"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

31 January 2006

On Being Dust Jackets

Thanks to LuCindy, I just got Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island, and am having trouble getting past the introduction -- he makes one think long and hard at least every paragraph, often every sentence.

The focus of the Introduction is on finding meaning in life. A person needs, Merton says, the "fulfillment of his own God-given powers, in the love of others and of God." And a little later, he defines proper self-love as "desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others. [. . .] It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but others."

One knows this: "Love God; love your neighbor." But I like the particular reminder Merton's words give. This loving of God and loving of neighbor is not a kind of self-erasure. Rather, it is where God can make us into exactly the unique individuals He created us to be, offering the one thing, whatever it is, that no one else can -- at least in quite the same way, quite as "perfectly," in this place, and in this time. It is self-effacement, in the sense that one does not think of oneself or desire recognition, but too often we seem to think that means that the self is somehow not valuable, to be despised. But despising the self is not the opposite of wrongly loving the self. Humility does not mean, as C. S. Lewis has said in The Screwtape Letters, regarding oneself as worthless but rather not thinking of oneself at all because one's focus is on God and others.

Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, creates a group of people who have been memorizing books in order to preserve knowledge in a society where books are burned because of their power to make people think. My students noticed the seemingly contradictory statements of the group's leader -- he kept saying that they were not important, but that they needed to take great care of themselves. But of course it isn't contradictory at all. They were not personally important as the people of their society considered individuals important -- "oh, look at me, love me, give to me, see how wonderful I am" -- but rather they were important because of the unique gifts they held in readiness to serve others. "We're just dust jackets for books," he reminds the others.

Towards the end of the Introduction to No Man is an Island, Merton writes, "Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ."

This is where I long to live, in the freedom of not thinking of myself but living the self that I was created to be. And every day I fail so completely . . . and yet He does not stop lifting me up, teaching me, guiding me, reminding me.

"I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!" (Ps. 27:13-14)

22 January 2006

Prisms of Love

My mother-in-law is an artist. We are privileged to have two of her paintings in our home, and we always look forward to seeing her new projects and techniques when we visit.

Her home is of course tastefully furnished and decorated, nothing elaborately "arty" but now and then a touch of beauty so rich it takes one's breath.

When we arrived the Monday morning before Christmas, racing ahead of sleet and snow, the day sagged about us, grey and drizzly. Bringing dishes to the sink after lunch, I noted the several multi-colored, multi-shaped peices of glass hanging in the kitchen window that had been there since I could remember. Pretty, I thought, and didn't notice them again.

Wednesday dawned bright, the ordinary sun dazzling after nearly a week's hiding behind the wintry grey. At some point, I started from the den towards the laundry room -- and was arrested by vivid rainbows reflected on the white walls, a brilliance that abruptly stilled my teeming mind. After catching my breath, I turned my eyes to find their origin -- the glass baubles in the window, of course.

A few minutes later, my high school science catching up with me, I realized the flat colored glass pieces couldn't have created those rainbows. Approaching the window again, for the first time ever I saw the two small, clear glass pieces among them: a ball and a teardrop, each with dozens of facets cut into the surface, joyfully refracting the sunlight into radiant beauty.

Simple -- yet with depth, richness, brilliance, like the love of the woman who, with her instinct for beauty, hung the glass in that perfect place to provide moments of sudden delight. And yet the source of that delight is constant, always available, its heart never changing, never less rich, always deeply beautiful.

Thank you for loving us, Mom, and teaching us so much of what love is. We thank God for you.

18 January 2006

Okay, I Give In :-)

I've been tagged twice now, so just for fun:

Four movies you could watch over and over:
Fiddler on the Roof
Dead Poets Society
Princess Bride

Four places you have lived:
Lawrence, KS
Manhattan, KS
Springfield, MO
Jackson, MS

Four TV shows you love to watch:
CSI Miami
reruns of Diagnosis Murder

Four places you have been on vacation:
Creede, CO
various places our kids and parents live

Four websites you daily visit (besides blogs):
National Review Online
Touchstone Mere Comments
The Corner
(the latter two are technically blogs, but they aren't personal ones, which I take the proscription to mean)

Four of your favorite foods:
umm . . . chocolate . . . .
oh, and . . . chocolate

Four places you would rather be right now:
home with my husband and son
with my parents
with any of my older kids and grandkids

Four bloggers you are tagging:
I believe all the ones I'd tag have been tagged already,
except maybe Amy at Over the Rainbow.

16 January 2006

Driving to Work

The full moon hangs like a pendant of cold brilliance above floating rain clouds . . . distant, isolate, its light offering no comfort, its beauty no serenity . . . a difficult muse . . .

15 January 2006

Dwelling on God

Anima Christi

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Do not permit me to part from you.
From spiteful enemies protect me.
In the hour of my death call me.
And bid me come to you.
That with your saints I may praise you
In the lifetime of lifetimes. Amen.

