Thoughts on Faith and Egrets

Great Egrets Landing in Shallow Water

“…unruffled, sure, 
by the laws
of their faith not logic, 
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.”
         (Mary Oliver, EGRETS

 

My husband and I have both been ill this week, with our throats too scratchy and hoarse to even read The Fellowship of the Ring out loud to each other before bed, as has been our usual routine. So last night I picked up Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, which was given to me as a gift by a dear friend from Dr. Bob Fink’s Creative Writing workshop. And in one particular poem, I found words to accompany the current season of my life and the newest Great Secret I’ve discovered.

As is usually the case, it was right there in plain sight.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a lot of heartache and disappointment. I’ve seen the crumbling and the ruin of people, places, and things that I’ve loved with reckless abandon. And the reckless abandon part of me has been all but swallowed up.

I’ll be quite open with you. Last semester, I came through a massive crisis of faith. The years of disappointment and loss came to a head and I found myself unable to place any confidence in the goodness of God. A mentor met me for lunch at Jason’s Deli and I cried through most of our meeting, unconcerned about who might see.

But time passed and the throes of doubt and anger dissipated. Even though I wasn’t getting along with God, I was dead-set on holding on to him. Like Peter said —

—Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

His words became like the theme of my life. And I was sad that the fire had gone out, but I was not shocked. I had read so many warnings about this from the Aristocracy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, George Mueller, C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, Abraham, Moses – they all fought this darkness, this blank space. I knew it wasn’t new to me; there wasn’t room for self-pity.

I would just keep going. I would just keep doing the things. I would not worry about whether I felt anything. I would just do it.

But loving Jesus, it’s not a Nike thing. It’s not a thing like Shia LeBeouf yelling at the camera and pumping his arms like a gorilla (I know, why does that video exist?). It’s not like that.

That’s what I learned in Tijuana. Alex and I were part of a group that went down to Baja 143earlier this month. We built a church and a home (well, we hammered a few hundred nails, at least, and slung lime green paint on the boards, our construction skills being minimal). In the park a little boy sat down next to us while we ate our lunch one afternoon and he spoke to us in Spanish and we painstakingly constructed and fumbled through clumsy questions and answers for him. And mostly we just sat together, us and the little boy from a lonely village in the desert, not saying anything.

But what was most beautiful about the trip was all the stories people told and passed on. On the bus, on the street, in meetings after dinner and breakfast in the frigid breeze blowing off the ocean, people told their stories of staggering grace. Their stories of change, and transformation, and hope deferred but nevertheless arriving. Their stories of faith.

And I learned something: faith isn’t only an action word. It isn’t only about what we do. It is also a climate of the mind. It is a determination to believe, come what may, in the coming of the promise. It is a rejoicing. It is a feast. It is a banquet in honor of things that are not. And when we’re holding that banquet, there’s no need to feel foolish, for at the head of the table sits God — who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Childhood Is The Kingdom

When I was a child, I read The Wizard of Oz over the course of a few days. I was eight years old and reading still made me feel accomplished. I read it everywhere, from tOortCloudhe top bunk of my bed with the yellow blankets to a tiny balcony of an office building in Ankara, walking back and forth over old leaves on the stained concrete. I tried (but mostly failed) to ration it, to make sure I wouldn’t finish it too soon, because I was already old enough to know that the best things in life should be saved and unwrapped slowly, then savored like expensive chocolate or buttered crab.

I knew that Old Yeller was going to die and even though I wept like a faucet for Where The Red Fern Grows, I didn’t feel cheated and the world didn’t darken. But when at the end of the yellow-brick road, the wizard wasn’t a wizard after all, and the city wasn’t erected of emerald, and there was no fix, no cure, no king, it was a disappointment unlike anything else that had happened to me. I lay awake that night and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem of the same name:

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. But, she says.

But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!

The obvious thrust of this vivid and unsettling poem is, of course, the part about nobody dying. The expected emotional safety of the very young and the presence of wrenching grief as a distinguishing aspect of adulthood.

