Forgiving God, Forgiving Me


The sophomore poetry notebook was a thing of legend in my high school. It required that students collect and analyze a plethora of works from various different traditions. I’d I entirely forgotten about the affair. Until I found my notebook a couple weeks ago.

In addition to studying canonical works, we were also required to write several pieces of poetry ourselves. Dear God, was that a painful read. I can’t remember writing most of mine, but they all must have been crafted sometime in the twilight of hormonal despair, perhaps after my parents had grounded me or unjustly revoked driving privileges (damn mailbox was too close to the road anyway). Turning the page from Frost to a sheet of my pimpled angst was like being taking a bite of sensuous cheesecake right before being jolted with a cattle prod.

Thus, and understandably, I went to tear out the pages with the mind to burn them. But then I paused and reconsidered. I think I understood, somewhat at least, how a parent might enshrine childhood photos of their kid looking- by all standards- ridiculous.

“Mom, not the fat, pre-braces picture. Really?”

“Oh, but don’t you look so cute?”

The act of begetting- it seems- is coupled with forgiveness for pudgy doofuscity.

Andrew Elphinstone was an obscure individual, even for a theologian. He was born Armistice Day of 1918 into the margins of royalty. He was educated in theology at New College, Oxford and ordained to serve as a curate. He wrote one book, which went through one printing after he died relatively young of from an ailing heart condition. I found a copy of his work in my school’s library. It’s not been checked out in several years.

Said Elphinstone: “Perhaps God stands…not only as the bestower of forgiveness, but as the Father who even stoops to invite the forgiveness he cannot deserve in order to make it one degree easier for man to be drawn into (his) love.”

I’ve been doing a lot of running lately. Luther once remarked that baptism was the drowning of the old self during which one quickly discovers that the bastard can swim. In my case, the bastard is a dual athlete. Which is to say that when I’m out running, as of late, I feel as though I’m trying to outrun my demons. That sounds (overly) dramatic. But sometimes I feel as though I spend all day in the libraries of my mind, and by the end the stacks of comprehension are closing in on me. And so I run. Which is nice, because I enjoy it. But I do wish my brain wasn’t claustrophobic.

Because when I look at my notebook – at the scraps of near unintelligible chicken scratch that I once submitted as ‘poetry’- I see nothing wonderful. I see angst, and self-righteousness; emotionally vague terms bathed in gruesome attempts at iambic pentameter.

And yet, I can’t throw it away.

I want to say the world is beautiful and I want to say that all poetry- even my own- is good. But sometimes I wonder if the world is the demon God is attempting to outrun, and the race leads to the cross. Elphinstone’s words haunt me, almost as much as my crappy poetry.

But maybe God is in the poetry, together gasping for breath over the miles of good earth we run to escape the bad demons we cannot leave behind. Maybe God is not the author of injustice, as we’ve struggled to presume, but is in fact the perpetrator. In every discrepancy He is the judge and the judged. And the demons I’m trying to outrun are God himself in my heart, begging me forgiveness so that he might then save me. It’s startlingly humble of him; a paradoxical of humility only God could attain. Such lunacy might even be called ‘grace.’

And even still I struggle to believe it.

I want to say that the world is beautiful. But sometimes all that can escape my lips is “I forgive you.” I forgive with the fear that I will also be struck down, for I know I am asking first to be forgiven. But the love that brings me in is the love that allows me to be judge, allows me to be angry, allows me to run and yell and scream and write poetry that makes Billie Joe Armstrong sound like goddamned Shakespeare.

If I can forgive myself for such poetry, if I can withhold my hand from its destruction, then maybe, just maybe, I might also forgive God for forgiving me. Forgiveness is eternity dripping from mortal lips; just come down from the cross- you’ve made your point! I want to believe it’s possible. I hope it’s possible.

But if not, then I’ll burn the damn thing. Trust me, its good riddance anyway.





A Damned, Sick Joke


We had a big blizzard this week. I used to wish for days like these when I was a kid. I dreamt that snow fell across southern Ohio and we’d be buried in our house, eating crackers and peanut butter and reading around candles, huddled close together for warmth. So I was every sort of content when I awoke Monday night and heard the whistle and cry of the wind as it hovered over the new snow, vast and unformed, perfectly white. Everything was shut down the next morning. My wife put on some coffee and we sat under blankets reading as the blizzard continued into the afternoon.

Snow gathered on our window sill. And as the wind pushed against the screen, the snow forced it’s way through, collecting and filling the gap between the window and screen. I watched this through various glances as the storm wore on. It looked like a white ant farm, before the mail had arrived carrying a tiny vile of insects to put inside. Untouched and serene. Safe. Beautiful.

It’s a dangerous thing, Tolkien once said, stepping out your front door- you never know where the road may lead.

And its wonderful but startlingly true. Terrible things lie just steps away from the safety of one’s home. I suppose that’s the nice thing about being snowed in. The world is also snowed out.

In 1883 Friedrich Nietzsche got word that a natural disaster had destroyed the town of Java in the Dutch East Indies. The lava flow and tsunamis created by ongoing seismic activity killed – by some estimates- hundreds of thousands of people.

“Two hundred thousand wiped out at a stroke,” Nietzsche wrote a friend. “How magnificent!”

We had some neighbors over for dinner that night. They told us of how they had been driving- not too long ago- and a squirrel ran out in front of them on the road. They slammed the breaks, just in time.

The rodent paused, startled to awareness of its own mortality. It looked at them, almost as if to say ‘thank you.’ But the whole scene ended with a blur of feathers swooping down, snatching the squirrel in it’s talons. All that was left to do was watch creature’s desperate squirms as the hawk carried it over the tree line.

We had a good laugh at this, though that it sounds sick to admit. But what can we do? What is there to do in the face of the world but laugh? Giggle the way one might when their fiance leaves them standing at the alter. Laugh because it’s life. And sometimes it’s a damned, sick joke.

I once drank a beer that was brewed by some monks far up north. Strange, I said, I never thought I’d get a drink from a monastery.

Monks are practical people, my friend replied. God taught us to pray and we made beer.

There are some Christians who seem to take- too literally, I believe- the notion that we should not love the world, nor any of its desires, as John says. Desires- ἐπιθυμέω- a Greek verb that means to lust, crave, covet…ownership, possession, raping and pillaging the things of this world.

And I hope that I never lust for the world. I hope I can put away my camera at the Grand Canyon. I hope a Benjamin Franklin’s smile never looks as sweet as my wife’s. I hope the evening news always breaks my heart, like nails through my hands.

But I am not sure that I can trust tears from someone who has never laughed, laughed with the angels, Sarah aged and barren in her tent, with the Roman soldiers and the taunting Pharisees. Laugh because it is sick. But, ultimately, the joke’s not on them: oh death- where is thy sting?

And so I want to say is that the world is still horribly wonderful. I sit watching the snow fall and pushing in between the screen. And I cannot tell you how beautiful it is to see this desperate world closing in on me. For there’s a voice telling me: don’t push back. Really. Just give it a chance. The prettiest smile may be seen from the side of a hospital bed.

There are so many ways to live a good life- Marilynne Robinson said that. And I think this is grace. But a sure fire way not too- now this is Lewis, of course- is by locking your heart away in a warm corner. Safe from the terrible storm, safe from the world.

It’s snowing again tonight. Another blizzard moving in. The sound of the wind could be the heavenly host scaring the hell out of some poor shepherds. For all I know.

It’s snowing and cold.

I think I’ll go outside.