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Friday, July 18, 2008

On the Unhappiness of Parenting

Newsweek reports on recent research indicating that contrary to popular opinion, having children makes people less happy, at least until the children leave home. This will no doubt please the happily child-free, who seem to have a thriving set of self-satisfied communities.

Unlike many of my fellow breeders, I feel no desire to persuade the intentionally childless to change their minds. Lurk in their forums long enough and you'll conclude that inflicting any of them on children would be cruel.

With that said, I think what we have to remember, when considering research like that featured in Newsweek, is that the purpose of our lives is not the maximization of our own happiness. If that's your aim, then eat, drink, and be merry. On your deathbed, gather about you your pictures of stress-free European vacations, those novels you had time to relish, the pay stubs from all the work that being childless enabled you to do.

I will have gone before you, most likely, because having children is hard work, and stressful, and at times it sucks the very life from your bones. But I will go, God willing, to the sounds of my children, and their children, having knit myself into a community not of selfish convenience, but of blood and toil and heartache and joy. I've made every mistake it's possible to make as a husband and father, but this is where I belong.

So go immerse yourself in the wonder of You, and I will pour myself out for this helpless flesh of my flesh. Go live your sterile marriage, and I will struggle to preserve this union that has brought forth life. Have your happiness, and I will take my portion of suffering, and we will see whose joy is greater, in this life and the next.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Father's Creed

"Dad," Eli asks me in a whisper, "why did Abraham kill Isaac?" We are in his bed, looking out at the darkening sky and listening to crickets. In his bed across the room, our Isaac is already asleep, a lamb clutched to his chest, his mouth agape.

"He didn't kill Isaac, remember?" I kiss Eli on the head. "God sent a ram to be sacrificed in his place."

"I thought Abraham killed him."


"But why did God tell him to kill Isaac?"

It's more complicated to explain than some might think. As I explain how God wanted to stretch Abraham's faith, and how Abraham thought God would bring Isaac back to life, and how God was even then writing the story of Jesus, I feel myself coming to that place where I am struggling: the doctrine of propitiation, of score settling, of wrath. In my mind I can hear the fussy answers from self-satisfied types who take a masochistic delight in the Angry God. I hear a string of preachers from my own childhood, warning me to be a good boy or go to hell. I remember the nightmares I still have, of demons coming to take me there.

"Why did Jesus have to die?" Eli asks.

A good Presbyterian would tell him the wages of sin is death, and that a price had to be paid, a sentence served. Instead I tell him that when sin came into the world, it made all of us sick. "Do you know how when you do something bad, it makes you feel bad inside?" Eli nods. "The blood of Jesus will make all of us well," I tell him. "It works slower on some than others, but it's the medicine we need. And one day he will come back, with all his angels, and then all the evil things in the world will try to fight them, but they will lose, and then none of God's children will be sick any more."

Eli lays his head down on my arm. He asks me why we can't see God, and why God made the Devil, and when Jesus will come. I tell him about heaven, and how all things will be made right one day, and that Jesus will never let him go. I put my head next to his, and breathe in his scent of wet puppies and toothpaste. "I will always love you," I tell him, "no matter what."

"I know."

Somewhere beyond the crickets and our line of hedge trees is the world into which one day he will venture. Maybe he will have a more accurate understanding of whether the blood is a cure, or a debt paid, or both. Years ago the answers seemed more certain to me.

I think sometimes my children will leave me with more questions than answers. But they will go knowing that they are loved by their God, and by their father. If you ask me what is my creed, this is what I will tell you: that I am selfish through and through, but for them to know those two things I will lay down my life, walking all the chastened paths along which a parent must stumble.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

On Graduation and All The Rest of It

This time of year always brings to mind my own graduation experiences, which are paltry. I was valedictorian of my high-school class, but several teachers, administrators, and other denizens of public-school officialdom felt it best that I not speak. My Latin-conscious friends pointed out that this made me a "valetorian." They thought it was funny to declare out loud which syllable I was missing. I did not find this funny.

Not raised to think much of ceremony, I skipped my undergraduate commencement at the University of North Carolina. To this day I don't know who delivered the address. I skipped my University of Michigan graduation too. I can only imagine what sort of nut they let talk.

I have attended other people's graduations, however. They are usually stuffy, tiresome affairs, which is exactly the sort of thing we need more of in civic life. If you think about it, if you consider that greater attention to ceremony might spare us all the spectacle of perfectly normal schoolchildren dressing like fools and whores and mumbling when they speak to their elders, then you might agree about the importance of ceremony. A few more stuffy, dressy social occasions would be a small price to pay if in return every boy in America would pull up his pants and start wearing his baseball cap straight.

So I have attended graduations, but until recently I had never spoken at one. A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to speak at a graduation of sorts, a final lecture in a program for super-sharp young people in which I have played a small teaching role for the past year. When I sat down to compose my notes, it hit me how little wisdom I have to share, and further, how little any of us retains from a speech. I nearly gave up the task altogether. Let's face it: most commencement speeches could be profitably replaced with a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss's I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew.

I was close to packing Eli's big Dr. Seuss book for my trip and calling it good, but I dug a little deeper and dredged up a speech. All of the foregoing, you now realize, perhaps regretfully, is simply a lead-in to this excerpt from my first-ever (and likely last) commencement (sort of) address (if you can call it that):

So here we are: you wondering what I'm going to say next, and me wondering what I can possibly say that you'll remember as far as the bathroom, let alone next week or next month or on the day that you might actually need it. This whole enterprise of talking, when you consider it from that perspective — not what we can say, but what they will remember — seems so hopeless that I wonder why we bother at all.

And I think the truth is that when someone writes a letter, or a novel, or composes a speech, he is really talking to himself as much as to you, and you in turn are listening because you are hoping, beneath the well-turned phrase and the dramatic pause, that he will mutter something at himself that is a surprise to the both of you.

In that spirit, I'll start with something that should be no surprise, and see if I can't creep up sideways to some kind of truth, which is the only way, I think, we can ever let ourselves see the truths we are probably most in need of seeing.

And that something is this: each of us is going to die. . .

We know we are going to die, but we are afraid to look it full in the face. At this point you can be forgiven for thinking that I am going to give you an insipid little piece of advice, like: "Live as if there is no tomorrow."

I want you to slap me if I ever start talking like that. In this case the advice is particularly bad, I think, because the problem isn't that we live like there is an endless supply of tomorrows. Yes, we do tend to live like there are plenty of tomorrows, but the problem with not contemplating our mortality is that we end up making our tomorrows stingy, and small. We get so wedded to life, so fearful that something might disturb it, that we rob ourselves — and the people we love, and the people who need us — of living.

After a bit more blabbing I read to them from Frederick Buechner's "The Calling of Voices," which has this beautiful admonition: "...the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness." A bit later, Buechner writes: "In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad."

To sum up, my first and only ever commencement address was me doing my best to channel Buechner. A job is often done best, after all, by not doing it yourself. At the end, I wanted to give them a benediction, which felt foolish, because I'm not a preacher, and that place certainly isn't a church, and I don't think most of them cared to hear a sermon. But a benediction is the good word, the speaker's blessing on the listener, offered if only in thanks for the arduous task of listening. So this was my blessing for them, and, now that I think about it, for you as well:

My hope for each of you is that you find your place in the world, because it is waiting for you to find it. May you discover your place, and do what is good and honorable and just, and be battered but not broken. May you know and be known. May you find grace when you need it most, and reject bitterness when it is most tempting. Most of all, at the end of your journey, may you find peace.

It's no Dr. Seuss, but maybe some of them will remember it all the same.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saudade Saturday

The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday doesn't prompt much consideration. It's a nothing day, wedged between man's greatest shame and our greatest hope. To the people who had followed Jesus like fools through the land and across the water, it must have felt like the day after a funeral, when clouds continue to move across the sky, and birds continue to sing, and all creation pretends that something terrible has not happened. I wonder if they ate, and what they said to one another, if they spoke at all.

We Christians live in the nameless Saturday. We're told we'll be new creatures, but Sunday is not yet here, is it? If your heart yearns for anything — and to be alive on this earth is to yearn — then Sunday has not yet arrived. Every human on earth lives either in Friday, the day we spat in the face of salvation, or in Saturday, the long day of waiting for the end of this beginning.

It's strange that we haven't given it a name. The Portuguese might call it Saudade Saturday: the day when absence is present. Do you ever feel the presence of what is lost, or of what is to come? We are all of us either eating and drinking, pretending the sky has not grown black, or we are waiting. Sometimes we wait in despair, other times in hope, and probably most times feeling like those disciples, like fools, whispering to ourselves the serpent's question: did God really say?

