The Greening

What is this grey? My morning’s window is a minor river, and the sun and sky are blanketed by a never-ending fleece. Late into the season, the trees still stand naked. Their fight to burst forth leaves has been in vain against the cold. A hundred-year chill.

Still they’ve stood trembling in the winds, budding defiantly. I think if they are forced to wait any longer, a mutiny will occur.

The rain comes down, and in the hour I’ve sat by the window, the world has changed. White poplar trunks are no longer quite so pale. Instead of the sallowness of winter dormancy, a faint hint of pale green tints them.

The grasses are dark gold, rich with autumn’s leftover colour and devoid of its lively variety. Grey road, dun world.

I wait a little longer.

Over in the corner of the yard, the tangle of chokecherry and willow is no longer a black scribble on a monochrome world. Red stems reach high like arms stretching to be lifted out of an underground prison.

All across the woods, leaf buds swell, bronzing the treetops. It’s that weekend. The one of resurrection.

What is this grey? Why is the sky weeping?

It’s just what happens at this time of year. Always has been and ever will be. Against this backdrop, the Paschal lamb and a dark night’s flight from slavery to promise. Against this New World thaw, the Roman occupation of the world that was, and the type of military efficiency that could invent a way to torture transgressors for days without requiring its soldiers to engage actively in the extended cruelty.

Crucifixion: An early example of automation, if you will.

Here stand the trees on the other side of the earth, raising fingers toward a sky that’s weeping. This week, of all weeks, spring finally shows herself.

She arrives at a rock wall with a hole hewn into it, expecting to find a decayed corpse well-flayed and left to rot. Death has happened and it’s done. Leaves have fallen. Cold has settled in. Limbs are icy. And it seems that it will stay this way forever and forever, all rumours to the contrary.

Instead, something has happened in the night. A sun’s ray of a soldier has removed the seal of death. Deep in the heart of the earth, a sudden breath is taken. The flaying and the icy cold are irradiated as the world tilts on its axis toward its source of light.

He has no remarkable appearance. Just a man. In the darkness, he unwraps the cloth from around his head, shakes it off, and leaves behind the bindings, neatly folded.

The seal is broken open.

She arrives, prepared to grieve what was and isn’t anymore. A promising and remarkable life, over. A disappointment to outlast all other heartbreaks.

Instead, she finds the Gardener.

Who else would be about so early in the morning dew? Just a man whose daily job is nurturing creation. Through tears she looks at him and past him, still looking for scars and wounds and the first signs of decay. He stands there, upright and with his dignity evident and unassailable, while she’s still expecting defiled nakedness.

She comes looking for an ending. And it is.

Winter always ends.

Deep in the woods on the other side of the world, the snow still lies thick and sodden. Last year’s foliage is crumpled on the ground like discarded newspaper. It has seemed that the resurrection forgot us this year.

The life I lived for the last decade and a half is over — in a way. Re-beginning, in another. It’s just so late. And I wonder if those years were wasted. Sometimes it feels like the biggest mistake I could have made.

But whether they were wasted or not, things are starting over. Always something new to try, something else to learn, some other wonder to see.

Even death won’t change that. This world struggles against itself, tearing down edifices and doing battle over great achievements. What about that other world, when this one’s strife and disappointment melt away?

A greening that will be.

There is no heaven with a little of hell in it.

-George MacDonald

Every Natural Love

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all… How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

-Penn Jillette, proselytizing atheist

The Great Divorce

“But could one dare — could one have the face — to go to a bereaved mother in her misery — when one’s not bereaved oneself?…”

“No, no, Son, that’s no office of yours. You’re not a good enough man for that. When your own heart’s been broken it’ll be time for you to think of talking. But someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough.”

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

There comes a moment in a Christian’s life when one doesn’t want to be a Christian anymore. Very rarely is it for the sake of our own cherished, secret sins. No, those we justify, as Lewis has rightly noted elsewhere. We tell ourselves tales of how our own unrighteous thoughts and inclinations can’t be so very bad, for after all, we’re Christians.

No, the moment when one has a sudden urge to quit Christianity is in the moment of loss. Loss of face, loss of self-respect, loss of valuables or dreams.

