Friday, December 26, 2008

Mundane Magic

This year I spent all of Christmas trying to help my sister-in-law while she was in labor: supervising the nephews’ opening of presents while her contractions were already nine hours in the making, taking walks and counting the increased contractions after the boys had been shipped to Gram & Grampa’s, walking up and down stairs at the birthing center, and being the delivery-room errand-girl. I feel like after watching a baby boy being born on Christmas Day, I’m supposed to have some inspirational words, maybe imagining doing that in a stable, or maybe musings about the humanity of Christ. I don’t know how Christmasy my thoughts are, but I’ll give it a try.

* * *

My oldest nephew once came and spent the night with me at my cottage when he was three. Among the activities I planned for him was popping popcorn on the stove. I heated the oil, added the kernels, and put on a glass lid that allowed us to watch the process. When small, hard, brown seeds suddenly transformed into large, puffy, white popcorn, my nephew exclaimed,

“Aunty Em, is that magic?”

Slightly amused, I nevertheless maintained my commitment to answer his questions honestly. “No, it’s not magic; it’s just he way God made it.”

But my nephew’s face grew more intense and awestruck at this response. He asked more earnestly, “God made magic in the world?!”

I was tongue-tied for a second, but finally determined the most honest answer to his question. “Yes... yes he did.”

* * *

After all, what else did I witness over the course of the past nine months that clamaxed yesterday when from my sister-in-law’s agony emerged a beautiful child whom no one had seen before (what beauty does not come from agony, after all?), who was made from half pieces of her and half those of my brother? Does our knowledge of some of the gears of that magic trick make it less magical?

Does it with any of the magic God made in the world? Is a rainbow any less magical because we know that light carries in it the entire spectrum of visible color that glass and water may unpackage for us? I know light does, but why should it? With the best of our rationality (another miracle; where did we get that from?), we can eventually learn some of the nuts-and-bolts of how things happen, but the question of why approaches the miraculous.

So yesterday I watched the climax of another daily, regular, run-of-the-mill miracle. And it was on Christmas day, no less, a day we associate with the magic of miracles, and suddenly the question of whether or not I believe in the virgin birth or the physical incarnation of God seems ridiculous. Of course I do. I’m a scholar, after all, and many of my dear friends are scientists. We should know that there are miracles written into the workings of the world; we observe them every day. If these mundane miracles happen by the truck-load every day, of course there may be greater ones.

And the miracle of redeeming the broken places of my soul, the miracle of healing the broken places of the world... perhaps I may be slowly coming to believe in those as well.

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

...all in the waiting

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
-T. S. Eliot
One interesting thing about trying to submit the rhythm of ones soul to the Church calendar is watching it be thwarted. This year, for example, I’ve already written about God pouring out Alleluias on my Lent, and about an illusive Easter that never seemed to arrive. When my spirit is in a posture of repentance, perhaps I am more able to hear surprising news of God’s favor.

And now, as I begin the second Church year with this listening-blog, as I try to catch up with Advent after a month filled with papers and grading and trips, I’m realizing that my season of waiting and longing that I am normally so good at is being thwarted. This year, the triumph of Christ the King Sunday has stayed with me through Advent, and redemption feels so tangible I can’t help but believe it has become incarnate.

Maybe Advent isn’t only about waiting and longing; maybe it is also about expectation, as if all of creation, “the angle choir of matter,” stands “poised as if to sing” (to use phrases from one of Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets). Maybe I always missed that piece of the puzzle as the posture of my soul seemed naturally inclined toward long, enduring waiting. Maybe waiting for a God who takes delight in saturating gratuitous beauty into the laws of creation, who reverses entropy and makes everything fall together, is by definition an expectant...even joyful...wait.
You will arise and have pity on Zion;
it is the time to favor her;
the appointed time has come.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gratuitous Beauty

Last night I walked out of my parents’ house in the country with my little sister, and saw a magnificent canopy of stars... getting less magnificent every year as the city encroaches closer on the horizon, but magnificent nonetheless.

“Thank you, God!” she shouted to the cold, clear December sky on the eve of her seventeenth birthday. “What a great present!”

I smiled, and joined the applause. It was a gratuitous display of beauty, there for the two of us to enjoy, but there whether or not we enjoyed it.

* * *

Last week I was driving down the interstate, returning home on a three-and-a-half-hour drive to visit my grandmother. I was just in the process of noticing the lovely beginnings of a golden sunset in the southwest when it started to rain above me. Knowing what happens when sunlight and rain converge, I stole a quick glance behind me.

The rainbow was amazing. It covered the whole northeastern sky in a giant semicircle, beginning itself again right below.

For a moment, I connected to the promise to Noah made in Genesis. Apart from the issue of worldwide floods that scholars may argue about, the rainbow spoke of goodness, beauty painted across the heavens just for the hell of it. God gives us light like a wrapped present that the particles of water unwrap into colored brilliance, for no apparent reason other than that he likes it that way.

I immediately turned on my turn-signal so I could pull over and admire the masterpiece, but the rain stopped as suddenly as it began, and the rainbow was gone.

Another gratuitous display of beauty, only there for a moment.

* * *

And I sit here and try to articulate what this beauty does in my soul, what it would do to my theology if I let it in there, but I can’t get much farther than my little sister’s exclamation. What can be said of a God who integrates beauty into the intricacies of his handiwork, who can make gargantuan balls of burning gas glorious or bent light in the rain gorgeous? Just that he did a good job of it, I suppose.

Yay God! Bravo!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A great Shadow has departed

I had planned on reposting the psalm I posted last year on Thanksgiving. It’s a good one; feel free to read it anyway.

Instead, a passage from The Return of the King that my pastor read on Sunday grabbed me this week, and I want to get it written here at the very end of the Church calendar-year, between Christ the King Sunday last week when we celebrated Christ’s ultimate victory in the epic of history and the first Sunday of Advent this next Sunday when we begin waiting for his coming.

Frodo and Samwise have destroyed the ring, and with it their lives. They are beside the erupting Crack of Doom, knowing they are about to die.
“I am glad that you are here with me,” said Frodo. “Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

“Yes, I am with you, Master,” said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. “And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.”

“Maybe not, Sam,” said Frodo; “but it’s like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes. We have only a little time to wait now. We are lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape.”

“Well, Master, we could at least go further from this dangerous place here, from this Crack of Doom, if that’s its name. Now couldn’t we? Come, Mr. Frodo, let’s go down the path at any rate!”
Frodo and Sam do go on a bit, without hope, and finally collapse. Sam, his beautiful, simple soul remaining consistent to the end, wishes to hear their own tale told, and loses consciousness beside the erupting mountain as he daydreams about the story.

Then he is in Rivendell, having been saved from the mountain by the eagles, and he slowly awakes as if from a dream and sees his 9-fingered master beside him.
Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: “It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?”

And a voice spoke softly behind him: “In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.” With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. “Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?” he said.

