Thursday, January 29, 2015
Near the end of Chapter 6 of this first book of the Gospels, and in the middle of his great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issues a call for simplicity. He says, "take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on." Lilies, birds, and all of the natural world are a testament that God takes care of his creations, better than we could ever hope to. Of course, this was taught primarily to his disciples who would be moving from house to house, city to city, as he did, without food and clothing at the ready, but since it's here, on the page for general readers, surely we can get something out of it too.
In all of his doctrine, this is possibly the most liberating. Don't worry about even the "necessities" of life; those will work themselves out. This is not to say that we make no effort in our lives or that we don't work. On the contrary, becoming "simple" takes a lot of work. To do so, it helps to keep two main things in mind:
1) Each day has its own life. It begins with light and ends when that light is extinguished. It is so sacred that we shouldn't even take thought for tomorrow, "for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself." It's already brewing, what can we do about it? Because (this line puzzled me for years) "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." I'm not sure I have it right, but I think it means that there is plenty of evil just waiting there, in the future, even in tomorrow.
Seven pages before this, John the Baptist was eating his locusts and wild honey in the wilderness, teaching the first phrases of a new order and confessing his unworthiness of even Jesus's shoe's latchet. Eight pages after this he is in prison, hearing from his disciples of Jesus's fame. And seven pages after that, John, the much-anticipated, beloved only child of aged parents, beautiful wild man who single-handedly prepared his generation for the Son of God and who, once Jesus's ministry is underway, quietly steps aside, is beheaded. "For Herod had laid hold on John." All the time he is preaching, this end is waiting. When the angel comes to Zaccharias bearing news that is so beyond his wildest dreams he can not believe it, and months later, when that good news leaps for joy in his mother's womb, the man who lays hold on a grown-up John is on his throne eating and drinking and wreaking havoc in a kingdom where he will soon kill all the Jewish babies in hopes to eradicate any contenders for his power.
And for every hour Jesus spent on the mountain top or at the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Gethsemane and Golgotha are waiting. And he knew it. He speaks of it more and more as it gets closer, as if the heaviness is slowly arriving. In his poem "The Stolen Child," W. B. Yeats writes that " the world's more full of weeping/ than you can understand." Who knew this better? If anyone knows that enough evil is there, in each day in the world, it is him.
What do we do with this? Evil is real. It plays its part. And yet, (and yet!) that light in that one day is not wasted. It gave life to those lilies, those birds. It gives life to us and, if the pattern of days tells us anything, it means that light will return.
2) Follow. Interestingly, Jesus never teaches us to lead. He teaches us to be led. Every day he is led to those people who, having faith and needing him, become the stories by which he tells the world who he is.
His dearest companions are those men who, one day fishing with their father or collecting taxes, stopped what they were doing, changed plans on a dime, "straightway left" those things and became absolute followers. Never again to be fishermen or tax collectors but to be something altogether new, a company of individuals who witnessed, first hand, the greatest miracles ever to take place.
What we follow obviously matters. But the notion that we invent our lives, that we are rogue in any way, is absurd. We all follow something. If what we follow is intuitive rather than selfish or superficial, something deep within us that recognizes real purpose, then a funny thing happens. We become the product of an organic life, one that is simple and natural, in the best sense of the word, because it grows. One that allows a person to be led to true greatness. Because "your Heavenly Father knows you have need of these things." We keep ourselves open to the wonder that comes to us, unsolicited, sometimes terrifying, often inconvenient. It could be that the greatest act of creativity is simply waking up each day. What is waiting for us? What do we do with it?
In poetry, and most creative writing, there is a strong doctrine of allowing the writing to go where it wants to go. Sitting down simply to prove one particular point in a poem, with a particular end in mind, generally does not work. Hokey as it may sound to non-writers, writing is strongest when the movement and texture of the subject develop naturally, almost apart from the writer themselves, so that, by the end of the piece, the writer may be just as surprised as the reader. It was not what they set out to do, but there it is, a piece wholly-individual, fully-realized, almost taking its own breath. And as with a poem, maybe a day. Maybe a whole life.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
Matthew 5 (again)
In his sermon of stepping-it-up, of moving past the old law and firmly into the new, Jesus notes that his listeners have "heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy." Then he tells us to love our enemy too. But I sheepishly admit that I had always attributed the "love thy neighbor" part to the new law, not the old. It's so basic that Jesus even adds to it. But I am still struggling with that old law.
