Busy Living and the Brinded Cow

It seems to me that only rarely does someone follow up “Hello” with “How are you doing?” Perhaps it’s because this is the age of therapy. Perhaps we fear that it’s not going to elicit a simple “Fine...and you?”, but will be taken as an invitation to lay down on your therapist’s couch for the next fifty-five minutes and detail for you all the troubles that have mounted up in the last month, week or thirty minutes.

Of course, we don’t want to know. We don’t want to be your therapist. We have troubles of our own. Scoot over. We need to share that couch.

We say instead, “Heyyyyy...GREAT to see you! Gotta go! Facebook me soon!”

We are practicing Busy Living. The calendar is full for at least the next couple of years. No time to stop. I’m Busy. I can ricochet off of you, but I dare not stop. A Busy life must surely be a secure life, a successful life, an explainable life. It feels like it is.

We seem to inaugurate Busy Living in our children quite early, perhaps to prepare them to deal with life in urban western culture. Get used to it, we hint, because life is complicated. Andrew Yang is telling us technology will lay us all off from our jobs. My only certain option then is being a consumer. Or perhaps we would say life is rich with opportunities, so pay close attention or you might miss something. Whether from fear or optimism, apprehension or desperate hope, full days seem to offer protection.

The urban Christian take on this is that we do the same, only you must add on a time of prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, and—of course—Sunday services and mid-week community group. And somewhere in there, we try to find times to insert helpful extras, like this blog post.

If I am serious about my faith (and I am), I am in a struggle with my desire to live differently in both my understanding of how life works and what it’s about, and my desire to achieve an approximate match with the culture so I can live in it without unnecessary friction. So I sort of add the “Christian” stuff on top of the societal obligations, cultural obligations and legal necessities.

But every once in awhile—if for no other reason than sheer exhaustion—I want to stop.

I want peace. I want to find my bearings. Somewhere in Busy Living I’ve lost the companionship of my God.

Jesus speaks to his disciples about peace in his last instructions to them, saying, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you...Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

I don’t want my heart to be troubled. But then I ask, is he defining “peace” like I do?

For me, peace means the decks are cleared, everything’s crossed off on my ToDo list, the Dodgers are winning, my bank account is full, my family is happy. I can STOP!

For Jesus, “peace” refers to right direction, anticipation, assurance, awareness of the Father’s hand upon my atoned-for past, his eyes upon my decision-making and priority-setting present, his plan laid out for my future. My bank account and the Dodgers may just possibly be in there somewhere, but somehow they are no longer at the top of the list.

It seems like my life, in my hands, is like an extremely fast game of table tennis, with no chance for a break without losing.

But what if my life, in God’s hands, is a “brinded cow”?

Remember that image? Perhaps, like me, you read the poem “Pied Beauty” somewhere in school. You may dimly remember the name of the poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins. He writes in the first line of one of his poems that he’s particularly moved by God’s invention of “dappled things”. A ‘brinded’ cow is one with a lot of patterning in her hide.

Hopkins adds in “stipple upon trout”, and the “gear and tackle” of various trades-people. He summarizes with: “All things counter, original, spare, strange...” Think about that for a moment.

Hopkins is arguing for a God who approves of, even wants us to rejoice in all of the dizzy complexity around us. Don’t settle for a cow of a single color; let’s have a bunch of colors in that cow’s hide. Don’t demand a plain gray trout, let’s jazz it up. Let’s fill up our life spaces and make things multi and jumbled. Let me just confess here that when I peer into my son’s room, rejoicing at this idea is not the first emotion that comes to mind.

“All things counter, original, spare, strange...” Hopkins himself seems to me to fit that description. He was certainly original, certainly counter, most definitely strange. He was born into a wealthy British family in 1844, during the Victorian era. The family was Anglican, but he found and adopted Catholicism, and then—to his family’s horror—became a Jesuit monk. His many eccentricities drove his superiors to distraction. He was not considered “priest” material and was assigned to a succession of “back-room” jobs. He wound up in Dublin teaching the most troublesome kids at a small Catholic university.

But when alone, and in his small bits of spare time, he wrote poems, only forty-nine, none of which were accepted for publication in his lifetime. He died at forty-five, and it was another twenty years before his work was published.

His poetry reveals a different sense of his life. The deep thought they convey, the joyful images, the sense of wonder at the God-filled world—this is a different picture of this man’s heart altogether.

And now we return to the topic of PEACE.

Actually, that’s the title of one of Hopkins’ poems. In it, he talks to “peace” as if it’s a person, and complains about how it comes into our souls. It isn’t at home in people who don’t have a hold on God. Without God, we must fight for control. We must plan ahead. We must prevail over chaos. Peace roams around us but doesn’t settle. He writes, “I yield to you sometimes...”, but then complains, “...but that piecemeal peace is poor peace.”

Next he talks about what God does with peace: “O surely, reaving (which means “stealing”) Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu/ Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,/ That plumes to Peace thereafter.”

Instead of some form of determined grip upon our world, or a tranquilizer that hooks us in chemically - God gives us a soul-muscle to develop: Patience.

The dictionary definition of “patience” is : “The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.”

And I would add to that definition this amendment: “...And the adaptability to learn to trust our active and present God to have our lives firmly in his hands, both in the present and in the future.”

Hopkins’ last two lines of that poem speak to “Peace” as a person: “He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,/ He comes to brood and sit.”

The image is of a bird patiently enduring something uncomfortable and long, trusting in the final result. She doesn’t just sit sweetly on a limb and sing; she sits actively on a batch of eggs and lends warmth and protection until they hatch. Singing looks like something happening. Sitting looks the opposite.

Jesus says “my peace I give you...let not your hearts be troubled (nor) afraid.” In our activity, our peace is being formed in our deepest places to “hatch” as an active and healthy “patience exquisite”, knowing the brinded confusion of our living will serve God.

I am consoled not only by Hopkins’ poetry, but by his life. If you add up the number of his days and the accomplishments of his activities, it’s a pretty pitiful little package. But the results of his understanding of the obscure gifts he was given by God to serve Him, even so very few of them, is a huge gift to the world and a testimony to God’s grace. “Stipples on trout”, and praises to the God who thought up such a wild thing as “stipples”.

I conclude with my favorite Hopkins line, the last one of “Pied Beauty”, which always moves me to celebration: “He (God) fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:/ Praise him.”