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listed the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count...
Is everything sad going to come untrue? So let it be... let it be.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The posture of Faith

In the group I've mentioned before that meets to listen and discuss the words of different religious thinkers, we just listed to a program about Elie Wiessel, an Auschwitz survivor who lost both his parents in the holocaust. Though we listened to the whole program, there was one quote from the beginning that grabbed my attention, and that seized the entirety of the discussion afterwards:
Some people who read my first book, Night, they were convinced that I broke with the faith and broke with God. Not at all. I never divorced God. It is because I believed in God that I was angry at God, and still am. The tragedy of the believer, it is deeper than the tragedy of the non-believer.
The words resonated with me, and with one of the other "messier" Christians in the room (whose dying father is an atheist and whose mother is a Buddhist). But for the other people in the room, from Christians to unaffiliated theists, the words were anywhere from irrational to repulsive. Why would one be angry at God? they wondered. If it seems like God is not doing his/her responsibility, you must have the wrong idea of what that responsibility is. Change your perception of him; he is beyond anger.

I think one of the best parts of being a Christian is that three-quarters of our Bible is the Jewish Bible, the story of Israel who was named the Wrestler. Abraham barters; Jacob wrestles; Moses argues; David pleads; Jeremiah laments; Jonah pouts; Job demands.

To my Christian friends, that posture often seems dangerous. To my unaffiliated theist friend, it is ridiculous. But I wonder if it is the posture of true faith in a God who claims to be just and righteous; I wonder if anything less is to not take his words seriously. At the very least, God has shown himself big enough to take it; at most, he has specifically chosen the wrestlers who will take him to task about making good on his promises. Certainly he will prove himself right in the end, but that knowledge doesn't seem to keep the faithful from wrestling with him in the mean time.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Let them eat cake!

I wrote a post earlier this week, and then decided to remove it because the situation it involved was too current. Now I feel like the blog has a vacuum in that post's absence, so I thought I'd replace it with an old story about an interaction with a neighborhood friend I once wrote for my church newsletter while still living in my intercity community. This fits into the listening-blog in the theme of listening-to-what-our-words-sound-like.

***

“So I heard you got hitched!” Clayton interjected his normal introductory question as I walked into the kitchen. By now I was accustomed to his dry way of trying get me riled up, and I didn’t even give him a response. Instead I pulled some leftover salad out of the fridge and joined him at the table where he munched on some cereal.

“How’d the great job search go today?” I asked the tower of a teenager.

“Terrible,” he returned with light-hearted candor, shoving another spoonful in his mouth to indicate he was done talking.

“It’s hard to find summer jobs this late in the season,” I tried to empathize. Clayton, one of the few kids from the neighborhood to make it to a university, was navigating what is often the most frustrating season of the college year. Without family, summers were excruciating.

“I’ve already put in 37 applications,” he challenged. “This is beyond hard.”

I nodded my agreement.

“I hate staying on the floor of the Ugadas’,” he continued, referring to the Liberian family-of-nine who had invited him to stay with them in their tiny four-bedroom house. “I hate that I don’t have a family. I hate feeling like I’m running this race as fast as I can with so much going against me, and slowly I look up and notice that no one is cheering… but I have to keep running.” Clayton looked pleased with his analogy peppered with various expletives for dramatic effect, and poured another bowl of cereal.

“I know it’s rough,” I concurred. “I do also know that things get better; nineteen-years-old is thankfully not the end.”

“Oh, I’ve heard that one before!” he erupted. “Things are always supposed to be getting better: ‘Maybe after middle school, maybe after high school, maybe in college.’ They’re always just about to get better.”

I felt like we were suddenly in the middle of a very different conversation. “I don’t just say that because I want it to be true,” I struggled, shuffling the salad around my plate pensively. “I say that because I’ve been coming to know this God who runs the world, and he’s a God of redemption.”

“Are you telling me to have faith?” he challenged. “If I just believe, things will become peachy? I may end up with a terrible life, but one day it’ll all be over and I’ll be in heaven where things will be wonderful? Are you telling me I have a pie in the sky to look forward to one day?”

***

Was I? Maybe I was... maybe I threw clich├ęs at Clayton because I didn't actually have any confidence that God would care for him in the here-and-now. Maybe I can't honestly expect myself to believe that of Clayton if I don't believe it of myself. Maybe step-one of learning to love is learning to be loved.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

For perspective...

A voice says, "Cry!"
And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
...He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
...Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
...All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
...Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

...and there was a great calm

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know His voice
Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.



And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The change I need

As I’ve mentioned before, election seasons make me depressed, and it took a lot of thought for me to decide even to register this year. I had no intention this week of adding to the clamor, but this morning I was given a word from an old friend that I couldn’t resist posting on my listening-blog.

Benedict just called me this morning from the small city where he still struggles to pay bills after his years on the streets. As we caught up on the events of each other’s lives and I heard of his up-hill struggle to pull a respectable life together, he interjected at some point,

“Guess what I did this week? I voted!”

“Benedict, that’s great!” I responded like a good American. “When was the last time you voted?”

“Would you believe,” the Vietnam vet in his 50s answered, “never?”

“Wow...” I began, but struggled to find words to continue. Benedict has grown up in this country, gone to war for this country, lived on the streets of this country, gone to jail in the country, and his just voted for the first time. “What made you decide to vote this time around?”

“Well, it was all this rhetoric of change,” he began, and I prepared myself to hear details of a platform. But that is not Benedict’s way. “It seems to me that they are right; it is a time for a change. I need to change. The change I need is me.”

Benedict may have just redeemed this election season for me. After months of hearing about how the country needs to change and we are the ones who need to do it, a man I met on a cold night when he was homeless spoke one sentence out of his humility that feels more powerful than the speeches of politicians. A man who cannot find a place at any of the local churches he visits spoke into my life from a fundamentally Christian posture that puts my alternating attributes of cynicism and idealism to shame.

I need to change. The change I need is me.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Imprisoned by Goodness

"Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee..."


Ever strike you as an interesting image?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Epilogue

The week after my college graduation, I wrote a series of 13 meditations inspired by incidents from my time with the homeless during my last year at the university. I wanted to write it quickly, before my fresh, 22-year-old perspective became more balanced with time and cynicism. (Most of you who know me have read it; if anyone else would like a copy, I could email one.)

As almost a necessity to even enter the experience, I had closed my ears to certain warnings involving my safety and potential uses of any money I might hand out. The experience had its blessings and its frustrations, one of the former being the chance to enter into the lives of people I still keep in touch with, and I never actually regretted ignoring the better judgment of others.

But last week as I sat in the group mentioned in the previous post and the topic of the homeless came up, I heard some of those same warnings I had closed my ears to years before. Three years later, the accusations of drug-addiction feel different to me, and I decided to write an epilogue to my story.

