Sunday, May 13, 2018

On The Beauty of the World

"They [young preachers] learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works -- although they could tell you that this world had been made by God Himself.  

What they didn't see was that it was beautiful.  Most of the  young preachers knew Port William only as it theoretically was (lost) and as it theoretically might be (saved).  And they wanted us all to do our part to spread this bad news to others who had not heard it. 

Those world-condemning sermons were preached to people who, on Sunday mornings, would wear their prettiest clothes.  The people who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasure of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries.  While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of children.  And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken and creamed new potatoes and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk.  The preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and, having just foresworn the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish.

The people didn't really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world.  They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but still they liked it.  What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another's help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude."   

--Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Wisdom from Mary Anne Evans (AKA: George Eliot)

Adam Bede: Chapter 17
In which the story pauses a little...

“THIS Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!” I hear one of my readers exclaim. “How much more edifying it would have been if you had made him give Arthur some truly spiritual advice! You might have put into his mouth the most beautiful things—quite as good as reading a sermon.” 
Certainly I could, if I held it the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be. Then, of course, I might refashion life and character entirely after my own liking; I might select the most unexceptionable type of clergyman and put my own admirable opinions into his mouth on all occasions. But it happens, on the contrary, that my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective, the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box, narrating my experience on oath. 
Sixty years ago—it is a long time, so no wonder things have changed—all clergymen were not zealous; indeed, there is reason to believe that the number of zealous clergymen was small, and it is probable that if one among the small minority had owned the livings of Broxton and Hayslope in the year 1799, you would have liked him no better than you like Mr. Irwine. Ten to one, you would have thought him a tasteless, indiscreet, methodistical man. It is so very rarely that facts hit that nice medium required by our own enlightened opinions and refined taste! Perhaps you will say, “Do improve the facts a little, then; make them more accordant with those correct views which it is our privilege to possess. The world is not just what we like; do touch it up with a tasteful pencil, and make believe it is not quite such a mixed entangled affair. Let all people who hold unexceptionable opinions act unexceptionably. Let your most faulty characters always be on the wrong side, and your virtuous ones on the right. Then we shall see at a glance whom we are to condemn and whom we are to approve. Then we shall be able to admire, without the slightest disturbance of our prepossessions: we shall hate and despise with that true ruminant relish which belongs to undoubting confidence.” 
But, my good friend, what will you do then with your fellow-parishioner who opposes your husband in the vestry? With your newly appointed vicar, whose style of preaching you find painfully below that of his regretted predecessor? With the honest servant who worries your soul with her one failing? With your neighbour, Mrs. Green, who was really kind to you in your last illness, but has said several ill-natured things about you since your convalescence? Nay, with your excellent husband himself, who has other irritating habits besides that of not wiping his shoes? These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire—for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields—on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice. 
So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dreading nothing, indeed, but falsity, which, in spite of one's best efforts, there is reason to dread. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin—the longer the claws, and the larger the wings, the better; but that marvellous facility which we mistook for genius is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion. Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings—much harder than to say something fine about them which is NOT the exact truth. 
It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions. I turn, without shrinking, from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug, and all those cheap common things which are the precious necessaries of life to her—or I turn to that village wedding, kept between four brown walls, where an awkward bridegroom opens the dance with a high-shouldered, broad-faced bride, while elderly and middle-aged friends look on, with very irregular noses and lips, and probably with quart-pots in their hands, but with an expression of unmistakable contentment and goodwill. “Foh!” says my idealistic friend, “what vulgar details! What good is there in taking all these pains to give an exact likeness of old women and clowns? What a low phase of life! What clumsy, ugly people!” 
But bless us, things may be lovable that are not altogether handsome, I hope? I am not at all sure that the majority of the human race have not been ugly, and even among those “lords of their kind,” the British, squat figures, ill-shapen nostrils, and dingy complexions are not startling exceptions. Yet there is a great deal of family love amongst us. I have a friend or two whose class of features is such that the Apollo curl on the summit of their brows would be decidedly trying; yet to my certain knowledge tender hearts have beaten for them, and their miniatures—flattering, but still not lovely—are kissed in secret by motherly lips. I have seen many an excellent matron, who could have never in her best days have been handsome, and yet she had a packet of yellow love-letters in a private drawer, and sweet children showered kisses on her sallow cheeks. And I believe there have been plenty of young heroes, of middle stature and feeble beards, who have felt quite sure they could never love anything more insignificant than a Diana, and yet have found themselves in middle life happily settled with a wife who waddles. Yes! Thank God; human feeling is like the mighty rivers that bless the earth: it does not wait for beauty—it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it. 
