Like Ferns.

Sometimes I think that I don’t really like books; I like sentences.

Now, that’s not entirely true. Some books I do love in their entirety, for the overall feel they give off. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane was like that. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (probably my favorite fiction) is like that.

I’m working my way through Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley right now. It’s a story about a writer who wants to get more in touch with his country so he goes on an American road trip with his French poodle, Charley. As one does, I suppose. But there’s one line that I keep thinking about, probably best left without comment simply because it’s a smart sentence and a beautiful image. For your enjoyment:

“The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.”

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Herbert.

Sometimes a poem just knocks you flat. George Herbert is one of those kindred souls I love to dabble my way through. He was probably an Enneagram Four as well (aren’t all poets?). In my copy of Seventeenth Century Verses (New Oxford edition), I came across one of his poems I’d never seen before: “The World.” Allow me to quote:

 

Love built a stately house; where Fortune came,

And spinning phansies, she was heard to say,

That her fine cobwebs did support the frame,

Whereas they were supported by the same:

But Wisdome quickly swept them all away.

 

Then Pleasure came, who, liking not the fashion,

Began to make Balcones, Terraces,

Till she had weakned all by alteration:

But rev’rend laws, and many a proclamation

Reformed all at length with menaces.

 

Then enter’d Sinne, and with that Sycomore,

Whose leaves first sheltred man from drought & dew,

Working and winding slily evermore,

The inward walls and sommers cleft and tore:

But Grace shor’d these, and cut that as it grew.

 

Then Sinne combin’d with Death in a firm band

To raze the building to the very floore:

Which they effected, none could them withstand.

But Love and Grace took Glorie by the hand,

And built a braver Palace then before.

 

Blazing across the world from 1633, that last stanza blindsided me. Sin and Death formed an alliance to burn this world to the ground. No one could stop them. This creation’s stains will be purged by fire. It’s going to happen. But what comes next? Do we end in despair? Do we “hold with those who favor fire”?

 

Love and Grace took Glory by the hand, and built a braver palace than before. This world starts as a stately house. It ends as a palace. Better than, braver than, more glorious than before. Whatever else I might think of the theology thick in Reverend Herbert’s imagery, this is the great Christian hope: that love and grace will win out and God will gloriously built something better out of the ashes of sin’s ruin.

Of Bono and Shattered Labels

So, here I sit. By light of the Christmas tree, by light of this laptop, uncomfortably propped up on the couch. An open Bible, flopped apart somewhere in early Deuteronomy. I read a Martin Luther quote last night. He was writing to a songwriter, a George Spalatin, asking him to turn the Psalms into hymns that could be sung. He wrote:

“I wish to follow the example of the prophets and Church fathers, and compose German Psalms for the people ; that is, spiritual songs, so that the Word of God may dwell among them through the hymn. Therefore, we are seeking poets everywhere.”

Searching everywhere for poets? When did the Church stop doing that? Joseph Ratzinger contended that one of the final and true apologetic for the Church is her art. Bono famously lamented the state of the arts in the Church, especially in her evangelical subculture. Andrew Peterson helpfully pointed out that there are tons of honest and beautiful art made by Christians.

Luther’s quest to find poets is an ongoing one for the Church. They are there. They are creating. And beauty will speak in this secular age more than our jargon. This is especially vital since Evangelicalism as a cultural byword is losing its usefulness.

This proverb has been rolling through my mind the last few hours:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.

Christmas Eve always ends, but Easter lasts for a lifetime. No emotion is permanent, but the glory of good beauty will always be a deep well from which to drink. Adoration-of-the-Shepherds

Spending the Day With a Six-month Old

First off, I don’t babysit him. I’m his dad, for crying out loud. But nine hours with him, me, and our 2 year old pharaoh hound? Here’s how we spent my day off

Hour one: he and I watched an episode of that Netflix show his mom strongly encouraged me not to watch without her. Tell no one.

