The Unmuzzled Ox
An Humble Prelude
Greetings, folks. This is a reprint from a blog where I shall be logging the details of my current efforts on behalf of some beautiful, hardworking Scots in merry Dundee. Soon, we shall have a link or two up on the site, but for now, the details can be found at Lovingkindness: The Road to Scotland.
Welcome, dear reader. Here, I hope to invite you in to learn what you can of Dundee, Scotland, where a number of my dear friends strive to bring life, to bring redemption, to a city which is in need of it. To begin, I will return, God willing, to Dundee in the autumn of this year, in order to assist my friends in continuing their work. It is my hope to take a large sum of money with me and surprise them by giving it as a gift during my visit. Why, you might ask, would I publish on the internet something meant to be a surprise? An insightful question, but I’m afraid that’s a chance I’m willing to take in order to keep you up to date on these matters. In addition to all the other information presented here, we will keep track of gifts on this website. Hopefully, we shall raise in excess of $3000. Anything beyond airfare (roughly $1000) will go to Bruce White, who is the director of The Attic Ministries in Dundee. You will find links to the Attic, Nightclub Outreach, and other pertinent items respective to Dundee in the sidebar. I thank you for your generosity. The Lord bless and keep you. Let’s get started.
Easter on Easy Street
Last year, I was playing guitar at a friend’s church for Easter Sunday. The year before that, I think I was playing guitar at my parents’ church. This year, I am once again at a friend’s church. Oh, and the roof is leaking at Sinclair’s Eve as we speak. It seems that there exists some grand scheme of collusion to keep me from being meditative on Easter Holidays. I admit the bitter spike of jealousy as I hear of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Tenebrae services, all presumably full of people who are praying together, visiting the Stations of the Cross, singing “Were You There?” with fear and trembling. There is so much that I feel I miss, but my kids need me to buy milk and peanut butter, so I call up my worship pastor friends and beg for last minute paying gigs at other churches. Do you need a keyboard player? Do you need accordion? Guitar? Penny whistle? I love my friends, and I’m grateful, but it’s hard to look out on a congregation of people who haven’t seen your dirty laundry and not take their thanks with a hefty grain of salt. It’s hard to take communion, though I always relish the chance. Meanwhile, I always wonder if I’d even enjoy an Easter service at my own church, given that I’ve never been.
It occurred to me that I should ask myself a question: What is it I actually want out of Eastertide? This prompting came shortly after my wife and I tore the door frame off and set a stock pot on the floor to catch the Lord’s blessing as it came dripping through the roof like a quadriplegic looking for a healing. Did the guy who actually owned the house find that miracle convenient? We didn’t tear our own roofs off to get to Jesus; we tore off yours. He was in your house, after all. Jesus seems to take it in stride, funnily enough, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. We can only hope the homeowner’s heart was not as miserly as my own. Every recorded miracle seems to have its element of inconvenience. Perhaps that has some bearing on the lack of supposedly miraculous healing in a society bent on the expeditious.
So what do I want out of Eastertide? In taking measure of it, I would say I want to actually worship the Lord with people who know me well, curmudgeonly warts and all. I would like to have a small Anglican service in which the poetry of the readings and the rhythm of the liturgy lend peace to my troubled mind. As of now, I would prefer the house to be clean and leak-free so that I can enjoy my weekend. Oh, and I’d like some money so I don’t have to worry about there being gas enough to get to work on Tuesday. The yard being mowed would be nice icing on the cake, too.
In short, I want it to be easy. But Easter was anything but easy.
A man – let us remember, yes, he was a man, a human being – having waged his late-night garden battle and stood silent before his accusers, having been mercilessly flailed by Roman soldiers (who, as Michael Card points out, had no limit of forty-lashes-minus-one), and having hauled a large beam of wood up a hill, proceeded to continue willingly toward his most excruciating death with what strength he had left. No summons for legions of angels escaped his lips. No complaints.
