May 17, 2013
Five Minute Friday again with Lisa Jo and her “flash mob” of writers. The word is “Song.” I took longer than five minutes, mostly because I wanted to give you the links to the song and the poem.
The Innocence Mission sings a song called “Going Away,” which in one spot says: “I would like to sing you a song in the morning / Walk you to the car, when you’re going where you’re going . . . ” And I love that lyric, and it launches me to a Dylan Thomas poem:
So few, such morning songs. The song is always a going away song, and each morning is an arrival and a going away, both. “Morning” transforms to “mourning.”
And yet we have the promise that it will transform back again, that for us, who are in Christ, when we’re going where we’re going, He’ll be singing over us the song of the Morning Star for His beloved.
So that, while we may follow time out of grace, we walk into a new grace with every-morning-new mercies.
So that we shall be green and golden children still, having gone to the light of the Morning-without-night, having bid goodbye to the goodbyes, having gone away from the going away.
That song, in that morning, will be a good song indeed.
May 14, 2013
Yesterday’s morning headline announced that police had vowed “to solve” the shootings at the New Orleans Mother’s Day parade. They meant, of course, that they intended to discover the perpetrator of the violence, with the goal of seeing public consequences for his/her crimes.
The thing that I’ve been thinking is that “consequences” do not equal “a solution.”
Think of things which may be solved. Riddles, for instance; algebraic equations; puzzles. Riddles are designed to obscure and yet all the while point to their solutions. The problem of a riddle is simply “What is the answer?” And, when that answer is discovered, the problem disappears. Similarly, the problem of an algebraic equation may be “What is the value of x?” And, when the value of x has been duly discovered, the problem no longer exists. A jigsaw puzzle’s problem is “How do the pieces fit together?” and it evaporates when the pieces have all been placed.
For each of these examples the “problem” is a sort of hole which the question perfectly describes. The answer to the question fills the hole, and there is an end to it. But the problem of the New Orleans shootings is not perfectly described by the question of “Who fired the shots?” And the holes created by the shooting will not be filled when that question is answered.
To say you can “solve” a crime by catching a criminal is to say a thing that isn’t true. Most of our problems don’t come with neat solutions.
It was a weekend of celebration for me. New milsestones. Old friends. I saw again how love makes radiant and how love wounds, looked back over four years of roads, of expectations, of fulfillments, of disappointments, of surprises.
We learn about problems, solutions, consequences by framing questions which may or may not describe the holes in things, imagining answers which fill the holes, finding out that sometimes they don’t, framing more questions. I’ve watched love come sweeping in, unquestioning the questions away, making the imagined solutions seem absurd; and sometimes that love is a glory and a gladness, and sometimes it simply breaks each question in two, so that the problems are more, the holes deeper: what drives a person to open fire on a celebration of Mother’s Day?
What kind of solution can a police force offer to this problem? Here we need not simply apprehension and punishment of criminals, but healing of bodies, of minds, of hearts.
And so we celebrate and we grieve, puzzling out the puzzles, riddling the riddles, framing and reframing questions, waiting for the One Who is Love to sweep in, unquestioning the questions away, making the imagined solutions seem absurd, with a glory and a gladness to heal the holes no “solution” mends.
May 10, 2013
Five Minute Friday. The word is “comfort.”
Today my brother graduates from college. We went to a reception with his department — Aerospace Engineering, if you want to know — and stood around balancing traditional reception plates full of traditional reception foods, and chit-chatted with other graduates and their families. Four years ago, I was the graduate, but the reception was for my whole university — admittedly much smaller than the brothers’ — and I was, as it turns out, much less comfortable.
I don’t know why. Why the peers and professors with whom I had spent four years of my life frightened me that graduation day, why I didn’t know what to do with my hands and feet and words. But that’s how it was.
Today, with four years’ more experience balancing reception plates and plastic punch glasses, I was, yes, much more comfortable.