Hansen writes a lovely meditation on this prayer which serves as an introduction to Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises (the prayer, apparently, not written by Ignatius). The meditation dwells on each line, as I've often done with the "Our Father," and I suspect I will find myself revisiting it often, learning to make this prayer mine. Today, this particular line is making its way to my heart.

O good Jesus, hear me.

Hansen concedes that of course Jesus always hears us. Then he adds, But "hear me" needs saying if only to remind us that a great prayer does not require an 'answer me,' for that implies a reply in our own terms, in our own way. We handicap ourselves with human plans, but improve ourselves by being receptive to God.

I struggle so much with the "answer me" aspect of prayer; we hear all the time about all the wonderful things God has done in answer to prayer, but there seem to be few courageous souls who look at tragedy and say "God be praised." I like what Hansen says here; it is the hearing of the prayer -- the fact that the God of the universe hears me! -- that is of any importance.

And receptiveness to God. I am encountering this everywhere, Chambers of course majors on it, now Hansen, and this afternoon over and over in the works included in Radiance: A Spiritual Memoir of Evelyn Underhill (excerpts of her works showing her growth in the Lord, edited by Bernard Bangley).

This excerpt will give the idea of what she says again and again:

That's the voice of wisdom -- quietly ignoring the importance we attach to our little selves. Once for all, tonight, let us turn our backs on our niggling self-scrutiny. Let us look at God, at Christ. That will bring us to a state of mind more humbling, more really contrite, than any penitence based only on introspection. It will condemn every failure in love. 'My soul opened' said Lucie-Christine, not 'my soul turned inwards and began to look at itself through a microscope'!

(Underhill doesn't say never practice self-examination, but never focus on self, even to identify sin, instead of focusing on God, where healing and health reside.)

Peace, she says a little further on, means such a profound giving of ourselves to God, such an utter neglect of our own opinions, preferences, and rights, as keeps the deeps of our soul within His atmosphere in all the surface rush, the ups and downs, demands and disappointments, joy and suffering of daily life. We cease to matter. Only God and His work matters.

I long to find this place, to know that only God and his work matter, and not myself.

14 January 2006

"A Stay Against Confusion"

I haven't a great deal of time to write coherently these days (as is perhaps evident in my last couple of pieces!), but I've been reading Ron Hansen's collection of essays on faith and fiction entitled A Stay Against Confusion. It's often arresting, always interesting. I'd like to share a series of quotations from the first three essays on fiction as food for thought.

We look to fiction for self-understanding, for analogies of encounter, discovery, and decision that will help us contemplate and change our lives.

A faith-inspired fiction has a fondness for humanity and finds cause for celebration in the beauties of the natural world. A faith-inspired fiction is ever aware that we are on holy ground.

A faith-inspired fiction is, as Anthony DeMello has said of story, the shortest distance between human understanding and truth.

Writing with faith is a form of praying.

We figure out our own lives through fiction.

Paraphrasing Willa Cather: the greatness [of truly great writers] was not in the formal features of their writing but in the salutary effect their stories have on our hearts and minds.

He notes that John Gardner has said that writers see more connections than other people tend to do, and adds I finally think our need for stories is our need to find those connections, and to have confirmed for us the theology we hold secret in our heart, that even the least of us are necessary to the great universal plot in ways we hadn't imagined.

09 January 2006

Paradoxes Again

My last post got me thinking about paradoxes, and circumstances have brought to the fore another couple that have caused me much struggle through the past many years. I know what the Scriptures say about these issues, I think, and I take certain intellectual stands -- by faith -- that get me through the day, and I am not going to question God’s love for us or His acting in our lives over my confusion. I think I know how to live with paradox, generally speaking, but some paradoxes are more frustrating than others, the ones, of course, that directly challenge my own comfort.

I know that God is sovereign. Scripture is quite clear on this point. Our Sunday School teacher quoted someone yesterday: “history unfolds according to His plan.” Okay, I accept that. I think. Intellectually, at least, by faith in the Word, I know it to be true.

My problem with it is simple: it appears to mean that sin, through which He often accomplishes certain things, is therefore part of His plan, which of course begs the question: why then is it sin, and why do we need to struggle so against it?

One definition of sin is not living in accordance with God’s law, acting against the standards by which He clearly says we should act. This is a bad thing. I should strive not to sin, because I wish to please and obey Him, who gave His Son that I might live.

But if “history unfolds according to His plan,” and sinful acts are used to accomplish that plan (and He doesn’t have a “plan B,” as the Sunday School teacher remarked, because He isn’t surprised at anything that happens), then . . . well . . . then . . . isn’t sin part of His plan?

But it can’t be, because He is sinless and He commands us to strive for sinlessness also.

To be less abstract: Say I yell at my son in anger. That is sin. One can point to the potential for my son to grow in character through my sin as he learns to respond in a godly manner to people who are unkind, etc. So my sin has given God a chance to grow my son in character, which is a good thing. (And I experience grace, through my repentance, which is also good, except Paul has dealt quite clearly with that in Romans, chapter 6 or thereabouts, I believe.)

