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.




Rain, Pain & Grace That’s Quenched



I fell asleep on the floor of our family room last night, curled up right next to the couch. My exile from our matrimonial bed was not because I happened to call my wife fat or tell her that her baking tastes like charcoal; she’s not and it doesn’t and (may the record please show) I didn’t. It’s difficult to explain it, but when I have a migraine that keeps me from sleeping I often find myself wandering around in a state of restlessness, commonly collapsing in a random location that somehow feels comfortable in the moment. And then sleep finally comes. I’d be lying to you if I told you these tendencies weren’t a little strange, even too me; they’re peculiar, really. But so is pain; so is life.

Lately these peculiarities have been much more common than usual. Over the past few months I’ve had endless doctor appointments, lab tests, new prescriptions and screenings all in an attempt to find a way to control or alleviate some of the pain caused by chronic migraines. Blessedly, there has been some relief. This shouldn’t be a surprise but grace often is.

And lately it’s come in the form of rain.

“What’s the weather today?” My wife asks, as she’s getting dressed and I’m making her coffee.

“Clouds. Chance of rain.”

“Seriously? Again?”

She rolls her eyes though I try not to let her see my smile, adding an extra pinch of sugar to her morning coffee, to help her survive the grace that’s been given to me.

Which goes to say that one of the peculiarities I’ve come to embrace has been my affinity for overcast weather. Someone who has never had a migraine cannot understand what its like to be oppressed by sunshine, for it’s rays to reach through their eye-sockets and pound itself around in your skull, like your cranium is playing racquetball with a grenade.

I often find myself listening to people daydream about their plans to move somewhere like San Diego or the Caribbean, to a locale that absorbs the sun’s rays nine days out of ten. I want to ask: “Why the hell would you do that to yourself?” But I withhold. Not because of prudence or self-control, mind you, but because the older I get the more I learn how convincing others to adopt my tastes is either fruitless or results in my ultimately getting less of them for myself. Thus, I shut up. Let them move to Florida; it’s less rain on my rainy parade here.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize. I have several friends who suffer from seasonal depression; cloud cover for them is like bright sunshine into my blood-shot eyes. And sometimes I feel like my prayers for grace compete for theirs like two friends who’ve grown up and now have young boys playing on opposing football teams; we both call the lads “winners” but reality tell us that one of them is going to walk away defeated.

And maybe grace does compete with itself. That said, I’m often reminded of what the poet Jay Parini said, reflecting on rainfall from his own window: “my thirst for something more than I can see is briefly quenched.”

To live at all is to feel pain; the tree of life has thorns on it, of this I am convinced. And after the fall those thorns grew for thousands of years till they were sharp enough to pierce the brow of our Savior before he was crucified. A crown of thorns, crown of pain, crown of life conquering death.

Which is to say that the relief of pain isn’t always grace; sometimes grace is the pain itself. And when I consider this, I see the rain as grace for everyone, not just me. Perhaps this is my way of feeling less remorse over my child wining the football match. Or, perhaps grace always is the winner. We’ve just forgotten that there’s no scoreboard, that we’re on the same team.

And this consideration also forces me to see my own pain as a richer grace, a deeper grace, than even it’s relief. If living is pain, then it is also thirst. Thirst for something more, something beyond, something for which I would not yearn if I did not thirst. And that’s a remarkable thing. For thirst must be quenched, will be quenched- if only we keep on thirsting.

And when I awoke on the floor early this morning my headache had, for the moment, abated. And today the sun came out and my wife was happy; grace was shining upon her. And I can bear it, even if my head begins to throb again. Because when grace falls, it falls on all of us, not just some.

And perhaps pain is just the eyes to see it.

Sunday Quotes: Beautiful People

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

-Elisabeth Kubler-Ross