Of course, it’s presumptuous in the highest degree to equate any of my blithe American sufferings with those of Christ on the cross. My busy schedule is no Roman spike, and a leaky roof is hardly a cat-o’-nine-tails. However, in the many Seder meals celebrated and the vigils kept, it must be remembered that
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason, it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.
I tell myself this to help cure me of the acrid stench of covetousness in my heart. In earnest, I would love to be surrounded by those shadows, if only to be reminded of the truth that casts them. However, it is good to recall that we are given icons to lead us to the Lord, slant-lighted pictures that flicker in our peripheral vision and catch us off guard with the Gospel. Bless the Lord for having a sense of humor. The joke is on me. If my trivial issues become the liturgy and the catechism that instruct me in the grace and mercy of God, then it is questionable whether or not a better Easter could be devised. Of course, one of these days, you might find me next to you at that Seder meal.
I shall be happy to be there.
Faith of Our Fathers
This is an entry that I wrote a little over a month ago, then put under my pillow, wondering if it would be worthwhile to post it. It is somewhat revealing, you might say, but I think it might be all the more worthwhile for that.
I turned the radio on in the bathroom today, in a move of errant whimsy.
Occasionally, I will listen to preaching on the local station that airs that sort of thing. They also deign to play Christian call-in radio shows as well, which gives me pause. How did those begin? Presumably, most people call in because they’ve heard the host giving helpful advice to other callers. But who was the first caller who thought he’d take a shot and dial up Dr. First-Name-Only (there’s a red flag) and see what he had to say? There are very few logical Books of Genesis, so to speak, for call-in radio shows, and I daresay most of the explanations are dubious.
However, this time, there was a pastor on who was preaching about something-or-other. Having heard many of these fellows, I recognized his tone and the cadence of his language, and it struck me as encouraging a doctrine of fear. Not Fear and Trembling, mind you, just fear. Fear of the current culture (or, arguably, the lack thereof) and fear of the degenerative social norms seemed to be the flavors of the day. I turned off the radio with a mixture of disgust and humorous pity, and a terrible thought came to my mind which had been brewing for days.
It began, or at least surfaced, when my friend and I went to see Transformers 3, the title of which tells you most of what you need to know. We entered the theatre on July 3rd, and exited on July 4th. The three hours in between were packed with a sugary conflux of explosions, larger-than-life robots, a busty heroine, miniature soliloquies on freedom and justice, and more American flags than can be counted. I went home, slept, and the next morning, read the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact, an essay by Cotton Mather, and an excerpt by Christopher Columbus. All this transpired as, a few miles away, downtown was preparing for a celebration in which the 1812 Overture would be played in time with a deafening fireworks display. Now, I enjoy fireworks, but compared to a reading of the Declaration of Independence – which would attract far fewer patriots to a public park – explosions for fun seem rather lowbrow. In this decidedly snobby frame of mind, it occurred to me that the founding fathers, so often lauded by people who have never taken the time to read their work, might not have been people of simple faith.
Simple and Complex, I thought. Some people have Simple Faith, and some have Complex Faith. People who are high logical, as the founding fathers of necessity certainly were, might find themselves wrestling with angels more, as it were. The thinking man, by definition, has more questions. Obviously, I knew which side my bread was buttered on. I was highly logical, I thought. My faith was Complex. This is, by the way, not a pretty story.
Two things came to mind that countered this elitist cognition. The first was the remonstrance of Paul to the Roman church. “Who are you to judge some other master’s servant?” he chides them. “To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for God is able to make him stand.”
Perhaps we should not call these flavors of faith simple and complex. In the best sense, they are like bridge designs, I suppose. Over the same chasm can stretch both the Roman aqueduct, stalwart and grizzled as some old sea dog, and the spindly steel harp strings of the suspension bridge. When I hear those words – simple and complex – roll off my tongue though, I cannot help but recall the poignance of the second thing which came to mind.
