The Delightful Laws of Skiing in Indiana (Psalm 1)

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“…but in the law of the Lord is his delight.”

(Psalms 1:2)

My parents taught me to ski when I was nine years old. This took place in Indiana. That is not a typo.

Skiing in Indiana is a unique experience. While it is still possible to seriously injure oneself (trees grow in Indiana as well as in Maine) it is also entirely possible to feign mastery with very little true capability. Skiing-as far as this havoc-wrecking, little Hoosier was concerned- required little other than pointing my skis downhill and possessing enough body mass for gravity to do its work. Beyond that, little control or turning was required.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the phrase in the first Psalm: “delight in the law of the Lord.” What a strange notion; have I ever delighted in any law?

The poem seems so polarized that the metaphors alienate me; I don’t walk in the way of the wicked (I’m not a Dallas Cowboys fan) and I don’t sit- at least intentionally- in the ‘seat of mockers’ (I will never partake in a presidential debate). But am I part of those who ‘flourish’ like trees by the river? I don’t think I meditate on the law of the Lord, certainly not day and night.

And all this creates a tension: the Christian life is supposed to be ‘free’ (the truth will set you free John 8:32). But then Paul goes and calls us slaves to Christ (you are now a slave of Christ 1 Corinthians 7:22). How can both of these be true?

When I was six years old, I taught my brother to play football. He was four and liked to cheat. Specifically, he enjoyed snapping the ball, turning and sprinting to his own end zone. “Touchdown!” he’d yell. To which I would protest: “It’s only fun if you play by the rules!” He disagreed. Provoking one’s older brother is a blast.

Which brings me back to skiing. Despite many days spent barreling down hills in Indiana, I have become a halfway decent skier. Enough to know, at least, that there are few feelings, few euphoric experiences, that can even begin to compare with a beautifully-executed parallel turn in fresh powder. Knowing what I know now, I’ve no desire resort to my original means of navigating a slope (namely hands on knees and screams of “MAYDAY!”).

The law of gravity and the law of friction dictate the laws of skiing: when I point my skis downhill, I will go; when I turn my skis perpendicular to the hill, I will stop. Apart from these rules, apart from this law, there is just mad, tumbling chaos.

The Christian faith- faith based on an eschatological hope in the life, work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ- is hinged on belief into which Christians step freely. Sure, we can break the rules and go our own way. But bombastic plummets are a death wish on any slope higher than a Midwestern trash mound. (To be fair, the place where I learned to ski was natural. I think.) And it’s really not that fun. Pointing the skis straight downhill and holding on for dear life is actually gets a little boring.

This makes me think of C.S. Lewis: “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is in the rein. They all go bad when they set up their own…”

I must remain within the framework of faith- the parameters of Christian hope- if I am to experience the resurrection of Christ as a daily, tangible reality. I can be creative; I can take it faster or slower; every skier has personal preferences and techniques. Theology, after all, is highly nuanced. But there are basic principles that must be followed in order for the thing I’m doing to classify as ‘skiing.’

The words of another commentator ring true in my mind: “Life is lived in futility if its fundamental purpose is never discovered.” It is hard to comprehend, but life is better with confines, with what Hebrew poets would have known as “the law.”

Faith requires submission but allows for true freedom. It opens us to the freedom of the mountains (or…hills), the freedom of fearlessness, of life lived within the knowledge that death has been conquered and all is being redeemed.

Following the law makes something that would otherwise be impossible, possible. It makes skiing possible. It makes teaching your four-year-old brother how to play football (so you can beat him at it) possible. It’s what makes Christianity so life-changing, so liberating.

Of course, this analogy is flawed and the correlation breaks down on multiple levels. But being a skier provides me the belief that there are some laws in which I might delight, that the very idea is even possible.

Even, I dare say, in Indiana.

Mirrors of Change

Just north of where we live sits the oldest farm in America. It was established nearly 400 years ago; several acres of open fields and a working dairy farm remain there today. It used to be a routine sight on my morning commute before I married and we moved onto our school’s campus. Now I only see it whenever I have to travel to the next town up.

One such occasion arose this week. It was late afternoon by the time I was driving back. I passed the familiar fields now covered in a late winter snow. It’s been warm enough lately that snow has started to melt though it usually drops below freezing  at night. I love winter so this change brings a tinge of sadness; I’m not quiet ready for it to go.

Driving past the fields I noticed the snowmelt had collected in little pools of water now frozen across the surface. Reflecting the late day sun it appeared as though the field was covered in a million mirrors, or perhaps one giant mirror that had been smashed and scattered about in a chaotic yet perfectly artistic fashion. Now those mirrors were reflecting the mirage of the sun from the ground and back towards the sky.

I know I’m changing; I can feel it like I can see the sunlight reflecting off a thousand mirrors of the late winter snow. I’m reaching, desperate to hold onto winter, the cold reality of who I know myself to be. In so I feel like I’m a child again, perched at the top of a slide. I’m sitting and I feel gravity pulling me downward. I know that eventually I will move but my hands are out and I’m bracing myself against the pull.

“Let go,” the voice in my head tells me, “it’ll be quiet the ride”.

“But is the bottom better than the top?”