James Herriot, in one of his books, remarks that “Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” Sometimes I think am, too. Give me my comfortable space, my comfortably defined roll. Tell me who I am and how I am to behave. That, for me, is comfort.
I suppose these four years have helped me with that. Helped me to know who I am, how that who behaves. Mostly, they’ve been years to teach me what I knew four years ago, but didn’t know how to apply. The answer to the who — and it sounds cliche probably — but the answer is, I’m Christ’s. Recipient of His love. Beneficiary of His grace.
So that I walk beloved wherever I walk. I walk beautiful, because He beautifies. In that is great comfort.
May 8, 2013
The question, for several days now, has been “What to write?” And the answer, in many frustrated permutations, always returns, “I don’t know.”
I’ve heard and I’ve taught that “I don’t know” is an appropriate answer, that the beginning of knowledge is often an acknowledgement of ignorance. But “even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise” (Prov. 17:28 NASB), while the one who declares his ignorance exposes himself to the judgment of those who may know. (This is why, I’m sure, students prefer to say nothing to questions in class — it’s somehow less embarrassing to look down at the page of your lit anthology than to speak up and say “I have no idea.”)
Sparing use of words can be a good strategy, too, because it gives the words you do use more weight. But it includes a risk: speak too seldom, and people will forget you have a voice, forget to ask you if know; you may find yourself one day replete with words, but no one there to hear them. You’ll want an ear.
Even though we want to communicate, communication is a great venture upon faith: we speak expecting, usually, to be understood, but there is no guarantee of understanding. Infants begin upon it, confident of finding comprehension for their incoherent babble in the face of adults eager to discover meaning. But when we grow older, we speak with more trepidation, knowing that sometimes it can be an exercise in futility.
Those who speak must be brave, to a certain degree. They must be willing to live in the room with mystery.
The mystery is this: that we ever understand one another at all. That understanding is more than associating words with objects – lights and noses and cats and flowers and so forth – but is also associating words with abstractions. I write confidently expecting that you comprehend the word “abstraction,” the word “confident,” the word “comprehend,” but I cannot explain that process of comprehension.
It is more than the sum of its parts, more than impulses in the brain stirring air and vibrations in the vocal chords, more than delicate ear bones transferring those vibrations into impulses in another brain, more than any association of sound and picture.
It must be more, else how do words come knife-edged, sometimes, piercing souls with sweetness or sorrow? How can words carry such weight or such lightness, all outside of tone and inflection? How does a Word become flesh and dwell among us, with a visible glory, full of grace and truth?
Mysteries, yes. But, though it is right that you are afraid, come near with unshod feet and give that entirely appropriate answer, “I don’t know.”
This fear, this ignorance, is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7).
May 3, 2013
When I think of being brave, I think, sometimes that it requires me doing something extraordinary, that I must certainly leave behind the things that I love and absolutely do something that terrifies. I start to wonder if doing what I love is the coward’s way. And when chance tosses me an opportunity to turn my back on this that I love, I feel almost compelled to take it.
I feel afraid not to take it.
But I know that that is silly. God requires of me obedience, yes. Even when it frightens me, yes. But there is no command that I must cease from this that I love. That I must chase after all the things that scare me, that only in that is obedience. To stay may be to obey, and that may also require bravery. Bravery to face the faces asking, “Why?” Bravery to smile when some insinuate that I live too small, too quiet.
My students took their final exam this morning, and I sat in the front of the room, and listened to them thinking, and waited eagerly to catch their eyes as they left, to smile at them. When they didn’t look, it hurt me somehow, as though I had held out my love and they had rejected it.
Loving, you know, requires that you be brave. To love is to risk hurt, risk rejection, risk this bereft feeling when they are all gone and I am left with only a pile of tests to grade, a list of grades to tabulate.
But when my last student leaves, telling me that he is glad he’s had me for this class and that he hopes he passes — and I know that he means the gladness, that it isn’t just a scheme to win the passing grade — I realize it is worth the risk. If, someday, they’ve forgotten all I said about American Literature but remember that I smiled at them, I’ll be glad.