For those of you who didn’t read the story itself, there were three significant characters:
  • Lawrence – a man I brought to church and to whom I gave the raincoat off my back a few days before leaving for the summer after my junior year of college, and came back to find him clean and off the streets.
  • Barbara – a girl my age with a new story of (expensive) tragedies every day, who asked me to teach her to read during my last week before finals and stood me up every day.
  • Benedict – a man who struggled to maintain his dignity, who allowed me to give him friendship but little else, whose only begging was begging the shops for work.

Epilogue
A Lesson in Drugs
As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In theory, I believe in a God of perfect wisdom and perfect compassion. As a young, idealistic student I became enraged at the fallacy of those who argue against compassion on the basis of wisdom. Perhaps my indignation was justified, though one way or another I knew in the back of my mind that I was committing a fallacy of my own. Their wisdom may have been no less genuine than my compassion, and my disregard of it may have been no less errant as a disregard of the other. My decision of which side I would rather err on may have been the best decision I could muster, but it was no less a decision to err.

***

Soon after I graduated, Benedict ended up in jail for an armed robbery he did not commit. There was no evidence to convict him, other than his meeting the description of a “scruffy-looking black man” on a dark street that night. His state-appointed attorney assured him that no jury would believe his innocence despite the lack of the alleged gun, especially because (as I learned from Barbara) he already had quite a number of drug charges on his record. Benedict took his advice and pleaded guilty.

When he left prison seven months later with a felony on his record, he asked to be put in a halfway-house, that it be in another part of the state, and that it be Christian. When he was settled into a small rural town working as a day-laborer, he took out the scrap of paper he had kept in his wallet during his time in prison and called me. I received the call on my break while I worked as a coffee-shop barista, and I wept to hear his voice again.

Two years later, Benedict has a full-time job with benefits and is reconciled with his family. His mother and brother have come down South to share the lease with him, and they are working together in hopes of eventually buying a home. I visit them often.

In one of my visits he made vague references to things in his past that he chooses not to tell people, and I decided to go out on a limb.

“Benedict,” I said earnestly, already guessing what some of them were from allusions Barbara made about him, “I hope you know that I would still be your friend even if I knew those things.”

Benedict emphatically declared that he did, that he knew beyond any doubt that I had shown him unconditional love that would not be daunted by his mistakes. I was satisfied, and did not press him for details.

***

In the second year after graduation, I was walking down Franklin Street and heard a woman scream my name. I had not recognized Barbara. Between the haircut, make-up, clean clothes, and 30 extra pounds, she looked like nothing like the girl I had known.

“I need to talk to you!” she dramatically pleaded like she had so many times years before.

But this time it was not a dramatic story about an expensive tragedy. “I need to come clean with you about all the ways I lied to you.” She proceeded with the details of her crack addiction (I remembered her blood-shot eyes), her time in rehab, and her current attempt to build up an honorable life. “I know there is no reason for you to forgive me,” she continued, “but I thought you should at least know the truth.”

I found myself less surprised than confused. There was one part of her story I did not understand, as I remembered feeling as though my grades were being sabotaged at the end of my time in college. “Why did you ask me to teach you to read? It was the end of the year; I had already been giving you money for a long time. You weren’t getting anything out of the deal to have me waiting for you every morning for two weeks. Why would you do that to me?”

She looked as if she were prepared for the question. “There’s no good reason. Honestly, it was just a game. We all played it. I once got a group of people to drive me all around town believing I was blind. You have every right to hate me. I’m not even asking you not to; you just deserve to know.”

I was less convinced than ever of whether or not I had fought the battle in the right way; I was more convinced than ever that I had been fighting the right battle.

“I’m doing better now,” she went on. “I’ve been off crack for four months. They told me that if I left rehab as early as I did I’d be back on in a week, but I’m still off. They told me that if I went back to my old friends I’d be back on in a day, but there’re the only friends I have. Sometimes they offer it, and I just tell them no. I don’t think I’ll have any problem staying off at this point.”

I was not feeling as optimistic as Barbara. But wherever she was on the journey of sanctification, there was at least evidence that she was on it. I did not know if I had played any major part of that journey, but I was glad for the privilege to have witnessed it.

***

A few weeks later I was walking down Franklin Street again and made eye contact with a man sitting against a building with a beat-up cardboard box of change.

“No!” I nearly screamed when I recognized him, freezing in horrified disbelief.

Lawrence seemed as startled to see me as I was to see him. “I just ran into some hard times,” he explained. “Give me two weeks and I’ll have a place to stay again. Don’t worry.”

“No…” I continued, tears forming to see my early story of hope so quickly evaporated. “Lawrence… no!”

Lawrence looked like a big brother trying to console his little sister. Our roles were reversed; I no longer had any gospel to present to him, but entreated him for the hope of the Gospel that seemed to slip through the holes in his cardboard box.

“It’s not so bad,” he tried to insist. “I’ve gotten off the streets before; I can do it again. Two weeks; I promise!”

It was a hard day for me. I called Benedict’s cell phone that night for consolation. He was in the process of taking his collard greens off the stove and getting ready for dinner.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Defined by the reach, not the grasp

I met a fellow at a coffee shop last month. He was sitting next to me reading The Brothers Karamazov, and, knowing that to be among the best novels of all time, I couldn’t restrain myself from alerting him of that fact. We spent the next half-hour immersed in conversation regarding the many common authors we admired and the religious views we sympathized with but didn’t share. By the time he needed to leave, we had exchanged email addresses and were mutually hopeful for future conversations.

The next time we saw each other, he had gathered a group of thinkers of various religious persuasions to discuss various editions of NPR’s Speaking of Faith program. Initially he wanted to discuss the program regarding Shane Claiborn and a movement of intentional Christian communities called the New Monasticism, and later he settled on a program about Jean Vanier and a community called L’Arche in which developmentally disabled people and their assistants live together and share life.

I listened as my friend spoke of these communities with wonder and admiration, but the conversation felt awkward for me. As much as I agreed with the philosophies and theologies behind these movements, they could not feel the same for me as they did for my wide-eyed friend for two reasons:

I recently lived in a New Monastic community, and one of my best friends works at a L’Arche community.

It’s been odd to get an outside picture of something I’ve only ever known from the inside. On the inside, I know these places are built of well-meaning but broken people whose selfishness and hang-ups often get in the way of the very ideals they long to follow. I’ve struggled to live with housemates and have questioned their decisions, my own Jesus-complex coming into conflict with theirs. I’ve listened to my friend’s frustrations at co-workers who seem unwilling to accept some of Vanier’s fundamental teachings: “We all need help, and it's only as we discover that 'I have a handicap,' that 'I am broken,' that 'we're all broken,' and then we can begin to work at it.”

It’s been very odd. Odd enough for me to look up an old video a missions conference once recorded at my old community and various programs NPR recorded with an old housemate. I am trying to see my community from the outside, remembering that its fumbling members are no more or less well-meaning and selfish than I am. It’s odd.