All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children—in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy. Paint us an angel, if you can, with a floating violet robe, and a face paled by the celestial light; paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face upward and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory; but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world—those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore, let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things—men who see beauty in these commonplace things, and delight in showing how kindly the light of heaven falls on them. There are few prophets in the world; few sublimely beautiful women; few heroes. I can't afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities: I want a great deal of those feelings for my every-day fellow-men, especially for the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch, for whom I have to make way with kindly courtesy. Neither are picturesque lazzaroni or romantic criminals half so frequent as your common labourer, who gets his own bread and eats it vulgarly but creditably with his own pocket-knife. It is more needful that I should have a fibre of sympathy connecting me with that vulgar citizen who weighs out my sugar in a vilely assorted cravat and waistcoat, than with the handsomest rascal in red scarf and green feathers—more needful that my heart should swell with loving admiration at some trait of gentle goodness in the faulty people who sit at the same hearth with me, or in the clergyman of my own parish, who is perhaps rather too corpulent and in other respects is not an Oberlin or a Tillotson, than at the deeds of heroes whom I shall never know except by hearsay, or at the sublimest abstract of all clerical graces that was ever conceived by an able novelist. 
And so I come back to Mr. Irwine, with whom I desire you to be in perfect charity, far as he may be from satisfying your demands on the clerical character. Perhaps you think he was not—as he ought to have been—a living demonstration of the benefits attached to a national church? But I am not sure of that; at least I know that the people in Broxton and Hayslope would have been very sorry to part with their clergyman, and that most faces brightened at his approach; and until it can be proved that hatred is a better thing for the soul than love, I must believe that Mr. Irwine's influence in his parish was a more wholesome one than that of the zealous Mr. Ryde, who came there twenty years afterwards, when Mr. Irwine had been gathered to his fathers. It is true, Mr. Ryde insisted strongly on the doctrines of the Reformation, visited his flock a great deal in their own homes, and was severe in rebuking the aberrations of the flesh—put a stop, indeed, to the Christmas rounds of the church singers, as promoting drunkenness and too light a handling of sacred things. But I gathered from Adam Bede, to whom I talked of these matters in his old age, that few clergymen could be less successful in winning the hearts of their parishioners than Mr. Ryde. They learned a great many notions about doctrine from him, so that almost every church-goer under fifty began to distinguish as well between the genuine gospel and what did not come precisely up to that standard, as if he had been born and bred a Dissenter; and for some time after his arrival there seemed to be quite a religious movement in that quiet rural district. “But,” said Adam, “I've seen pretty clear, ever since I was a young un, as religion's something else besides notions. It isn't notions sets people doing the right thing—it's feelings. It's the same with the notions in religion as it is with math'matics—a man may be able to work problems straight off in's head as he sits by the fire and smokes his pipe, but if he has to make a machine or a building, he must have a will and a resolution and love something else better than his own ease. Somehow, the congregation began to fall off, and people began to speak light o' Mr. Ryde. I believe he meant right at bottom; but, you see, he was sourish-tempered, and was for beating down prices with the people as worked for him; and his preaching wouldn't go down well with that sauce. And he wanted to be like my lord judge i' the parish, punishing folks for doing wrong; and he scolded 'em from the pulpit as if he'd been a Ranter, and yet he couldn't abide the Dissenters, and was a deal more set against 'em than Mr. Irwine was. And then he didn't keep within his income, for he seemed to think at first go-off that six hundred a-year was to make him as big a man as Mr. Donnithorne. That's a sore mischief I've often seen with the poor curates jumping into a bit of a living all of a sudden. Mr. Ryde was a deal thought on at a distance, I believe, and he wrote books, but as for math'matics and the natur o' things, he was as ignorant as a woman. He was very knowing about doctrines, and used to call 'em the bulwarks of the Reformation; but I've always mistrusted that sort o' learning as leaves folks foolish and unreasonable about business. Now Mester Irwine was as different as could be: as quick!—he understood what you meant in a minute, and he knew all about building, and could see when you'd made a good job. And he behaved as much like a gentleman to the farmers, and th' old women, and the labourers, as he did to the gentry. You never saw HIM interfering and scolding, and trying to play th' emperor. Ah, he was a fine man as ever you set eyes on; and so kind to's mother and sisters. That poor sickly Miss Anne—he seemed to think more of her than of anybody else in the world. There wasn't a soul in the parish had a word to say against him; and his servants stayed with him till they were so old and pottering, he had to hire other folks to do their work.” 
“Well,” I said, “that was an excellent way of preaching in the weekdays; but I daresay, if your old friend Mr. Irwine were to come to life again, and get into the pulpit next Sunday, you would be rather ashamed that he didn't preach better after all your praise of him.” 
