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Anselm Society

Reflections on Chesterton

Imagination always.

C. C. Elfstrom

I have come to believe in the idea that there might be more drama going on in my own backyard at noon than there is downtown at midnight!  This is the kind of imagination I have learned from the outlandish, dearly eccentric, and very wise G. K. Chesterton.  His writings were the ones to ignite my Christian imagination.  And I am eternally grateful that my imagination has served me well.  Chesterton taught me how to see circumstances not as they seem, but upside down and backward, so as to see them more clearly.  Not simply as a child reading Alice (the author of which was a dear friend of George MacDonald), but as a mature person understanding the "romance of orthodoxy." How fun it is to learn from him.

Chesterton attended art school in London and then became a writer.  He wore a cape and carried a swordstick.  He looked like nobody.  His thoughts were new and challenging.  But how did he come to think with such a fresh perspective?  Chesterson said, "I for one can testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; . . . Of all the stories I have read, . . . it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life.  It is called The Princess and the Goblin and is by George MacDonald."  It was the place of fairy and imagination that spoke to Chesterton so deeply, so accurately.  (Of course, C.S. Lewis gave to MacDonald the same honor.)

Absorbing good, fantastic stories of bravery can be the underpinnings for the times we become the real travelers in dark places, where we need the foundation of God's true fairyland of imagination to carry us through.  We can be brave enough, with God's guidance, to rename that place and see it with new eyes.  But what if our challenge most often occurs in the everyday moments, the routine.  To see the familiar with new eyes, with the right kind of imagination?  Why is imagination important when things seem ordinary?  I believe it is because it brings us Joy. (Chesterton might have learned this lesson first in his art classes.  It is there you are taught to see before you can draw.)

One of my favorite passages of Chesterton's is in Orthodoxy (1908).  Chesterton is describing the repetition we see in nature and gives a fanciful thought to why this is not simply routine clockwork:

"The sun rises every morning.  I do not rise every morning. . . . It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. . . . The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.  A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, "Do it again" and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon.  It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.  The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. . . . "

"I had always believed that the world involved some magic:  now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.  And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person.  I had always felt life first as a story:  and if there is a story there is a story-teller."

Thank you, dear Chesterton, forever!  For whenever I think of God as younger than we are, my heart is struck with your wonder!

C. C. Elfstrom loves music (always!), classic films (on weekends; even the B's), reading (at night), and vintage things (of all sorts); married a guy who likes the same.

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An Antidote for Busyness

In a world of technology and fast-paced lives, we can find a hidden rhythm rooted in more permanent things.

Sarah Clarkson

______ When I was nine years old, my family moved to the middle-of-nowhere, Texas, and there I found a companion that I treasure to this day: the earth. Until then, I had brushed up against sky and trees and bugs in my big Tennessee back yard and in smidgens of park visits. But never had I gotten to know the earth on its own terms, away from the crowded room of streets and houses. In my new home, the chatter of the suburban world died away and I found myself able to get far enough into the hot quiet of a summer day that no voice could shatter the watchful silence of the trees. And I began to know the earth.

My new house was a kindly, weather-beaten, yellow rancher set on what we called “The Ranch.” This wildly creative name was the family's affectionate title for two hundred scraggly acres of Texas hill country for which my grandmother had long ago abandoned Fort Worth society. It was pure Texas; crackly grassland with the click of grasshoppers, worn fields bristling with cedars and jeweled by two small lakes where a loose herd of cattle came to drink. Before I go all dewy-eyed about roaming the land, I must note that the first day we arrived, my dad was attacked by a copperhead snake, the second morning, we woke to a bathtub full of wolf spiders.

Despite these terrors, my inner picture of that first Texas summer is dreamlike in its loveliness. Equipped with an apple and a notebook, I'd slip out the door in the early morning to roam the land until lunch. I followed old cattle trails and scraped for fossils in the shale and found the far corner of the orchard where the butterflies flocked the thickest. That summer was a dance, an open-armed, wide-eyed, little girl twirl into the wild music of the natural world, a music I had only faintly heard in my neighborhood-bound experience thus far. But it was also a season of epiphany.

(Continued below)
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IMG_6583-2-wb-690x1024Register now for the Anselm Society's event with Dr. Michael Ward, C.S. Lewis expert and author of Planet Narnia:

"Is Faith Without Imagination Dead? C.S. Lewis on Imagination and the Christian Life"

Sunday, September 28, 2014 at 6:30pm at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Gleneagle

Register

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I remember the day when the sky grew gray and autumn first descended over the sun-crisped fields. The wind, my balmy friend, grew restless and chill, and the earth seemed almost to step back from me. I roamed that day with timid feet and quiet eyes. The cold was imbued with a presence; the wind bore whispers of something I had not yet encountered. That night, I mulled the changed face of the land before I went to sleep. My bedroom door had been gently shut, a nightlight glimmered in the corner, but my eight-year-old eyes were wide with wakefulness. I squirmed under my quilts. To be stowed in bed and not ready for sleep is a torture. So I sat up and turned to the window behind my head. My grandmother's shades covered the glass, but I lifted one, and stuck my head under it so that I was nose to nose with the glass.

Chill as ice, it stung my skin and the pane blushed with my breath. I stared through the mist it made on the window into the wide black of empty Texas fields, darkness filling the flatlands as if with water. The rise of it came to my window; I felt dark lapping the ledge beneath my face and I pulled back. I looked up to the sky and my eyes were tangled in a net of stars. Cold, countless, spattering a blackness whose start and end I never could find, they stared hard at me until I drew my quilt tighter round me. It came then, a sense of my own smallness. The sense of being a thing so tiny I didn't merit a glance from those proud stars or that enveloping dark.

Abruptly, the feeling that had simmered in my heart all day rose to a sudden boil that closed my throat. What I felt was fear. Not terror as of under-the-bed-monsters, but a wordless, choking awe at the realization that something lay behind the beauty of the earth I loved and it was far bigger than I had ever dreamed. I ran for my parent's room and found my dad. It took him a good half hour of holding me close and telling me that the presence I felt was God and it was Love's immensity brooding out there in the stars before I consented to get under my covers again. When he was gone, I lifted the shade an inch one more time.

I will never forget that night; it was my first brush with eternity, my first comeuppance against something so much bigger than myself that I must be terrified or thrilled. But I will also never forget it because it was the first time I understood with unmitigated clarity that nature speaks. That skies shout and trees write words across a wide-eyed sky. I realized that the black eternity of the night and those high, proud stars were speaking with wordless voices, meaning in every atom of their pulsing dark and bright. And all through the summer the wind had sung and the fields had shimmered with secrets, and the trees had bent to share their counsel.