It’s especially odd because infamy will not remember these communities like I do. It will remember them the way these articles and radio programs and videos do. And in a strange way, it is right when it does; despite the failure of our grasp to extend to our reach, the story seems to be defined by the principles rather than the accomplishments.

Maybe God is already re-writing his own story.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Education: let's get it on

I once thought that the education system was supposed to teach kids, who would be in class in order to learn. I have an idealistic picture of the study of literature involving a group of students being led by a teacher to sit at the feet of a given writer and hear what is being said.

From what I can tell, however, education is considered successful when the students are led to express what they already think. In some ways, we are taught not to listen.

I just got through grading a stack of high school English papers. They read Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and criticized it in a way I've already ranted about twice, read Herrick's "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time" and Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" to get a feel for seventeenth-century carpe diem sexual arguments, and compared all of them to a modern rap titled "Let's get it on" with clever witticisms like "If the spirit moves ya / Let me groove ya... good." From what I can tell, the thinking behind the assignment was this: If we talk about what students are interested in, we can get them to participate in a class discussion. Since I'm not the teacher I have no idea weather or not the assignment was "successful" toward that end, but I can imagine a teacher walking away from an animated discussion of rap lyrics thinking it was a productive discussion because the students talked, not because they learned.

Then I did work for my own graduate school career, in which our medieval literature class focuses specifically on the topic of rape. I feel like I'm suddenly in that high school class I'm grading for; my professor can sit back and feel satisfied about the productive discussion about Chaucer because a room full of female members of the intelligentsia have had an animated conversation about what they do not like about rape. To take the conversation a few notches deeper, we can even move into an analysis of what we don't like about the middle ages as it relates to what we don't like about rape. Education is successful because students have said what they think.

No wonder listening is so hard; we don't even do it in our education.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sonnet upon her first election

October 28, 2004

Well, here’s my faith, such as it is, and here
Are hands that move therein. I give you all
My copper coins and turtledoves, and fall
Into your grace with chubby legs that fear
To fall elsewhere in times when all that’s clear
Is our own frailty, picket signs to call
Out names we throw like eggs against the wall
We cannot scale but try with grimy gear.

For what are dusty, mortal hands to you
Who tread the clouds? This fickle flesh I wear
Can hardly help beyond what it can harm.
A broken spirit… that much I can do,
And you are welcome to my shaky arm,
In faith you see the blood that flows in there.

I registered.

As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Election seasons make me depressed. I’m managing to keep in good spirits these days, perhaps because I’m living alone rather than on campus in the thick of political civil war like I was four years ago, but I still do look forward to it being over. I think I carry a set of ears for every world I’ve ever been a part of—the Evangelical church, the Black Student Movement, ex-pat communities, intentional Christian community, the agnostic intelligentsia, intercity neighborhoods, the Catholic Church—and however things go in November I know I’m going to be in conversations with dear friends who think the apocalypse has come.

But yesterday, after the third threat by a dear friend in varying degrees of seriousness to withhold friendship, respect or dinner invitations from me if I didn’t vote, I finally registered to vote. Rather than have my “voice” (whatever that means these days) end up in the statistics of young people who are “apathetic” or “unaware of the issues” which I am not, I thought writing someone in would at least demonstrate that I care.

So in the spirit of the season, I’ll take a poll: Who should I write in? In the absence of anymore creative ideas I think I’ll just put in “Jesus,” but I am open to suggestions.

In the mean time, to all of you out there with more clarity than I have, receive my blessings as you campaign, vote, and pressure disgruntled melancholics like me to register. But please try to keep a spare set of ears on hand for the naive and simple-hearted folks on the other side, who I pray keep a spare set of ears on hand for you as well.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

When he comes...

I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.
-John 4:25

The obvious irony of the Samaritan woman’s statement to Jesus is that she was talking to the Messiah himself. But the other irony is that she was wrong: she’s been standing around talking to the Messiah for a while now, and he is doing anything but explaining.

He is doing quite the opposite, from what I can tell. He asks for physical water, and then says that if she knew who she was talking to she would have asked him for “water” that would create "springs of water" flowing out of her. She asks about where one should worship, and he answers, “in spirit and truth” (Oh... there!). When the disciples come and offer him food, he says that he already has “food” that they don’t know about, because the “fields” are “ripe for harvest.”

Two thousand years later, I think I’m still expecting him to come and explain things to me. But he doesn’t, and maybe that is why it takes me a while to recognize him. Like with the Samaritan woman and with the disciples, he just keeps talking around my questions. From what I can tell of his interactions with these people in Scripture, there’s not really any way they could have figured out the secret hidden meaning from the context. Maybe there are times when you “worship what you do not know,” times when you believe in a Savior even though you are not really sure what you are believing about him.

There seems to be quite a precedent for that kind of faith. I suppose it puts me in good company.

...But I still wish he would come and explain everything to me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Not such a bad way...

Over the summer in Ireland when I needed a breaks from Latin, I watched the miniseries Brideshead Revisited, adapted from the novel by Evelyn Waugh. There were a couple specific scenes that transformed what would have otherwise been a long, drawn-out story of the collapse of a family into a story of redemption without changing the plot.

The most memorable for me was the last mention of the character Sebastian, a once vivacious youth who through his unexplainable depression eventually spirals into alcoholism and is “lost” somewhere in Europe. His last scenes are gut-wrenching. But toward the end of the series, one of the characters has recently seen him. She delivers the news to the narrator that Sebastian is living at the fringe of a monastic community, still just as pathetic as ever.
“Poor Sebastian!” I said. “It’s too pitiful. How will it end?”
“I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen other like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live on, half in, half out of the community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they’ll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, ‘Old Sebastian’s on the spree again,’ and then he’ll come back disheveled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He’ll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. They’ll bring him forward to act as a guide, whenever they have an English-speaking visitor; and he will be completely charming, so that before they go they’ll ask about him and perhaps be given a hint that he has high connections at home. If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Hope of their student days, and remember him in their masses. He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.”
Somehow I can’t get that scene out of my head. “Not such a bad way of getting through one’s life...” Up until that sentence I thought it was. But if the Gospel is good news to us bunglers, maybe it is because it can read through the story of our pitiful lives and tag that last sentence on the end. Maybe half the time God doesn’t even need to bother re-writing his own story.

Maybe he tells the story of my repeated stumbling into the darkness of my head, and then tags on the line at the end: “And it was very good.” Maybe by the time I get to that part of the story, I’ll agree with him. At that point, perhaps, I will learned the Gospel by bungling my way through it.

Maybe it’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"I will change!" Part III

In what I did not expect to be one of the more depressing assignments of the semester, I just graded a set of intercity high-school-freshman quizzes. The quiz ended with a creative essay: if you were given a time-machine, where would you go with it, and what would you hope to accomplish? At their age, I would have chosen to go back to the middle ages so I could be a knight (I made it my habit to forget that women were not normally knights).