But there is something else that stands out to me about this poem. Childhood is the kingdom. The poem touches on more than the absence of death in the lives of children. It speaks to the presence of benevolent power, the irresistible magnetism of monarchy.

There is this thing about a kingdom. Everything is under control. Someone-Who-Knows is in charge of things. Nothing can go ultimately wrong. And isn’t this the essence of traditional childhood?

When we were children, tragedies could happen to us. Like a favorite doll breaking or a bike crash or an unfulfilled promise of ice cream. But nothing could really go irretrievably awry. There were always adults around us who knew what to do. And God, of course, could do anything for us. But we hardly needed Him to. We had parents who had all the answers and when we were afraid, it wasn’t the fear of a best friend bleeding out after a car crash, or wasting our lives or marrying someone who won’t love us forever or dying alone in a dim, squeaky house without even flowers.

DorothyWe were afraid of wasps. Or Chihuahuas. Or timed math tests.

To the skeptics who populate an unkinged world, The Wizard of Oz reflects sad reality. The transition is from trust to an empty truth. There is no one who has any idea what in the heck is going on. We, limited, ridiculous, arrogant and clueless, really are the only guardians of the galaxy.

But I subscribe to a different narrative: that there is a kingdom. And we must become children all over again, for there is no other way to get in.

It’s been awhile since I’ve put any poems up on the blog, so here’s one I wrote awhile back on this subject. It was an attempt to configure all these ideas into a compressed format, but I’m afraid that without this semi-lengthy explanation, it wouldn’t have made too much sense.

LOSS: [after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz]

“Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.”
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies)

Childhood is the kingdom.
There are fierce beasts howling in the heart of the forbidden forest
and little people peer at you from cracks in walls
and the stamen-cups of flowers, tittering.
Wily witches will cook you and eat you for dinner
if you let them catch you.
But you don’t.

Childhood is the kingdom.
At the end of the long road through the valley of shadow and poison-flowers,
looms the jubilant city and the great throne room.
There are decrees under hot wax seals,
on parchment, rules that make sense,
and if you do all you have set out to do, you will live
happily ever after.

Childhood is the kingdom.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child,
I thought as a child, I turned the pages of fairyland and found it very good.
Oh, Dorothy in gingham-blue,
your little dog, your simple friends,
there is a green witch after you! But it is alright,
there is a wizard too.

Childhood is the kingdom.
And we are skipping, dancing down the yellow-brick road,
for all our troubles, all our tears,
are bottled for the reckoning and written in the book.
That we are little and helpless is of no account
for we are making our happy way to Oz
the Great and Powerful.

Childhood is the kingdom.
And unless you become as a child, you shall in nowise enter therein.
I put the story down crying when
the man is behind a curtain and is only a man.
I was oppressed by the sudden press of danger and
awoke in a dark bedroom to the thick aloneness
and could not be comforted.

 

Love In A Time of Tigers

Valentines DayWal-Mart doesn’t die out at 11 pm on February 13th. I was in there last night and found it crawling with men bearing hunted expressions in their eyes and chocolate in their carts and tulips in their hands. The lines to the register included as many as ten weary customers at once. Females were in the minority. There was so much delightfully right about this and simultaneously so much that was pitifully wrong. I was glad I was present to have a good laugh.

Isn’t it splendid that we have a holiday for couples to be happy in front of the world, and to set aside time for the things we forget to make time for? Like fancy suppers and candlelight and letters and roses and remembrance? I’m glad the calendar has a space for romance.

But I’ll confess: sometimes I’m a little terrified by it.

TigerSometimes I turn on the radio and feel a bit sick – are you with me? Just like animals, Adam Levine choruses over the airwaves. He says it all. Look around at the world and you’ll see how the beast-face comes through. My planet has a culture so blatantly flesh-hungry, that sometimes I’m afraid to belong here.

Sometimes I run wildly to the shelter of the Word Made Flesh because it’s the only kind thing on all this fettered planet. It’s the source of all respect and all chivalry and all courtesy and all romance and all that constitutes the high wall between you and me and nature red in tooth and claw. And if we’re moving away from that glorious gospel, we’re falling back into the bloody domain of the beasts.

