Abilene: A Letter To My Children

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[I wrote this reflective letter last month as part of a final project for the Fall 2016 Semester Honors Discourse in Cultural Theory, taught by Dr. Travis Frampton and Dr. Dan Stiver.]

My Dear Children,

I spent some years of my young adult life in a strange metropolis on the highway that shoots through arid West Central Texas as straight as an arrow. In the Gospel of Luke, there’s a tetrarch that governs a place called Abilene, a name that means stream or brook. Texan Abilene is a stream of sorts because people from all over the world stream into its several private universities and stream out full of purpose and dreams and ambitions. But Abilene is a desert too, a spot in a road that links desolate oilfields to desolate oilfields, a wasteland of dry and disembodied knowledge, a place where things come to die. It’s an enigma how the same place can either give life or take it, depending on what you’re looking for. I think it’s mostly about what you’re looking for.

wedding-2Of course, I haven’t met anyone yet – whether in Abilene or anywhere else – who was looking for death, who didn’t hope to make something of themselves or at least to be happy. Sometimes I think the hunger to be happy might be the lowest common denominator that links people together into one all-inclusive category. The thing is, what is it they want to make of themselves? I think there’s one dominant haunting question at the core of most of the anxiety that confronts young college students trying to figure out what to study and where to live and who to marry: What version of me is going to be the happy one? It was like that for me.

The myths clamor to answer this question. Because a myth is a story and stories give an illusion of structure to a world where sometimes nothing really seems to fit together, where nothing seems certain, where nothing makes sense. People used to tell myths around the fires at the heart of villages, out under the stars on warm summer nights. They used to spin tales to make sense of wind and sky and tempests and echos and all the things that troubled and thrilled them and kept them bound to the whims of the natural world. But today, myths pour in on big screens in cinemas and small screens in our pockets, and they answer different questions. Rather than trying to structure nature, which has been somewhat tamed for an increasingly urban world, they’re our best attempts to structure our freedom, to build a framework where we can fit and be confident that we made the best possible choice.

instagramBut how can you make the best possible choice when the choices are endless, when no matter what you pick, you’ll have to spend the rest of your life scrolling through the Instagram feeds of peers who chose other things and continuously broadcast what you will never have? When I try to think of a foremost trauma that has shaped my generation, I wonder if maybe this is it: Freedom. Options. The Infinity of Possibility. The War Against Regret. Social Media. How can we be safe from these things?

Let me tell you about Abilene. In Abilene, I learned how to mix a smooth watercolor wash and stretch art paper. I learned about voting math and asteroids. I learned how to get out of a chokehold and how to polka and how to conjugate the subjunctive tense in Spanish. But I also learned something else, something that easily eclipses all of these things, something that made the West Texas years worth it:

Life isn’t safe. You have to love. It’s not safe but it’s all you can do. And you must be brave enough to do it even when it’s as scary as a lonely leap over a ravine; because love hopes all things, believes all things; because it’s love that’s making the whole world new. And love is the scariest thing of all.

There’s more. If you love Jesus, you will have a well of gladness that doesn’t have to be quenched. You can quench it if you want, but this is much more your choice than anyone will tell you.

I know. This one is a hard sell. As much as we want and need to believe that there’s a way for us to be sane and cheerful whatever comes, when it comes down to it, the comforting temptation to be aabilene victim is mighty overpowering, isn’t it? But it’s no solution. In one of his many bad novels full of staggeringly good thoughts, George MacDonald talked about this irony of life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

“All the doors that lead inward to the secret place of the Most High are doors outward,” he wrote. “-out of self, out of smallness, out of wrong.”

In Abilene, I learned the hard way that what it means to carry Christ is to carry a spring in your heart, a spring that can’t help leaping up, coming out, spreading its little fingers of joy to everyone it encounters. In Abilene, I learned that if you’re not a stream of life, as vulnerable as water, you’re a desert. Don’t be a desert.

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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.”

On Recent Adventures and Remembering the Bread

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I’m going away from my home now, like a bird leaving the old nest, and I’m fond of home. This room with its four plain walls has opened out into Heaven. Here have I drunk in God, here have I prayed, here have I wept, here have I worked, here have I agonized, and now, Farewell home!”

So wrote Oswald Chambers when, at the age of twenty-one, he packed his bags and went out without knowing.

It’s astonishing how you can be at one time gladder than you’ve ever been and also laboring under a sorrow as wide as loneliness, a grief that’s past mending. No one told me it would be like this: that triumph and desolation walk side by side, that life is so fast and so dangerous.