That night, I learned a truth that haunts me still: to step out of my air-conditioned, insulated house into the wind and tumbling atoms of the atmosphere is to enter a world that daily tells a story, a cosmic narrative told anew with each rising of the sun. And I think that story is one we were meant to taste and see, touch and love every day of our lives.

One of the "issues" I write and speak about is the loss of story in our culture. I am a little terrified of the way that children are growing up without the riches of good books to shape their imaginations and form the eyes with which they perceive the world and their own tale within it. But the deeper I delve into the world of story and the impact that great narratives have on our view of ourselves, the more I find that there are different kinds of storytellers. Books are certainly one, and one I will fight for children to have in every phase of soul formation and mental growth. But nature is another. And children are getting separated from the wild glory of the earth just as quickly as they are forgetting to read.

I am bothered greatly by the realization of how technological and synthetic our daily worlds have become. When I examine my own usual rhythms, something akin to panic rises in my throat as I realize the way in which Internet, iPhone, and Facebook have increasingly claimed my days. Technology is a ceaseless, relentless presence, eating hours of time, hours often spent in the car with a regulated, air-conditioned atmosphere. I live in a modern house that keeps the outdoors entirely at bay. And while I know that these are "modern conveniences" that make life much more comfortable and (supposedly) connected than it was in the past, I also am becoming aware that many things were lost in order to gain these gifts. Like a close knowledge of the seasons, a personal awareness and dependence on the bounty of the earth for food, a rhythm of life lived by the light and dark of the sky. A life lived in conversation with those stars whose voice "has gone out to the ends of the earth."

The reason this particularly concerns me is that I've been going back through Genesis, studying the patterns and forms by which we were originally made to live. I'm possessed by a white-hot determination to identify, out of the countless competing philosophies, what a meaningful life looked like right at the dawn of human existence. In my Scriptural search, the most basic mandates I've found to inform us how to exist as human beings regard our relationship to God, our connection to family and community, and our charge to rule and subdue the earth.

I have been mightily struck with this realization. Though we are fallen, caught in the circles of a broken world, the gift of the plentiful earth remains. The ancient rhythm endures: light and dark, summer and autumn, star and sunlight. Our senses are still intact. So are our stewardships of family, and home, which constitutes our place within the earth we have helped to cultivate. And however imperfectly we now live out God's original commands for us to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue, cultivate, and tend the earth, we ignore those fundamental trusts to our peril.

In an age when few of us live anymore in the country, I think it is easy to forget that one of our primary charges is to intimately know and graciously rule the earth. And though a dozen more practical reasons for this charge could be named, I think one of the primary reasons is that it embodies and signifies the goodness of God. It speaks of his imagination and sets us amidst his thought enfleshed. "In the beginning, God created," and every atom came from his imagination. I believe he made the world in such a way that to tend it, to touch it, to crumble its dirt between our fingers, to scent the tang of coming rain, to watch the sunset, would be to know His nature. He told a story into the earth, and it is the tale of his bounteous heart. We were given the uplifted arms of pines, and the generosity of a summer garden, the laden arms of apple trees, and the dark patience of mountains to keep us alive every day to all that God is and will continue to be. And I think this remains despite the fall.

So here's my inner struggle: how can we in a modern age truly live out the original forms of life that include our stewardship of and immersion in the beauty of the earth? I'm not a farmer. I didn't grow up working the land. I, and most of the people I know, live in suburban or city areas, with feet striking concrete or accelerator pedals most of the times we venture out. I go for walks on nature trails, I plant my little pot of flowers. But I have to work and plan hard to spend time firmly in the company of the earth. To dwell for more than a few cursory minutes in the outdoors or actually grow a living thing from the soil requires planning and dedication. Often, it feels awkward, like cramming something unwieldy into a tiny box that cannot quite contain it.

But when I investigate Scripture, examine the rhythms of my own life, and become aware of my increasing disconnection from nature and community, I feel that the cultivation of the earth is something that is both desire and conviction for me. A work for which I was made, yes, but also an atmosphere, an experience, a daily narrative I need in order to remember my place in the story of the world. Of course, my first idealistic impulse is to abandon everything and buy a farm. (Never mind that I haven't yet made my fortune.)

But when my fervor settles and my eyes look honestly at the life I have right here and now, I begin to understand that while land ownership may be out of my reach for the moment, I do have the power to alter the rhythms of my life. And this alone can be a mighty step of return to a life centered on the story, the "taste and see" evidence of God's kindness in creation. Farmer or not, I do have the power to form the habits, spaces, and cadence of my days to allow me, even in suburbia, to enter the work and story of the earth, for I can choose to live according to the rhythm of the Internet, the highway, the fastfood beat of modern life. Or I can stand aside from that wild, endless race, and return to a cadence of life set in place with the dawn of creation.

For me, this began with a break from Facebook. When I made that first baby decision at the beginning of the summer, I didn't realize the full impact this choice would have on my thoughts regarding the earth. But after two months of absence from the Facebook world, and a few other like decisions, I was aware of my mind returning to quiet, my thoughts slowing, my eyes able to focus, my days restructured around work, light, and relationship, rather than the online world. A couple of months in, I realized that my increasing involvement with the online world for work, friendship, and entertainment in the past years meant that I was submitting my mind to the rhythms and patterns of its universe. And as I did, I was disconnecting myself from the patterns of earth, home, and community.

The virtual world never rests. Hush, pause, stillness are antithetical to the nature of the Internet which is to produce "new" information every hour of the day. It resists moderation and even mental limitation. I can scan an almost incredible amount of information in an hour on the Internet, and I need never rest on one page for long. There is always the next thing to scan, check, discover, and in that rush, I become increasingly disconnected from the world, the day, the people before me right in the present moment. It's a disconnection writ large in the way we moderns work, in our hurry to achieve many things or attend many activities, in our restless need for stimulation, our hunger for the next job, the perfect person, the new place. Our movement, our yearning, our ceaseless need to know, gain, do, in many ways reflects the pace and goals of the virtual world that has shaped our consciousness, our imagination, and our desires.

And so, my first act of resistance this summer was to spend each dusk in a rocking chair on the front porch. The next was to try my hand at gardening the tiny bit of earth available to me. I forsook my screens in favor of long walks in which I noticed the weather as "news from God" (in the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins). I've watered flowers, watched birds, cooked with just what I could rummage from the farmer's market, and eaten it slowly, by candlelight, and taken the time to invite other friends to join me. I've read. I've listened. I've breathed, with greater depth and ease than I have in many months.

And in so doing, I feel that I have reclaimed an ancient cadence, a rhythm of life based not on the machinistic schedule of a sleepless Internet, but rather on the dance of day and night, rest and work, silence and song. And I am learning so much from my tiny corner of the earth. I find that there is a patience that only an old tree can teach. Faithfulness that only the unquestioning, trusty ground can model in its ceaseless readiness to yield in season. I find joy in the birdsong, with an illusive note of hope. And in those stars, in the night sky whose acquaintance I have reclaimed, I taste again that sense of eternity, staring down at me through the mask of the heavens. I am awed, and afraid, and glad.