What’s with this willingness to slip into the roles we were fashioned to rule over? Why be a crimson-clawed tiger who tears and will be torn, when you can be a prince with a gold scepter and a King-Dad who calls all the shots?

Historians can’t decide which Saint Valentine is responsible for our own festivities on February 14th. You see, there were at least three of them. In the legends, all three were men of honor who died for their love, ripped apart by the animals that the world hosts in abundance. In the most prevalent stories, these martyrdoms involved beating, stoning and eventual decapitation. We’re not talking about the kind of love that was doing its frantic last-minute shopping in Wal-Mart last night.

What wondrous love is this? What were those Saint Valentines up to, and why do we commemorate them with a holiday about romance?

Well, it turns out that Saint Valentine’s Day has everything to do with romance. The thing is, this is about a romance that’s bigger than the sweetest created beloved you’ll ever know. The Saint Valentines gave their lives because they couldn’t stop talking about the Romance that trumps everything. They couldn’t shut up about the World’s Great Lover. They said it would be better not to live than to live in a world where you can’t talk about Jesus.

Blood_Of_JesusDo I feel like that? Do you?

If you’re single on Valentine’s Day, just let me say: don’t be sorry no one took you to dinner. The impeccable Prince of Men cried blood for you. Don’t be sorry your room isn’t a rainbow of flowers. The Hero who overrides every storybook champion invites you to ride with Him ever after. Don’t you be saying no one loves you. While your understanding was foggy and violent like the tigers in the jungle, the real MVP said, “how about a deal? I’ll go down under the red claws if this beast can come out and walk upright and be a man.”

The Little Drummer Boy: A Love Story

StarI learned to love Jesus at Christmas-time. I mean the kind of loving where your heart dances right over some of its beats. Where you become the sort of fool who sings in the grocery store and the parking lot on just ordinary days because you don’t know what to do with all that happiness.

This was three years ago and it wasn’t like beforehand I wasn’t trying. But there’s a difference, says an uncle of mine, between loving Jesus and loving the idea of loving Jesus. And when I heard it, I was a little uneasy, a little afraid that was me. Because in the US of A it’s not hard to spend all your days with a label on your forehead that doesn’t match your labor and your living. It’s not hard to take possession of the form of godliness and forget about the fire altogether.

nativity2011 was the year of weighty drought and the summer that droned into November. Come December, I was low and just getting through my checklist. One grey day I heard a sappy song I’d heard every other year, and suddenly it made me hungry and grieved because “Baby Jesu, says the little drummer boy, “I am a poor boy too.” And,

I have no gift to bring
that’s fit to give a king.

I felt I was hearing a deeper lament than I could comprehend, a cry of deficiency welling up from an encounter with a glory I didn’t know about. I didn’t know what it was to be all wrapped up in this intense need to have something to give. And to be blocked out of this understanding was like being a homeless tramp locked out of a house full of lights and supper-steam and packages. I didn’t know about this kind of love.

Then, a few hours later, I did.

I had a late night writing a column and packing suitcases for the Christmas trip kicking off in the morning. When I fell into bed, it was already tomorrow and only a few sleeping-hours were left – but in those hours, how many things changed!

Because in a dream I was on my knees at the feet of the Desire of Nations, and time was utterly still and I wanted to never move an inch through all the eons ahead of us. Also, there was something else I hadn’t expected – there was this crying need to have something worth offering, to be something worth offering. And I wasn’t.

The words of the prophet seemed suddenly sensible:

Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts
.

You can’t explain this agony of insufficiency to the unacquainted, just as no one could ever explain it to me but my own two eyes. You can’t explain how it’s at one time brilliant and terrifying, woeful and wildly glad, how when you meet the Pearl at the heart of the planet and it’s everything you are not, you’re at once so reassured and so regretful that you can’t be sure if you should laugh or cry.