Loss of loved ones.

Hypotheses and Realities

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

-Philip K. Dick

A short time ago, a friend listened to me rail against the empty hypotheticals that arrive with profound loss. In general: Oh, she is at rest now. Oh, she is at peace. Or on the Christianish side, oh — perhaps there was some last-hour miracle in which her heart changed, or perhaps all go to heaven due to some overbearingly rude indifference of God toward the will of those who have no wish for a God at all.

My grandmother was one who had no wish for God. From my childhood on, my grandparents were avowed atheists. It was she who taught me the art of thoughtful skepticism: to examine religion and large (or large-seeming) ideas and compare them to how the world actually works. She introduced me to Shirley MacLaine’s New Age notions and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. She mentored each of us in many a late-night conversation, preparing us for the deceits and absurdities of the adult world.

She did for us what was never done for her, and it changed my life.

It was my grandmother’s materialist atheism that taught me to look for and thoroughly question the connection between religious abstraction and concrete reality. In a very real way, her sense of intellectual principle has kept me a Christian all these years. I’m no intellectual lightweight, yet I can’t falsify it.

But I railed because, in the overture of a late and cold high summer, she died.

The Heart Has its Reasons

In the shoals of grief, the Christian quickly runs up against a sudden, fierce anger against God. If God can save whomever He chooses, and it’s nothing of man’s doing, then why doesn’t He save those for whom we pray most fervently? If God can intervene in whatever He chooses, then why doesn’t He save the failing marriage, rescue the broken engagement, spare the innocent child, relieve the suffering of poverty and war?

On the threshold of death, it would be reprehensible to posit some high-minded abstract answer. All I can or should say is that I know this angry struggle. I know it and I’m cut by it to the core of my heart, because she’s gone.

But I cannot, even now, accept convolutions of our love for loved ones. High-minded fancy is blasphemy in the space where reason knows nothing. As Pascal said, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

The afterlife (or lack thereof) is an abstract without connection to our real experience. We don’t know, so we make up fables and judge facts by them. This reversal can tear the heart to shreds in times of grief, precisely because it gives nothing to hang onto. Stop believing in it, and it goes away. That’s only another burden for the heart to bear.

“I Don’t Respect That At All”

Empty platitudes are no solution; neither is trembling at the natural differences of view between us who remain on this earth.

So, then: the anger of loss.

“…someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand it, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this (heavenly) country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.”

“That saying is almost too hard for us.”

“Ah, but it’s cruel not to say it.”

(Lewis)

My love is not enough to invoke eternity. Not my love of work, not my love of principle, not my love of others. Only Christ’s love for my soul; Christ who died for me. And for you.

God, then, will have to be enough for me, because I can’t be enough for you. Why should I be? To say otherwise would be a tremendous conceit and a denial of my faith.

You can stop believing in me, and I can go away. In some sense, we ourselves are not a full reality. So, instead, I will entrust you to God’s goodness, and be good to you insofar as I can stumble through, because He is good.

Our Cultural Hells

“You cannot torment yourself,” my friend said, “with images from medieval paintings. Whatever comes after, we know that God is good.”

And he was right. Those images of hell are representatives of a relatively recent and bloody European culture, rife with the brutal treatment of rivals — burnings at stakes and other monstrous tortures. To acquiesce wholesale to them makes grief a vicious weapon that spears us through the heart.

Those are images of this world, not of the blank spaces in our knowledge of hereafter. Neither the outer darkness nor the light of heaven are within our sight while we walk this plane. Only their shadows fall here.

But if as non-Christians we torment ourselves instead with the idea of annihilation — that there is no heaven or hell but what we make for ourselves on earth — then we must believe that every natural love is ultimately destroyed.

That too is a culturally-driven speculation, a thing we can’t know.

I watched it shatter my grandmother when my grandfather died; I sat with her as she broke down and wept and berated herself for the illogic of grieving what, to her, simply didn’t exist anymore. Not him; not their love.

Yet we can’t know this as a fact, not in the way we know the sun rises in the east. Not in the way I know the knife-edge of anger at God in the face of death and loss and evil.

