Greg Garrett's No Idea

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No Idea

David C. Cook (2009)


Greg Garrett is a popular writer, teacher, speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and media guest. The critically acclaimed author of the novels Free Bird, Cycling, and Shame, the memoir Crossing Myself, numerous nonfiction books on faith, culture, and narrative, and an array of essays, articles, reviews, and lessons, Greg is also a primary writer for the Scripture project The Voice. An award-winning professor of English at Baylor University, Greg serves the church as Writer in Residence for the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and as a lay preacher at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.

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No Idea, by Greg Garrett from David C. Cook on Vimeo.

Product Details:

List Price: $12.99
Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 208
Vendor: David C. Cook (2009)
ISBN: 1434767965
ISBN-13: 9781434767967


No Idea

At the Ranch

It's sometimes a challenge to know where to start a story. My fiction-writing students are always asking me where to begin, and I usually tell them, “As late as possible. Right when things start to happen and not a moment before.”

Of course, when you're telling your own story, it can be harder to know exactly when that moment occurs. Is it in the big events of our lives, the births and deaths?

Or is it the moment that you have a realization that changes you?

It had been raining all afternoon at Ghost Ranch, sometimes just a spatter of drops, sometimes a torrent. I had been writing since mid morning and hoped to take a break and go out on my bike--why was it raining in the desert?--but the rain kept falling, sometimes more, sometimes less, but always steady. So I worked until late afternoon, when I finished a draft of the chapter I was working on. Then I put on my anorak and walked out from Casa del Sol, the isolated retreat center where I was staying on the ranch, and down to the nearby creek, mud clumping on the bottom of my Tevas, my feet gathering weight as I walked, rain tapping on the hood of my jacket. The old timber bridge down at the creek was shuddering with the violence of the water rushing beneath it. Most summers the creek was a tiny trickle of clear water over stones far below, or even just dry creek bed. Now it was a fast-flowing brown liquid, not quite as thick as chocolate pudding, but certainly thicker than chocolate milk, and it was swooshing by just a few feet below me. Down at the next bend, the current had washed out a bank and pulled a tall cedar into the water--a tree that had lasted for long years in the desert, and now was going to drown.

I felt bad for the tree. But I felt good away from the computer, out in the rain and the cool air, and I walked across hillsides and up at last onto a mesa across from the painted rock that surrounds Ghost Ranch. People have been traveling here from all across the country for at least eighty years to see this sight, and one of them, the great painter Georgia O'Keefe, had actually strong-armed the ranch into selling her the house across the valley from where I stood, a place where she painted some of her best-known landscapes.

Man, I am so lucky to get to see this, I thought as I looked out across the valley at the multicolored cliffs of sandstone, at the dark gray clouds behind and above them.

Then I saw a jagged flash of lightning, heard the thunder follow a second or less afterward, and knew that I was in real danger. There were no trees anywhere near, and I was the tallest thing for some distance; never a good thing when there's lightning around. So, bent over like Groucho Marx--if Groucho Marx were also a sprinter--I dashed across the pasture, panting with the altitude (Ghost Ranch is 5500 feet higher than Austin, Texas, where I still live), rain pattering off my head and shoulders.

I clambered down hills and climbed with some delicacy over a barbed wire fence. I followed a pickup track back to where I had diverged from the road, and by then it was raining harder.

When I got back down to the bridge, where I was surrounded by lots of things taller than me, I felt some relief. But I also paused for a second, smiling as the rain ran down my face and cold down my back. And then I started laughing.

I wished I'd been able to see myself on the mesa, ducking and running as I made a dash for safety, and I could still feel that pinprick of fear that had grown at the thought of not seeing my boys or my Martha again, of not finishing the book sitting on the table in the common room in Casa del Sol.

I laughed again, and the rain came down in sheets as I made the long walk back. I was soaked and chilled to the bone and amazed at how much I loved being alive.