When I woke out of this moment and was startled into my own humdrum house, the first thing to come was bleak disappointment. “Just lost when I was saved!” says Emily Dickinson of this kind of waking:

Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Little Lamb scan esizeAfterwards, though, something else came – relief that there was time still left, days unwritten that could be sunk into the pursuit of a gift I wouldn’t be ashamed to pull out at the manger.

so to honor him
when we come

This is the hallmark of love – that it changes things because it changes us.

This year, in memory of this awakening of adoration, I put together a little poem, which if you read it I hope will drive you to remember the highest place of homage in your history — and get back to it as fast as you can.

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY

I am a poor boy too, I said
my knuckles are gnawed and split
but the black sky is split with song and I
can’t keep from hearing it.

No, to the keepers of the sheep,
go on your merry way,
if I should see the baby, I
should never know what to say.

If I should see the baby and
his hair should be full of light,
I should go poorer than I came,
back to the ceaseless night.

I should go smitten with poverty,
– I who was never full –
emptied because found empty
in the face of the beautiful.

What if I sit at the cradle and
gnaw on my knuckles and weep?
Weep for the emptiness of my hands,
the hours, the waste and the sleep?

Over the hills and far away,
how can I block out the bells?
They are threading the paths like rivers
and the ribbon of music swells.

Suppose I should creep to the manger,
put my knees in the dirt for awhile,
and suppose the baby should look at me
and suppose the baby should smile

On Sudden Celebration and Making Ready for Advent

???????????We were in the library when it happened. We had come over the crisp and dusky concrete walks in our overcoats and our hats and converged there under the lights. We were buried in our books, in calculus problems and those long research papers that all professors decide to assign at exactly the same time, so that class schedules are as inefficient as they can be.

The school library is a happy, wide place, riven with windows, as I think every home of books ought to be (because the words should mean something out in the real world, and I want to keep looking up and checking to make sure they do). No matter that all you can see is drab houses on the bad side of town, and the landfill.

A couple came in from the other side of the glass with cold red faces and let the frigid air into the room. They came like the bearers of an open secret and told it to the air in general. “It’s snowing!” they said, their mouths full of laughing. We got up so fast we left our coats and our hats hanging over the egg chairs and banged through the exit bars.

The library spilled its inhabitants in a mild frenzy of celebration. My sister went running out over the lawns and the bridge just to see the campus in its fairytale mode and on the porch we stood and laughed at her and laughed at each other and laughed with strangers and snapped pictures and shook snow out of our hair and put out our tongues to catch the white feathers. It was as though something we’d all been waiting for without knowing it had suddenly arrived.

I wondered about that. I wondered why when we went away to supper with the wet ice-scraper on the floorboards and our fingers crowded at the vents of the heater the world felt so jubilant and so laced with perfection.

And I thought of something. I thought about the time when the lame and sorry world was infused with song and a sudden radiance came into everything. It’s a story I know far too well for my own good, because it grows ordinary sometimes, when every thought of it ought to be like an annunciation – it’s snowing! – ought to drive us together into little groups of laughter and send us out to make triumphant music in every public place.

There is a time set aside for us to do those things. There is a space in the calendar when it’s even acceptable to sing in the street and tell the wondrous story in every venue we can find. It’s not time to deck the halls yet or play the music of proclamation. It’s not even Advent, the time of waiting. But so soon it will be and then it will be passed – and how many times is Christmas going to come around and go around and how shall I enter into the significance of it and abide there?

I’m just asking: what are we going to do to join the party?

SnowLampsBecause this is bigger than a sudden snowfall in the south and calls for heaps of exultation. And the time doesn’t have to be cleared of deadlines, and it’s OK if we’re living a long tragedy. After all, the story of God-With-Us is about the Fullness of Glory arriving to inhabit the Not Yetness of Things. So I’m thinking about a philosophy of stopping where I am and doing a whole list of celebratory actions. Are you going to take starwalks and sing carols on the sidewalks and in the stores and give money you don’t feel like you have to those who truly don’t have it?

I think I am going to make me a list.

Because the midst of the earth is a raging mirth. And the heart of the earth a star.