We arrive at eternity’s front path by an indirect route.

To Cross The Salt Sea

She always told me what she believed, because she loved me. Because she knew that to hold convictions on the greater good of humanity, and not speak, is disreputable and cowardly.

She’s gone; whatever comes after, I know that God is good. This, at least, is no abstraction; I can connect it to the concrete reality of life in all its pains, for I’ve experienced His goodness. And when I stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.

There I begin, over and over again.

She taught me to look for the set of ideas that corresponds most robustly to the world’s visible facts. From there, we may triangulate the way forward, indirect though it be.

That gift takes me through her loss, beyond empirical reason, and charts me a course across the salty seas where reason knows nothing; where the heart’s reasoning rules.

And I arrive, over and over again, at this:

Every natural love is not destroyed. Some rise again, and live forever.

Free Sex and Comfortable Assurances

Just for interest’s sake, I took a look at the Amazon listings from the NYT Bestseller list over the weekend. The trade paperbacks were interesting cultural markers. [Ed. note: Article is from November 2012.]

In fiction: Sylvia Day and E.L. James held the top three slots. Effed-up characters doing outrageously naughty explicit things for the vicarious titillation of readers.

In nonfiction: Proof of Heaven and Heaven is for Real held the top two slots.

So, let’s see. Sin as the panacea for sin for entertainment, and a comfortable assurance that we all go someplace nice in the final reckoning for the next day’s hangover.

Or are they both just symptoms of escapism?

To put this in context, there are also a lot of political volumes on the list as I write this, just under a week after the election. That smacks of engagement, not escapism. I think it would be simplistic to suggest the porn penchant and interest in the hereafter are somehow analogous fictive dreams.

As a cynic about human nature and our ability to delude ourselves about our own goodness, it seems to me the common thread is more likely, “I did it my way.”

Whether gratification or anticipation of final reward, we like to think we’re entirely autonomous determiners of our decisions and our destiny. But even in the degradation of pornographic “redemption” tales, there’s still some concept of good and evil. No matter how screwball and codependent, the thought is there.

If good and evil exist, then we have a problem with this whole self-determinist scenario. What is good? How do we overcome evil? Does anyone actually want evil to continue in heaven? If not, then how serious are we about looking it in the face, here and now?

What happens if it turns out I am evil?

It’s more comfortable, I’m sure, to leave the question cast in shades of grey, and the hope of eternal life in the hands of nebulous personal anecdote. Our way is the highway.

Take Me At My Word

One of my friends has a saying which this natural-born skeptic has heard from time to time: “Take me at my word.”

It’d be a much easier world if people lived by that old-fashioned principle. It’s a good one. But it’s a disappearing phenomenon.

Double Talk

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s sometimes felt the need for an interpreter when trying to engage people on their own terms. It seems a lot of time can be spent decoding what people really mean when they say things–everyone likes to establish their own personal qualifiers.

Usually, that’s okay. We all speak our own subtle dialect born out of our unique outlooks and experiences. But usually it’s not so much that we can’t understand each other.

Except for those times when communication becomes an ongoing wheel of personal spin doctoring. Except for those times when one of us doesn’t want to hear, or perhaps to be heard.

Good Old-Fashioned Idolatry

I’m pretty sure it’s a form of idolatry to pick and choose and interpolate/extrapolate so as to fill one’s social circle with imaginary friends and/or loved ones puppeted by real live bodies.

When we selectively reinvent the people around us to suit our preferences and comforts, or to cater to the pride we take in self-established certitude, we’re usurping the Creator’s position over other human beings. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a fine blend of blasphemy and schizophrenia.

Nonetheless, editorial listening is a refined art, one to whose seductions we all succumb sometimes. We hear what we think we’re supposed to hear, or we listen only for what concerns us.

But are those ghosts really in the room? Are they part of the conversation, or are they part of the fantasy created by the filters on our ears?

How shall we know?

Lost Causes

I recall reading Shirley MacLaine in my teens. She had this notion that there is only one consciousness, that manyis an illusion to be resolved by achieving true awareness. If we could all raise consciousness, “we” would realize we are one.

