Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Beautiful in Character

So one locus of the beautiful in story is in character. In how the character responds to events and other characters. Other actors in the narrative.

Do we admire this character? Are we struck by his or her admirable actions or characteristics? Does this character do something admirable or achieve something admirable? Does this actor take us to a new or a fresh understanding of what it means to be human? What being human can mean? Has this character helped expand the field of human possibility for us?

You see, there is a hope in us for the admirable, which is a species of the beautiful. A hope in us that we will live among admirable others. That we ourselves may do something admirable from time to time. Isn’t there? Isn’t there is a wish to encounter a fellow human being who experiences what we experience or who experiences something similar to what we experience or who experiences something that we may conceivably experience and takes new ground. New at least for him or her. Ground that we are drawn to. That we perhaps have a chance of taking ourselves on at least one very good day.

And when we encounter this in narrative. The admirable actor. The remarkable character. Our sense of our own possibility is changed. Is enlarged. Is reopened and revised.

We do find the admirable beautiful. We experience pleasure in the admirable. We find ourselves to be greatly pleased that the admirable is possible. Can actually be achieved or stumbled upon or discovered in mere human beings. In deeply flawed people like us.

So we are always struck by acts of kindness, tenderness, and self-sacrifice in war, for example. Or acts or courage and wisdom and cleverness in war. War is the real world in extremis. An exaggerated version of the non-war world, in which death is always at work. Always cutting living things, including human beings, down. War is the accelerated death process, the entropic process, that stalks the cosmos like a great darkness, made obvious. Visible. Noisy. Visually arresting. Physically devastating. Brutal. Cruel. Indiscriminate. War is Death himself made obvious for all to see and hear and touch and smell and taste.

So war and conflict of any kind are the fitting backdrop to all dramatic action. To the revelation of all character. Because the choices are freighted. They are heavy with the weight of potentially deadly consequences. The possibility of death as a consequence to the good that one might do. Or try to do.

And so the cost of making the admirable choice is highest in war. Off the battlefield, it is often potentially high, but in war it is routinely and obviously high. And this makes the admirable choice most difficult. Most starkly dangerous. Most clearly a test of courage. A test of the sense of who one is and who one will be no matter what. No matter the cost.

And it’s the tendency for all of us in extremis. Of all of us when our lives may be on the line. Or our jobs. Or our family’s well-being. Or our own well-being. To become vicious. To become less than admirable. To become brutal and vengeful and destructive. To become callous and cutting and rude. To become self-centered and selfish and greedy and petty and vindictive. To engage in atrocities. To become defensive and reactive and egoistic. Egotistic. Prideful. To strike and keep on striking. To take arms against the sea of our troubles and by doing so think we will end them.

And so when we encounter a middle aged man in a documentary about Darfur whose children have been killed and who is not lashing back, who is not hateful and violent, who is not overwhelmed with anger but who is overwhelmed with grief instead. Who is grateful instead. Who has the courage to speak to a bunch of self-centered Americans about his loss and his grief instead. We find we are weak in the knees with admiration for this man. With pity for this man. With a desire to identify with this man and help him. Be with him. Understand him. And to enlarge ourselves with his being. To bring him somehow into ourselves and make our understanding of him into an understanding of the person we might possibly be.

And so when we encounter a boy. A young man. Who we learn about on the news. A boy who was a fine athlete in high school. Who enlisted to serve his country. To defend his country. And we find that he has thrown himself on a grenade to save an Iraqi family. And who has died. We find our hearts opening. We find our eyes filling and stinging. We find our sense of who we might be ourselves. To be. Well. Different. Possibly better.

Or we read Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Or we go see a production of it. And we see Hal. Prince Hal. The boy engaged in dissolute behavior. Engaged in wasting time and money and. Engaged in behavior that is not helping his father when his father needs his help. So we see him in an immature condition. In a selfish and self-absorbed and narcissistic condition. In a hedonistic condition. But then we are relieved to see him change. To see something admirable emerge within him. To see him exhibit courage and love for his father. A willingness to sacrifice. To risk his well-being for his father and his country. To go to war for his father and his country.

Or we see a movie like Schindler’s List. In which a German business man, a Nazi, during World War II, obtains contracts from the German military through bribes. He’s greedy and ignorant. He’s without particular skill or knowledge. He relies on Jews to operate his factory and make the goods for delivery to the military. And as he engages in business with the Polish Jews in his factory and as he gets to know these people, they become human to him. He develops friendships with them. And then he begins to help them escape the death machine of the Germans.

In the end, he spends his fortune on bribes to save more than a 1000 Jews from the death camps. And watching this. Watching this man change from a man like you and me. A man of no particular morality. No particular goodness. No particular virtue. A lazy man. A greedy man. Into something else again. Someone quite admirable. Quite willing to die himself, possibly, to save others. We feel the eyes begin to sting and water. We feel our hearts open. We feel that we are in the presence of the beautiful.

Or we watch a movie like The Kite Runner. Or we read the novel. And we participate in the cowardice of the protagonist. The cowardice and cruelty and selfishness and paralysis of Amir. And we are overwhelmed with the selflessness and patience and devotion and humility and forgiveness and faithfulness of Hassan. Greatness of spirit that we thought little boys had no idea of. And then as the grown Amir goes into Afghanistan and rescues Hassan’s son, Sohrab, we are with him. We participate with him in his fear and his outrage and his determination not to leave Afghanistan without Sohrab. To fight the Taliban for Sohrab’s life no matter what. No matter that Amir may be killed in the process.

