Inauguration Day

real-snowflake-under-microscope-wallpaper-2Inauguration Day

Rivers flow
Winds blow

Rain falls
Crows call

Icicles drip
Trains zip

Finches sing
Bells ring

Acorns wait
Enemies hate

Horses graze
Fires blaze

Men plow
Partners vow

Wounded cry
Shoppers buy

Poor dream
Dying scream

Friends care
Demons dare

Women pray
Children play

Sun sets
Strangers met

Babies sleep
Rich keep

Lovers kiss
Clouds drift

And high above the stone
droplets join hands in the cold
And freeze into six points
as they have done for all time
And drift—slow, slow—
pulled by the mighty earth
And descend in a whisper
to the shoulder of a man’s
black coat who says,
at that very moment,
“So help me God.”

Hoyt’s Crabapple Tree

crabapplesMy great-grandfather was known by his great-grandchildren as simply “Hoyt”—his given name. Why he wasn’t called Daddy Martin is a great and haunting family mystery. We called him by his first name only. At the time (1960s) this might have been considered an indication of disrespect but that notion is unthinkable—absolutely unthinkable.

He was a tall, lanky man who life would seem appallingly ordinary by today’s standards. He worked for Houston Lighting and Power back in the days of Reddy Kilowatt. To me, he always seemed old, always seemed patient, always seemed kind. He did not dress in the latest fashion, he eschewed all fancy trappings of any sort, he lived in a small frame house that, by today’s standards, would be embarrassingly “plain.” The rooms of their home were lined with wallpaper rather than paint (I can still recall the pattern!), and the house smelled that peculiar scent of “old people.”

He had a small porch at his front door and, from that door, I could always see two things which have been cemented in my memory. And both memories are connected with his care for his plants.

To the side of his porch, Hoyt would tie strings from the floor of the porch to the ceiling and plant morning glories that would twist their way up the string through the summer, decorating his house with large purple blossoms.

But it is his crabapple tree which has become the point of heritage. In his front yard, to the left of his door, there stood a crabapple tree that would reliably put forth pink blooms each spring, and then followed by ripening crabapples over the summer. Not one to waste anything, he’d have my great-grandmother “put up” those crabapples as deep red jelly in Mason jars. Of course, we’d then slather that jelly along with gobs of butter on my great-grandmother’s homemade (of course! What else was there?!) buttermilk biscuits.

I have many tangible memories that give me great pleasure and make me proud. (Read “Mother Midge’s Jewels” if you’ve forgotten!) But that crabapple tree is special. It is a living gift. Hoyt’s daughter took a seedling from that tree many years ago and planted it in her front yard. My mom and dad have one in their front yard. And guess what? I have two in my front yard. One for me, and one to pass on to my daughter. She can then pass it on to my grandsons.

That original tree has given its progeny over 60 years, carefully passed down through five generations so far. Is it only a tree? Hardly. For it brings to my mind, every time I see it, that life is not about the accumulation of possessions, not about a career, not about power or control or protection, but about love. Love passed down. Love freely given.

Steve Allen’s Prayer

praying-handsI collect quotes. Quotes of all sorts. A lot of quotes (34 pages so far). I collect quotes with which I disagree if the statement is profound and well said. Several years ago, I came across a comment by Steve Allen (1921-2000), the television host, musician, actor, comedian and writer. His thoughts on prayer are worth hearing:

“If you pray for rain long enough, it eventually does fall. If you pray for floodwaters to abate, they eventually do. The same happens in the absence of prayers.”

Allen was apparently raised Irish Catholic and become a “secular humanist” later in life. His comments on prayer are likely shared by many. In fact, I suspect many Christians share those same thoughts. Or, at least, like Allen, they think that prayer is about the “results.” After all, isn’t the point to obtain an affirmative answer from God? Isn’t the point for the rain to fall or the flood to recede? Isn’t the point to get what you want?