There were a few who would go forward to bring back a future technology and become rich, and even one idealist who would go forward to the upcoming election to tamper with the results in defense of “the greater good.” But the vast majority (probably 80%) of these intercity high-schoolers would go back to their own past to change mistakes they had made.

These kids are 14.
  • One girl wanted to go back to 1983 and convince her mom not to drop out of high school.
  • Several wanted to go back to specific classes in middle school and convince themselves to take their lives more seriously.
  • Many wanted to go back and spend time with family members before their deaths.
  • One girl wanted to go back to the day she had her ultrasound to look at the face of the boy she miscarried and tell him that she loved him.
It was a gut-wrenching window into the minds of these teenagers. As I read these depressing essays, excusing the atrocious grammar and grading their mere ability to meet the length requirement, I couldn’t shake the thought that these kids who wanted to erase their past mistakes most likely had to look forward to four years of repeating them in high school.

And I thought of myself in the mistakes I cannot change, crying out again and again that I will change but finding year after year that I haven’t. Redemption doesn’t always end up being a story of fixing our flaws; sometimes it is a story of carrying them through to the end. Many of those kids will not change in a way that makes their stories look less devastating on the outside or feel less painful to them on the inside.

Maybe what may change is the way we carry the flaws, the way we carry ourselves through our obstacle course of foibles. Maybe redemption is God helping us to carry the very things we long for him to remove. Maybe I and those teenagers whose quizzes I groaned through will learn to carry our flaws beautifully.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Forgiven much

“Those who have been forgiven much love much.”
I have been forgiven much, and I always assume the response is supposed to be my being changed, my being better, my not sinning again. There are certainly “Go and sin no more” passages of Scripture too, but this one struck me today. Maybe the most appropriate response to forgiveness is to love. Hopefully I will become a better person too… for now, when sin does not seem as conquerable as I always expect it to be, the great act of faith for me may be to respond to my being forgiven by loving in return, whether or not I have changed.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Reckless Safety

I plan on writing about something else at some point, but a number of people told me they enjoyed the last time I told a story and then posted the sonnet I wrote around the incident. Here is the sonnet I scribbled down during class (don't tell my prof!) the morning of the last post. I suppose, in an abstract way, that makes it a September 11 sonnet seven years later.
Lay down your weary head upon the air,
My child; it will not hold you, but it will
Completely wrap around your limbs that still
May find a blanket they can weakly bear.
You will not find it safe - nor free of terror -
Nor light, for air itself has had its fill
Of tragedy with beauty mounting 'til
It's dense enough to carry sparrows there.
But we who reap the whirlwind have sown
In tears and songs of joy, and seed will fall
On just and unjust ground alike. Lay down,
My child, for safety's deeper than your fall.
So penetrate the reckless safety here
Inside this dangerous place you need not fear.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Deeper Safety

My brother’s girlfriend ended up in the hospital yesterday, and I realized the first benefit of all my loved ones scheduling their lives falling apart at the same time: at least it makes hospital visits more convenient. I was already planning a trip to the same hospital to visit my friend with leukemia.

As I walked to campus this morning, praying by name for those whose lives are closely linked with mine, holding out faith that God was hearing me for their good and not their ill, I wondered if part of the reason we pray for one another is to remind ourselves that God cares for them. After a summer of praying for my loved ones, I felt pretty sure of God’s presence in their lives, even after three weeks of watching a catalogue of tragedies. If I get another heavy phone-call about another loved one, I feel pretty sure God will continue to be present. We are not safe, and yet we are.

And then I walked by the bell-tower and saw the flags at half-mast, and realized what day it was.

In the liturgy of being American, this is the day set aside to remind ourselves that we are not safe. But I’m wondering if that’s only true on one level, on the level one could say that God did not hear my summer prayers for my loved ones. Our lives are not insulated from tragedy, and my prayers do not seem to compel God to be the Great Insulator.

But he is the Great Redeemer, and I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the end he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin is destroyed yet in my flesh I shall see God (what the heck does that mean?!). Maybe we pray to remind ourselves of that. Maybe even if we don’t remember that, we pray because that is who we are praying to.

And I am rambling this morning, but what I am trying to say is that I feel safe, that as I visit my friends in the hospital this afternoon and as I finger the addresses for the jail letters I have still not written I know that my redeemer lives. It’s a deeper kind of safety, one that looks a whole lot like being unsafe. But I think I really do believe it.

Maybe that is why we pray.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

No time to stop

I spent the summer when I was in Ireland trying to make prayer for my friends and family a regular part of my daily routine. In the two weeks that I’ve been back, I’ve wondered if God got his wires crossed. Of the people that I prayed for every day, one lost her mother, one went through an unexplainable heart-situation, one got diagnosed with leukemia, one went through a separation, and two ended up in jail.

Friends and family that I’ve been praying for, beware!

I come back already submerged in a semester that I am trying desperately to catch up with, and between hospital visits, papers, jail letters and grading I only have energy to take one lesson from this:

Now is not the time to stop praying.

I don’t have energy to formulate elaborate prayers as if I know what these friends and family need. But I continue to say their names, to remind myself daily that I love them, to ask God daily to remember them on my behalf.

Keep praying for me. I will keep praying for you.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What I heard in the Catholic Church this summer

“The Holy Spirit would not let his Church go astray,” my seminarian friend repeated as we arrived in front of the Cathedral and tried to wrap up our conversation about Apostolic Succession, infallibility and the Catechism. “Yes, I know that no one has to look far to find examples of sin among the leaders of the Church. But ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church. He would not let the Bride of Christ as a whole be destroyed by the sin among individual members.”

Though I had been employing my usual degree of skeptical interrogation throughout most of our walk to town from Latin class, I was silenced at this point. I looked at his piercing eyes and gut-wrenchingly beautiful confidence, and I slowly realized something.

I didn’t believe what he was saying.

For the first time in my 25 years as a Christian, I realized that I did not believe in the power of God over human frailty. Instead, I believed that a God stronger than Satan and the powers of evil would ultimately be bested by mere weakness, by well-meaning but incompetent Christians who misinterpret him. Of course this had be true; my own life had already demonstrated the point many times.

“Wow…” I began, but found myself too tongue-tied to come up with one of my trademark smart-remarks. “That… that must be a great thing to believe.”

His eyes sparked as my attempt at sarcasm gave way to self-revelation. “It is,” he nodded emphatically. “Em, this is the Bride of Christ being led by the Holy Spirit; it is not a rag-tag gang of fumbling bunglers. And there are terrible sinners, but there are also Saints—real Saints, Em!—who are being made in the image of God, who have guided and continue to guide the Church. This is not a groundless place to put ones confidence.”

Our conversation had come to an impasse, and halfway through my time in Cork I finally realized where the fundamental difference between me (and for now I’ll just call it “me” rather than Protestants in general) and my Catholic friends lay. When the voice of the Holy Spirit collides with human frailty, they believed that the Holy Spirit would win out, hands-down, each time. I believed that human frailty could fumble and thwart any voice of the Holy Spirit, no matter how strong; God’s trump card in the end would be his ability to turn our fumblings into redemption, making the Holy Spirit’s work right now seem a bit superfluous.