And we are joyous at this risk-taking. We are proud of him and of ourselves for this risk-taking. And we are relieved when he has brought Sohrab out of Afghanistan. We finally are able to admire Amir, when this action is complete. And as he goes running after the kite that Sohrab cuts, back in the United States. In the closing scene. As he demonstrates his willingness to serve this child, this son of his boyhood friend whom he wronged. We are finally able to admire him. And we find that what he has done is courageous. We find that what he is now doing as he chases Sohrab’s kite is full of humility and kindness and generosity and love. And we therefore find ourselves once again in the presence of the beautiful.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Beautiful in Story

Where does the beautiful come from in a story? I remember as a graduate student in literature speaking with an undergraduate majoring in art history. We were talking about the beautiful. And she was shocked when I said that the beautiful was strewn like a hurricane of raindrops throughout world literature.

She thought painting, sculpture, music, and dance certainly contained the beautiful. Or maybe didn’t contain it in every sense of that word but embodied it or represented it. Or were capable of attaining, in a privileged sense, the beautiful.

But she had never thought about stories containing beauty. Oh, she would grant that lyric poetry had beauty in it, perhaps by virtue of its music or its connection to music. And perhaps drama, to the extent that it was in some measure still connected to and contained dance and music.

But prose fiction? That sort of literature was so far from its supposed musical and dance origins for her that my claim was a surprise. It ran up against the idea that narrative is prosaic and the prosaic is banal, quotidian, profane, and that it is a species of the ugly.

So for her my claim could not be true. Everyday life and the representation of everyday life in literature could not, by definition, have any significant beauty in it. Any essential or intensive or deliberate or extensive or sustained beauty in it. Any sustained aesthetic pleasure—gloss experience of the beautiful—found in it. To the extent beauty could be found in the quotidian, it was in her mind either accidental or trivial or incidental. Not central. And could therefore not be central in the literature that represents it.

But of course, everyone grows up, and after awhile, even the most stubborn ideas give way to repeated personal experience. To the reality of human experience. I don’t know if that particular undergraduate changed her mind about literature, but I hope she did. Recognizing the beautiful in story can certainly change one’s attitude toward the narrative of one’s own particular life and the narratives of the lives of others.

Last weekend when I was visiting my daughter, she put on a snippet of a documentary on Darfur. The director of The Trojan Women had encouraged the actors to research Darfur and other current conflicts, including the war in Iraq. The idea was for them to get a sense of what it feels like to be a victim of war.

So this snippet she put on was an interview with a middle aged man, thin from malnutrition, who spoke quite good English. He was a refugee from the violence in Darfur and was in a refugee camp in a neighboring country. He described a night of bombing that killed his children when he was still in Darfur.

He thanked the American camera crew for all the food that America was providing. He spoke about how he and his fellow refugees were Muslims and how they had received no food or other assistance from any Muslim countries. And of course their lives had been destroyed by fellow Muslims. And this seemed to be a source of great pain to him. He winced as he spoke about this.

And it was beautiful. This man was beautiful. This emaciated man struggling not to shed tears in front of the camera crew. In front of us. This survivor of unwarranted violence. Of cruelty. Of atrocity. A man who could not return to his home. Whose home had been destroyed. Whose family had been destroyed. Whose country was denied to him. Whose life in many respects had been destroyed.

Yet this man was persevering. He was grateful and wanted the American people to know he was grateful. And he wanted to retain his dignity. So when the interview was over, he walked away. Not rudely. Not inconsiderately. But politely. With dignity. But clearly overcome. He walked around a nearby building so that the camera would not catch him crying.

The camera followed him anyway, at a distance. Trust Americans to be that callous and inconsiderate and impolite. He had is back mostly turned to the camera there on the other side of the building. Wiping his eyes occasionally, trying to regain control. Looking down. Looking out into the wasteland distance. Shaking his head.

And this is of course why my daughter is an actor. To bring this news. To bring this sort of truth. To bring the experience of what it means to be human to others. To bring the possibly beautiful and the possibly ugly in human experience to us and show us this. Help us think about this. Help us get this down deep in our hearts, where actual understanding happens. Help us understand how the beautiful and the ugly—the good and the evil—are bound up together somehow in the narratives of our lives. In the narratives of our beings.

If we will allow ourselves to see what is here. Allow ourselves to be open to our own experience. To the experience of others. To be vulnerable to emotion and understanding. No matter how terrible. No matter how painful. No matter how inconsistent with our ideas.

At the end of the snippet, she burst into tears. To some extent, as she watched the thin black man in the documentary, she saw also a possible me, she said. A me who was not privileged to be born in America. A me who was dirt poor. Who lived in the dirt. Whose family had been destroyed. And who could do nothing about any of this. Who could not do anything about his own suffering. Except to. Well. Experience it and persevere. Cry. Cry for the loss of his children. And be grateful. Grateful for the food that was flowing into the camp to feed the surviving children.

And so what she was doing was taking this personally. Taking this beautiful man and his pain personally by thinking of him and me as one man. And why was she doing this? To get into character, of course. She is an actor, after all.

