Sunday, September 30, 2012

Beauty and Agony

On Labor Day I said goodbye to the Welches' Farm.

I sloshed through morning dew as the sun lit the corners of the wheat stalks on the sacred ground, pulling back the curtain of dawn for me for the last time.  It was smaller than it had been in my childhood: a smaller driveway circled beside a smaller white farmhouse surrounded by smaller flowerbeds beside a smaller chicken coop on the way to a much smaller barn (how could such an enormous fortress have shrunk that much!).  Mrs. Welch welcomed me inside the hallowed walls of the kitchen where I had ate so many carbon-copies of the same hearty meals, the only room that had actually grown larger now that it was missing the table that somehow managed to hold the members of both of our families of six together while we ate and listened to Mr. Welch read from the Bible while I drew portraits of him and his silver beard.  Most of the homemade posters of Bible verses and magazine clippings of beautiful images had been removed, but a few lingered in corners or taped to boxes of dusty mason jars filled with no-longer-fresh herbs. 

I said goodbye to the basement where we had huddled during a tornado while my father watched it from the driveway.  I said goodbye to the living room where Mrs. Welch’s voice, both gentle and strong, had recited the litany of prayers every night before bed.  I said goodbye to the piano room, long since bereaved of its piano, where the Welch sisters and I would stage performances of The Music Band of God for which we would spend hours practicing, designing fliers, and distributing tickets to our family members.  I said goodbye to the creaky stairs that I was sure would break and send me careening to the depths beneath one day, but that certainly never would now.  I said goodbye to the attic that still smelled of honeycomb.

It was hallowed space, space that had become more hallowed to me the more my own life became unstable, the more people stepped out my world and the ground under my feet changed from Midwestern farmland to southern clay to thin tobacco soil to Parisian boulevards to urban sidewalks.  Whatever side of the world I might find myself, I had known that there was still a wholesome farm where the same family was eating the same bowls of oatmeal for breakfast every morning, and the doors of that place of peace would open for me when I returned.  Now they opened for the last time. 

They opened for the last time because Mrs. Welch had attempted suicide recently, and in her process of healing the doctors discerned that the farm was not a safe place for her.

They opened for the last time because the children had grown up and fled the isolation and monotony of their childhood.

They opened for the last time because while the farm held all the beauty of my childhood memories, it held darkness as well. 

And that morning, as I walked on my longer, adult legs beside Mrs. Welch who sang to welcome the morning, as we fed the cats and watered the flowers as if it weren’t for the last time, as I looked into her wise eyes that had discerned some of the dark places of my childhood, I felt invited to love the dearest place of my childhood in a deeper way than I had before.  In a way I couldn’t have as a child, I could love the place and see its darkness.  I could learn of the pain that walked up the creaky stairs that still savored of goodness, supporting healing from the pain while still loving the goodness. 

The world resounds with beauty while it trembles with agony.  Let me not ignore the agony.  Let me never forget the beauty.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Put your sword away

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it."
I always thought Peter tended to get a bit unfairly characterized as the impulsive man with a big mouth and no follow-through.  Comparatively, at any rate, he certainly seems to show a lot more devotion than the other disciples: a lot of zeal with some real evidence of love.  I mean, let’s think of the things he tends to be criticized for:
  • Jesus is walking on the water in a storm.  When Peter realizes that it is him, he asks if he can join him on the water, and then he proceeds to walk out of the boat in the middle of a raging storm in order to be near him.  Apparently he got a little scared, but I mean, everyone else was still on the boat.
  • He and James and John see Christ transfigured standing between Moses and Elijah.  Peter is the one who speaks up and wants to set up a place of worship for the Messiah and those who have prepared the way.
  • He drew his sword to defend Jesus in the garden.  Apparently he should have known that Jesus wanted to get arrested.  In any case, his later denial is more complicated than a mere fear of death; he was willing to die defending Jesus right then and there.
  • Which brings us to his most infamous shortcoming: he denied Christ... when all the other disciples other than John had fled and hid.  Peter and John risked their lives to follow Jesus all the way to the High Priest’s courtyard.  John apparently had connections with the High Priest, so it was Peter who was most vulnerable in that moment, and he had willingly placed himself in that situation. 
Whatever faults Peter had, it didn’t seem to be a lack of follow-through, and it hardly seems to be fear.  At the Last Supper Peter declared that he was willing to lay down his life for Jesus, and in the Garden of Gethsemane he showed himself willing to put his money where his mouth was.  Peter showed no hesitation dying for the Messiah.

No, where Peter failed in the gospel reading from this morning, quoted at the top of this page, was not a fear of dying for the Messiah, but of suffering beside him.  Peter was all too willing to die in order to establish the reign of the triumphant King of the Jews; he was not prepared, no matter how many times Jesus foretold it, for the Messiah to be the one doing the dying.  The only way to follow a dying Messiah is to suffer shame and humiliation beside him, to give ones back to those who beat him, ones cheeks to those who plucked his beard, not shielding ones face from buffets and spitting.  It is not to die for him; it is to die with him.

Peter’s difficulty is still ours today.  The Messiah did indeed come, but the fact that he is not the kind of Messiah we feel that we so desperately need has not become any easier.  We are still as confused as we ever were.  We are still waiting even after his resurrection.  And he is still exhorting us to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses, and to follow him into his suffering and our own.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Divine Thrusting On

I’m short profound, inspiration observation from my daily life this week, but since I've promised to try to post every Sunday night, you’ll have to make due with an observation from my exam reading (one that I've pondered before in a few better entries, in fact).  Non-academic readers, receive my sincerest apologies.

One of the exciting things about reading for comprehensive exams is that the inundation with sixteenth-century literature is sharpening my perception to repeated themes.  The past two weeks have been particularly inundated with Shakespeare.  See if you notice these repeated themes, all from different plays:

[My deformed birth] plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion...and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting on.

Men at sometime are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

The first is from Henry VI, part 3 right after Richard (later Richard III) has murdered the title role and explains that his malice results from the defects of his birth.  The second is from The Tempest where Prospero describes the islander Caliban, explaining that his savage nature prevents the possibility of reformation.  The third is from King Lear, in which the crafty Edmund explains to the audience that his villainy does not result from his bastard birth but rather from his own will.  The final is from Julius Caesar in which the ambitious Cassius attempts to convince Brutus to murder Caesar, a betrayal that will bring down the republic and secure Brutus’ position in infamy as a traitor.

All characters seem to be asking, in the face of tragic villainy, whether our wickedness comes from within or without, and (more importantly) whether it is destined or avoidable.  

I find that in the face of my own monstrosities, I want to stand beside Cassius and Edmund who insist that we can take hold of our own destiny, that the accidents of our circumstances do not control our future.  And then I find myself, like the crafty bastard Edmund, taking hold of my destiny to bring it deliberately to the places I insisted I wasn’t destined to go. 

As a Christian, of course, I have the easy God-answer that seems like it would save me from the despair of Caliban and the ambition of Cassius: God can snatch me out of my own monstrosities and save me from my natural corruption.  But when he doesn’t, when year after year my weaknesses or deformities or struggles or corruptions remain, I’m not sure I like the answer that would imply to the question.

Maybe it is the wrong question to begin with—how I got this way or whether I can change.   Maybe that is why it is the Shakespearean villains who are asking it, and why they can never come up with a consensus about the answer.  Maybe that is why my attempts to find the Christian answer to the question are equally unsatisfactory.

I’m not sure what a better question might be, and I’m open to suggestions.  In the mean time, I’ll accept the grace to admit that I can’t always take hold of my destiny, and hope that such an admission does not abandon me to despair.