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.
This is some of the most beautiful, mournful work I’ve ever heard. It is by a young, masterful composer named Eric Whitacre. Carve out a few minutes. Get out your good headphones or good speakers, go into a quiet room, and immerse yourself in this sound. Then go back, and immerse yourself in it again. Every nuance and cherished note has poetry and truth to offer and to reveal.
Language: An Ancient Tree
I glance over the slides on the computer screen.
“This one needs to change, and this one,” I tell her. “Oh, and this one. I can’t stand the ________ Hymnal.”
“Don’t they use the same hymns?”
“Well, they change them, to make them more understandable to a modern audience.”
A familiar sight nowadays for those who read antiquated writing is the editorial process, eradicating commas and superfluous dashes like the little man behind the curtain. Pay no attention to him. I am the Great Oz. Yet, if we are not careful, we will be lulled into the loss of a language that is our heritage and runs in our blood. This is not, of course, popular. Modern folks don’t like to admit that there are any strings attached to them, old, new, or yet to come. We like our so-called individuality, erroneous though it may be. “It takes a village to raise a child,” goes the saying, but adults are not done being raised. We have an attachment to others, past and present, and we need it.
The reason editors, especially of hymnals and prayer books, do their well-meaning level best to disrupt this, is to provide us with sacred and venerated literature that is easy to understand. That’s certainly helpful to those of us who are not scholars of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Old High German, Middle English, Elizabethan English, Victorian syntax, and a host of other near-impregnable tongues and dialects that give shape to our history. Recently, I read my way through a theological work by George MacDonald (1824-1905), excellently edited by Michael Phillips. Syntactically, it was thick enough to read as it stood. I cannot imagine the difficulty without Phillips’ help, though he gives some examples for reference.
However, with documents for corporate worship, and, I might summon the gumption to imagine, with the Scriptures (though that is certainly far above my head), the ‘dumbing-down’ of the language, by degrees and over time, dumbs down the congregation. Consider a quote by Madeleine L’Engle:
When I asked why, in the Prayer Book General Thanksgiving, God’s inestimable love had been changed to immeasurable love, I was told that the laity found inestimable difficult. That’s pretty condescending, in the nastiest sense of the word. Immeasurable is not simpler than inestimable, and in the context of that glorious prayer of Thanksgiving it is a weaker word. When I asked a multi-PhD-ed clergyman why the quick and the dead had been changed to the living and the dead, I was told that young people did not know the word, quick. I asked, “How are they going to know if you take it away from them?”
-Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols
What a great question. How will we ever learn the formal weight of “Thee” and “Thou” if they are replaced by “You” and “You,” which not only use the same over-saturated word to express different parts of speech, but a word that we use to refer to ourselves in the informal? The differences are subtle, but over time they regraft our thinking like a grapevine to a trellis. No, L’Engle goes on to say, language should not be stunted. It is alive and should grow, but “the manipulation of language by the academic elite because they underestimate the ordinary, faithful churchgoer” is an objectionable thing. I would go on to say that a tree, growing larger in its bole year after year, does not leave the inner bark behind. Take a tree apart, and you will find that the inner bark had long ago become the scaffold by which the entire structure stood erect through gust and gale. So it is with language. To abandon the linguistic bastions of old, because some publisher thinks less of the intellect of the general public, is to speak a hollow tongue without meaning or poetry.
To recall the weight of He suffereth long over He is patient is to give credence to the truth that patience is a form of suffering, something that it makes us cringe to think. See the longing, however, of autistic kids’ parents for a day without strife and stress, and see the longing of the children for a day of un-frustrated communication, and you will see that there is suffering in patience, and in love. This is only one of the ways that antiseptic language shift misdirects our thought, but the examples are manifold.
How amazing of children, though, to learn one word as quickly as another, even at a late age. Teach a teenager that “to know,” in King James’ parlance, means “to have sex with,” and you have opened the door to a realm of understanding about intimate love that all the abstinence curriculum in the world never could. Yet as adults, with our underestimation of children’s ability to learn, we often assume that our ability is not even so fresh and ready as theirs, though it is both ready and armed with greater experience.
Let not ship of thy attention run afoul on the slothful rocks.
Mexican Rice Missionary
My creative energies have been spent on a few all-consuming projects as of late. They’ve also taken, it must be admitted, an occasional backseat to things like mowing the yard and doing the washing-up. I have poured them into my family as well, and that has been more valuable an expenditure than anything measured in silver and coin, though I confess I’m not yet stout enough to look those particular virtues in the eyes. Still, spinning spoons at the stovetop like some desperate vaudeville dreamer, I’ve conjured a few tasty gems out of spices, butter, and humble tubers. These dishes and their ilk find their way to the dinner table, where two lovely ladies with no company affiliations, no accolades, smile and savor the God-given fare. Such is the ritual here it Sinclair’s Eve.
And the world never measures it.
Everyone recalls how Mama made that beef casserole, and you rarely hear the World complain that such stuff is of no account, even though it be outside the grasp of empirical knowledge and reckoning. In this, perhaps, the World knows it has little chance of victory, and so it wisely remains silent. In this, the unsung creativity of people for their families, the World meets a fell nemesis.
I have spent many a minute lately pondering and postulating over the nervous figures surrounding CD sales, photography purchases, and bookbinding. Yet these are only the treacherous waters of getting art and its stories to you, so you may take art home and write the next chapters, as it were. In the end, it is still one of us telling the story to the other, who listens with fertile ears.
Here at home, Mexican rice and chicken is recognized by no printed review, but it’s inspired by the same Holy Ghost who billows the temple curtains and shuffles spookily across the attic floor of my soul. I find the laundry, the dinner table, the yard, and the communion of storytime to be a mission field. And like so many mission fields, the one who set out to effect change is himself changed, often with greater cataclysm than his congregation.
My aunt, who is a masterfully peaceable homeschooler of eight children, has a blog filled with succinct but valuable gems on this subject. For more reading, see Little Sanctuary.