Mother Midge’s Jewels

Fifty years ago, Mother Midge died suddenly. She was my maternal grandmother and her unexpected death shocked and shook our family. I was a boy of 10 at the time, and our collective grief was devastating. My brother and sister and I wept when we lost one who had been so very special. She doted on us as all wonderful grandparents do—and we missed her dearly.

img_1644To celebrate her life, my brother and I decided to make a cake at my mother’s house. As they say, “this was no ordinary cake”! It was Mother Midge’s secret Waldorf-Astoria cake, the recipe having been stolen long ago from its namesake’s kitchen, then spirited down to a small east Texas town and into the waiting hands of Mother Midge. The cake takes a long time to make from scratch. It has some odd ingredients: vinegar, buttermilk, salt—at least, these seemed odd to me, a man who never bakes cakes. And as its crowning glory, this cake is a brilliant red, and I mean brilliant. It contains bottles of red food coloring to give it an otherworldly ruby color. Even the icing is unusual, made almost like a sweetened roux topped with coconut. To say it is merely delicious is almost offensive.

Of course, much of this cake’s allure is because it had been made by the hand of my beloved grandmother. But life is like that, isn’t it? Material memories give a very close connection to something immaterial—the love of my grandmother toward me. And the “ordinary” material thing becomes an expression of something extravagant.

And thus each token, each memento becomes a treasure.

img_1659As a boy, she once gave me a small bottle of “jewels.” Now this bottle was an old, cloudy, scarred medicine bottle with a plastic cap. And the jewels, which I have kept for over 50 years might not be found at Tiffany’s. It took me a few hours over the past two days to dig that small bottle out of my “collection” in the attic. And as I opened the bottle, the jewels were actually much as I had remembered. There were two fake diamond earrings, a tiny blue mirror, a button with an inset crystal, and shards of fragmented marbles. That might not set hearts afire, but they were Mother Midge’s jewels! Which she had given to me!

And what memories flood back! To see her standing in her kitchen cooking coconut pie and chicken and dumplings. To watch “Hogan’s Heroes” on her black and white (!) TV together. To play with a plastic Donald Duck shampoo bottle in the tub. To hear her sing “Sweetly Sings the Donkey.” To smell her house and to play in the fallen sycamore leaves in the backyard. All these tangible objects and the attendant memories are physical reminders of something no longer present. But I believe they are something more.

They are an expression of a peculiar truth: that God uses his material creation to communicate and express his transcendent truth. Not just in the form of childhood memories. This world is His epiphany. It is a means of his revelation, his power, and his presence. And I can sense it. And I can know.

The True Myth

I include this conversation between J. R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis with little comment. These two great thinkers and writers have far more to say than I, plus they say it far better. The occasion was a meeting between three men and would lead to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Tolkien argues that truth and Truth (revelation) can sometimes be expressed only in myth: 

This is a 1967 photo of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien is the author of "The Lord of the Rings" and an Oxford University Professor. (AP Photo)lewis

This meeting, which was to have such a revolutionary impact on Lewis’s life, took place on 19 September 1931 after Lewis had invited Tolkien and Dyson to dine at his rooms in Magdalen College. After dinner the three men went for a walk beside the river and discussed the nature and purpose of myth. Lewis explained that he felt the power of myths, but that they were ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths were ‘lies, even though lies breathed through silver.’

No,’ Tolkien replied emphatically. ‘They are not.’

Tolkien resumes, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. ‘We have come from God [continued Tolkien], and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of true light, the eternal truth that is with God.’ Since we are made in the image of God, and since God is the Creator, part of the imageness of God in us is the gift of creativity. The creation — or, more correctly, the sub-creation — of stories or myths is merely a reflection of the image of the Creator in us. As such, although ‘myths may be misguided, . . . they steer however shakily towards the true harbour,’ whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil.

. . . Listening almost spellbound as Tolkien expounded his philosophy of myth, Lewis felt the foundation of his own theistic philosophy crumble into dust before the force of his friend’s arguments.

. . . Tolkien developed his argument to explain that the story of Christ was the True Myth, a myth that works in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened — a myth that existed in the realm of fact as well as in the realm of truth. In the same way that men unraveled the truth through the weaving of story, God revealed the Truth through the weaving of history.

