"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

28 June 2006

Worm Theology

Whenever I've heard or used the phrase "worm theology," it's always been in reference to an attitude that says we human beings are just wretched worms in the dirt, deserving nothing more than to be ground underfoot. I have always rejected this attitude. We are indeed desperately fallen, but we were created by God Himself (whose creation was, by His own affirmation, "very good") and are redeemed by the sacrifice of His Son, and that means we were and are not wretched worms (even if we choose to live in the dirt sometimes). We were originally destined for glory and eternal life with God, and we may still receive that destiny in Christ, who loved us even in our fallenness and delights in us now as His children. (See Ephesians 2 and John 17, e.g.) As C. S. Lewis says, we would tremble before the least and worst human being if we truly understood that each of us is an immortal soul.

However, I've decided that worm theology is not just unfair to man, it's unfair to worms. Of course, there are those creatures we call "worms" that destroy plants, and great and greedy "worms" like Smaug that create even greater destruction, and I can't find a great deal of sympathy for these. But most of us, I'd guess, think first of earthworms when we hear the word: and earthworms are greatly slandered if we think of them as wretched, useless creatures deserving of no regard. In fact, they are a lovely example of true servanthood.

The earthworm, a simple, blind, not especially appealing creature, lives underground and is seldom seen (and greatly abused by bird and man when he is). He goes quietly, and mostly unremarked, about his job of improving our lives by aerating our soil so it will allow the roots of plants to grow deep and strong and more readily receive the nourishing rain, and then enriching that soil not only with his waste but ultimately with his very body.

This is a picture of serving at its best: fulfilling one's purpose without complaint, without show, without striving after prestige or reward; giving one's life solely for the benefit of others. Of course, the worm does this without thinking about it, without agonizing over the temptation of sin and trying to rationalize his duty away. He simply does what he was created to do.

And so were we created to serve God and our neighbor, with the difference being the possibility and reality of refusal to accept and live out our purpose. So the next time I'm confronted with "worm theology," I think my reaction will be a little different: I'll wish I were more like a worm than I am.

25 June 2006

On Serving the Reader

I've been reading a book on writing by John R. Trimble (Writing with Style), which is okay, although he comes perilously close to advocating the 5-paragraph essay and actually tells his readers to punctuate according to the pauses they hear when they read their work. Some of you will know these concepts will forever keep me from recommending the book to anyone who is a novice writer.

What Trimble has that I love, however, is lots of quotes from other writers. From John Mason Brown:

"It is in the hard, hard rock-pile labor of seeking to win, hold, or deserve a reader's interest that the pleasant agony of writing again comes in."

Ah, yes. The joy of writing lies in coming as close as humanly possible to saying what one means, and saying it so that others can understand it. The quote also reminds me that a writer must earn his audience. Only students in school have a captive audience who must read what they write no matter how "slipshod and inaccurate" [thank you, Dr. J :)] it may be. The rest of us must earn a hearing, and the morally right way to do so is to be clear and honest.

It is, of course, possible to earn an audience through a kind of eloquence that holds no meaning. Just use as many abstract words in easy-to-form phrases as you can, and there's always a crowd who will ooh and aah over your genius. (For an excellent treatise on this, try George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language.") But the real writer wants none of this. He wants to say something that he is convinced is important, and he wants his reader to understand exactly what it is and why it is important: he wishes above all else to be clear.

"And how is clarity achieved?" asks F. L. Lucas (also quoted in Trimble). "Mainly by taking trouble; and by writing to serve people rather than to impress them."

Indeed, there is the heart of the matter. So many of my students think they must impress me. (They have good reason to believe this, given their first twelve years of schooling.) And so they use big words and long phrases and abstractions that carry fuzzy feel-good connotations . . . and are then shocked to find the lowest grade they've ever received.

The ones who learn from this learn exactly what Lucas asserts: that I am looking for writing which serves its readers; writers who respect their readers enough to make their ideas as crystal-clear as they can and who respect themselves enough to make those ideas honest, true to their convictions; writers who do not wish to waste their readers' time and thus take whatever of their own time is necessary to accomplish this goal.

Even when one writes for oneself, this principle holds; why should I bother to journal if I weren't honestly seeking some sort of clarity of thought, truthfulness that will serve me as I embrace or reject the ideas I explore? I serve myself in my personal writing, and surely I should love my neighbor as myself when I write for others.

"Writing to serve people": what other reason can there be to bother?

19 June 2006

Happy Father's Day!

"This is it for Father's Day this year," our older daughter informed her husband as they contemplated baby Emma Jadyn yesterday afternoon. I suspect he was content.

Big brother, 4, gave hugs and kisses but was somewhat nonchalant; baby sisters are old hat by now. Big sister, 2, was confused, pointing to Mommy's tummy and asking where the baby was; maybe in Daddy's tummy now? She contemplated baby Emma for some time, venturing a kiss but not wanting onto the bed with her and Mommy, instead standing on a chair and observing over the bed railing. When asked if she wanted to hold the baby, she backed off, saying "no! no!"