I don’t know where or why change became something I resist and seek at the same time. I find myself wondering, searching, through the corridors of my memory for a moment in which I was utterly content: sixteen years old with a driver’s license, racing down the street for the first time. Five years old, nibbling a Christmas cookie in my father’s lap as he read “The Night Before Christmas” and snow fell outside. Twenty-one years old, with a pay check just large enough for the rent and to buy myself a drink afterwards at the bar with some friends. We sang till the place closed down, there on the coast, even though we had to be up at work the next morning. It would be the best damned morning in the world. Yes, then…in that moment, I tell myself, I was happy.

But at the same time, I still took a step forward. The clock ticks but I make the choice to look at it. And play by its rules.

The depth of my joy is created by the good that was, before me, in the beginning. Always. And it’s added to daily by the blessings that are. I cannot deny the presence of infinite blessings, grace beyond merit.

But there is still goodness and beauty that has slipped away and the reality of the melting snow haunts me. Where does it go? The fading sunlight, the beauty of a passing hour and breath? Hell ain’t things lasting forever, Toni Morrison penned, hell is change.

And as I’m walking into my apartment today I note that more of the snow has vanished and below is a muddy, salty, crusty layer of earth that looks like a dried out flower without the bloom. What a mess. But I’m reminded of the spring showers around the bend and the way the ground looks after a soaking storm. This reminder comes from a gentle voice atop the slide. It will take care of itself. Change usually does.

We will transform our lowly body, Paul wrote to his Philippian counterparts, to be like His glorious body. Transform, he penned in the Greek, using the same word from which we get “metamorphosis”. Nothing is shed, at least not in the permanent sense; it’s just completed. The becoming has become. It is finished.

And these days whenever I question what those words mean I find a good reason to drive north around sunset. Once there, I find myself staring at a shattered mirror across the surface of the field changing with the seasons. And what a thing it is to behold, a million brilliant reflections, beckoning in the to be with a reminder of what was. And when the sun’s rays hit the mirrors and shine back into the sky, it’s like the world is rejoicing with the news of the transfiguration all around, the news of renewal, redemption and becoming.

And, oh, what a sight to see.

A Letter To My Child, Concerning The Tire Swing

My Child,

It would behoove me to explain the nature of a letter written to you so casually, one penned so long before you even exist. Plato, a man you will someday learn not to confuse with your childhood pastime, once said that when we began writing we began forgetting. I am cursed with the gift of forgetting.

But there are things I’ve remembered, snapshots of time that I have tucked away and hope someday to pass along to you. Some of them are stories, leather-bound tales I’ve tucked away into my heart, invaluable to only a few on this world. One day I will dust them off and hand them over to you, probably again and again and again, to the extent that you will roll your eyes and sigh with your then teenage friends. And I’ll laugh because that is the way of things. But I hope you still hold them close to your heart, somewhere beneath the pubescent mannerisms and other facades of the age.

Others are just moments. Moments that I’ve seen and wish to live a million times more, moments of subtle brilliance and quiet redemption that shine like a thousand sunrises all around me. These are the most difficult to pass along and begs the occasion of this letter. For the sake of moments, I must try.

Because I was out walking earlier this morning when a sight caught my eye. It was a tire swing, hanging from a giant oak tree swaying slowly in the February breeze. It floated silently above the snow trodden by the feet of a thousand adventurers below it. Likewise the swing too ventured then returned, all within the confines of the rope by which it hung. It circled back again. It lifted. It dropped.

And that was all.

I thought of how I recently heard another newly married gentleman list “learning to apologize” as one of his favorite hobbies. I felt stupid; I’d said skiing. Make no mistake: your mother is the type of person that is worth apologizing too. She’s the type of woman you go back to again and again to say: “I’m sorry” no matter how minuscule, trite or misplaced the offense.

Which is to say that when I saw the tire swing it reminded me of myself, in a way that only grace can.  I wish I could tell you I am brave and humble or that I ever was. I wish I could tell you that for some moment in my life I have faced the world anew with something like courage or that saying sorry came easy. But if there is anything left to say of me it is that I am like that swing: I am fun when twisted the right way but firm enough to make an apology a difficult ordeal. I’m flexible when pressed, though not enough to hold to something with any sense of conviction. But I am tied down, held in place, by a rope that took hold of me before I was aware of myself enough to notice or resist.

And so there is grace for me in this moment and in all of them. Despite my other shortcomings I do not fall to the snow beneath, the snow which is itself a testimony to the purpose I have served, the purpose of underdogs and merry-go-rounds. Instead I remain and I explore. I go on.

I hope you don’t turn out like me in many ways. I hope you don’t learn from me an ability to swear, argumentative temper or how to find people’s buttons and then push them as a hobby (though it is one hell of a sport). I hope you don’t take my stubbornness, my moodiness and my wanderlust of the heart. I’m sorry if you do.

But I do hope, somewhere along the way, you take from me this moment. And when you begin to doubt yourself, be that in the form of pride or a worn-down spirit, I hope you inherit from your father the ability to find a tree. Find a tree with an overhanging branch, one that sits at least twenty feet off the ground and has a tire swing attached to it. And when you find that tree, sit off in the distance, far enough from it that you can see the whole thing.

Then, my child, wait for the wind. Wait and see what the wind does to the tree and to the swing. Watch as it slowly lifts and falls, lifts and falls. And if you remember nothing else, remember what I told you and the grace of that moment.

If you remember nothing else, remember the tree and the swing and what I told you about grace. Take that moment and keep it.

I hope you don’t need it but know you will.

Yours,