Sunday, April 19, 2020

Easter: “You've been mostly dead all day.”

Note: By this title, I in no way intend to imply that Jesus in the tomb was only "mostly dead." The resurrection was the real deal. My point is that Easter demonstrates preeminently God's power of life-giving that takes many other forms as well.

The other day I was reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. She says God "deals so extravagantly and unfathomably in death—death morning, noon, and night, all manner of death...Our bodies are shot with mortality."

Annie Dillard finds an inspiring courage through the memento mori of nature. But when I read this passage, it troubled me. Easter was coming up, and the words of the angel at the tomb echoed in my mind: "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" Jesus Himself said of the Father, "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him."

Like Inigo Montoya, I find defining terms helpful. Otherwise we keep using words that do not mean what we think they mean. What is death? Is it merely a terminal physical malady? If so, God’s statement would have been a bit deceptive when He told Adam and Eve that in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit they would surely die; and Satan's retort would make better sense. I find that inconceivable. Death must mean something deeper and wider than just dying.

I find much delight in being able to worship not only the God of everything, but the God of each thing. He is the God of fire. He created it. When I gaze into the searing-red, dancing flames of my campfire, I get to worship the God of fire Himself. I also get to worship the God of love, the God of thunder, the God of the sea. He made all things, but each particular thing speaks something particular about His character. He's not just a general kind of God. Patterns of His character emerge through what He makes and does.

What does Jesus mean, then, that God "is not the God of the dead"? Did we Christians get short-changed? Are we missing a category? Who is the god of the dead? I want a God still when I'm dead. God seems to spend a lot of time trying to get us to change how we think about death and dying. Jesus said to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die." Then Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. How many times did Lazarus die? If we believe Jesus, we have to say zero—otherwise two times. Zero makes a point worth thinking about.

I don't think that point is merely that death can lead to something good, like "going to heaven." Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. It's odd that we make death such a simple, contained thing. Biblically speaking, both life and death extend way out into the subtleties of our day-to-day experience as moral ways. We are always experiencing forms of Life and of Death, like heat and cold. This is what I think Annie Dillard is on to, whether she knows it or not.

She describes shocking confrontations with death in nature, like a frog slowly being eaten alive by a giant water bug. Death is indeed all around us in nature, but it’s also as much within us as without. It is both visible and invisible. When I hate or envy, blood drips into the carpet. When faith and hope wane, the whiff of necrosis is in the air. Even sorrow and loneliness peer down into a dark valley of dry bones. Death comes in manifold forms, because it is in fact a kingdom spread throughout all of creation. Physical human death is only the most painfully offensive tip of the whole iceberg. We fight death all day long in our hidden fear, despair, lust, and selfishness.

Life, too, is a pattern, and a kingdom at war with—in rebellion against—the kingdom of death. Everywhere life overcomes death, the miraculous hand of God is at work.

C. S. Lewis wrote the book on miracles. I love the way he shows God as the God of life in nature. He suggests that God's miracles always reveal the consistent patterns of the kingdom of life.

"Once in the desert Satan had tempted Him [Jesus] to make bread of stones: He refused the suggestion. 'The Son does nothing except what He sees the Father do'; perhaps one may without boldness surmise that the direct change from stone to bread appeared to the Son to be not quite in the hereditary style. Little bread into much bread is quite a different matter. Every year God makes a little corn into much corn: the seed is sown and there is an increase," Lewis says.

Because death (in all its forms) is so out of character for God, Jesus, even in His victory over death did not claim to be the God of death, but the resurrection and the life—much more akin to the gods of fruitfulness and fertility. Lewis continues, "The vine is one of the blessings sent by Jahweh: He is the reality behind the false god Bacchus. Every year, as part of the Natural order, God makes wine...Once, and in one year only, God, now incarnate, short circuits the process: makes wine in a moment: uses earthenware jars instead of vegetable fibers to hold the water. But uses them to do what He is always doing. The miracle consists in the shortcut; but the event to which it leads is the usual one."

Lewis explains the horror of death we see in nature as a corruption of God's good design for life to be in and through one another: "In the universe, as we now see it, this [vicariousness] is the source of many of the greatest horrors: all the horrors of carnivorousness, and the worse horrors of the parasites, those horrible animals that live under the skin of other animals, and so on. And yet, suddenly seeing it in the light of the Christian story, one realizes that vicariousness is not in itself bad; that all these animals, and insects, and horrors are merely that principle of vicariousness twisted in one way." The greater a good, the more evil its distortion.