What was it Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, one of my favorite plays? Here is part of what he wrote:

“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, …”

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Trojan Women

Another quick weekend trip to visit Katharine, my actress daughter, at her school. Her acting school. And to see her in her last student play: The Trojan Women.

This is Euripides’ anti-war play. His commentary, perhaps, on a contemporary war being waged by Athens against others (in 415 B.C.) by examining the horror and terror and grief and destruction and evil resulting from a war that was then over for a millennium or so—the Trojan War.

A war that the Greeks prosecuted with extreme prejudice, to use a modern turn of phrase. A war that may be myth or may have actually happened. The scholars and the archeologists continue to debate the issue.

The version of the play that I saw was an adaptation. Oh, you know. People dressed, some of them, in suits and modern military uniforms, mixed in with costumes resembling garb that might conceivably have been worn by women 3000 or more years ago in what is now northwest Turkey. An adaptation in the sense that a bunch of modern ideas are heaved in concerning winning and losing and concerning. Oh. You get the idea that the adaptor/translator has read his Maslow or read people who have read their Maslow.

The idea that each of us has a unique self that wants to flower fully. That each of us has a unique identity. Or some such stuff.

This particular production begins with a recording of Hitler saying something indistinguishable. Klieg lights are used occasionally: lights of high brightness that one associates with movies, theater, and prisoner of war camps and perhaps concentration camps.

The main characters are Hecuba (the former queen of Troy, Priam’s widow), Cassandra (Hecuba’s daughter who is a virgin and a devout worshipper of Pallas Athena), Andromache (widow of the chief Trojan warrior, Hector, son of Hecuba and Priam), and Helen (the wife of the Spartan king, Menelaus, and the lover of Paris, also the son of Priam and Hecuba, who stole Helen from Menelaus).

The action of the play is focused on these four women being hauled off to the Greek ships, following the defeat of Troy. Following the killing of all of the men of Troy. They are all prizes for Greek kings.

During the time covered by the play, Hecuba learns of the death of her daughter, Polyxena—a sacrifice burned on Achilles’ funeral pyre. Andromache’s young son is taken from her and killed. Menelaus chooses not to kill Helen in the present, but will return her to Sparta for an exemplary execution by families of the Spartans killed in the siege of Troy. And Troy itself is burned.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of a ruined Troy. The women stay temporarily in huts by the sea, between the walls of Troy and the sea. Prisoners and slaves of the Greeks, awaiting their disposition.

And so, what is this? This is the destruction of love, the destruction of beauty, of meaning, of the life’s work of these women, of their lives. They are reduced to howling, wailing, grieving, prophesying, remembering the dead past, and dreading their terrible future. Reduced to no hope or to only the hope one might find in revenge. Reduced to an awareness that to stay alive they will have to do things that will make them hate themselves and their lives.

And Helen? The other women demand her death of Menelaus. And she gives a rather brilliant defense of herself. The Trojan women wish to blame her for the evil that has befallen them, but Helen rightly points out that Hecuba gave birth to Paris, who abducted her, that she herself had tried to leave Troy on a number of occasions but was prevented from doing so, and that she was deceived by Aphrodite (who had much earlier promised Paris that he could have Helen for his wife) into being willing to go away with Paris.

And then we learn in the dialog between Poseidon and Athena that they will cooperate in destroying most of the Greeks before they can reach home. Poseidon has it in for them because they have destroyed Troy, which he had helped found and build. And Athena has it in for them now, after helping them throughout the war, because they have raped or intend to rape Cassandra, a devoted worshipper, and because they desecrated her temple when disembarking from the huge wooden horse, which had been placed by the Trojans in her temple as an offering.

So it is quite a. How shall I say this. It’s quite a beautiful play. One in which the love and courage and pure stamina of the main characters—the women of Troy—last. They live. They triumph. These traits outlive all the efforts of the Greeks. Of Pallas Athena. They persevere even to this day. The endurance of these women! The persistence of their love! Their unparalleled courage to meet their present and their future head on and live. Continue to live. Continue to take one step after another.

And because of this, they and the story they inhabit are beautiful. Paradoxically beautiful. Out of this paradox comes an intensity. A vibrancy. An immediacy. An insistent actuality. A vitality. That would not be possible without all the evil and all the suffering.

My daughter played Helen. And she did so admirably. Defiantly. Valiantly. Beautifully. And she did this during a time of significant physical pain because of a problem that had persisted for months. It was finally diagnosed and treated within the last few weeks. There was some concern about cancer, but that was ruled out. And when we visited her, there on the inside of her apartment door was a new piece of paper thumb-tacked to it with these large words written in red marker: “Say YES and fall fearlessly forward.”

When I read this, I turned to her and said it reminded me of something in Conrad. Lord Jim. “In the destructive element immerse.” She asked me to repeat it and then wrote it down.

A fuller context of the Conrad quote is this: “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns—nicht wahr? …No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hand and feet in the water make the deep deep sea keep you up. So you ask me—how to be? …I will tell you… In the destructive element immerse. That is the way. To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream—and so—even to the very end.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Speaking of Love

Speaking of love, I was reading the sayings of Love himself the other day, The Words of Jesus, which is just out from Phyllis Tickle. The four Gospels pared back down to almost the bare words of Jesus, with the narrative removed, as his sayings were originally, before they were written down. Before they became the Gospels more or less as we know them today.

