Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Zen of Drip Castles & Seeing God's Work More Like God Sees God's Work

I didn’t discover the goodness of the drip castle until I met my wife, whose family has made annual pilgrimage to the same beach in North Carolina for something like thirty years now. Growing up, my family made biannual visits to Graceland. Different worlds. I’d only ever been to the ocean once. It was fine. But annual beach time was a condition of the marriage, and Rebekah is pretty amazing, so I did the math and signed on. 

Before our first trip, I confessed my discomfort. “But what do y’all do?” Lots of things, Bek told me. “You get up when you want to. Eat breakfast, or not. Go down to the water. Come back up for lunch. Take a nap, if you need one. Go back to the water. Back up for dinner. Back down, if you want. Sleep at some point.”

“Up. Down. Up. Down. Sleep. Repeat.” The whole thing made my evangelical father-in-law’s playful critique of Episcopal liturgy and its up and down movement ring amusingly hollow.

Truthfully, it all sounded great. And a little bit scary.

My brother was diagnosed with skin cancer in his early twenties. At his doctor’s suggestion, I get regular skin examinations and am guarded with my sun time. Don’t get me wrong, I love the outdoors, but the stereotypical beach pleasures that come with laying out in a chair to welcome the golden kiss of the sun are entirely lost on me. No thanks.

On the other hand, I’ve always been a person who enjoys time to be. And the mesmerizing effects of lapping waves and unbroken horizons, compelling in their own right, invite my soul to sing the verses of childhood hymns I'm delighted to discover I havn't forgotten:

Thou art giving and forgiving, 
ever blessing, ever blest, 
well-spiring of the joy of living, 
ocean-depth of happy rest!


There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good; 
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

Still, I get bored. The ocean can be a fabulous window through which to glimpse the divine but, as the biting flies occasionally remind me, the ocean is most definitely not the divine. 

I am pretty sure my boredom is more a function of my personality than a true judgment of the beach. Onto Rebekah’s blank slate of leisure I am perpetually attempting to organize new things. Among my proposals through the years:
  • Beer and pizza night on the beach
  • Young adult cocktail night on the mainland
  • Turtle conservatory field trips
  • Boardwalk and ice cream dates with the kids (Bek regards “The Boardwalk” as a creation of the devil)
  • Mini-golf in the tourist trap towns
  • Canoeing the marsh
  • Sunday worship with the Methodists (a guilty pleasure)
I should add that Rebekah has graciously indulged some (though not all) of these proposals along the way. And I have learned to follow her lead, too. I’ve even developed a surprising and genuine appreciation for long walks on the beach. 

Enter the drip castle. For all of our beach-born compromises through the years, the drip castle is for us a rare activity of mutual enjoyment. Drip castles are both activity and non-activity. Business and stillness. Structure and whimsy. Striving and surrender. 

It’s all very Zen.

Drip castles have just a few basic parts: the base, the pool, the buttresses and spires. There is a definite method. And there is absolute contingency. Improvisation and detachment are essential. A light touch, steady hand, and precision will yield dividends to the one who would build her spire to the sky. And the spire you were sure would be the castle's crown jewel will inevitably lose strength and collapse, falling back into the base. Every. Single. Time. If the spire doesn't fall
  • you weren't trying to build high enough, and/or
  • the tide will erase it in time.
From the beginning, drip castles have been a reassuring picture of both a) ordained ministry and b) the aspirations of the Christian community for me: progress comes with the help of water and a light and steady hand, in the simplicity of showing up in and for rhythms of worship, mission, love, and action over and over and over again, no matter what became of where I thought we were going or supposed to do next.

In the drip castle picture, the spire's inevitable fall harkens to Bonhöffer's caution and encouragement that
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess he builds. We must proclaim, he builds. We must pray to him, and he will build. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point are great times for the church are times when it's pulled down. It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. You confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough.... Live together in the forgiveness of your sins. Forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.
Bonhöffer's words rightfully refocus Christians as we make idols of the spires of our best reads on God's work; best reads slowly elevated above to the simple work of daily drips, the stuff that matters - what Bonhöffer identifies as the work of forgiveness. In truth, the collapse of spires makes, in time, a much broader foundation for supporting the castle than most castles have at the start, which is to say that the lasting structure is made greater and more honest through our disappointments, weaknesses, failings, and openness to new possibilities and change. It's also to say that the Kingdom is not ours to build. In familiar words first spoken by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw,
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. 
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the masterbuilder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
The most surprising thing to me about drip castles is how the drips whose significance I am inclined to dismiss really do add up. Yes, only rarely as I imagined and, yes, even then never for very long. But then I look up and nothing was wasted. It's all very surprising. A friend recently shared with me that “clergy overestimate what God can do through them in a year and underestimate what God will do through them in five.” I take this to be a great reminder that the work that is God's work - even that part of God's work in which we are already engaged - is difficult to rightly see in the moment.

In December, I will have been ordained for ten years. I have seen and served churches whose spires seemed impeccable. I have seen other congregations carry with trembling the terror that their spires will one day fall. I have seen the unpredictability of Christian community threaten the intelligibility of, and church's confidence in, words like "legacy" and "lasting impact," for lay persons and clergy alike. Where "legacy" means "a guarantee for the future," legacy becomes exposed for an empty, impossible promise. For one season, so much is accomplished. In the next, so much appears to be lost. Then, the sprout from a stump that no one saw coming. Rarely does the progress look linear, although the promise of linear progress provides fine hooks for our egos.

I don't mean to suggest that the contingency of the church gives us no confidence for how to "rightly" live and move and order our common life, but contingency frees us from our illusions that we do not, in the end, need God. Or that God is not the primary agent when we talk about God's love and mission in the world. So the common order worth pursuing a) leans into God and b) opens us daily, even in each moment, to the presence, movement, and leading of the Spirit here and now, where we discover and give thanks that God in Christ has, indeed, given us enough for today.

Thus my gratitude for the tide, that great and final challenge to my daily, stubborn assertions that there are more important things to do than worship, serve, forgive, and be forgiven. The tide challenges our imagination for what counts and is real, giving us eyes and ears to see and hear the Good News proclaimed through the example and witness of communities like L'Arche.

That Good News, of course, is that God has not left us, doomed, to our sad and desperate attempts to remember ourselves, but rather

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good; 
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth's sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth's failings
have such kind judgment given.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

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