernacular for “it is what it is” or “It is what I see” so to speak.

In other words, this trite saying presumes the one seeing is seeing correctly. In reality, who cares “if you call it like you see it,” especially if you’re an idiot and you saw it wrong! The fact that you’re relying on your own weak empirical vantage point doesn’t make your sight impeccable.

So when I, one trained in the humanities, read Thoreau and I see this, I think, “well, duh, of course it’s all about what you see…it’s never been about what you’re looking at.” From Plato’s cave to an Atlanta Braves baseball game, life is never about objectivity, it’s always about perception.

Then, something made its way into my life.

This quote now not only sits in the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, but it sets on my desk, encompassing a circular pewter encased magnifying glass. To remind me, “hey stupid, look here, remember this lesson.”

This small object careened into my life and it yelled at me.

Those words, “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what YOU see,” punched me in the stupid head that is supposedly filled with things that make me smart.

It careened not only into my life but was born during a moment in which it appeared that everything I have been working toward for nearly 15 years was finally coming to fruition. Yes, you did the math correctly. This would be a journey that started when I was 18.

Ubiquitously, this meteor of awakening fell into my lap only recently, a year past what has become a loss, and not a victory. I stared at this object, with these words, Walden rolling around in my brain, and my nihilist self thought, “what the hell does this even mean? What the hell is HDT even talking about?”

You see…I was dense. I admit it. It’s one of only 3 hamartias in my life. Being dense is prob 3rd on the rung.

So, I asked someone wiser than me. I was the Ethiopian Eunuch and I needed a Philip.

I asked, “what does this mean? How does this make sense? How I see obviously got me no where!”

And I have to admit. I am not prone to emotion. But the next few words that hit my ear were equivalent to the Blitzkrieg emotionally, precisely because I am dense, “it never mattered if you got in, what always matters is the way you see things because the way you see things is unlike anyone else.”

Ho.Ly. Shit.

Srs?!

I thought what I achieved mattered! I thought that my great ideas mattered! I thought the prestige of this next journey mattered! Nope. None of it. I was wrong.

None of that ever mattered…and as I stared at where I wanted to be a year ago, I finally learned (though I have hardly incarnated), it’s not what I was looking at that mattered. What mattered is what I saw when I opened my eyes, light flooded my body and I inhaled creativity each day…because no one did that, or does that, quite like me.

What always mattered was just…my seeing. What my sight beheld never mattered; it was always what I saw through my sight that mattered. That was the gift, even though I often berate the smallness of the gift, of my own human potentiality or possibility.

Of course, I have been taught how to see. I see because of many factors, most of which I did not choose. My Apologies to Arminius.

No one has quite had the same experiences I have had. No one has read the bizarre combination of texts and integrated that with the many people that have walked through life with me. No one is the unique mess that is my life. And my life is comprised of a ceiling that covers my world and shapes what I see when I stare at what is through the glass ceiling that hangs above us all.

And this is the lesson: The world is never what we look at…what we look at is only what we see in front of us. The real world is what we see in the world that we look at, and that position, is unique to us all, even when in our darkest moments we feel like the eternal night of the soul will never end.

Quit looking for the gift…the gift was already given and it’s what happens when you see the world and you give the gift of sight to others.