Once again, I am a child in heart, and in the hush I have reclaimed, the earth is telling me its great story all over again.

Sarah loves good books and thinks everyone else should too. She's editor and queen at storyformed.com, where she hosts a website on reading and imagination, and she just published her third book, Caught Up in a Story.

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Image via Creative Commons.

Imagination Isn't Safe

Why my generation has done everything from kiss dating goodbye to give up Harry Potter in unnecessary penance.

Michelle Hindman

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When I attended summer camp growing up I would frequently hear 2 Corinthians 10:5 brandished about, reminding me to "take every thought captive." This admonition was usually applied to the topic of lust, but made me feel generally guilty about every thing, from thinking a boy was cute to reading "secular" books. Their interpretation of the command implied taking a Jack Bauer-like approach to any passing thoughts not sufficiently "God-centered" and beating them into sniveling submission. It seemed we were to practice a kind of thinkstop, an Orwellian mind control in which orthodoxy comes, not from the heart, but from constant vigilance.

That kind of intense focus epitomized, supposedly, the mind-made-captive-to-Christ. I had friends break up with unoffending significant others to "focus on God" instead. This attitude explains why my generation has done everything from kiss dating goodbye to give up Harry Potter in unnecessary penance. It was primarily a position of defensiveness and fear, driven by the anxiety that the regions of the imagination, and also the products of it, were full of danger and sin unless tightly controlled. This disengagement disguised itself as piety, but was instead simply dismissal; it was a refusal to risk venturing into territory not thoroughly comfortable, pre-approved, and sufficiently "God-centered" -- as though the presence of God's beauty in the world was dictated only by our concentration on Him.

This anxiety is all too often reinforced by much of what Christian culture deems to be distinctly "Christian art." With an emphasis on tidy morality and an avoidance of ambiguity, we believe that the imagination can be rendered safe. Stories are sanitized to the point of becoming saccharine or ludicrous. This is all done in the name of protecting our minds, taking captive even our entertainment so it will not pose a threat to our sanctity.

(Continued below)
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IMG_6583-2-wb-690x1024Register now for the Anselm Society's event with Dr. Michael Ward, C.S. Lewis expert and author of Planet Narnia:

"Is Faith Without Imagination Dead? C.S. Lewis on Imagination and the Christian Life"

Sunday, September 28, 2014 at 6:30pm at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Gleneagle

Register

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But what if we assume that a Christian's imagination is formed in God's image? Unleashed, it might more reflect C.S. Lewis' Aslan – not safe, but good. Christ commanded his disciples to resist defining holiness by what things are avoided or by who is left out. This sort of disengagement keeps things simple, but robs us of real righteousness and faith. Our goodness has never been defined by that which we, by our own power, control. The faithful Christian knows that the only righteous posture is not one of defensiveness, but one of humble receptivity to the God who alone gives all good things. I cannot presume to give a decisive list of the things which Christians should and should not pursue; that is a line that only individuals can draw, with the guidance of the Spirit. I would suggest instead, however, that we flee the temptation to put imagination on "lockdown" out of fear, as I and so many others have in the past.

A Christian's imagination should not be defined by the things it avoids or rejects, in pride or in fear. Instead, a Christian's imagination should be set apart by a radical hope. Our scriptural precedent is one of incredible inclusiveness: bring in the Gentiles, lower the sheet full of 'unclean foods' to kill and eat as clean, use the altar to the "unknown God" as a starting point for conversation. We are not called to be iconoclasts, but rather seekers of God's image everywhere, for "Christ plays in ten thousand places." Awakening our imaginations, and partaking in a wide variety of imaginative works, displays trust in the goodness of God's creation and the prevalence of his grace rather than in our own legalism. We need not plunge into that which is offensive or utterly counter to Christian virtue, but we can, more than others, wade through dark content and still maintain a sense of the light. We can read Job and we can watch Christopher Nolan. We have nothing to fear.

We must, therefore, trust that the God who made our imaginations also does not fear, but rather delights in our use of them. We are not called to thinkstop, but to allow our imaginations also to be fruitful and multiply. We must hope that the Beauty which calls to us, secular and sacred, is not a distraction, but rather a direct path to the God who made all good and beautiful things. Whether the Rolling Stones or Bach, we can see God's creative image everywhere in human creation. Our goodness is not defined by how many rogue thoughts we can capture and control, but by the One who captivates our whole imaginations. We must be known not for what we renounce, but for what we affirm and welcome.

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Michelle Hindman is an instructor of English Literature at a classical school in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She is a graduate of Westmont College. She is currently enthusiastic to be working with her church on behalf of the St. Anselm Society, which is rekindling a renaissance of the Christian imagination within the church community.

 
This post was originally published by the John Jay Institute, and is re-posted with permission.

Truth Without Clichés

Mixing Discourses to Write About Religious Experience

Heather Walker Peterson

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“In a culture where every phrase of God-talk has become a cliché, finding a new God-talk requires a journey into an unknown land; and dragons wait on the other side. To reach beyond the trivial, to use words about grace that are different from those used before, to give a startling new take on conversion, is to risk having stones thrown at one for heresy. The evangelical shorthand is not only simpler but safer.”1

So ends a review of a novel published by a Christian house. The reviewer, Susan Wise Bauer, critiqued the conversion scene of the book for being “abstract” and dependent on “overused phrases.” Bauer went on to explain that she had committed similar errors: she once received a letter from the historian Mark Noll in which he gently commented that the “God talk” in one of her novels had floundered.

Bauer explains that “God-talk,” language about religious experience, lacks “vivid clarity.” Devout Christians are hard pressed to be theologically accurate in their writing, but unfortunately that accuracy is often limited to a logos-centered accuracy, an accuracy reliant on specific abstract words with specific definitions. The impact of the meaning, the pathos-centered or emotional accuracy, produced by fresh imagery, is lost.

When we believe there is only one right way to say something, then those words have become authoritative. The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin understood the authoritative use of words through his experiences with the Russian Orthodox Church and the government of Lenin and Stalin. According to Bakhtin, if “discourse” is a social group’s language usage, “authoritative discourse” is a category that “demands our unconditional allegiance.”2 Certain words become all important, and then “the context around [them] dies, words dry up.” He states, “For this reason the authoritative text always remains, in the novel, a dead quotation, something that falls out of the artistic context (for example, the evangelical texts in Tolstoy at the end of Resurrection).”

What is a Christian writer to do?

