Monday, December 31, 2007

Far as the curse is found

“The Incarnation changes EVERYTHING!” the young, exuberant priest kept repeating at church on the sixth day of Christmas. Just like on Good Friday when he had similarly insisted that “Christ’s death changes EVERYTHING!” I initially accepted his statement casually while I waited for the meat of his sermon to follow. But in both cases, that was the meat, repeatedly announced with urgent, bewildered joy. And in both cases, the simple statement is profoundly true.

Just as the curse of the Fall has entwined itself into the very veins of Creation, so the Incarnation reaches just as deeply under our skin with Redemption. The corrosive functions that are “just the way the world works” cannot escape a God who functions inside the world. Illegitimate children and pregnant teenagers are dignified. Pagan idolaters follow his light. Odiferous animals witness wonders. The ground that Adam was cursed to toil will sprout with Steadfast Love and Faithfulness, brought about by Eve’s cursed childbearing.

The Incarnation changes everything.
No more let sin and sorrow grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found…

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The very best Idol ever

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…
…my first opera?

Yesterday I sat through Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which is quite an intense fete: not only are 1950s operas characterized by harsh tones and absence of melody as a principle, but I had to follow the various strands of antimelody with German subtitles.

In the Jewish composer’s interpretation of the brothers, I was surprised to be given another submersion into the thrill of the Christmas season we are celebrating. Schoenberg characterizes Moses as a Platonist, who opens the play by chanting, “Eternal, omnipresent, invisible and unimaginable God.” Throughout the opera he refers to God as “the Idea,” and writes triumphantly upon the wall “I think God.” He comes across very harshly, loathing fleshly depravity and holding to God’s intangible holiness.

Aaron, on the other hand, is the man who knows how to work the crowd. He sings the closest thing to melody Schoenberg composed, and writes “I love God” upon the wall. When the Israelites reject Moses’ intangible God in favor of their Egyptian gods who have image and substance, Aaron gives them tangible signs and wonders that they can see and touch. If Aaron is the spokesperson for Moses’ God, the people finally conclude, we will follow him into the desert.

The opera spins out of control when Moses does not come down from Sinai after forty days, and the people cannot keep following this unknown, unseen Idea that Moses had declared to them. Aaron gives in to their demands and gives them an Image that they can touch and hold and love, something that meets their present needs and cares: in Schoenberg’s interpretation, he gives them a golden ICH, the German for “I.”

In the confrontation between Moses and Aaron at the end, Aaron insists to Moses that people will never be able to follow an intangible God, nor could they ever love him. They need images. They need idols. They need to touch God. Moses is left in despair, on his knees, still clinging to his defeated Platonic notion and pleading for “the Word.”

Enter the Incarnation: the Word became Flesh.

We are a weak people, as Schoenberg’s Aaron argues to Moses. We people demand signs in the desert; we worship the bronze serpent on a pole; we demand a king to Samuel. The astounding thing that God does is that he ultimately meets their demand for an idol. Christ is the very very best Idol ever, the best tangible Image of the Idea. The people demand to Aaron that he give them a god they can see; God finally enters the world and says “Here I Am.”

I expected to come away from the opera ashamed of all the ways I have bowed down to various bronze serpents when God didn’t seem real and tangible enough to me. I find instead that I walk away bewildered by Love. God has met my frailty by providing the idol I require; when I bow down and worship relationships and feelings and ambitions, it’s really more ridiculous than depraved. God has not condemned my idolatry as Schoenberg’s Moses would expect: God has sanctified it.

The Word became Flesh, fashioned in a virgin’s womb into a crying baby. This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!

Friday, December 28, 2007

On the third day of Christmas... true love gave to me
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree
Advent comes much more naturally to me than the twelve days of Christmas. Like I said in my Ovid post, it seems to me that a sense of loss and grief is woven into man’s understanding of the world. Add a redeeming God into that sense of loss and bang! you get waiting.

But yesterday, the third day of Christmas, I was jerked out of my readings of Ovid by a song emitted from the new speakers Dad had given me two days earlier. It’s a lovely hymn which doesn’t get associated with Christmas (or much of anything, for that matter; people don’t really know what to do with this highly poetic hymn that mentions Creation in nearly every line and God in only one). A quarter of the way into the Christmas season, this was the hymn that connected my longing to my Savior’s birth:
Morning has broken
Like the first morning;
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning;
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the word.

Sweet the rain’s new fall
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness
Where his feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight;
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light
Eden saw play.
Praise with elation,
Praise every morning,
God’s recreation
Of the new day.
Morning has broken; light has come into the world; once again and forever, God says “Let there be light.” By the third day of Creation, the earth was sprouting with vegetation; by the third day of Christmas, I am reminded that “Faithfulness springs up from the ground and righteousness looks down from the sky.” God whose feet walked in Eden now walks on earth once again, and “Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.”

God rest ye merry, on this fourth day of Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sonnet XX of Advent

Last year's advent sonnet for today happens to involve one of my favorite Bible stories (an odd one for a favorite, I know), which my priest was teaching in his sermon last Sunday. I'm feeling pretty weak these days, and this was a story I need to remember this Advent.

Psalm 40, 54, 51
Isaiah 10:5-19
II Peter 2:17-22
Matthew 11:2-15

I’ve waited patiently for him, and now
Am half inclined to think he heard my cry.
But prison reeks of doubt upon the brow
Of me, the reed the bends as winds blow by.
Excuse my doubts, but mud and mire are old,
So have you come, or shall I wait some more?
Please excavate my ears, for they grow cold
And sacrifice falls hollow on the floor.
So bring me body, ears and heart, though all
I offer is this broken spirit’s plea,
Extending just the doubting, fearful call
To him whose goodness makes the blinded see.
The violent take the kingdom using force,
But yours is built with weakness and remorse.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Not without hope we suffer and we mourn

I am finally reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I wonder where it has been all my life. What other gems might I discover out there in my quest to turn myself into a “master” of literature?