But my sin is a bad thing. It has to be. It hurts both me and my son, me because I become less Christ-like every time I disobey Him, and my son because it violates his mind, heart, and soul, and also opens the option to him of bitterness instead of maturity in his response. And of course all sin is an affront to a righteous God whose Son died to save me from it.

So: how does man’s chosen sinful disobedience work into God’s sovereignty?

I presume it’s bound up in the concept of free will (which I don’t understand, either, when I think of the paradox of free will and election), and that He "uses," as we often say, bad to accomplish good. (That’s in Romans, too, of course.) But then I think of Pharaoh and his God-hardened heart, and those verses that say God creates the wicked for their time and His purpose, and . . . well, it all gets very mixed up.

And of course, the real mix-up for self-centered me is simply this: when someone else’s sin affects my life negatively, how do I say, “oh, it’s all right, it’s God’s will that I should suffer this”? It seems to me that it is very much the other person’s will that I suffer it, not God’s. And that God having to use the consequences of sin is very inefficient. Necessary, I do understand, because it’s a fallen world and He chooses to leave us the will to choose. But still . . . if somebody hadn’t eaten a certain fruit, would God will that I suffer? No, His purposes would be accomplished in perfection. (And please don’t get me started on the Fortunate Fall idea, though I may address it another day.)

And all of this leads me to that other perennial paradox: if “history unfolds according to His plan,” whether I sin or not, no matter what I do, then why bother to pray, either?

Yes, yes, I know we are commanded to pray, and I do. But if my yelling at my son accomplishes good, helps to bring about His plan, why pray to stop doing it? Well, because it’s sin . . . and I’m back at the beginning.

Prayer is the hardest of the disciplines for me. Not because I actually think we shouldn’t pray against sin (in ourselves or in others), but because I really don’t know how to approach God about anything really important, sinful behavior or ill health or whatever it be. What does one pray for when one sees loved ones hurting? If it will accomplish God’s plan for this person to die, or this person to go through a divorce, or that person to be handicapped, or . . . well, you get the idea.

Some days I am merely a bundle of confusions. But thank God, He doesn’t stop loving me because of it. I probably need to read Job again, because the “answer” God gave Job is the one I think He keeps offering me. Some days I am able to cling to it. Other days, like this one, I can’t see it. But He’ll bring me where He wants me, eventually. I just wish I could find it in me to make it easier for both of us.

05 January 2006

Living in Tension

for Pamela

On LuCindy's recommendation, I ordered Mary Oliver's collection of poems called House of Light. I read the whole thing twice yesterday after it came. A number of the poems play about my mind today, and I will be thinking many of her lines for many days. "I think I will always be lonely / in this world," she writes in "Lilies," meditating on what it means to live unselfconsciously in the world as the lilies do; can we live in such a way, let the self go as the lilies and the hummingbirds do, just live?

But the lines that especially struck me yesterday open "The Kookaburras": "In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator. / In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting / to come out of its cloud and lift its wings."

A dear friend (and former student) dropped by yesterday to chat for awhile before returning to her ministry of teaching in a foreign country. She shared with me a lovely piece she had written, and I was struck by the tension in it between knowing that at some level what we have here is enough, and yet longing for a "something more" that we only glimpse and never really grasp.

I thought at the time of C. S. Lewis's autobiography Surprised by Joy. In it he describes the stab of joy that he would, on rare occasions, experience, and how his whole life was spent in trying to find that experience again -- until he came to know Jesus Christ and to understand that those glimpses are meant to draw us towards the "something more" that we can't have now but awaits us when we enter into eternity and leave all this time-bound necessity behind.

My friend's piece mentioned her "coward heart," but I saw in it also "a god of flowers just waiting / . . . to lift its wings." Acceptance of the "enough" that we have -- not demanding and expecting to have eternity now and finding ourselves content in the world we've been given -- is part of what it means to walk uprightly with Him. But we sell ourselves -- and our God -- short when we say this is the all and the end of it. We must always be content? we are in sin if we are restless, if we seek for more or other than what we have? No, I reject that, because we don't have enough; we don't have everything that properly belongs to beings created to live with God in eternity.

I am thinking this through as I write, and I hope I am not suggesting some odd heresy, but I am seeing more and more the longer I live the paradoxes of faith. Here is one: "be content" but "seek Me." How, if we are seeking, can we be content? We must live in that tension in this fallen world, not resolve it. That, it seems to me, is what our greatest artists keep trying to tell us. That is a predominant theme in Oliver's poems in this particular collection.

In "The Ponds" she describes the beauty of lilies in the light and from a distance, but then on close inspection the imperfections of each one. The poem ends: "I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing -- / that the light is everything -- that it is more than the sum / of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do."

So do not fear your "coward heart," my dear. We all have one. Rather, do not deny or try to escape the tensions you know, but accept them as part of the lives we have all been given and give voice to them, lifting your wings above the clouds through the gifts given you, and reminding the rest of us of the beauty we desire and can find in one place only.