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.