"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 December 2008

New Year's Resolutions

This morning as I’ve browsed the web I’ve of course run across numerous references to the ending of one year and the beginning of the next. “Have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet?” (of course not; the moment after I make one I’ll break it, so why bother?). “Highlights of 2008” (more depressing than encouraging to me, as a rule – what many people seem to think of as a “highlight” often strikes me as a new low). “How to make your dreams come true in 2009” (sure; it’s all so simple and will certainly happen
this time).

Then I came to one of my favorite sites – Touchstone’s Mere Comments – and found what I wanted: a post by my favorite contemporary writer, Tony Esolen, which offers true wisdom and food for thought – “Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot?” he asks, and answers, of course, “by no means, and here’s why.”

The comments are worth reading, as well, and led me to some thinking about time and how it is described in one of my favorite plays, A Raisin in the Sun. Walter has lost his father’s life insurance money on a scam, and Beneatha, having counted on part of it to help her through medical school, is in the depths of despair. Her suitor Asagai, a Nigerian who plans to return to his country to help free it from Britain’s rule, challenges her. I don’t have the text with me, so what follows is from memory.

Beneatha tells Asagai that man never changes, and simply walks the pointless circle of time, repeating evil again and again. Asagai says no, time is a line whose end you cannot see and thus cannot despair of. Man marches forward, doing what he can in his own day to reach the unrealized dream of a better future, which does exist.

I was trying to explain the difference to my class last semester, and found that I couldn’t show Asagai’s concept as a simple straight line, as he initially states it: he goes on to say that if his country is liberated there will of course be upheaval again, and he may even become a martyr because of new persecutions by different people, but that liberty and peace will still come in some unseeable future if people like him continue to work for that dream. And so I found that my picture on the board became a series of Beneatha’s circles moving across the board in a kind of helix toward the future.

Beneatha’s circle by itself holds a certain appeal as a description of truth – doesn’t it often seem that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” that “nothing new under the sun” means mainly that life is made up of evil and despair? Asagai’s line seems so much more optimistic, more hopeful: it is going somewhere, not merely repeating itself, even if it contains repetition within it.

And yet . . . there is nothing – nothing – in Asagai’s philosophy which justifies optimism. He envisions a future of freedom and prosperity for his people, and he is pursuing the means (education, medical care, political action) that he believes will bring about such a future – yet with no actual foundation for that belief. Education, for example, may bring about better health conditions and greater political involvement, yes, but it may also bring seeds of greater discontentment and ideas which will be just as destructive as those which he sees as now holding his people down. What kind of education is the key to a better future . . . and nowhere does Asagai seem to see the need to consider this key question. It is mere “education” in itself, mere “political action” in itself, which will somehow bring about the bright future he envisions.

So I was encouraged in reading Tony’s post and the comments on it to consider time in both its repetitive cycles (for Beneatha is not entirely wrong) and its movement to somewhere – but not an abstract movement to a merely hoped-for earthly end (as Asagai would have it). Rather, this journey through the cycles of time is a journey to a very specific destination: an eternal life either in the presence of God or separated from His love, either in the presence of those who have gone before or separated forever from human love as well. (C. S. Lewis reminds us somewhere that we have never met a mere mortal.) That destination should determine what means we use to move closer to it -- not just any kind of education, for example, but education which gives us a true image of who and what we are so that we will choose our course wisely.

Several of the images various commenters brought up following Tony’s post bring out time's dual nature as both cycle and line: “a continually widening upward spiral toward God,” one called it, or another suggested that “from another angle, the spiral could be seen as ever-narrowing”; another gave the picture of Abba Dositheus: “a movement inward along the spokes of a wheel: we all begin on the rim, and as we move in towards Christ, who is the hub, we move closer to Him and to each other.” I like these; they help me to see the concept and understand
all the better this journey we are on.

And that perspective of time, a journey with its cycles and its known end, reminds me of the only resolution that’s important each new year, each new day: to live well within time’s possibilities, loving God and my neighbor, for God’s glory and my neighbor’s welfare.

27 December 2008

Happy Birthday

The YM turns 18 tomorrow. Our youngest, growing up so fast.