The belief that God is stronger than we are frail… well, it sounds downright Christian. I imagine I’d be a happier person if I believed it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Along the Kerry Way


Within the freshness of its weariness
The land is written with green pen that’s read
Before the fisherman is out of bed
And wet—he says—forever, more or less.
The sun—he says—shines green, and if you press
Them rocks will cry green tears, for they are fed
By prison bars of rain that he is led
To hate just as he loves its fruitfulness.
If one must be a nomad, may as well
Be here; and if a life is simple, may
As well be simply green and have the smell
Of rain on midgy mountains pushed away
To Cork, and drink in instant coffee with
The morning dew in all its splendid pith.

Drinking rain and coffee

‘How are you?’ the fisherman shyly asked as he returned to his car right as I walked by. A greeting was to be expected as we were the only people visible at 7am in the Irish mountains.

‘I’m doing well; how ‘bout you?’ I answered in what I knew as a glaringly American accent.

As I had grown accustomed to over the summer, a passing greeting sparked curiosity the second I opened my mouth. ‘Where are you from?’ he asked from his double-take.

‘North Carolina,’ I answered, not even bothering to give the country.

The fisherman’s face grew puzzled as he tried to place it. ‘I think I’ve heard of it…’ he struggled.

‘No,’ I smiled. ‘You’re thinking of California. They’re very different… they’re like Ireland and England.’ My analogy served to give us a point of connection, and he relaxed from formal conversation by leaning against his car and looking down the hill toward the river where he had been fishing. I stood and took in the mountain landscape in the early-morning cold, happy to be out of the dripping tent that was now on my back, breathing in the wet air after a night of being soaked on the mountainside.

‘And what do you think of this weather we got here now?’ he asked. The question had become to me almost as universal a greeting as how-are-you, the Irish way of welcoming me to their country by complaining about it: apologizing, bragging and relaxing in the same sentence.

‘I’m actually glad of it,’ I confessed to his obvious shock, not wanting to complain about someone else’s country. ‘Back home we’ve just had a year of drought and I’m sure a summer of 35-degree-days, and I’m glad to be away from the heat.’

‘Why did you leave?’ he asked in obvious amazement. ‘The weather is disgusting [sounds like ‘disgoostin’], the worst summer we’ve had in 75 years. Why would you spend your summer in Ireland of all places? A hell of a place to visit!’

Even though his complaints gave me permission to complain, I was not about to criticize Ireland to an Irishman alone in the wilderness. ‘But it’s a beautiful country,’ I observed, surrounded by a landscape that demonstrated the point.

‘Oh, that it is!’ he exclaimed as his face transformed. One would imagine he was suddenly talking about a different country. ‘No question about that; it’s like nowhere else in the world.’

‘Your green is amazing,’ I added.

‘Oh, this is a special place. I’ve never been anywhere else, but you come out on a morning like this and you can just tell that there is something special about this country.’

Rain, evidently.

He breathed in the wet air a bit longer over, and suddenly his earlier expression returned. ‘Disgoostin morning. I don’t know how we survive this every year. Would you like some coffee?’

As I allowed the instant coffee from his thermos to warm my wet body, I wondered if we would do well to love one another like he loves his disgoostinly special country.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death!


I don’t know if this is true of all Catholics or just those who become priests, but my experience this summer gives me the impression that Catholics are always asking for prayer.

“I’ll be praying for you,” my seminarian friend told me the afternoon of my second day of class; “will you please pray for me?”

Lest I should think it was his particular quirk, the next night when we were leaving my pub his friend said the same: “Will you pray for us?” he asked as we parted. I gave him the Protestant response of “How can I be praying for you?” and he thought I was being sassy. Evidently, Catholics pray for people without asking for specific details.

In case I might be tempted to imagine it was something they had picked up in their country of origin, the Irish priest I had lunch with the next week said goodbye in the same way: “I will pray for you; please pray for me.”

And before I could assume that in all three cases it was just a component of my particular situation as a Protestant visiting the Catholic Church, I wandered into mass early one day and an old collared Irishman hobbled over to me and whispered in my ear, “Let me make a deal. How ‘bout I pray for you, and you pray for me?”

By that point I was starting to realize how little I actually pray for people other than myself. Maybe some of it is a component of my seminarian-friend’s observation that each Protestant has the responsibility to be his own personal pope, and I can’t take the mental pressure of knowing what to pray for each friend I might pray for. But the people mentioned above did not seem to expect that of me; no matter who I might be, it couldn’t hurt to have me mentioning them to God. It couldn’t hurt me either.

So I did. Two or three weeks into my trip, I took to making prayer for people part of my regular rhythm of life. And with Latin having turned my brain to mush I couldn’t put much thought into the prayer. For now, all my mental exhaustion could handle is a simple, “Dear God, I pray for Mom… and Dad… and my brother…” During my 20-minute walk to class every day, I list the names of members of my family, friends back home, people I’ve met in Ireland, friends long-gone… whoever comes to mind. I don’t have to know what to say for them; for now, the discipline is just stand before my God and love them.

To my family and friends out there, I’ve been praying for you a lot this summer. Please pray for me.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Come and have breakfast


I was reading John 21 yesterday morning. Of the precious few stories we hear of interactions with the resurrected Christ, two are about food. It strikes me as interesting that Christ conquers death, and one of his first acts as the Firstborn of the New Creation is to eat, whether with unsuspecting travellers on the road to Emmaus, or with sleep-deprived fishermen who are winded from a miraculous catch of 153 fish. “Come and have breakfast,” he tells them.

There is so much sanctifying of eating going on in Scripture. Levitical sacrifices were mostly feasts, as if God were sanctifying one of the most mundane acts of our existence. He makes the mundane holy, which is why there are so many laws about pots and storage and cleanliness.

And one of the few stories that all four gospels contain (up there with crucifixion and resurrection) is Christ feeding a hungry crowd of people. If I were Catholic I would read that Eucharistically, but even though I’m not (yet), I still find it interesting.

Then Christ dies and rises again, takes on Death and defeats it in the same act, begins the process of restoring creation, and he makes breakfast for his friends.

I’m notoriously bad about eating (or more precisely about not eating). Sometimes I seem to be too well indoctrinated with some form of Christian dualism that tells me that I need to focus on ‘spiritual’ things, and the physical things are less important. But the Incarnation itself, to say nothing of the specific things that the incarnated Jesus did, tells me that dualism is wrong, that the physical has become the holy. And that means food too.

“Come and have breakfast.” I suppose I should.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A prayer from my nephew

My nephew, whose fourth birthday I will miss while I am in Ireland, evidently prayed for me this week. My sister-in-law recalled the paryer to me as follows:

"Oh, Dear God, please bless Auntie Em. And, Dear God, please help her to learn Latin. Amen."