I think it must be an important day. There was a purpose to Christ's dwelling in death, to the disciples' time in despair. There is a purpose, I think, to our suffering in this place that is not home. Maybe if we thought about it that way, the suffering would be more bearable, if not any more understandable. We live in Saturday, but we are not forgotten here. Sunday is coming, maybe sooner than we think.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Forgiving Christians

As best I can remember, my first publication was in the high school paper. It was an editorial, of course, and it was funny and mean and wrongheaded. I've put words into the public domain for 23 years since that day. I've been wrong a lot, and I've picked a lot of fights. At times I've stepped into a fight without meaning to. I've provoked angry responses from breathless Democrats and stiff-necked Republicans, student-government busybodies, college administrators, anarchists, fascists, communists, libertarians, union members, people opposed to spanking, gender theorists, feminists, masculinists, Francophiles, Viggo Mortensen fans, Nazis, Klansmen, and cat lovers. Sometimes a productive discussion has ensued, other times, not so much. The detractors who have been most unkind, however, and least susceptible to reason or goodwill, are people who call themselves evangelical Christians.

I've been thinking these past few days about why that is. It's certainly not inherent to Christianity, because I have also received the greatest mercy and love from Christians, starting with my wife and working down to lesser beings. On the other hand, maybe my wife isn't Evangelical. Maybe Evangelical is like Libertarian now, in that the capitalization somehow lends itself to stridency, insular community, and intolerance of dissent. I don't know. I only know that for some reason it sits in my gut and makes my stomach hurt. I read some of the responses to things I have written, things I thought were well-intentioned and fair-minded, and I think: No wonder people reject the church. It's filled with people like that. Then I feel especially bad, because I used to be someone like that myself.

Maybe what saved me from pharisaism is sin itself. Once you've done terrible things, once you realize that Grace extends to all who beg for it, even someone like yourself, it's hard to deny it to someone else. I wonder sometimes if the people so intent on scrutinizing whose toes are over the boundaries of the law have ever peered into their own dark hearts. I wonder if they've given a moment's thought that the warning about being forgiven as we forgive was uttered for them.

I wonder why their opprobrium puts me in a funk and makes me so sad. Surely that's an indication of something wrong in my head. It makes me sad and then I get angry, and I think that I can forgive anyone but a pharisee, which makes no sense at all, to withhold forgiveness for someone's lack of forgiveness. Maybe it's because a pharisee is a bully. In the old days, they would stone you to death. Nowadays they pronounce judgment on your doctrine, having not the slightest sense from whence doctrine emerged, and draw lines separating their true, genuine faith from the rest of us. If they had their druthers, they'd stand at Heaven's gate and make sure no undesirables got in. Maybe that will be their job in Heaven — doorkeepers — only instead of deciding who gets in, they have to humbly receive our tickets and watch us file past, all we sinners and liberals and non-capital-E evangelicals, not to mention Episcopalians and Orthodoxers and Catholics and Democrats and Mexicans.

Assuming they get in at all.

It puts me in mind of Graham Greene's whiskey priest, pondering whether a self-righteous woman will ever make it to Heaven:

"God might forgive cowardice and passion, but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? . . . salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting . . ."

Of course Greene was a Catholic and an adulterer, so what did he know, right? If only one of those sweating, angry, ecclesiastically unbound Evangelical preachers would take on the habit of piety, maybe we'd make some headway. But they're too busy railing about gays and which version of the Bible is the most inspired to be troubled by something so venal, so intractable. Far easier to throw stones at the scapegoats than examine ourselves, I imagine. What bothers me the most is that I am left with this sadness, and this anger, and now this burden to forgive these unforgiving people.

And so I do. I forgive each one of you, not because I am commanded to, because I'm not a good enough Christian to let that suffice. I forgive you because I used to be just like you, and now I am not, and because I am filled with sadness at what you are and what awaits you.

posted by Woodlief | link | (21) comments

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Dividing Line

When I was a boy, my mother would sometimes let me fall asleep on her bed while she watched television. I would drift between sleep and wakefulness, my thoughts penetrated by the sound of Johnny Carson's chuckle, or the earnest baritone of a news anchor. One night, when I was maybe ten, I woke to the sound of my mother weeping. The bed shook with her crying, and I was afraid. I pretended to be asleep, but out of the corner of an eye I looked at the television screen. There were men in brown uniforms carrying red flags emblazoned with broken black crosses. Others wore long white sheets. They were marching outside the public library where my grandmother often took me.

I didn't know why they were at the library, though I suspected it wasn't to check out books. I didn't know why my mother was crying, only that she was crying and it scared me. I closed my eyes, and soon she stopped crying, and then I was asleep.

Not long after, my mother wrote a letter to the newspaper, and her letter made the marching men angry. I know because they called our house. Once, I answered the phone before she could get to it. "Hello?" I said. "Just what is your mama's problem with the Klan?" The person on the other end was an angry, stupid-sounding woman. I wondered if she was someone's mother. My mother took the phone and hung it up. Later, I heard her call the sheriff. We stayed inside, and I wondered if the angry men were coming.

They never did, and later, when I was in college, I thought it was silly when my mother would warn me that writing some of the things I wrote was going to get me killed. It was an unfounded worry, because I had neither a large audience nor anything consequential to say. Every age is filled with men willing to murder the carriers of ideas, even when they don't understand them. The words first have to strike at their hearts, however.

I've been listening to Martin Luther King's speeches today, and lamenting that the times of great oration have passed for our country. Words are cheaper now, as are most of the men who utter them. Ideas have been displaced by soundbytes. It's safer to speak that way, I suppose, and the overriding goal of the politician is to win, not to lead. I think people hated King because he spoke unsafely. He illuminated what Solzhenitsyn called the line dividing good and evil, the line that runs through every human heart. That is surely dangerous business.

I wonder where the prophets of this generation are. Where are the ones who will illuminate that line in every heart? It is so much easier to draw lines between people, between a virtuous Us and a nefarious Them, than to say: This is the evil we do, the evil I do. I wonder if no modern-day Martin Luther Kings rise up because our civilization is no longer capable of producing them, or because we no longer deserve them. Or perhaps they are there, crying out in the wilderness, and we all of us — myself included — have our televisions and ipods and internal self-focused monologues turned up too loudly to hear them.

posted by Woodlief | link | (8) comments

Monday, November 5, 2007

Faith Waiting

Today is one of those bullet-dodging days. You've had those, right? A day when you will learn something about work, or a relationship, or your health, or perhaps the health of someone you love more than yourself? I think of them as bullet-dodging days, because you can't do anything but stand up against the wall and pray that the bullet smacks the brick beside your head, or grazes your arm, or at worst just buries itself in your leg, because in that moment when you stand there and imagine all of the terrible wounds you might suffer, the thought of limping the rest of your life doesn't sound like such a bad deal at all.

You pray that bullet everywhere but your heart with which you love, or your lungs with which you breathe, or your gut, where it will sit for weeks or months or perhaps the rest of your life, setting you to wondering when the next bullet will come, and where it will strike.

I can't decide, as I feel this rough brick beneath my palms, which is worse, the fear of what may come, or the helplessness of waiting for it. This is my continuing struggle with God, that he would let me love and hope and then put me in a place, sometimes, where I am powerless. There is some mystery here, I think, about trusting, but I can't put my finger on it, not this finger that has traced my child's name on her gravestone. It should be harder to trust God, I think, when he has broken you down.

The strangest part of it is that I trust him more, now, knowing what he's capable of allowing. Surely that's some kind of miracle, no? I think about Christ being the author and perfecter of faith, and I shiver as I stand at this wall, wondering what words he will write next. But beneath the flesh-shiver there is a heart-steadiness, because I know I don't wait here alone. And this is a message of the crucifixion that we often miss, that God descended to die among us not only for the expiation of sins, but out of bondedness, in a communion of suffering, perhaps so that we would know that he knows.

He will not always — or perhaps even often — lift suffering, of this I am convinced, despite the good efforts of best-selling Christianesque shamans. But he will endure with us, suffering servant that he is. And oddly enough, this matters more than I ever would have imagined.

My God, my king, my friend, will you go into these dark places with me? Shall we go together? I will not be afraid. Quell my fear; steady my heart; leave not my side, you who breathed in death. I will not be afraid.

posted by Woodlief | link | (15) comments

Friday, October 5, 2007

Where is God?

We sing because Isaac felt left out. Caleb practices piano, Eli the violin. I sit with Eli as he practices, pushing his fingers to their proper positions, helping him with rhythm, chastising him when he claims a sudden injury that prevents him from playing another note. Isaac hovers when I do this, alternately jumping off furniture, or bellowing a made-up song to accompany Eli's squeaking strings, or hanging upside down from a nearby chair and asking when we will be finished.

None of our other children were like this, but he is like this. This is Isaac.

