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.