He's always been talented in artistic kinds of ways, and now it's amazing to see how quickly he has grown with instruction. Film is his favorite, but he's an excellent still photographer, and you can see his some of his work at Vesta Photography. (I don't have access to any of his film work, but he's done some short films for his class and has worked with his friends on some significant projects. He does a great job of it.)

And as he grows in his knowledge and his skill, he's the same funny, loving person he's always been, though with greater depth and thoughtfulness. He enriches my life every day by his smile and considerate actions and good conversation. I am grateful that he is my son.

For you, my son, a birthday prayer:

"Watch over thy child, O Lord, as his days increase; bless and guide him wherever he may be, keeping him unspotted from the world. Strengthen him when he stands; comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him up if he fall; and in his heart may thy peace which passeth understanding abide all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

(from the Book of Common Prayer)

25 December 2008

Not Quite Christmas

I’ve been trying all day to think of a happy Christmas message to write, but I don’t seem to have one this year. It’s been an odd break, not Christmas-like – I’m used to being with my parents this time of year, and I haven’t had the energy or inclination (hooray for end-of-semester exhaustion, plus toothaches, plus medication that adds headaches as a final insult) to be the least bit festive. Not that I’m especially able at creating that mood even at my best.

So it’s been a quiet day at home, nothing very special except for the phone calls to and from family members elsewhere. I’ve mainly spent the break, including today, sleeping and working on prep for next semester’s classes; we ordered books for the YM’s spring classes today and a few for me. And part of me has struggled with feeling sad and lonely and generally in a the-world’s-not-fair mood.

But one of my tasks has been re-reading Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell, prepping to teach it next semester. And so I am reminded that I am not here to feel good. I am here to love God and my neighbor, to take joy not in circumstances but in Him and in His people, to bear the burdens of others as others have so often borne mine, to recognize His love in all the wild and quiet, wonderful and quotidian ways that it is manifest in this world He created, marred though it has become. Under the Mercy, as Peter Stanhope would say.

So . . . my youngest turns 18 in two days – that’s something to celebrate. We drove around town and enjoyed Christmas lights tonight – what beauty God allows us to create.* My oldest son and his family sacrificed his leave time to make the long drive to visit my parents – how God manifests His love in His children. I have a husband who loves me and does so many lovely sweet things to show it – not every wife is so blessed. I sit here surrounded by books – and how less rich my life would be without those many voices that challenge and comfort and bless me. Tomorrow, then, I shall try to remember His blessings, and not allow the inevitable sorrows of a broken world to negate His beauty that still shines forth in it. Under the Mercy . . .

* (You can see the YM’s excellent photographs from the drive, along with many others, at Vesta Photography. He’s good – really good. And I don’t think I’m overly biased . . .)

23 December 2008

Charlie Peacock, part 3

So I survived the last projects, essays, and final exams. I’ve been trying to write about the things Charlie said concerning being a Christian and an artist in today’s culture, but constant interruptions and distractions tend to give me severe writer’s block. So, finally, here are some of the ideas he brought up that I especially appreciated.

Charlie made it clear that not only artists are creative – artistic creativity is only one kind. Everyone is creative: the scientist, the engineer, the businessman, the teacher, the homemaker, all of us. I loved this definition of the church that he gave us: “We are God’s gifted ones gathering as communities to do God’s work.” Any meaningful labor is worthy of any Christian’s time; no vocation is more worthy than another.

Christian who is an artist in today’s culture has a special tension, however, because of the increasing separation between “secular” and “religious” publishers and markets. I appreciated Charlie’s insistence that the individual Christian must have the freedom to choose to serve the church directly and primarily – too many of us have become sinfully cynical about the quality of Christian-labeled work, and we forget that one job of the Christian is to build up other believers. If this is one’s call, pursue it, wholeheartedly and with excellence.