Gladness is exclusive property of neither bravery nor timidity , but I suspect that the brave are much more often glad.
Be glad with me: our God holds out a perfect love; He casts out our fears.
April 29, 2013
Luci Shaw again, because that’s what I’m reading:
“Many . . . have a stunted view of art as something nonessential, an option, but not an important one. In so doing they ignore the gratuitous beauty (which means a gift of pure Grace, quite undeserved) which the Creator included in Creation, and the senses he endowed us with which can respond to that beauty. To have a functioning cosmos would have seemed enough. Beauty is an added bounty, and because the benefactor is divine we ignore or disdain beauty at our peril, no matter where it is found.” Luci Shaw, The Crime of Living Cautiously
The morning was born in fog, spread with webs which turned to magic with the sunrise. Cars appeared nearer than expected: nothing, then headlights, then gone away behind me. Halfway through my drive the gentle gray became a glowing white, and then steadily burned away, until the fog was merely a Rococo softening on the edges of things.
Today I read poetry I love to my students, purely because I love it, and because, on the last day before our exam review, I felt justified in abandoning anthologies and critical acclaim for simple delight. I told them, again, to let go of their frightened need to know the answer, challenged them, again, to learn to live with mystery.
Beauty is itself a mystery, more than the sum of its parts. In an aesthetics class once we watched a video about beauty: the mathematical proportions of beautiful faces, the oft-repeated ratio of beauty in nature. But we don’t go about measuring ratios and proportions, and, even if the numbers are true, there’s still the “why” left unanswered: the mystery that waves in the red clover on the roadsides, ripples with the wind across the pond. Grace.
When we run from the rooms that contain mystery, we flee the bounty of grace: this more-ness that defies scientific explanation. Creation is not a fill-in-the-blanks quiz; there is no bank of words which handily match questions. The answers are themselves questions: Where is the way to the dwelling of light? And darkness, where is its place, that you may take it to its territory, and that you may discern the paths to its home? Can you lead forth a constellation in its season, and guide the Bear with her satellites? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens, or fix their rule over earth? (from Job 38, NASB)
And they frighten us, we who carry encyclopedias in our pockets, who substitute for the mystery of friendship the collection of facts gleaned from a facebook profile. Come and sit across the table from me: I am more than the sum of my facts, more than the ratios of my face, the uneven coloring on my lashes, more than my profession and my hobbies and the eight states I’ve called home. I live a mystery, and you live a mystery, and this is grace.
Ignore it at your peril. You may hide in your encyclopedias, your profiles and ratios and study guides, but the world is larger than that, and truth comes with the sudden surprise of miracle, breaking the rules of the world, slicing your careful answers as with a sharp sword: the crucified man-God disappeared from the tomb but left His graveclothes behind Him, the man born blind had the blindness scrubbed from his eyes with warm mud, Legion left the demoniac and drove a whole herd of pigs to drown in a lake, stone hearts find the fossilization falling from them and send warm life surging through cold limbs. The fully functioning cosmos is beautiful.
The mystery haunts every room, intrudes on all our safe places, rearranges the expected order of things. Give up on banishing it: welcome it in, study its face, roll its words over your tongue. Will you understand? Perhaps not, but you’ll find, perhaps, that answers are not so essential as you once imagined, that mystery wears a smile, that grace makes beauty out of the lopsided, the disproportionate, the strange. . . .
That, when God beheld all that He had made and called it “very good,” He meant it.
April 22, 2013
Bravery is only as brave as the strength of the fear it must overcome.