Amen to that!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Look upon thy Church...


The Latin program I’m attending here in Ireland has a surprising Catholic majority from the Americans in the group. Of the 16 students, 7 attend mass regularly, five daily, three study theology at a Catholic institution (called, very catholically, Christendom), and two are seminary students at the Gregorian University in Rome.

Since I’m in Ireland to study Latin in order to write a thesis on (Saint) Thomas More under the direction of a well-known Catholic intellectual, I am attending mass with my friends. Day after day this summer, we as a congregation have prayed

‘Lord I am not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs from your table, but only say the word and I shall be healed’
…only, my friends do end up gathering crumbs, and I kneel and only hear the word. But the word is a good one, and if the Word was made flesh then maybe I am gathering crumbs in a less sacramental sort of way.

One way or another, the discipline of attending a mass I cannot receive has allowed me to add the important disciple of prayer for Church unity into my daily rhythm. In that context, as I kneel and pray for a divided Church in which a local formerly-Catholic Irish Evangelical had picked a fight with my Catholic friend in Subway the other day, a Church with principles on both sides to back up long wedges and injury, the words of Saint Francis of Assisi have been on my lips daily this summer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is sorrow, joy;
where there is darkness, light.

Gracious Master, grant that I may seek
not so much to be consoled as to console,
not so much to be understood as to understand,
not so much to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

Friday, July 4, 2008

In whose name...

So there’s a collect for the American Independence Day… who knew? It must not be part of the official Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, I wouldn’t think. I read it in a church newsletter today, and it sounded weird to me while I am in the U.K. (interesting anecdote: I have spent six of the past ten July 4ths overseas).
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The actual request seems about right. We have liberties; grant us grace to use them in righteousness and peace. The intro feels a little awkward to me, and I’m trying to figure out if it is because of the earlier interesting anecdote that allows me to see what we look like from the outside, or if I have been brainwashed by my liberal education, or what.

But this is my listening blog, not my ranting blog. What do my readers think? Does God get an American title? Does the country, certainly founded in a spirit of the enlightenment, also get to claim God’s name? Maybe… it just sounds weird to me while I’m overseas.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A lessoned learned too well

Random Irishman #2 returned to the table with refills of our pints and hopped in to catch up with the banter between me and Random Irishman #1 (or rather to force the conversation back to banter if we had moved on). Right about that time, “the ladies” showed up to the table, finished with their shopping.

“She’s actually from Cork,” Random Irishman #1 indicated about the woman who had just sat down, “so she has that terrible accent. Show her your imitation of a Cork accent!”

Having urged many a foreigner to imitate an American accent before, I recounted a gentleman’s words to me in a park the previous day. The Random Irishmen rolled in laughter and the Random Irishwoman rolled her eyes.

Eager to get the attention off of my poor imitation of a Cork accent, I turned my attention to her silently smiling friend. “Where are you from?” I asked.

“Poland” she answered in her quiet voice.

“Oh really?” I brightened. “I’m actually a quarter Polish! My grandmother is from Poland.”

“What is it with you Americans?” Random Irishman #1 cut in with the urgency that alcohol induces. “You’re always obsessed with these fractions, as if it gives you some kind of credibility if you can say you are five-eighths Irish or something. What does that even mean anyway?”

“I was just making conversation,” I said innocently, taking another swig of my Beamish, “finding some commonality to draw her into the conversation. What should I have said?”

“Just say, ‘Oh really? My grandmother is Polish.’ You are American. No one cares about the fraction.”


* * *


The next day, when my previous conversation with a bookstore owner on Wednesday led to dinner with an English/Canadian/American family on Thursday which led to hanging out with a French woman on Friday who passed me off on her French-African friend who was in the process of passing me off on her native-Cork Irish friend, I was given the chance to redeem myself.

The native-Cork man who seemed to know the whole city stopped and gave a young woman a hug. He introduced us, and included our nationalities in the introduction. “She’s Polish,” he said of his friend.

“Oh really?” I interjected with an eagerness to learn from my cross-cultural mistakes. “My grandmother is Polish.”

“Oh, that’s great!” the Polish woman said with apparent delight. “If your grandmother is Polish, that means you’re part Polish too, right?”


* * *


There’s a lesson out there, I’m sure. It has to do with learning from mistakes, but holding the lessons lightly. It has to do with listening to people who tell you you are wrong, but not as if they are the absolute right. It has to do with recognizing your errors but not taking them too seriously.

There are too many people in the world for me to turn the pet peeve of two drunk Irishmen in a pub as a general rule of thumb for my interactions with humanity.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Home from the soaring

Most poetry does not translate well. But from the exposure I’ve had, I think Rainer Maria Rilke is a translatable poet. As I crossed the Atlantic on Tuesday and nodded off into a delightful 6 solid hours of airplane sleep, I read this from his Book of Hours:

I come home from the soaring
in which I lost myself.
I was song, and the
refrain which is God
is still roaring in my ears.

Now I am still
and plain:
no more words.

To the others I was like a wind:
I made them shake.
I’d gone very far, as far as the angels,
and high, where light things into nothing.

But deep in the darkness is God…

Somehow, though Ireland is a new country for me and though I am here alone, Rilke’s words resonate in my spirit this summer. Being alone in a new country is an interesting kind of solitude, and if it is a green country inhabited by people who sing their English (after all, isn’t that what an Irish accent is? It’s not a pronunciation; it is notes and rhythm), it is a beautiful solace.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Beware of the Romans!


In addition to being seduced by Plato, I have found myself somewhat smitten with Ovid. After reading a few books of the Metamorphoses for the first time, I found myself musing that a sense of loss and sorrow is woven into the stories of humanity, and that the Gospel is not a rival to paganism but an answer to it. I still find Ovid a pretty charming fellow.

One of the most striking examples of a story that could almost be included in the Bible is that of Baucis and Philemon in Book VIII. Jove and Mercury walk through the country of Phrygia disguised as mortals, and knock on a thousand doors looking for shelter. Finally, a poor old couple open their cottage doors to the strangers, and serve them with the most elaborate hospitality their poverty can provide. The gods reveal themselves to the astonished couple, and warn them to leave the country and follow them to a nearby mountain. The inhospitable country is destroyed by a flood, and Jove and Mercury create a grand palace on the mountain for Baucis and Philemon.

Can anyone say Lot and the visitors?

Fast-forward a century later. Paul and Barnabus heal a cripple in Lystra (a city in Phrygia), and the Lyconians declare “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Why not? Everyone knows that happens sometimes; we’ve all heard the story in Ovid. They assume Barnabus is Zeus (Jove) and Paul is Hermes (Mercury), and bring oxen and garlands to the gates of the city. Paul and Barnabus tear their robes, and declare to the people that they are mortals as well, but “even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.”

The Romans had learned the lesson, but it was the wrong one. Their story had a ring of truth that even a 21st-century grad student like me could identify, but perhaps the resemblance made its seductiveness dangerous.