However, the only reason the artistic works of a Christian should be in the Christian bookstore, Charlie said, is if they have been created for that primary purpose of teaching and building up believers. The
Christian who is an artist must not be limited to this purpose, and should not be pressured into using his creativity in solely or primarily this way; he must be equally free to pursue his art simply because it is meaningful art. He should be able to do his work “anywhere, everywhere, and without apology,” whether he names it as “Christian” or not, and with the support and blessing of his brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Why? Because we are called to serve not only other believers, but “all the nations.” We are “image-bearing ambassadors” who are to “contribute to and transform culture,” being salt and light within it. Our work should be good for the community, for our neighbor. The artist’s work no more has to be named Christian than the mechanic’s or the carpenter’s or the engineer’s: if we excel in our work, we glorify God and serve our neighbor, and a fish sign on it won’t make it any better quality.

Charlie told us that he is not hesitant to declare “I’m a Christian,” but he has chosen not to call himself “a Christian musician”
because he wishes to disconnect himself from the cultural baggage of that name; then he can go wherever he is called by his work, not be assigned in people's minds permanently to only “church music.” He mentioned doing some work with jazz, and then being invited to join a “Christian jazz” forum on the web. He refused because his goal was to be a part of the “ongoing jazz story” in its totality and not to suggest that his particular work is somehow different because of his faith rather than simply because he is a musician.

He talked too about answering the question “Are you a Christian?” and how he prefers to answer with a question rather than just say yes: “Why do you ask?” he might respond, or “It depends; what do you mean by the term Christian?” This opens the door to discussion, and allows him to be a witness to his faith in the way the person asking most needs to hear it, rather than letting that person think that Charlie represents whatever misconceptions he might hold. He has no desire other than to boldly be a Christian, but he has learned to be wise in the way he names himself, to try to have the most winsome and effective influence that he can.

For me, perhaps the most important point he made is summed up in this: some of us are called mainly to talk to the family – to teach and build up believers – and we must do this with excellence (which is going to mean speaking, lovingly, to the lack of excellence in too much Christian art today), and others of us are called to serve the broader community – and we need the support and encouragement of the church to do that work with excellence and to remain faithful to God as we work in a world that can hold out many strong temptations. “We should be God’s [artistic] people everywhere and in everything,” Charlie said; “we must not have too narrow a scope but be about His business throughout the world.”

10 December 2008

Baby News

My friends' baby was born last Thursday. I got to see pictures on Friday while endangering my soul with envy of those who went to see him that night. Yesterday, Mom and Dad brought him up to the college to be introduced. Right now he is a sleepy, contemplative little fellow, with the perfect beauty of a C-section birth.

As I held him, he squirmed and yawned now and then, squinted up at me, and sighed himself back to sleep. So lovely, this precious new life with all hope and potential lying before him. Such complete trust in and reliance on those around him to love and protect him and care for his every need. So like we should be, babes in our Father's arms . . .

04 December 2008

New Literary Magazine

A friend who is an assistant editor has drawn attention to a new online literary magazine, The Christendom Review. What I've read in the first issue so far is excellent, and I highly recommend a look. For some of you who are writers, this may be a good place to submit.

Yes, yes, I know, I haven't posted the new post about Charlie. Chalk it up to too tired to think coherently. It's in progress, though.

03 December 2008

Charlie Peacock, part 2

No, I didn't get lazy over break; I finished the grading and got domestic -- a bit of embroidery on a baby gift, a new hem for a favorite coat, watched a movie with the family . . . and now it seems I've a moment when I'm rested enough to think about something besides class prep and grades.

Today, snippets I especially appreciated from Charlie:

* In giving his testimony, he referred to "the relentless tenderness of Jesus" -- what a wonderful image, and one we so often don't understand (the heavenly hound, "terrible goodness").

* Several times he urged us to be "interested in what God is interested in -- which is everything."

* Ask yourself each morning, "What kind of creative person will I become today?" (And he reminded us that all people are creative; creativity is not a gift solely of the artist. The church is "God's gifted ones gathering as communities to do God's work.")

* Read the Old Testament to learn what it means to be human, to understand the glory of man and his shame -- then "bring both the glory and the shame to God and use it in creative work through Him."

* When a student asked an especially insightful question, his face lit up, he pointed to her, and said, "You have wisdom, Little Sister!"

* And I loved this: Take your creative work and offer it to God: "Look what I made, Father!"

Tomorrow, God and grading willing, what Charlie said about the tension between being Christian and being an artist in today's culture.