If that is true, I thought, then when I achieve that consciousness, I will see everyone I thought I knew for the shadows they are, like a carnival’s hall of mirrors. Every relationship I’ve known will be a lost cause: “I,” whatever that turns out to be–and it won’t even be me as I know myself to be–will be all there is.

Everyone I’ve ever loved will have been a lie, and “I” will be utterly alone in the universe.

The thought left me so shaken by impending loss and loneliness that I could go no farther with the thought experiment.

Yet we live like this all the time, isolated by the illusory nature of our chosen perceptions. We make people into the image we want, and we throw them out like castoff toys when their true personhood breaks the mold we’ve invented for them. We fabricate an image of ourselves. It’s how we avoid having to take ourselves as we are. We say “friend;” we mean straw man. We say “mutual support;” we mean “prop up the case I’m making for my self-image.”

But fabrications unravel themselves, no matter how we stitch them together.

Truly, Truly

So what does this mean, “take me at my word”? Really, it’s a biblical phrase, casually paraphrased into modern English.

I don’t know the Greek or Aramaic from two thousand years ago, but I do know the formal English: “Truly, truly, I say to you.” The words of Jesus.

It’s a phrase of horrible, bone-grinding simplicity. It means trusting the plain assigned meaning, rather than trusting the image we make of it.

It means the actions and the words will align. It means the semantics will not belie the syntax.

It means that the person speaking is giving the listener the greatest possible chance of accurate understanding. It expresses an act of grace.

It means there is hope.

It seems utterly counterintuitive to say, “trust me, it means what it means.” It’s like saying, “I am that I am,” a statement for which we have no reference point. But then, that’s because we are so used to being politely lied to, and we’re so used to politely lying to ourselves. So used to inventing images, rather than accepting the reality.

Yet this is what my friend said when we first met: “Take me at my word.” And that’s when I felt at home. Because I recognized the meaning, though the words are a paraphrase; I’d heard it somewhere before.

And because I’ve long known: Without it, we are all shadows, alone.

Take Your Religion and Shove It Where?

I haven’t blogged much in the last year, but I’ve kept reading and observing. I’ve had a front-row seat to the anti-evangelical-post-evangelical-postmodern discussion online, in all its de-churched fury, passion and emotiveness.

Some of it is very thoughtful and important.

Some of it is just stupid.

If we don’t like the way we were treated somewhere, that doesn’t make it okay to treat the offender the same way. Doing so just proves we’re all criminally selfish at heart.

If we don’t like the lack of sound reasoning used among the more superstitious religionists, that doesn’t excuse our own indulgences with subpar thinking, paparazzi-style commentary, and pseudo-refutation. Those things are about knee-jerking, sense of entitlement and self-justification. Oh, and wanking. Not making a better world.

 

You’re either A or you’re not-A. Sticking a “religious” label on other people doesn’t make them not-people, and sticking a “post-religious” label on oneself doesn’t make one a fashionable rebel. People are people are people. Intellectual, spiritual and social institutions are just toys we build for displaying our peopleness, whether for better or for worse.

The question is whether we’re going to be decent people who critique ideas intelligently, or jerks who rant about religious topics as if the current-day, American context and interpretive lens is the only one that informs the meaning of sacred texts.

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House of Cards

It’s possible to wake up in the morning and go off to fool the world. I do it all the time. At some point, I look around me and can’t shake the feeling my whole life’s made of little lies. Fudge a little here, polish a little there. It is all so fragile.

And with that little here and little there, my world is firmly off track.

Nothing eases it. It’s like sandaper on the underside of the skin, scraping its way out into the open. It keeps me awake at night, revisiting moments and hidden paths of thought that should never have been. Revisiting them not for their costume-jewel treasure, but in a quiet agony.

Life is not always like a box of chocolates, sometimes it’s like a game of cards. A bluff and a gamble. There is an empty space behind the same old smile, and nothing in it but stale smoke, a broken mirror and raw hunger.

It’s a driving force that no friendship can restrain, no success can satisfy. Unconstrained moments briefly fill its emptiness, and then their waterless clouds dissipate. Nothing kills it.