(Continued below)
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IMG_6583-2-wb-690x1024Register now for the Anselm Society's event with Dr. Michael Ward, C.S. Lewis expert and author of Planet Narnia:

"Is Faith Without Imagination Dead? C.S. Lewis on Imagination and the Christian Life"

Sunday, September 28, 2014 at 6:30pm at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Gleneagle

Register

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Writing about the need for imagination in biblical interpretation, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer insists that “God’s original intention for language—its design plan . . . was to be a tool for exploring the world, for interacting with other people, for getting to know God.” He argues against the postmodern view of “despair” toward language and instead insists on “delight”3: “the main reason we can delight in language is that we believe language is God-given (and hence reliable), and that we believe there is something beyond language in which our poems, our propositions and our prayers all point: the reality of the Creator and the created order.” In this delight, “the imagination is both enabled and constrained” with the biblical text.

By applying tired theological wording to religious experience, Christian authors are ironically showing their despair of language—that if they don’t use the “right” words, their meaning will be misunderstood or truth will be misrepresented. Instead these writers have the opportunity to delight in language, exploring the world with words and creating a pathos-centered accuracy for their readers. It takes a fearless Christian writer to play with imagery that is not explicitly Christian and a wise one if imagination is to be constrained by the historic interpretation of scripture. Or it takes a writer with no fear of God and the Church. Perhaps that is why a conversion scene where I didn’t lift my eyes off the page and mumble, “Oh here we go,” was written by an author with no claim to Christianity—Mischa Berlinski, a self-described secular Jew.

David Walker, in Berlinski’s Fieldwork, is an adult missionary kid who meanders with members of the Lot of the Grateful Dead for four years.4) One day he goes to the Lot, ticket-less, and hangs a pizza box around his neck, scrawling on it, “I need a miracle.” He is given a ticket, has a “bong hit,” and “somewhere in the second set, just after ‘Uncle John’s Band,’ when the miracle happened, and what could it be but a miracle? David heard the angels singing.” Jerry plays a hymn about the parable of the lost sheep that David knew from his childhood; he “felt his soul separate from his body and he knew that he had died and was being welcomed into Heaven. Now he had come Home.”

How does Berlinski get away with a convincing conversion scene (about two pages of text in the book)? He mixes discourses—what Bakhtin called heteroglossia. Throughout the book, Berlinski’s narrator, an outsider to the story, points out multiple discourses by capitalizing certain words. David was “welcomed into Heaven. Now he had come Home.” This blending of discourses is clear earlier in the conversion scene where there is a sense of a baptism or a partaking of communion from the Grateful Dead: “The day was so hot that Bob started spraying the crowd down with water from the stage—and in the audience, someone thinks: Those are little drops of Bob himself, floating out of that rubber hose, little refreshing drops of Bob himself.”

Berlinksi never brings up the name of Jesus, using only symbol and later the language of Shepherd in the song, so the authoritative discourse of evangelicalism is subdued enough that it does not deaden readers’ experience of the conversion but still refers to the theological source. Berlinski also draws in imagery that echoes the worldview of Thai or Chinese mountainous indigenous groups. After David’s soul left his body, it peers from Heaven down to where the people his family had missionized, the Dyalo, lived. For the Dyalo, when someone died or a baby was born, the soul had to be gathered from wandering, similar to the beliefs of the Hmong, who were influential in Berlinski’s creation of the Dyalo people.5

Berlinski’s genius is in acknowledging through the various imagery the variety of explanations for David’s religious experience—biologically, the effect of marijuana; psychologically, the loneliness of separation from family and the emotional influence of music; and spiritually, the collective belief of the Dyalo as well as God’s working of David’s return to Himself. If Christian writers attempted this, they would likely be accused of universalism, of watering down the handiwork of God.

And yet wouldn’t the use of mixed discourses demonstrate a faith in a God authoring a complex world, a God making use of the Balaam’s ass of marijuana or unfolding the individual narrative of a psyche? There are usually multiple explanations for our behavior and experiences. But Berlinski doesn’t leave the scene with readers sorting through a mishmash of discourses. His final technique is one that Christians could emulate.

His narrator frames the conversion scene with one theological term: “miracle.” He mentions it at the beginning–“I need a miracle”–and end–“In the story that the Walkers told of themselves, this was the miracle that brought David back home.” For the Walkers, other interpretations or stories of David’s conversion were subsumed within the greater story of Christianity. Berlinksi, who conducted in-depth research on missionaries for his novel, shows his characters’ belief that David’s experience, despite its other explanations, “point[s]” ultimately “to a Creator and created order” (in the words of Vanhoozer).

This is writing that evokes life, lively rather than deadening, representing a pathos-centered accuracy along with a hint of logos-centered accuracy to remain true to its characters. This is writing to which fearless Christian authors, without despair for language or their readers, could rise.

 

Heather Walker Peterson, Ph.D., is a member of the St. Anselm Society in Colorado Springs. She has taught at University of Northwestern–St. Paul. She now writes and mothers two young and remarkably different daughters. She is on Twitter @languageNfaith.

This post was originally published by the John Jay Institute, and is re-posted with permission.

Good Friday words from T.S. Eliot

“The Wounded Surgeon” East Coker (IV) T. S. Eliot

The wounded surgeon plies the steel That questions the distempered part; Beneath the bleeding hands we feel The sharp compassion of the healer's art Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease If we obey the dying nurse Whose constant care is not to please But to remind of our, and Adam's curse, And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital Endowed by the ruined millionaire, Wherein, if we do well, we shall Die of the absolute paternal care That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees, The fever sings in mental wires. If to be warmed, then I must freeze And quake in frigid purgatorial fires Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink, The bloody flesh our only food: In spite of which we like to think

That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood— Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

How can we appreciate the earth?

Are children getting separated from the wild glory of the earth just as quickly as they are forgetting to read?

When I was nine years old, my family moved to the middle-of-nowhere, Texas and there I found a new best friend. The earth. Until then, I had brushed up against sky and trees and bugs in my big Tennessee back yard and in smidgens of park visits. But never had I gotten to know the earth on its own, away from the crowded room of streets and houses. In my new home, the chatter of the suburban world died away and I found myself able to get far enough into the hot quiet of a summer day that no voice could shatter the watching silence of the trees. And I began to know the earth.

My new house was a kindly, weatherbeaten, yellow rancher set on what we called “The Ranch.” This wildly creative name was the family’s affectionate title for two hundred scraggly acres of Texas hill country for which my grandmother had long ago abandoned Fort Worth society. It was pure Texas; crackly grassland with the click of grasshoppers, worn fields bristling with cedars and jeweled by two small lakes where a loose herd of cattle came to drink. Before I go all dewy-eyed about roaming the land, I must note that the first day we arrived, my dad was attacked by a copperhead snake, the second morning, we woke to a bathtub full of wolf spiders.

