Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mmm Mmm Good

In the beginning was the Welch’s farm.

As far back as my memory reaches, this farm runs across the planes of my childhood, weathered by the slow decay of time, but weathered in the way that produces rich, black, moist, Midwestern dirt, pregnant with goodness. I loved each visit through the jungle of cornfields and soybeans, atop the mountain of itchy bails in the hayloft, inside the pealing walls of the white farmhouse, up the creaky wooden stairs, around the simple table where the same meal awaited every day.

Mrs. Welch is the silent, steady line that runs through all these memories and binds them together with a fixity strong enough for me to taste the Welch’s farm in every loaf of whole wheat bread I’ve ever eaten in 25 years: her low, soft voice; her sharp, cackling laughter; her handmade posters that covered the walls with rotating Bible verses the family would memorize with “In Jesus Name” written on the top of all of them; her long skirts dirty from the black soil of the gardens and chicken coop; her stories at bedtime. In my mind, Welch’s Grape Juice got its name from my Mrs. Welch; it was her wholesomeness that gave it its nourishment.

Most of all, I remember Mrs. Welch for her prayers. Mrs. Welch was always praying, not in a pious way that drew attention to itself, but in a practical way that made the dirt under her fingernails seem holy. Though Mr. Welch led the family prayers at meals, is was Mrs. Welch who went to each child’s bed (including mine, when I was visiting) and prayed with him and her after the collective bedtime story. It was also Mrs. Welch who led the family aloud, open-eyed, collectively, in gathering the names of those whose salvation they prayed for every night before the bedtime story.

The Welch’s grandmother was always listed in these evening prayers. Every night, they prayed for her salvation as part of the steady rhythm of the day. Just like breakfast, lunch and dinner were cemented into the framework of each day, so was prayer for Grandma Welch.

Over the weekend, on Valentine’s Day, the 27th birthday of the second of the Welch children, Grandma Welch died. Days earlier, the family’s constant prayers for her reconciliation with God had been answered. I read on my childhood friend’s facebook wall, “Grandma Welch went to heaven on my birthday—Valentine's Day. She got to see Jesus and feel His love on the day that celebrates love.”

God is good like the black Midwestern soil, the soil that dirtied Mrs. Welch’s fingers for all those decades and produced a crop, the soil that Mrs. Welch’s prayers went into like corn seeds that expected a harvest, the soil that produced Mrs. Welch herself. Her consistent prayers called on the richness of his goodness, but it was the richness of his goodness that spouted her very prayers.

I sometimes wonder if God answers prayers directly or if he has just manufactured the world to crumble into redemption like the Welch’s farm. One way or another, we pray because he is “Mmm Mmm Good,” and our prayers remove the scales from our eyes to see that goodness.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How to Become a Saint

One of the mentors of one of my mentors wrote a posthumously published book titled How to Become a Saint, a title that is out of place in Protestant circles where we either emphasize that we are all sinners or that we are all saints.

I thought about that title yesterday as I fingered the manuscript of (Saint) Thomas More’s prayer that he wrote in the Tower of London while awaiting execution (yes, I really did get to touch the manuscript!). It’s a long, thin, scroll-like parchment with a lengthy, rambling prayer of adoration and devotion written mostly in English. Then at the end, before the closing prayer, there is a poem.*

It’s interesting to read what a doomed saint writes as he waits to die. It is not polemical, though More certainly demonstrated his skill for polemical literature many times before his imprisonment. It is not even particularly heroic, though he was preparing himself to die in defense of the Church. It may be pious, but it is an odd piety: a piety of extreme feeling (sighing, suffering, lowness, wrath, weeping), and a piety of extreme love (“loue,” by Renaissance spelling).
Rede distinctely
pray deuoutly
syghe depely
suffer pacyently
meke youe lowly
giue no sentenc hastely
speke but rathe and that truly
preuent youre spech discretely
do all your dedes in charytye
temtacyon resyst strongly
breke his heade shortly
wepe bytterly
haue compassion tenderly
do good workes busyly
loue perseuerently
loue hertely
loue faythfully
loue god all only
and all other for hym charitably
loue in aduersytye
loue in prosperyty
thinke alway of loue for loue ys non other but god hymselfe. Thus to loue bringeth the louer to loue without ende.
It strikes me as an odd exhortation from a martyred man—not to endure, not to fight, not to have courage, not to have peace, not to proclaim the truth, not even (though it is included, I suppose) to forgive. Over and over, at the end of his prayers in the days he awaited execution, this particular saint exhorted himself to love. Just to love.