Just today my boys were listening to the Sesame Street song "Who Are The People in Your Neighborhood?" where the Muppets sing to the mailman, the fireman, "the people that you meet when you're walking down the street." I'm fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood that is established and friendly, where people do go for walks (or jogs) regularly and many have shared the same block for more than half their lives.
After almost 9 years, I know our neighborhood well enough to dilute it down to basic descriptions, a series of facts. I know 70-something Gordon, on the corner, who eats fruit snacks while watching "Dancing with the Stars" to get him through the long winter nights, his oxygen tube snaking through the house. Gordon whose dead mother's car has spent 8 years parked in our carport because he can't bear to get rid of it and has no room in his own antique-logged garage. Gordon who, after 20 some odd years of eating microwave dinners, discovered one night at our dining table that he loves home-cooked lasagna.
I know the three older single ladies, two widowed and one a divorcee. Collectively they've lived on the street for about 130 years; one has lived in two houses on the same side of the street. One called us weekly after her husband passed away to see if we'd want some of his old things. After several visits (always longer than expected - she's a talker, and her company has thinned significantly), my husband had lugged home at least 4 garbage bags full of everything from old dress shirts to adult diapers and wipes. (Not sure why she thought of us, but my husband is of the nod-and-smile-and-say-thank-you stock.) On the last visit, he came home laden with one case of KY jelly, two sets of plastic sheets, and one cowboy hat. I'm still not sure what use her husband had been making of these, but we've never dared ask, and luckily she's never inquired as to how they're coming along at our house.
I know the families with their high school daughters driven or walked home by boyfriends, the girls who are the best babysitters, their mothers who cook or knit and drive minivans. Fathers keep vigil, surreptitiously, behind their lawnmowers, the hum of those engines thrumming the air summer mornings. These are all easy to love.
And Queen of the neighborhood, our next door neighbor, part Mother Theresa, part Martha Stewart, is Jackie, who has lived 50 of her 86 years on our block, whose parents built the red brick rambler, started the half-acre garden on the west and planted the half dozen fruit trees that, until last year, Jackie sprayed and pruned herself, perched on a silver ladder that, if anything, could have been a stairway to heaven. She would have made it too. I've lost count of the number of cinnamon rolls, cookies, candies, and baby gifts she's delivered to our house. She and her husband refer to my sons as "our boys" and every birthday give the birthday boy a small stash of candy tucked neatly in a letter that always closes with "we sure do love you." She's the rarest commodity in neighborhoods now. Not only does she know everyone, she loves them.
One day we were both out doing yard work, Jackie watering her giant Bleeding Hearts and me struggling to resurrect the hollyhocks, when the hillbillies that lived kitty-corner from my back fence started yelling at their kids again. The bantam rooster (the most charming creature at their residence) had finally stopped crowing for a minute and the volume and breadth of their chaos could be fully appreciated. Between the cars parked on the front lawn and the bonfires on the back, they'd been flying their redneck flag pretty high. Their dilapidated cream house sat to the southeast of me, and I had done my best for five years to completely ignore them. On the west of me, Jackie tended her flowers and called out to her dogs. I was gathering the last of my dirty trowels when I heard the woman call out, "Hi, Jackie!"and looked up in time to see her hand shoot up in the air and wave enthusiastically. Jackie, three houses away, hollered over a hello, laughed and asked the woman how she was doing. Their conversation was brief but personable. I stood there in shock, dumb as a garden gnome between them. I realized that, to Jackie, there are none of "those people."