It’s time for me to put the unfinished excess of summer away. I do this every year, and have for at least the last three. Not a few weeks ago, I wrote spring thoughts of things I longed to do. This year, finally, it would all come together and I’d be what I should be. My cards would line up for success. Well, I lose that bet every year. Once again, it was all swept away by other misadventures. I do not know if I’ve served the God I claim as my own, or been a simple failure as a human being. In many ways, it’s been a summer of practical atheism.

Leafing back through the digital pages of this journal (and I will explain next week why I’ve been doing that), it occurs to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve really stood for anything. I am a set of propositions, some eye-catchingly outrageous, some crafted into familiar tameness. I haven’t thrown my heart into it. I am nothing but a mask with an empty space full of cobwebs behind.

Life’s a gamble, and people have certain cards they play. This one for fortune, that one for happiness. By these divining tools, we hope our penny’s bought the future.

I have no future. I only have now, and now is dangling by a thread, drained by all the shoulds and woulds and those precious, costumed could’s. My penny’s spent.

Exhausted, I have crawled to bed with most tasks undone. My eyes refuse to focus. So does daily life. I’ve learned things this summer — learned my own limitations in all new ways. Learned how little I like myself, and how much I can pretend to. Learned how much I can isolate myself within my world of smoke and mirrors, while pretending to reach out.

I am a fraud. I’ll always be one. It’s inherent, part of the structure itself. This is not the real Cezanne you see. It’s a worthless digital reproduction. This is not real holiness. That’s God’s. What I am is something else.

I know there’s a day ahead when all that’s real will come to light. The house of cards will be shaken and fall down. The mask will be shattered. The straw will be burnt. And I will be thankful for it, even though I cry over the waste I’ve made of what could have been gold. But I just don’t have that magic, spinning straw into gold. Life’s not really a fairy tale.

As I recall, those delightful windfalls always had a price in any case. Currently, I almost feel that I’ve sold my firstborn or betrayed my true love. There is just so much to do, so much to be, and I am none of that.

That’s the truth. Much as I can probably finagle a way to make it look like that’s the lie, it’s the honest truth. I don’t like what I’ve become or where I’m headed. It smells like greasepaint and the wardrobe room.

Now, this is the part where I turn it all around and say something faith-filled. Something uplifting. That’s the formula we go by, right? Spin that straw into gold.

Well, there isn’t really a thing for me to say right now. Not because I can’t find it, but worse, I don’t want it. I know where to look. But there’s this craving eating at me from the inside, and it wants other things. It doesn’t care about fidelity or truth, only about what the smoke can veil and whether it can bluff its hand.

I long for space to be alone. And there’s nothing so isolating as sin.

There’s that scratch of sandpaper again. And a little fudging, and a little lie to cover it while I bleed out.

Under Shining Skies

There is no explaining the beginning of the north. You have to be there to know. In the early summer, it remains a deep, inky blue throughout the night. The light doesn’t fully disappear until 11:00 at night, at the end of June. Actually, the light never fully disappears. It arcs down from somewhere even more distant, over the curve of earth, and changes the very fabric of the sky.

By August, things have changed again. The light leaves around 9:00, and the ink has become black velvet, still luminous with moonshed. The stars are gems, and the night world is warm and silvery, bright as day.

We’re not very north at all, really. Iqaluit (Nunavut) is about 1400 miles north of here. These are the prairies, and we’re practically on the US border. Now, when we got our boat, folks laughed at us and wanted to know what we were going to do with a sailboat on the prairies. But last week, we went to sail the 33rd largest lake in the world (13th largest in North America). It’s about two and a half hours from us, halfway between our location and Winnipeg… at least, the southern tip is. We went northward.

Canada quickly becomes remote area outside the urban portions. While we were not really north, we were remote. Hours from home, where a cell phone is useless and you want to make sure you have enough fuel in the tank to get back to the nearest gas station. The lake’s name and the province’s come from an ancient memory, one found in cultures around the world.

Manitou.

Gitchi Manitou is the Great Spirit, an ancient conception of the prime mover. I think the lake is well-named. We stood on the windblown shores the first day, the children and I, and we threw rocks in the water. The sun angled low through stampeding clouds, and when it burst forth, it threw a rainbow in the spray of the splashing stones. And I thought of ancient tales from the other side of the world, tales of promise and benevolence. These are His waters.

