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Sunday, November 17, 2019

Talking too much (and not enough) --the fool at the gate

“For a fool wisdom is an inaccessible fortress;
at the city gate he does not open his mouth…”
--Proverbs 24:7

Because I was thinking about talking too much in my last mediation, this verse about the fool not opening his mouth seemed an appropriate follow-up.

Here is a little vision of my reading process:
When I read this the first time, I thought: the first clause (before the semi-colon) is perfectly obvious: the “fool” knows of the kingdom of wisdom but cannot find any way to enter it. The gates are locked, the draw bridge is pulled up, the walls are too high, and maybe there is a shark infested moat surrounding it.

But then, there is that part after the semi-colon about being at the city gate and not opening his mouth. As I read it initially, I thought it was a sign of the fool’s untapped wisdom:  he doesn’t open his mouth.  For a fool that could be a good thing. He doesn’t have any wisdom to offer, so he keeps his mouth shut.

I don’t know if my mind was wandering, but I was treating each part as a separate, almost unrelated, statement.  It was as if I had wandered out of the metaphor the author was creating (a fortress) and into the streets leading up to a common city where people gathered at the gate to talk and share news and greet one another—to begin the business of the day.  And in my imagination, there was this fool with his clothed mouth, experiencing the benefits of restraint. No wisdom to share, nothing to say. Just listening and learning.

But then, realizing that this didn’t seem to make sense, I looked back and realized that the city gate comes within the context of the metaphor of the fortress of Wisdom. And then I realized that the reason the fool cannot access the kingdom is because he will not open his mouth; he won’t ask to be let in. He’s too foolish to ask for access. It perfectly dramatizes the depths of his foolishness:  this is a person who doesn’t even know enough to ask for help.

The second part of the statement develops the first.  Now, to most people this may seem rather obvious in itself, but for me (a librarian and writer) it is a lesson I am always having to relearn.

At moments like this, I wonder if anyone else reads like me; as carelessly, as foolishly.  And I wonder if my carless reading comes from lack of focus, from being unable to shut down all those voice in my head and just attend to the moment (the word on the page).  This sounds like an odd struggle for a writer to have, getting lost midway through a short sentence. I wonder if it is related to talking too much?  To those voices in my head that are constantly trying to interpret and decipher and dissect each and every situation, experience as if I were constantly trying to discover some hidden coded truth, constantly trying to prove myself, to justify my existence?  

And so –I will write one more thought –nay two-- then then hold my tongue; reading this passage I come away with 2 lessons:
1. There is wisdom to be found in remaining silent, or as Proverbs says:
If the fool holds his tongue, he may pass for wise. (17:28)
2. And there is wisdom in speaking out. When you are standing at Wisdom’s gate, don’t be afraid to open your mouth and reveal you are a fool in need of assistance.  It’s the only way you will be able to ask for help.
3. (okay –one more) And where better might we find the gates of the Kingdom of Wisdom, than in God’s word. So, when you are reading The Bible, don’t be a fool, humble your heart, open your mouth and ask for help.  In fact, the author is right there standing at the gate, waiting for you.  Just say the word and He will open the gate and let you in.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Talking too much

“…whoever talks too much is lost…”
--Proverbs 13:36

I hear chastisement in this proverb.  In my heart, I hear a voice saying: that is me.  I am someone who talks too much. Sometimes it is even out loud.  I think it has something to do with nerves, anxiety, self-consciousness. I am so concerned about appearances, about what people will think of me, that I can’t stop talking, can’t stop chattering away –in an attempt to distract people, to hide in a cloud of jokes and cleverness the truth of who and what I am.  Creating a kind of smoke screen of words and noise, I hide not only from others, but also from myself.

Sometimes the “talking too much” is me trying to cover up a mistake I’ve made, or a pettiness I’ve done –trying to talk my way out of responsibility for it.  And other times it is me trying to justify something I want to do; trying to talk myself into it, even when I know it would be wrong –or should I say, especially when I know it will be wrong.  But in either case it is a sign that I I am lost—I have lost my way.  That seems like a pretty nice little piece of psychological insight to come from the pen of some ancient primitive scribe (or king).