Wendell Berry writes that "a community is not merely a condition of physical proximity... A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each others' lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.... The charity that grows out of regard for neighbors with whom one expects to live one's life is both a discipline and a reward; and the charity that, knowing no neighbors, contributes to funds and foundations is, from the personal standpoint, only an excuse." Of course, someone has already said this. Love thy neighbor as thyself. And to love someone, really, you have to know them, beyond basic facts. You share your life with them.
I still can't figure out how Jackie knew that family. Their houses didn't connect. They didn't attend church together. They had nothing in common. And yet, Jackie knew when they moved and was sorry to see them go.
If I'm going to actually start living what the New Testament teaches, I've got to do some things that are awkward in the onset. There are currently 2 neighbors on my block I don't know well enough to feel comfortable around. One is the boyfriend of the girl next door. (Fortunately, a nice boyfriend, unlike the last one.) The other is the neighborhood pariah. He seems less Boo Radley, more Oscar the Grouch. But maybe as he drives up or down the street in his Jeep, I could do something monumental, something I've never done before. I could wave.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Jesus doesn't lecture. I suppose that goes along with the understatement. (I once read an interview with a poet who called the Sermon on the Mount "one jazzy number," and while I was initially bugged by that patronizing I'll admit that it is captivating for its brevity and punch.) He doesn't directly state we need to have these qualities; he simply states that those who do have them gain the greatest blessings available. They are another version of "you reap what you sow." In other vocabulary they are called karma. I'll focus on two of them.
The meek will inherit the earth - What does this mean exactly? I think it means that in the end, the very end, the real end, they win. They inherit everything worth anything, what lasts forever. And, really, if you do any kind of reading, you already trust this. It is codified in nearly every classic storyline. The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, Vanity Fair, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol (possibly all of Dickens writings), Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, Siddhartha just to name a few. It isn't that bad things don't happen, or even that they don't die in the end, but that, once all of the dust settles, they are what shines, what gives the whole story meaning.
And children's literature is rife with meek characters, probably because they are the only personalities with whom children can truly relate. Winnie the Pooh, Frog and Toad, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte's Web, Narnia, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Ugly Duckling all celebrate meekness. Whether it is in day to day silliness or overcoming some kind of peril, that innate goodness and humility is what sees us through to the final page and what gives those characters luster and their readers lasting hope.
The thing with these promises (that those who are like A receive A in return) is that they are generally unseen and, for a large part, delayed. To believe in them in the first place, one would have to be meek.
The pure in heart will see God -
I met Diana at a church activity for single adults when I was 19. It was some kind of awful dinner/dance, and she was sitting at a table with a girl from my high school (a girl who'd always made me cringe with her nasally whine). The girl introduced her and then, as soon as she thought Diana wasn't listening, made it clear that she only brought her because her mom had promised Diana's mom and oh yeah, she has a brain tumor, that's why she's kind of wacko.
I liked Diana from the get-go. Turned out she loved black and white movies and had a mad crush on all the leading men (though her favorite was Cary Grant while mine was Jimmy Stewart). She easily erupted in a fit of giggles and said whatever popped into her head. While she was less than steady on her feet at times and occasionally carried herself as if something were about to come unhinged, she was more fun than anyone there, and pretty soon we were palling around. Her nephew found old photographs of movie stars, and we went to the nearest copy center to xerox our favorites, then framed them. Her copy of Cary Grant sat for years just above the kitchen sink so she could see him every time she got a drink of water.
We went to my first opera together, me in a wine-colored velvet dress I'd splurged on in a boutique in Bozeman, Montana and Diana in a lemon yellow satin number with flowers. Her mother took a picture of us in front of their mantle before we left. Arms around each other and smiling. Diana and her mother lived exotically to someone who lived a simple small-town life. Once they invited me over for dinner and we ate homemade waffles with ice cream on top. They even had family property: a cluster of cabins on the lakefront of Bear Lake, outfitted with the softest beds, full kitchens, and every kind of entertainment imaginable. One night, we sat around the table wearing funny hats and dipped the fleshy ends of a steamed artichoke in melted butter. It was the first time I'd ever eaten artichoke, and I don't think it's ever tasted as good as it did that night. And I still have a picture of us in front of the lilac bush that grew beside the cabins.
