My Curious Rebellion

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My brother and I once had matching police costumes. This was when we were about five and seven. An accessory to the outfits was a pair of plastic handcuffs which, when clasped around ones’ wrist, could only be undone with an accompanying key. One morning, I was sitting innocently at our kitchen table – painting pictures for orphans, as I recall- when my brother jumped me. A struggle ensued in which he managed to hook my left hand into one of the handcuffs and deftly attach the other cuff to the chair.

Well, I’m right-handed. And that hand raised to slap him… right when my mother entered the room. My brother whimpered like a puppy. I received a stern reprimand, the commandeering of all my painting materials, and a time-out confined to the chair. A moot punishment, of course, because I was handcuffed to it, a detail (among several) Mom failed to notice.

In an infamous scene from The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky records a conversation between two brothers regarding God. The first brother, Alyosha, is a novice monk. The second, Ivan, has renounced the faith.

Ivan’s objections to Christianity rest on the cruelest and most inexplicable sufferings: that of children. He tells of a child beaten, smeared with excrement, and left in an outhouse during winter. Another child is stripped naked, made to run, and set upon by a pack of hunting dogs.

Ivan believes in God. It is not God’s existence that he cannot accept. But it is the world God has created, the world that allows such atrocities. He cannot- will not- accept that the suffering of such a child might some way, somehow, be redeemed.

To this declaration, Alyosha replies, in a murmur, “That’s rebellion.”

I read this my senior year of college. I was sitting in an overstuffed chair of my apartment. Dishes piled in the sink; posters occupied an entire wall; late-autumn gray shone through our window; upstairs a door shut; a tap dripped; silence.

I’ve never seen a child tortured, never seen any great atrocities. I am not a witness to such unspeakable pain. But I can, from some of my first moments of cognitive memory, recall sensing the reality of pain of the world.

As a child, I owned a goldfish. It lived for several months, then died. The concept of death by that age made sense to me. Enough that when Dad flushed Guppy down the toilet, I was distraught. A trite example. But from that point on, I was aware of the fact that every good thing held the inverse possibility for pain.

I’m not alone. The oldest Biblical text is about a man wrestling with the question of God’s silence in the face of pain. Before anyone wrote an account of how God made the world, we were questioning the way it runs. (That’s got to be annoying.)

And I remember that moment in college so vividly because I knew, without a doubt, that I agreed with Ivan. He articulated the objection I’d always sensed. And I heard Alyosha’s judgement like he was in the room. “Rebellion.”

A child’s pain- or anyone else’s- on a linear perspective is redeemable because it has passed. The moment is (thankfully) lost. But if God is eternal, then that must mean that all points in time are accessible to God at all times. The child’s pain is in God’s purview for eternity. Which means that God’s inaction at that moment might- must– also be eternal. My primary encounter with injustice as a child resulted in a time-out. Still, I can’t believe it’s wrong to wrestle with the (albeit, abstract) reality of horrific evil.

Perhaps this is wanting to have my cake and eat it too. I want to have faith and question God. I want to object to God’s world and embrace it. A pastor recently reminded me that laments emerge from hope. Can’t we say the same for rebellion?

Maybe I can lead a curious rebellion. Maybe I can raise a hand against injustice and God, when she enters the room, will see it as such. Maybe God shares our objections. It’s a paradox. But so is the reality of a God who is all-good, all-powerful, and all-present in a world that also allows unspeakable evil.

I wasn’t a perfect child. More likely than not, my brother’s scheme was preempted by me stealing his football cards and/or dropping his toothbrush in the toilet. But my mother, upon consideration, found my indignation reasonable. Which is the hope, isn’t it? That God will not hold our own pleas for justice against us?

Perhaps we might see God joining our rebellion. If so, then maybe we can also ask her to find the key to these handcuffs.





The Hole In My Hope

Hole in my hope

It was during a family dinner, at six-years-old and around this time of year, that I glanced out our dining room window and was suddenly aghast. It was pitch dark outside. This made no sense. Dinner didn’t happen during the night.

I presented these findings to my parents, who replied, with disconcerting calm, that “…the hour moved backwards last night.”

The what did what?

“It happens each year. We get less sun in the winter so we adjust the time. It’s called ‘daylight savings.’”

Thus, the meal moved on, blithely unaware that I was on the verge of an existential crisis. Why did we ‘lose’ an hour? How does one save daylight? Can I save it?

This was, as best I can recall, my first tangible encounter with the elusive nature of time.

Several years ago, I committed myself to the practice writing 800-word essays, one every week. I was finishing my first year of graduate school and about to propose to a red-haired, green-eyed girl. Since then, much has changed. We did, in fact, marry. We graduated and found jobs. Several nieces and nephews were born. I was, for a time, rather sick. We bought a home. Friends moved away, and some family.

The poet Mary Oliver describes her vocation as “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” Writing those essays taught me the skill of astonishment. Which I needed. But, since that time- since I stopped writing those essays- what I’ve been needing- and learning- is hope.

Hope is futuristic, but it is also present. It is a painful balm. It embraces reality with defiance. It can only be experienced but must be taught. It is contradiction and synthesis. It is light that only shines in darkness. Its purpose fades as it fulfills. It is tears and laughter, chocolate and anti-depressants, children and funerals.

A future of hope holds plenty of space for what we seek: reunification with a loved one, physical healing, understanding, enlightenment. If life is a journey, then hope is the fuel that moves us forward.  But the loss that I’ve not been able to reconcile, the question that’s haunted me even after finding hope, is that of which we’ve already been given. It’s the loss of what we’ve already had, already lived or held. What of the past experiences, possessions and feelings? What of lost time? I’m not talking about our memories, but the actual things to which our memories point. These were taken not by violence, disaster, sin and death. But merely by time, which pulls the ground beneath us, and everything with it, so inconspicuously that weeks, months, let alone years, go by without us looking up to realize, “My God, everything is different.” “Life passes most people by,” the infamous George Jung wrote from prison, “while they’re busy making grand plans for it.”