So he feels included, I have taken to giving Isaac his own music practice in the evenings. He stands in front of me, his hands in mine, and we sing "Jesus Loves Me." His mother gave him a small notepad, and I put colorful stickers of musical notes in it, one for each week of practice.

It's no secret that I get very little out of church lately. Recent sermons I've endured explain that this is my fault. The church reading groups ubiquitous in modern white evangelical America hold little more appeal, given my fondness for Frederick Buechner over Doug Wilson. There's room in God's kingdom for both, mind you, but I confess that there are times when I wonder if there is room for me. I am an alien when I walk into a Christian bookstore, and sickened when I listen to Christian radio, and often a stranger in my own church.

Please understand that I am content to live this way, though I understand it is likely an indication of some perversity in my soul. A good Christian is supposed to revel in a fellowship of believers, we men are to be iron sharpening iron, and so on. Though I rail against tribality in our culture, I am the most ferociously tribal of men, for my tribe is seven strong, and I find far more rest in a lazy breakfast with them than in most Sunday sermons.

But where, in a world that has lost its vision, will I find God, if not in sermons and tidy Calvinist pamphlets? Mother Teresa, we now know, called him the Absent One. I would be lying if I told you that I don't instantly suspect the spiritual depth of anyone who claims never to have experienced the Saudade Deus, the God who is known by his absence. This is my arrogance born of suffering, that I imagine I can identify with the one who cried: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.

So where is God found? He finds us, of course, as he always has, from the beginning, and will to the end, because a parent seeks his children without ceasing. But listen close, and I will tell you where I saw him last. It was just yesterday evening, when Isaac placed his fresh-washed hands in my palms, his face strangely peace-filled, and sang to me in his warbly voice. Here is God, I thought. Do you want to find God? Then look up from your books and theologies, if you can bear it, for God is here.

posted by Woodlief | link | (17) comments

Thursday, June 28, 2007

When They Jump

I'm teaching Isaac the beginnings of swimming. He likes for me to stand in the pool, close to the edge where he is crouching, his arms outstretched toward mine, hands twisting, beckoning me closer Daddy, closer, and then he jumps and I catch him, letting his head dip beneath the surface before I pop him back up into the sunshine and my arms. Then we "swim" back to the steps, my hands on his hips while he splashes and kicks. When I first told him to swim like a doggy, he kicked his legs and went Woof! Woof! Woof! until I explained how doggies swim.

Once he slipped off the bottom step while I was helping Eli swim, and for a second he was suspended in the water, only his hair above the surface, his feet stretching and not finding the bottom. Then I had him in my arms, and he was sputtering and crying. He knows what "deep" means now. He jumps toward my arms every time, knowing that it's deep water he's hurling himself into. It's stunning, if you contemplate it, how they trust us so completely. It's stunning as well how many of us set about betraying that trust with our neglect, or anger, or perhaps a seemingly innocent desire to see them fulfill our dreams.

And yet this little boy still jumps, when I hold out my arms. I hope I never fall short. I like that "sin" means "falling short of the mark." It suggests an immorality in what I see among too many parents, and often myself — the falling short. They set out meaning well, and hoping good things, but in the daily grind they — we, I — fall short of the mark. Our children jump, and we aren't there to catch them. So they jump less and less, and then not at all, and their eyes take on that look of sadness or resignation you'll find on an abundance of faces in any high school, so much so that many parents tell themselves that's just how teenagers are.

It always fills me with a deeply peaceful feeling to be around our friends whose teenagers are happy and sociable, who don't have that look of being set against the world as a consequence of having come to believe the world is set against them. It's good to know parents who have stayed the course. It makes me hopeful. Are you staying the course?

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Working Out

Though I used to be unable to understand him, I find more and more that Oswald Chambers's My Utmost for His Highest has a forcefulness and acuity that renders the Biblical scriptures fresh, essential, and pressing. He wrote his meditations in relative obscurity, and perhaps because his text has not been run through a thousand times by the silver tongue of a preacher, or dissected by bloodless theologians, it still holds magic.

This is merely the reflected magic of the Bible, but it seems at times that preachers and teachers have sucked the life right out of the latter, made it a dry text to which we already know the ending:

God was really mad for several hundred years; Jesus died for your sins (but you really don't deserve it); everything that happens is God's will and perfect; yada yada yada, don't forget to put your ten percent in the collection plate and volunteer for Sunday School duty.

Maybe because they haven't gotten to Chambers, it feels like a refuge from both the world and the neutered God-talk, or maybe it's just what I need right now — because the Lord is like a good parent in that he finds a way to keep you nourished even when you don't want your vegetables. Either way, I'm really digging Chambers, and I urge you to get a copy as well. You might even be able to find it in the modern-day Christian tchotchke store, right there between the "God's Love is Purrr-fect" cat-lover bookmarks and Bruce Wilkinson's latest book, The Hidden Secret: How God Put the Formula for Health and Wealth Right under Your Nose in the Last Verse of an Obscure Proverb.

Here's a snippet from today's meditation in Chambers:

"You cannot do anything for your salvation, but you must do something to manifest it, you must work out what God has worked in."

Poking a stick in the eyes of seven-eighths of the Christian industry probably isn't what he had in mind, but at least I'm trying.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Snow in Blacksburg

It was a scene we've witnessed before, from the safety of our living rooms and offices: a school building that has become a slaughterhouse, and scores of police officers arrayed outside, waiting for . . . something, for orders perhaps, or for the specially trained tactical units, or perhaps just for the shooting to stop, because while they wear badges they also have wives and mortgages and children of their own. Whatever their reasons, they hesitated, even the cluster of officers captured on a student's videocamera, the ones who made a half-hearted attempt to enter the building, waited while one shot, then another, then a string of shots rang out, and between them the screaming from inside the classrooms.

I've never been shot at, and so I don't know the fear. But I've never put on a badge and sworn an oath to protect the defenseless, either. I only know that had my children been inside, I would want the men and women with guns and badges to come through the doors, or windows if they have to, and cut down the man with the gun.

I remember a murder in my hometown, a man who walked out onto his front lawn with a rifle, and started shooting his neighbors and passersby. A girl from my school was hit, and she lay in a ditch in front of her house, bleeding and crying. The man went back into his house when the police arrived, and so they encamped behind their cruisers for hours. That girl lay there, bleeding and crying out, and eventually she died.

The men with badges that day were rightly denounced as cowards. Only the people who were in Blacksburg yesterday, or at Columbine nearly eight years ago to the day, can accurately judge the actions and inactions of the men and women wearing badges. The rest of us can only know that sometimes men and boys pick up guns, and they start butchering people, and there is no one on this earth who can protect us once the killing starts. This is why each of us who is a parent hugged his children more fiercely yesterday, after we heard. You either have hope in the world to come, or you have no hope at all, but either way you hold your children close and pray that the wolves attack somewhere else.

Now the counselors and journalists and talk show hosts will descend on Blacksburg, bringing with them a secondary wave of psychological damage disguised as "healing" and "talking things out," but which will really be about serving our need to see it, to witness it in safety, perhaps because we are thankful, in an ugly, selfish way most of us have, that it happened to them and not to us, or to our children.

Today there are parents waking up and remembering that their child is dead. There are children waking up and remembering that their parent is dead. Sleep always offers some hope that the world will be different when we awake, but it isn't, is it? I wonder if this is the hopelessness that drove that boy to become a monster. I wonder if his parents will ever smile again.

Judy Miller, a reporter who covered the Columbine killings, had a graceful essay on NPR this morning. In it she mentioned the strangeness of seeing snowflakes swirl about the campus as the killing took place, and how it was similarly snowing in Columbine the day two other boys became monsters. It made me wonder if God was crying, and if the coldness of the world we have made has frozen even his tears.

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Good Friday

And so they led him up the hill, and they nailed him to a cross, and they watched him bleed and die.

From Frederick Buechner's Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith:

"What was brought to completion by such a life and such a death only he can know now, wherever he is, if he is anywhere. The Christ of it is beyond our imagining. All we can know is the flesh and blood of it, the Jesus of it. In that sense, what was completed was at the very least a hope to live by, a mystery to hide our faces before, a shame to haunt us, a dream of holiness to help make bearable our night.

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Monday, March 5, 2007

Created Things

Although I find most business writers to be shallow purveyors of detestable philosophies, I've always liked Stephen Covey's admonition to "begin with the end in mind." What a wonderful idea, and so easily forgotten. What are my ends? Sometimes it's easier to discern them by deduction, by eliminating the things that clearly shouldn't be ends. Take my alma mater's fundraising campaign, for example, exuberantly named, Carolina First. Whenever I receive their letters, I find myself muttering, "you're not even close."