I’m in my first home away from home, where some things are missing: such as the narrow green stairs and the big picture windows over the pond and the pastures. Such as paychecks and darkwalks and checking the rain gauge. Such as family games and supper-table politics, and my little brother coming into my room to say goodnight each and every day of my life.

And some new things have come about, which have never been: such as big happy lunches at tables crammed with acquaintances, and cycles of cards in the lobbies and frisbee on the lawns. Such as sunset over the bleachers, and the printer humming ceaselessly, and the silent camaraderie of the library. Such as our faces lighting up when we recognize each other across the streets. Such as my little brother’s letters in the mail, sealed with rubbery wax.

Everyone says you learn so much away from home, and I don’t know about that, but in my short two weeks away, I can say I’ve learned one thing: out in the big world, what matters most isn’t education, experience, classification or credits, but kindness and the people who put the courage back into you. That isn’t what I expected, really. But it’s what I’ve found.

Because you can have every qualification in the book, and be far from qualified to do life. You can possess much valuable knowledge and yet be worthless in the scheme of things. Because what counts is to have your eyes open, to look outward and be awake, to smile at the evident and dormant beauty of people, to get out from behind the tyrannical lens of I, to see the world for what it is instead of for my place in it.

And if I have not love, I am nothing.

In the midst of all the changes and the new things, some kind people have made time for me, and last week invited me to a service where I heard something which particularly spoke to this condition of unsettledness. The pastor went to the grocery store to get just one thing that his wife asked for – bread. He got oreos and ice cream and fruit juice and chocolate milk, and filled a cart with good things and purely out of absentmindedness and distraction, he went home with no bread.

Abandoned_City__Matte_Painting_by_MarcoBucciIn the world I come from, there are altogether too many choices, too many possibilities of delight, too many potential disappointments to fret about. And something happens to obscure single-heartedness and urgency. It’s all too easy to find ourselves startled by things going wrong, and personally offended by the realization that we can’t have it all. (Me too, me too!) We talk about life like it’s a war, but seventy years can feel like a truce pretty quickly, a break in which the barracks become a premature party.

I wonder, though: what if I only had four?

Because after all my years of waiting for a next step, it’s finally come to me, and I’ve stepped out into it, and it’s only a four-year road, beyond which is a whole forest of darkness. So I’m asking, what if four years were all that was left and beyond that nothing?

loaves-of-breadI’m not sure about you, but I think I’d do them like they mattered, those skimpy four years. Not cramming in experiences, not mourning their conclusion, but busied with matters of consequence, with witness and with work.

So if we can’t have it all – if this is a battle-ship and not a pleasure-cruise, and we are going down with all hands, I guess what matters isn’t the next port, but the lifeboats.

And oh, my soul, don’t forget the Bread.

On Adventure: A Letter To My Children

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[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. But today I am just flipping the page on twenty-one years, and there is already so much I want to tell them and can’t yet. Here where I stand on the threshold of adulthood, looking back on aspirations and ahead towards all the bends in the road, I want to say a few words about adventure, so they will know that I was young once, and boisterous, and learning so tremulously to trust that what is ahead must be even better than all that has been behind. I will write a letter…]

My Dear Children,

You want to kill a dragon with your own two hands and a sword that gleams like a stroke of light. I know you do.

You want to set off over mountains hatted in mist and recover the golden hoards of kings. You want to sprout the magic beans and chase a splendid princess right into the heart of an adventure. You want to press through the wardrobe and shatter the wand in the hands of the witch, and go thundering after the white stag of wishes in the forest of forgotten things. You want get your hands on the giant’s heart. You want to come home cradled in an eagle’s talons. You want to take a little coracle over the white wall of foam at the end of the world.

Me too.

CliffJumpingAnd there is more. At the brink of waterfalls and in the hills over the river, we get a little wild, don’t we? You all want to go hurtling right through, to the far side of sanity and fences, with your hearts like songbirds. You want to plant your feet on a rock no other bared, leathery feet have hugged, and look down with scorn on ordinary things. Me too. We want to flip our boats into the shock of cold, and chase the current and work our immaculate lungs and flaunt the fabulous mystery of our being like we earned it.

This is not to say you are not afraid of anything. For you are, aren’t you? You are afraid of growing rich and respectable and predictable and doing things according to form and custom. You are afraid you might grow old and give up on the dangerous business of stepping outside your door. You are afraid you might stop going on adventures.

Me too. I am afraid you might do that. Please don’t.

You are getting old enough to see that the grim world is full of people coming and going with harried scowls, not-believing in fairytales. People who see drudgery and inconvenience where they should see hazardous journeys with treasures at the finish line. You laugh at them now. “Adults,” you say, and you shake your head, as though that explains everything.