“Nay, nay,” said Adam, broadening his chest and throwing himself back in his chair, as if he were ready to meet all inferences, “nobody has ever heard me say Mr. Irwine was much of a preacher. He didn't go into deep speritial experience; and I know there s a deal in a man's inward life as you can't measure by the square, and say, 'Do this and that 'll follow,' and, 'Do that and this 'll follow.' There's things go on in the soul, and times when feelings come into you like a rushing mighty wind, as the Scripture says, and part your life in two a'most, so you look back on yourself as if you was somebody else. Those are things as you can't bottle up in a 'do this' and 'do that'; and I'll go so far with the strongest Methodist ever you'll find. That shows me there's deep speritial things in religion. You can't make much out wi' talking about it, but you feel it. Mr. Irwine didn't go into those things—he preached short moral sermons, and that was all. But then he acted pretty much up to what he said; he didn't set up for being so different from other folks one day, and then be as like 'em as two peas the next. And he made folks love him and respect him, and that was better nor stirring up their gall wi' being overbusy. Mrs. Poyser used to say—you know she would have her word about everything—she said, Mr. Irwine was like a good meal o' victual, you were the better for him without thinking on it, and Mr. Ryde was like a dose o' physic, he gripped you and worreted you, and after all he left you much the same.” 
“But didn't Mr. Ryde preach a great deal more about that spiritual part of religion that you talk of, Adam? Couldn't you get more out of his sermons than out of Mr. Irwine's?” 
“Eh, I knowna. He preached a deal about doctrines. But I've seen pretty clear, ever since I was a young un, as religion's something else besides doctrines and notions. I look at it as if the doctrines was like finding names for your feelings, so as you can talk of 'em when you've never known 'em, just as a man may talk o' tools when he knows their names, though he's never so much as seen 'em, still less handled 'em. I've heard a deal o' doctrine i' my time, for I used to go after the Dissenting preachers along wi' Seth, when I was a lad o' seventeen, and got puzzling myself a deal about th' Arminians and the Calvinists. The Wesleyans, you know, are strong Arminians; and Seth, who could never abide anything harsh and was always for hoping the best, held fast by the Wesleyans from the very first; but I thought I could pick a hole or two in their notions, and I got disputing wi' one o' the class leaders down at Treddles'on, and harassed him so, first o' this side and then o' that, till at last he said, 'Young man, it's the devil making use o' your pride and conceit as a weapon to war against the simplicity o' the truth.' I couldn't help laughing then, but as I was going home, I thought the man wasn't far wrong. I began to see as all this weighing and sifting what this text means and that text means, and whether folks are saved all by God's grace, or whether there goes an ounce o' their own will to't, was no part o' real religion at all. You may talk o' these things for hours on end, and you'll only be all the more coxy and conceited for't. So I took to going nowhere but to church, and hearing nobody but Mr. Irwine, for he said nothing but what was good and what you'd be the wiser for remembering. And I found it better for my soul to be humble before the mysteries o' God's dealings, and not be making a clatter about what I could never understand. And they're poor foolish questions after all; for what have we got either inside or outside of us but what comes from God? If we've got a resolution to do right, He gave it us, I reckon, first or last; but I see plain enough we shall never do it without a resolution, and that's enough for me.” 
Adam, you perceive, was a warm admirer, perhaps a partial judge, of Mr. Irwine, as, happily, some of us still are of the people we have known familiarly. Doubtless it will be despised as a weakness by that lofty order of minds who pant after the ideal, and are oppressed by a general sense that their emotions are of too exquisite a character to find fit objects among their everyday fellowmen. I have often been favoured with the confidence of these select natures, and find them to concur in the experience that great men are overestimated and small men are insupportable; that if you would love a woman without ever looking back on your love as a folly, she must die while you are courting her; and if you would maintain the slightest belief in human heroism, you must never make a pilgrimage to see the hero. I confess I have often meanly shrunk from confessing to these accomplished and acute gentlemen what my own experience has been. I am afraid I have often smiled with hypocritical assent, and gratified them with an epigram on the fleeting nature of our illusions, which any one moderately acquainted with French literature can command at a moment's notice. Human converse, I think some wise man has remarked, is not rigidly sincere. But I herewith discharge my conscience, and declare that I have had quite enthusiastic movements of admiration towards old gentlemen who spoke the worst English, who were occasionally fretful in their temper, and who had never moved in a higher sphere of influence than that of parish overseer; and that the way in which I have come to the conclusion that human nature is lovable—the way I have learnt something of its deep pathos, its sublime mysteries—has been by living a great deal among people more or less commonplace and vulgar, of whom you would perhaps hear nothing very surprising if you were to inquire about them in the neighbourhoods where they dwelt. Ten to one most of the small shopkeepers in their vicinity saw nothing at all in them. For I have observed this remarkable coincidence, that the select natures who pant after the ideal, and find nothing in pantaloons or petticoats great enough to command their reverence and love, are curiously in unison with the narrowest and pettiest. For example, I have often heard Mr. Gedge, the landlord of the Royal Oak, who used to turn a bloodshot eye on his neighbours in the village of Shepperton, sum up his opinion of the people in his own parish—and they were all the people he knew—in these emphatic words: “Aye, sir, I've said it often, and I'll say it again, they're a poor lot i' this parish—a poor lot, sir, big and little.” I think he had a dim idea that if he could migrate to a distant parish, he might find neighbours worthy of him; and indeed he did subsequently transfer himself to the Saracen's Head, which was doing a thriving business in the back street of a neighbouring market-town. But, oddly enough, he has found the people up that back street of precisely the same stamp as the inhabitants of Shepperton—“a poor lot, sir, big and little, and them as comes for a go o' gin are no better than them as comes for a pint o' twopenny—a poor lot.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Lament for a Son