I laughed, although not because I found the thought of getting struck by lightning funny--or because I enjoy courting pneumonia. But one of the things you will need to know about me if we are going to walk together is that not so long ago, if I'd been up on the mesa with lightning flashing around me, I probably would not have been induced to quicken my pace back to the ranch. During long stretches of my life, I had very little interest in preserving my life, and for some few horrible years I actively thought about ending it, and so this storm would have seemed like a godsend.

Bring it on, I would have told God. I'm ready whenever you are.

No, I laughed now because I was alive, and because I received that life as a gift and wanted to protect it--and because I know how much I have to live for, and because I know more than most how wonderful it is to feel this way, even with red-spattered legs and cold mud squishing between my toes and cold water running down the small of my back.

But then I always seem to be having these flash-epiphanies at Ghost Ranch, which shouldn't surprise anyone, since that is why it exists. Formally speaking, Ghost Ranch is a conference center in the high desert of northern New Mexico affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, and it has been since its former owners, the Packs, gave it to the Church in the 1950s. Informally speaking, Ghost Ranch is a thin place, a nexus, a site where people have come and returned, because they felt something beautiful and sacred when they were here.

The guest list over the years has been a cross section of American culture. First there were cattle rustlers, and then ranchers, and then the property became a dude ranch. The DuPont family built a summer home here in the 1930s after the Lindbergh kidnapping freaked out the rich and famous and sent them seeking safe havens. Cary Grant visited several times over several summers. The atomic big brains working on the Manhattan Project down in Los Alamos came to the ranch under assumed names for R & R while they were trying to perfect how to make things go boom.

And then there was O'Keefe, who lived here or in her home in nearby Abiquiu for something like sixty years while she painted the play of light across the cliffs and the texture of skull on desert sand and the flat-topped mountain, Pedernal, which dominates the skyline across the valley.

The first time I came to Ghost Ranch was in the summer of 2001, in the midst of that dark period when I was wondering if I might find a way to stop hurting myself and everyone who loved me, preferably a permanent solution that would leave at least a nagging doubt about whether or not I had meant to kill myself.

I had been camping in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains two hours away, hiking, thinking, and trying hard to get a handle on the life that seemed to have flown as completely out of my control as a rain-swelled stream in a desert arroyo. I could almost grasp it--I was at the point of having some conscious understanding of how my depression worked and what it was costing me--but I could not imagine how I could possibly have the strength or the energy to stagger on much further--and healing? Well, healing seemed completely out of my control, as of course it was.

My writer friend Joan Logghe had invited me to talk to a writing class she was teaching at Ghost Ranch, and that, at least, I could manage. I was, as they say, high functioning, even during my least-functional periods. In public, at least. So I expected to come to this place called Ghost Ranch, be clever and funny and maybe the tiniest bit wise for Joanie's class, and then go curl up in a dark room somewhere.

But on the drive from the Sangre de Cristos, the landscape turned from desert to textured and colored rock, and even the light seemed different, more intense, more luminous, which I know doesn't make any sense, but how else can I account for pulling up over the top of the rise and seeing the multicolored cliffs--the Piedra de Lumbre, or Valley of Shining Stones--spread out in front of me, and knowing immediately that it was one of the most holy places I had ever been?

“In the desert you can remember your name,”1 America sang, and this may be true. But what's even truer is this: In the desert, you must remember your name. There's nowhere to hide. What you see is what you are.

And once you get used to that, an amazing freedom emerges from not having to pretend--or even being able to pretend.

I pulled into the main campus, a pocket of green in the midst of the sand and colored rock and met Joan and talked to her class, and all that day I felt peaceful, as though I had entered a place where the normal rules of my life no longer applied. That night I sat under a tree on the grass with Joan and some of her friends, and they had mixed a pitcher of margaritas; one of them who had heard the sad story of “my life so far” formed an attachment to me as one might to a wounded puppy, and we stayed up talking while the stars came out, big and bright and so close to earth you could make some kind of haul with a butterfly net.

It was a magical day and a magical night, and I've been coming to the desert ever since. I connived my way into teaching a writing class at the ranch the next summer and began coming a couple times a year to write, something I still do for at least part of every book I've written since (including, obviously, this one).