Like most saints, More did not consider himself to be one—in a letter to Erasmus in which he discussed a literary scuffle the Englishman was having with a French poet, he suggested he deserved some grace “while I still dwell in this mortal abode, and have certainly not yet been entered in the number of saints (let me laugh at a laughable notion!).” But maybe he had unknowingly stumbled on the key factor in sainthood.

How do you become a saint? Love.

*For the record, this is not actually a poem that he wrote, but does come from the prayer scroll he used in the tower, so it is a poem he was repeating while he awaited execution.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lines on a Red-Eye

You shut my eyes like airplane wine along
The red-eye flight from San Francisco, though
I wouldn’t mind foregoing the Merlot
To get a softer bed. And you’re the song
That plays in airline headphones; rarely do
I see you as a gift because you cost
Me far too much. Like February frost
That’s only rain in California, you
Can touch the ground and call it good when I
Would call it muddy. Never mind. May-
Be I am getting old enough to say
I like the plastic cup, and though I try
To call you every insult (growing thinner),
Never could I call you late for dinner.


I just got back from San Francisco on a red-eye flight yesterday morning. I was there to visit my dear friend and former housemate Paul I wrote about last year. The trip was amazing for many reasons, some of which I may articulate in future posts if I can make them coherent enough to follow without too much background. For now, since this is a listening-blog, I'll just summarize the highlights.

Paul was making a formal vow of celibacy, and 120 people from around the country gathered to celebrate the goodness of God's gift to Paul in a calling to be "love in the heart of the church," in the words of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and God's goodness to the Church in giving it Paul to love it. But it's an odd goodness, an odd gift; it's not a gift Paul would have chosen anymore than the rest of us would, and not a goodness in the way the Evangelical version of the heath-and-wealth gospel tends to think of it. It's a calling in the way Roger Mehl uses it in his book Love and Society:
The most reliable callings are born from reflecting on a situation that is more or less imposed on us. A vocation is nearly always a way of accepting a situation that was first of all considered a limitation.
Paul, who has lived as a celibate man in intentional Christian community sharing in the life (and death) of individuals and families for the past eighteen years, is proclaiming his unwanted calling as a gift nonetheless, aspiring one day to be a content 86-year-old man. Toward that end, Paul vows to give himself fully to the Church, to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful only unto her, so long as he shall live. Paul's limitations have allowed him to experience love in the context of the Church body in a way that challenges our cultural idolatry of romantic love. Thus God's gift is "good" like Wendell Berry uses the word in Jayber Crow, Paul's favorite book, which we read at the ceremony:
I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, "Good-good-good-good-good!" like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love.
So 120 people whose lives have been touched by this 43-year-old man who has tried to embody love to the church gathered to celebrate this past weekend in San Francisco, an odd place to celebrate celibacy (not that such a "celibation" would not be odd elsewhere). The guys had a bachelor party (I hear rumors that chastity belts were involved, but I was not there). There was a reception with a slide-show of pictures, wonderful pasta, plenty of wine, and exhausting dancing. After the festivities, Paul left yesterday for his week-long honeymoon at a monastery near the coast. It was quite a party.

I may mention this again from time to time as my thoughts process, but for now the main thing I heard is that God is indeed good, even if his "calling" is often just the unideal life that was set before us through our series of frustrating circumstances. God is good to Paul, and through Paul's love for the Church he is challenging me in my love for the people we call our "brothers and sisters" even if the familial relationship is rarely realized. May we learn to lay down our lives for each other.