Throughout this year we will pray. Most of the time, our prayers are just rank selfishness—we ask and expect to get what we want. I am among the worst of sinners here. Sometimes, it is truly for others. A few times, it is actually honest. Rarely, if ever, do we say out loud that God has disappointed us. That God could have and should have given us the answer we wanted: a child’s repentance, a wife’s healing, or the overcoming in ourselves of persistent sin. Genuine prayers. Good prayers, in fact. But few, very few.

But there is, in fact, something better than even an affirmative answer to these noble prayers. Hear Evagrius the Solitary (AD 345-399):

“Often when I have prayed I have asked for what I thought was good, and persisted in my petition, stupidly importuning the will of God, and not leaving to Him to arrange things as he knows is best for me. But when I have obtained what I asked for, I have been very sorry that I did not ask for the will of God to be done; because the thing turned out not to be as I had thought….. Do not be distressed if you do not at once receive from God what you ask. He wishes to give you something better—to make you persevere in your prayer. For what is better than to enjoy the love of God and to be in communion with Him?”

Really? Better than the great job? Better than the receding flood, the new home, the healed child, the latest mission trip? Your ongoing and persistent prayers to God are better than these?

Yes.

For your persistence keeps you in communion with God, and there is nothing better at all.

 

 

FOMO

fomo6-1024x544It wasn’t but a few years ago that we received many Christmas letters. And those letters were stories of perfection. Perfect families leading perfect lives with perfect jobs and perfect children and a perfect faith all wrapped up in a perfect bow. These saccharine stories are no longer frequently sent as the annual update in a Christmas letter. Instead, we receive daily updates on Facebook.

In those distant days, you’d receive the glowing Christmas letters recounting in excruciating detail how perfect everyone’s lives were. How “Bob” just got promoted and will be traveling extensively all over the world (!) as he learns he has become absolutely indispensible to the success of his company. How his stock options have multiplied, now affording them a new cottage in the south of France (can you believe that homes there cost more than $1000 a square foot!). How “Joan’s” business has blossomed too, yet she is still able to work in a soup kitchen every Friday! And how they are both just so busy!! And their children—oh, their perfect children with perfect teeth and perfect jobs and perfect marriages and perfect dogs—bring more joy to their lives than they thought possible! Oh, joy!

Of course, we all know these tales are lies. And we know this because our own Christmas letters are lies—truncated and sanitized versions of our lives, so that we can appear that we “have it all together,” that we “have made it,” that we are “blessed.” And sometimes (frequently?) we have lied to ourselves so much that we really believe our own Christmas tales! Ha!

It is only through self-deceit that we can think so. Nothing like lying to yourself, admiring yourself, and adding a few humble brags to look more “spiritual.” But it’s all a joke, of course. We are still weak and needy. We are still chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14), thinking that even if we don’t have this perfect life, perhaps—just perhaps—we can convince others that we do, and maybe we can convince ourselves.

It never works. We know, deep down, that God sees. And we ourselves know, deep down, what is really there—the nagging disappointment, the emptiness of activities, that peculiar void. We keep those fears suppressed. It’s taken a huge amount of our time and a huge investment in distraction to suppress those failures, inadequacies, and sins (both sins of omission and commission). The repeated “missing of the mark.” The fear of death, of failure, of insignificance, of missing out.

Perhaps the best “New Year’s Resolution” is to confess all these things, to confess our dishonesty, to confess our attempts to satisfy ultimate desires of union with God with a pathetic “making of mud-pies in the gutter.”

We are far too easily pleased.

 

 

 

 

Respect for what?

normandy-us-cem01_800Last week, I discussed the original meaning of profane, from the Latin pro-fanus, meaning “in front of the temple”—which indicates that which is not sacred. Rather than indecency, it originally meant that which is ordinary and common. But all people have a sense of a certain decorum that must be present in certain situations. Obviously, we may disagree what those situations might be, but there are some places and times that demand it nonetheless.

The reason for (or meaning of) these rules of conduct is based in a sense of respect. As I asked last week, respect for what?