And between you and me, what a treasure trove the bit is at the beginning, before Phyllis lets Jesus rip. It’s called “Reflections on the Words of Jesus.” An introduction of sorts, but an introduction as you rarely get one. An introduction that. Well. Opens us up to some extraordinarily powerful observations from a remarkable and prodigiously faithful Christian.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Phyllis for several years, and for those of you who haven’t had that grace bestowed upon you, let me say that you are sorely missing out on a dimension of what it means to be a faithful Christian. What a blessing she is!

But if you don’t know her, you still have the opportunity of being touched quite powerfully by her, if you read this introduction. Let me quote a few sentences so that you can get a feeling for what I’m talking about.

“Whatever Jesus of Nazareth was and is, He is not, and never has been, a systematic theologian. …we are inaccurate, if not arrogant and stupid, in thinking that consistency is necessary, let alone a necessary restriction upon God. More probably, it now seems to me, consistency is a consolation slavishly desired by those of us who are still caught within time and the confines of personal perception.”

“We have become lost in a wilderness of scholarship that forgot to bring faith and humility along for the trek.”

“It would seem, moreover, that there is a strong probability that all of it—healing, resurrecting, and bringing good news—is going to offend, drive away, or grieve many of those who hear Him or hear about Him. Together, they are to winnow out those who can dare the Kingdom from those who cannot.”

“Yet here, in a sizeable portion of His whole range of Sayings, is Jesus, Son of God, seeming to teach that outside of ‘now’ is ‘is.’ And after ‘now’ is done with us and we with it—as soon as space-time’s ‘now’ is passed through—everyone of us is.”

“…I had no ‘picture’ in my head for this offensive, yearning, intense Jesus. I had no image that would or could accommodate the now-obvious emphasis and definitions He placed on the end and the hereafter. A God burning to be fathomed and yet with so grizzly a message was not a Jesus I had ever seen before.”

There is more. Much more. Delightful, insightful stuff. Understandings that I would not have come to on my own and that shed powerful new light on Jesus and what he means. What he means to mean. What he means by love. And what his love means.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Odd How Aesthetics

Odd how aesthetics creeps in, isn’t it? How the organ playing weaves all through Jack’s life and love. How music is the metaphor for worship. The medium of worship. God love. And work love. And how near the end, he’s unsatisfied—in a way—that his ending and Ethel’s ending do not coincide. How he seems to have an almost. Oh, I don’t know.

An almost aesthetic disappointment now toward the end of his life. As if the poem of his life were over. The meaning of his life. The central action of his life. His one major other person love of his life is over.

And so now, what is he supposed to do? Live his life in dribs and drabs of days? Inhabit the cigar stub of his life, now that the tasty part of the cigar has been smoked? Inhabit the smoldering bit there in the ashtray of his life? There’s something wrong here, he seems to feel. Something aesthetically and morally out of kilter. Now that the love of his life is gone and God has made him endure. Made him live on alone.

The closure isn’t right. The poem’s end is ragged, in a way. It’s reaching closure poorly to his way of thinking. The denouement smolders and stinks. I think what he wants is a satisfying KABOOM! A fit and dramatic and emphatic ending is what he’s looking for.

A character in search of an ending. In search of an aesthetically pleasing ending. A meaningful ending.

Funny how aesthetics makes its way into love. Into what we do. What we think we’re doing. How we’re doing it or think we’re doing it. Into what we think of our lives and the world. The world we inhabit. How love and beauty and meaning seem to move through our understanding together. Through our lives together.

I was reading something in National Geographic the other day that brought this same thought to mind, but it emphasized another element in the conundrum. In the gestalt. Something on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) being constructed right now in Switzerland and France. Seventeen mile circumference. A particle accelerator they’ll use to.

Well, this really is beyond me. So please don’t be unkind, if you are an astrophysicist or a quantum physicist or something. I’m probably not saying this right.

But what this thing is. Or what people seem to expect it to be. Is something that will tell us a lot about how the universe was in its early stages, shortly after the Big Bang. Shortly after a lot of something seemed to be created out of a lot of nothing.

Before there were energy and matter as we know them now and before there was a person named Planck or Heisenberg or Einstein or Dirac or Feynman and before there were cartoons or software or rap music or the iPhone.

It’s supposed, among other things, to create something called a Higgs or the God particle. Something that today some people think is expressed as a field and that may have something to do with dark energy. Energy that hasn’t been detectable directly so far but that must be there because galaxies don’t work without it. Or can’t theoretically work without it. Maybe this is the better way to say it.

And the writer of this article in National Geographic quotes a guy by the name of George Smoot. A professor who helped design an experiment that confirmed the Big Bang and got the Nobel Prize for it. The writer of this particular article—a guy by the name of Joel Achenbach—asks Professor Smoot if he thinks some of the really basic questions about matter and the universe and so forth will ever be answered.

And George Smoot says—and I kid you not: “It depends on how I’m feeling on any particular day. But every day I go to work I’m making a bet that the universe is simple, symmetric, and aesthetically pleasing—a universe that we humans, with our limited perspective, will someday understand.”