In sharing his own laments, Nicholas Wolterstorff has given us a gift.  Christians are often hard-pressed to confront grief with honesty.  In Lament for a Son, Wolterstorff removes the rose-colored glasses, and eschews Stoicism in favor of an honest wrestling with the reality of Death and the presence (or absence) of God in it.  His honesty is akin to Lewis's in A Grief Observed, though his dominant voice is one of wounding rather than anger.
Here are a couple of brief passages:

“All these things I recognize. I remember delighting in them —trees, art, house, music, pink morning sky, work well done, flowers, books. I still delight in them. I’m still grateful. But the zest is gone. The passion is cooled, the striving quieted, the longing stilled. My attachment is loosened. No longer do I set my heart on them. I can do without them. They don’t matter. Instead of rowing, I float. The joy that comes my way I savor. But the seeking, the clutching, the aiming, is gone. I don’t suppose anyone on the outside notices. I go through my paces. What the world gives, I still accept. But what it promises, I no longer reach for. 

I’ve become an alien in the world. I don’t belong anymore. When someone loved leaves home, home becomes mere house.”
"I skimmed some books on grief. They offered ways of *not* looking death and pain in the face, ways of TURNING AWAY from death out there to one's own inner 'grief process' and then, on that, laying the heavy hand of rationality. I will not have it so. I will not look away. I will indeed remind myself that there is more to life than pain. I will accept joy. But I will not look away from Eric dead. Its demonic awfulness I will not ignore. I owe that--to him and to God." 
"Someone said to Claire, 'I hope you're learning to live at peace with Eric's death.' Peace. Shalom. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom's mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.
When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming day of shalom, he did not say that one day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day 'There will be no more death or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity's mourning bench."  

Like Lewis, Wolterstorff ends with his trust in the Trinitarian God fully intact, but you know and feel the lingering shadow of death even in his words of hard-won faith. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Wendell Berry - The Real Deal

Every now and then I operate under the delusion that I am a writer.  And then I go and read Wendell Berry and I am immediately divested of my delusion of grandeur.  This is one of many, many passages in Hannah Coulter that struck me as particularly wise and beautiful.  There were dozens and dozens of descriptions of the ordinary that gripped and drowned me in a whirlpool of longing and sadness and beauty and joy. 

"You think winter will never end, and then,when you don't expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and  a different light.  Under the bare trees the wildflowers bloom so thick you can't walk without stepping on them.  The pastures turn green and the leaves come.

You look around presently, and it is summer.  It has been dry a while, maybe, and now it has rained.  The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand.  Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflies that fly up in a flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail. 

And then it is fall and the cornfields are ripe and the calves are fat and shiny and the wooded valley sides are beautiful with color.  The sun is bright, the air clear, and the shadows dark.  There is the feeling of completion and storing up and getting ready.

You have consented to time and it is winter.  The country seems bigger, for you can see through the bare trees.  There are times when the woods is absolutely still and quiet.  The house holds warmth.  A wet snow comes in the night and covers the ground and clings to the trees, making the whole world white.  For a while in the morning the world is perfect and beautiful.  You think you will never forget.

You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was.  But you can't remember it the way it was.  To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening.  It can only return by surprise.  Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind.

And so you have a life that you are living only now, now, and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence."  --Hannah Coulter

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Fierce & Difficult Calling

An unknown student contacted me out of the blue a couple weeks ago to ask if I’d be willing to contribute to his research on how prisoners’ art affects those who were, directly or indirectly, victims of their crimes.  He particularly wanted to know if I would react to the art of Harold Wayne Nichols. 