Joseph Pieper, as usual, has done some careful thinking on this:

“A place of worship usually demand silence; at any rate, uncontrolled shouting and laughter are frowned upon. At the entrance to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, tourists who are clad too scantily are turned back. In such places, the paraphernalia of public curiosity as well are usually eyed with suspicion. In many Christian churches, at least during services, taking pictures is not allowed; the same is true of orthodox Hinduism. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico even resent any camera-equipped visitor who dares so much as to approach the entrance of their underground ceremonial chamber.

“Should the stranger, the outsider, the uninitiated inquire as to the meaning of these rules of conduct, which may appear to him unreasonable and often quite cumbersome, he would be given answers that in spite of all variety in specific instances always agree on this: the reason is to show reverence and respect. Respect for what?”

And thus we’ve arrived at the crucial question: respect for what? Since Pieper has thought about this far more than me, I’ll continue with his thoughts:

“Respect for what? For something that at any rate requires and deserves homage and reverence. Should he persist in asking what concrete and specific reality there be that deserves such reverence, then, presumably, the answers [among the many different groups above] would no longer converge. But they would still unanimously inform the questioner about something that is (or should be) “sacred” to man, be it specified as the “majesty of death”, the dignity of the fatherland, the honor of fallen heroes, or directly as the tangible expression of something divine, if not of God himself.

“All such answers would indeed flow from the common basic conviction that within the world’s total framework of space and time, accessible to man, there do exist specific exceptional and separated spaces and times, distinct from the ordinary, and therefore possessing a special and unique dignity.”

So what are those spaces and times for you? And how do you express that reverence?

Profanum

roman-temple-of-garniI have been fascinated by word origins and their original meanings for a long time. Not because such knowledge is a useful tidbit at a social function (it isn’t) and not because such knowledge will impress others (it often backfires and just makes me look vain). Those unfortunate side effects, however, fail to dissuade me from looking at those origins. I have found them very helpful in how to think and how to act when it comes to contemporary discussions and problem solving.

Take “profanity” for example. It’s a word everyone knows since their early teenage years, when we all began to explore what language can do. Who hasn’t used a select word or two to startle our parents, make us look “grownup” (doesn’t do that either), or make a point to the extreme?

Joseph Pieper, in his fine first chapter of “In Search of the Sacred” reminds us that the original meaning of “profane”

“does not contain any hint of impropriety, for it indicated nothing else than the area in front of the temple (fanum, in Latin), in front of its gates, ‘outside.’”

In other words, the sacred place and object was inside the temple, everything else that was outside was literally “in front of the temple” (pro-fanus): profane, common, ordinary. Which is why profane language is often called “vulgar” which has a host of definitions nowadays, some of which are “common, popular, coarse, unrefined.” Vulgar comes from the word meaning the general public. This is not to suggest that the general public is indecent, but rather to point to a distinction made between what is sacred and what is profane, or what is vulgar, or—better for my point—what is ordinary.

Christians use this term to describe what belongs to God in order to distinguish it from the stuff of ordinary life. Now it is true that there is also a sense in which God is present in everything (He is omnipresent after all). Does that mean ”everything is sacred”? Many writers have noted that if that is true, if everything is sacred, then, in actuality, nothing is. Why? Because there is no distinction made in that declaration. How can something be truly sacred if there are no distinctions at all?

In his book, Pieper notes that all of us intuitively know that there are distinctions in life. Those demarcations may be that we do not wear old shorts, torn T-shirts and flip-flops when we have a personal meeting with the President. Or that we do not build a pipeline over a burial ground. Or that we do not play basketball in a place of worship.

Some may object, as Pieper notes, that these behaviors are mere social rules of conduct, of deference to others, or of expectations for our particular society. But actually, most of us can agree that they are signs of respect.

But now the obvious question: Respect for what?

Time and Weakness

timeLast week, I wrote on how language and thinking are interconnected—that language affects the manner, the way, and the process of our thinking. So, obviously, I have been intrigued by time of late (pun intended, and a poor one at that).