What a wonderful thing for an astrophysicist and a cosmologist to say! Here’s a guy who is basically saying that his work is a bet. Work is a bet that what one is working toward is ultimately aesthetically pleasing. And to some extent one’s life is a bet too, to the extent that one’s work is one’s life. One’s life and what one loves are a bet that this all is beautiful. All of it partakes of the beautiful. All of it is worthwhile because it seeks or helps to reveal the beautiful.
One’s work and one’s life as means to approach and to understand something that one hopes will turn out to be beautiful.

And if it doesn’t, what’s the point? He seems to imply. If he isn’t helping to discover or uncover a universe characterized by beauty, what’s the point?

So what I’m suggesting here is that this beauty business. This partners with love. It partners with work. It partners with meaning. These ideas and the feelings associated with them. The deep motives in us. Are all bound up together in one simple Mobius strip. Four related ideas like the four sides of a rectangular strip of paper that is twisted and the ends attached to make one surface. One thing.

One idea with various constituents. The beauty-love-meaning-work idea. Feeling. The idea that informs us humans. The feeling that informs our work. Informs our relationships with others. Informs our relationship with God. Our understanding of what we do and where we are.

Our sense of the story in which we find ourselves. Informs our sense of what is meaningful and what is not. Informs our sense of what is beautiful and what is not. Informs our sense of our place in the world, our place in the story of the world, our purpose, our contribution, our role, our redemption. In a way.

An idea-feeling that ramifies. That extends like a field maybe. Or like a string. Or a pipe. Or maybe four strings. Four pipes. Sounding four notes simultaneously that form a chord. Or that played separately as notes or combined in various ways make for a simple song. A song that might be played on a panpipe or a lyre. A song that forms the way we are. A song that’s deep in us. That plays over and over again with infinite variations.

A beautiful and simple song that sounds a long way off sometimes. Then closer. Then far away again. That we listen for. That we seek to echo somehow in what we do. In who we are. In how we love. In what we make. And how we make it. In what we understand. And what we come to. Where we get to. How we proceed out of our beginnings. And finally how we end.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jack's Love Poem


I call him Jack, but that isn’t his name. Who has written one of the most difficult and dangerous and life-obsessed love poems ever written to God: His life. His marriage to Ethel, who died more than a year ago now. His life playing the organ through it all. Through all the grinding days. The days that wanted to grind him down to dust.

His life being the father to a Vietnam vet. Jake, I’ll call him. Jake who came back shockingly and completely changed. Who came back angry and destroyed and spooky and distant and inward and violent. It was as if he’d been turned literally inside out. As though he faced inward now and his heart and guts and liver and brain and blood vessels and muscle tissue and bones and nerves and ligaments were all that you could see.

It was as if he had turned his back on everything, turned away from everyone, become a different kind of being. A being who had hidden Jack’s and Ethels son away and had taken his place. Had replaced him. Permanently. This grotesque being fashioned somewhere else. A space alien who had removed their son and now was pretending to be him.

And then of course there’s Jake’s life, a kind of echo of Jack’s. He’s lived for years now with a wife with rheumatoid arthritis. A wife whose joints are disintegrating. Who can’t stand up for long without falling down and often breaking something. Who Jake takes care of as best he can. A wife whose mother died just a little while ago. Who lived with Jake and his rheumatoid wife for the last months so that they both could take care of her.

But back to Jack. The cut up. The spastic man. Who tells me the other evening about how when he would be walking down the street with Ethel and Jake and Ethel’s mother, he’d go into one of his spastic routines. His acting routines. Acting like he was having a spastic attack. Which he thought hilarious. Which struck his funny bone in such a way that he would just about fall down laughing to see the reactions.

His son would cross the street and walk parallel to them. He wasn’t interested in being associated with an idiot like his father. Ethel would move out, walking on briskly ahead. She also was embarrassed. But his mother-in-law. Her fancy was usually tickled. So she stuck around. She was happy to be associated with this hilarious idiot. This antic dolt. This man who was barely able to keep himself upright, hysterically laughing at his own idiocy.

The organist. Playing a glorious noise to God. Who began as a part-time preacher to put himself through college. Who was a clergyman’s assistant in the Army, after college, during the Korean war. Who came out of the Army to a job selling organs because it paid a heck of a lot better than preaching. Who then recruited for a business college, driving a thousand miles a week to prospect all the high schools in his territory. Who then gave lessons on organ and piano to young and old alike for years and years.

Who for a few years nursed his Ethel as she failed. And who now wonders what he’s doing here. Now that his poem appears to be finished. For good or ill or maybe a little bit of both, he says. Who wonders now just what the heck he’s supposed to do. Who enjoys a cigar now and then and a glass of Irish whiskey with ice and a splash of water.

Who is pleased to moan about the way things are. And who wonders aloud from time to time, after a cigar and a glass of whiskey, Now just what the heck am I supposed to do?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Annie Dillard's Love Poem

Annie Dillard.

Who has written one of the most difficult and dangerous and death-obsessed love poems ever written to God: Holy the Firm.

A love poem about a moth burned up in a candle, a girl burned in an airplane crash, a baptism on a beach. A love poem about the horror in life. The endless horror in it. But also the paradoxical holiness. The holiness that informs everything. The loveliness that is everywhere like the air and the sea and the sky. The evidence of God’s terrible and brilliant and deadly and glorious making everywhere evident.

