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.