I read somewhere that it's how we spend our time, not our stated principles, that reveals what we truly value. This sticks with me, and I find myself evaluating how I've done. What was first today? Yes, I know what I tell people matters most, but what did I put first? Sometimes — often — looking at ourselves in that light is humbling.

Yesterday I heard a pastor declare that while God has given his people dominion over creation, too many of us have given creation dominion over ourselves. That resonated with me, because over the past couple of years I've been trying to wrest back control. At some point the things I owned began to own me. The job was first, career was first, my happiness (and there's something that will set you apart from the world — declare that the end is not one's own happiness) were first.

So I left a great job, because it was getting in the way of becoming the father and husband I need to be. I miss it, but I've never once regretted leaving. This summer we'll leave our house, in part because we fit in that neighborhood like tube socks go with Oxfords, but mainly because we see an opportunity to own an adequate home outright. The end isn't simplicity, mind you, it's regaining dominion. The world becomes a different place when you have no debt, and when you need less income to provide for your family. You are less . . . owned — I think that's the right word — when your material need is reduced.

I think we have to cultivate a sense of independence from the material things, the things that can only ever, to a right-thinking child of God, be means to some glorious end that has reverberations far beyond this life. We have to cultivate this independence, because our nature is to seek after comfort, and measurable goals, both of which are furthered by money, and career success, and nice cars, and all the things that trap us into behaving like the people we never wanted to become.

Of course few people would disagree, even non-believers, that family is more important than possessions. But how do we spend our time? That is the irritating, nagging question, isn't it? What do we worry on when we awake in the middle of the night? What do we our thoughts turn to as we shower, as we dress, as we drive? What do we do with our time in the evenings? Our calendars whisper to us the truth about the ends we have in mind.

Some time ago, I made a list of the things I wanted for my children. It included everything from being able to shoot (accurately) a gun to walking humbly with God. Sometimes I take out the list and ask myself how I'm doing. Some days I'm ashamed to look at it. Other days I think there's hope, even for someone like me. We don't control the destiny of our children, but surely we prepare them to wrestle with it, no? Lately I've taken to asking myself, as I get into bed at night, how I've done with them, with my wife. Did I build, or did I destroy? It's never neutral, you know. You are either building those lives, building that relationship, or you are robbing from the ones to whom you've linked your life.

So my challenge to you (and to myself) is that we think, as this week begins, about what we want to accomplish. What are the ends we have in mind? And are we working toward those ends, or working toward ends we'd be ashamed to admit? I wonder how much our lives can change — in marvelous ways — when we begin to force a consistency between the ends we espouse and how we live. I, for one, am going to give it a try.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Striving

I'm learning patience from the lady who is teaching Eli how to play the violin. She is a long-time public school music teacher, the kind we wish or imagine still ran things there, kind and competent and able to talk to little ones in a way that makes them feel listened to and special, yet with a firmness in everything she does that quietly, gently whispers, "Don't cross me."

She listens while Eli tells her about Caleb's birthday cake, or shows her that the music notes look like balloons and golf clubs (they do, you know), or explains how his little brother thinks the chorus to "Old MacDonald" is "Eli-Eli-O." She always manages to steer him back to the task at hand without saying, "shush it and pay attention," which is my method. Sometimes when I watch her I am ashamed of the times that I have been impatient with Eli and his brothers, because there is no excuse for it. If a four year-old boy can be quietly and gently taught to sit still and learn the violin, then I have no excuse for bellowing at him to brush his teeth.

I learned from someone who has raised several wonderful children that the secret is not so much in shaping them, as in shaping ourselves. He told me that whenever he confronted something in one of his children that he knew didn't belong there — selfishness, say, or a spirit of anger — he found that there was some corresponding attribute in himself that needed changing. It's a frightening and humbling thought, because there is so much about me that is bad right down to the core. Don't look to ancient stories of fish and loaves if you want to see a miracle, look to the changed heart of a man.

Every time I pray for my children, I am praying for a miracle, because where they fall short, I have failed. Last week, Caleb frittered away his time rather than doing his schoolwork, to the great frustration of his mother. He spent the day resisting her and manufacturing excuses. His brothers were too loud; the work was too hard; his eraser didn't work right. It had become a battle of wills. So he went to bed without supper. I had to explain that he wouldn't die from missing a meal, because he was quite certain that he would.

As he calmed down, Caleb asked if I was going to eat. "No," I told him, "because the fact that you didn't get your job done today is proof that I haven't done my job." We were both satisfied with that, him because he knew he wasn't suffering alone, and me because I know it is true. The training up of my children goes hand-in-glove with the breaking down of my own self-centeredness.

I used to think that I would have the luxury of somehow raising my boys to be real men of honor, strength, and grace, without ever possessing those attributes myself. Now I face the frightening reality that this is an impossible task. If we want our children to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God, then we have to do the same. Sunday school: it's not just for kids any more.

This is on my heart today because I have decided to oppose something that I believe is wrong, and doing so may cost me. Here is the curious thing: I feel compelled to do it because I want my sons to have courage, yet if I don't do it, they'll never know.

But I'll know. That's the catch. If I fail to act after being convicted to do so, then I have been a coward. Our children see through our eyes, you know. A man can't be a coward, or hate-filled, or faithless, and not have his children see it. And they love us so much that they try to become us, even if what we are is reprehensible.

I am a coward; we should be clear about that. But because I love them, today I will not be a coward. That's how it works, I think. We are weak and broken and dark-hearted, yet we resist these things within ourselves. Where I am weak, He is strong.

When you realize that works are intimately bound up in faith, and further, that as a parent your path is the easiest for your children to follow, then you really have no choice. There is no waiting and endlessly preparing and ruminating on holiness, there is just the doing of it, the slow, painful separation from the path of the world.

I wonder, were more people aware that in Hebrew the word we call "holy" means "separate," if that would change anything. Holy doesn't mean being good, it means walking the separate path that God has laid down for you, his beloved, chosen when all you knew to do was follow the herd. Anybody can be good, especially when we let good be defined by the safe, church-going masses.

But to be holy, well, that is another matter, isn't it? The separate path is a dangerous path. As parents, we are conditioned not to lead our children into danger. Yet we have no choice. Walk the holy path, or let the world sweep them down its well-trodden road. There is no sending them off to do what we failed to do, no handing them a Bible and a sack lunch and wishing them well; we have to walk the path ourselves.

I suspect I may fail at this holiness thing. Let's be honest; my track record is terrible. You see the good parts, the ones I show you here. The people who know me see some of the rest. My therapist sees all of it, and word is that he's going to need his own therapist now. I am a very bad person in many ways.

So I pray that it's the trying that matters, the desperate striving, and throwing ourselves at the feet of grace. There is redemption in the striving, I think. I hope so, for my sake, for their sake, for yours. And I think there is.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Nice Church

An acquaintance once told me about a wealthy benefactor in his church, a man who likes to point out that he "isn't one of those Bible thumpers." He just believes that it's a good thing for families to go to church. So he's donated millions over his lifetime to the building of churches. He is an upstanding and well-regarded church member, this man.

He came to mind yesterday, when I read Bonhoeffer's essay on Christ's admonition to be salt and light:

". . . the light may be covered of its own choice; it may be extinguished under a bushel, and the call may be denied. The bushel may be the fear of men, or perhaps deliberate conformity to the world for some ulterior motive, a missionary purpose for example, or a sentimental humanitarianism. But the motive may be more sinister than that . . . [it] pretends to prefer to Pharisaic ostentation a modest invisibility, which in practice means conformity to the world. . . The very failure of the light to shine becomes the touchstone of our Christianity."

Yesterday I talked to a friend who had just returned from Belgium. While he was there he attended service in a large cathedral. He said it was beautiful and ornate and almost vacant, with rows and rows of empty pews spreading out behind a clutch of old women huddled toward the front, awaiting the sacrament.

I suspect this is what happens when the smooth and upright exclude the Bible thumpers from their midst. The church becomes unobjectionable, even socially advantageous to join, and over time it becomes irrelevant. I suppose there's a danger in the other direction as well; those whose relationship with God is based entirely on emotional experience have their own means of separating him (and therefore themselves) from his work in the world — religion becomes a tearful, emotionally-charged experience confined to Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, with little thought in between.

The path certainly is narrow, isn't it? Bonhoeffer wrote that it is exactly the width of one man, the man who dragged a cross up Golgotha, and our only hope is to follow him alone. I suspect that the man who cast the moneychangers from the temple probably smiles on a little Bible thumping from time to time. The man who prayed alone at Gethsemane probably also values the unobserved communion.