My impression after spending the morning in the first two books is that just about every tale is one of sorrow. The end of each story seems to involve some character left in grief, some virgin unable to escape the clutches of a ravisher, some man unable to attain his woman (cleverly, those are often the same tale), some parent morning the loss of a child. Even before we are given specific characters we are given grief, as the golden age turns into the silver and then to the bronze and then to the iron… there is a sense of a loss of greatness woven into the fabric of great mythology.

And it is Advent. The Christian story is not unique in its story of a Fall, or in the sense of mourning that it carries with it. Rachel is left weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more just as surely as the sap that bleeds from Roman trees speaks of Clymene’s daughters whose grief for their fallen brother Phaethon transformed them into those trees. Who can look at a Raven without suspecting the ominous treachery that brought Apollo to kill his beloved with his son within her womb, anymore than he can look at a serpent without suspecting Eve’s deceiver?

Rather than a rival to paganism, Christianity seems to answer the hopeless cries of Io who suffers for a treachery larger than her mortal scope had concocted and deeper than her mortal strength can escape. Christ’s coming meets the pagan wailer just as completely as the Hebrew wailer, though the former had not known he was waiting for redemption as the latter did. His coming meets this fundamental piece of our humanity: our sense of loss.

Advent is a reminder that we are the Hebrew and not the Pagan; we are in on the secret that redemption is on its way. The wind that blows against the wailing reeds by the riverside may as well tell the tale of Pan and Syrinx; Paul declares that creation has been groaning with the pains of childbirth until now. But we groan with hope, the hope that our groans are heard, that they have-been-are-and-will-be answered, that God has felt our grief as much as the gods did, but actually has power to redeem it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sonnet XII of Advent

On a more positive note, I was reading the Advent sonnet for the 12th day of Advent that I wrote last year. I don't intend this blog to be a poetry-outlet for me, but this collection of sonnets had been a listening tool for me last year. They are poetic summaries of the lectionary readings for each day of Advent. The one for today was a good reminder that Christ is preparing my heart even when I am not as attentive to prepare it:

You’ve sent us out in preparation, to
Prepare our hearts, a banquet room to dine
Within. We wander on ahead of you
And find that you’ve prepared our bread and wine.
For you who send us out to find a place
To dwell have gone before us in the land,
And the inheritance is that of grace,
For you’ve established steps and blessed our stand.
And you who sent us in captivity
Have named our sons “A Remnant will Return,”
And urged us not to fear our enemy;
For we won’t stand unless we’re standing firm.
Give ear to older eyes who stand unshaken,
For never have the righteous been unshaken.

Psalm 31, 35
Isaiah 7:10-25
II Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
Luke 22:14-30


Papers are over for the semester. If I can try to get away with calling the past few weeks of solid-reading-and-writing part of Advent preparation, cleaning my academic tasks off my schedule in preparation to celebrate Christ’s birth, then I am finally moving on to the next phase of preparation. My paper was turned in and presented on by noon, and since then I’ve cleaned my house, gone grocery shopping, made cookies, written a long-overdue letter to an old friend, returned library books, sold textbooks, and an fitting in my first blog entry in weeks before heading to prepare for a poetry-reading event at my cottage tonight.

But yesterday I was given a reminder that my scurrying around is not necessarily preparing my spirit to celebrate Christ’s coming.

I essentially never get sick, but there have been many times that my body starts attacking me when I am not taking care of my spirit. That’s the only way I know how to describe it. The symptoms are always the same: I get terribly disturbed about something, a headache starts coming on, the headache turns into throbbing agony followed sometimes by vomiting, and in a couple hours I am fine again. It never relates to anything I’ve eaten (I often haven’t eaten); it never involves stomach pain; it never involves a fever. My body just occasionally lets me know that I need to take care of something inside.

Normally I know what that thing is. The last time it happened, a dear friend had just moved away, and I have never been good at goodbyes. But it happened yesterday, right in the narrow window of time I had scheduled myself to be finishing my last paper. Was it the stress of the end of the semester? Was it some other issue I’ve been ignoring as I’ve been wrapping all my mental energy into papers? I don’t know, and that bothers me.

So without anymore papers between me and Christmas, I pray I become more attentive to the need to prepare my spirit for his coming. It is easy (and sometimes even fun, if your name is “Industrious”) to get wrapped up in tasks that feel significant, but we must be reminded not to let the unseen things slip. Yesterday was my reminder.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Yet must I think less wildly

Yesterday I was re-reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and there were a couple stanzas that well-described the state of the melancholy poet-prophet who Byron believed himself to be. (Okay, okay... so I really meant “who I always believed myself to be,” but I can’t always be self-revealing on this listening-blog. Every poet thinks himself a prophet, and most of them are melancholy ones.)
Yet must I think less wildly: I have thought
Too long and darkly, till my brain became,
In its own eddy boiling and o’erwrought,
A whirling gulf of phantasy and flame:
And thus, untaught in youth my heart to tame,
My springs of life were poisoned. ’Tis too late!
Yet am I changed; though still enough the same
In strength to bear what time cannot abate,
And feed on bitter fruits without accusing fate…

But soon he knew himself the most unfit
Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held
Little in common; untaught to submit
His thoughts to others, though his soul was quelled,
In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompelled,
He would not yield dominion of his mind
To spirits against whom his own rebelled;
Proud though in desolation; which could find
A life within itself, to breathe without mankind.