With all the fun we had, there was a slow unraveling that started happening.
One night we went to a concert at the university. As campuses are, the concert hall was on one end and public parking on the other. Because of traffic, I had to park across the street, and we hurried across and up Old Main Hill to get there in time. Either the concert went too late or we'd been sitting in cramped seats too long or the flock of people exiting with us was unnerving for her, but getting Diana back to the car was an ordeal. Her legs wouldn't work right. They jerked out from underneath her as if they weren't her legs at all, as if she were a puppet and the puppeteer was having fun with her strings. I had to brace her against myself, with my arm around her, and by the time we reached the road, I wasn't sure if we could make it. As soon as the crosswalk light turned, we stepped out. On our left was a stream of headlights waving off into the darkness. In my memory, they are like pearls floating in a vast black. And I felt as if we were crossing a bridge of sorts, rickety and long and hemmed in by distant but irrepressible lights.
When we finally made it to the car, I was exhausted, and by the time I got home, deeply rattled. Outside all of the silliness and laughter, it was the first time I'd realized that something was really wrong with Diana.
A handful of years later when I was living in a different city, her mom called and asked me if I could watch Diana while she attended a funeral. I knew her health had started to collapse, but I was unprepared for the person I found. I awkwardly changed her diaper at my apartment while praying that my roommates wouldn't walk in. I'd planned to get a chocolate shake and chat, but she barely talked and couldn't hold the shake, spilling it all over my seatbelt and passenger seat. I used all the napkins wiping down the front of her shirt. I don't think she even knew it was me. Later, we sat at my kitchen table, and she lay her head down and laughed a long time at nothing.
I don’t know what qualifies a pure heart, couldn't give a definition, but I know that part of it has to do with keeping your eyes open. Maybe it means we are looking for God, everywhere. In the wake of all the dailiness and in those difficult moments when a hard reality can no longer be held at bay and in the slow death of what we love. And maybe it is the pure in heart that keep their eyes open, so that they see him not only when he shows up with all the angels of heaven but that they saw him there all along, in all of the confusion and unfairness.
I'm not saying I did then. It was a lonely afternoon and a hard one. But I could have. Because in the times I've seen her since then, I've felt something I don't feel around anyone else but my own children. A kind of ache. A pull. A feeling that something utterly holy is there, in front of me, if I just have the right eyes to see.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
It struck me already what a unique book this is. Since I’m starting with the Gospels, I get to read several versions of the same story. I get to read the birth of the Savior three times (John skips that part) and his crucifixion four times. If God had anything to do with how this book was written, he must have cared that 1) there was more than one witness and 2) that in the telling of his son’s life there were certain details that were so important they needed to be recorded more than once.
Here are the main points I learned this week:
1) History (personal & otherwise) matters. In a world where we are obsessed with the Self, where teenagers and anyone nearing a mid-life crisis labors to “discover” themselves, we only need to read the first few verses of this book to gain some real, lasting perspective. The infamous begats teach the reader scope. We are connected intrinsically to a line of other people whose stories also matter. We are part of something vast. Those verses (so easy to skip over!) say what Jesus tries to show us later when he stops everything to heal that one person: every life matters. And maybe the value of our life is found more in our connections to other people than we realize. Even if those people have been dead a long, long time.
2) Signs are not obvious to everyone. Herod and the three wisemen slept under the same night sky. This was a time before electricity, before city lights blocked out the light of the heavens, before haze and pollution clouded the view. The sky must have been brilliant, each celestial light clear and distinguishable from the rest. I can’t imagine there being any excuse for not seeing this amazing new star pull into town and sit there in all its glory.
Three men saw this star far off “from the east,” saw it well enough to navigate their whole journey by it, while a man who lived almost directly below it largely ignored it until three men showed up and had the audacity to ask for another king . Either Herod was blind (which we have no record of) or totally daft (which seems plausible) or so distanced from these prophecies that even when the star was sitting above him he couldn’t make anything of it. When people cry the old “show me a sign,” is it possible that the sign is already there, big and bright and hanging (literally) right over their heads?