There was evening, and there was morning. That was our first day. We sailed out and looked at islands. The air was lighter than feathers, and we drifted slowly, passing the time with songs sung to Him.

Night fell, and the sky calmed and cleared, shining like a dark horse’s coat caught in the silvering of the full moon. The moon coasted over the little manmade cove where the sailboat was docked, its disc sliding through the spars and rigging. The stars were diamond flecks, and I stood there on the dock in silence, watching them reflected in the shadowed, liquid depths. It was all that clear, both above and in the stillness of the lake. Eleven o’clock at night. The velvet season. The air gone cool, the summer’s end creeping in.

Winter is coming. The wind said so to me yesterday. Ahead is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. If you’re Canadian, you’ll probably hear the Huron Carol, written by Jean de Brebeuf in 1643 in which he wisely connects a creation tale from across the world to the terms of this wild land.

‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou
The holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you…

I live in the place where the Creator’s memory is not quite forgotten, thousands upon thousands of years later. The great waters bear His name. Day to day pours forth knowledge, and the quiet evenings have their own language. In the greening time, the skies shine deep and dark with a sun that never quite goes down, somewhere far in the north. Then they descend into a night that lasts sixteen hours, where the stars and storms rule. This world turns white, sandblasted with frozen water. The leaves die, all falls to stillness. The world becomes crystal, fragile, pure.

The wind blows where it wishes. You hear the sound of it in branch and eaves, scudding across roads nearly submerged in the shifting world of this blank, cold desert. You don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone born here.

Our lives revolve quietly. They turn on seasons, on the land, on days spent within the same few blocks of the same small city from birth to death. Or the same small town, which may consist of only a few blocks altogether. Life turns on rumour and tall tales full of good humour. And, sometimes, there are moments that reach down past the curve of the earth to catch us. Then, for a brief interlude, we are turned about in the hands of the truth.

How that happens, when it comes or why it goes, is beyond us. It’s a seasonal thing without any markers of moonlight and daylight. It just is. And I think I know why; it’s because there are some things that time itself cannot forget, even though we do.

This is the beginning of the north, the place of the Great Spirit. This is Manitoba.

Come to the Waters

We leave the city, loaded down with groceries and the secondhand treasures that the kids cherish finding. It’s raining again, only slowly clearing off. Every day for a month, it’s rained. The worst of it moves east as we come up the Hill, turn past the Timmy’s and hit the highway heading west. Like life, that. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.

The clouds move in massive arcs across the sky, drawn in thick brushstrokes of dull, dark blue. The opaque depths overhead lose their heaviness. The light breaks through, a quiet epiphany somewhere ahead.

On the new asphalt, the water lies like a river. The road is a liquid ribbon, glistening in the late day’s belated resurrection, its curve a perfect echo of the band of cloud overhead. The green hills rise to the right. The plain that leads to the river valley rolls away to the left. Long, clear white rays reach down in the distance, setting a tumble of veiny billows alight.

The road comes around the hill and curves the other direction, its dark river now a counterpoint to the slowly spreading arc of cloud above. They meet at the horizon, slowly wending one way and then the other as I travel forward. This is perfect, though nothing else is.

We are tired, missing My Love. It’s been a crazy month. The youngest have become downright fragile. The oldest, unruly. And myself, just weary. I am doing this without my partner, holding it together without the cords that bind us to one another. He can’t be here, and I am the backbone, brittle and bent as I am. It’s not much of a one. No wonder we are ready to fail each other constantly. Sin crouches at the door, whispering that it’s easier to soldier on in side-by-side separation. Numbness holds no heartache. But for me, there is no heartache as torturous as that numbness.

Nonetheless, the prairie still is what it is. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night pours forth knowledge. I look, and I can almost hear its song, waiting in the wings. It’s soft, like woodwinds and a chorus of strings; wild, like the far call of horns. And it is not the only thing that sings in my heart.