Who is Harold Wayne Nichols?  He’s the man who, under cover of darkness, broke into our home in Chattanooga where one of my housemates, Karen, lay sleeping.  My other housemate, Sue, and I were both working overnight shifts, leaving  Karen home alone.  He violently subdued her, raped her, and left her for dead.  She died the following day.  He raped 8 more women over the next couple of months, one of whom was a co-worker of mine.  He killed Karen.  Sue became an addict in the aftermath of this event and died prematurely last week at age 50.  My co-worker (ST) never recovered any normalcy in her life. 

How do I react to the art of Harold Wayne Nichols?  There’s no simple answer to that because the truth is, a whole host of reactions immediately go to war inside me. These internal opponents can be summarily identified as indignation and mercy and have waged war inside of me since 1988.

There’s one part of me that identifies with the brokenness of his humanity and feels compassion for the abandonment and abuse he endured in his childhood, which no doubt left him unwhole.   There’s a part of me that knows he was created, like each of us, in the Image of God and I genuinely hope and pray for his repentance and restoration.  But there is that part of me that wells up with anger when I remember his heartless acts, his temporary remorse, and his absurd attempts to force re-trial after re-trial with no regard for the peace of dozens affected by his heinous acts.

That part of me says, “I don’t give a damn about your art!  It’s nothing but hideous child’s play from the soul of the man who destroyed the  lives of many beautiful, young women.  Burn it.”

But more than the art itself, I despise your flippant descriptions of it and of your life in prison. Your words are laced with undertones of victimization: “I haven’t seen the stars in many years because the glare of the prison lights and cages and other obstructions meant to keep me in also seem to keep the stars out.”

Well, guess what, Harold?  Those stars have not been visible from 6-feet under for the past 29 years to a girl whose eyes have long since been eaten by worms.  You bastard. How dare you bemoan your own hardship when Karen is dead, ST never “lived” another day, and Sue died a long, slow, tragic death?  Not one of them chose the deaths you handed them…the choices were all yours.  They’re dead at your hands.  And yet you live…to complain about the absence of stars.  How dare you?

“Everywhere I turn, prison is the most prominent aspect of my existence.  No matter what I do, no matter what color or beauty I attempt to bring into my life, I am always reminded every day that I am in prison and that I have a death sentence looming over me and that I will be forever limited in what I can accomplish.”  You poor mistreated soul.  How can society be so cruel?  After all, it was just a couple of  rapes…well 9…and a murder….but you didn’t really MEAN to kill that 21-year-old Christian virgin.  If only she hadn’t fought so hard.  Explain to me why I should feel sorrow for your confinement in a place that provides you shelter, safety, warm meals, a bed, a warm shower, a library, education, counseling, and even PAINTING LESSONS…all at no cost to you?

“I still have a life and intend to enjoy it as best I can.  I think that is the reason I draw and paint – because I enjoy living.”  How dare you brag about how much you delight in living when you robbed so many others of life?  Karen enjoyed living too until you snatched her breath in a moment of violent self-absorption,  Until you decided you had the right to do as you pleased with her life.

“Does it sound bizarre that a man sentenced to death by electrocution would work making electrical repairs?  Well I guess it is but until the State takes it away I still have a life and I intend to enjoy it.”  You nonchalantly mock the “irony” of this then follow with a taunt of “Ha! I’m still alive…that is, until the evil state robs me of my life”?  I hear an undercurrent of amusement, but there is NO humor in this for those of us on the outside who have lived with the consequences of your choices, Harold.  No humor at all.   

You know, I might find your words and art tolerable if there were even a slight hint of humility in them.  I understand making grave mistakes…I’ve made them. I understand desperately needing a new start…I’ve needed more than one.  I even understand the lasting effects of abuse…recovery is long and hard.  But when your words drip with frivolity and victimization, I want you to go to hell.  Indignation drowns mercy.

You beg for sympathy. when you should give thanks for mercy.  You want sympathy? If you want MY sympathy, then demonstrate that you have grieved and suffered and carried the weight of your sins.  Talk of sorrow and repentance.  Make things right with those whose lives you shattered.  Use your energy to help others avoid your sins, rather than justifying and dismissing them.  Acknowledge the hurt and destruction that OTHERS still bear today BECAUSE OF YOU.  Your attempts to garner pity leave me cold.

BUT…by virtue of my confession that Christ is the Refuge, the Shelter, the Savior, the Great Merciful One…by virtue of my declaration that I am his follower…by virtue of him rescuing me and forgiving me…I am called to more than indignation.  I am called to rescue even those who don’t yet see their need for it. I am called to extend mercy where it is not deserved.  I find this a fierce and difficult calling when confronted with your art and your words, Mr. Nichols.   A very fierce and difficult calling.