3) God loves understatement. In Genesis, after God spent six days laboring over the creation of everything on earth, he stood back to examine his handiwork. Of all the exclamations he could have made, he chose the seemingly anti-climactic “It is good.” In Matthew Chapter 3 when his son starts his ministry by first being baptized, he speaks over the scene and introduces his son as his beloved in whom he’s “well pleased.” And in Matthew Chapter 4 when Jesus enters the wilderness and fasts for forty days and nights, the record says “he was afterward an hungred.” (I realize that it is Matthew speaking there and not God himself, but it seems fairly consistent with the rest and, if he’s overseeing the recording of his gospel, I would think God also helps direct the writing of it.) This last one almost makes me laugh every time. Not to be disrespectful at all, but it’s got to be the understatement of all Time. Maybe this was Matthew’s way of saying that, despite his being divine, Jesus also got hungry, but I think there’s more to it than that. There is a kind of profound modesty going on here.
If you don’t know someone well, if you’re just getting to know them , it helps to have someone who does know them well explain little things to you like, “Oh that’s how he is. He’s just being modest.” And then you know to look deeper at what they say. But since we don’t generally interact with God this way, maybe we miss those things and misread him.
One of the most modest people I’ve ever known was my grandmother. Every time you complimented her, she would chuckle, pat your hand, and call you a “little ‘weetheart.” And then she’d ask you about you. She avoided all drama and went for the simple and genuine.
Each year near the holidays I would drive up north to her home and we would dip homemade chocolates so that she could hand them out to everyone over Christmas. We always chatted a good bit while we worked, and I think it was during these conversations that I came to know her best. One year we landed on the topic of my cousin Dixie, who had been my age and one of my closest cousins growing up. When she was twenty-three years old, Dixie died giving birth to her third child. It was a devastating loss, and I still missed her. I don’t remember what we said about her exactly, but I do remember that my grandma paused a moment to think of her and said with a sigh, “She was a nice girl.”
A nice girl? If you didn’t know my grandma, this statement could have seemed almost cold, even distant. You could have said, this was her granddaughter, not some person who came to her door selling Avon or whom she knew vaguely and who complimented her hair. You would have missed the genuine affection she held for someone she could see not only as her granddaughter, but as an individual who she appreciated and missed. Dixie was nice, she was kind in a way that came naturally to her, and to my grandma in particular, she was a girl. Twenty-three must have seemed extraordinarily young to someone in their mid 80s.
The thing about modesty is that there’s always more to discover. Understatement means that, beneath this one phrase, there is a mountain of meaning. And, when applied to one’s self, it signifies real humility. God is modest about himself. So when he talks about how he “so loved the world,” when he lays down his laws and judgments in detail and – to our less refined ears – seems to go on and on about what we should and shouldn’t do and why, we can know that he is doing all he can to be clear, to lay it out so that there is no mistaking what is at stake here. We need to know his laws because we live in those laws. He is trying to teach us about us. And, if we’re paying close attention, we also learn a lot about him.
4) You must change your life. I do not use understatement. I tend to overstate. Years ago, I had a friend who, when describing me, said, “You know Sunni, she always over-exaggerates.” (I guess she was guilty of it too.) In the scope of everything I need to change about myself, that characteristic seems trivial, but I also recognize that I am not all that modest about myself either. If we are supposed to be like God, I’m sure there are endless things for me to work on.
And that is the main message not only of this section of the Gospels but of the entire New Testament. We need to change. John the Baptist comes crying “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and one chapter later Jesus is crying the same thing.
The call to change is more than uncomfortable. It is offensive. We're afraid it means we aren’t good enough already, but if the kingdom of heaven is at hand, I’m guessing it means there’s something better in store. And everything that Jesus and his followers do from here on out illustrates that.
Saturday, January 3, 2015
Emerson says “Each truth that a writer acquires is a lantern which he turns full on what facts and thoughts lay already in his mind, and behold, all the mats and rubbish which had littered his garret become precious. Every trivial fact in his private biography becomes an illustration of this new principle…. Men say, Where did he get this? and think there is something divine in his life. But no; they have myriads of facts just as good, would they only get a lamp to ransack their attics withal.”