I figure it for an intuitive reaction -- her world is about to change radically, and this strange little person is the reason. :)

Grandbaby number 12, with another on the way in the second son's family. And what a blessing every single one is.

Welcome to the world, Emma. You are loved by a multitude of people already. May you always know this.

17 June 2006


I know full well that people, being people, will disappoint each other.

But some disappointments just make one want to give up and die.

As the old saying goes, "this too shall pass." It's just that it hurts so much before it does.

Looking for God's comfort . . . and a bit of wisdom wouldn't hurt either.

12 June 2006


Thanks to all for thoughts and prayers. The lasik surgery went well. My doctor prayed with me -- in the name of Jesus, too -- beforehand, which was most comforting.

On Saturday, he said my far vision was almost 20/20. Of course, I now can't see anything close up, so it's just the reverse of before -- except now there's no astigmatism. And it seems that my near vision is improving a bit already; I may not know for several weeks just how it will settle out, but I already knew I'd almost certainly need reading glasses. Well, I've used reading glasses for years anyway, so it will be nice just to have those alone!

I am off to put in more eyedrops; that and sleeping have been my principle occupations for the past several days. I've read a few chapters in a book and watched part of a tv show -- it's amazing to see the tv from across the room without glasses. This morning I looked out the window and could see the houses across the street as clear as ever I did with glasses. And to wake up in the night and see the clock without pulling it right up to my face -- what joy! :)

Amazing, really. I can't imagine I'll have any regrets. Now, if one could come up with a 5-minute operation that made one's spiritual sight as clear, without the constant re-clouding of self and sin . . . !

08 June 2006

Trusting God

Tomorrow morning I go in for lasik surgery on both eyes. By God's grace, afterwards I'll be able to see at a distance without glasses and the astigmatism that's been the curse of my life will be gone. I may need reading glasses, but that's nothing in comparison to what I've dealt with since third grade.

The decision has made me think a lot about trust. We are, after all, talking about the part of my body that my work absolutely depends upon. I've often felt that if I couldn't read -- read anything I like, I mean, not just what's been made available in braille or on tape (which I can't concentrate on, anyway) -- I am not sure life would be worth living. I realize, of course, intellectually at least, that this is not the case, but it suggests how important the written word is to me. And I am, tomorrow morning, going to entrust this so vital part of my life to a relative stranger, someone I've met twice in my life.

It wasn't an easy decision. There are risks, and if one of those risks makes my sight worse than it now is, it will be cold comfort to know that I'm in a very small minority of those who've had the surgery done. So I thought a great deal about risk and what kinds of risks I'm willing to take. Finally, the doctor's reputation and track record, along with the 100% satisfaction I've encountered among all the people I know who have had it done or know someone who has, decided me that it is worth it. Now I have to trust him and his staff.

But ultimately, of course, it's not the doctor and his staff that I need to trust. Men are fallible, always. It's God I must place my trust in, knowing that He is the One sovereign over all that happens, including what happens in surgery tomorrow morning.

This is a hard lesson for me, one I've struggled with all my life as a Christian. Always I'm seeing fallible people and feeling fear -- what if this person lets me down, hurts me, fails me in some way? And of course, people have done so, again and again, just as I have done to others, because it's a fallen world and we the most fallen creatures in it.

But the only way to conquer the fear is to place my trust in God. Not trust that all will happen as I want it to, that my life will be perfect and wonderful and without pain if I trust in Him, but trust that He loves me and that whatever happens to me He will use for His glory -- if I allow Him to. Please Him this will be another step in that journey.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (I John 4:18a)

04 June 2006

Gardening for Poetry

Amongst the books for my summer reading, I bought volume one of Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems. I turned to it for the first time today, and it opened about mid-book, to a poem entitled "Stanley Kunitz." Unfamiliar with Kunitz, I found a short biography on this poet, who died this year at age 100. Oliver's poem, of course, would be a metaphor for his creation of poetry, but also, of course, applies to any creative effort -- what it takes to be a friend, a spouse, a parent; to create a meal, a hand-carved table, a cross-stitch sampler -- a life. But I'll let Oliver say it in her so-much-better-than-I-ever-could way.

Stanley Kunitz

I used to imagine him
coming from the house, like Merlin
strolling with important gestures
through the garden
where everything grows so thickly,
where birds sing, little snakes lie
on the boughs, thinking of nothing
but their own good lives,
where petals float upward,
their colors exploding,
and trees open their moist
pages of thunder --
it has happened every summer for years.

But now I know more
about the great wheel of growth,
and decay, and rebirth,
and know my vision for a falsehood.
Now I see him coming from the house --
I see him on his knees,
cutting away the diseased, the superfluous,
coaxing the new,
knowing that the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience --
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.

Oh, what good it does the heart
to know it isn't magic!
Like the human child I am
I rush to imitate --
I watch him as he bends
among the leaves and vines
to hook some weed or other;
even when I do not see him,
I think of him there
raking and trimming, stirring up
those sheets of fire
between the smothering weights of earth,
the wild and shapeless air.