Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Trump Card

Sometime last year, I found myself deep in conversation with Russ, a 60-year-old citizen of the southern city where I was living who opposed nearly everything I stood for. As one of those things was Christianity (though he made allowances for the beauty it added to the KKK), we often got in theological discussions.

“The way I see it,” he asserted confidently as he worked on consuming another pack of Camels into his puttering lungs, “there are two types of people: those who operate on faith, and those who operate on reason. I will always operate on reason, no matter what anyone says.”

This false dichotomy was not a new concept to me, so I didn’t bat an eye to answer him. I responded with a discussion about various examples of times one used reason to submit to faith (going to the doctor, for example).

Russ listened pensively, and acquiesced most of my argument to me. When he realized he wasn’t going to win on the classic Faith vs. Reason polarization, he seemed almost ready to surrender to me that my allegiance to Christianity might not be as ridiculous as he had originally claimed. For the first time in the conversation, he simply smoked in silence.

Suddenly, Russ straightened confidently as if he had finally remembered his secret weapon, entrusted to him during his most recent stay in prison.

“But if what you say is true,” he triumphantly laid his trump-card, “why did they destroy the records at the Counsel of Trent?!”

I almost choked on my campfire coffee he had brewed over his kerosene stove. Clearly, Russ used his time at the prison library well. When I had recovered from the shock of the derailing of our intellectual conversation, I finally addressed his question in the most fair way it deserved.

“Russ,” I answered, “I don’t think you give a damn about the records of the Counsel of Trent. As a matter of fact, if I had them with me here in my back pocket, I don’t think you would read them.”

I happened to remember that conversation last night when my brother and I were watching the Da Vinci Code. But I am placing myself in Russ’s place now. How many times am I up against the wall, knowing that all my arguments have proved thin and the only thing left for me to do is admit I was wrong, when I suddenly pull out a ridiculous trump-card that had nothing to do with anything.

“Well, if God really does love me, where was he that one time in high school when…”

As I mentioned in an earlier post, perhaps God is often silent to my questions because they are the wrong questions. In fact, maybe half the time they are not even questions, anymore than Russ’s qualm about the Counsel of Trent had been a genuine question.

Friday, January 18, 2008

My Invocation

I am about 350 lines into my first epic, which, upon competition nine cantos later, will be the longest and most unpublishable poem I have ever written.

While the epic which I don’t imagine can take me less than 4500 lines will have no audience (I don’t imagine many will go for a polygamous marriage of Christianity, psychology and the epic tradition), I think the invocation follows up the discussion of God’s re-telling of the lives of the Hebrews-11 folks.

Epics, as I mentioned in an earlier post, are not invented by the poet but rather sung to him by a Muse who has a greater scope of the story. It is my prayer that I learn to let such a Muse interpret the story of my own life.
O come and sing thy mercy over me
O Muse, enwoven in the tapestry
Of exiled people who resolved to die
And met their executioner whose eye
Was strangely turned away, as if he saw
A higher justice with a softer claw.
O thou who on Moriah stayed the hand
That would obey but could not understand,
Who strove with man and blessed him in the hip,
And chose a spokesman hesitant of lip,
O thou who heard the cries of the enslaved
As thou would’st later hear for the depraved,
And chose the longer road of lab’rous arts,
Engraving by degrees thy name in hearts
Becoming like their lifeless forms of stone,
For thou hast named the renegade thine own—
Sing thine own telling of the life of she
Who drank all tales without discrepancy;
And as the Sirens fade to Orph’us’ song
May thine be proved the truth, exposing wrong.
O sing, for thou hadst sung to man before:
To Joseph with his en’mies on the floor,
And to the Poet King a mournful dirge,
To worm-besweltered prophets of a purge
That you revoked, to seekers of thy face
Who saw it from afar and called it Grace.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not ashamed to be called their God

I remember the day I walked out of astronomy class, a frazzled, bewildered eighteen-year-old who wasn’t sure if I should be weeping or laughing. I had just learned about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and the worst part of it was that I sorta understood it. After all these years, I learned that Almighty Time was not constant. It made me want to cry.

Being a character in someone else’s epic is like that. One always assumes certain constants: one’s past, for example. No matter what happens, whether I get a PhD or become a homeless beggar, whether or not the Resurrection occurred or will occur, I can say assuredly that I was born in Illinois and spent nine years growing up in Georgia, at the very least. Once an event happens, it is sealed in the great book of History, etched in the stone tablet of the past.

So last night I was shocked to suddenly realize that God re-writes his own history. I’ve never noticed how weird Hebrews 11 is. From the beginning, it’s a weird way to tell the stories.
  • “And through [Abel’s] faith, though he died, he still speaks.” That might make sense if we had any recording whatsoever of his words. How can he still be speaking to us if he never did? Even to say that his sacrifice “speaks” to us on a figurative level, we would need to see some way that it demonstrated faith more than Cain’s similar sacrifice did. Of all things Abel might still be doing, speaking to us is not one of them.
  • “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.” Gosh, that must be a different Sarah than the one I’m thinking of, the one who laughed at the messengers’ news and said, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”
  • “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents…” The NIV changes the passive voice to the active, because the passive construction in the original text makes no sense. The author makes it sound like he is commending Moses for being hidden as a helpless infant.
  • Aside from this detail-quibbles, there is the glaringly obvious truth that these various men and women of faith were all flawed, some of them glaringly so, especially Jephthah whose only act of faith was to commit one of God’s big pet peeves of child sacrifice.
But it’s God’s story, and somehow that gives him the right to re-write even the parts that have already happened. Just like when David steps on the throne and immediately composes a lament for the former king who spent the second half of his reign hunting him down like a villain—Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions. You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel—God claims his authority as the final interpreter of these various frail and fumbling characters. Once David calls Saul lovely, who can argue? Once God says that Sarah believed, who am I to bring up the technicality that she didn’t?