And again I want to cry. The tightened throat. The watery eyes. The fear and the gratitude, the love and the outrage mingled together in the one emotion, the one paradox of creation. The one knowing of the beauty and the sorrow of living our lives here, (the one koan of) God’s created beings. Slammed simultaneously with violence and death and hideousness and loveliness and holiness and a beauty that is so real and present and startling that it drives one to one’s knees in gratitude and love and agony and sorrow. Here’s a sample:

“He lifts from the water. Water beads on his shoulders. I see the water in balls as heavy as planets, a billion beads of water as weighty as worlds, and he lifts them up on his back as he rises. He stands wet in the water. Each one bead is transparent, and each has a world, or the same world, light and alive and apparent inside the drop: it is all there ever could be, moving at once, past and future, and all the people. I can look into any sphere and see people stream past me, and cool my eyes with colors and the sight of the world in spectacle perishing ever, and ever renewed. I do; I deepen into a drop and see all that time contains, all the faces and deeps of the worlds and all the earth’s contents, every landscape and room, everything living or made or fashioned, all past and future stars, and especially faces, faces like the cells of everything, faces pouring past me talking, and going, and gone. And I am gone.

“For outside it is bright. The surface of things outside the drops has fused. Christ himself and the others, and the brown warm wind, and hair, sky, the beach, the shattered water—all this has fused. It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable. There is no speech or language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion, nor time. There is only this everything. There is only this, and its bright and multiple noise.”

What Annie makes clear is that one does not have to go looking for annihilation and disintegration. It is here. Right here. In the air we breathe. In the earth we walk upon and manipulate to make the things with which we surround ourselves in this life as though to make a kind of stockade of things against the great dark howling all around. The dark vacuum of space and the predatory creatures and processes and agents that surround us right here. Right here where we live.

But in this annihilation and disintegration. In this God-made earth. There is also the in-built redemption in the holiness here. The inherent gorgeousness of this making. Of God’s own making. Giving us evidence that this violence and this horror is not without God: “Held, held fast by love in the world like a moth in wax, your life a wick, your head on fire with prayer, held utterly, outside and in, you sleep alone, if you call that alone, you cry God.”

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Paul's Love Poem


Who has written one of the finest love poems ever written: 1 Corinthians 13.

A love poem about love. A love poem to Jesus. A love poem to God. To Love Himself.

Please permit me to repeat it here. There is such loveliness in this that I sometimes feel something in my throat and in my eyes. An aching in my being. As I read it. As I allow it to penetrate down into me. And then a growing feeling that I must explode. Must become a being no longer held separate from God. But must atomize. Must disintegrate into the very being of God. That this is what I really want. What my destiny truly is.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

And I say that what I want is to disintegrate into the being of God because. Because this is what it feels like. Partly. To be in love with God. When one looks into the eyes of God, one finds great gentleness and great power and great righteousness and great beauty and great forgiveness and great love. Remarkable, improbable, ridiculous, felicitous, and infinite love. Patient and steadfast and unalloyed and fortunate love.

This sense that one must fly apart and into the very being of God is what it feels like to recognize in God a love that is unconditional and that refuses moderation. That is undignified and immodest. That is obvious and intimate and shameless. That is complete and that will not change.

One feels that one cannot remain who one is and be loved in this way. One must. Oh. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the show Star Trek or any of the movies. But what they have in there is a gizmo that atomizes you. And that. Oh, I don’t know. Turns you into bits of light or something. And then transports you to someplace else.

Well, that’s what I’m talking about. Disintegrating in the machine of God’s being. Becoming something that is no longer me, exactly, but is still me in a sense. In a radically modified sense. Because if and when I get reassembled, I’ve got to believe I’ll be someone who only remotely resembles the person I am now. Or perhaps this is just a hope. Or maybe it’s both logic and hope.

And so this feels like something I must do. Not something I’d like to do. Or something it would be nice to do or instructive to do or entertaining to do. There is some instinct or drive or. As I say. Some feeling of destiny implied here. Some motive implied here. Something that seeks a certain sort of fulfillment. Something built in from the beginning.

Creative annihilation, maybe. Love transformation. Ridding oneself of one’s insufficiency. Leaving that behind.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

So What Is It Anyways?

But love. What is it? What are we talking about here?

I mean. I remember a Saturday Night Live skit from way back when electrons and the cathode ray tube were still being invented. In it, Steve Martin and Bill Murray play two tourists looking off camera.

The skit starts with one of them saying: “What the hell is that? [squints] What the hell is that? [chuckling to himself] What’s that danged thing doing here! How did that get here? What the hell is that? [squints] What the hell is that? How’d that danged deal get here? [turns off camera] Hey! Come on over here and look at this deal!”

It goes on from there. In a kind of a Saturday Night Live meets Waiting for Godot manner. One of the funniest skits I’ve ever seen. Falling down funny.

And it’s funny because so much of life is just like this. We are confronted by ideas and events and people and emotions and objects and situations that we have no idea how to understand. They seem like they were placed here by aliens. Space aliens with either malicious or comical intent.

Love is like that, I think. It’s one of those things we point to like a bunch of cockamamie tourists who are trying to make sense of it.

Last night in a home fellowship I go to, we were ostensibly talking about Exodus. But then we talked about children and what a tough time our semi-grown children are having. And then somehow we ended up talking about love and what it means. Somebody said, Well, first of all, it’s an emotion.