Sometimes, in words upon a page, there’s a distant rumble like the deep, free voice of thunder, something that shakes a person though you can’t quite hear it. When I read, I know the author; and when I know an author, sometimes I fall in love. I did with him. He is so unconstrained, so different, the author of everything. He’s not the only one I know best through his book, not the only one whose heart is hidden to the world except for in his writing. The world is that way, rushing by without a glance.

He’s just the one I fell in love with. He taught me to see behind the words.

He is a shepherd walking, a peasant king like they used to be, back when the world was young and washed clean. He’s strong and certain. His steps are sure over rocky, close-shorn ground. There are others working within sight, unspeaking, hard-eyed, bent under burdens they hate. Their fields fight the plow, their crops are thin. Their money has been spent buying passing lies. They look at him with resentment, striding so free between the stony walls of their property lines.

He calls out. “Ho! Everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters! And you who have no money, come! Buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost! Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen to me and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance! Incline your ear and come to me. Listen, that you may live! And I will make an everlasting covenant with you, according to the faithful mercies shown to David!”

The name of an obsolete king and kingdom makes no sense to the ear. The labourers turn away, returning to their fruitless work. There are passing rewards for which they’ll go into debt when the day is done. Immediate, obvious things. Sweet, shortlived, ruining the appetite for good food and spoiling the temperament to boot.

But he doesn’t quit.

“Seek the Lord while He may be found! Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him. And to our God, for He will abundantly pardon!”

He walks right up to me, there in the pages he’s written for me to read. I see dimly through the looking glass. He stands there behind the words, leaning on his shepherd’s staff, and he smiles. It’s perfect–everything’s wrong, but this is perfect. He leans toward me, and his dark eyes sparkle, full of gentle humour. His voice is quiet and warm.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” he says. “Nor are your ways my ways.”

A weight lifts off my heart. Thank God.

He looks up at this wide sky with its ever-shifting blue, and throws an arm upward, hand extended. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Thank God it’s so. Everything is wrong–but that’s just my opinion. There is so much more. He is relaxed, unafraid, full of easygoing patience. No rush. No worries.

There is music with him. I can’t quite hear it, but I can feel its rhythm. High flutes, deep drums, like the sounds of nations from times long gone and far away, all come to life again. There is a celebration coming somewhere behind him. I just can’t see it yet.

He sets his hands atop his staff, and his bearded chin on his hands. He smiles at me with that irrepressible twinkle. I know that if bad things were to come, that staff would become a club, and those hands would be weapons. They’ve defended me before. I know they will again. But right now, he’s full of joy. Because everything is right.

How can it be, when everything is wrong? And yet in the midst of storms, the fear falls away, and his peace is a wall within and around me.

“Will it be okay?” I whisper.

“Yes,” he says. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout–” he tilts his head wryly in the direction of the sour-faced labourers–“and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so will my word be which goes forth from my mouth. It will not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

Rains will come. They always do. Every day, this month. Like tears, or words on a page.

So here I am, on a road which is a river flowing skyward. And he’s with me. Waiting just behind the words, through a glass dimly. It’ll be okay. I can see it. He’s told me what will happen–he never gets tired of telling that story. I know why there’s an echo from far off, and that merriness in his eyes. I hear that rumble like thunder, deep and free, shaking the foundations of everything I thought I knew.

The shepherd straightens and walks on. I can see them coming behind him, pouring down over the hills like living streams. A dark river, a wending road in the wilderness. He tucks his staff beneath his arm, lifts a strange, ancient reed to his lips and plays a tune I can’t quite hear. He’s passing out of sight, but his flock is following.

For you will go out with joy
And be led forth with peace;
The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

~Isaiah 55

I have no trouble believing there will be new songs in heaven.

The World as Narrative

The world is a narrative, not a science project.

I’m aware there exist those who think science is the only path to knowledge. I don’t believe them even as they are saying it: there are too many things they do and believe that tell off on them. They love. They hate. They laugh. They cry. They thrill to a piece of music. They consider some things beautiful. They consider other things ugly. And they use logic to explain to me why science is the only path to knowledge.