And it was in the summer of 2003, on my way to finish a novel at Ghost Ranch, that I realized the depression that had bedeviled me for years was gone--that, as Jesus told the woman who touched the hem of his garment, I could go in peace: I was healed. As I got closer, the sky seemed bluer, the mesas even more colorful, and when I reached Ghost Ranch, I was ready to celebrate. For one of the first times in my adult life, I was experiencing joy, real out-of-the box joy.

So although I come to Ghost Ranch to do hard work, writing or teaching or leading people on spiritual retreats, I also come here because I continue to experience that joy and the same sense of being on holy ground.

One of the things that resulted from my survival is that I have gained a real and living faith, and have become both very spiritual--which wouldn't surprise the old me much--and very religious, which would surprise the old me and everyone else who knew the old me. In the years since I decided to live, I've gone to seminary; I've studied Christian history, theology, and tradition; and now I know that in the Jewish and Christian traditions, people have always gone to the desert or passed through the desert to get themselves sorted out, to come to the realizations that will change their lives.

Abraham crossed the desert to reach the land to which God was calling him. Moses heard the voice of God from a burning bush while he was in the desert, and he led the children of Israel back through the desert so that they would be purified by the time they reached the land God had promised them.

One of the most important stories about desert testing in the Bible is that of Jesus' temptation. It immediately follows the account of Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Prophet in the three Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), and it seems to do what desert has always done--to serve as a place where people can look hard at themselves and at the world, and see what they need to keep and what they can dispense with:

Filled then with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan River and the Spirit led Him into the desert, where for forty days He was tested by the Devil. During that time, He did not eat, and by the end, He was starving.

Then the Devil told Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.”

But Jesus answered, “Scripture tells us human beings do not live merely on bread.”

Then the Devil raised Jesus high and instantly showed Him all the nations of the world. “I will give You all this power and glory,” he told Jesus, “for it has been given into my hands, and I can give it to anyone I choose. Bow down and pay me homage, and it will all belong to You.”

But Jesus answered, “Scripture tells us, give homage only to God, and serve only Him.”

Then the Devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and raised Him to the top of the temple. “If You are the Son of God,” he said, “then throw Yourself down from here, for Scripture tells us that God has given the angels orders to guard You and keep You safe. They will lift You in their arms so that You will not even stub your toe.”

But Jesus answered, “Scripture tells us, do not test the Lord your God.”

When the Devil had exhausted every test, he left until the right moment, and Jesus, carrying the power of the Spirit in Him, returned to Galilee. (Luke 4:1-14a)2

Jesus is tempted with material things, with power, and with glory, but He passes the tests (every test, the Scriptures tell us) with flying colors. In His responses, Jesus reveals that if life isn't centered in and on God, it's not life at all, and He walks out of the wilderness and back into the world, knowing at last who He is and what He's called to do.

Now, I'm no Jesus. Not that anyone has confused us. But one thing we do have in common is an experience of the desert, both the physical one and the metaphysical one. Jesus responded much better than I did to both. But in my own life too, the desert experience has been a crucible that burned away everything that didn't matter and left just the tiny sliver of me that did matter still. It's been a preparation for what comes next. And in the lives of many people I love, it's been the place they've had to pass through before they could enter into the land of promise.

My dear friend Roger Joslin had waited for what must have seemed like half a lifetime--and it had certainly been the entire lifetime of our friendship--for ordination into the Episcopal priesthood. Of all my friends from seminary, it was Roger whose path seemed longest and most difficult, and his desert experiences had direct parallels in my life.

So I took joy in Roger's ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Arkansas--for him certainly, although a part of me was also celebrating the possibility that someone like Roger could be-- had been--faithful to a process that bounces you around like dice in a cup before releasing you at last into the life you're meant to lead.

