In his new book The Pastor as Minor Poet, Craig Barnes argues that we’re prone to become so obsessed with the ordinary text of life that we miss the subtext – the deeper story lurking beneath the apparently obvious plot-line. Prone to fix and manage and handle the contingencies of life, we often fail to take a moment to consider what lies beneath these things – the richer meaning and substance, the motives, the hidden pain. Frederick Buechner provides an example of this in his memoir Telling Secrets, where he tells of his own experience of missing the deeper story of his life – the subtext, as Barnes puts it. Obsessed with the responsibilities of teaching and pastoring and writing profound books, his lack of attention to another plot that was unfolding nearly led to the tragic death of his anorexic daughter. A man so attuned to see the subtext of life (evidenced in his wonderful novels like Godric and Brendan) missed his own subtext, let alone his daughter’s. The neglect of one’s soul can be costly.
Barnes argues that our lack of curiosity about the subtexts of our lives, and the lives of others, leads us down the road of a kind of soul-starvation. Cut off from our own feelings as well as the feelings of others, we do life by managing one contingency after the other, never taking a moment to look beneath the surface. We end up ‘fixing’ the problems of life that we encounter, but never deal with the source. A wife ‘nags’ her husband about failing to repair the faucet or do the taxes or call the neighbor, but her subtext – the deeper story – is missed: Do you hear me? I’m lonely, and it feels like you just don’t care. If only we had the ears to listen more carefully.
Lent is the spring-time of the soul, a sacred time corresponding to a season of warming and thawing. It’s a season that invites us to vulnerability. C. S. Lewis once wrote:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
Buechner says that it is this vulnerability that we spend our lives avoiding, in part, because we fear what we might see – the weakness, the insecurity, the lack of control. In the meantime, the subtext looms underneath, telling the truth – that we’re not as in control as we think, that we’re scared, that we’re not as confident as we project. Eventually, God will awaken us, usually by discomforting us…not because he’s mean, but because he knows that we can’t live in the dark and thrive. Something has got to give. Fail to pay attention to the subtext, Barnes says, and you’ll find yourself in an addiction, or enslaved to anger, or a stranger to your children.
The vulnerable life is modeled in Christ, of course, whose self-emptying way exposed the futility of our silly power games. It’s the harder way, to be sure. But it’s the only way that leads to life.
And so, I find myself thawing from my own wintry season of the soul, a season that found Sara and I managing the contingencies of a cross-country move, a home depreciating in value, hard goodbyes, endless new introductions, a learning curve to navigate the San Francisco urban labyrinth, and two kids who sometimes thought their parents were going crazy. For a time, it was easier to neglect the subtext because it was just too hard to feel the sadness of goodbyes, the anxiety of hellos, and the insecurity of everything in-between. Lent’s springtime thaw is much-needed. It’s as if the soul says, “Hello…I’ve missed you. I know you’ve been busy, but it’s good to have you back.”
The parting clouds and the warming sun of Lent are a welcome sight, ending a wintry night, inviting the soul to thaw, to soften, to breathe again…