Despite these terrors, my inner picture of that first Texas summer is dreamlike in it’s loveliness. Girded with a few crackers and a notebook, I’d slip out the door in the early morning to roam the land until lunch. I followed old cattle trails and scraped for fossils in the shale and found the far corner of the orchard where the butterflies flocked the thickest. That summer was a dance, an open-armed, wide-eyed, little girl twirl into the wild music of the natural world, a music I had only faintly heard in my neighborhood-bound experience thus far. But it was also a season of epiphany.

I remember the day when the sky grew gray and autumn first descended over the sun-crisped fields. The wind, my balmy friend, grew restless and chill, and the earth seemed almost to step back from me. I roamed that day with timid feet and quiet eyes. The cold had a presence, the wind bore whispers of something I had not yet encountered. That night, I mulled the changed face of the land before I went to sleep. My bedroom door had been gently shut, a nightlight glimmered in the corner, but my eight year old eyes were wide with wakefulness. I squirmed under my quilts. To be stowed in bed and not ready for sleep is a torture. So I sat up and turned to the window behind my head. My grandmother’s shades covered the glass, but I lifted one, and stuck my head under it so that I was nose to nose with the glass.

Chill as ice, it stung my nose and the pane blushed with my breath. I stared through the mist of my breath into the wide black of empty Texas fields, darkness filling the flatlands as if with water. The rise of it came to my window, I felt dark lapping the ledge beneath my face and I pulled back. I looked up to the sky and my eyes were tangled in a net of stars. Cold, countless, spattering a blackness whose start and end I never could find, they stared hard at me until I drew my quilt tighter round me. It came then, a sense of my own smallness. The sense of being a thing so tiny I didn’t merit a glance from those proud stars or that enveloping dark.

Abruptly, the feeling that had simmered in my heart all day rose to a sudden boil that closed my throat. What I felt was fear. Not terror as of under-the-bed-monsters, but a wordless, choking awe at the realization that something lay behind the beauty of the earth I loved and it was far bigger than I had ever dreamed. I ran for my parents room and found my dad. It took him a good half hour of holding me close and telling me the the presence I felt was God and it was Love before I consented to get under my covers again. When he was gone, I lifted the shade an inch one more time.

I will never forget that night; it was my first brush with eternity, my first comeuppance against something so much bigger than myself that I must be terrified or thrilled. But I will also never forget it because it was the first time I understood with unmitigated clarity that nature speaks. That skies shout and trees write words into a wide-eyed sky. I realized that the black eternity of the sky and those high, proud stars were speaking with voices, meaning in every atom of their pulsing dark and bright. And all through the summer the wind had sung and the fields had shimmered with secrets, and the trees had bent to share their counsel.

That night, I learned a truth that haunts me still: to step out of my air-conditioned, insulated house into the wind and tumbling atoms of the atmosphere is to enter a world that daily tells a visible story.

I think it is a story we were meant to see and touch every day of our lives. One of the “issues” I write and speak about is the loss of story in our culture. I am a little terrified of the way that children are growing up without the riches of good books to shape their imaginations and form the eyes with which they perceive the world and their own tale within it. But the deeper I delve into the world of story and the impact that great narratives have on our view of ourselves, the more I find that there are different kinds of storytellers. Books are certainly one, and one I will fight for children to have. But nature is another. And children are getting separated from the wild glory of the earth just as quickly as they are forgetting to read.

I am bothered greatly right now by the realization of how technological and synthetic our daily worlds have become. I could go off for a whole blog post on the recent near-panic I feel at the ceaselessness of internet, iPhone, and constant technological presence in my life. But as I have examined my days, I’ve realized that I spend a lot of time in the car, with a regulated, air-conditioned atmosphere. I live in a modern house that keeps the outdoors entirely at bay. And while I know that these are “modern conveniences” that make life much more comfortable than it was in the past, I also am becoming aware that some things were lost in order to gain these gifts. Like a close knowledge of the seasons, a dependence on the bounty of the earth for food, a rhythm of life lived by the light and dark of the sky.

The reason this particularly concerns me is that I’ve been going back through Genesis, studying the patterns and forms by which we were originally made to live. I’m in a white hot blaze of fervor to figure out just how we were meant to live, to relate, to love, each other and God. I am dissatisfied with the forms of modern life which seem to me to mostly those of productivity at all costs, convenience, entertainment, and ceaseless activity. In my Scriptural search, the most basic forms of living I can find regard our relationship with God, our connection to family and community, and our charge to rule and subdue the earth.

In our modern age when few of us live anymore in the country, I think it is easy to forget that to intimately know and graciously rule the earth is one of our primary charges. And though a dozen more practical reasons for this charge could be named, I think one of the reasons is that it embodies and signifies the goodness of God. It speaks of his imagination, and sets us amidst his thought enfleshed. “In the beginning, God created,” and every atom came from his imagination. I believe He made the world in such a way that to tend it, to touch it, would be to know His heart. He told a story into the earth, and it is the tale of his bounteous heart. We were given the uplifted arms of pines, and the vibrance of a summer garden, the laden arms of apple trees, and the dark patience of mountains to keep us alive every day to all that God is and will continue to be. And I think this remains despite the fall.

So here’s my inner struggle: how can we in a modern age truly live out the original form of working with the earth? I’m not a farmer. I didn’t grow up working the land. I, and most of the people I know, live in suburban or city areas, with feet striking concrete or accelerator pedals most of the times we venture out. I go for walks on nature trails, I plant my little pot of flowers. But I have to work and plan hard to spend time seriously in the company of the earth. To dwell for more than a few cursory minutes in the outdoors or actually grow a living thing from the soil. More and more, I feel that the cultivation of the earth is something that is both desire and conviction for me. And I will admit that I am praying for land of my own someday.

But how do I reconcile this with my own technologically driven, concrete-framed time? How do I hold these ideals when most of the world is mired in their opposite? How do you interpret this tension in your own life, or do you feel it at all?

You can meet Sarah Clarkson at HTAC on Sundays. You can follow her blog here.

Finding strength in the most unexpected place

The case for weakness.

Laurel Cornell Robinson

Our most popular TV shows and movies idolize strength.  Against our better judgment, we viewers find ourselves rooting for (fictional) bank robbers, drug lords, and murderers, because they are portrayed as people who were once vulnerable or exploited, but then rose up and overcame the odds.  In The Hunger Games, Katniss is confused and helpless against the injustice of the Capitol, but it’s her stubborn strength and determination that carries the day.

This appeals to us. We want to be strong. When something makes us feel slighted, insulted, or inadequate, our natural response usually consists of trying harder, striking back, or making a plan to avoid such an unpleasant feeling in the future.  We like to think that, if an emergency arose, we would rise higher–just like the characters in our favorite tales.  After all, who wants to be a blubbering mess?

Meanwhile, the Bible tells us that the key to strength is weakness.