I wonder if he smiles, or weeps, or perhaps both, as he watches those faithful old women, the last dregs of Christian Europe, touching their creaking old knees to the stone floors of beautiful dead churches.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Unseen Things

In lieu of church this past Sunday I watched Bonhoeffer, a documentary about the German theologian and pastor executed for participating in plots to murder Hitler. It's worth your time and reflection. Watching it led me back to his book, The Cost of Discipleship, where I discovered this observation in G. Leibholz's memoir at the front:

"The majority of the people in all nations alike does not consist of heroes. What Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others did cannot be expected from the many. The future in modern society depends much more on the quiet heroism of the very few who are inspired by God. These few will greatly enjoy the divine inspiration and will be prepared to stand for the dignity of man and true freedom and to keep the law of God, even if it means martyrdom or death."

Leibholz then refers to Paul's second letter to the Corinthians: "...we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

We are accustomed to reading that passage as a description of the supernatural — invisible, ethereal, beyond our ken. Reading it in this context, however, clarifies that Paul was not simply describing the invisible quality of the supernatural, in fact, he says quite plainly that we look at it. Instead, he is describing that which man has turned his eyes from, the eternal true things, the lingering truths that we have eschewed in favor of temporal comforts and distractions. This is, it seems, why Leibholz's sad observation holds true. There are few heroes because we have no vision of the heroic, of truths greater than our immediate wants.

I am fascinated by the way most of us view the dark times of history, and inevitably place ourselves above the mass of people who furnished their energy and momentum. I wouldn't have joined the Hitler Youth. I could never buy and sell human beings. No cheering at the guillotines for me. And yet we recognize the truth in what Leibholz claimed, "The majority of people...does not consist of heroes."

It leads me to ponder how often I am not heroic in the everyday things. How often am I set on my own satisfaction, on the approval of others, on the avoidance of difficulty? How many lies and deceptions and cruelties do I abet, for lack of this vision of the eternal?

The encouraging — and frightening — element in Leibholz's observation, and in Paul's letter, is that any one of us can have this other-worldly vision, if we will have eyes to see. But we shrink from the vision and the call, Oswald Chambers writes, because "we know that if God does speak, either the thing must be done or we must tell God we will not obey Him." Better for our frail flesh if we are shortsighted, if we do not see the unseen things. Better to throw ourselves upon "cheap grace," as Bonhoeffer described it, a grace without obligation. But this lie, he explained, is one of the chief harms wrought by the modern church, because it teaches man that he might be saved without being changed.

Hence the cost of discipleship, wrote Bonhoeffer, because "what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us." I'm wrestling with this idea, and trying to peer into myself, where I have built faith on cheap grace, my house on sand, my hope on the world. I think costly grace, the only grace worth having, must begin with the vision of the unseen things, the true things. We neglect them for fear of how they might rebuke us, and what they will require. I suspect that when we look them full in the face, we cannot help but be changed. Recall Moses coming down from the mountain, his face shining from his time with God, and he not even knowing it until the people recoiled in fear. To look the neglected truths in the face is to be changed, and likely in ways that will cause the world to recoil.

So there are few heroes, and this will always be so. I learned in the documentary that at the start of Hitler's reign there were roughly 20,000 Protestant pastors in Germany, and of course a large number of Catholic churches. Within a handful of years, the Vatican had made peace with Hitler, while only a third of the Protestant pastors were willing to register opposition to what Bonhoeffer called the idolization of the state. Of these, only 100 were willing to persist, after Krystalnacht, and to form the Confessional Church, a body opposed to the prostitution of the church and the persecution of Jews. The shepherds became the goats. What would you have done, or I?

None of us knows, until that time. Survivors say that Bonhoeffer walked, naked, to the gallows, and told his executioners that his life was now beginning. He saw the unseen things. Who among us will dare to gaze at them as well, knowing what they might require?

People who know nothing of faith imagine that it is a chosen delusion, an easily purchased comfort. Bonhoeffer writes:

"We have a strange feeling that if Jesus himself — Jesus alone with his Word — could come into our midst at sermon time, we should find quite a different set of men hearing the Word, and quite a different set rejecting it."

Makes you wonder, doesn't it, what that sermon would be like, and how many of us could bear it?

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Friday, February 9, 2007

A Glass of Water

Several people asked me yesterday if I had heard the news that Anna Nicole Smith was dead. It was as if the whole world had been there to see her collapse, and had no one left to tell, which is always the secret pleasure of dreadful news, that we get to be the first — we hope — to tell someone else.

I had only my wife to tell, because she is too busy with the permanent things to worry with news. We spent perhaps ten seconds on it, asking the things most people ask: How did it happen? How old was she? Didn't her son die a while back? Then we were on to other things, as will be the rest of the world, once the last of the corpse is frisked and the spoils divided amongst entertainment channels pretending to deliver news and journalists posing as entertainers.

You wonder how a life can end up like this. What does it take, for a girl born in a little Texas town, whose mother named her Vickie Lynn Hogan (in hope, which is always how we name our children), who had birthday parties and drew pictures for her teachers and whispered little-girl secrets to her friends on the school bus? What causes a girl to become what Vickie Lynn was? Some of the answer is obvious, I suppose — a father who left her, an incapable mother, drugs, alcohol, the usual.

The usual. I have this feeling of complicity that I can't shake. I wonder if anyone ever offered this girl a glass of water on her long, ugly path from abandoned child to helpless mother, from whore to star, from office joke to a corpse that will be picked over. Did anyone hold out the hand that each of us secretly longs for at some point in his life, often more for the offering than for the help it promises? We long for it because in our hearts we are tired and lonely and wish that someone could just see that this is so, and more, tell us that he sees it. Did anyone ever tell Vickie Lynn?

Maybe there were many people like this on her path. A pastor whose sermons I am fond of always concludes with this admonition: "Remember, you may be the only Christ that someone will meet today." I like to believe that someone is listening to him. I wonder who was Christ to Vickie Lynn, and how many more were anti-christs, who often look the most like Christ to those who can't discern the difference — tittering moralists who judge from the safety of less rocky paths. Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn?

This feeling of complicity won't leave me because I have been one of those tittering moralists, shaking my head when word of her latest abomination spread like dreadfully good news. More than once I lingered in delicious pleasure over the details of her surreal life. From newspapers to the E! channel, the girl who remade herself as Anna Nicole had her descent chronicled for all of us to watch, but always with a light touch, a veneer of comedy, so that we who leered could feel better about ourselves for observing the self-destruction of another human being.

Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn? I know she received bags of mail every day. I wonder if Christ snuck his way into any of those letters. Thousands of people clambered to take her picture and shake her hand. Was Christ in one of those people? Did Vickie Lynn ever see him standing in the crowd of watchers? Did she see him in any of us?

She lost a son. Perhaps the only surprise is that he lasted twenty years. I don't know what contortions the mind of a child must make when he sees his mother whored out to every man who promises money or affection or simply affirmation. I don't know what self-loathing and fear this must breed in a boy. I only know that he died with a host of drugs in his blood, a cocktail designed to fix the problems in his mind and heart caused by this world of men. Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn's boy?

She leaves behind a baby girl. There are hundreds of people, some alive now, some yet to be born, who will meet this child on her own path. Who will be Christ to Vickie Lynn's girl? And who instead will tear at her young flesh, the way the vultures already tear at the corpse of her mother, from the lawyers to the avaricious men to you and me, the voyeurs?

I don't believe it's our responsibility, you reading this now, or me, to save anyone. I don't believe we have in our possession even the magic to save ourselves. I'm haunted by the notion, however, that we can either offer Vickie Lynn that glass of water when she passes, or we can silently watch, and become little better than the others who consume her.

I've come to believe that when Christ said to go into the world with the word of hope, it wasn't because he needed any of us to do any of the saving of lost lives. It is to save us, I think, that he sends us. It is because there is no neutral ground, only mercy, or consumption; the glass of water, or the picking over of the corpse; being Christ to Vickie Lynn, or enjoying the spectacle of her destruction.

Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn? Who prayed a real prayer for her — not the self-righteous prayer, the little love note to God which is really a love note to ourselves, which reads: thank you God, and aren't you thankful, that I am not like that one over there? Who prayed for her son, or her daughter? Not me.

Worse, if I made a list of all the Vickie Lynns whose paths I've crossed, and whose broken and thirsty looks I pretended not to see, I suspect the shame would be too much to bear. So mostly I think about other things, until this used-up woman goes and dies in a hotel lobby, and for some reason now I can't shake the question: for whom will you be Christ today?

If only we shared that glass of water as effortlessly as we share the news of death.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

On Not Being the Only One

In the midst of his book review in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz makes this observation:

"Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color was probably the most significant factor in making color television a fixture in suburban living rooms and helped assuage the peculiar melancholy of the school year's Sunday nights."