(III: vii., xii.)
Without expounding on why those passages struck me—the poet whose thoughts can become poisonous torture, the visionary whose stubbornness isolates him—which would by necessity be either hypocritical or self-incriminating, I thought I’d contrast them against what I read this morning from the daily lectionary.
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore.

Psalm 131
The contrast for me this morning after spending yesterday submerged in Byron was striking.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The holy god of Cynicism

Of the few simple love-poems that the cynic in me is not able to dislike, Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is pretty near the top.
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
He goes on to describe all the lovely things he and his beloved will do in the British countryside: sitting on rocks as they watch shepherds, rivers and melodious birds; laying on beds of roses; and wearing clothing made from the wool they pluck from their own sheep.
The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.
Evidently Marlowe plays my tune; those delights my mind do move.

But unfortunately, Sir Walter Raleigh ruined the poem to the study of English literature by publishing a reply that the young Marlowe died before he could answer. Raleigh’s “Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” is what the cynic in me should praise as being realistic and practical.
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
He goes on to describe the cares that prevent lovers from sitting on rocks, the wilting of the flowers, and the wearing out of the clothing. Every literature class I have ever had that looks at Marlowe’s poem (high school, undergrad and graduate) immediately follows it with Raleigh’s reply. Cynicism has the final word.

But cynicism is not a place to stand nor a momentous finish line. We are a culture that worships the holy god of Cynicism but has little to replace the things we criticize.

What if there are high virtues to strive for, despite the frailty of our attempts to reach them? What if the love that Marlowe’s shepherd sang of is worth dreaming of, even if his posies “soon wither”? Perhaps our call to listen involves some counter-cultural release of our cynicism.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving: the ultimate sacrifice

"Hear, O my people, and I will speak;
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.

"If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The lonley hill

Max Weber attributed to Protestantism “a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual in what was for the man of the age of the Reformation the most important thing in life: his eternal salvation.”

If you’ve known me in the past six years or so, you’ve probably heard me rant about how inextricably we have linked salvation to American individualism. But the funny lesson of the week for me was this: I am such an American individualist.

My Mom was once forced to attend a cocktail party, and after scouring the mall in a vain search for a cocktail dress that she could wear with a straight face, she finally decided on a pair of black velvet overalls. I love telling the story because the principle is strongly engrained into me: just because the other women were subjecting themselves to uncomfortable, flashy dresses didn’t mean that my mom needed to be cold that night. They all shivered in their cocktail dresses, and my Mom was warm in her overalls.

And somewhere along the line people started pointing out to me that I never seemed to wear anything but my Tevas. I had not noticed, but they were right. In fact, as the winter wore on I found that I still craved the comfort of my well-worn, versatile sandals. And when occasions of formality arose, I still wore them. Six years later, I am still wearing them almost exclusively. I hardly notice other people’s shoes; I see no reason for them to be noticing mine.

And when the worship team that I had been a part of for a year-and-a-half instituted a business casual dress code a year ago, I stepped down.

Whoa... what just happened? Somewhere along the line, I became the individualist who refuses to allow anyone else to infringe on something I feel justified in asserting for myself. That sounds wise when the “anyone” is a cultural bandwagon; it sounds downright pagan when that “anyone” is my church.

There are so many battles out there to be fought. Depending on how they are worded, most of them can sound like worthy battles. But most of them are not hills to die on. Having comfortable feet is good; alienating myself from my church in order to have them is not.

Last Friday, with tears in my eyes that came from an agonizing combination of confusion, hurt, and humiliation for being confused and hurt, I let my pastor buy me shoes to fit the business casual dress code.

There are far too many hills out there for me to die on all of them. Beyond that, there’s a remarkable freedom in submission, in letting go of my own individual rights. It is what being part of a church—yea, being a Christian—is all about.

Embarrassingly, I am still a little sad about the shoes.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The disobey

I was babysitting my nephews one fine spring morning, and we were outside playing in the sandbox. The two-year-old kept throwing sand out of the sandbox, and I finally warned him that if he did it one more time we would go inside. Unfortunately for the boy, he has a bit of the family strong-will, and he responded to my warning with a final sand-toss.

“Alright, we’re going inside,” I declared as I scooped up the one-year-old and beckoned his brother to follow.

“And when we go inside, we can paint with watercolors!” he enthusiastically declared.

“No, buddy,” I gently corrected. “We’re going inside because you’re being punished.”

Suddenly the boy froze in shocked horror, and I watched his face immediately transform from blissful to agonized. “Nooooooooooooo!” he began to wail as his face contorted. “I want the punishment to be ooooooooooooooover!”

I wasn’t sure how to approach this issue, having only intended a mild punishment for the minor crime of sand-throwing. “The punishment can’t be over,” I tried to gently reason. “It hasn’t even started yet.”

He dramatically threw himself on the ground and wailed all the more.

“Buddy, you disobeyed,” I softly explained to the tortured child. “When you disobey, you have to be punished. It’s not a terrible punishment, but we have to go through it.”

“Yes, it is it is!” he insisted. “It is a terrible punishment!”

“No honey,” I reasoned. “You can read a book or do something quietly, but you have to be punished when you disobey.”

The child was not to be soothed. “I want the disobey to be oooooooooooover!” he continued to moan.

Don’t we all?

My nephew is an amazing gift to have, because his early skills of articulation allows me to hear my raw, basic character flaws clearly articulated in a two-year-old tantrum. In my own sins and shortcomings, I can hardly endure gentle correction better than my nephew. I want the “punishment” to be over before it has even begun; I want the “disobey” to be over without going through the process of correction. I receive gentle correction as torturous chastisement, unable to endure the thought of needing it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Give War a Chance?