-Luci Shaw, The Crime of Living Cautiously
For a church picnic hosted at our house recently, my dad and brothers hung a big rope swing from a high tree branch on the back of our property. After nearly eight years swingless, we have a swing. The little church children delighted in the swing, keeping my brothers busy pushing: “Underdoggies” and “Around-the-Worlds.” After the picnic was over, the swing stayed. My brothers — for those who don’t know them, tall young men in their last few years of college — took a twelve-foot stepladder out to the swing site, climbed, pulling the swing, to stand on the very top of the ladder – two steps above the “Do Not Stand on or Beyond This Step” step — and plunged off the top of the ladder, swinging in a wild arc, back and forth, back and forth, higher than any of the children swing. I cringed, just to watch them climb there, but they stood fearlessly, jumped fearlessly.
A few weeks later, with a group of older church kids, the ladder came out again. And there were the brothers climbing to the top, and there was I, admonishing the other kids not to climb that high, telling them that ladders are not my thing. With a healthy dose of friendly teasing from kids at least a decade my juniors, I was persuaded to swing from partway up the ladder. Even that, standing facing out from the ladder, nothing to cling to but the rope of the swing, made my stomach flutter. But I did it, and there was something exhilarating in the arc of the swing, the smooth flight without any of the jerkings attendant on being pushed.
The brothers still went off the top. But here’s what I realized: it took more bravery, really, for me to go off that mid-step of the ladder, than for them to stand on the top. Because they are not afraid of heights. But I am.
A friend of mine thrives on adventure. Last year, she took herself on a months-long summer roadtrip, all alone in an old car, for days and days on roads brand-new to her. She tells me I need to get out more, do more, wonders how I manage to survive in the small circle of home, my small-town church, my small university. I wonder how she dares to venture so far and so free.
What is brave? What does it look like? Does it look differently for you than for me? I get trembles going to ask my friendly department chair to let me sign up to teach classes he’s already told me I can teach. I get trembles climbing not even halfway up a ladder to ride a rope swing. Maybe those things don’t frighten you. But maybe teaching my college classes would scare you? Maybe you’re frightened of being stuck somewhere small, missing something exciting?
Perhaps my brave is venturing out, overcoming my fear of new places, new people. Perhaps yours is sitting still, getting to the point where the places and faces are as familiar as the lines on your own palms. Perhaps I’ll find that the new places are much less terrifying than I imagine, perhaps you’ll find that the familiar things are much less boring than you think.
Perhaps we’re both being called to step out into our brave, past our fears? Perhaps we can cheer one another on as we climb up the ladder steps, take the rope between our hands, swing out and swing back.
Perhaps, when we find ourselves somewhere in that smooth arc, we’ll smile and realize that “brave” has been transformed into “fun.”
April 19, 2013
Here goes my longer-than-five-minute Friday with Lisa-Jo and her flash mob of writers. The word is jump, and I’m borrowing worlds today.
Jump! Digory and Polly, hands clasped, leave the Wood Between the Worlds and return home, bringing with them Queen Jadis, with her unfortunately vice-like grip on Digory’s unfortunate ear. “A dem fine woman!” says Uncle Andrew, the magician. But she isn’t, not really.
I don’t tend to jump into pools, myself. I like to do things gradually, wade in, on tiptoe, torturing myself with the cold which teases its way around my ribcage, making me catch my breath and shiver. It would be easier to jump in, be all wet all at once, but I can rarely bring myself to jump in anywhere.
When entering new worlds, I suppose wading in doesn’t work very well. The pools in the Wood Between the Worlds are not the sort, I suspect, which can be waded into. Even without the wood, I’ve stood at the edge of worlds, tried to ease my way in. It seems you have to be in over your ears before you’re really there.
It’s so much easier for me if I have a friend beside me, to clasp the hand of my soul and plunge in with me. Sometimes the friend is already in the world, drawing me in over my ears before I have time to protest. Sometimes the friend is more afraid than I am, so that I am the one pulling, suddenly bold: let’s jump!
Which is, I suppose, how Digory and Polly woke the witch, in the first place: Digory borrowing boldness from Polly’s caution, doing what he might never have dared without her, bringing destruction on the witch’s world of Charn, on his own city of London, on the new-sung world of Narnia.
