24.6.06

Lived by the Week

Atlanta fades into the early fog of a rainy day—and with it, her buildings, her traffic, and her people, along with every marking of urbanization. A week has ended and another begins, in much the same way that one road finds its conclusion on the first-laid cobblestones of another. I think now, looking back, I did not live this week so much as the week lived me—instructing me in every way common to man.

Well it was that the week ended with rain—falling lightly upon the old quarry-lake, whispering in the trees which were once part of one great unending wood, though now they are sparse, thin, and little more than a failed attempt to keep at bay the growing metropolis that leaves no place alone. From Nana’s sunroom, I could almost see the city with its malls and shops and hurried people rushing too and fro—that is, till the falling rain met the rising mist to settle in one impenetrable shield of water about the trees, lake, and house. I took up a guitar and picked out a lonely sound. And so, together—those gentle strings and whispering streams—soothed this city-worn soul.

GA can be best described by the two conversations which ended it. Dr. BM, late of Cleveland, met me as I roamed the hallways early Friday morning. Questioning my choice of literature—namely, the Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry—we embarked upon a conversation more akin to a lecture of faculty to student than of friend to friend. He interrupted my every remark. I never did make my one and only point—that broken as we are, even the most desperate among us longs for relationship. “You must listen to me,” he began again and again, going on and on about postmodernity being little more than modernity gone to seed. Mercy opens doors for evangelism, I suggested. “The two are utterly distinct and must not ever be confused,” he insistently countered, “for it leads to the errors of the last generation.”

Interrupted by time, I left, almost convinced of his argumentation…until I met with BS who shared of the spiritual shortcomings of the church, as it has ministered ineffectively with the brokenness of his own life. He has long grieved, and grown frustrated. I listened intently as he poured out situation after situation in which the evangelical church had failed to answer the great human question—How is it that I reconcile the splendor of my divine making with the sacrilege of my brokenness? Like one of those newer books, I found myself the odd-man-out in a three way conversation between Dr. BM and BS.

BS: How it is that the deep riches of the reformed tradition have perpetually left me longing for an expression of heartfelt worship and experience unlike that of so many evangelical churches?

BM: What do you mean, by perpetually longing? You must listen to me: don’t you see…

So it would go, all the while BS hoping beyond hope that his heart would find a resonance of compassion in the words and wisdom of Dr. BM; and the good doctor, going on and on, interrupting this statement and that, demanding a reply but not waiting to get one, and so on, till the exasperated BS shut down and, rightly so, closed himself to further dismissal.

As we drove along Peachtree, I asked, “BS, are you an INFP?” He smiled. “Yes,” he said. The buildings rose around us and eventually fell away as we hid ourselves in La Madeline’s where the smells of fresh bread and coffee stirred our hearts with a fullness of life often lost in the city. I am convinced that we Intuits are the bastard children of the modern age. Called to play by rules that are contrary as sight to a blind man, we stand as outsiders to a system devised by Keynesian Economics, Newtonian Physics, and Berkhof-ian Systematic Theology. No wonder Emerson, Thoreau, and Dillard chose places where such “models” could not confine the Intuit’s heart, mind, or will.

How many pastors, alumni, and commissioners at GA I met with, I cannot say: two hundred perhaps? The hours passed indistinguishable from one another for nearly four days, as later the city towers passed in as rapid succession, just as raindrop after raindrop fell upon the quiet waters of the wild places. I only remember the cry of the human soul—as Dr. BM demanded rightness and BS pleaded for mercy. Lord, grant a peace in this I pray. Grant us peace

A sigh. A reprieve from the modernists models. I sit free (among the woods) of the intrusive feelings of others. BM remains convinced he is right. BS remains convinced he is lost. I am a student of the common man, worn by the living of a week that lived me. History like the week rings like a tome, In the beginning… The week began. The sun rose. Clouds broke. A yawn and a stretch. Awake, O sleeper, awake. Lord, let me now awake.

10.6.06

Looking Back in Vain

One week ends. One begins. I run in the late-afternoon heat to the beat of boyhood music—hoping to shed a few pounds along with the burdens of a week gone by. I have taken on the weight of a world’s problems. They haunt me. I wake in the dead of night—too cold or too hot—unable to sleep. My own mind whispers the cries of a thousand prayers to heaven: a spouse for each of the lonely (DJ, AB, SC, KK, DC); a child for each of the barren (MK, JS, RA); rest for the weary (AH, JW, JH); comfort for the grieving (too many to name). All creation groans, but I can hear its cry!

The sound of feet upon the graveled path sounds like the march of troops to war. In the wind, I imagine the sounds of soldier cries as they count out the steps to victory and defeat. In a time of war—when so many go to fight, when so many die, and the rest return to despair—I will not entertain melodrama; and yet, I feel so much a warrior, mortally wounded by the fight, wanting neither recognition nor award nor medal of honor, but only a long yard with a flourishing garden of flowers and fruit stretching into the undiscovered country of Mississippi woods and to the sunset beyond.

Saturday, I cut the grass, and how it passed so quickly. That (grass) which was cut first, which lay the longest hour in the sun had faded brown before the fumes of gasoline had cleared the air of the other end of the yard. And surely I understand now that man is like grass: Like the flower of the field, he flourished. The wind passes over it and it is gone, and it’s place remember it no more.

Friday, thoughts with GA—and my responsibility there—has consumed most of my workweek. If not for details of travel, room assignment, and shipment of supplies, I am constantly dinged by the irregular reminder of some minor detail that I’ve forgotten or, because of busyness, neglected. O, that all of life were not the running of this track, and the passage of the same growth of clover here, the same buried bottle-cap there, or the same coolness that wafts from the undergrowth at the south end where a stream can be heard bubbling somewhere in the shade of sagging trees!