I don’t have much time these days for superfluous writing (thus the scarcity of posts), but I enjoyed this anecdote from French class.

One of my peers was asked to translate a sentence. The answer should have been “No one was waiting at the station,” but as it turns out, the French word for “station” looks similar to the French word for “war.” She looked at the sentence for a few moments, trying to tie the various words together in a coherent way, and finally came up with:

“War waits for no one”?

How dramatically one word can change the understanding of an entire sentence! Though the principle is much more dramatic when comparing different languages, it applies to speakers of the same language as well.

Let us be patient in our misunderstandings with one another. Misunderstanding is too abundant to be avoidable, so there is much room to extend grace.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Daredevil's Cloister

Last night was my second experience of a Franklin Street Halloween, the favorite October activity for college students anywhere in the southeastern United States. Though I have been college/post-college for seven Halloweens now, I normally avoid the event, not having a great love of crowds, drunk kids, or the various revelries the combination of the two are prone to arouse.

But last night I went with a friend who gathered a crew together to be the Planeteers, hearkening back to a TV show I never watched as a kid. (I mean, c’mon! How could I take a show seriously in which the villains concocted elaborate schemes in their great plot to destroy the environment?)

I actually don’t have much to say about Captain Planet or Franklin Street today; I want to talk about this obsessive comic book fanatic of a friend whom I love so much that I would not even hesitate to go out in a big crowd of drunk kids dressed in various debauched costumes, dressing as a character from a TV show I never liked who wore a pink shirt(!).

His favorite question to ask people is, “If you could have any superpower you wanted, what would it be?”

My answer had been easy, because during a brief X-Men phase of my childhood I had made up a character for myself. “I’d basically be a female version of Wolverine who could also fly,” I had answered, “if I’m allowed to combine those things. I always wanted to be indestructibly fierce.”

He had nodded pensively, reflecting on his own superpower of choice that he lamentably did not possess. Then he had asked the clencher: “What superpower do you think you actually have?”

After a long discussion, we had decided that I possessed the ability to walk through walls—entering easily in and out of completely different worlds. But years later he added another, which seems to adequately sum up one of the main points of his Superhero Theory of Life:

“Daredevil is a superhero that is actually blind,” he explained. “His other senses are so intensely sharpened that you would never know; he can walk into a room and know where the various people are by the feel, sound, and scent of the air. Some don’t know that he’s blind, and even those who do often completely forget.

“This is a great gift to Daredevil; he senses many things that go right over every else’s head. But like every great gift, it is also his tragic flaw. He might need to ask someone a simple question like ‘What color was that guy’s shirt,’ and he might miss some things that are obvious to everyone else. On the one had he ‘sees’ more than everyone else, but he needs to rely on others for some fairly obvious sights.

“And you,” my friend of seven years concluded as he looked at me knowingly, “do see a lot of things that go over other people’s head. But you also miss a lot of obvious things, and you need to make sure to get your bearings from your team every now and then.”

There is a severe grace in being given flaws. Like in the Superhero Theory of Life, our gifts and our flaws are often one and the same, but even the flaw-side is a severe grace. There is a grace in being finite, in needing to rely on others, in being unable to save the world alone.

For a friend who reminds me of that, I am delighted to brave the crowds of Franklin Street dressed as a pink-shirted planeteer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Gospel of Fanny Price

I certainly hope this will be the last posting that has the unfortunate name “Jane Austen” written in it, but I can’t help it. For the most distasteful thing I’ve read this semester, Mansfield Park has sure had a lot of things for me to be listening to!

Fanny Price is the least-loved of Austen’s heroines, which is interesting for me because she is also the one I identify most with. I was almost hurt to hear the women in my class yesterday rail on this timid, sensitive, reserved girl who never fought back as various damaging outside forces pressed in on her (I’m sure many of you are amused that I would claim to identify with such a character, but you’ll have to just roll with me for now).

“I hated her!” one of my classmates exclaimed. “I just wanted to slap her. She never did anything to defend herself. Was I supposed to be feeling sorry for her?”

“I wrestled with that too,” admitted an ardent feminist. “But you have to remember the time she was living in. There was only so much she could do with society the way it was. Sometimes all you can ask for is baby steps, which to her credit she did at the end of the novel.”

It’s interesting that our cultural love of strong, independent women includes the inverse, a hatred of the mild, submissive one.

It’s interesting that even in our modern post-Christian western culture, a gospel of a God of the underdog is just as countercultural as it was when it was first introduced to humanity. A Gospel that asserts that it is the weak who are strong and the blind who see and the poor who are rich and the last who are first is just as upsetting as it ever was, despite our culture of humanitarianism. It’s certainly upsetting to imagine that we are supposed to be those people.

There are a lot of explosive theological debates about women’s ordination that I have absolutely no intention of addressing today. Whatever my theological stance, most people know that I at least attend a church that does not ordain women, so I obviously am not offended by that position. Submission to the authority of a Church who withholds certain positions of authority to me because of attributes I was born with does not feel degrading to me; I can actually receive it as somewhat of a gift. Submission is a very Christian muscle; I am not offended to be allowed the chance to use it.

In a culture of rebellion, we are pleased to hear that the Gospel is subversive, but we rarely think of it as being subversive to ourselves. Might the Gospel subvert my own principles and the traits I admire? Might it subvert my own values?

When it does, I pray that I respond as a weak, submissive woman who allows herself to be acted upon, in whatever way the Gospel chooses to act upon me.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Unspeakable tragedy redeemed

Life is full of often painstakingly-long processes of transformation, peppered every now and then with eternally significant moments. Yesterday contained one of those moments.