Jesus drew a child out of the crowd, as if picking a daisy, and juxtaposed him against the righteous swagger and belch of the disciples. Unless you become like this, you won’t be a part. The subjects of the King are all like children. He didn’t elaborate, but it is striking how simple a child’s faith is. There are hard questions, certainly, but the child’s faith is never convoluted through a series of pathetically dusty dogmas and intellectual backflips.
As my pastor put it, following Jesus is simple, but not easy.
I love nightly walks around my neighborhood, when the summer sky can’t go dark but holds out an aching blue note of twilight while the the moon glitters like a diamond. I am given to occasionally making these walks barefoot, relishing the cool of the ground in the dark beyond a blazing day. My feet will get black and scuffed from the road, but as I pad across the terra firma, overhung with the boughs of oak and elm, I am reminded that I am connected to this earth, that I am part of it, that it affects me and I it in the awkward grace of our dance. One of us wobbles and reels while the other staggers and shuffles. We each step on the other’s feet, but we keep cutting our seven-step rhythm, she gamboling about the heavens and I scribbling in little journals.
In the business of writing, I constantly try to convince myself that it isn’t worth the bother. Thankfully, in this regard, I’m not the best of the Devil’s advocates. Either that or there are few twelve-step programs to break an addiction to wordsmithing. Continually, though, I trip over the question, “Why?” Why do I do this? For me? Probably. For fame? Probably. For the service of Truth which is the source of and permeates all reality, superseding it with a Glory that would destroy us were it not veiled? Um. That’s a question I have to admit I’m not qualified to answer, although the previous two reasons have thus far proven rather unfruitful in some blessed measure. As a reader of fiction, though, this is a far easier survey to take. The more I read fiction, the more I know why I read it. Pure enjoyment and sometimes escapism give way to the interior magnitude of stories, lending scope to the cramped exterior of reality. In a culture of almost diabolical sunderedness between people who, via the internet and cell phones, trade digital summaries for actual personal encounters, fiction reminds us of the sheer unplumbed size of the created world. In that respect, odd as it may seem, fiction gives us truth. Immersed in it, it starts to characterize the way we view the world. It is a waking dream that eventually forces us to look again at the seemingly obvious in front of us.
Good fictional characters become a sort of hagiography of all the real characters in our lives. That girl who had a miscarriage in chapter nine is your sister when you blink a couple of times, though its not so much through empathy as through the suspension of disbelief. When we open ourselves to fiction, to the idea that anything could happen, people – dare I say, inevitably? – become more than the sum of their parts, their quirks, their jobs, and their political leanings. They literally thrum with possibility and hope. You can even hear it in tragic characters like Brett and Jake in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, rattling in between the lines of their dogged and pathetic semi-loyalty to each other and crackling pleasantly in Jake’s humor at his own injury. If there is hope and possibility singing in the lives of these ink-and-paper human sacrifices, these mortal ephemera, then the Puckish gleam of curiosity will quietly ask, “What about the guy across the hall from me?”
Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, “You have never met a mere mortal.”
Every marginal encounter on the street or in the cereal aisle is the brushing of shoulders between two souls robed in flesh, two immortals sashaying blithely through temporal possibility of Grace or otherwise. This is a role of fiction: to remind us of the unbearably imminent humanity – and the iconic Antecedent of the humanity – of our friends and cohorts, of our enemies and rulers. As Saint Paul put it, “Some have entertained angels without knowing it.” You probably can’t write that kind of character intentionally. At least, I can’t, but in honest writing it seems to happen on its own. Because you probably can’t do it intentionally, this is not a practical reason to write fiction, though it may be a very good reason to write it. Even better, it’s a reason to read it. It is a joyous thought against the cynical backdrop of crying, “Lies,” though, and that’s reason enough to scribble and scuttle over paper every day.
Live against the stunted egotism of the denouncing of joy.
Where Have You Been?
God is not concerned with where you have been. He loves you here and now.