I was struck by his casual reference to Sunday night melancholy, because I've always assumed it was peculiar to me -- some evidence of mental illness kept at bay, the way shadows lurk around a light, waiting for its thin and fragile filament to snap. As if to underscore the commonality of it, the very next day I read this passage in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer:

"On its way home the MG becomes infested with malaise. It is not unexpected, since Sunday afternoon is always the worst time for malaise. Thousands of cars are strung out along the Gulf Coast, whole families, and all with the same vacant headachy look. There is an exhaust fume in the air and the sun strikes the water with a malignant glint. A fine Sunday afternoon, though. A beautiful boulevard, ten thousand handsome cars, fifty thousand handsome, well-fed and kind-hearted people, and the malaise settles on us like a fall-out."

My first memory of the Sunday evening melancholy is of standing in the checkout line in a grocery store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, manning a slender cart sparsely filled with tuna cans and thin, plastic-wrapped bricks of noodles, perhaps supplemented by a bag of chips and a few frozen dinners. I would often stand there with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and the deepest sadness would wash over me. I assumed it was because Sunday evening meant she was driving back home (my car couldn't tolerate long drives). But the melancholy continued to recur, even after she was a college student with me, even after we were married and there were no more classes, just the weekly grind and grace of life. I concluded that even though my recollection of the melancholy begins with the dimly let grocery in Chapel Hill, it likely had always been with me in some form.

But I always believed it was only me, until I read Schwarz's reference to "the peculiar melancholy," with that particular article -- the -- denoting it as a commonplace, like shin splints, or dandruff. And there's Percy, writing of the malaise that "it is not unexpected," and centering it not solely on his narrator, but on all the travelers along that highway.

One of the beautiful things about reading, I think, is discovering that one is not the only one to think that, feel that, fear that, to have sinned or lied or hoped or bled in that way. Walker Percy's narrator, Binx Bolling says this, for example:

"For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.

It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. . . Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord."

The long, sharp edge to this reality is the accompanying fact that writing is a dangerous thing, because one reveals truths about oneself without knowing if anyone else thinks it, feels it, fears it, and then hopes that one's readers don't all sign a petition to have one committed for terminal oddness and for being a threat to oneself, one's children, and society at large.

It's always a special relief to the writer, then, to discover that he is not, in fact, the only one. The irony is that he usually discovers this by reading someone who has been dead for quite some time, because communing with interesting but long-dead people requires only the one-way flow. He devours them without the danger of watching the dregs of himself pour out in a sudden torrent of truthfulness and longing, because he is barely restraining it all as it is, what with that filament being so thin and stretched to breaking. It's far safer for him to listen to the dead, to devour them, and then to carefully set down his own truths one letter at a time, in measured doses of wine and poison, so that by the time the full corpus has been assembled, and it is clear that he is indeed a threat to himself, his children, and society at large, he is quite conveniently dead, and entirely unconcerned about much of anything beyond whether the therapists his children are seeing can undo the damage. And then, if he was in possession of a scrap of talent and a bale of good fortune, some other disturbed and thin-filamented writer will devour his corpse, just as he ate the ones before him.

Now that I am thinking about it, I realize that David's musicians may well have had the Sunday (or for them was it Saturday?) evening melancholy in mind when they composed the 42nd Psalm:

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?

This is one of the quiet joys of reading the Psalms, this revelation that none of us are the first to walk down a dark and lonely path. Anyone who believes the earth-bound walk with God is all happiness and sunshine has never really pondered the Psalms. It is fashionable in some churches to believe that one's health and wealth are evidence of God's favor. When I read the Psalms, however, I begin to think the opposite, that perhaps God thinks very little of people who never suffer. I usually conclude, when my thinking wanders in these directions, that such a notion is born in arrogance, for none of us can ever understand the path to which another is called; we can only consider our own, in wonder and fear. And it's a hopeful notion, as one stares down one's path, perhaps in dread, perhaps delaying yet another day in fruitless preparation, to learn from the suffering Psalmists that their God, who is our God, "heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds." This is helpful, given that one's path is likely to cause wounds and a broken heart.

I wonder if God was melancholy on that first Sunday evening. I wonder if he looked out to the horizon of time, knowing what would come, what we would do to each other, what we would do to ourselves. Perhaps he sighed. It would have been a deep and world-weary sigh, spreading out over the new world like the first sharp breeze of fall. Perhaps it penetrated the very soil and water, and later worked its way into those of us who feel sadness spill over our shoulders like shadows on trees in fading sunlight. On the other hand, I might be projecting. On a grand scale, no less.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to share my discovery with those of you who might need it, namely, that you are not the only one, either. This is, I think, a neglected part of the Gospel's message. You are not alone in your dark night of the soul, my daughter, my son, because when you have bled, I have bled, and when you have wept, I have wept. Where you live in fear of death, I died, that you need fear the valley of the shadow of death no longer.

And so he leads us through it, if we will only put one foot in front of the other. If we are not fearless, then at least we can be assured that the path has been walked before, and is being walked even now, each of us in his own struggle. Somehow, knowing that you are not the only one makes your path a little brighter. And if not brighter, perhaps there's some comfort in knowing, as you stumble and cry out in the darkness, that the rest of us are finding our way as well.

In telling you that you are not alone, I am, of course, really telling myself. But thanks for listening.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Mary's Son

This Christmas season I've been thinking about Mary as much as Jesus. I know this is unusual for a Protestant, especially a Protestant inclined to theological ruminations. We like to snicker as the Catholics do acrobatics around passages referring to Mary's other children, or slowly shake our heads when they treat her as a mediator between God and man. In our haste to dethrone her we neglect to consider how changed must be a life that carries God within it for nine months. Man who is transformed by a whisper from his Creator should not be so quick to dismiss she who knew not simply God with us -- Immanuel -- but God in me.

I don't think this gave her supernatural power, either during or after her death. She was indeed Mary full of grace, but she remained Mary the farm girl, the gentle creature on whom Christ last looked before gasping to his friend to take care of poor mother, cast down and broken as she was on Golgotha.

I think of how scared she must have been, even after the angel's visit, as her clothes stopped fitting and the whispers began. We forget how easily the grind of day after day in the muck of earth can wear away any remembrance of those rare holy times, so that even the most grace-filled of us finds himself muttering what first brought down mankind: "did God really say?"

And then she and her husband, poor Joseph who stuck by her only because he too had been visited by a figure in glowing white, set off across strange countryside, without their families, it seems, carrying the God-child though only children themselves. Did they share their stories of angels, or did they travel in grim silence, each keeping buried within the secret that would have unlocked joy in the heart of the other, as so often we do?

So the baby was born. The poor virgin descendant of kings and slaves strained and cried and pushed out divinity to join the rest of us in this earthly muck -- and surely this must be a theme of the story as much as kingship, because it strikes right at the tongue of every priest and preacher who would separate us again from God. Remember the muck of the stable, because it refutes the lie that our Savior was born because the salvation of the elect somehow pleased him in the cold and distant way of an alien god. He wallowed with us in the muck because he loves us as fiercely and desperately as Mary loved her baby.

They lived for a time in Bethlehem, where they were known by their neighbors as that nice young couple with the healthy baby boy who liked to crawl away from Mama, prone to wander even then, no doubt. Joseph worked with wood and Mary kept up their hovel and Jesus saw the world of his Father from inside a baby's skin, and marveled at it as he must have marveled when first it was made.

One day strange and regal men appeared at their gate, men who would in no other circumstances stoop to speak to such as Mary and Joseph and their grubby little crawling baby. But these strange and regal men dropped down to their faces in front of that smiling child. Perhaps he sat transfixed at the spectacle, as were his parents and their neighbors, or perhaps he caught hold of the nearest wise man's hair and gave it a tug.

I wonder if Mary screamed when they brought out their gifts for the child King. First there was the gold, more money than she and Joseph had ever seen. How changed would their lives have been had this alone been the gift. But then there was the strange offering of frankincense, as if she and her husband lived in a temple. And finally there was the gift that reminded Joseph of the angel's words, perhaps neglected in all this talk of a new King: "He will save His people from their sins." If Mary did not gasp at the gold, or chuckle at the frankincense, she may well have screamed at the embalming ointment, the tool of undertakers.

We think of these as the first Christmas presents, as simply three more of the strange names and habits of that time and place. Yet were Jesus born today, it would be as if the Pope, the President, and a handful of Nobel laureates rolled to a stop in their limousine outside a welfare tenement, searching for the chubby baby in 3B. And finding him, they would do something very unstately and unscholarly; they would grovel and weep at his sight. Finally, to the amazement and horror of his parents, they would lay before him the draft book to a fat Swiss bank account, an ornately carved altar, and a coffin.