But my children, here I am, blowing the lights off my 21st birthday cake. And I was like you, such a little while ago, with youth laid out before me like an eternity of possibility. Now, there is no standard by which I’m not an adult.

And the grey, sagging woman behind the cash register at the grocery store was like us once, though one look at her now will tell you she doesn’t believe in fairies anymore. Do you suppose the black-suited businessman at the bus-stop, who goes babbling angry words into the mouthpiece hanging off his ear, has quite forgotten that he once wanted to put a black arrow into the armpit of a firedrake, and save a whole terrified village?

The poison of the age is more potent than you think.

For some, it looks like a hope of comfort which turns into fear, and eyes closing to the war around. And if you never look out the window, you will forget about adventures altogether, and perhaps it will quite slip your mind that somewhere a princess needs rescuing.

For some, fear makes friends with arrogance, and swells into a golden idol. And a man who goes chasing after the green dollars has hardly got time to comb the rugged crags for the giant’s heart.

Children, sometimes a sorrow comes in that blacks out the sun. And today you are untouched by any such thing, but maybe one day you’ll go to sleep and hope you never wake up again.

There are so many ways to settle. And whether it’s settling for security or settling for selfishness, or settling for sadness, if you settle down for what there is, you will never get out to the way things ought to be. And this world is a mighty dull place if you stop going to war.

Yes, you’ll grow up and learn a great many things. And you’ll learn that fairies aren’t real and neither is the wild white stag, and the knights are no more, as the old song says, and the dragons are dead.

But you already know these things. You were never really fooled into thinking that the stories are true in the sense that they actually happened. What then do we mean when we say you’ll stop believing in them? What do you mean when you make fun of adults who complain about cold weather and ice on the roads, and thunderstorms and unexpected guests?

Simply that the world has grown grey to their eyes, and commonplace, and ceased to be a perilous countryside where quests are waiting to be embarked upon.

But that can be fixed. “This world,” said G.K. Chesterton, “can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield.

And oh, children, it is. You don’t have to look hard to see that the planet is riven right through, and replete with monsters. You know it now, that cruelty thrives on the air of this place. Every day that you live here, you will know it deeper.

VillageBurningDragonThat there is a sickness on the loose and no heart is untouched. And rulers are sated and overfilled while the world is filled with the hungry. There may not be dragons on the loose, but there are still whole villages going up in smoke. The things that you’ve read about are real: like widows turned out of their homes, and cripples crushed and enslaved, and an entire generation of starved minds. There are a great many things you haven’t read about yet, and they are real too. One is almost ashamed to be alive in the same world with some of the things that are. And people in fine houses are deaf and blind and don’t hear how the globe is rank with horror.

What is worse is that truth, which should go up on the lamp-stands of every street and free the whole world, is hated and hidden away. What is worse is that the lovely and glorious truth is mocked and assaulted when it dares to show its face. It will be a mighty adventure to set out to free the world, with truth like a crest on your helmet, on a planet of armies armed with lies. Don’t you think?

I want to tell you something else about adventures, though.

This war is going to wear you plumb out. It’s more than likely one day you’ll take such a beating you go reeling with the shock of your own blood on your tongue. It’s more than likely that the world you want to save will deliver this to you, with bony fingers curled into fists, taking delight in giving you grief. It’s more than likely you’ll sit down and say you don’t care if the giants and the trolls win. It’s more than likely that the adventure will be a great deal too big for you.

I want to tell you about another kind of adventure. A kind of adventure that you’ll keep going out on, as long as you live. The kind of adventure you’ll never be too little for, or too old for, or too weak for. The kind of adventure that’s worth running after, even when the world doesn’t want to be saved.

There was a prince who came through once, to take the globe out of the clutch of the dragon. The morning star heralded him, and the very dove of God went to war with him. And you can love the world with your whole heart, but be assured that this sorry old world which didn’t receive its only Hero, won’t love you back.

Come away, for there is a higher adventure.

After all, what is the philosophy of adventure? Is it not the idea that that which we have to do is of grand significance and laced with risks? And it is this which turns the weary now into war, and this is the sort of war which makes everything joyous. Whether the sad world receives you or not, you can go out on this sort of adventure.

KnightIndeed, the Prince of Champions has asked for you especially,

Singing, ‘Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking, . . . why, how small a thing is death!’ “

This is the adventure of love. For love makes everything an adventure, a setting out in expectancy. And if you love the only utterly complete prince, you will have the only utterly complete adventure.