My wife and I went cross-country skiing the other day. An arctic freeze gripped the landscape and gusts of wind whipped snow to and fro across creation. It was such that I was sitting at my desk, looking out my window and feeling immensely sorry for the damned, unfortunate bloke who might be forced outside in this weather. That was when my wife spoke up from the kitchen.
“We should go skiing,” she said.
She’d might as well propose that we don coconut bras for church. “Why would we do that?”
“To get some fresh air. It’d be good for us.”
“Survival instincts beg to differ.”
She didn’t seem to hear this so I figured considered myself safe and returned to my reading. Five minutes later she disappeared into our bedroom and reemerged with apocalyptic speed, all dressed for the tundra.
“You ready?” she asked.
I looked at her, down at my book and fuzzy slippers- which felt as warm as the womb- then back at her. She smiled like she was asking me to dance at a dry wedding.
Fifteen minutes later, I was the damned, unfortunate bloke.
I don’t consider myself a writer. To make such a presumption would be somewhat precocious. For there is no such thing as a writer; there are simply those who walk the road with a pen in hand, as opposed to folks who don’t. I aspire to the explanation provided by Albert Einstein: I have no special talent, I’m only passionately curious. And I happen to have a pen.
And lately, I’ve really struggled with the doctrine of hell. There’s an inevitable tension between God’s grace and justice which-try as we may- cannot be explained away. But I think it is dishonest- absurd, even- to object to the idea of hell based on emotions: fear, sadness, horror or pity, even. I can deny Texas exists for all I’m worth. But since it’s still there and some day I might end up there- damned, unfortunate bloke that I am.
At the same time, if Christ’s parable of the taxpayer and Pharisee praying at the temple has taught me anything, it’s that those who propel their ideology with hell’s pertinency are the most likely to reap what they’ve sown, so to speak.
As we trudged our way through drifts the wind abused any skin it could find. I hid my chin in my jacket. I wiggled my fingers to keep them warm. My wife skied ahead of me like it was sunny and seventy-five.
And I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful everything was. The snow was untouched. The trees waved their branches like hands before the alter. The sun was making it’s way to bed, desperate rays hugged the landscape as it receded, like a mother embracing her child before turning to leave, looking back through tears at her baby all grown up and starting college.
I think hell will have beauty. I think there will be beauty unattainable and devoid of hope: the sun setting over an arctic landscape, water just out of reach, unending droughts of darkness. And poets will find that their ink can only splatter.
I do not want to praise these notions. But I want to observe- my pen in hand- the tension that is faith.
Annie Dillard once wrote a book from a cinder-block room over looking a parking garage. Jack London only slept four hours a day when writing waking himself with an alarm clock that was rigged to drop a weight on his head.
If writing is to be done, if our pens are to be saved from the splatter, then it must come from the darkness of beauty. I am incapable of testifying to the comedy of an empty grave if I’ve not felt the sting of abandonment on my heart: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? As much as possible, that is.
As the sun disappeared and the wind picked up, my wife stopped long enough for me to propose that we should call it a day, providing, as evidence, the snot icicle hanging from my nose.
I want to live in the tension of the redeemed and the damned, beautiful and terrifying, grace and sin. I want to trapeze-swing from the pendulum of faith, singing as I go. I want to ski into the cold night and return with hope, the size of a mustard seed, but alive still. I want all these things. I ask to receive. I want them so my my pen that splatters might separate the waters and form words, and them part of the Word. I want this. I really do.
Mostly though, I just want to get warm.
“God does not demand that we give up our personal dignity, that we throw in our lot with random people, that we lose ourselves and turn from all that is not him. God needs nothing, asks nothing and demands nothing, like the stars. It is a life with God which demands these things.
Experience has taught the race that if knowledge of God is the end, then these habits of life are not the means but the condition in which the means operates. You do not have to do these things, not at all. God does not, I regret to report, give a hoot. You do not have to do these things- unless you want to know God. They work on you, not on him.
You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”