And THAT, young student, is how the art of Harold Wayne Nichols affects me.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Reluctant Eulogy

My parents couldn't reach me by phone so they drove an hour to deliver the message in person.  Only...I wasn't home.  So it fell to my youngest son to tell me Aunt Riesa was gone.  I'm not sure either of us were prepared for my reaction.  I'm not even sure I knew, until that moment, how very much I loved her. 
Later that night, my mother asked me how I'd feel about preparing and delivering Riesa's eulogy.  "No.Way.  I am waaay too emotional...I'll never make it through.  Listen to me!!!  I can't even form a sentence without falling apart!"  That's when I learned she had already volunteered my services and her suggestion had been universally approved.  Gee thanks, Momma. 
In the end, I was glad she proceeded without my permission, because it forced me to engage in the active work of remembrance, grief, and thanksgiving which I might otherwise have avoided...or at least delayed.
Since many of you knew Riesa along the way and were blessed by her life, I'm sharing these "good words" in reflection of her 58 years. 
My sweet little girl, Riesa Kay Waggoner, was born on March 18, 1958.  In spite of the objective reality embedded in that date, the fact is: Riesa didn’t age like the rest of us.  When I was 11, she was 18.  When I was 23, she was 18.  Somehow I blew right past her all the way into my late 40s while she managed to linger guessed it...18.  But who was I to question?  She didn’t take kindly to those who attempted to persuade her that she was actually 30-something…or 40-something…or 50-something!
Riesa didn’t always have control over the realities of life in the same way she assumed control over her age.  Her birth was accompanied by some measure of chaos and her entrance into this world was traumatic, resulting in an APGAR score that was too low…a troublesome indicator of things to come. 
In 1958, attitudes and perceptions about babies born with Down’s Syndrome were drastically different than they are in 2016. Once Riesa was labeled as “Mongoloid” – as they called people with Down’s in those days –  some doctors suggested she be institutionalized and forgotten.   After all, she wouldn’t live long and certainly not well.   She would only be a source of inconvenience and trouble for an otherwise healthy family.  But these doctors didn’t reckon on one thing:  Mother Shirley
Thankfully for all of us, her mother – my Grandma – saw things differently.  She valued the life of her “sweet daughter, Riesa” and devoted herself to her survival.  That’s no exaggeration.  Riesa’s very life was at stake because she was unable to nurse or take a bottle for sustenance.  Her mother remained on active duty around the clock in order to feed her from a medicine dropper at intervals that allowed Riesa, not only to survive, but eventually to thrive.  We owe you a debt of gratitude, Grandma.  Because of your dedication and intensive labor in those early days, all of us have been allowed to share in the joy of knowing and experiencing life with Riesa.
In reminiscing on those experiences that span several decades, I made some rather obvious observations that I think many of you will relate to based on your own experiences with her:
Riesa loved family.  Because Riesa was 7 years older than I, I don’t remember much about her early years.  In fact, my clearest memories originate sometime during her teen years.  Our family would make trips from Chicago to visit G’ma, G’dad, and Riesa and since we were coming from a distance, we would also stay in their home.  6 children – or when it was a holiday and ALL the cousins showed up, it could be as many as 12 children! – would invade her space…play with her toys…ride her bike…hijack her skateboard…monopolize her scooter…listen to her records…sleep in her bed…cover her bedroom floor with pallets…and all around disturb her normally peaceful world.  But I never remember feeling like we were an imposition on her.  I don’t remember her trying to keep us out of HER stuff.  Perhaps I was  young and clueless, but I’m pretty sure she WANTED us there!  She was amazingly accommodating and patient with all the disruption that accompanied our arrival and with the ensuing demand to share her stuff, her people, and her space.
One of my favorite memories from a time when we lived in their home,  is of her sitting for hours around the living room with my sisters and me as we thumbed through bridal magazines, each of us imagining our own special day yet to come.  I remember Grandma worrying that it might stir an expectation in Riesa of her own wedding day, which would never come to pass.  But she loved the beautiful gowns as much as we did and she dreamt right along with us.
Riesa loved music.  From the earliest days, it was clear that she had inherited her daddy’s love of music.  She spent hours sitting by her turntable playing her records.  I remember hearing many hymns, LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of Marcy, with a hearty dose of Phil & Lori thrown in…and she sang along with all of them.   Riesa had a remarkable capacity to memorize songs.
Riesa loved to write.  I never knew just *how* much until she lived in my home and I saw her sit for hours upon hours, filling page after page after page with words and numbers and sometimes shapes…but mostly words.    I couldn’t always decipher those words or her meaning, but that didn’t deter her.  The most common words were the names of people she loved and their ages or birth dates.  This is what she wrote in her notebooks, because this is what mattered to her because...
Riesa loved people.  Well…*most* people.  Everywhere she went, she endeared herself to people.  Years after high school ended, she could rifle through old school picturess and name every one of them and often add some personal detail about them.  She made friends at each church, school, workshop, residence…it didn’t matter…she made friends.  She always had her favorites too.  You considered yourself lucky if you made it into that category.    
Riesa loved to laugh…and she loved to make US laugh.  A lot.  She left us a host of Riesa-isms that have become permanently embedded in our family vocabulary.  My personal favorite conferred upon me:  “Your hips are too fat behind your back!”
She loved to be silly and she loved it even more when WE were silly.  Pam was one of those chosen favorites who could get her laughing so hard she could hardly catch her breath.
Riesa loved home.  She seemed to have a sense of place as important and she not only loved being at home, but she also loved being invited into other’s homes.   She had to adapt to a number of homes over the years…whether it was a new house in Festus after many years in Jackson, her first stint at My Place Residential, her time living in my home, or her final stay at My Place…Riesa adjusted and contented herself in each of those homes with an uncanny adaptability. 
Her way of expressing her contentment with a particular place was to say “This house is better.”  If she pronounced that over YOUR space, you knew she felt loved and welcomed and accepted and that she wanted to stay for as long as she could.  She might even be a little irritated when you forced her to go.
Riesa loved Jesus.  Another evidence of Grandma’s dedication was that Riesa memorized a lot of Scripture as a child as she worked her way through the Bible Memory Association program.   One of my great joys during her stay with me was praying Psalm 23 together and passing by her room to see her sitting in her bed with her Bible open as if she were reading it before she turned her lights out at night.   She couldn’t read it, but there was a sense that it mattered.
When her mother taught her the implications of John 14…that Grandmother, or Grandma Palmer, or Daddy, had gone to live with Jesus in his big beautiful house, she believed it.  Well…mostly. There was that one time when she was told that Grandmother went to live in Jesus’ house and she uttered what all of us *feel* sometimes at the loss of a loved one: “stupid Jesus”…and yet...many more times, she voiced her childlike faith in Jesus as she’d talk about these loved ones being in his “big beautiful house.”  
So…despite  doctors' early predictions, Riesa lived both long AND well.
In some ways, it’s almost impossible to believe that she is gone from us.  Some joys of this life have flown with her, but so has the worry of what might become of her as she aged…what measure of illness or pain she might have been called on to endure…and we can give thanks that her merciful Savior spared her from prolonged suffering, including the death of her dearest, Mother Shirley. 
When I’m able to lay aside the suddenness and shock of her absence, I am mostly consumed with thoughts of what Riesa might be experiencing in the presence of her Savior and what her life might look like at the Final Resurrection when body and soul are re-united in glory. 
I look forward to the day when I will share in resurrected life with Riesa without the limitations that plagued her in this life. 
I want to hear as she joins her voice with the hosts of heaven and all the Family of God in singing praise to that faithful Shepherd of Psalm 23. 
I can’t wait for that first conversation where she is unhindered by her ability to express freely all those words and thoughts she penned over the years. 
I eagerly await her participation in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb when she will have no regrets about the absence of married love in this life. 
But for now, along with her mother, I imagine Riesa walking – with a lightness in her step – through Jesus’ big, beautiful house saying with renewed vigor and unmitigated certainty: “THIS house is better.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