Emotion? Somebody else said. Emotion? How can love be an emotion?

After a polite silence. A very careful and studied silence. The first person said, Well. Isn’t it? I mean don’t we say to our wives or our husbands or our parents or our children, I love you?

But that’s not what it means in the Bible.

What do you mean?

Emotions come and go. They’re not stable.

John says God is love. How can love be an emotion, if it’s God? God isn’t an emotion.

Maybe John means that metaphorically.

What? What do you mean?

Maybe God is in particular the author of love.

He’s in particular the author of everything.

Doesn’t God expect us to act in a certain way?

What do you mean?

Doesn’t Jesus when he says to love God and love one another. Isn’t he more suggesting that we act a certain way rather than feel a certain way?

You mean commanding?


You mean that he is commanding us to act in a certain way?

What way is that?

I don’t know. Carefully, maybe.

Prayerfully, maybe.

Forgivingly and generously, maybe.

How about graciously?

How about courteously?

How about humbly?

How about reverently?

How about dependently?

So if love isn’t an emotion, is it indifferent? I mean. If we don’t feel a positive emotion toward someone. Or a negative emotion, for that matter. Are we indifferent?

Consider this. A husband and wife married for many years. Have grown children together. That sort of thing. Rich emotional life that has developed over the years. The husband forgets his wife’s birthday. She’s upset. Angry. Hurt. Does she love him when she’s feeling angry and hurt?

I kind of think of it like this. A song. In which love is the bass. The bass guitar line of the song. There are other instruments that carry most of the rhythm and melody. But the bass notes are the love that runs all through it.

You mean we might have all kinds of emotions through the song, including love.

Yeah, something like that.

Hey, are you a bass player?

Doesn’t saying that love isn’t an emotion sound like saying that you can have paint without color?


Well, you can have paint without any color, but what’s the point of a paint without color?

You mean house paint?

No. Painting paint.


Paint that you use to paint a picture.

Maybe there are several essential characteristics of love, and emotion is one of them.

But it isn’t the only one?


Or maybe love is first one thing and then another.

What do you mean?

Maybe love is first a decision, but then it’s an emotion.

Or maybe it’s an hypothesis first. And then if the hypothesis is confirmed, it then becomes a commitment.

I think love is behavior. It’s obedience.

Obedient behavior?

Or maybe it’s faithful behavior?

I think love is what the Holy Spirit does.

Or asks us to do.

Or does through us.

Or maybe is, in the first place.

In the first place?

In the beginning.

The beginning of what.

Of everything.


I don’t know. I may not be remembering everything correctly. But this is what I think I remember.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

So This Love Thing

So I guess what I’m saying is that this love thing. This love of God thing. This love of others thing. This God’s love for us thing.

It just plain swamps everything else.

Just plain submerges intellect and study and learning and discipline and being good and trying to be good and not being good enough and even sin and temptation and sinfulness and sin lists and sin management programs and church management and church fiscal responsibility and self-improvement programs and spiritual laws and the history of the church and knowledge of the history of the church and knowledge of Hebrew and knowledge of ancient Greek and orthodoxy and being right and Bible study and Bible knowledge and theology and dogma and doctrine and the creeds and all the rest of the religious life. All the accoutrements. All of that interior decoration of the Christian life. Under water.

Drowns it all completely. Buries all that doodadism. All that bric-a-brac. All those knickknacks that we sometimes focus our attention on in our Christian lives. Inundates all of this.

Love is the dramatic move of God into our lives. It’s the way he takes up residence in us. It’s how we know he really is here with us. In us. Among us. Apart from miracles and visions and words of knowledge and that sort of thing.

Love is the everyday way he lets us know he’s here. It’s available to us any time. Every time. All the time. And it’s reciprocal. In other words, the way it works is that we open our hearts. (I know this is metaphorical, but metaphor is the only way to get at this heart of God stuff. It’s the way he constructs language and experience and knowledge and being. It’s the way he’s designed the known universe.)

We open our hearts to him. We welcome him. We inwardly or outwardly or both acknowledge and thank him for his presence. His love. And what comes inside his love: his forgiveness, his generosity, his faithfulness, his comfort, his grace, his beauty, his beneficence. And as we welcome him in, his love comes flooding in. Miraculously flooding in. Burying us in his water of life. Burying who we are or were in his water of life.

Oh, I’m not saying not to read the Bible or not to study the Bible or not to read everyone from Origen and Augustine and Pelagius to N.T. Wright and Annie Dillard and John Polkinghorne. Or not to engage in energetic theological and Biblical discussions. Or not to wrestle with Paul or James or Peter. Or not to formulate your own theological and intellectual understanding of things. In fact, I am quite adamantly advocating all of this and much, much more.

But I am saying that all through this business of being Christian and understanding what this being Christian business is all about, that God’s love and the seeking of his love—his holy presence—and the expressing of our love to him and the radiating of his love outward from us and into the world is what makes the interior decoration possibly delightful. Possibly pleasing. Possibly enjoyable. Possibly possible.

Think of God’s love for us and our love for him and our love for one another as the architectural structure of our lives and our faith. Our faith-lives. And think of the rest of it as the interior decoration in that architectural structure. That home we build with God and one another in which to live and worship. And think of love as being composed of elements such as forgiveness and generosity and compassion and beauty and grace and gentleness and faithfulness and so forth, just as an architectural structure is composed of support beams and walls and windows and roof and floors and foundation and ceilings and so forth.

