Even if you’re not personally going “back to school,” as it were, September nevertheless feels like a return to schooling after summer, in which stasis and idleness is forgiven, even rewarded, as one tries to conserve energy and juiciness under the hot suns of the bright months. I’m not sure how much I evolved spiritually this past summer. I read over a thousand pages of Anne Brontë in the long heat of July, which, given their almost relentless and irredeemable bleakness, I do not recommend; I delayed completing my already-long-delayed draft of a novel I’ve been trying to write for the better part of five years; and, of course, if you’ve been keeping up with this blog (which of course you have), you’ve noticed I’ve been a little quiet here as I try to figure out how to keep sharing my creative offerings but also look into sharing my work with larger audiences. So I returned to church this morning after (another) two-week absence for what many churches call “Rally Day”: the return of Sunday School for children, and, for the adult spiritual truants, a return to the Psalms and the prayers and the quiet anxiety of sitting with our own hearts in the space of the Meeting Room, under the new lights we haven’t gotten used to yet, wondering what might be revealed.
If I sound tired before the “new school year,” so to speak, is even a week old, I don’t think I’m alone. “What most of us want,” Donna said in her sermon, “is to just not lose anything else.” It’s no way to receive the great gift of salvation, we all know, but that doesn’t make it any easier, not in the face of so much disaster. As I try to write this, Bahamians trying to come to the United States to take refuge with family and friends from the wreckage of Hurricane Dorian are being turned away without the visas they’ve never been required to have before. Is everything going to be all right? Can it be? Who knows?
“Create in me a new heart,” we sang, and said, and heard, over and over in the service. Not a “pure” heart or a “clean” heart, as older translations have it. But let us at least admit that whatever we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. As we start to look forward to the season in which the trees and the lands begin their own process of renewal, we might even wander into the Message translation of Psalm 51:10: “God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.”
Maybe it makes sense to use the language of newness rather than cleanliness. Renewal in nature comes from the mushrooms that break down dead bark and leaves, from the insects and worms that process the initial decay into finer, richer soil from which growth can come in the spring. It is not a clean process, not in nature and not in spirit, springing in the latter as it does from betrayal, desertion, suffering, and death. And by the dirt and the blood we will know our own salvation, if we are willing to pass, to dig, to crawl through it—salvation, as Donna reminded us, goes through, not around.
In Gillian Welch’s “By the Mark”, which I sang with Jeff late in the service, the narrator notes: “A man of riches/may claim of a crown of jewels/but the King of Heaven/can be told from the prince of fools.” Here is the first and last lesson in the curriculum of the new heart: tell these two apart and you’re more than halfway there. The prince of fools dominates so much of our time and attention. Can we go out into the dirt and the dead leaves, as we will as a community next weekend on our annual retreat into the woods, and find the renewal promised long beyond this world?
This is our test this school year. May we all, even the prince of fools, ultimately pass.