The world comes to us as narrative. We watch the seventy years or so allotted to us unfold as part of the grand tale. People do not watch the news for nothing; there’s enough conflict in this worldly tale to keep the audience glued to their seats.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Hegel understood this—the Spirit of history creating the ages through the dialectic. Marx understood it—class warfare as the engine of the narrative. Nietzsche understood it in the struggle between Apollo and Dionysius. Nearly all, or arguably all, philosophy, theology, religion, science, conventional wisdom, common sense, and in general abstract thought is in some sense at least a partial attempt to describe or interpret the narrative. That’s just the way it is.

In the West, there are two old foes still at each other’s throats after two millennia, both vying for supremacy in the interpretation of the narrative. The first is a sweeping tragedy, older than its competitor, that conceives of the narrative as a tale of two nothings. Between the nothings, the narrative recounts life’s temporary rebellion against purposelessness, meaninglessness, and, of course, nothingness; a rebellion woefully outgunned, undersupplied, and pitted against a natural army of unrelenting and ultimate devastation.

This view was historically a minority report, at least by those who dared disclose it. Since the 19th century, however, it has surged in popularity with the advent of evolution and the successes of the sciences. Its ascendancy, though by no means settled, is now a viable possibility, and no competing philosophy succeeds in the mind of man without incorporating some of its elements. In this tale, life begins by chance through natural causes, rises from the mire, and ascends to sentience, only to one day in the far future (yes, I split infinitives, happily) witness its own death alongside the universe itself in a cosmic heat death. Nothingness to nothingness. Darkness to darkness. Meaningless to meaningless. Vanity of vanities…the narrative is authorless.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Its primary western competitor, Christianity, interprets the narrative quite differently. There was never a nothing, because God is. There never shall be a nothing, because God is. Under Christianity, the narrative is not a tragedy; it is a plotline told by an author, the author of life himself.

Does not this alter our view, not only of the narrative, but of our own roles as characters within the narrative? Do we not now have purpose in even the most mundane tasks? Does our pain, even enduring pain, not now have an eternal significance? Does not the right and wrong that we do really have meaning for time and eternity?

It does. The contrast between the two could not be clearer, and never the twain shall meet. And, as we see the narrative unfold, do we not really know deep down that all stories have authors?

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.

~Heb. 2:10


Contributed by MS Quixote, neighborhood cowboy philosopher and general charognard

Out to Sea…

A few months ago, I took a drive to the home I grew up in, located in a town along the midsection of Galveston Bay. It’s the center of my formative memories. The house was a few hundred yards from the bay, and my memories of it, though still sharp, fade a bit with each passing year.

It’s not there anymore. Neither is the chinaberry tree I spent hours in, neither the brick entryway gates, neither the back yard, neither anything else. It’s all gone, except for a slab.

It had already been changing: the new owners had relocated the driveway and modified several other features of the property. But in 2008, Hurricane Ike leveled everything and carried it out to sea.

What does this mean? Frankly, it means nothing if everything is in a state of becoming—if there is no state of being, nothing that gives permanence, nothing that grounds our existence. There are those who purport to believe this.

It means, then, that my formative memories are grounded only in temporality. They are only as real, lasting, and meaningful as the medium that holds them, and the media that holds them—the physical location, the photograph, the diary, my brain—are all fading away. They will all cease to exist. They will all be carried out to sea. Vanity of vanities…all is vanity.

Have I ever done a good deed? Have I ever committed a sin? When this earth is carried out to the dark and cold sea of the universe, they will cease to exist. Meaningless. Ungrounded. Without purpose. No wonder Solomon’s experience became Ecclesiastes.

Worse by far, the father I had in that home is gone as well.

Yet, there is another way. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

My life, my memories, my deeds, both good and ill, my departed loved ones, are not cast out upon the waves; they are grounded in the eternal I AM who does not change like shifting shadows. He is the rock which no wave can move or erode; the firm foundation upon which hope, purpose, and meaning are certain. A medium which cannot fade away, nor can moth, rust, or thief destroy. In fact, He controls the very wind and waves, and the sea itself. What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

One that holds the world in his hands. One that ensures that all is not vanity, and that I have not lived in vain. My strong tower, refuge, and home that cannot be carried to sea.

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.


Contributed by MS Quixote, neighborhood cowboy philosopher and general charognard