Last week I completed Eugene Vodolazkin’s curious novel “Laurus.” It’s quite a tale: set in medieval Russia with sudden appearances of stories or objects that come from another time, and a main character who intermittently knows future events. In the story, two travelers, on the way to the Holy Land, are discussing time:

“I am going to tell you something strange. It seems ever more to me that there is no time. Everything on earth exists outside of time, otherwise how could I know about the future that has not occurred? I think time is given to us by the grace of God so we will not get mixed up, because a person’s consciousness cannot take in all events at once. We are locked up in time because of our weakness.”

And later in their conversation, “We simply need to remember that only the material world needs time.”

What an intriguing idea: only the material world needs time! Such seems true. For God and all his created spiritual beings seem unbounded by time. Yet we are not. Or at least, not yet.

And I’ve never really thought about time being “necessary because of our weakness.” How I’ve longed for treasured moments to linger, for the hours of sweetness of my children’s play to last forever. For idyllic days to be more than a memory. For the energy of youth to be eternal, for the wisdom of older years to remain always vivid.

But maybe time is indeed given because of weakness. Maybe my natural body simply cannot cope with the complexity and the drama and the brightness of all events being an eternal now. This is no doubt true.

What happens when the promised General Resurrection of all peoples comes to pass, when believers are given “spiritual bodies”—a great mystery if there ever was one? Is this how our lives will be eternal? Because our bodies will be somehow spiritual, we are no longer weak and are therefore free of time?

And when I remember the promise that my body will change from a natural one to a spiritual body, I am nearly overwhelmed. Maybe I should be entirely overwhelmed: stunned at the goodness and greatness of God. Unlocked from time, unbound from its restrictions and decay, and enjoying a level of freedom I cannot imagine.

 

 

 

Time, Aliens, and Language

arrival-moviePARTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

If you have not yet seen the movie “Arrival,” and plan to do so, then you may want to read this blog after you see the movie. Not everything will be spoiled, just a little.

Amy Adams’ character has a special gift…or tool…or weapon: She can see into the future. There are several instances of this in the movie, sometimes making it difficult to determine what has passed and what is yet to come. This gift…or tool…or weapon plays a significant role and even is related to her job as a linguist trying to communicate with the aliens. The aliens’ verbal language (grunts and squeals) is unrelated to their “written” arrival-languagelanguage which is a circular ink squirt with numerous tails, knobs, and other irregularities. Like pictograms or ideograms, each stands for an idea or phrase.

These alien “words” may seem like nothing more than a fanciful scribble were it not for a comment she makes that our thinking is determined by our language. In other words, the language we speak actually affects the way we think. That’s a rather startling idea. My use of English and its particular format and sentence structure and pronouns and verb tenses actually causes me to think in a particular way—in an American-English way. And if my native tongue were Mandarin or the Khosian click language, I would naturally think in a different way.

At first, this seems like a great surprise, but a bit of reflection leads me to believe that it is entirely true. How often have we known someone from a different culture, a different language, who thinks very differently than us? And not just because they are from a unique culture and have had different experiences, but because they process information and arrive at conclusions in their own unique way.

So how is the ability to see into the future related to the way language affects our thinking? In the movie, the past, present, and future are sometimes blurred—or at least not independent of one another and not necessarily “sequential.” Obviously, this is very different from our experience and expectations. But the aliens have a particular reason for coming to Earth, and it is related to their view of time. And so their thinking about time is reflected in their language: their nonlinear view of time is reproduced in the non-linearity of their circular “words”—their words that fold back on themselves and never really end, never really stand alone.

What could such a movie scene have to do with me? Well, how does my thinking about time affect my life and my language now? How has my language affected the way I think and plan and live? And when it comes specifically to “time,” have I limited my thinking and my actions because I do not see myself as living an eternal life? An eternal life that begins now, in this life?

How would my life change if I really believe I now possess life eternal?