I don’t know if I will ever know the Great Story so well that I will never find myself seduced by the smaller stories. Like a good English major, I like to hope that these stories are so seductive because they contain pieces of the Truth, and that the Gospel is so rich because it consumes them within its redemption. But in the mean time, I am left navigating a sea of stories that seem pretty convincing when I’m in the middle of them.

To the Lyconians who live in Ovid’s world, I do not have any advice. I too am so often seduced by a good story, and when repentance turns into a story of guilt or dignity turns into a story of arrogance, I rarely have a clear idea of where exactly I went wrong. I once lived in a house of people who were determined not to be seduced by stories of the American Dream, but most of us (me at least) had stories of martyrdom and prophesy that we had to keep reigned.

All there is to do is listen, I suppose, allowing the Gospel to correct the ways I’ve gone wrong, allowing Paul and Barnabus to correct the mistakes I am bound to make along the way.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My new milk cow


In one of my favorite scenes of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye is obliged to visit Lazar Wolf. Tevye assumes that Lazar Wolf is going to ask him to sell him his new milk cow. We the audience know that Lazar is really after Tevye’s daughter. It makes for a hilarious scene.
Tevye,...

Yeah?

I suppose you know why I wanted to see you.

Oh, yes, I do. But there is no use talking about it.

Tevye, I understand how you feel. But after all, you have a few more without her.

Ah, I see. Today you want one. Tomorrow you may want two.

Two? What would I do with two?

The same as you do with one.

Tevye. This is very important to me.

Why is it so important to you?

Frankly, because I'm lonely.

Lonely? Reb Lazar, what are you talking about? How can a little cow keep you company?

Little cow? Is that what you call her?

But that's what she is!

What are you talking about?

Don't you know?

Of course I know! We are talking about my new milk cow. The one you want to buy from me.

A milk cow! A milk cow so I won't be lonely? I'm talking about your daughter. Your daughter Tzeitel.
It’s hilarious in the scene. I’d like to hope that there exists a perspective that makes the similar misunderstandings we encounter in life funny as well. There are times I have stood back and watched competing sides fight each other down without realizing they are talking about two different subjects. There are times when I have hurt and been hurt, and discovered months later that I and the person in question were talking about different things.

I used to think that the way around that problem was to keep a balanced perspective. But maybe, since our perspective is always more tilted than we realize, we are in a more detrimental position when we imagine we are searching for balance. Maybe, as a humorous anecdote from French class once indicated, the only viable approach to the situation is to expect it, admitting that our own perspective and judgment may be faulty. (Speaking of French class, La Rochefoucauld could contribute his delightful cynicism to this discussion: “Everyone complains of his memory; no one complains of his judgment.”) If we expect these sorts of misunderstandings, the only appropriate reaction to our frustration in the middle of them is grace.

Grace… and, as Fiddler on the Roof may suggest, a good hearty laugh afterwards.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Driver Bearing Down Behind



I don’t really experience the sensation people call “road-rage.” But I have nevertheless experienced what this poem describes. In the prologue to Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets, a mostly unrhymed sonnet begins with the fury of Donne and the humility of Herbert (sorry of that was esoteric). I read it this morning after a fairly frail night, and I had my first moment of connecting with a living poet. Maybe Jarman will be my man.
Please be the driver bearing down behind,
Or swerve in front and slow down to a crawl,
Or leave a space to lure me in, then pull
Ahead, cutting me off, and blast your horn.
Please climb the mountain with me, tailgating
And trying to overtake on straightaways.
Let nightfall make us both pick up the pace,
Trading positions with our high beams glaring.
And when we have exhausted sanity
And fuel, and smoked our engines, then, please stop,
Lurching onto the shoulder of the road,
And get out, raging, and walk up to me,
Giving me time to feel my stomach drop,
And see you face to face, and say, “My Lord!”
Somehow it was a comfort to learn that others out there experience road-rage with God. It was also a comfort to imagine the road-rage is actually part of the redemption, a redemption with the vulnerable tenderness that can only come after a struggle.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Raid on the Inarticulate

I don't know how many of my readers are also writers or may be interested in thoughts about writing, but at this point in my 20th century American poetry class, most of what I have to listen to is about the topic of writing. From what I can tell by his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T. S. Eliot is the writer I want to become. Here are some highlights:
Tradition involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
For now I can't say it any better than he does, and if I did it would not be in keeping with a listening-blog, so I'll just include another fragment of "East Coker" that touches on some of the highlights of a writer who is in conversation with the heritage of writers who have come before.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Long Wait


Some friends of mine and I went kayaking and camping on an island off the coast of North Carolina last weekend. It sounded like a great idea.

Among the many well-conceived, ill-executed adventures, the camping escapade is the primary reason we classify the trip as a great experience we would never repeat again (“nor wish upon our worst enemies,” my brother added). We all drifted off to sleep sometime around 10 or 11, the four of us in sleeping bags lying side-by-side on a tarp we placed over the cacti and other prickly brush that carpeted the island. The stars were brilliant, satellites and meteors moved, and the Milky Way shone in its full splendor.

I don’t know how long I slept, but eventually I woke to the pain of needles piercing my face. I rubbed my skin with my sandy hands, but whatever manner of carnivorous insect inhabited the island remained. I tried to suffocate myself inside my sleeping bag to find refuge, but to no avail. I told myself that perhaps if I didn’t think about the pain it would prove only a minor annoyance, but my skin kept twitching with startling stings. There was no going back to sleep.

I finally got on my feet (blistered from a previous ill-executed adventure) and walked along the shore. I found that if I kept moving quickly enough, the bugs would not bite me. It was clearly going to be a long night.

So my friends and I, before an exhausting day of sea kayaking, wandered the beach for an ambiguous number of dark hours, waiting for the sun to bring relief. We felt like we were in purgatory.

As we waited and walked on our tired and blistered feet, we watched the stars and horizon slowly fade outside a thick shield of fog. By the time the longed-for sunrise would have come, we could only guess its existence from the blue glow that finally allowed us to see the red welts that covered our skin and the air thick with tiny gnats that continued to torture us. The sun had risen, but we were still waiting.

Like a broken record, I find myself repeating the truth that the Christian journey is one of waiting. We spend Advent waiting for God to bring redemption, and when he finally arrives he is a baby in a stable—so we keep on waiting. We spend Lent preparing our hearts for redemption, and when we are finally made to believe it has arrived we find the Romans are still in power and the resurrected Messiah leaves us with a promise that he will return—so we keep on waiting. I have always been ready for faith to be an adventure, but sometimes it feels more like a long wait.

Let us take heart as we wander the shore; the sun has risen, and the fog is not forever. Sometimes faith is not a glorious adventure; it is a long walk that we wouldn’t have the option of quitting if we tried. But, to repeat T. S. Eliot’s lines from East Coker,
there is yet faith,
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.