This is a paraphrase of so much of what we, the Church, are preaching, at least in the West. The God we serve is not concerned with our past, with our sins of yesterday, with our baggage and our mess. Our manifesto is that of an animal: exclusively concerned with the present. An animal does not know much about Then, but only Now. This can be helpful in a number of ways, I would bet, given the Pharisaical stigma attached to the church. People anticipate being labeled and misunderstood at church. That’s the expectation we’ve earned. It’s been there so long the jokes have grown old. Go to some other church in another city, or turn on the AM preaching station for several hours, and you’re liable to hear the same comedic bombshells plunk across the airwaves.
“I know I’ve got to finish or the Methodists will get to Don Pablo’s first.”
“There’s room at the cross, but not on the back pew with the deacons.”
“The young folks are doing interpretive movement; we don’t dance here, I know.”
The lines have grown stale and musty, and well they should. Our pitifully backward concern with getting scoured and scrubbed up, “prayed up,” dressed up, and regimented up enough to come to the table of the Lord forgets the pointed story of the wedding guests. This one had some pressing business, this one a car to buy, this one was leaving town. “I’m sorry, I must…” ran the flippant backward glance, the parting shot that they all tossed over their shoulders like so much salt for good luck. I cannot come, instead I must do elsewise. So the master sends for anyone and everyone. The servants round up a couple necking in the park, a man riding the bus just to have something to do, an iron and square-framed business woman who just got demoted, a teacher, a midshipman, the miller’s scrawny lad, a mother and her daughter swept from the market with bread and celery in hand, the town drunk, and a man who can’t help but talk in rhymes. They tote them all out to the mansion, gathering the surprised and the curious along the way.
We, in our expectation of cleanliness, forget this. We forget that cleanliness is only next to godliness in one drastically limited sense. Any parent who has wiped smeared cake from the face of a gleeful birthday boy has glimpsed the limits of the virtue of cleanliness. For he who wraps himself in zeal and lightning as a garment also bore the tongue-in-cheek purple of a mocking robe soon to be snatched and gambled away while he was beaten. The man himself died for all so that we might not be afraid to come to him. “How I have long to gather you,” he said, looking out over the city, the bitter turn of the bread of sorrow already on his tongue.
How then, can we say that Christ has no concern over our past? To say this is to render moot the bloodshed of the Rood, the parched throat and labored breathing, the betrayal in the garden, the silent refusal to defend himself, and the forgiveness he gave despite it all. Jesus came to die because of my past, my present, and my time to come. Necessitated by the very Love that hovered over void and formless water, then went jubilating the world into being, he sees at once all the time which I occupy. My past has not slipped his mind. Neither my tomorrow.
This device of acceptance – God not being concerned with your past – is not acceptance at all. To accept me without my faults is to accept me in part, to look at me as perfect by my own half-merit, without the blood of Jesus washing me clean. Love is not that easy, though. Simple, but not easy. If family life teaches us anything, it teaches us that love is rarely earned and never convenient. It is not because God is absentminded and needs an extra dose of Ginkgo Biloba that he accepts me, it is because He Loves me. In the course of time, he will bring me to face boldly the horrors of that very past that I trawl behind me like the polluted train of a wedding gown.
We are so concerned with everyone feeling accepted that we obfuscate the rules of acceptance, but the human heart will drag its dirty laundry with it everywhere until it is washed and put in order. Everyone comes with a hobble around his neck, and to say that when you come to church that you have left that behind you is an insult to the indefatigable memory of the subconscious and the unfathomed knowledge of God. I’ve been in worship services and been encouraged to leave my cares at the door. I believe that little could be further from the desires of the Almighty. A Hebrew towing an obstinate goat – indeed, a scapegoat – through the gates of the temple would certainly understand taking his sins and cares to church, and I think that was the intention. The Architect of that institution desired that we should understand the picture painted before us. Yes, we are come that He may deal with us, but He will deal with us in Love. It is not love in some vapid iteration of, “All is forgiven,” but Love which asks again, and then again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Yes, bring your past. He fears nothing, for none is His equal. Do not be afraid.