Since acquiring truth is the greatest endeavor in this life (besides loving others, which is in itself finding truth), this seems a very useful practice. God gave us life to learn from it, and nothing teaches us more than our own experiences, though too often we stuff those experiences away in an "attic" and forget about them, failing to connect them to the deep truths we encounter in the universe. Jesus spent a lot of time telling people to open their eyes, he restored sight to the blind and called out the Pharisees for their blatant disconnect between the "truths" they taught and their own dishonest actions. They didn't connect, ever. They never cast that lantern of their doctrine over the contents of their attic. They never saw their lives for what they were, so the truth never came to them.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the teachings of Jesus - what makes it so poetic and quotable, even to unbelievers - is that his sermons do just that: connect every day things with Truth. Mustard seeds, sheep, bread, water. And the more common the object, the deeper the teaching. Suddenly Jesus himself is bread, is water.
This tells me that everything, even the most common or absurd things, when cast under the right light (truth, in Emerson's terms) illuminates and deepens our understanding. My method for "testing" the New Testament will be based on that. First, to study and try to understand the teachings and second, to connect those to everyday things in my own life and in the world around me. I'm still not sure how to "prove" my findings, but I hope the experiences speak for themselves.
On a technical note, I've also decided to stick with the New Testament because, in my own King James copy, it is a slight 403 pages while the Old Testament comes in at a whopping 1,184. Maybe I'm lazy, but I think the N.T.'s manageable size allows me to dig a little deeper into each story and teaching. If I've calculated right, this means about 7.75 pages per week. And this first week of the year is almost over already!
Thursday, January 1, 2015
About 10 years ago I attended an annual literature conference in the town where I had studied writing as a grad student. It was a chance to meet writers I'd only ever seen on the dust jacket of books and was one of those rare and wonderfully ironic instances where almost as many people turn out for a reading as for a rock concert. This year the conference hailed a world-renowned writer whose life had been as colorful and edgy as his writing, and as prolific.
Near the end of his "reading" - which had consisted mainly of re-telling his years as an undergrad at an illustrious English university, his struggles as a young and brilliant novelist, and topped off with a giant sideswipe against anyone who wasted their time in MFA programs (the you-can't-teach-good-writing mantra) - he took a sharp turn and, for reasons I don't recall, landed on the topic of religion. Aside from MFA programs (of which I am a product), he had a sincere distaste for religion, mainly Christianity. It muddies our intellect. It cripples our progress as a society, a species. It is, now that we are firmly in the 21st century, completely unnecessary.
And then he said something that still surprises me today. He suggested that we throw out the Bible entirely and just move on. The concert hall erupted in applause. He made some final comments about what he was currently working on and where he was flying to next and then bid us goodnight. But I didn't hear much of that. I was sitting there in the dark wondering what seemed to me the obvious follow-up question to his suggestion: ..." and replace it with what?" The evening news? Advertisements? This guy's novels?
And, 10 years later, I am still musing about that comment. And more than that, I am stunned by the number of people who apparently agreed with him. So I thought it might be high time I put that book to the test, personally, as an individual in the 21st century.
But the Old Testament kind of scares the pants off me. I'll admit it. It's dense with an enormous cast and lots of wild parties and plagues. (Actually, put that way, it sounds like a terrific read but for the long spells where I get very lost and speed read through the measurements for temples.) And, since much of the doctrine it teaches was "fulfilled" (Jesus's words) by New Testament doctrine, I'm going to start there, with the New Testament. That's the source most Christian sermons draw from, and it was Christianity as a whole that this particular writer denounced.
I want to examine: What does it really say? What does it teach? Is it worth not only reading but living those teachings? Is it possible? Is it, after all, valuable still, centuries and civilizations later?
How does someone go about measuring that? I still don't know, but I am going to try it out anyway and see what I find. For one whole year I will read and try to live those teachings, and I'll write about what I discover. But this will not be confessional. Rather, it will be meditative, I hope. And, if I do it right, honest.