I wonder, when Mary saw that coffin, did it pass through her mind that God had arranged for her baby to be born in the place where sacrificial sheep are raised? In the book of Luke we read that she kept the words of the awe-struck shepherds in her heart on the night of the baby's birth, and pondered them. Did it strike her as odd, even before seeing the coffin, that men whose job was to raise lambs for the slaughter would come to see the newborn child, as if appraising a new addition to their sacrificial flock?

So there lay the jar of embalming ointment, and lingering in the air was the sorrowful look of the man called by God to bring it, even as he and the others turned to leave by a different route, that Herod might not find the Christ child before an angel could shepherd this tiny family to Egypt.

And to Egypt they fled, but surely not so far that word of the slaughter of innocents couldn't reach them. As they wept and prayed the night they heard, Mary must have thought again of that jar of myrrh, tucked into their little sack of possessions, wrapped even more tightly and secretly than the gold, as if to banish it from her knowledge. Now it would be never far from her mind, afflicted as she was with the knowledge that the world sought to murder her child.

Perhaps then Mary, alone among all the others on Golgotha except for her gasping boy, was not surprised. Perhaps she had carried it all these years, seeing it draw closer as her son grew distant, called up into the whirlwind of his mission, this knowledge that she would bury her firstborn child. Maybe she even spied this day from thirty-odd years out, when it was just she and Joseph and a muck-covered newborn mewling in a stable, and the faintest sound of what seemed to be a choir in the clouds.

So I've been thinking about Mary, and how invested with holiness was everything around her, even the blood and muck itself. And I think about how we have divested everything of holiness, even this season, and lent ear to the question: "Did God really say?" I recall that though he was the Lamb, it is we who are the sheep, all of us gone astray, and him given over as a sheep to the hungry shearers, that we might gather at Christmas and sing, "O Holy Night" and "Immanuel," and that some of us, if only for a fleeting moment, might actually believe the words, every single one of them as precious as the gold of the Magi, and as solid as the wood in that empty coffin, that coffin sized for you and for me.

When I think of poor Mary holding that jar of myrrh, watching the wise men leave in a cloud of dust, it becomes more real for me, the birth and murder and resurrection of her child. So I think on Mary, and on that baby born in the muck of a stable, in the hometown of a king and the gathering place of sacrificial lambs. And when I hear that whisper, as we all do at times ("Did God really say?"), I think to myself, yes, he did. He said it so loudly that we think it a myth, and so quietly that we cannot hear it behind our chatter, but there it is nonetheless, like the star in the silent night, drawing the lowest of the low as well as kings and wise men, to Mary's baby.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Alien's Thanksgiving

Since today is the day we sons and daughters of unwanted immigrants offer thanks that the Almighty did not see fit to give those who got here before us gunpowder and military organization, it seems a fitting time to reply to the numerous responses to my post a couple of weeks ago, about the opposition of this nation's largest self-styled Christian radio network to illegal and -- I'll argue below -- legal immigration.

Several of you had very thoughtful replies, and I'll do my best to treat them thoughtfully. Reading your comments several times, I've noticed a few themes, the predominant of which is this:

There's a difference between illegal and legal immigration. It's the former we're concerned about, because it's not fair to legal immigrants, it taxes our health care system and schools and law enforcement, it threatens our wages and standard of living, and it's dangerous and difficult for the illegals themselves to get here and then survive. What's more, the Bible tells us to obey the law.

Here's a quick test for everyone who hangs his hat on that last sentence: what do you say we eliminate all immigration limits except for people suspected of criminal intent? The wily debater will want to obfuscate on that last bit, so let's stipulate that we have a special machine that allows us to determine with 100% validity whether someone intends to sell drugs to schoolchildren or detonate a bomb.

So, who's in favor of letting them all in, once our good Christian consciences are assuaged that this is no longer a matter of the law being broken?


Very well. So what this really turns on for most of us is the economic cost and the concomitant danger to our culture and very lives of allowing boatloads of very different, very poor people to lodge on our shores. These are reasonable concerns, but let me suggest to you that the Almighty God and Creator is not concerned with your standard of living. To think otherwise is the height of narcissism, when you consider the poverty and oppression under which his people have lived throughout history. Do you think any of them mattered less to him, or that the crux of history was the day your white forefathers declared themselves outside the control of the governing authorities in England and set us down a path to 401-K's and flat-screen televisions?

To be sure, every good blessing is from above, but don't be deceived into thinking that your full larder and wallet are God's ends.

I have children, and I love being fat and happy, and I want them to be safe. Every parent wants this. But understand that when you argue against immigration because of the costs and dangers it entails, you are no longer arguing from Christian precepts, you are arguing from self-interest. I'm as self-interested as they come, heck, I was actually rooting for Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, but I don't tell myself this has anything to do with my understanding of God.

My issue with AFR on this matter is precisely that -- they bill themselves as a radio network bringing news and analysis from a Christian perspective, focusing on the issues Christians care about as Christians, the implication being that these are issues that emerge as important when we apply Christian precepts to our thinking. Now, if they'll change their slogan to "the radio network for middle-class American Christians who want to see the nation's GDP keep growing," at least we'll have some truth in advertising. But this leads to a second objection voiced by several of you:

Economics and politics do matter to God. The Bible itself addresses politics and economics. Do you honestly think he doesn't care whether people violate his laws, or whether we do anything about it? Would you have us believe that he doesn't care whether we protest abortion, for example?

In one sense, economics and politics describe our wranglings with man and nature over the distribution of resources and power. It is the struggling, the tempests in teapots, to which I addressed myself. Do you think it is on your walks around the abortion clinic that God pins his hopes for salvation of innocents? Is it on the capital gains tax that he depends for the weary and heavy-laden to be lifted?

Christ did not even view slavery as relevant to his purpose. Why do you believe he wrings his hands now over whether California will let two men get married? He already knows what will happen, being the Omega as well as the Alpha, and he knows how long he will tolerate every abomination, including the abominations that lie at the core of every man's heart, mine as well as your own. In that sense -- the only sense that will concern us once we've turned first to dust and then to glory or horror -- we see that economics and politics do not matter.

This is important to confront, because it gets at the roots of what often is our real concern. It is not affronts to God that offend us nearly so much as affronts to our sensibilities and net worth. Why do Christians get animated over homosexuality? Is it solely because God has called it an abomination? Then where are our efforts to stamp out gossip (rampant in our very churches!), disrespect to parents, and the lying that is almost sport among our political and business classes? We single out some sins because they offend us first. Rather than seeking to be on the side of God, we bring him to our side, as if he were the created thing.

Likewise, how many Christians block the entrances to abortion clinics, where innocent blood is shed? How many Christians instead give money to the Republican party, a collection of self-interested climbers morally and functionally almost indistinguishable from their opponents, the Republican party which, by the way, avoids doing anything meaningful about abortion?

Whose interests, really, are we protecting when most of us engage in politics?

Had you met Christ on the dusty roads of Palestine, or when you meet him now -- not as we confine him in liturgies and Wal-Mart bestsellers, but in the dark nights of our souls -- we are overjoyed and humbled and terrified to learn that our standing, our power, our very sustenance, is secondary to knowing and obeying. Ask John the Baptist. Ask the Samaritan woman at the well. She with the dry throat, simply seeking a bucket of cool water, and here is this uncomely stranger, from a tribe that disdains her own, and he tells her this water is nearly nothing, that it is the spring of living water she should seek. She came seeking a brief respite to thirst, and he told her there is a far deeper thirst, unquenchable except through the word, the door, the truth. Look this Christ in the eye and tell him about the importance of economics and politics. Survey his bleeding brow and explain how politicians -- men you and I have voted for -- have employed his name, and what, by their actions, they have deemed the most important things.

Now all this is not to say that Christians aren't called to politics, which would make no more sense than to declare that Christians can't be called to music, or teaching, or farming, or being juggling hot-dog stand vendors in downtown Des Moines. Just understand that there is no general call to politics, nor to the accumulation of personal wealth, nor to safety. We are enjoined to obey the governing authorities, not applaud them, not support them, not join them and work on their campaigns. Likewise, we are called to support our families, not give them all the delights available to men.

None of what I've said means you can't do these things, but I am suggesting that you examine your heart first. Are you investing your emotions and energy in politics to preserve your standard of living, or because you feel the sweet grace and pleasure of God poured out on you when you do it? The latter is calling, the former is dressing God up in a tweed suit and giving him campaign flyers.

And that is an abomination.

Now that I've preached far more than I intended, we come to a final objection, my favorite. In its simplest form it is this:

Do you live this way? Do you give to everyone in need, until you have no more to give? Do you let strangers into your home?

Dear friends and strangers, if I am your standard, you are doomed. I am weak and cowardly and sinful to the core. If you can only hear truth from one who is perfect, then look to the Gospels, to the letters in red, trusting that what you hold in your hands is God-breathed, and see for yourself the answers to your questions.

