It had been a frustrating morning. Having already spent a month in New York City doing research for my proposed book on the jazz legend John Coltrane, I was in the third of four intensive writing weeks in Collegeville, Minnesota. My goal for those weeks had been to complete as much of a first draft as I possibly could, and to that end I’d been attempting to heed the advice of my friend Fr. Kilian McDonnel, who’d told me that when I got into in that “writing zone”, I should just keep going. Don’t edit, don’t second guess, don’t try to polish as you go. A first draft can be pretty raw; the polishing comes later.
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Yet that morning, even the raw writing wouldn’t come. In three and a half hours, I’d written just a few hundred words—no, I’d probably written a few thousand, but immediately deleted most of them—and it was beginning to feel like I’d never get even close to finishing a first draft. It was as if every time I started another sentence I’d suddenly be aware of the enormity of my task. I was attempting to approach the life and music of this iconic jazz musician by focusing both on his spirituality and on the theological weight of his music; something that the theologian Rodney Clapp said had never been attempted, but really needed to be done. Yet that morning I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. How could I possibly bring this book to completion?
It was coming on a quarter to twelve, so I closed my laptop, put on my winter jacket, and began the walk up to the Abbey Church to join the monks for midday prayer. It had become an important part of my daily routine to do that; more than just getting me up from my desk and out into the crisp February air, that brief fifteen-minute liturgy of prayer and sung psalms always reminded me of what I was doing there in the first place. I can’t tell you, though, what was sung or read or prayed that particular day. What I can tell you is what came next. As I walked down the side aisle toward the church door, I was joined by two of my writing colleagues; one was in Collegeville working on a book about a rather obscure French mystic, and the other was madly trying to finish her doctoral dissertation. I casually asked how their mornings had gone, and the doctoral student—a youngish woman named Carmen—grinned and said she’d had a something of a revelation. “I came to the realization that I can’t say everything in this dissertation,” she said. “And as soon as I realized that, a big weight was lifted from my shoulders.” She went on to tell me that she’d been trying to produce the perfect thesis, which could then be reworked as the defining book in her area of focus… but that morning she had realized that she couldn’t possibly pull that off. And that was just fine, because over the years she could write other books and do other research. For now she’d just do what she could to do justice to her thesis.
I walked back down the hill to my little cottage, had a bit of lunch, sat back with a cup of tea, and thought about Carmen’s words. She’s right… I can’t possibly say everything, attend to everything, engage every word that has been written about this musician. But I can be a part of a larger conversation; I can make a contribution in the whole area of the intersection of music and theology; I do have something to say. I can’t say everything—can’t possibly utter the final word on John Coltrane’s theological import—and that’s okay. That afternoon may have been one of the most productive writing sessions of my whole sabbatical.
You can’t do it all. You just can’t. Yet as our reading from 2nd Samuel opened, David apparently had decided that he could. Settled in his royal home in Jerusalem—God having now “given him rest from all his enemies around him” as the writer puts it—he said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” I’ve got a grand home, built for me by King Hiram of Tyre in acknowledgement of my royal stature, yet the Ark of the Covenant remains housed in a tent. The prophet can clearly see what David has in mind; the king intends to build a temple to house the ark; something at least as grand as his own royal house. “Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’”
“But that same night,” the narrator tell us, “That same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”
Tell David, in other words, that I have no particular need for a temple. I’ve been with this people as they sojourned through the desert, and I’ve been with them as they settled into this land of promise. Wherever they went, a tent was pitched to house the Ark of the Covenant; a tent was pitched to symbolize my presence among them. Tell David, in other words, that he is not to build a grand edifice of cedar to house the ark. It is not his to build.
And tell David this as well: “When your days are fulfilled, and you lie down with your ancestors, I [the Lord] will raise up your offspring after you… [and] He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever.” I will permit this temple to be built, David, but not by you. It will only happen once you have died and one of your sons has ascended to the throne. It is not yours to build. In the meantime, rather than you building a house for me, David, “the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” It is a play on words; David’s use of that word “house” had been a rather literal one, in that he’d been talking a solid cedar temple. In response, he is told that God will make of him “a house”; that it is David’s lineage—his heirs, his people—that the Lord is most concerned to build.
David’s son Solomon will come to the throne after David has died, and Solomon will turn his attention to the building of the temple. As described in 1st Kings 6, it is more than a little impressive, built of stone, lined with cedar and cypress, adorned with gold… I wonder, though, if the God whose presence had for so long been symbolized by a tent smiled a bit wryly at the grandeur of Solomon’s project. As related in 1st Kings, Solomon has some need to explain why it is he, and not his father, who builds this temple: “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet.” (1 Kings 5:3). You know that my father was preoccupied with securing this kingdom, and so had no time and no resources to build… but now I do. The parallel story told in 1 Chronicles offers a rather different bit of insight, telling us that the word of the Lord came to David, saying, David, “you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth.” (1 Chron. 22:8) You’ve got blood on your hands, David, and such hands are not the ones to build the temple.
Which is, I believe, another way of saying, “David, you can’t do everything. For your own sake and for the sake of this people, I am not going to let you do it all. The moment you begin to believe that you can or must or will do it all is the moment that you have begun to believe that you—you—are in charge. That is the day when you will begin to create your own myth, that says that it is by your hand that all of this has come to be. But David, I will not let you think in that way, because if anyone is building a house, it is I, the Lord your God, who is doing it.
Clearly, my coming to that realization that in writing my book I didn’t have to say it all—that I couldn’t, in fact, have the final say on my material, nor should I want to—clearly that is of a different order from David discovering that he was not going to build the temple. But I get it, and I hope that you do too. And in that “getting it”, don’t miss the words that Jesus spoke to his tired disciples, to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For that act of “coming away” can be the most needful thing in saving us from the illusions we can create about ourselves; that we can—should, must—do it all. By grace, we can’t, and in the end that is very, very good and liberating news indeed. For by grace, it is accomplished for us already. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it is done. You can’t do it all—you don’t have to do it all—delight in that insight.