Monday, May 26, 2008

Out of the Vermillioned Nothingness

I’m trying to expand the horizons of my education this summer to include twentieth century American poets. With one week out of five down, they are meeting my expectations: I liked Frost a good deal, Stevens a great deal less, and Williams not at all. It’s not looking good for the twentieth century.

But as I’m writing this second entry to my listening-blog in a month that is almost over, God’s silence is on my mind, and Wallace Stevens has a thing or two to say on the matter in his poem “Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”:
If there must be a god in the house, must be…
He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed…

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness…
The Job in me—with her long list of complaints against the God whom she will not rebel against but from whom she had demanded answers—is less inclined to interpret Stevens as laying out a list of rules for God to follow (“Deities must be seen and not heard”) than as deducing his best assessment of how God must function, based on his observation of the silence. But the mysterious Elihu had once asked Job, as he might have asked Stevens or me,
Why do you contend against him,
saying, ‘He will answer none of man’s words’?
For God speaks in one way,
and in two, though man does not perceive it.
I once suggested in another entry that God seems deaf to my questions because I ask the wrong ones, and that humility comes in allowing the questions to be rewritten. But if Scripture is any precedent (isn’t that a great conditional statement?), maybe half the time God answers with a question. Maybe God surprises the interrogator with questions of his own, and while I maintain my status as the interrogator I will not hear him. Throughout Scripture, God emerges from silences and confusions and pain with questions:
To Adam: “Where are you?”
To Cain: “Why are you angry, and why is your face downcast?”
To Hagar: “Where have you come from and where are you going?”
To Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
To Andrew: “What are you seeking?
To the paralytic: “Do you want to be healed?”
To the crowds: “Does this offend you?”
To the blind man: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
To Simon: “Do you love me?”
To me? I don’t know. Hearing God’s questions would require a different kind of listening than I have done, a listening without the stipulations of my own questions. To quote my very favorite twentieth century American poet, it would be “Wait without thought”:
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 love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
T. S. Eliot

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

This is not the Kingdom

The setting was sometime in the spring of 2007. I sat on the back porch of my urban home with my eleven housemates gathered around, drinking bottled root-beer, ginger-ale and cream-soda that we could pretend were drinks in our dry household. We were gathered to discuss whether or not I would continue living in the house when I started my master’s program in the fall.

“I don’t want to leave the neighborhood,” I explained. “I don’t want to be that transient person in the kids’ lives who makes them feel important for a year and disappears. I don’t want my life to consist in my own educated middle-class world and become disconnected with the work of the Kingdom in the lives of the poor.”

I was fighting a losing battle, and I knew it. Everyone, including me, knew I needed to allow myself to be simply a student for a while without trying to save the world in my spare time. In an earlier lunch conversation with an old college friend, I had insinuated that it would be my housemates who would urge me stay in the city for the sake of the Kingdom; by now it was clear that the only things holding me there were my own grandiose dreams of serving God.

“I actually understand where you’re coming from,” one of my housemates interjected. “I was always very passionate about wanting to be a part of the Kingdom as well. But there was a time when my similar efforts actually landed me in a mental institution, and I remember looking around there and suddenly realizing, ‘This is not the Kingdom!’ I wasn’t sure exactly where I went wrong, and I had had good Kingdom-focused reasons for doing everything I had done, but it was clear that something had gone off course. That was not the Kingdom.”

* * *

A year later, after I have let go of most of the battles I had once thought were most important, after accepting that if I ever move back into a similar urban setting it may be around the large detours of PhD and tenure, I found myself in a Bible study last night studying II Samuel 7, where David dreams of starting off his reign by building God a glorious temple. Israel is established, the Promised Land is secure, the Lord’s anointed is on the throne, and it is time for God’s glory to have a permanent resting place in the city. David, the passionate man who just made a fool of himself dancing in front of the returning Ark of the Covenant, is ready to build it.

But David is no Saul; he does not assume the ability to call for God’s blessing without submitting himself to the prophets. And the prophet Nathan, who begins by giving the obvious go-ahead to the king after God’s own heart, comes back with a surprise “No.” As much as a temple makes sense, God’s glory does not need a place to rest. God will raise up his own instrument to build his temple out of David’s offspring (and I wonder if David’s assumption that it was Solomon was misguided; Christ, after all, raised the temple of his body, and Hebrews quotes this very passage when God says ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’ as referring to Christ).

What God tells David here is striking. David wants to build God a house, and God turns around and says he will build David a house. The Kingdom will not come by David’s well-intentioned, passionate efforts to build God’s house, even if David is the king; the Kingdom will come by God’s own building of David’s house. It is good that David is the kind of man who wants to do things for God, but the Kingdom is ultimately something God will do for/through/from/to David.

“Is this your usual way of dealing with man?” David asks in the NIV. I had always assumed the question was a rhetorical question with an implied “No,” but the more literal ESV gives the opposite answer in its translation: “This is instruction for mankind.” Maybe this is God’s usual way of dealing with man after all. Maybe it is how he is dealing with me.

What am I hearing from this? Maybe it tells me to feel free to passionately dream of furthering God’s glory, but to submit those dreams to God and to his instruments of authority. It certainly seems to tell me that the Kingdom will not be something I build for God, but something that he builds. He may even choose to build it by building me.