. . . Tolkien . . . had shown that pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth. Yet, most astonishing of all, Tolkien maintained that Christianity was exactly the same except for the enormous difference that the poet who invented it was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history.

 

Source: http://sullivanfiles.net/lewis/mythastruth.pdf

See also: Silence and Beauty, Makoto Fujimura, 187-188, who quotes from C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Joseph Pearce, 2013.

 

The Hat Tip

hat tipI have read C. S. Lewis’ book Screwtape several times over these past years. I marvel at his ability to imagine himself to be a demon (he once admitted that it was a difficult and draining experience), but I am more impressed with his ability to see the truth about himself in the man being tempted by Screwtape and Wormwood. He was fallible. He was weak. He was flawed. Often our faults are invisible to us. We can only see them when they are pointed out by another. But when our sins are noted by a friend or loved one, our first reaction is usually hostile. Writers can approach our deficiencies “from a slant” and cause us to see these proverbial blind spots.

In Lewis’ Screwtape, two great scenes spring to mind which consistently remind me of certain sins: when the new Christian is becoming humble, Screwtape advises Wormwood to cultivate pride in his humility. (You almost certainly know someone who is proud of being humble—someone who reminds you of his or her own humility in every conversation, “Oh, it was nothing”). Lewis also reminds us that there is more than one form of gluttony: gluttony of excess and gluttony of delicacy. We may not struggle with over-eating, but instead we insist upon “only the best”: gluten free-products when we don’t have celiac disease, difficult–to-find craft beers, cheddar from the village of Cheddar, artisanal breads made with stone ground wheat, and Kopi Luwak (civet coffee, aka “cat-poop-coffee,” where the coffee bean has been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet, thus “enhancing” the flavor. I am not kidding). You know the type.

But for an honest assessment, or should I say a brutally honest assessment, I don’t think anyone can surpass Albert Camus tragic protagonist in the curious novel “The Fall.” In this book there is a single speaker who relates a portion of his life story to another who simply listens. The character’s (and Camus’) insight into himself, his thinking, his behavior, and his ethics is shockingly—and uncomfortably—honest.

He understands himself to be the sort of person who has an unimpeachable external code of ethics but inside is a monster approaching the maw of hell. He reminds us that “style, like sheer silk, too often hides eczema.” And then he proceeds to show how he is attempting to hide his eczema with a covering of good deeds. He is courteous to all. By trade, he is an attorney, who takes on pro bono cases, and who rejoices “in the feeling of the law, in being right, in the joy of self-esteem.” He takes “pleasure in his own excellence.” And having been recognized by others as a kind, caring, unselfish soul (which he only appears to be), he realizes “as a result of being showered with blessings, I felt marked out for long and uninterrupted success.” (Facebook, anyone?) He reflects that his “popularity is so necessary to my contentment.” And he finally admits that “I never remember anything but myself,” and “In short, I want to dominate in all things.”

His true nature is revealed in his encounter with a blind man whom he assisted in crossing the street, and his later reflection on the fact that all of us will one day display our true profession and identity [our “sign”]:

“You, for instance, mon cher compatriote, stop and think of what your sign would be. You are silent? Well, you’ll tell me later on. I know mine in any case: a double face, a charming Janus, and above it the motto of the house: ‘Don’t rely on it.’ On my cards: ‘Jean-Baptiste Clamence, play actor.’ Why, shortly after the evening I told you about, I discovered something. When I would leave a blind man on the sidewalk to which I had conveyed him, I used to tip my hat to him. Obviously the hat tipping wasn’t intended for him, since he couldn’t see it. To whom was it addressed? To the public. After playing my part, I would take the bow. Not bad, eh?'”

So, the obvious question, what part are you playing? What is my sign? Such superb writing can convict us of our duplicity—even when we are otherwise blind to it.

 

Sea Lullaby

grey wavesMy last post (August 8, 2016) mentioned Shusaku Endo’s description of the sea, and today we turn to another. How does the sea appear to us? Is it a body of water of certain salinity, certain size, certain depth, containing certain creatures? Of course the sea can be described in terms of science—and that is a great thing, by the way. That sort of description is just incomplete: for our relationship to the sea has been complex over the centuries. It may be beautiful; it may be terrifying. It may be peaceful; it may be violent. It may remind us of quiet days at the beach, or it may destroy all we know. It is this emotional and spiritual impact of the sea which must also be included in our understanding. How best to do that? With a set of facts?

