Sunday, April 24, 2011

Your Walls Are Ever Before Me: An Easter Reflection

In my last post, most excellent theophilae, I recalled the destruction of Jerusalem, lamented by the prophet Jeremiah. That was a sad day for the people of God - one of far too many, in my opinion. We might just as easily recall the theft of the tabernacle by the Philistines, the civil war led by the son of King David, the enslavement in Egypt, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The story of God's people is brimming with stories of very sad days. Each of them demands its own search for meaning, but on reflection we find that they each have in common not God betraying the people, but the people betraying God.

They also each have in common an eventual - sometimes imperceptibly gradual, sometimes almost overnight, but always, in retrospect, inevitable - redemption of the moment. Oh, the pain is not forgotten; it's part of the legacy of God's people now, part of the long story being told. But the pain is transformed into joy, the mourning turned into dancing. The tabernacle was returned to God's people, but not before the Philistines learned that God alone is sovereign over all the earth. David's kingdom was restored, and a much humbler king completed his reign and turned over the throne to his much wiser son. The Egyptians were eventually pressed to release God's people, who then marched gradually into a land promised to them long ago. And, read to the end, the Bible tells us that the Garden we left will become a city, where we will live and reign with the one God forever and ever.

And so it is with the destruction of Jerusalem, and so it is with the execution of the Christ.

First, the latter. An impotent governor, trying to maintain control of a tyrannized people by controlling who lives and who dies, is brought a man of peace who nevertheless has offended the religious sensibilities of the people of God - by confronting their excesses and departures from their sacred texts, by describing God (and himself) in uncomfortably powerful, uncomfortably loving ways. This is not behavior becoming of an itinerant (read: homeless) teacher (read: upstart). Nor is it becoming, in the eyes of the tyrants, of a man of the tyrannized people. The impotent governor, at the request of the people of God, delivers the uncomfortably powerful man of the people to his death, where he reportedly says, "Forgive them, for they do not know what they do."

"Who can forgive sins but God alone?" some might have wondered when they heard him.

Three days later the uncomfortably powerful man cannot be found in his grave. Rather he is showing up among those who love him, declaring the defeat of death. The old things are passing away, everything is being made new. Three days after the execution of God comes a very good day.

Now to the former - the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah's lamentation ends similarly to how it begins, with devastation and despair. From chapter one:

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
And from chapter five:

You, LORD, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.
Jeremiah is right to ask, but his memory is wrong. The long story of the Bible is not a story of God forgetting or forsaking; it's a story of God remembering and restoring. If God can bring good from the execution of God, if God can still care for the people of God even after such a bitter betrayal, even after such a revolting, tyrannical act, if God can make all things new in the wake of such a cosmic cataclysm - then can any hardship really be considered the end of the story?

The prophet Isaiah gives voice to God, answering Jeremiah's lament directly:

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
This is our God, who brought each of us out of Egypt. This is our God, who is rebuilding paradise for our eventual return. This is our God, who forgave us from the seat of his own execution. It is this God toward whom we direct our laments, and it is this God who we trust to make good of them.

Friday, April 22, 2011

This Is Why I Weep

Churches come and go, I guess. Along my commute to work there used to be what looked like a stuffy old conventional fundamentalist church. It had, apparently, bought land at just the right moment, and the town grew up around it. That stuffy old conventional fundamentalist church has since been replaced by a hip new marketing-savvy church looking to make a a big splash in our community. They hang banners in four colors, displaying a test-marketed church name and a web address. The building is no longer stuffy and old; it's suddenly retro and chic.

I miss the stuffy old conventional fundamentalist church, not because I'm a stuffy old conventional fundamentalist but because, during Lent, they always caught my attention and framed my thinking during my commute in a way that a four-color banner displaying a web address and a test-marketed church name simply can't. There, planted in the vast expanse between the road and the church building, were three crosses and a stark, black and white banner: "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?"

That phrase may evoke for some memories of driving through the rural south, where local zealots had erected makeshift billboards confronting sinners and promising God's judgment. The intent of the display was obviously to evoke for many the cost of Jesus' crucifixion, to recreate the drama of the moment. But for me it evokes something different: the destruction of the city of God.

I'm reminded of the destruction of God's city because, the three crosses notwithstanding, that's what the quotation represents. It's pulled from the first chapter of the book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah. There he mourns the destruction of Jerusalem, the City of David, the city on a hill:

Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies. . . .

The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to her appointed festivals.
All her gateways are desolate,
her priests groan,
her young women grieve,
and she is in bitter anguish.