Be careful where you jump, and why, and with whom. Sometimes, yes, the fearful friend needs to be pulled, but sometimes it’s better to sit on the edge with that friend, watching the wild worlds from a safe distance, not, by any means, disturbing the water . . .
And there I have mixed metaphors, jumped wildly from one world to another, only able to hope, dear reader, that you followed somehow before the secret door came crashing closed and left our little fellowship in darkness.
April 17, 2013
Real life is not at all like detective stories. At least, Dorothy L. Sayers says it isn’t, and I can aver the truth of her saying: it is not a matter of clear ”problems” and “solutions” which exist in a one-to-one relationship. “We do not . . merely examine the data to disentangle something that was in them already: we use them to construct something that was not there before: neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” Sayers goes on to say, that “If . . . we are to deal with our ‘problems’ in ‘a creative way,’ we must deal with them along the artist’s lines: not expecting to ‘solve’ them by a detective trick, but to ‘make something of them,’ even when they are, strictly speaking, insoluble.”
One of the so-called “problems” which Sayers cites is the problem of death — always neatly handled, in detective stories, with motives and methods and as little of human-feeling as possible. But, Sayers says, “the ‘problem of death’ [the real-life problem, outside detective tales] is not susceptible of detective story solution. The only two things we can do with death are, first: to postpone it, which is only partial solution, and, secondly, to transfer the whole set of values connected with death to another sphere of action–that is, from time to eternity.”
I read all of that, all unsuspicious, Monday morning, and Monday afternoon, while I sat in a waiting room digesting a detective story written by Sayers, a nurse came out and asked if we’d heard of the bombings in Boston. We hadn’t. And, since I am not endowed with a smart phone, all I knew was what the nurse said, and I sat there and thought about it.
There was that other morning, more than a decade ago in a house on a Navy base, when the normal routine of a Saxon Algebra lesson poised unfinished and we gathered around a radio — yes, even in twenty-first century America — to hear of airliners flying into buildings, to wonder if our city, too, would be a target; and since that morning, the news of things like what happened in Boston on Monday comes as less of a shock than it might have been.
There are places where news like that news is commonplace, where the question is not how such a horrendous thing might happen, but whether you’ll be there the next time it does happen. Places where bomb-broken glass and blood on the street is a matter of routine, and being on the site of a bomb, helping the victim of a bomb, is no matter of huge heroism. Places where death is not a thing to be calmly postponed by regular medical exams, but a thing liable to spring up or drop down upon you from any point in your daily schedule.
Also on Monday the Supreme Court debated the propriety of issuing patents on human genes: genes have been found signalling hereditary predispositions to breast and ovarian cancers, and one company wishes to monopolize their use. It seems a ludicrous proposition: it’s a question of human lives, I want to say, not dollar profits. But even if they find a cure for cancer, they’ll not find a cure for dying, this capital consequence of being alive.
That debate has fallen out of sight, these last few days, behind the rising count of dead-and-injured in Boston, the eager publishing and recantation of stories about suspects taken into custody, the details of bombs constructed of pressure-cookers. Will anyone go looking for the gene which predisposes people to become terrorists? Will they want a patent on it?
If it were visible, they’d find that predisposition wrapped all around and through every strand of DNA, equally present in all ethnicities, all family groups. Original sin. Study and study, you who suppose that problems and solutions come in matched sets, approaching your work as though you were sorting socks. No amount of detective work can win you this answer, no number of patents can give you a share in the profits.
We expect a Savior who’ll come in with a magnifying glass and the key to put all our socks into pairs, but He asserts that it was never even a question of our feet, much less the things with which we dress them. Faced with our unyielding option–either you keep the law or you die–in a stroke of masterful artistry, He takes the death which neither security guards nor cancer researchers can prevent, and constructs of it something entirely new: a doorway to life like we never dreamed in our endless piles of unmatched socks. So that the whole set of values is transferred to another sphere entirely, from time to eternity.