Paul told the believers in Corinth that the Lord told him; “my grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). These are not the words of some cloistered monk.  Paul was the picture of zeal, passionately persecuting Christians until God knocked him off his high horse. Even after his conversion, Paul used very strong language in many of his letters as well as documented public speeches. God deliberately gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh” – a weakness – and refused to take it away, telling Paul instead, You need this. It’s the key to my power working through you and changing lives.

Another popular form of pursuing strength is making plans. Our culture is filled with pressure to have a plan.  Plan your high-school path with college in mind; plan your college decisions with a career in mind; make your career decisions with retirement in mind.  It gets absurd, and yet we can’t see a way around it. It feels irresponsible not to plan.

God’s message to His people is not “get your act together” or “plan your life.” James says abruptly to those who think they have it all together: “you don’t know what tomorrow will bring…you ought to say ‘if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’…. You boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:14-16).  Jesus points His followers to the lilies, which do not worry about their life or plan their path, but they are created and sustained perfectly, in a beauty unmatched by manmade things.

In the late 1800’s, Charles Spurgeon addressed a trap that the best of us may fall into: “Many servants of God are made to feel their weakness in another way, by an oppressive sense of responsibility…. We may feel our responsibility so deeply that we may become unable to sustain it; it may cripple our joy, and make slaves of us. Do not take an exaggerated view of what the Lord expects of you. He will not blame you for not doing that which is beyond your mental power or physical strength. You are required to be faithful, but you are not bound to be successful.”

What does “being weak” look like in everyday form?  It looks a lot like humility.  Humility is slippery and easily turns into something contrived; however, when you recognize your own weakness – or, like Paul, you have some form of weakness thrust upon you – a result is genuine humility.

Ann Voskamp, in her book One Thousand Gifts, quotes F.B. Meyer (another evangelist from the early 1900s):  “I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other, and that the taller we grew in Christian character the easier we should reach them.  I find now that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other, and that it is not a question of growing taller but of stooping lower, and that we have to go down, always down, to get His best gifts.”  By God’s grace, He allows things into our lives that can keep us aware of our weakness, and thereby keep us humble.  We can either fight against them – or we can pause and receive the gift of humility for another day.

Originally published in Humane Pursuits. Reposted with permission.

On Keeping Time

A Lenten reminder about the best use of time – from ancient Ephesus.

Hannah Bryan

Recently, a phrase keeps pricking my thoughts with disconcerting urgency, like a dissonant interval that sharpens and intensifies a melody.  Toward the end of a letter attributed to Paul of Tarsus, a teacher of the Jewish law, comes this exhortation: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time,” or translated another way, “redeeming the time.”  The letter containing this statement was written between AD 60-62 to scattered churches, among them the outpost of Ephesus.  A city on the west coast of Asia Minor and capital of a Roman province (modern-day Turkey), Ephesus featured a temple to the goddess, Artemis, renowned as one of the seven marvels of the ancient world.

One wonders, why this specific instruction to the church?  From what or whom did their time need redemption?  What challenges met the eyes of the men and women in this Roman seat that couched the goddess of beasts and wildlands?

Though Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is encouraging and devotional (despite his house arrest in Rome) he also writes with sobriety and firmness, urging this fledgling church towards daily armoring in truth, holding fast to their hope, and having unity with one another.  For during the same span of time Paul penned this open letter to the churches, enemies advanced.  A Jewish revolt against Rome brewed, Emperor Nero accrued power now that Burrus and Seneca had removed their restraint upon his rule, and persecution of Christians would soon escalate as Nero’s craven madness led him to poison his wife, Agrippina, set fire to Rome, and incinerate Christ-followers to illuminate his dinner parties.  The aged fisherman Peter in Rome was writing his first epistle concurrent with Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and within a few years was crucified up-side-down.

Ephesus, this nerve center of Roman power contained an added danger–though one subtler–the constant sway of a dissolute culture.  Living in Ephesus would have tried the audience of Paul’s letter and constantly sapped their focus and faithfulness.  One walking the city thoroughfare encountered honey-mouthed acolytes of Artemis clad in saffron robes; fashionable crowds bound for the Emperor’s temple; eager merchants, with almost as much insistence as Pandora advertising Fabletics, accosting passersby with goddess miniatures, temple-consecrated cakes shaped like stags, and teardrop amber beads like the many breasts of the “Lady of Ephesus.”

Despite the powerful, frivolous, impure culture and immense pressures to resume old ways of living, the church at Ephesus remained vital for some time.  In Revelation, the apostle John addresses this same church and commends them for having endured patiently, rejected evil, and toiled for good; Bishop Ignatius addresses them favorably in early 2nd century AD, and Ephesus hosted an ecumenical council as late as AD 431.

However, in Revelation John chastises the Ephesian church for “having abandoned the love you had at first.”  We never learn more to illuminate this alarming statement.

Recalling Paul’s guidance to this community about redeeming the time (“exagorazomenoi ton kairon”) offers a clue for living faithfully and mindfully in this day.  The Greek phrase in question conveys the idea of eBay’s “Buy It Now” option; that is, buying something out when the opportunity arises, but being mindful of future gain predicated upon wise action in this opportune season.  Today, an age when focused attention is the rarest commodity, when merchants and vendors shout from every corner of public space and from the Smartphone in bed, we would do well to consider our ways.  Paul still speaks: “[Do not walk] as unwise, but as wise . . . do not be foolish, but understand.”   Time is a resource, the quantity of which we cannot predict, only receive in daily cupfuls, shield from lesser pursuits that siphon our minutes and minds and hearts and joyfully empty into good works, informed by wisdom and firmed by courage.

Originally published in Humane Pursuits. Re-posted with permission.

You Must Learn How to Pray

Man will always worship, but he must be taught how to pray.

Guest post by Barton Gingerich

Man must be taught how to pray. While he always worships, he does not naturally know how to pray. Anything or anyone can be worshipped; a false idol, the self, or God. Even if we properly identify and submit ourselves to the true God, however, we still do not seem inherently capable of addressing Him. We are instructed how to do that, either directly or indirectly by our contact with other Christians. Just as the truths and revelations of the Christian faith almost certainly came to us through living, breathing people, so too do we depend upon them to carry on the Christian life, a great part of which is prayer.

This is a rarely discussed point. Those raised within Christian households did not usher forth from the womb with supplications upon their lips. This does not mean that God does relate to the infant on their own level; quite the opposite. In addition, those who converted to the Christian faith later in life did not pioneer their own completely novel means of communicating with God. Very often, we learn to pray by imitation. We hear models of intercession, thanksgiving, and praise from preachers, parents, missionaries, and even just popular portrayals of clergy and laymen alike. Some from Christian families may have other prayers committed to memory, such as the rather cute “Now I lay me down to sleep…” to the Lord’s Prayer itself (the latter has sadly fallen out of corporate practice for many assemblies).