Her foes have become her masters;
her enemies are at ease.
The LORD has brought her grief
because of her many sins.
Her children have gone into exile,
captive before the foe. . . .

In the days of her affliction and wandering
Jerusalem remembers all the treasures
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into enemy hands,
there was no one to help her.
Her enemies looked at her
and laughed at her destruction.
The kingdom of God, in the minds of the people of God, had dropped anchor in Jerusalem. Zion had become the center of the Promised Land, the resting place at the far end of a liberated people's exodus. King David had consecrated the city; King Solomon had built God's temple there. God, in the minds of God's people, had settled down in Jerusalem--until the people's enemies had moved in and leveled the place.

Why? Why would God allow such a thing to happen to his people--to himself? Jeremiah's prophecy continues:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly
and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans
and turns away. . . .

All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they barter their treasures for food
to keep themselves alive.
“Look, LORD, and consider,
for I am despised.”
Jeremiah doesn't deny the culpability of God's people. They are not guiltless; there's blood on their hands and the callousness that attends to any imperial ambitions. But just deserts aside, there's no delight to be taken in such suffering. Only the wicked could look on in glee; only the heartless could walk by without a thought.

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
that was inflicted on me,
that the LORD brought on me
in the day of his fierce anger? . . .

“My sins have been bound into a yoke;
by his hands they were woven together.
They have been hung on my neck,
and the Lord has sapped my strength.
He has given me into the hands
of those I cannot withstand. . . .

“This is why I weep
and my eyes overflow with tears.
No one is near to comfort me,
no one to restore my spirit.
My children are destitute
because the enemy has prevailed.”
It's been said that in stepping into the River Jordan and then going to the desert and then challenging the Temple system, Jesus was retelling the story of Israel the people of God, reminding his people (and all who would come after them) that the grand narrative of history is a matter of people breaking faith with God and God going to great lengths to redeem the relationship. Jesus was baptised, and set on the course that he took from there, "to fulfill all righteousness." Our history with God is complicated; it is we who complicate it, and it is God who resolves it.

As such, the destruction of Jerusalem seems an apt analogy for the execution of Jesus. The death of God at the hands of God's creation is a moment that only the heartless can ignore, only the wicked can delight in, and only God can redeem. However casually we pass by, it is not nothing that this Good Friday signifies to us; as a matter of fact, it is everything.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Love During Wartime

I'm nearly finished with Higher Than Hope, an official biography of Nelson Mandela published toward the end of his imprisonment at the hands of the South African government. Most of the biography has been political history, detailing the Mandelas' struggle and the broader fight to overturn apartheid,but now that I'm approaching the end the book has shifted to annotated excerpts of correspondence, with an understandably nostalgic and sentimental bent to it. "The world is truly round," Nelson writes to his wife Winnie on July 1, 1979, "and seems to start and end with those we love."

I know little of Winnie Mandela, beyond the international news reports from the late 1980s that had her participating in acts of horrendous violence. She seemed to tarnish Nelson's legacy, in my mind and I daresay in the minds of many others. And yet, having read this book, I find myself cutting winnie some slack.

Winnie has suffered from a bit of a Yoko Ono syndrome, at least in my head. Even the story of how she and Nelson met, and his subsequent and matter-of-fact divorce of his first wife to make way for Winnie, remind me of Yoko's abrupt disruption of John Lennon's homelife and musical career, and so I find it hard to be sympathetic toward her.

Over time I've acknowledged to myself, however, that Yoko the human being and artist is not Yoko the Destroyer of the Beatles that we've made her out to be. I've developed some sympathy for Yoko over time, actually; sometimes I even entertain the notion of buying and listening to some of her solo work.

If I can muster up some good feeling for Yoko, who's a weirdo musician who had breakfast in bed on behalf of world peace, I trust that before it's all over I'll be able to do the same for Winnie, who suffered for decades in her struggle for human dignity.

I got a little burst of such sympathy when I read the following note from Nelson to Winnie, intended to be complimentary and romantic but surely not received as such. "You look wonderful to me," Nelson wrote at the end of a letter about Winnie's health, "even when you appear like one whose lungs have been eaten away by a pack of impundulu."

If he had tried that line on her the first time they met, the world would be a much different place.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dangerbooks! Higher Than Hope

I'm reading the authorized biography of Nelson Mandela, written while Mandela was still imprisoned in South Africa: Higher Than Hope by Fatima Meer. At this point I'm reading transcripts from Mandela's statement during the trial that would send him to prison for decades.