Hour two: he begins to fuss. The dog comes over and licks the dried boogers out of his nostrils. This makes him happier. We watch some cars go by.

Hour three: he’s down for his mid-morning nap. I successfully avoid the creaking parts of the nursery floor. Take the baby monitor downstairs for an hour of playing Halo 4 and reading Steinbeck in between games. Also, have a couple leftover Olive Garden breadsticks.

Hour four: realize I forgot to make coffee today. Also realize that we’re out of milk. Life is dark and God might not love us after all. The puppy is lowing, the baby awakes. We go back to Netflix on the couch.

Hour five: alternate between the Jumperoo, his crib, the couch, and my arms. Give him his lunch bottle. And his Gripe Water. And his baby Tylenol. And his teething capsules. This kid is so medicated.

Hour six: down for a cat nap. Up with a vengeance. I unswaddle him and we watch some more cars driving by. I put the dog outside and we go downstairs. Practice sitting. Practice walking with daddy holding our hands. This is our exercise for today, I guess.

Hour seven: more Netflix. I start to feel guilty about all the screen time and what it’s probably doing to his poor little eyes or soul or something. I figure out he loves to be a hat. Lift him up and put him, stomach down, on top of my head. He thinks this is hilarious,.

Hour eight: poopy diaper. I had a feeling he was saving it up for such a time as this. It’s like that green gunk you pull out from under the lawn mower on a humid summer day after you mow. It’s everywhere. Lord, beer me strength.

Hour nine: fussing. Both of us. There is no hope. Only darkness and sobs. We practice the sounds that different letters make. This is the funniest thing he’s ever heard. His laughter is its own reward. Also, I feel like a complete genius for coming up with something so funny. Mommy comes home. I go buy milk and she cuddles him.

Not a bad Friday.

I’ve Forgotten How to Long for What’s Beautiful

vangoghmuseum-s0176V1962-1920This is not a comeback attempt at a worn down, underused blog. Those sorts of things are like attempts to start a diet or stop smoking “on Monday” or “on the 1st”. Such ventures wither. This is an attempt to claw out my cluttered thoughts, to smear some of my pent-up affections onto a white page. And what really frustrates me lately is my half-heartedness when it comes to the pursuit of beauty.

Now, the woman I married is my definition of beauty, in a sense. That pursuit has ended and she is the culmination that daily inspires. But when it comes to letters, the belletristic quality that pushes me into the next page, that itches through my bones until I find just the right chord or just the right phrase or just the right smell? I’ve forgotten how to long.

I think that’s the problem, honestly. I could probably blame social media or any number of new technological anesthesia, but hearts grow cold over time and through remorseless neglect. But when, in the course of human events, you stumble across the prologue of the Lord of the Rings, something wakes up in your chest. It feels like an increased heartbeat, a rhythm placed where it probably didn’t belong. Or in a bland and stuffed state of mind, eyes completely half-closed, a song about Vincent Van Gogh (your long-lost kindred spirit) spills through the sand in your head. Or a Trappist monk in Kentucky, dead these past 49 years, reminds me that I was born into a mask and suddenly I’m “woke” and desperate for a good cry or a knife fight.

What do you do in those moments? A Gustave Doré painting, Eeyore the Donkey, and a French poodle in a Steinbeck novel all remind me that God fashioned my heart uniquely? The most motley choir ever assembled reminds me that I am not my emotions, but my emotions are not the misfit toys that I have exiled into the cellars of my rational mind.

I’ve got a lot of fiction on my reading list. No one spoil the new Star Wars for me. I’m learning to long for the good stuff again and I think God is pleased that I’m rediscovering his gifts.

A Failed Sabbatical

This weekend was supposed to be a restful sabbatical for my wife and I. Four times a year, the ministers at our church are given four-day weekends and are told not to do anything related to work. We don’t meet anyone for counseling or discipleship. We don’t do sermon prep. We don’t plan upcoming events. We’re just supposed to relax and recharge.