My son Chandler and I had driven across a big chunk of Texas, Oklahoma, and part of Arkansas to be at his ordination--just as we had been there in northwestern Arkansas when Roger was ordained as a deacon, an intermediary step on the road to becoming a priest in the Anglican tradition. Sometime after that ceremony, Roger told me about the ritual itself, which involves the laying on of hands of a bishop and as many priests as happen to be present. When there are a lot of them, as there had been when Roger was ordained, it looks a little like a rugby scrum, all these hands reaching in and down onto something--in this case, Roger himself.

“Man,” Roger told me later, “I have to tell you, there was a second there when I was scared to death. I felt all this weight pushing down on me, and I thought it was going to flatten me. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get up.”

Roger did get up, of course, and has served with passion and joy in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he has planted a countercultural Christian community in the home of the largest corporation in the history of the world, Wal-Mart. But that image of hands, of weight, has stayed with me. Even though others among my priest friends have said that their ordination experience didn't feel like Roger's, this is what I imagine it might feel like for me, because I think the call to serve God is about as serious a call as there is, and if you don't imagine the weight, then maybe you should.

When I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church in December of 2003, the bishop laid his hands on my head, and as he inducted me into the life of the Church, I felt pressure and heat, half-expecting marks on my temples when he lifted his hands away. The bishop who confirmed me is no longer in the Church, and the place where I was confirmed was not my home congregation of St. James in Austin, but nonetheless it was a strange and holy experience that left me temporarily stranded between worlds.

When I came back into this one, after a confirmation lunch with my friend Carissa and our fellow St. James parishioner Ora, I continued to think about what I was supposed to be doing in this life and how I could be faithful to a God who had saved my life and given me purpose.

Ten years ago, if you'd told me my life would be filled with people who are priests and pastors--if you'd told me that I'd even be hanging around with devout Christians--I would have laughed in your face, and it would not have been a joyful laugh like my caught-in-a-thunderstorm laugh. (If I even felt capable of laughing, that is--in those days, I rarely was.) But since I came into the Church, my life has increasingly centered around trying to discover and do what God wants me to do, and so not surprisingly, I find my pathway crowded with other people who are trying to do what God wants them to do--which naturally includes a disproportionate number of Professional Christians.

The Christian tradition tells us that we are all called to follow Jesus, and in my tradition, we are taught that the job of priests and other ministers of the church is to equip all believers for ministry to the world. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who gave his life in the struggle against Hitler, observed that most people ignore the call or act as if only Professional Christians need to pay attention to it, that a simple belief in God and God's saving grace is enough. Bonhoeffer's famous term for the belief that many Christians have about their lives in God is “cheap grace,” a belief that God's grace will cover their transgressions and wrongdoings without requiring any effort on their part.

Bonhoeffer said that we couldn't be more wrong because what God actually offered was “costly grace,” grace offered only within a life of service and faithfulness: “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”3

In the history of the church, Bonhoeffer said, monastics--that is, men or women living in contemplation and prayer--were considered to be professional religious people, and everyone else lived in the world and like the world. But Bonhoeffer argued that this setting apart of professional religious people ignores the fact that all of us are called to discipleship, and that the real lesson of Martin Luther's reforms was that for most of us, the way we are called to follow Jesus is not in convents or cloisters, but in our everyday lives.4 The Gospels often talk about “the Way,” as though Christianity is a path rather than a single limited event in our lives, and that's what I believe too, because that has been my experience.

I do believe that following Jesus--discipleship, as Bonhoeffer called it--is the task of everyone who wants to call herself or himself a Christian, and that's the path that I'm trying to walk in this life I never expected to have. But what does it mean to say I am trying to do what God wants of me?

Well, that's the question, isn't it?

I know that whether or not anyone ever lays hands on my head and makes me a priest, whether I ever feel the press of responsibility pushing me toward the ground, I am called to faithful discipleship, since we all are. But what should that faithful discipleship look like?

What am I called to do in this miraculous life?

I have no idea. But by listening and praying, by walking in companionship with others, I do know I'll have a better chance to find out.

And that practice, the practice of discernment, is what I'm doing now.

©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. No Idea by Greg Garrett. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.