It was certainly one for my friend, sharing with me her darkest secret, a secret she planned on taking to her grave with her, a secret she was sure would destroy our friendship. I let her take her time, but told her I didn’t plan on leaving the table until she was able to get it off her chest.

She went to any length she could to avoid saying it. She told me she was chickening out, and I told her we’d have sit at that table an awfully long time then. She deliberately made it obvious, hoping she wouldn’t have to actually say the words.

“Have you figured it out?” she asked me.

“Yeah, but you still haven’t said it,” I answered.

“Well, why don’t you just say what you think it is, and I’ll tell you if you’re right?”

“Nope,” I stubbornly insisted.


“Because when this day is over, I want you to go to bed knowing that you said it on your own.”

As she struggled and talked around it, I had constant flashbacks of myself in her position six year earlier, needing to tell a friend a secret I was sure would ruin the friendship. My excitement in telling my secret had been victorious enough that I immediately wrote a (long) book about the experience, but in my case my worst fears had proved true, and the friendship was destroyed. For six years I have been unsure of how to file that situation in my memory. I have never actually read the book I wrote about the experience.

Yesterday may have been (and was indeed) an eternally significant moment for my friend, but the surprise was that it was for me as well. After six years of holding onto that un-file-able story, after trying to concoct redeeming situations so I could finally take that old demon off the back-burner, I had the chance to sit on the other side of the same table (so to speak), uncharacteristically confident of how I should be reacting to her fumbles because I knew what her side of the table felt like.

Jane Austen is (thankfully!) not the author of my story, which means that the redemption of the unspeakable tragedy sometimes takes longer than 20 pages. On the contrary, redemption often happens in the most unexpected places, when one has long given up looking for it. Like a really good joke, it’s so subtle that you could miss it if you’re not paying attention, which is why we so often do.

But as I start to learn to see it, I can’t help but admit that I like the way God runs his world.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Quote of the day

This came from a random student passing by me on campus, having an animated discussion with the fellow next to him:
I mean, he's a Republican; of course he's close-minded!
I was glad they had already passed me so they couldn't see me busting out laughing. The blanket accusation of close-mindedness was glaringly ironic. How often we are most offended by the faults we ourselves possess...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Reverse Entropy

I seem to be completely unable to develop the spiritual gift of enjoying Jane Austen.

There are many people whom I love and respect who do have that spiritual gift, and I am willing to assume that the agony of my past couple days of reading Mansfield Park relates to my own flaws and hang-ups rather than an objective, disinterested assessment of the work. Perhaps Austen and I are two perfectly fine people who are just completely unable to make a friendship work.

But that being said, this blog is not a place for me to glorify my own hang-ups. Put down your stones, Austen-lovers! I am willing to listen to a book that I just spent the entirety of three days groaning and cussing through.

The world of Jane Austen is (in my opinion) agonizing, and throughout the course of each novel (at least the four I’ve read or seen movies of) various uncontrollable forces act upon the helpless characters who watch these torturous situations destroy all hopes for happiness and justice in their lives.

And just when it seems like nothing could get any worse, when I the reader feel very sorry for the characters but am so disgusted with their world that I want to close the book and apologetically leave them to their hell, the unspeakable tragedy happens! Every Austen novel (that I’ve read or seen the movie of) has one. Just when nothing could get any worse, and there are only 80 pages left in a 470-page novel, Mrs Rushworth runs off with Mr Crawford, Miss Bertram elopes with Mr Yates, and Mr Bertram gets a terrible sickness and seems at the point of death. (Sorry for the spoilers; I’m assuming that all my readers either have the gift or don’t, and that those with the gift had read it already and those without it appreciate the excuse not to.)

Then, in the last 20 pages of that agonizing novel, everything comes together the way it was supposed to with shocking speed and completeness. The good people marry the good people and the bad people are content to learn their lesson and live out the rest of their days sadder but wiser. Mr Bertram finally understands that what he thought were virtues in Miss Crawford were really just pretty eyes to mask a shallow soul, and he finally realizes that Miss Price has been the woman for him all along. Though the characters are too pure to say it, they are all secretly thankful to the low-life scoundrels and the unspeakable tragedy that made everything fall into the correct places.

And though Austen and I may never end up being friends, perhaps there is something for me to hear in that. Perhaps Grace is a force of reverse entropy, the power that moves the world in uncontrollable ways such that our most habitual corruptions and unspeakable tragedies, our own sins and the sins done against us, are actually putting the pieces together rather than taking them apart. We stand in the rubble of sin, socked to realize that the explosion actually produced a cathedral. Grace trumps all. It is not that our sin was good (let us not go on sinning so that Grace may increase)…

… or is it? When Death is swallowed up in Victory, is even Death redeemed? When Victory eats up Death for dinner and Death is broken up in Victory’s stomach, is the ultimate conclusion that even terrible Death becomes good, not on its own merits but because it got swallowed up by something good?

ESPN tried to say that in an article last week about my friend who died last spring, and though the lives saved with his organs was unsatisfactory for me as a justification for Jason’s death, there is a trace of the Gospel there. Grace is not damage control; it is the ultimate story of the world that consumes the damage in its uncontrollable force of redemption.

Everything falls together.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Chuck vs. Crapon: a lesson in sacrifice

The Anglican House Blessing service (like just about everything Anglican) involves communion, and part of the liturgy of communion involves an offering. For the House Blessing service, that offering is bread and wine provided by the person whose house is to be blessed.

