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.