A Damned, Sick Joke

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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.

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A Thousand Objections, A Thousand Brilliant Heartbeats

When my wife and I moved to a new apartment on our school’s campus, we found ourselves about a half-mile down a large hill from where we both work and attend classes. From the get-go, we made a point of refusing to drive our car but instead walking to and from class. Because we’re on different schedules this means that most mornings I find myself walking up the hill alone.

The Tuka Dika Native American tribe of Northern Idaho had no word in their language for “wilderness”. For them there was no outside and inside; the world was all connected. It was only when “sophistication” arrived on the scene that lines were drawn between the two spheres. Because everyone knows Eden was climate controlled and the Sermon on the Mount was delivered in a covered arena.

Not long afterwards my parents were forced to walk to school, uphill both ways and through the snow. Thankfully humankind has progressed since then, now we drive. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we as a race will ever walk uphill again. We’ve reached the mountaintop of progress and the sun is setting. We’re not breathing hard because we didn’t exert any effort to get here; we drove the family minivan. We’re not feeling the weight of another day bearing down and settling into rest because we’ve injected five cups of coffee into our system. And we’re not looking at the sunset. We’re on our phone telling someone else somewhere else about the beautiful view, right there from atop the mountain. And it’s all downhill from here. We’ve doomed ourselves to convenience, separation.

I never used to wear gloves for my morning commute. Because even when temperatures were well below zero they weren’t necessary for the short trip form my apartment to my car where the heat would be cranking at full steam. But on my first morning strolling to class without them I noticed that exposed skin can become something of a painful experience. A ridiculously common-sensical thing to notice, but before there’d been no need.

There are some who believe the world is doomed for destruction, that in the end of all things God will purge the entire globe, throw it away like a used Kleenex. The chosen are redeemed, what further purpose could it serve?

But when I walk to class and consider this prospect I look around me at a thousand objections. The snowflakes rest peacefully on the dormant ground below them, a breeze pushes itself through the branches, tickling the dry winter air. Frost bites the tips of the pine tree above my head and beckons it to sleep, wait. He will come like a thief in the nighttime of spring and the new earth descending out of the clouds will sound the trumpet of renewal, transformation and redemption. I look around me and I see desperation joining hope floating as unsaid prayers like my breath in the crisp morning. I look around me and I see, as C.S. Lewis so memorably and famously penned, shadows of the magnificence to come.

But God, how can you begin the task of taking our pollution, our nuclear fallouts, our dumps, our hate, our prejudice, our pain… how can you even begin to contemplate taking all that and transforming all of it into the purity and peace of a single snowflake drifting to rest in front of my eyes? Why not just draw a line between the holy unreachable and the world. Why not throw it away when you’re done here? You can sew up the temple curtain; I’m sure it’s not too late. There are needles of divine convenience I’m sure you could use.

Sometimes I can’t help but look around me and think about what a beautiful, screwed up world we live in. It’s the complication that makes me believe it to be ordained by an Intricate and Loving Deity.

And I want to feel it. I want to feel the pulse of the seasons, like a thousand brilliant heartbeats dancing to the tune of a homesick romance all around me. Like an actor after preparing for his show, I live on a stage. The stage is my home and home is a complicated thing. It’s not perfect; the director isn’t done. But it’s so much more than the stage for my redemption. The story is much more complicated, constant. It’s unlike any I’ve ever heard. There’s too much beauty and truth around me to disregard that fact.

And so that’s why, lately, I’ve taken to walking to class. I wear gloves and a coat and most often a hat because the world is telling me to bundle up. It’s cold outside. It’s cruel, brilliant and cold. And I see it every day as I walk to class. Uphill, both ways.

If God Is An Atheist Who Hates Snow In Massachusetts

It was supposed to snow last night. I prayed that it might snow a lot so I wouldn’t have to go to work today. I wore my pajamas inside out, I did my devotions before bed and I didn’t even swear at my Hebrew homework. “Dear Lord, it’s been a long week and I’m tired; I could use a day off, time to get ahead in studying. Is that too much to ask for?”

Across the nation, “blessings” abounded. From Texas to Vermont ice covered roads, snow closed schools and sent cars careening off the roads. Businesses shut down and I heard from several friends who were granted a Sabbath thanks to an early winter storm. But not in Massachusetts. It even snowed in Ohio…where I used to live…where it never snowed when I used to live there. The snow is always deeper on the other side.

“Dear Lord, why did you send five inches of snow to Texas but none to Massachusetts? You realize they’ve no idea what to do right now, right? Like, they’re truly befuddled. And I know children are starving somewhere, there’s wars going on and Justin Bieber is on a world tour and all… but would snow in Massachusetts in December really have taken you that far out of your way?”

When I was a child I used to kneel beside my bed each night to pray. My prayers then were full of genuine concern for the well being of myself, my family, my friends at school and anyone who happened to cross my mind. I suppose most children are like that but then life gets busy. We grow up, develop schedules, hormones and opinions. Friends die and we’re educated on AIDs, world religions and theodicy. Prayer ceases to be much more than a cosmic vending machine.

Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal was just published. It seems like an invasion of privacy to be reading someone’s intimate conversations with God. If we stay on this trajectory I’ll bet twenty bucks that in fifty years we start marketing Timothy Keller’s accountability emails. But in one of her entries O’Conner penned the simple phrase “only God is an atheist”. Since reading these words I’ve been captivated by the concept.

It’s hardly revolutionary though entirely orthodox; O’Connor was, after all, a dedicated Catholic. But this was a beautifully succinct and artistic way of phrasing the notion that only God has the inability to believe in someone or something greater than him. Only God cannot appeal to, as Anselm put it, “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”. In the quiet of her own time with the Lord, O’Connor reminded herself that above God’s doorpost is a small, cheap metal sign. It’s one of those trinkets one could find at a gift shop and buy on sale. “The buck stops here”, it says. It’s ironic because it’s serious. There is no one else.

I used to have a prayer journal and I used to carry it around with me, jotting down notes at Bible studies and church services reminding me who and what to pray for. But I was often overcome with an immense feeling of guilt the next week when upon opening my journal I realized it was the first time I’d actually looked at it. It seems to me that I sometimes elevate myself into a state where prayer is not a way of connecting God but becoming God. My petitions are not to lift people up but to fix their problems; my personal pleas are not requests but work orders for the universe. In prayer, I am a practical atheist. Whereas O’Connor, at least in her reverent musings, acknowledged the latter reality to be true. Only God is the atheist.

And oh, what I would give to be reminded of that fact! To tattoo it upon my heart, my mind and my prayers. What I would give to be reminded of that when I am driving to working and complaining to this God about the fact that there’s no snow on the ground. I’m not saying there’s any resolution in my heart as I write these words, just like I don’t think there was any in Job’s and Noah’s. Sometimes I wonder about Jesus’ in Gethsemane. But with the petition lifted and the connection made the task was done; “it is finished”, the prayer had been made.

If God is an atheist who hates snow in Massachusetts then I will wake up, hit the snooze button, get dressed and try my best for it to be well with my soul. Because if I believe in prayer then I have to believe in prayer to a God who hears, who absorbs and loves. And I have to believe it stops there. I have to believe in a God who’s an atheist.

Even if there’s no snow in Massachusetts.