Besides those two examples, many American evangelical Protestants lack intentional instruction in this regard. This is not to say that those within different traditions do not pray or do not encourage prayer. But look at the prayers themselves. Some resemble a stream of consciousness, with the terms “God,” “Lord,” “Father,” and “Jesus” effectively replacing commas and other marks of punctuation. Is this really the best we can regularly offer up to the Almighty Creator of us all?

I confess I felt a humiliation for the way I prayed: a long list of wishes and demands alongside a shorter list of perfunctory thank you’s, all addressed as to a Great Cosmic Butler or Genie. Once this list was announced, I would continue on with the rest of life with a sort of awareness of God and perhaps even a quiet conversation with Him. I was frustrated with myself because I didn’t have the means or skill to escape this cyclic decline. Some great rhetors I knew could compose beautiful prayers either ahead of time or spontaneously; I could not, no matter how hard I tried in the endeavor. Perhaps this is why my prayer life was anemic and took up little time in the day.

On the other hand, I vaguely sensed something was wrong and that the form of prayer did matter. For example, “buddy buddy” and “Jesus is my girlfriend” style prayers (generally emanating from “praise team” leaders and their cohorts) consistently felt improper as a means of addressing the Almighty God of the Universe. “Jesus is your King, not your homeboy,” I would often complain.

But this itself was hypocrisy. There was nothing kingly or monarchical for me to model in my own experience. I lived in a democratic society and worshipped with a democratic style in a church assembly with a democratic polity. According to my own ecclesiology at the time, my clergy were laymen with education and speaking abilities, little more. There was no royal procession or recession, a standard to which I bowed, a throne to show my obeisance, and certainly no vicarious stewards—nothing to wound or curb by pride or self-reliance. My own worship formed in my soul a notion that claimed, “I’m a free and equal citizen, thank you, not a subject to a monarch.” Form meant hierarchy, tyranny, and spiritual death. I would not submit. No one could tell me how to worship. That’s so un-American. And in this I cut myself off from the Christian heritage. I needed a way to address the Creator of the Universe, yet with an intimacy that recognized He was my Father and my Savior.

It was perhaps this negligence to form and prayer that led to my lukewarm appraisal of the Psalms. I didn’t like reading them, and I didn’t like them to be read. I couldn’t pull out the systematic doctrine from them. When I could, the theology was generally dissatisfying and hard to acquire.

What I failed to realize was that the Psalms were a prayer book for the people of Israel. They were poetical and concrete, not systematic and abstract. The Psalms are to be prayed by the people of God. I suddenly realized how wonderful it was that my parents made me memorize Psalm 1 and Psalm 23; that they always mentioned how glad they were when the congregation would announce, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want….” I came to recognize this beautiful reality only after a larger revelation: the form of worship matters.

Every congregation has a liturgy, but not every assembly has a good liturgy that takes full advantage of the historic deposit and theological instruction of the Church. She will teach those of a humble spirit how to pray. Ours is to lay aside our purported self-sufficiency and our very real pride.

Barton Gingerich is a Master of Divinity student at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and a fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He holds a B. A. in History from Patrick Henry College. This post was originally published on Humane Pursuits.

Courage, Dear Hearts

Everything in my life of late seems hard. Conference season is hard. It comes as a mix of marathon, disaster, and holiday. Writing is hard. My brain at the end of a working day feels like a mental sponge squeezed dry of every word, and my heart rate spikes at thought of all the work I have yet to do. Integrity is hard. To write about beauty is one thing, to make it amidst exhaustion and laundry with nerves frayed and tongue sharp is harder. Health is hard. To eat good food, to walk long miles, to seek out natural instead of processed food takes time, and thought, and a mighty dose of discipline. (Especially amidst travel.) Even loving God is hard. Turning my mind away from the many lists of things I need to do, the countless desires, the endless distractions in order to sit with my Bible and listen, listen to his whisper in the silence is one of the most difficult habits I have ever undertaken. Hard, every bit of it. Hard every single day of my life.

Yet there is hope.

In him we live and move and have our being, and in him we fight the great fight, and in him we trust that the good we make here is just the beginning of the kingdom come and a beauty that will never end.

Courage, dear hearts.

Read the rest on Sarah's website

St. Patrick's Day

Satan, I think, strikes a few of his best blows when he can persuade us that God is boring.

A repost from a favorite St. Patrick’s Day Celebration. I don’t know what I shall be doing on this St. Paddy’s Day, but I promise you, ’twill be grand fun whatever it is. A joyous St. Patrick’s Day to you all!

My St. Patrick’s day celebration was impromptu. I love all things Irish and think St. Patrick himself the hero indeed, but the great day  found me mired in about a thousand unanswered emails. I got home from church to face the prospect of a Monday morning to-do list that stopped me cold in my tracks. The fact that it was Sunday and I was supposed to be sane and calm and thinking holy thoughts added guilt to my fretting. I despaired of fun and set to work. But a phone call late in the windy afternoon changed the fate of my day: “Sarah,” said my mom, “we’re downtown; do you want to just go for a quick bite of fish ‘n chips at Jack Quinn’s? Leave the emails. There will be music!”

I couldn’t say no. Jack Quinn’s is a dim old downtown Irish pub, floored in dented, honeyed wood, with tiny booth rooms windowed in stained glass just like the pubs I visited in England. It has the dusky depths, old-photos, and jumbled shelves of mugs and jugs to give it the feel of a real pub. But steeped in age and shadow as it is, the ceilings are high and sheathed in forest green tin. Voices and folk music bounce in a rollick of notes from the floor to the heights in a brightness and dance as good as light. For such a place, I always want to spare an hour. I paused at my desk and almost stayed. I stared at my list, I despaired of my life. But as the sun set, I flung down my pen and out the door I went.

And oh what a party awaited me. The moment we stepped in the door we joined one great, grand swirl of Irish celebration. The long room was crammed to its every edge.  A bag piper rose to play as we entered, kilted and bold in the middle of the room, all purple-cheeked and bulging-eyed as he filled the pipes with song. Hundreds of feet kept a good tapping time, laughter boiled up like a drumroll from every corner, and voices rang like trumpets as people talked over the scream of the pipes. The faces in that dim room glowed like fireflies in a hot summer garden.

Everyone wore green. Eight or eighty, no respectable soul would come to an Irish pub on St. Paddy’s day without a token of emerald to honor the feast. Some wore glittering bits of jade or jewel, some were decked in the gaudy gleam of green plastic beads, some were clothed head to toe in forest, moss, sage, or emerald, every hue of the color of Eire. And then there were the men who swept by in kilts. They had that delighted pride of eye belonging to those who are dressed just right for a grand occasion. At least I had on my lucky green shirt, thank goodness.

