Making Peace with the Universe
"Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace,
and things wherewith one may edify another."
-Romans 14:19 KJV
This book has been my morning read since January. I finished reading the book today. This book, however, will continue to read me! 15-20 minutes at a time in our basement, I read. Nico, our pup, keeps me company as I strive to ground my day with a read that engages me intellectually, spiritually. We have "Study Time." Nico loves these moments of solitude more than I do because he can freely play without being patrolled. He waits at the basement door until I get my cup of coffee to go down together. I've made a study nook in the basement during the pandemic...I tell Joe it's my "Nun's Corner," my "Monk's Cell."
I heard about this book on a podcast by Noah Feldman called "Deep Background." (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/finding-peace-in-turbulent-times/id1460055316?i=1000502554350) Noah and the author of this book, Michael, are longtime friends. Their conversation is interesting and engaging. What got me to buy the book in the podcast was the word "edify." Do what is edifying. It is the "word of the year" chosen by our staff, Lisa, Christy and Cristian and me. It is the word I want to focus on this year personally and for our community of faith.
Am I doing what is "edifying?"
Am I saying what is "edifying?"
Is what I do and what I say building someone else up or tearing them down?
Are my food and drink choices building my body up or tearing my body down?
Are my comments building our community of faith up or tearing it down?
Yesterday when walking into a pizza shop after trying to order online and calling the always busy line, I announced my presence with the following criticism, "I can't order online and your number is always busy. Is there a problem with your systems?" I did not say "Hello or how do you do?" I did not even comment on the terrible weather. My first words were negative...hmm. Wonder how they felt about me, as a customer? I did not edify those hard working pizza makers. After ordering and scooting to the grocery store, I came back to pick up the pizza, thinking more clearly. I apologized for my negative comments at their front door.
Michael Scott Alexander's questions around edification come from a deep dive into works of literature, art and music born of spiritual struggle. Each person he features in the book has a crisis of faith, an emergency of such great spiritual magnitude that their lives are transformed. They, in turn, transform the lives of others. From Socrates, the Greek philosopher, to Mary Lou Williams, African American jazz composer who performed her Jazz Mass in the Vatican, to Michael's own friend Bobby, Rockstar, Hasidic Jew and National Guardsman. Each story grounds the person in the harsh reality of seeking more, longing for deeper connection.
"Is this all there is?" Even Chinggis Khan (AKA Genghis Khan) the Mongol ruler, fighter, ruler of the first Great Khan Empire which united all the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia asked this question. You may be asking this question as well. Is this all there is? All pandemic all the time? All political argument all the time? All winter storms all the time?
Perhaps it's the fact that I am missing the warmth of the sun and the warmth of your faces that I am also asking this question. Perhaps it's the fact that I'm middle aged and our second child will graduate from high school this June, flying the coop. Perhaps it is my mother-in-law's hip replacement, my dad's recent fall, my father-in-law's unexplained weight loss. I want to reach some kind of peace with what is, not with the way I expect everything to be...
Here's where Michael Scott Alexander's reflection on his best friend Bobby's early death from a series of brain tumors spoke most deeply to me:
"There is no other path than the one we're given. Our only choice is in how we view it. We can make of life a path of friendship and joy and let love build us up, or we can allow life to overcome us. That's all there is to it. I don't distinguish between joy and pain anymore, or between happiness or sorrow. I don't distinguish between sacred and profane either. One's stance before the universe, whatever it may throw at us, must be either/or. Either all moments deserve awe or none do. And this means, I think, that I ought to be grateful not only for the mountains I think I can climb but also for those that seem to topple me. Because I've withstood each landslide so far. I'm here. Right now. Another moment thinking and feeling. Another moment breathing. Another moment longing. Another moment in triumph and then in tragedy. Another moment in grief for the memory of my friend in his hospice gurney and yet a strange joy regarding the very same memory. These moments are all gifts, even the worst ones."
A way to get to this point, Alexander writes, is to give into the gravity of this present moment and consider all moments to be worthy of our awe. I suppose when we do that, when we give into "orienting gravity." This is a gravitas which points us like a compass in the right direction. We then consider what edifies us, what builds up our community of faith and our world.
"But you, dear friends, carefully build yourselves up in this most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit, staying right at the center of God’s love, keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ. This is the unending life, the real life!" -Jude 1:20-21 The Message
Grace and Peace,