The Wind Seeks and Sings

pine-treesOne of my favorite sounds in East Texas is the rustle, whisper, and susurrus [what a word!] of winter’s wind through the pine needles far above my head. Every year I am surprised to hear it even though I’ve been looking forward to it for months. Just last week, while walking to the barn, I passed a pine bending slightly in the north wind. A deep pleasure covered me as I heard this favorite sound. It is peaceful yet promises more to come—more cold, more wind, more difficulty. Yet now, and for several more weeks, it is a comfort rather than a portent.

This very sound also transports me back to my youth and my visits to my grandparents. In particular, there was a giant, old pine near my grandfather’s hay barn in the meadows and forests north of Nacogdoches. Daddy Jack called it a “bull pine” since it was responsible for populating the surrounding acres with its progeny. We’d love to play in the hay barn, arranging and rearranging the hay bales (and ruining a few) in a child’s endless quest for fun. And when we quieted down, and lay high among the hay bales, we’d listen to the wind rush through his bull pine. That sound evokes memories of childhood, of play, of comfort, and—of course—of him.

But that same rushing wind can be heard in my granddad’s milk barn, now collapsing from long disuse. It’s filled with junk and broken milking equipment now. The sounds of lowing cows coming in to be milked and the smell of hay and fresh milk are long gone. This same winter wind can be disquieting, disruptive, worrisome, and lonesome. Then, it reminds us of failures, of loss, of disappointments, of past injuries, of missed opportunities for forgiveness and healing, and of almost-forgotten memories of love and pleasure.

I don’t know of anyone who has captures this complexity of the wind better than Christopher Wiman—a very fine poet. In fact, he’d be a fine poet if he had written only this single poem, “Small prayer in a hard wind”:

As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
only someone lost could find,

which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

seems both ghost of the life that happened there
and living spirit of this wasted place,

wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
that is open enough to receive it,

shatter me God into my thousand sounds . . .

The wind of my memory and my experience is like this. A wind that “seeks and sings every wound in the wood that is open enough to receive it”—every wound in my soul. It may be a hard wind, a wind that seems to blow me off course, a wind of heartache, a wind of love. May God bring these things to me…please.

A Selfish Bronze?

 77.AB.30

In 1961, a fishing trawler in the Adriatic Sea lifted its nets to discover an encrusted chunk of bronze that proved to be one of the great finds of Greek sculpture. After removing the deposits of the sea over the past 2000 years, there was an athletic male youth, one of the few Greek bronze sculptures to have survived. He is fully intact, except for his feet, and shows a level of refinement and skill such that it has been attributed to Lysippus, court sculpture of Alexander the Great. The youth stands with his weight on one foot, his right arm lifted as his hand reaches to the olive wreath encircling his head, which he has just won at the Olympic games. Originally, his eyes were bone or ivory with glass irises for color. His lips were covered in a thin layer of copper to make them more lifelike.

The entire sense is that of a stop-motion photograph, and the most intriguing sight is his right hand about to touch the wreath he has just won. It was not uncommon for the winner of these games to crown himself. Has he just done so, and now awaits the glory and acclamation of the crowd? Has he done so in vanity and pride? Or in simple recognition that he is, as a matter of fact, the winner?

But the winners of these games would often take their olive wreath and place it at an altar and devote it to the gods of Greece, in acknowledgment of gods’ role in sustaining the lives of all the people. So, perhaps, instead of his hand reaching for wreath as an act of self-congratulation and insufferable vanity, he is recognizing that the ultimate honor belongs to the gods.

Its fairly obvious how this might link to a Christian and God. When we have a great success, do we “crown ourselves” — pathetically cry out “Did you see me?” on social media, angle for recognition in our conversations, offer a lame humble-brag, or overtly boast of our achievements (sometimes even of our Christian works)?

Or, rather, do we humbly acknowledge that everything we have and everything we do and everything we are is dependent on God. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we have nothing except what we have been given. Our achievements are not really ours; our successes are not really ours. Paul writes simply yet profoundly, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)

Maybe this remarkable bronze youth, after resting two millennia in the sea, is reminding us of a greater love than the love of victory — our love of our Savior.

And John the Beloved, wrote not long after this bronze was cast, “The twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who loves forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’ ” (Revelation 4:9-10)