I had three bottles of wine on my shelf:
  • a Charles Shaw “Two-Buck Chuck” from Trader Joe’s (good),
  • a Cabernet Sauvignon that had been a gift from my mom when I moved here (better),
  • and a Côtes du Rhone bottle of Les Crapon from France that my parents gave me a-year-and-a-half-ago (unfortunately right before I moved into a dry household) that I’ve been saving for something special (best).
Naturally, I assumed I would break out the Two-Buck Chuck.

Fortunately for the sake of the lesson, one of the regular blogs I check, a fellow who is blogging through the Bible, happened to reach the part in Samuel where David refuses to offer to the Lord anything that cost him nothing. Though technically Chuck was the only bottle I had actually paid for, the reminder of sacrifice was fairly striking. Without much deliberation, it became pretty clear to me that the special occasion for which I had been saving the fine bottle of French wine had come. I would not withhold my best for the ceremony in which we asked God’s presence in my new home.

What I had perhaps been thinking about when I assumed I would offer God my bottle of Chuck is this: for the service that involved a grand total of three people, we would only consecrate one glass. The rest of the bottle I could cork, put on the shelf, and use for cooking whenever the need arose.

But when I corked the Crapon after the service, I knew it would be a terrible waste to use my best bottle of wine as a cooking wine. I also knew that the quality of the wine would dramatically lessen as time wore on. Furthermore, I knew it very unlikely that I would have anyone over for dinner in the small span of time between now and when the wine would lose its tastiness.

In the end, these acknowledgements led to my decision yesterday evening, between reading 16 scholarly articles about Spenser’s Amoretti and plowing through Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, to enjoy a glass of Crapon with my Ramon noodles.

The point of the story is this: sacrificing the best to God does not mean losing the best; sometimes it actually forces one to enjoy the best. Rather than hording the bottle and saving it for the most opportune time, I shared a few sips with a priest and a friend, and had another glass in a mundane study-break. This, I suppose, is why the same God who insists that “If I were hungry I would not tell you” because “every beat of the forest is mine” still demands the best of the flock: when we offer our best, we are partaking in it with him, and thus in an offering of (for example) our finest wine we are actually offering “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” that we enjoy in the presence of the God who gave it to us.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I will make my dwelling among you

Almighty and everlasting God, grant to this home the grace of your presence, that you may be known to be the inhabitant of this dwelling, and the defender of this household; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
One of the priests at my church came to my little green cloister to conduct a houseblessing service yesterday. I think any hope that I might return to my old Gnosticism is just about shattered; the Incarnation seems to become more compelling to me every day. The Almighty God who wore the flesh of the man Jesus dwells, in a way that is mysterious but is no less real, in a one-room cottage with me. Just as we believe that God is somehow present in the physical objects of bread and wine, we have asked his presence in my home.

Brother Lawrence once prayed,
Lord of all pots and pans and things…
Make me a saint by getting meals
And washing up the plates!
I pray that here. I pray that I may live constantly aware that the physical aspects of my life are the spiritual, that God is present in the most gritty, tangible parts of my existence. May that presence make them holy; may I wake up tomorrow on a holy couch and put holy tea on the stove. His presence has been invited in this house; may he fill it.

He has been invited even, as it turns out, in the bathroom. The bathroom of this characteristically masochistic enemy of maintenance has been blessed with these words:
O holy God, in the incarnation of your Son our Lord you made our flesh the instrument of your self-revelation: Give us a proper respect and reverence for our mortal bodies, keeping them clean and fair, whole and sound; that, glorifying you in them, we may confidently await our being clothed upon with spiritual bodies, when that which is mortal is transformed by life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Credentials for High Priest

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.
Sandwiched between two verses about Jesus being made a high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek, the author of Hebrews lists this as his credentials, hardly the material I would put on a resume for the position of Ultimate High Priest. Basically, Christ is said to be the ultimate high priest because during his time here he cried out to God for help who could have saved him, but then he died anyway. Christ is the high priest whose prayers were not answered.

I wonder how much my prayers would be transformed if I remembered that I prayed through a mediator who as a man offered unanswered prayers. I often see myself as Job, crying out to a God who seems mostly silent, and whose greatness and power would silence me if he actually answered. Job asked God to come and meet him in the flesh…

…and when God ultimately answers Job’s prayers in the person of Christ, he does it as a man who cries out seemingly unanswered prayers. Christ is the ultimate High Priest because he also has begged for relief to his present pain that did not come. It is that man (with an emphasis on man in this particular context) who intercedes for me in my own seemingly unanswered prayers.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Collect for the week

Proper 22 The Sunday closest to October 5
from the Book of Common Prayer

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Le Subjunctif

In French class we were talking today about the bane of romance languages: the subjunctive voice. For any who didn’t study romance language, the subjunctive is a tense to show uncertainty: “It is possible that I am going to the store” as opposed to “After class I am going to the store”—the former case is uncertain and uses the subjunctive, but the latter is definite and uses the indicative. There are all kinds of subtleties about when one uses or doesn’t use the subjunctive tense, and it is a nightmare to try to come up with a solid system. I will not be attempting that here.

But what I noticed today is this: while one uses the subjunctive after the clause je pense que (I think that…), one does not use it after the clause je croits que (I believe that…).

Thus, built into romance languages is the notion that believing something is a solid foundation, something requiring an indicative voice, something much less ambiguous than simply thinking it. While the terms are synonymous in English, they transform the voice of the sentence in French.

I asked a friend this summer how to make oneself believe various essential truths of the Christian faith. “How can I really believe that God is taking care of me? How can I really believe that I am forgiven?”

He looked at me and smiled. “You only can believe things you don’t know,” he answered. “If you knew these things, it wouldn’t be believing; it’d just be knowing.”