My own thinking on the sea is inescapably tied to my 15-year-old neighbor Stephen who drowned in Galveston Bay when I was a boy. His death destroyed his family.

A few years later, my 11th grade high school English teacher etched one poetic image of the sea that reinforced the tragedy of Stephen’s death and has remained vivid for over 40 years. Mrs. Cora Decker was an extraordinary woman with very high expectations of her students. Because we both loved and feared her (actually, we feared disappointing her because we loved her), we rarely failed in our memorization of American poetry.

One of the poems we learned was written by Elinor Wylie (1885-1928), a beautiful woman of many scandals. Her poem “Sea Lullaby” personifies the sea, and, like Endo, she can focus our senses in an intense and dramatic way. There is a similarity with Endo’s sea which ignores our human cries, but her title suggests the sea might be a comfort to a young child, perhaps sung at night to lull him to sleep. But there is no comfort here.

Sea Lullaby

The old moon is tarnished
With smoke of the flood,
The dead leaves are varnished
With colour like blood,

A treacherous smiler
With teeth white as milk,
A savage beguiler
In sheathings of silk,

The sea creeps to pillage,
She leaps on her prey;
A child of the village
Was murdered today.

She came up to meet him
In a smooth golden cloak,
She choked him and beat him
To death, for a joke.

Her bright locks were tangled,
She shouted for joy,
With one hand she strangled
A strong little boy.

Now in silence she lingers
Beside him all night
To wash her long fingers
In silvery light.

Without Form and Void: the Sea and Silence

Dark-Blue-WatersI don’t know that I have read a book quite like Silence, Shusaku Endo’s brilliant work of 1966. I am very grateful it as been translated to English, though it is a frankly unsettling read that will keep you thinking for years (as it has me). But it is not disturbing in the typical sense of creepy, voyeuristic, or gratuitously violent. Oh, there is violence, but in his novel you feel as if you are experiencing the violence, the confusion, and the uncertainty of the characters. It should be mandatory reading for everyone, but particularly for all Christians.

The work excels on many levels, but Endo is a particular master at depicting the sea.

And that brings me to Genesis 1:2. I was recently preparing a lesson on this verse and was reflecting on the curious passage, often misinterpreted:

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Being 21st century Americans we are apt to understand the phrase “without form and void” as a representation of the earth in some sort of gaseous and cosmic cloud. Instead, the verse points to the fact that the earth’s initial characteristic was that it was absolutely uninhabitable by man. It was void, i.e. it was “barren and uninhabited,” which might be a clearer understanding according to the Hebrew (see Isaiah 45:18; Deuteronomy 32:10; Jeremiah 4:23-26). Further there was darkness over the face of the deep. And “deep” refers to raging waters, roaring waves, floods and the abyss—all conditions hostile to man. Man could not live in this sort of world.

And so back to Endo. Here is a single selection from his book showing how he depicts the threatening nature of the sea—vivid, terrifying, silent, uncaring. In this passage, two men have been staked to posts in the sea, and left to die as the tide moves in,

“The moaning sometimes ceased. Mokichi had not even the strength to encourage himself with a hymn like that of yesterday. Yet after an hour of silence the voice was again brought to the ears of the people by the wind. Hearing this sound, like that of an animal, the peasants trembled and wept. In the afternoon the tide gradually comes in again; the black, cold color of the sea deepens; the stakes seem to sink into the water. The white foaming waves, swirling past the stakes, break on the sand, and a white bird, skimming over the surface of the sea, flies far, far away. And with this all is over….And the sea, which killed them surges on uncannily, in silence.”

Such ominous words. This depicts well the sense of Genesis 1:2—a place which is not yet ready for man and woman, those made in his very image. But God is poised to act.

 

 

 

 

The Dun Cow

space-1It is, of course, frankly ridiculous and embarrassing to believe that the earth is the center of the universe. That the entire cosmos revolves around the earth in a series of spheres. That these spheres are powered by the love of God. That there is even a sort of music associated with their movements, as when we sing the old hymn “This Is My Father’s World,”

This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.