Thursday, I met with others who will join me in Atlanta, and met an unexpected resistance. D___ had tasked them to arrange other meetings and I, left in that wake, to make sure the booth was managed well. In such moments, I see the unveiling of my weakness in leadership, my failure to cast a vision that is embraced by others and taken up with great fervor. I see the conflict of relational differentiation and find nothing within myself to combat (nor to conquer) the fears of failure and rejection (on the one hand) or gentle firmness (on the other).

Relational equity is as its lowest ebb. No time! NoTime! they cry, as though justification is born out of winds of change. The old line rings, there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, and I sigh with sickness at the longing for such a one as that—who, with unflinching stability, is as much carried away with solidarity and comfort as I. But we are a misunderstood people—the Felling-Intuits among us (INFJ)—fearing what we most desire, foregoing every relationship for the emotional space that can be found on in untroubled woods…

…or along such paths as that upon which I run. There is freedom here, where—in the sound of ear-bud music, the soundtracks of life drums and droll out the rhythm of our steps, like a soldier off to war, like a man in search of a brother-like friend, like an Intuit in pursuit of peace from the emotional invasion of a thousand unprotected feelings.

Creation groans; I sign in reply and only the sound of my feet (kissing gravel) supports the strings of that heart-borne exchange. The grass withers, the sun sets, the week ends, as all wars eventually do, and the old lines from that long-ago song ring in my ears:
"I’m going to live my life
Like every day is the last
Without a simple goodbye
It all goes by so fast

"I’m going to look back in vain
And see you standing there
When all that remains
Is an empty chair

"And now that you’re gone
I can’t cry hard enough…
I can’t cry hard enough,
For you to hear me now."

3.6.06

The Neo-Reader’s Response (or, The Book I’m Waiting to Read)

The Wall Street Journal tells me what I should think about politics and what stocks I should (and should not) buy. Time magazine tells me what to think about the Iraqi conflict and TV Guide tells me what to watch. People Magazine tells me what to wear and how to look, while Credenda Agenda tells me what’s wrong with the world. All of these works are trying to change me, alter my thought process, my desires, my hopes, what I think about after the children fall asleep and I lay in bed, awake in my dis-ease.

As a(n aspiring) writer, I would never subscribe to the reduction of a text to what my response is: how it makes me feel, what I want to do when reading it. But then again, I’m waiting for someone to legitimize that how a text evokes my responsiveness is at least a certain reality: not the ontological expression of word and meaning, but the ontological realities of being changed by a word, transformed, enlightened, inspired, converted. Language is futile if it ends at the point of being spoken or written. Instruction is impotent even when there is no response. Imperative must compel, whether by fear or whether by grace.

Most writing takes for granted the assumption that we will have a response. Sure, there are hermeneutical principles, a cooperative endeavor that a reader must embrace: a willingness to heed, to listen, and to consider. But eventually, he must also respond: to agree, to argue, to dismiss, to muse, to reject, to embrace, to love, to live…differently.

Objectivity is non-existent; at the least, post-modernity has helped us shed that skin of the enlightened version of it. But consider the Gospel: there is the ontological reality of the incarnation, the God-Man who, scripture says, was born, lived perfectly, suffered fully, died, and was raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of God. And then there are the internal implications that this ontological reality has: a life dead to sin, alive with purpose, empowered by a new indwelling nature received by faith. Archibald Alexander speaks of the seal and the wax:

"There are two kinds of religious knowledge which, though they are as intimately connected as cause and effect, may nevertheless be distinguished from one another. These are, firstly, the knowledge of the truth as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and, secondly, the impression which that truth makes on the human mind when rightly apprehended. We may compare the first to the inscription or image on a seal and, similarly, compare the other to the impression made by the seal on the wax. When that impression is clearly and distinctly made, we can understand, through our contemplation of it, the true inscription on the seal more satisfactorily than if we tried to discern the inscription directly on the seal itself."

Or, as Rev. Steve Smallman says, “There is a distinction between the Gospel and the Gospel in you: yes, the Gospel is what happened ontologically 2000 years ago, but the Gospel in us is what happens in our lives as we are united to Christ.”

So…I guess I’m waiting. I’m waiting for a book that invites me to bring my muddled emotions to the lines of the page and explore the path set out before me, with the intention that I arrive somewhere in the end—but arrive having been changed by the process itself: that I know myself better. Can it be rightly called a dialogue on self-reflection? Can it be rightly called the legitimacy of the reader’s reaction? Is it really a neo-reader response criticism? I don’t know. I am just stricken daily by how little we know ourselves, and how impacting such ignorance is played out in our knowledge of God, as in the words of Calvin, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Maybe what I’m looking for is fiction and personal testimony (a.k.a non-fiction) that echoes the Bible by inviting the blessedness and brokenness of creation into the same room to dance: as grace and glory displace grief—and not just ontological grief—but my grief, your grief, and our commonly shared grief. Maybe I’m waiting to read someone write a critical approach that says, “The writer and the reader are opposite termini upon the same line. The one reflects and writes, while the other reads and reacts. At each extreme, one can tell where the onus rests. However, there is no distinct line of demarcation at which point one might declare that beyond such-and-so a point the onus is on the reader and before such-and-so a point it rests upon the writer. It is not a monologue to which the reader merely listens, but ultimately a conversation into which he, with his emotions, thoughts, and experiences, brings a voice that sings either in harmony or dissidence with the words of the writer and so all writing is expression, interpretation, and reaction.”

So, as the two most recent books read have been poor selections, and as I absolutely refuse to begin with a negative post, let me submit to you—the reader—this consideration of a text that I’ve yet to read, but which I think is the validating compromise that the emotional romanticism, the pessimistic realist, and the optimistic rationalists hope to find.