I smiled as I stood, I could not help it. I leaned against one of the old walls to wait for our table with the breath of song and laughter in my lungs. I bumped elbows with strangers and swayed to the jigs flung out from the fiddler now on stage. When our name was called, we trundled upstairs to community tables stretching the length of a long, low room. Plates were piled with cabbage and corned beef, or fresh fried fish and chips. We settled in with a jolly bunch of strangers, exchanged names and stories, and set to the work of feasting. The music on this floor was softer, but no less pert. A band of fiddle, whistle, and bodhran kept our toes tapping the entire meal. Another explosion of laughter rumbled from the far end of the room as the fish salted my mouth.

And, “blessed be the day,” thought I. Joy welled up in me as if a new spring of water was struck alive at the core of my heart. Exuberance was a tide, rising in my blood and thought, a freed delight in the sheer gift of life. Forgotten were bills and furrowed brows and the dullness that comes from forgotten zest. Remembered was the ever-present possibility of glee, the limitless capacity of my heart to come alive to a fathomless joy, to respond to friendship, to lift up my soul to the cry of music.

A sudden silence came upon me then; one of those moments in which a part of myself stepped back, suspended in time, to ponder the scene and my abruptly joyous self at that table. Keenly did I look at the hundred faces lined in laughter, closely did I listen to the rumble of voices and music. I saw the clustered groups of people in sudden fellowship, watched as music wove us all into a pattern in which no one felt loose or at odd at ends. I saw the way good food and people pushed close for the eating made friends of strangers. I saw fun, plain and simple in the jigs and chips and tapping toes, saw the childlike mirth in the eyes of my family, felt the warmth of it in a blaze on my face.

And I knew again why feasts are of grave importance, vital events to be claimed and marked. Festal days must be kept with great resolution for this single glimmering fact; we are made for joy. We were fashioned for gladness with hearts formed for fellowship and spirits for singing. Feasts teach us to remember this core fact of our being as they fling us together and banish our listless thoughts and the loneliness that hovers like a fog around our hearts. Polite, isolated, technologically-tied souls in a sin-shattered world that we are, feasts remind us of friendship, they force us into a joy we might have forgotten in the midst of our busy, driven accomplishing of life. A festal day reminds us that in the beginning, far before pain broke into the perfect world, life itself was a feast to be eaten. Existence was a great song, our lives an answering dance, and in Christ, the broken music begins anew.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a dull-eyed ghost in my own modern life. I move about my days, working at this bill or that project in my quiet room. I bump about my hushed suburban house, drive my car along deserted concrete streets to shop in big, impersonal stores, and I’m lucky if anyone even waves. I work mostly on my little black box of a computer. When I get really lonely, I check my email, hoping for an offer of comradeship from my machine. Or I sit anonymously in coffee shops, wanting company, but wary of breaching the divide of polite silence that dictates correct, autonomous behavior. Add some grief, a dose of guilt, and I find I forget to fight for rejoicing, or even to remember that all good things have their birth in God.

Satan, I think, strikes a few of his best blows when he can persuade us that God is boring. That life with our Savior is a dull and dutiful upward climb toward a summit of righteousness always a little out of reach. We are close to defeat when we start to believe that God cares nothing for joy, that holy people are wage slaves to long days of righteousness. Work, pray, endure, and pay your bills, check off that list of upright deeds. And the image of God in our weary minds becomes that of a long-faced master whose only concern is our efficient goodness. We forget that we are called to a King who laughs and creates, sings and saves. That our end is a kingdom crammed with our heart’s desires. We forget that our God is the Lord of the dance and the one whose new world begins with a feast.

At Jack Quinn’s, I finally remembered this fact. Celebration cleansed my mind and renewed my hope. And I wonder, today, if celebration is a craft I need to learn, a practice of faith affirming the joy of my saving God. Perhaps my moments of chosen joy incarnate the beauty to which I believe I am being redeemed. On high days and holy days, yes, but also during the common days. A candle lit, a meal prepared, music played, and laughter exchanged; perhaps amidst the fear, the grief and need of fallen life, those moments cup a draught of new-world joy. God came that we might have life, and life to the full. St. Patrick gave his life to the proclamation of that very fact. I think I’ll join him by celebrating his day, and the God whose cosmic feast is about to begin. All joy is mine. Blessed be the day indeed.

Sarah Clarkson blogs at Thoroughly Alive and Humane Pursuits.

Have you ever looked at a sunrise this way?

A playful sky.

Sarah Clarkson

I woke quite early this morning. I resented the universe for startling me from slumber even before I opened my sleepy eyes. But when I did, I found a whole dawn sky of softest rose staring back and I felt that it was the face of a young child eager to play. The sunrise today wasn’t the fell, hard crimson of the dawns in “sailor’s warnings.” What I felt wasn’t awe, but laughter. For that light was gentle, an exuberance of playful color, a child’s breath lifting the thin morning clouds, blowing the streaks of mist into the light like dandelions in the wind.

I wondered abruptly if among the many other things he is, God is a glad-hearted child, a holy little one at play in creation, smearing vivid swathes of color over his page of sky, merry and sweet in his making, holding up his handiwork for us to see.

And I wonder if we, in our frailty, are careless, faulty keepers of this Child who tugs so ceaselessly on our hands, begging us to look on his creation. We barely glance, for we have more important things to do. We sleep or work through the beguiling moments of first light, our eyes fixed already on the lists within our brain before our eyes have even opened. We wake impatient for God to get on with the real stuff, willing only to look at him for spiritual business, for action, and need.

And he, with saddened eyes lets the soft, pink light fade. The hard day kick swiftly into gear along with his faithfulness and he sighs, hungry for the morning when we will all have aged enough to be a child like him once more.

But he, eternally innocent soul, is indomitable. His laughter rises with each new morning and he peers into the windows of our homes and hearts once more, begging us to play, to laugh, to see.

At least today, I did.

Originally published in Humane Pursuits:

http://humanepursuits.com/have-you-ever-looked-at-a-sunrise-this-way/

Working Through Lent with Dante

Rod Dreher is reading through Dante's Purgatorio for Lent. He writes:

I wish a blessed Ash Wednesday to my Western Christian readers. Welcome to Lent. We will be spending the next 33 days working our way through the Purgatorio, the second book in Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. We will take one canto per day. Unless otherwise specified, I will be using Mark Musa’s translation (though the photo above is of my copy of the Hollander translation). I encourage you readers to comment, but I discourage those who are not reading along from engaging in the discussion — this, simply because I don’t want the discussion to go off-track. (By the way, in these first days, I will be repeating some detailed commentary I made on an earlier post.)

I warn you in advance that my commentary will not be particularly well organized, but rather digressive. Think of this as us sitting around a table in a coffeeshop, just talking.

If you want to join Rod in this exploration, click below for more information:

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/dantes-purgatorio-the-climb-begins/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=dantes-purgatorio-the-climb-begins