So I suppose je croits (I believe) is a je pense (I think) used as a je sais (I know). It is the faith to use the indicative voice when one doesn’t have grounds to go beyond the subjunctive.

Monday, October 8, 2007

For the love of Narcissus

As good to write as for to lie and grone,
O Stella deare, how much thy power hath wrought,
That hast my mind, none of the basest, brought
My still kept course, while other sleep to mone.
Three years ago I read parts of Sir Philip Sydney’s Astrophil and Stella in a literature survey course, and I quickly determined that I did not like the speaker of this sonnet sequence of unrequited love. Astrophil makes a pattern of identifying the advice of reason and virtue and then quickly dismissing it for no higher cause than a glance at Stella’s eyes. He came across to me as unprincipled and whiney.

Three years later, our little Astrophil strikes me as just as unprincipled and whiney, yet I find myself more able to sympathize with those flaws. What strikes me this time around, damning to myself as much as him, is not the consuming nature of his passion, but its direction. Astrophil is not as much in love with the lady as he is with himself.

This observation may be true of most love poetry, certainly of my own. The lover is much less a worshiper of the beloved than of what she brings to him… I love people when they make me feel special or happy or cared for or intrigued or compelled or wise or funny. When I see that trait in myself, I am somewhat bewildered as to an alternative; do I even possess the capacity to love outside my own betterment? Doesn’t that make me a 21st-century Narcissus, whose captivation with another image is really a love of myself?

Perhaps when Christ tells us to love as we love ourselves, that is more radical than I have imagined; even my love of others is often an effort to serve myself. When he takes that a step further and commands us to love those who hate us, that seems downright supernatural.

I suppose it is supernatural. And until I learn it from him—learn it by example from Christ the Good Samaritan who binds up my wounds and nurses me to health before telling me “Go and do likewise”—I will continue to follow in the footsteps of Narcissus, finding that everyone I thought I loved was really a reflection of myself.
For Venus named it love that was desire
As if its name could make it any less a fire,
And taught me worship of my needs, and so
I craved my neediness, my friendly foe
That charmed me with my love of me, the one
Most apt to languish in its empty sun.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Humility of Homer

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus.
Every great epic begins with an invocation, a call for the Muse to sing her song through the pen of the poet. Homer was writing the epoch of tales, a tale larger than his mortal hands could probe, and thus he begged immortal aid. Thus Milton in his quest to transform the Classical styles into a Christian epic of the true epoch of tales begins Paradise Lost the same way, calling instead upon God the Holy Spirit as his Muse:
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos…
So I wonder now, as a poet who likes to put my own thoughts and ideas from my self-important life to verse, why I never take a cue from the writers of epic. If our own lives are caught up in an epic tale of Redemption that is broader than the scope of our own narrow eyes to see, then should we not have the humility of Homer to ask a wiser voice to tell our tale?

As I look back upon the tale of my life, there are many different ways of telling the tale, many different lenses through which I can see the events. I pray that God may give me the ears to hear his telling of my tale. In a culture of protest, infatuated with its rights, I pray I may allow the words to be written by Grace—Grace that, like Homer’s Muses, had been present to events that I had not seen and is therefore more fit to tell the tale.

Sing, O Heavenly Muse of Grace!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Silence of God

Yesterday my questionably-recovering, weak, anemic, drugged, sickly sister learned that a friend of hers just died. He was vacationing with his family, went into some pretty rough waters, and got caught in a rip-tide. They haven’t found his body yet.

The news is hard on me, partially because it is hard to see my sister trying to take the news like a trouper, partially because I am only just now getting used to the idea that I had almost lost her.

Somehow the lesson that I serve a gracious God who spared the life of my sister is not what I want to be hearing right now. I want him to answer bigger questions:
  • Why did God save me from drowning when I as an idiot high-schooler tried to swim across a lake with a bolder tied to me, but not the life of my sister’s friend?
  • Why did God save my life when I had a nearly-fatal car accident at 16, but not the life of my friend’s sister when she died at the same age?
  • Why did God give me the couple inches that saved my life when I got hit by a car last spring, but not the life of my friend who got killed the same way a few weeks later?
Sometimes the reason I stop listening to God is that he has a history of being so silent to my questions. My listening comes with stipulations: “God, you have a lot of explaining to do, and I’m ready to hear it.” And God is silent. So I stop listening.

The thing about listening to God is that you don’t always get to chose what you hear. Sometimes God ignores my questions and takes me back to the ones that didn’t seem relevant. He reminds me that he saved my sister’s life last week. He reminds me that he often saves mine, despite myself. He reminds me of his care, and that his care applies to my sister now in her grief, and to me as I cannot take her pain away.

But that wasn’t my question.

Perhaps true listening requires the humility to allow the questions to be rewritten.
Why do you contend against him,
saying, “He will answer none of man’s words”?
For God speaks in one way,
and in two, though man does not perceive it.
Job 33:13-14

A Costly Deafness

My little sister nearly died two weeks ago because no one was listening to her.

That sounds a little drastic, as I always do, and I certainly don’t mean to point any fingers at anyone (even the school nurse who kept telling her she was probably having allergy trouble) that I haven’t pointed at myself.

Just days before lying in a hospital bed to receive four blood transfusions to begin to replace the two-thirds of her blood that she had lost, my sister had described her excessive blood-loss situation to me. I thought it sounded annoying, like anything in that genre of issues. She also told me she was feeling weak and having headaches, but she’s always saying things like that. By the time she finally pleaded to be taken to the doctor a few days later, she wouldn’t have survived another day.

I’ve had to pay some heavy costs for not listening before, but that would have been unspeakably severe. I thank God she is alive.