Find the passages where he has enjoined you to turn away aliens when admitting them would damage your finances. Commit to memory his sermons about the necessity of tempering mercy with economic practicality. While you're there, tell he who fed the multitudes that there isn't enough bread to go around. Explain to him that loving one's fellow man must stop where suffering increases. Seek him out atop Calvary and lay out the facts of this world, ask him to be reasonable, to show restraint.

On this day we give thanks, and I have found my prayer: Thank you, brother Christ, that you showed no restraint when we were the aliens, that you were not reasonable when we were far off, that suffering did not deter you when we had no hope and were without God in the world. Thank you that we live in such a place of prosperity and peace that we can actually believe that preserving this blink in the eye of history takes precedence over your calling. And please forgive us when we confuse gifts with entitlements, means with ends, and come to view our comfortable lives as your purpose.

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Saturday, November 5, 2005


While driving to work yesterday morning I hit a rarely-used button on my radio, one set to a mainstream Christian station where one in ten songs is not, for my tastes, awful. Every once in a while I try them out, and every once in a while they aren't playing a dreadful song.

The news was on; they are part of the American Family Radio network, which itself is part of the American Family Association. They offer "today's news from a Christian perspective," which can be translated as: "news a white middle-to-upper-income American Christian probably wants to hear, delivered by a Republican."

The news item was about a crack-down on illegal immigration. The reporter stressed words like illegal and sneak (as in, "people who sneak into the country"). A clip from a national anti-immigration figure was provided. The point was clear: finally, someone is doing something about those darned immigrants.

Good Christians, apparently, are glad that someone is stopping these grubby people from coming to our shores; it's a news item Christians care about. It's more likely the case that many wealthy white financial supporters of AFR are pleased with such a news item, and well, we've got to pay the bills to keep bringing you the modern music version of Air Supply meets Muzak.

Now, there are economic and policy arguments worth considering on both sides of the immigration issue. But here's the dangerous pressing matter, the thing that if you plan to sit your behind in a church pew today or tomorrow you really just cannot avoid: economics and politics don't matter to God.

Christians have a fundamental calling, and that is to find our lost brothers and sisters. We will not conquer this world for Jesus, and frankly, he doesn't need our help. We will not stop gay marriage and institute a God-approved (the Republican version, of course) tax rate. We will not keep people from philandering, gambling, masturbating, and wearing clothes that fit too tight, and if you think Christ wants you to fix these problems, then you are dreadfully, soul-shakingly mistaken.

"Tend my lambs." Not "stop people from being naughty." No "get the government off the back of the small businessman." Not a hint of "protect gun rights and the death penalty."

And certainly not "keep out the immigrants."

To the contrary, we received the Great Commission, and don't tell me that was just for the Disciples, because to believe that is to be hopelessly misguided about your place on this earth. We are to be a light to the hopeless and lost, be it in our own families, neighborhoods, churches (yes, there are plenty of hopeless and lost people there), and businesses, or overseas, amidst the unwashed, non-Republican masses.

Most of us don't do overseas missions work. Nor do we support such work, except for the few dimes from our paltry (on average) financial support for churches that makes its way to actual evangelism. But here we have this wonderful blessing of living in a country so prosperous that millions of people, many of them with no understanding of Christ, desperately want to come to us, and what is the response of the largest Christian radio network in America?

Keep 'em out.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Something inside draws us home. Last year, two swallows built a nest on the narrow ledge above my front door. We tried to shoo them off, used a broom to sweep away their construction a few times, but they just kept rebuilding. They kept on keepin' on, as Caleb might note. Eventually they won, and for a time they occupied a little mud-cake perched over my door, and then they disappeared.

They returned last week, and though we fuss at them, I think we've decided that they are part of the family. Every time we come out, there they are, circling, little dabs of mud or bits of grass in their beaks, waiting for us to clear a path so they can continue their business. Every time I see them I think of the 84th Psalm:

"Even the sparrow has found a home,
And the swallow a nest for herself."

My mind often drifts to this Psalm even when the little squatters aren't chirping over my door. I think it's because of how the words struck me the first time I read them; it was as if they were my own:

"My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God."

I feel a kinship with people who know what it means to have heart and flesh cry out, people who read these words and think: "Yes, I know that feeling. It is a true thing. It is part of me." I suspect it is terrible flaw within me, but I can feel no closeness, no pity, nothing of consequence for someone who does not understand what it means to cry out for . . . home. Beside such a longing all the sects and denominations and tribes, the futile creations and imaginings of man, fall away.

"Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage..."

Yesterday I came home and discovered that the boys had been working for a good part of the afternoon on "painting" their wooden playset, using brushes and a wash bin of cloudy water. They liked the way the water turns the faded wood a darker, richer color. I watched them from the window; they were so diligent, so joyful even though their task was futile, even though they could see it was futile, because in many places the wood was already drying and returning to its grayish hue.

But they didn't care, because for a time they had made it more beautiful than it was. They were like the swallows, cheerful, without care, confident beyond the power of an adult in the knowledge that they are home. Home. And watching them I knew, in one of those tingling moments of clarity that begins to fade even before we have fully embraced it, where my home is. I glimpsed the faintest picture of how it will be, everlasting, bright as this world is faded, joyful as this world is broken. Its language is laughter and silence in equal measures, and its citizens are children.

"For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
Than dwell in the tents of wickedness."

So I quickly changed clothes and went out to join them. Their eyes lit up as they saw me walking across the grass, they way they always do when they see their father after he's been away for a time, the way my heart always does when I see them. "We're painting!" they announced, and attacked the hopeless, hopeful task with renewed vigor.

I watched and encouraged and worried about splinters. Then Caleb handed me a brush. "Can you get that high part? I can't reach it." So I painted it with water, and when I was done they both said, "Ooooh. Pretty."

"No good thing will He withhold..."

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Wounded

On its surface, the Terri Schiavo battle is a tangle of conflicting histories, medical opinions, legal opinions, religious opinions. Beneath the surface, it is the latest skirmish between those who want to stop our practice of terminating inconvenient life, and those who want to sustain the right to do so. It is also a tribal conflict, and some are engaged not because they care deeply about the outcome, but because they see an opportunity to spew vitriol at the other tribe.

I'm not a neurologist, I don't know her husband. I can't claim any legal expertise that would allow me to discern whether this is a bad case that could make bad law, as Molly Ivins writes (which presumably means someone else wrote it first). I don't think I'm "incapable of making moral distinctions," as Ivins paints some opposed to the slow starvation of Terri Schiavo. It's a good line, to be sure, especially funny coming from a plagiarizing hack who would denounce the Almighty himself if she thought it would help her tribe at the polls. Perhaps her accusation is true of some on the Hysterical Right, but I don't think it's true of me, or many others who believe that what's happening in Florida is a shame and a tragedy.

The shame stems from the fact that Michael Schiavo betrayed his wife years ago. That's an ugly truth, and I don't say it with self-righteousness, because many men far better than me have fallen away from their wives, under far less stressful conditions. But that truth remains, and it is relevant, because the entire case for starving Terri Schiavo hinges on the post-abandonment remembrance by this man that his wife -- the same woman on whose behalf he sued to secure money for long-term care -- actually doesn't care to live in such a state after all. The heady willingness of many on the Left to embrace this contention unquestioned, simply because it serves their end of thwarting nefarious pro-life forces, redounds to their shame.

I'm struck by how cavalierly we throw about this notion that death is so easily chosen. Perhaps it's an easy choice in abstract, and so it becomes simple to project such a choice onto others. I suspect that many of us who bravely declare the many conditions under which we'd rather be put out of our misery, however, would in fact cling more desperately to life than we realize.

The unshakeable fact is that we'll all get to find out for ourselves one day, no? If you were to be Terri Schiavo's place, on which side would you like the world to err?

The tragedy is that Terri's parents simply want their daughter back from the man who promised to care for her, but who backed away from his promise. It appears that they can't have her.

It must be horrible, it must be maddening, and everyone who approaches this debate should keep that fact fixed firmly in his mind. Neither this, nor any case of euthanasia, nor any abortion, is directly about any of us onlookers. It is first about the life that is deliberately extinguished, and second about the wounded who are left behind. It is only about us in the indirect sense, insofar as our action -- or more likely inaction -- contributes to the state in which we find ourselves.

There will be many tears when Terri Schiavo breathes her last. Some will be genuine, some will be fake, some will be hysterically generated by people who have overly invested their emotions in someone else's tragedy. Then most of us will move on. You and I will go back to our lives, Michael Schiavo will go back to his new woman and kids, his attorneys back to their other clients. But Bob and Mary Schindler will be left without a daughter, and they will know that it might have been different.

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