But something else that interested me in this proverb was its more mundane truth.  There is –I think—an observable phenomenon being described here, a physiological and psychological truth observed and recorded. When people get lost, take a wrong turn on the road, take the wrong exit on the freeway, or just turn down the wrong hallway in an unfamiliar building, they begin to “talk too much.” One of the first things that happens when we realize we are lost, is that justifying voice in our head kicks in and starts running on overdrive.  That is a perfect description of the sensation of panic that sets in when we realize we are lost.  The voice in our head begins to ‘talk too much,” and that begins to cloud our thinking.  If we let it, that talk will keep us lost, even lead us further astray.  And until we are able to calm ourselves down, to quiet that talk, we can’t look at our situation logically, can’t figure out how to do something as simple as retrace our steps and get ourselves un-lost.

There is a lot of wisdom in this book of Proverbs.  Books like this are too easily ignored or dismissed as not intended for reading straight through.  But what I am finding is that there is a richness in every part of scripture –in all its many literary forms—a richness that rewards reading (and rereading). A richness that roots itself in the soul, and rewards not only with wisdom, and insight, but with a joy and a beautiful flowering calm that stills the voices of anxiety, of uncertainty, of confusion and bears fruit in peace and quiet and the security that is faith.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Cast your burden on the Lord --some thoughts on travel and prayer

“Cast your burden on the Lord
and He will sustain you…”
--Psalm 55:23

This summer, I went to visit my Dad and his wife for a few days. I don’t travel much, so for me this was a bit of a challenge –just getting on a plane and going somewhere. It makes me uncomfortable to be in a strange place.  I like to imagine that somehow this discomfort might be linked to my writing—to my imaginary life and imaginary travels.  I excuse my homebody nature by with the idea that I’m too busy travelling in my imagination to think about travelling in the real world.  And I think there is some sense to that.  But, I also think I’m a little bit afraid of letting go of control.  If I go somewhere else, I won’t have control of the environment, I won’t know my way around, I won’t know which way to go or who to ask for help, I won’t even have control over the ac or the gas station bathroom…  I will, like Blanche Dubois, have to depend “on the kindness of strangers.”

But all in all it wasn’t bad.  Seeing my dad and his wife was wonderful. They were so kind and welcoming, made me tomato sandwiches straight from their garden and gave me all the chips I could eat and all the coffee I could drink!  The very picture of perfection when it comes to being a host, and family.  I had a wonderful time with them. Sitting on the porch, enjoying my dad’s beautiful black-eyed-susans and towering sunflowers and watching the small yellow headed birds pop in and out of the bright yellow blossoms. It was a taste of heaven.  I also had the pleasure of hearing my father’s stories of his childhood, selling popcorn at the wrestling matches, and delivering groceries, selling Bibles door to door to pay for school.  All his adventures and misadventures. What a blessing to have that time we spent together on his porch, sipping our coffee and chatting, or just sitting in silence as the sun settled and the geese at the lake by the church across the road honked their evening prayers.  Truly a blessed time.

Something else interesting happened on this trip; and I would like to meditate on it for a moment. As I was packing to go, I had a sudden anxious sense that I shouldn’t bring my special Bible with me—just in case. I wouldn’t want to lose it on the plane or accidentally leave it at Dad’s.  So, I unpacked it from my bag and threw in one of my miniature New Testaments with Psalms. In my Bible reading I had just started Proverbs, and one of my little paperbacks has Proverbs in it, and I thought I was grabbing that one. When I sat on the porch that first morning at my Dad’s to do my morning prayer: read some scripture and write a little bit, I found that I had grabbed the wrong one.  I was disappointed.  I like my routines.  They give me comfort.   But, I would have to make do. So, I opened to one of the psalms and settled (quite by accident) on:
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you.”
And it seemed good enough. I read over the whole psalm a couple of times, wrote a few notes in my journal and went back to my coffee and the birds and the flowers. Feeling sustained.