How different would God’s interpretation of my story be than my own? Are there places where I have declared myself a hyper-sensitive, manipulative, codependent, narcissistic coward, of which God will nevertheless one day declare, “By faith she conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, was made strong out of weakness”? It seems an unfair plot-twist if he changes the story, doesn’t it?

But if I’m only a character, not the writer, I certainly can’t be the critic. O, would that I had the faith to let him interpret my own story!

…Then again, even if I don’t seem to have that faith, he can always go rewriting things to say that I did.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Small things

For seven years, I have been dreaming of teaching middle school in low-income areas of the inner-city. In the past year, that suddenly changed, and I seem to be planning on being a professor. It has been a year of learning my limitations, and learning that God is not trying to milk me dry for his glory.

Sometimes giving up the magic-teacher dream makes me sad, though entering into the professor dream always makes me very happy. One of my college friends teaches as an intercity school, and he sometimes points out that the folks who talked about social justice in our undergrad days are not in similar fields, and it makes me sad to be one of those statistics. At a Christmas party I met a young, attractive, intelligent, energetic guy who plans on teaching middle school in the inner-city, and I was jealous (while also wondering “Where were you for the past seven years?!”)

And then at church this Sunday, I read a quote in the front cover of the bulletin:
Do no think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.

I do not pray for success; I ask for faithfulness.

In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.

-Mother Teresa

Friday, January 11, 2008

The unknown remembered gate

This spring when it first started sinking in to me that the ultimate mission where the sundry quests of my young-adult life were converging and climaxing was the mission to learn to receive Grace, I was really pissed.

It took me months to even accept that much: that Grace was a climax-worthy lesson, that my AP courses had been hindered by my bypassing of the ABCs, that Grace really did have the potential to change everything about my worldview and my approach to life. It took me months to accept that the fluffy, happy-sounding, sentimental Christians who responded to pain with adages about Grace actually had some truth to back them. Perhaps I had to reject the answer until I had fully probed the question, but that didn’t make Grace any less the answer.

Last night as I suffered through high-school English papers, Andrew Peterson sang out from my computer speakers his rendition of the words of Julian of Norwich…
But all shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of things shall be well
…and it made me think of a poem by T. S. Eliot, one of the few writers of free-verse whose brilliant beauty has overcome my prejudices enough to earn a place in my personal poetry canon.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The ears of the deaf unstopped

Two years ago my homeless friend (I’ll call him Benedict) got out of jail after spending seven months there for an armed robbery he didn’t commit, and made a courageous choice: he asked to be placed in a halfway house, somewhere far away from the college town where I had met him. After keeping my number in his wallet during his whole stay in prison, he called me that spring to invite me to visit him.

I remember the conversation I had with a friend who joined me to share the drive. While giddy about seeing Benedict again, I nevertheless confessed the despair that I had maintained as I had entered the lives of various homeless men and women.

“Sure, hope is being fulfilled for Benedict,” I continued, “and I suppose it was fulfilled the summer that I prayed for Lawrence and returned in the fall to find him well-fed and off the streets, but what about the people God doesn’t help?”

To make my point, I tried to think of examples.

“What about Herman?” I began, until I remembered that the haggard old veteran had recently ended up in an apartment.

“Or what about Barbara?” I continued, until I remembered that she had recently ended up off the streets as well.

My friend simply smiled as I struggled unsuccessfully to come up with an example of a homeless person whose life I had entered in college who was still on the streets. I was shocked that my tragic-example trump-card had been trumped. Somehow, though I had maintained the impression that God never helped these people, that their lives were a stagnant position of misery, he had seemed to go behind my back in his process of transforming the physical, tangible hardships of their lives.

I visited Benedict again on Monday. He is now in a house of his own, for which he shares the rent with his newly-reconciled mother and little brother, who have moved down South to share life with him. He has worked a full-time job for the past two years, and they are preparing him for more managerial roles as he is reaching his 50s. He just started a 401k.

God has been in the process of redeeming the decayed parts of creation, even when I have refused to see it. And God has done it without being dependent upon my own attempts to hurry the process.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped…
In the case of Benedict, it was my hands that were weak, my knees that were feeble, my heart that was anxious, my eyes that were blind, and my ears that were deaf. They are slowly becoming unstopped.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Comfort and Joy

Christmas is almost over, so I thought I’d put up at least one more post about it here on the tenth day... before celebrating my brother’s 20th birthday, working a late night as a barista/bar-tender, running out of town to visit two sets of old friends, rushing back to pull my last barsta/bar-tender shift of the break, drinking a celebratory beer with a dear friend, having lunch with three policemen… all before classes start on Wednesday.

That was a confession; I’m writing to talk about rest. Just like my dad once said of driving the day I totaled my second car, it seems that of my many talents resting is not one of them.

Last year, while I was observing Advent in a communal home that was part of the New Monasticism, one of my housemates pointed out to me a comma I had never noticed in a song. Like any good English major, I have occasionally had my holiday seasons transformed by small grammatical points, and this comma was one of those. It has become one of my favorite commas in literature.

My housemate pointed out to me the comma in the song “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” I had always assumed the song was a greeting addressed to “merry gentlemen,” and thus I had never noticed the exhortation and blessing in the first line. “Rest ye merry,” the song exhorts us; Christmas brings tidings of both comfort (rest) and joy (merry).

Rarely do I grow into that exhortation and blessing. I greet the news of Christ’s coming like a task-list, either to fix the world or myself. I greet his perfection with despair at my shortcomings. I forget the angel’s oft-repeated exhortation to “Fear not.”

God rest ye merry, my friends. Maybe next year I will too…