Please understand that God’s greatest gift to us is his love. And his love is not understandable through one metaphor or one coherent cluster of metaphors. An understanding of this is only approachable through a myriad of metaphors. A great wide variety of metaphors.

Which is why Paul is so difficult, in part. Because he is trying to compress many metaphors at once into a complex trope. His reason gives way, and he thinks with his heart, which reaches for a language to talk about God’s love for us and our love for him, and he comes up with locutions that are endlessly difficult and recursive. Locutions that remind me of the mystical language of quantum physics. Complex constructions that arise from powerful experience. Mystical experience of God. Experience that has blasted his intellect and shot it through with emotion.

But at the risk of mixing my metaphors, let me use another one. Love is also the way we understand God. The way we understand one another. It is the God-given instrumentality for experiencing one another and God authentically. Intimately. Genuinely. Who was that fellow? Martin Buber? The I-Thou guy?

The notion is that only through love can we hope to help God build his Kingdom. The Kingdom of God—the Kingdom of Heaven—which Jesus can’t stop talking about, is another way and a more powerful way (at least in the first century) of talking about the architectural structure that God has in mind for our lives. And the building material for this. The principal material out of which such a Kingdom or the New Jerusalem or the New Creation is built is something that is more powerful and more real and more present and more enduring and more glorious and more beautiful and more dazzling and more brilliant than anything in the current material creation.

And that immaterial super-material is love.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


The other day, a pastor friend’s homily was blatantly theological. And among his PowerPoint charts was one on which he spent a lot of time. One that had two timelines on it, one above the other.

Both started with Creation. Both had Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection plotted. Both had a smiley face indicating the present. A you-are-here sort of a thing. Both had the Second Coming.

They differed in that the top one had the words “Heaven” and “Hell” as outcomes of the Second Coming, while the bottom one had something like “Resurrection” and “Satan and his Dominions” as outcomes of the Second Coming. And on the bottom one there ended up being shading between the smiley face and the Second Coming indicating the time of “Activated Inaugurated Eschatology,” in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

It wasn’t clear from the pastor’s talk what relation the two timelines had to one another and the outcomes. Particularly the outcomes. What relation the different outcomes had to one another.

I couldn’t tell why he had both timelines and sets of outcomes on the chart. I usually stay for both services, because I enjoy the worship and the fellowship. And because it’s my job as an usher and greeter. So in the second service, I listened more attentively than usual to make sure I hadn’t missed something important.

Then I spoke with him afterward and told him that I was confused. I didn’t understand. And I know he was uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable too. I really don’t like doing things like this. But if I’m confused, I’ve got to believe others would be confused also. And I said so.

He said that it’s complicated and difficult to explain in the twenty or thirty minutes allocated. All he could hope to do was to present an overview.

Well, I’m not his homily coach. I mean he specifically hasn’t asked me to help him with his homilies. So I let it drop.

But here’s a guy who hasn’t gone to seminary. I mean, I know something of his background. He went one semester or so to a seminary, and that’s it. God told him to start a church, and he did. It’s thriving now, but it wasn’t always so. In fact, you might say for many of the years he’s had the church, he has barely kept out of bankruptcy court, having financed the thing in the early years largely on personal credit cards.

Look Bill, he’s said. I’m not all that well-read. I wasn’t what you’d call an A student in college. I told God that, hey. It would be better all the way around if you spoke to someone else about this.

And now years and years later, the credit card balances still haven’t been paid off completely. They’re dwindling but still are substantial.

And the guy and his wife. The two senior pastors. They are full of the heart of God. It shines forth from them. An intense white light full of yellows modulating to red. They have deep compassion for all of us. For the people God has entrusted to their care.

And they raised their children through this period. Through this prolonged penury. This period of prolonged wobbling on the edge of the financial abyss, of extended anxiety about whether they would be able to pay their bills. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year.

Do you know how that can wear on you? Can wear you down to nothing but twitchiness and shallow breathing? Down to something like a creature chased and harassed to within an inch of its life?

But I detected nothing like that in them. Only the constant light of God shining on all things equally.

But why did they do this? Why do they still do this with Yahoos like me telling them that their homilies are sometimes less than perfect, less than rigorous, less than well explained?

So why do they do this with other Yahoos hectoring about the ice in the entry way in the winter, complaining about the muddiness in the sound of the band, moaning about the lighting, huffing about how major decisions around here are made without proper input and review?

Why do they continue to do this tightrope walk each Sunday 20 feet or so above us? With no net?

Well, let me tell you. They do it because they love God. And they love us. And God told them to do this. They’re doing their level best to be faithful. To do this as well as they are able.

And by the way, they are very able. They are much more able to extend God’s love and compassion and comfort and forgiveness to his people than many of the more learned and polished and gleaming pastors I have known.

Much more able to discern the Holy Spirit’s presence, his activity, his intention than most other pastors I’ve known.

Much more able to humble themselves before God and before his mysteries and before us and our petty inanities than many other pastors I know and have known.

And here they are every Sunday and all week long. Above us in their high wire work. Depending on God. Depending on us. Not to walk away. Not to turn our backs. To hold our arms out in case there’s a misstep, ready to break their fall.