But then, on the way home things changed.  My trip went from ideal to my perfect travel nightmare.  At the airport I forgot to take my Kleenex out of my pocket and was pulled out of line and frisked during the security screening.  It was embarrassing, but—nothing terrible, and I guessed I deserved it.  I just didn’t think about the package of tissues in my back pocket. But, when we deboarded the plane (after sitting on the runway close to an hour, I started to feel a little anxious. And when (after about 5 hours of waiting in the terminal) they put me on a different flight –through Charlotte— to sit in another terminal for another 3 hours and catch another flight to Houston that would get me home close to midnight, I was starting to feel a little frustrated not only with United Airlines, but also with God.  Hey –Lord!  I cast my burdens on you. I don’t like to travel, but I did it anyway! And look what happens!  Why aren’t you sustaining me?  I need to get home. And of course, as things go, around 11pm I was still in Charlotte and my flight to Houston was cancelled.  I had now been in one airport or another for over 18 hours.  And I was feeling a little unsustained. 

Plus, everything was closed. I was wandering through an incomprehensibly huge airport far from home and far from anyone who cared, and all the lights were going out. As if they were actually shutting down.  You’d think that at least the bars would stay open!  But no. It was me, and a few thousand other anxious travelers and the cleaning crews, caught in a strange Kafkaesque nightmare of cheery signs and gliding walkways and rows of empty wooden rocking chairs, and that voice overhead that kept calling out its messages welcoming us to Charlotte and reminding us not to leave our luggage unattended.  Luckily, I still had a granola bar and some chewing gum.  At one point it was almost comical. I couldn’t even find a help desk or an airline person to ask what I was supposed to do about getting a new flight. Of course, finally I did.  But I want to talk about something else that happened.

As I was wandering through the airport feeling a little sorry for myself, I saw a sign that said Chapel with an arrow pointing upstairs. So I took followed the arrow up the stairs and found a tiny room with a few benches and what looked like a makeshift altar (made out of a school desk). There were “inspirational” posters on the walls that also looked like they might have come from a classroom. And as I sat down, I noticed, there was also a man on the floor.  My first thought was that it was someone sleeping. And that he looked terribly uncomfortable, sleeping all balled up with his face to the floor. I thought: this poor man. His flight has been cancelled too, and he has found the one quiet place to curl up and take a nap.  Taking out my rosary, I made the sign of the cross and began to pray. The man on the floor moved. He hadn’t been sleeping, he’d been praying. He rose up on all four and looked at me –probably as shocked as I was to find someone else in the chapel at that hour. We nodded to each other and he finished his prayers, rolled up the prayer rug he was kneeling on, and put it atop a pile of prayer rugs in the corner and quietly slipped away.  I prayed my Rosary and did the same.  But all the time I was thinking of that man; how the two of us had found our way to this place at this hour, in some sense we had found each other.  And somehow that comforted me.  I had been walking through that cavernous building, looking at all the closed stores and the desolate food court, noticing all the shadowy, isolated figures slumping over on benches or in chairs, sleeping, waiting.  Occasionally, I would catch sight of someone rushing up to hug someone who had just arrived; taking the suitcase from their hands, they would walk away together arm in arm, talking excitedly, heading off to family, friends and a comfortable bed.  And, past midnight I was still wandering, feeling desolate, alone, until I found the chapel and the skinny little Muslim man down on his knees, saying his prayers.

You see, I was trying to bear my burdens, I was trying to be strong and self-sufficient and good-humored and cheerful, but I was (in fact) simply clinging to my burdens as if they were trophies. I was feeling sorry for myself, and feeling like somehow, I was earning something special by suffering all of this. God was going to owe me!!  But, instead I was being taught a lesson.  I was being taught how to let God sustain me. And the way to do that isn’t by sucking it up and “being strong,” or ‘taking it like a man,” but it is simply by letting go and giving it to God. When things are going badly, times are hard, life is rough, give it to God. Go into some quiet place and sit down (or kneel down) and offer it to Him in prayer.  He will sustain you.

Soon after leaving the chapel I found the help desk and was rescued by an attendant who arranged a flight for me that didn’t get cancelled, and even got me a voucher for a hotel room (so I could go sleep for 4 ½ hours before coming back to the airport to try my hand at the security scanner once again.

It’s not easy, but it is very simple:  Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you.

(on the other hand, I still don't like to travel....)