We tend to see Easter as a point on a line. And indeed it is the greatest turning point of history. But history is like a canvas, and God seems to like to work in layers. Jesus' words about life and death often slipped past His contemporaries' comprehension because His meaning went much deeper and wider than they could see: "Destroy this temple." "My flesh is true food." Life is best thought of as living and the purpose for living, bound together in one whole package. Likewise, death encompasses dying, but only as one of the many representations of the whole kingdom of evil, confusion, despair, and purposelessness. It’s a single pattern, easy to recognize when we look for its telltale signs.

Jesus said "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly." It's good for me to be on the lookout for the subtle and invisible areas life and death that are at war with one another, especially in my own heart. When I don’t look for them, I ignore the signs of dangers creeping in, scratching for a foothold.

The life Jesus offers is not merely a binary issue of where we go after we die. It's apparently something that can "abound". With Him is the "fountain" of life, and He aims not only to save us from death, but to overwhelm us with every form of living. Life is the pattern of fruitfulness and multiplication that applies not only to loaves and fishes, but to love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness.

If life and death are things that can abound or dwindle, it's indeed possible to be "only mostly dead." We have a lot to learn from Miracle Max. Many have been worn down by despair, but Christ's way of life does not extinguish even a smoldering wick. The life of His kingdom is the kind of stuff that can get in to the smallest places, the way dough can "catch" invisible yeast from the air itself. Read the parables; the kingdom of life is about multiplication. We should never lose hope for the smallest bit of life to get in and grow and make something.

Keep your eyes open for the subtler signs of life, and of death. Creation teaches us that the pattern of life can feel slow, and takes patience, but just try stopping the spring from coming. As Lewis says, "A man really ought to say, 'The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago' in the same spirit in which he says, 'I saw a crocus yesterday.' Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned."

Friday, February 1, 2019

On Two Challenges to Art and Poetry

I've written an article on enjoying art and poetry for a friend's blog called Fragments. Hope you enjoy.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Dear Addie

Dear Addie, young child, don’t be fooled or benighted—
I’ll tell you the truth so you know,
And have in your heart all that schoolishness righted,
And grasp wonder well as you grow.
The breeze doesn’t blow from here to there,
Like a rivulet wand’ring at will;
The earth rolls around underneath all that air,
While the air remains fixed and still.
The trees and rocks, like your music box,
Are the tiny points jutting above;
And, pricking the tines as time unwinds,
They play out the song that we love.
Look up and see each tip-tilted tree
Whooshing as we fly along!
Press your delicate ear to a pine and hear
Its lilting and lovely song:

“Oh we know the way to the break of day,
Where the songbirds will beckon us bide,
But how can we heed, for we dare not delay
The sonata of eventide.
And oh! What delight—for then plays the night
With its blue tinkling grace notes of stars;
And they all invite the moon to ignite
Risoluto the rest of the bars.
The sunsong is long, but it sweetens the wheat,
Which quivers like golden strings.”

And you too my child, when you walk on your feet,
Make the music play wonderful things.

Thursday, March 22, 2018


With winter wind come the dusty white fragments,
Borne out of the vacuous alpine chill as falling stars--
Scepters, scintillating shafts and diamonds interlaced,
Entangling, entwined along the pinnacle crags.

I reach my hand slowly into the ethereal blanket
And pour out its weightless sand from an open palm.
Drifting flakes instantly flurry to fill the trough
And round the little mound with renewed softness.

The pines around the ridge grow gray with hoar,
Pointing into the wind with whispering fingers
Too quiet to reveal the secret they all descry
In the distance. Soon they are white, all white.

Through the receding clouds night calls up flightless
Feathers to stretch and catch the morning’s sun
And fling its sparks to set the ice aflame with
Light before they bow finally to its warmth.

Storm and clear, night and day this place receives
Afresh each fine dance of crystal wind upon it;
But here and there in secret places I can discover
The one laid upon the other in gentle anamnesis,

And even when crystal streams have sipped the last drops
From this peak to slake the waking summer swelter,
You and I will spread a blanket upon the ground, and
Lay upon it cheese, and music, and an enduring hour or two.

And beneath that hour I will still find the summers
Of sixth and seventh grade with their campfires and
Milky stars and chilling dips in the lake with the
Other boys whose company swirled around me with contentment.

And beneath those I still stand as a child next to my father,
Saluting for a photograph my mother took, while my brother,
In yellow shirt with Popsicle stains, grins through missing
Teeth, and my tiny sister grins obliviously from a backpack.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Endangered Species

A lot of thought and effort is rightly put into preserving endangered species. We value uncommon animals in large part for their rarity, like gems and most other things in nature. For good reason, we fear losing them altogether.