Holy Sonnet 1: Donne

by John Donne
Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Cemetery or Sanctuary?

Today, I leave this place.
When I walked through the door three years ago with only my clothes and shoes in tow, I never imagined it would become anything like home.
My first night portended otherwise and is permanently seared into my conscience.  Courage gave way to uncertainty as I sat on the floor in a room that, despite the St. Louis heat, was decidedly cold and lifeless...devoid of memories.  Until that moment, I hadn't understood the power of Place and Memory.
For the first time in 18 years, my sons were laying their heads on pillows in a place where I was not.  That was the single haunting reality I could neither justify nor escape.  I wept for them.  I wept for me.  I wept for all the previous and ensuing sorrow.  There was more than enough sorrow to go around in those days.
Because I didn't want to disrupt their world even more, and because the external emptiness reflected my internal reality, I refused my sons' offers to take furniture from their house.  About a month in, they got real: "Mom, this place feels sad. Seeing you in an empty space and eating dinner on a blanket makes it hard to come here."
That rebuke snapped me out of my grief-induced lethargy.  My sons still needed a place that felt like home.  Maybe not The Home, but A Home.  I immediately set out to make it inviting.
For 3 years now we've been making memories here...lots of them.  Meals.  Formative conversations.  Games.  Friends.  Holidays.  My dearest friends have come too - we've shared food, wine, stories, joys, and sorrows here.  I've actually grown quite fond of the place.
It's a bit of graveyard though.  I showed up dragging a lot of already-dead things - my reputation, my dignity, my vision of who I was and what my life would look like.  I had to mourn these losses, lay them down, bury them one by one and walk away so I could live my sons could live.
I carried other baggage too.  Things that needed to die: pride, old wounds, new wounds, anger, severed relationships, and loads and loads of shame.  There was  more than enough of that to go around in those days too.
Some of these things died a painfully slow, stubborn death, and not without oceans of tears and desperate pleas to God. 