There isn’t a solution, perfectly matched, to “fix” what happened in Boston on Monday. Catching those responsible won’t reattach limbs, restore life. That’s why we so badly need, not the detective-savior we imagine, but the artist-Savior we possess, who gave Himself up for us, who declares that the old things have passed away and new things have come.
*Quotations from Dorothy L. Sayer’s The Mind of the Maker
April 11, 2013
I’ve begun to read the book of Ezekiel. The last time I read it was nearly four years ago. It was summer then, but now it is spring — the Mississippi spring which alternates glory with terror, alternates days of delicate blossom and growth with massive storms which leave tracks of desolation sprawling across the new spring mud. And Ezekiel ate the scroll which the Lord fed him, and it was sweet as honey on his tongue, but the words it contained were bitter words.
Returning to Ezekiel reminded me of a post I wrote last time I read Ezekiel, and I decided to share it again here, because the story it contains is to me a powerful reminder both of the costliness of obedience and of the grace which I so often take for granted in my life.
And the word of the LORD came to me saying, ‘Son of man, behold, I am about to take from you the desire of your eyes with a blow; but you shall not mourn; and you shall not weep; and your tears shall not come.’. . . So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died. And in the morning I did as I was commanded. -Ezekiel 24:15, 16, 18
What say you now, Ezekiel, prophet of the Most High God? Were you now allowed to go back to the river Chebar, to that day when you first heard the voice of the LORD, what would you do? Since that day, you have uttered woe, destruction, and lamentations for all of Israel, but did you not think the LORD would withhold from you this private woe? Did you not expect, in exchange for your devotion, you might keep your wife?
What sort of woman was she, this wife of the man who heard God’s voice? Wife of the man who lay on his side for days on end, who ate bread baked over dung, who was caught up to heaven by his hair, who packed his bags and dug through walls.
No doubt many had advised she leave him: “No one would take it amiss. This is no sort of life for you, my dear. He is almost mad. He may be dangerous. Who can say what he may do next?” But she remained, and remained, not as a weight and a grief, but as “the delight of [his] eyes.” He spent his days proclaiming woe; he knew the destruction of much that he held dear; but she was his comfort, his rest from wrathful revelations.
“Behold, I am about to take from you the delight of your eyes with a blow.”
And Ezekiel knew, too well, that the LORD does not utter lies. Did he plead for mercy? Did he ask also to be taken? Did he say, “LORD, it is too hard a thing. Will you punish my obedience?” [He] spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening [his] wife died. And in the morning, [he] did as he was commanded.
Did he warn her of the blow that was to come? Was she angry, frightened, resigned? Did they try to comfort one another?
“God did not take Isaac; He provided a sacrifice. But first He commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. Perhaps, if I am willing to lose you, if I obey the LORD today, He will spare you to me.”
“But, Ezekiel, He took from Job all he had.”
“But not his wife.”
“But not his wife . . . and did not the LORD soften His commandment to you when you plead with Him about the defiled bread? Perhaps, if you plead with Him now, He will again relent.”
“But I fear, for He has declared His wrath. He has said that [He] shall not relent, and [He] shall not pity, and [He] shall not be sorry. And how, when He speaks thus to a whole nation, shall He relent toward one man?”
“Why, Ezekiel, why must you be His spokesman? Tell Him you are finished. If you are not His prophet, He will get no benefit from my death. We can go away, live quietly, be at rest.”
“You know what sort of a God He is. You cannot think that, when He will not spare you for my obedience, He would spare you if I disobey. If quitting were an option, you know I could not have remained His prophet this long. But He is the LORD. I must obey.”
“He is the LORD. You must obey.”
… and in the evening [his] wife died. And in the morning [he] did as [he] was commanded. And the people said to [him], “Will you not tell us what these things that you are doing mean for us?”
“… you will know that I am the Lord GOD.” -Ezekiel 24:18, 19, 24