Not so with words. Did you know that endangered words can be removed from the dictionary? It's like saying to the cute but odd-looking vaquita, "Sorry, you had your day, but hardly anybody knows you exist anymore"--and then wiping the last one off the face of the globe.

Many people are not even aware the vast majority of dictionaries today operate descriptively of word usage, not prescriptively. In other words, the main thing they care about is what words are being used today, plain and simple; and that's ultimately what determines whether you'll find a word in a dictionary.

That's right, dictionaries are not going to prevent words from going extinct. Only you can prevent words from going extinct--by using them. Fortunately, it's easier than ever, since dictionaries can now monitor usage electronically. You don't need to be publishing books. You might just be a humble blogger.

Here's a poem I wrote in honor of endangered words, and sharing a love for them.

Endangered Species

In olden times a courting gent would go
A hunting for a dazzling bird to capture,
Which, gifted to his lady love, would show
His heart’s enthraldom to her cage of rapture.

The rarer bird, the greater gift it made—
Bright, speckled shafts and plumage colors gay.
So why the rarer word that’s seized and said
In lovesick missive falls so flat today?

In blackest depths of lexiconic tomes,
Some species flit and flaunt their feathered grace
That not in centuries have made their homes
In any work considered commonplace.

Their native habitat destroyed, they hide
In dusty warrens carpet beetles chew.
Each dwindling species light and life denied
Will perish without other words to woo.

So let me lowe[i] in limerence[ii] to thee
With logophilian[iii] philter[iv] overflowing,
And if lingual feathers fan philocaly,[v]
Then flock with me, and I will keep on crowing.

[i] To be ardent or passionate; to burn with love, passion, etc.
[ii] The state of being romantically infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one's feelings but not primarily for a sexual relationship.
[iii] Logophilia n. Love of words.
[iv] A potion, drug, or (occas.) charm supposed to be capable of exciting sexual attraction or love, esp. towards a particular person; a love potion. Also, more generally: any potion or drug having supposedly magical properties.
[iii] Logophilia n. Love of words.
[v] Love of beauty.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Normal Day to Day

In an effort to force myself to write creatively with regularity, I've engaged several friends in a weekly poetry challenge in which we write and share a poem each week. I've found the medium useful in expressing thoughts and images that wouldn't otherwise have an easy outlet.

One of these thoughts hit me the other day. I'm a fairly deep-feeling person, and I enjoy challenge, novelty, passion, and maybe even a kind of melancholy if I can find a positive use for it. But I also occasionally find myself in one of those intense or discouraging moments having had enough, and struggling to find the end of it. To use the metaphor of boats, it's like feeling seasick without a port anywhere nearby. Or, as I've often heard repeated in the flying community, "It's better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground." 

The thought that hit me was a thankfulness that the "ground" usually comes to me without my necessarily having worked through or resolved whatever issue was rocking my boat. Sometimes the only difference is a night's sleep, even if the circumstances are exactly the same in the morning. We begin another day brushing teeth, making coffee, scrambling eggs. It's all still there, and the world is somehow bigger and more stable than it felt.

Many times I've bemoaned the negative side of this normalizing tendency, how my human nature gradually (sometimes quickly) normalizes something that amazes me or gives me wonder. As David Wilcox observes in Travelling Companion, "I'm sure if we all could sort of...jump and fly through the air we'd be really happy for about, you know, a week. And then we'd be sitting around saying, 'Well, I don't know, everybody can fly, you know, I'm nothing special...'"

But perhaps the automatic relief normalcy offers outweighs the fact that we must fight as if against gravity to maintain the soaring wonder that makes our lives so exciting. I'd never wish my life to be mundane, but for the first time I've come to consciously appreciate that I don't have to beat every storm with my own resources. Sometimes all I have to do is wait a bit.

This is a poem about that:

The Normal Day to Day

Thank God for the normal day to day,

The firm ground beneath the heights we soar,
The plain daylight above our deepest pits,
The pull of gravity that meets our feet in the morning
And makes every next step sure and familiar. 

Thank God that when tragedy blackens the mind,

And loneliness promises to gnaw us every future hour,
They somehow dissipate on the sandy shore of normalcy,
And we need only wring our socks from the tempest
That tore at our tattered souls the night before.

Thank God the wind abates and between every storm

Miles of mild weather stretch out and seem to say,
“Not yet. No more for a while. Now is rest again.”

And though we will grow restless and hunger for adventure,

We shall surely meet it with bravery and strength drawn
From the normal day to day.