Where are you?! What do you want from me?! Don't let me go. 

I'm exhausted from crying!  I'm wasting away! Don't let me go! 

Open my eyes.  Heal me!  Cleanse me!  Please don't let me go!! 

Teach me to forgive.  Soften my heart.  DON'T LET ME GO!
In that way, this cemetery also became a sanctuary because here, in this place, the Lord heard my cries.  He made himself known.  He rescued me.  He set my feet on a rock.  And he didn't let me go.  He's still healing, cleansing, teaching, and turning this heart of stone more and more into a heart of flesh. 
So here I am...moving again.  In this new place, my sons will once again lay their heads on pillows where I am.  This is a great mercy that brings unimaginable comfort.
I expect that in this new home there will be other burials and more resurrections.  We'll build new memories here and it too will become a cemetery-sanctuary.  I don't know exactly what that will look like, but there is one thing I DO know: HE WON'T LET US GO.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Peter Kreeft: Practical Theology

Peter Kreeft’s new book Practical Theologypromises “358 pieces of wisdom from Saint Thomas’s masterpiece the Summa, which are literally more valuable than all the kingdoms of this world because they will help you to attain ‘the one thing needful,’ the summum bonum or ‘the greatest good,’ the ultimate end and purpose and meaning of life.” Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and the author of many books, presents “Spiritual Direction from Saint Thomas Aquinas” — in “an easily digestible sample” of Aquinas’s “distinctly religious wisdom.” He responds to questions here about it. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is your Practical Theology a self-help version of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa? An executive summary for beginners? Is it just for beginners?

Peter KreeftPractical Theology is as far from self-help nonsense, i.e. pop psychology, as you can get. It’s theology, and it’s Aquinas, and it’s the Summa, for goodness’ sake. I have no idea what “an executive summary” is, but I’m quite sure this isn’t it. And it’s for everybody, therefore it’s for beginners. When it comes to God we’re all beginners, especially the ones who think they are experts. Only fools think they’re sages; sages know they’re fools. (P.S. Aquinas wrote the 4,000-page Summa “for beginners.” That was not satire. It’s really a very simple book.)

Lopez: Is theology ever practical, really?

Kreeft: Theology is always practical because nothing is more practical than living in reality, living in the real world, and God is the origin, center, end, and meaning of reality. If that’s not true, let’s be pagans, atheists, or TV executives.

Lopez: You say that “if our love is right, everything else will be right.” How does the Angelic Doctor propose that we get love right? Is he the love doctor, too?

Kreeft: Augustine wrote, “Amor meuspondus meum” — “my love is my weight,” my gravity, my destiny. How to get love right? Ask its inventor, origin, and standard, the God who is love. He told us in many ways: conscience, saints, Scripture, Church, above all Christ. Yes, he is the love doctor. And he’d tell a culture like ours that identifies that title with Ruth Westheimer that it is as right about this as it would be in identifying expertise on Einstein with Archie Bunker.

Lopez: What is an angelic doctor, anyway?

Kreeft: He’s called “the” (not “an”) angelic doctor because (a) he got the angels right, and, most especially, because (b) like an angel, he was remarkably free from lust, greed, and other foolish human passions.

Lopez: Why is Saint Thomas Aquinas such a big deal? And one of the best spiritual directors?

Kreeft: He’s big because he was very large, like G. K. Chesterton. His mind is big because he gives us “big pictures” all the time, not little crabbed clever pieces of “scholarship.” And he’s a great spiritual director because he has the personal virtues that takes: personal sanctity (love of God and His creation, especially human beings), brilliant insight into good and evil, humility and open-mindedness, absolute honesty, and the habit of saying everything as simply, clearly, and directly as possible.

Lopez: Unless you’re discerning a religious vocation, or deeply invested in Catholic apostolic work, the phrase “spiritual direction” may be foreign to a lot of Catholics, as a practical matter in their lives. Should it be an element of every Catholic’s life?

Kreeft: A Catholic is one who believes what the Catholic Church teaches. The Catholic Church teaches that the meaning of life is holiness, happiness, and heaven. Spiritual direction means help in that journey. If that’s practical only for priests or apostles, we laypeople can say, of the supreme wisdom, “The hell with it; it’s not for me.” It’s the other way round: The clergy are for the people, not vice versa. The pope is “the servant of the servants of God.”