The day before the sabbatical, I got hit with a cold. I don’t get sick often, so a 101 degree fever was enough to do me in pretty thoroughly. My wife came to the rescue and I spent most of the weekend moping around the house like a wet cat, fiddling with the thermostat, and coughing up the demons that had intertwined snot tumbleweeds throughout my lungs.

I got a very few things done that I wanted to get done. My dad, brother, and I managed to cut lumber for a bookshelf on a day I could cope with, but the project remains unfinished. A stack of very interesting (and no doubt refreshing) books still sits on the coffee table unread. Actually, it’s not a stack anymore. The dog knocked them over with her tail and now it’s just kind of a failed Jenga pile. A fine metaphor for the weekend, I suppose.

But recharged or not, refreshed or not, I still have a job to do. Whether I’m at 100% or not, come Tuesday I need to press in, shoulder first, to the workload with all the Protestant work ethic a non-denominational minister can muster. That’s all anybody can do.

The ideal isn’t always realized. Sometimes you go back into the fray with just one boot on. Life is mostly rough drafts and near misses. I’m learning to be okay with that and the process is slow.

Find Your Refreshment

Philemon is a beautiful little letter nestled into the back half of the New Testament. It’s somewhat controversial in that it touches on the issue of slavery, but it’s also been wonderfully challenging for me in its depiction of love. Paul is an old man, writing in the final act of his play, and in the seventh verse he says to Philemon, “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”

That line strikes me as particularly lovely because it’s written from a friend to a friend. This is what friendship is. A friend is a source of refreshment. What does refreshment mean? I think Paul defines it here as a type of love that gives joy and comfort to those near it. A love that comforts. A love that gives joy. That is refreshment that soaks deep into one’s heart. It is refreshment given between those who live together in the family of Christ.

That sort of love is not easily found and it is not easily given. It grows over time as friendship blooms. It can also be found through words on the page. We have no reason to think that Paul ever met Philemon in person. We have no record of Paul visiting Colossae (where Onesimus and, therefore, Philemon lived). Perhaps Paul knew him before Philemon lived there, but it’s at least safe to assume that most of their friendship grew via correspondence. We know that Paul planned to visit Philemon, but we don’t know if that ever happened.

My point is that refreshment can happen face to face or through ink on a page. The wonderful thing about Christian authors is that they never finally die. Their bodies may turn to dust for the moment, but their souls live on and one day we will see them again, flesh and blood. John Calvin is still alive in heaven and his words still exist on paper and so, through his words, I can develop a type of friendship with him. I can be refreshed by his love through his words.

But the other half of God’s people (the ones that are still alive on this earth) can also bring refreshment. We just have to spend time together. That is one of the great benefits of friendship. Friends provide joy and comfort in a world that rations those pleasures out sparingly. And so when we find them and when those friendships grow, it’s refreshing.

Don’t live dry and worn out. Find friendships in dead authors. Find those friendships in living people. Find your refreshment.

Sorrow

“Sorrow is better than laughter for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecc.7:3).

Broken hearts can split your face into a slow grin over time. I love sad things. I love strolling through cemeteries. They teach me something. No pain feels good in the moment. But sorrow brings perspective. Sorrow brings wisdom.

Those who never stop laughing never close their mouths long enough to learn from heartache. Don’t be afraid of pain. Don’t be afraid to feel sadness. It’s okay to be sad in the same that it’s okay to feel alive.

A Good Kind of Tired

There’s a kind of tired that can come from doing a whole lot of nothing. Sometimes a whole lot of nothing is exactly what you need. Rest. Relaxation. Leisure. That’s all good and very needed. But it’s necessary in the context of work.

Whether you work from home for pay or not, whether you work outside of the home for pay or not, work should make you tired. Life is not all work. But work in life should wear you out rather well.

I used to go to bed tired from binging Netflix or wasting an hour on my phone. Now I go to bed tired because I try to do more better. This, I’m convinced, should be the aim of every man, whatever their capacity and whatever their station in life. I’m still working on it.