Christian Wiman, a renowned poet and cancer survivor is familiar with this desire for that which has passed. “Lord,” he cites Ilya Kaminsky, “give us what you have already given.” And Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poetry: “I demand my / own life back. My past. You!”

I saw my two-year-old niece this past spring. One evening, I sat with her parents in a warm kitchen and she received- delight of delights!- an ice cream cone. But, within moments of holding it, she tipped it. The ice cream slipped off the cone and plopped to the floor. She erupted in tears. The cone was replaced, her tears dried. But- oblige this existentialist- why the loss to begin with?

Why is it that we lose time with only memory- the second cone- as compensation? Memories themselves are easy to lose, or deceive. What little piece of the past we hold is fallible and mortal.

This is the hole in my hope. It’s the corner of my faith that is eerily void. It’s problematic; I don’t know how to fill it and I can’t ignore that it’s there.

I’ve always aimed to take the advice of the poet Rainier Rilke to heart: “live the questions now.” The question of this void is one that beckons me to live it.

All this brings me back to my discipline of essays. Palpable observance is clearly not the anecdote for mortality. The ocean will always kiss the shore, and they will again part ways. I’ve not read Marcel Proust, but the titles of his monumental work strike a chord with me: In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past. The search totals 4,200 pages. I’m not the only one asking.

But if love might possibly be, as the poet Nayyirah Waheed described it “like everything I’ve ever lost come back to me” then maybe, toward that end, this is a start. Well, this…and daylight savings.

More Than Shining Hours

more than shining hours


I ran into one of my professors a few weeks after graduation.

“Oh!” he said, as if I were a solicitor he’d left sitting on the doorstep. “Why—you’re still here!”

I told him I’d found a job in the area.

“Well, good. It’s not such a bad place to be, I ‘spose.”

“No,” I replied. “I don’t suppose it is.”

There’s a lull over the seminary campus these past few days. The classrooms are empty, the lights turned off. The chapel is quiet, the cafeteria sparsely populated. Moving trucks appear then vanish in the night like guilty gypsies, stealing corners of the community as they go.

“I know Paradise is real which we have lost,” the poet Evan S. Connell writes. “But find again through the gates of memory.”

He continues with a question: “should I mark more than shining hours?”

I saw something beautiful today. Problem is, I can’t- for the life of me- remember what it was. I walked several laps around the kitchen searching for a glimmer of revelation; through the bedroom and bathroom, pausing at the entry of each like a grandfather: “what did I come here for?” I even submitted myself to the gratuitous task of finishing off a bag of chocolate chips from the pantry (I heard somewhere that chocolate is a memory food, but I can’t remember where).

It’s been three years since I moved to this small coastal town to begin my seminary studies. I came for a degree; I earned a degree. I should be happy. And I am, I suppose.

I often joked that I didn’t want to go to seminary because I’d rather not lose my faith. Here I am on the flipside of that joke and sometimes it doesn’t seem so funny. I’ve not lost faith, mind you. But I have lost my faith, the personal ownership I had on the moral code and divine communication that propped up walls of defense around my comfort zone. I’ve lost that.

(An hour later, I still can’t recall that beautiful memory.)

After hurricane Sandy swept through New York and flooded some of the subways, scientists took samples of molecules from the tunnel walls and cars. Among these they found molecular echoes of organisms only known to exist in Antarctica.

I find this reassuring. It settles within me the conviction that all things are foreknown by a being who loves to view the stars from an infinitude of different angles; nothing is normal enough to not be wonderful.

A couple years ago I began writing essays: one a week, every week, always capped at eight hundred words. To myself (and any bloke unfortunate enough to be trapped in the conversation at a social gathering) I called them ‘small essays on small wonders.’ Some of them I’m not even sure what I was talking about. Others were almost profound. But all of them were hash marks, photographs, murals on a city wall: a metronome marking off my days in seminary in ¾ time (click…tick, tick…click…tick, tick).

I just walked another lap around my apartment, I even peaked my head out the window. What on earth am I trying to remember?

My seminary education is over; it happened, completed, flew by, wallah! This chapter of my life is closing in on me, with every classmate who disappears in a U-Haul and every professor who’s slightly startled with my remaining. Every week I’ve face my literary vendetta with all the cynicism in the world. But every week beauty rises up and conquers.

Life happens slowly; still it goes by so fast. And the conundrum of human existence is answered in tiny whispers: a tire swing, cardboard box, abandoned coffee mug, carpet stain and melting ice. The little moments save us from the big questions. The shining hours burn out like fireworks: brilliant and spectacular. And the crowd cheers, couples kiss, then later- as they’re walking home- a mother notices her child has stopped and is perfectly still, staring up into the sky.

“The stars,” he says, “Mom, look at the stars.”

There’s so much beauty, so much pain in this world. But I’m comforted by the fact that I can’t remember all of it. And if I believe anything, I believe that somehow the beautiful outweighs the evil; that the darkness of night is a means by which the stars appear so beautiful. There are a million beautiful things I overlook, ignore, take for granted or pass by- everyday and everywhere. And yet, they remain. I’m going to call this ‘grace.’

I’ve tried to capture that grace. Still it eludes me, enfolds me and holds me. Like grace does; like we hope; like we are.

I promise this is the last time I’ll mention it- but I still can’t remember the beautiful something I saw.

I suppose I’ll put that to rest.