Science has shown us that this idea, formulated by Ptolemy and adopted by the church, is just wrong. Silly people, we all know that the universe is an unfathomably vast place, that our galaxy is just one among millions, that our sun is just one among billions, and that our tiny and insignificant planet’s path across this blackness is unknown and aimless. There is no real purpose to earth’s path—or ours for that matter.

But although science has proven this old view as factual incorrect, is there another truth to be found in a geo-centric universe? Is there another perspective?

The Bible certainly seems to think so. The creation story of Genesis 1-3 is clearly seen from the perspective of earthbound mankind. The light and the heavenly bodies are significant only for what relationship they have to earth—and to man. The origin of the sun and the moon and the stars is not explained, except to point out their use as signs “for seasons, and for days and years,” and “to give light upon the earth” (Gen 1:14-15). These astronomical entities serve man. The earth is given as Paradise for men and women and their offspring to live and to love. Isaiah reminds us (45:18):

For thus says the LORD,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!)

Without the knowledge that ours is a special creation and we a special people, we are adrift and have no purpose. Walter Wangerin, in his allegory The Book of the Dun Cow, writes,

“For in those days the earth was still fixed in the absolute center of the universe. It had not yet been cracked loose from that holy place, to be sent whirling—wild, helpless, and ignorant—among the blind stars. And the sun still traveled around the moored earth, so that days and nights belonged to the earth and to the creatures thereon, not to a ball of silent fire. The clouds were still considered to flow at very great heights, halfway between the moon and the waters below; and God still chose to walk among the clouds, striding, like a man who strides through his garden in the sweet evening.

“Many tens of thousands of creatures lived on this still, unmoving earth. These were the animals, Chauntecleer among them, whom God noticed in his passage above. And the glory of it was that they were there for a purpose.”

God has not made us alone in an infinite cosmos, nothing more than extremely lucky bag of biochemicals on a shockingly accommodating planet. Instead, as Moses sang in Deuteronomy 32:10, when he reflected on God’s protection of his people,

“He encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.”

If there is a

Fox in mistThe word of the day from dictionary.com on July 30, 2016 was “aesthete.” I can rarely think of this word without considering a Calvin and Hobbes Sunday comic strip from 1989. Calvin and Hobbes are stomping and slopping in the mud, as every six-year-old boy and his tiger should do, when Calvin turns to his smiling tiger and says, “Let’s face it, we’re aesthetes.”

It is a rather awkward word, not often used, and means “a person who has or professes to have refined sensitivity toward the beauties of art or nature.”

Aesthete is derived from the Greek aisthēts, meaning “one who perceives.”

It is very difficult to perceive, to see what is really there, to see what is real. Gary Hastings in his book Going Up the Holy Mountain, reminds us of an uncomfortable truth: “Most of us only see what our minds let us see, not what’s there. We aren’t aware of what truly exists, were only aware of what we think exists.”

Most of us never notice anything unusual or startling in this remarkable world. It takes the artist or poet to see and perceive and then remind us with pictures or words of something long forgotten or never known.

Consider what Laura Vargas, in her poem “If there is a” [in her collection An Animal of the Sixth Day], sees on a winter morning:

If there is a God, he has a lot to answer for.
Crocuses, purple cups that bloom through snow.
Cerulean, cornflower, azure, turquoise, ultramarine.
Mist off round haybales along the Sand Road
just after 5 a.m., when the foxes go to ground.
Not only the obvious evils, but also these other things
we should not mistake for easy.

The first line is arresting, as if she might be angry or disappointed with God for some recent disaster. But she abruptly switches our thinking, noting instead the stark beauty of purple against white. And are we even aware of the multitudinous shades of blue? And have we regarded mist, haybales and foxes as something of wonder? Without question, there are many evils in this cold world—we are dutifully notified every hour by “Breaking News.” But there are many wonders—and none of them easy.

How much would our life change if we saw everything in this way? What would be our frame of mind? Our expectations? About what would we worry?

Can we be “one who perceives”?