Let us listen; deafness can be costly. Let us hear one another more closely than the speaker intends; sometimes people do not know that they are dying.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Green Picket Fence

As it turns out, there happens to be a tiny, green, me-shaped place in the middle of downtown, almost adjacent to campus. I found it on Craigslist.

I am quite smitten with this little green cottage, with the English gardens that surround it, with waking up every morning surrounded by the warmth of wood, with the mere two-block walk to class. This is not the kind of place one looks for; sometimes the things most worthy of search can only be haplessly found.

“It feels like someone tailor-made this pastoral nook in the middle of the city in preparation for my arrival,” I explained to a friend at church two days after signing the lease. “Down to the hardwood floors and wood-paneled walls, it seems to have been built with me in mind.”

“So it sounds like you’re going to have to admit that God is taking care of you,” said my perceptive friend.

Blast! He would bring that up, wouldn’t he?

I am amazed to realize how readily I latch onto any difficulty I encounter as proof that God relates to me like a football coach who will put his minions through hell in order to toughen his team. So easily do I hear brutality in his letter to the Church in Smyrna when he tells the sufferers, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Yet so much more slowly do I hear his tenderness in his previous letter to the Church in Ephesus whom he commends for toil and endurance but nevertheless calls to repentance because they have abandoned their love, a grave height from which to fall. It is much harder for me to hear the voice of love, the voice of him who washes the feet of his betrayer and beckons the denier to love him.

So every morning when I rise, may I accept the deafening evidence of his care, in this case displayed vividly in this little cloister crafted just for me.

It even has a green picket fence. Really.

I had a (nerdy) dream...

I had a dream the other day that I was analyzing one of Spenser’s sonnets in the Amoretti. No, really… I did.

In this dream I was a couple lines into the poem when it suddenly became very clear to me that Spenser had written this sonnet with me in mind. Somehow, though the speaker of the sonnet was clearly male, the poet had foreseen my character flaws that would arise five hundred years later, and he embedded his advice within his sonnet sequence. My analysis of the sonnet suddenly became crucial.

At the beginning of this sonnet, the speaker sounded like the obsessively infatuated speaker in Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (I promise… I really did think that in my dream). Yet I observed, in this dream, that Spenser used the nuances of the Spenserian rhyme scheme (ABABBCBCCDCDEE) to slowly transform the obsession into redemption. Just as each quatrain is embedded in the previous one and embeds itself into the following, Spenser demonstrated that the self-serving infatuation allowed the speaker to understand qualities of God that eventually served to convict the speaker of sin in a way that embraced redemption within the conviction. Sin was not destroyed; it was actually transformed into its own sanctification.

Unfortunately, the dream did not reveal which one of Spenser’s 89 sonnets I had been analyzing. Until I find it, I thought I may as well try to write it out. Spenser’s was much better, if I remember correctly from the dream.

I never saw myself so fair until
I saw it mirror’d in thy eyes of grace,
And then I yearned to drink my parchéd fill
Of gentle dignity that lin’d thy face.
For thou can’st grin thy joy into a place
Like he who brings to being with “Let be.”
Thou findest and forgiv’st in equal space
Like sandy scribbling to adultery.
Would he that crafted soft magnamity
Look gently on one smitten with a stone,
As when he smelted out idolatry
Since he had claimed the sinner as his own?
Then may my wandering retrieve and tie,
And may my very sin yet sanctify.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Pray for us, Saint Meriadoc!

The word “cloister” comes from the Latin claudere, meaning “to shut up.” The English pun is delightful, and my vices of arrogance and narcissism often need to be treated with equal dosages of inactivity and silence.

The posture of waiting is fundamentally Christian and excruciatingly difficult, which, according to Henri Nouwen, makes it “an enormously radical attitude toward life.” If the Bible says anything sure about the experience of being the people of God, it says it will involve a lot of waiting: waiting for a son, waiting for deliverance from slavery, waiting for an end of exile, waiting for a Savoir, waiting for his resurrection, waiting for his return. We would do well to learn the posture. As we exercise those Christian muscles, we would do well to listen.

Saint Meriadoc is (among a handful of others) the patron saint of deafness. This blog is named for him (and if you can help me think of a way to relate it to Tolkien’s character as well I would certainly be delighted). But since the saint whose patronage I invoke also has a name that lends itself to puns, let it serve as a challenge to learn how waiting and listening in a worldview of redemption lend themselves to joy, a fruit of the spirit listed right alongside patience.

So you may astutely ask, “How do you intend to blog listening?” I suppose my success or failure will be linked to how well I practice the discipline in my life. I plan on using this as a space to write down what I hear as I listen with my ears, with my eyes, or with my books. Creating the blog is a commitment to become more intentional in my listening. I pray I learn the posture well.

Friday, September 28, 2007


When a friend of mine yielded to the currents of the age and created herself a blog, she admitted that the reason for her former hesitation was because “everyone” does. Perhaps that was the primary reason for my hesitation as well, and perhaps it was her courage to be un-individual that has given me the courage to follow suit. After all, in a culture obsessed with individualism, a resistance to being swayed by some currents is a yielding to another.

Even with that confession out of the way, there is one major reason I have kept my distance from blogland: I have a history of being far too interested in myself. Since I was fifteen I have probably spent no less than twelve hours a week leisure-writing, an exercise that has been both beneficial and dangerous, and I am afraid that I am often somewhat smitten with the sound of my own pen. The last thing I need is another means of making myself feel sagacious.

So may the Lord deal with this blog, be it ever so severely, if it becomes another outlet for my self-importance. But if a blog can become a means of exercising the discipline of listening, then I am always up for a new challenge.