Surprised by New Life

Lent is the journey of old visions of reality that have failed and being surprised by new life given in glad, inconvenient obedience.       

Walter Bruggeman, A Way Other Than Our Own

During this season of Lent, my intention has been to let go of myself and reopen to new possibilities. I am being invited into newness—well, it’s more like being forced into something else—since my job here is ending. And again, Walter Bruggeman’s words make a connection between giving up the old to make room for the new.  However, he has chosen words that nuance this age-old refrain in ways that transform my understanding of my own experience.

I certainly had a vision of what my life would be like when we moved to Tennessee from Indiana. I set out to do essentially the same job I’d been doing previously but in a new context, one that was more intimate than the large university to which I was accustomed. My vision of a quaint liberal arts college in the scenic surroundings of this Appalachian mountain valley is somewhat true. I envisioned the relationships I would have with my students in a smaller school and relationships with colleagues from across disciplines.

Yesterday, I had lunch with one of those colleagues whom I met even before classes began my first semester here. I relished getting to know her at our August faculty retreat.  Along with several others, we hiked up the mountain to witness the beauty and awe of these mountains where we live. Yesterday, much like that first day we met, our conversations turned quickly to things that matter: our families, our faith, and our sense and struggle of belonging.

I was immersed in newness when I returned from the retreat and school began that first year. I saw my new friend on occasion, but my vision of relationship was limited to passing conversations. I imagined inviting her and her family and other colleagues’ families over to my welcoming house to share a meal, but I didn’t. I imagined what it would be like to meet regularly at my house to support and challenge each other, but that didn’t happen. Now that this is my last semester, my friend and I met to catch up on our separate lives and lament lost opportunities, and for me, to catch a glimpse of our shared struggle to uncover what could be true in this life God has given to us.

Now, I am in the middle of Holy Week, at the end of the Lenten season, ready for new life because my old vision has failed. I use Bruggeman’s word failed that is beyond our everyday understanding of failure. Failure could mean I didn’t do enough or do the right things, checking off the boxes of my vision for a meaningful and successful life. However, that is not the compelling lesson of my faith in a power more intimate and deeper than what I do.

In the middle of the night, when I wake up, I often read to calm my raging mind. Last night, I read these words from Buechner’s A Crazy Holy Grace. He is remembering a time of fear for his very life and the calming assurance of a place of peace that doesn’t change our circumstance but changes our inside, that deep part of ourselves that is our self with God.

Two things, I remember, passed through my mind. One of them was the line from Deuteronomy, “underneath are the everlasting arms,” and for a few minutes I not only understood what it meant, but felt in my nethermost depths that without a shadow of a doubt it was true, that underneath, undergirding, transcending any disaster that could possibly happen, those arms would be there to save us if my worst fears [of death] were realized. And the other thing was a Buddhist metaphor that came back to me from somewhere. We are all of us like clay jars is the way I remembered it , and as time goes by, each jar gets cracked and broken and eventually crumbles away until there is not a single thing left of it except for the most important thing of all, the only thing about it that is ultimately so real that nothing on earth or heaven has the power even to touch it, let alone to destroy it, and that is the emptiness that the jar contained, which is one with the emptiness of all the other jars and Emptiness itself. Nor is that Emptiness ever to be confused with nothingness, but is rather whatever of its many names we call it by—nirvana, satori, eternal life, the peace of God. Suddenly… I found myself not only not afraid of what was going on, but enormously enjoying it, half drunk on the knowledge that yes, it was true. There was nothing to worry about. There was no reason for fear. It was all of it, all of it, and forever and always, good.

 So, even in the undoing of my vision of the life I imagined for myself here, even in my struggle to invite the kind of nourishing community of friends and sustaining work together, there is a place in me that is deeper than my vision of doing. Transcending my failure to invite my friend to my house or regularly meet together, I was touched by both disappointment and encouragement in that place inside me where God’s spirit is present. As we came together in a somewhat desperate move to rekindle that relationship I first imagined, I was surprised that all isn’t lost anytime we are obedient to the call of God to this present moment.

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