What is beauty?

grayhairWhat is beauty? Is it a matter of opinion? The idea of beauty as being subjective is an ancient one and can be traced at least back to the third century before Christ. Its modern form was stated in a book by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford written in 1878, titled Molly Bawn. The statement is known to all of us: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Being Americans who relish the right to individual thinking, this well-known sentence is our creed. But is it biblical? May Christians believe in the subjectivity of beauty? Obviously, this question is a complex one, and I can offer only a few comments in this short space, and I’ll defer to some thoughts from William Dyrness and his book Visual Faith.

Dyrness distinguishes between the Greek view of beauty and the biblical view. The modern view of beauty, based on the Greek idea, is that beauty is primarily visual, whereas the Hebrew idea included sensations of light, color, sound, smell and even taste (e.g. Ps 34:8, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!”). But even more significant than these sensory experiences, was that beauty included that which was “fitting” or “proper”:

“…frequently the beautiful is simply what we could call “the fitting” or “the proper”: gray hair on an old man, strength in a youth, virtue in a woman, words well spoken [Proverbs 20:29]. Here is where the biblical view and the Greek view stand in the greatest possible contrast. In the Old Testament, an object or event is not beautiful because it conforms to a formal ideal but because it reflects in its small way the wholeness of the created order. Something is lovely if it displays the integrity that characterizes creation and in turn reflects God’s own righteousness.”

In fact, the KJV of Proverbs 20:29 reads,

“The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the gray head.”

Those italics are mine, but they highlight the beauty inherent in the “fittedness” of gray hair for an old man. Most of us would think of gray hair as beautiful only if it is a certain shade of gray (other shades might be considered “ugly”—perhaps gray with yellow tones), but the biblical idea is the fittedness of gray hair for an old man. How this contrasts with our modern (and erroneous) perceptions of beauty—particularly for women: an absurd and narrowly defined look of a certain visual appearance for which less than 2% qualify. Is this how God defines beauty?

And what of the qualities of wholeness, integrity and righteousness that Dyrness writes? The connection between righteousness points to the inseparability of beauty from goodness. The connection of integrity points to the link between beauty and truth. It is these three: beauty, truth and goodness which define the one who is truly beautiful.

“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD…”

On Skies

cloudIn John Ruskin’s short essay “Of Truth of Skies,” he remarks that so few of us know about the sky—specifically the sky above us right now.

“It is the part of creation in which nature has done more for the sake of pleasing man, more for the sole and evident purpose of talking to him and teaching him, than in any other of her works, and it is just the part in which we least attend to her.”

Several years ago, we moved to a rural area in East Texas. Here the skies, as everywhere, vary greatly. As I write this, it is “gray.” There was much-needed rain last night and clouds remain. But if I look just a little closer, I see that the gray is not uniform. There are varying intensities and varying shades, yet no distinct clouds—just one great covering of my world. As the day brightens, the gray is becoming warmer, shifting because of the sun behind it.

Last evening, however, the sky was altogether different: brilliant with abstract arrangement of clouds, vivid oranges, deep scarlet, streaks of yellow and of sunrays. All this is a delight to our eyes and our minds, yet is usually not noticed at all—especially by those living in cities where views are obstructed by man’s constructions and by man’s distractions.

Ruskin reminds us that even for those who have no access to great art, the sky is ever-present:

“…there is not a moment of any day of our lives, when nature is not producing scene after scene, picture after picture, glory after glory, and working still upon such exquisite and constant principles of the most perfect beauty, that it is quite certain it is all done for us, and intended for our perpetual pleasure. And every man, wherever placed, however far from other sources of interest or of beauty, has this doing for him constantly. The noblest scenes of the earth can be seen and known by but a few; it is not intended that man should live always in the midst of them; he injures them by his presence, he ceases to feel them if he be always with them: but the sky is for all…”

So why is it that we fail to see? How have we become blind to these wonders? Why do we no longer marvel at the sky? What is the source of our distraction? And what is that distraction’s cost? Is there anything revealed by our contemplation of the gift of the sky? Ruskin comments,

“…we look upon all by which it speaks to us more clearly than the brutes, upon all which bears witness to the intention of the Supreme that we are to receive more from the covering vault than the light and the dew which we share with the weed and the worm, only as a succession of meaningless and monotonous accident, too common and too vain to be worthy of a moment of watchfulness, or a glance of admiration.”