Mandela was being accused of being a communist, of fomenting violence, of all sorts of crimes. He wasn't a communist, but he admitted his involvement in acts of sabotage against the Afrikaner government. I suspect that his statement, made in 1963, informed later discussions in the United States about the extent to which acts of violence might be appropriate to the civil rights movement. Mandela was a lawyer and political philosopher, and his thought processes are on display as he argues his rationale for supporting sabotage. But also on display is his larger commitment to democracy, to racial reconciliation, to social justice. Check this out:

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realized. But . . . if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Thirty years later, he was released from prison. Forty years later, he had seen his ideal realized. A postracial South Africa had emerged under his leadership with shocking humaneness. This guy is one of the greats.

This isn't the greatest biography I've ever read. Still in prison while it was being written, Mandela couldn't speak freely, and it verges occasionally on hagiography rather than objective reporting of history. But really, how could you not venture into saint-making when you're writing about a living martyr, a prophet of the age? I'm doing it right now, aren't I?

Monday, April 04, 2011

My Counterfactual Romance

My wife and I celebrated twenty years as a couple this past weekend, so we thought we'd revisit our old haunts. It was fun to see the places that had been so significant to our early relationship, to stay at the hotel that twenty years ago I had considered a benchmark for future success. Funny how the young adult mind works.

Sometimes I wonder if we would have met if our circumstances had been different; if Kara had gone to college in Des Moines, where I grew up and which she considered. Or if our mutual friend Chris hadn't made a point of connecting us to one another. Such alternate realities are nothing more than thought experiments, but they're also the stuff of such an unlikely couple as science fiction and romance--films like The Adjustment Bureau or Sliding Doors, where the ending is always happy because, despite the whims of circumstance, the destiny of one person is always revealed to be mingled with that of another. I got to thinking that if Kara and I had both been born twenty years later, we probably would still have wound up together, but the story would be completely different.

So, in the spirit of love, and science fiction, and blog maintenance, I hereby present my counterfactual romance.


Kara was getting excited as the start of her first year of college quickly approached. She had applied all over and finally settled on Illinois Wesleyan University; they had a killer library and a good sociology program, not to mention a variety of choirs she could sing in. She went to church that morning and bumped into her friend Chris, who after two years at her chosen school had decided to complete his degree online so he could work full time at the church. "Any tips for me?" she asked him.

Chris pulled out his smart phone and opened the Facebook app. "You'll want to connect with these five people," he told her, calling each up in turn and suggesting Kara as a friend to each of them. Then he called up the Bump app and passed along their contact information to Kara so she'd be able to contact them directly. Kara was excited; it'd be good to begin college with some friends in place. She sent them each an e-mail introducing herself and looked forward to the year to come.


Dave noticed that Chris had made friend suggestion to his Facebook account and called up Kara's profile to check her out. She was cute. Liked "music, people." Seemed to like the Beatles an awful lot. He made a mental note to connect with her once they were both on campus again.


The school year began at its usual brisk and hectic pace. Kara got an Eventbrite e-mail inviting her to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and quickly got involved with that group. Not really a joiner, Dave had never gotten into InterVarsity, favoring more activist-oriented social clubs like Amnesty International (which he quit shortly after learning he'd have to write a lot of e-mails) and Habitat for Humanity. He and his friends, however, had formed their own little Bible study and prayer group, and eventually they got their meetings on the calendar at the IWU website and sent an invitation to Kara. They met for the first time on the stairs leading to the small chapel above the information desk; that would become a regular meeting place for the whole group, and Dave and Kara in particular.


Dave and Kara's friendship grew over time, and they had many late night IM sessions in which they'd chat for hours about all kinds of stuff. But Dave had this weird thing about not dating friends, which never really made sense, come to think of it. Then Spring Break came. Dave went to New Orleans with Habitat. He came to look forward to the daily, lengthy e-mail from Kara while he was away, and as he walked along Bourbon Street in the evenings he found himself thinking about her over and over again. She was his friend, but he thought he'd like her to be something more.

He texted Chris and told him what he was thinking. Chris texted back that he had wondered all those months ago, when he was connecting Kara to his IWU friends, whether Dave and Kara would ever get together. Chris was one of those Holy Spirit guys, so when he said stuff like that, you kind of payed attention. So Dave started to work up the courage to ask Kara out.


It took a while. But eventually Dave got it together and called Kara's room. Her roommate, Reena, answered and told Dave that she was out, would be back later. Dave tried to hide the disappointment in his voice; asking girls out had always made Dave exceedingly nervous, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to go through with it later. But he asked Reena to have Kara call his cell when she had a chance.

Reena texted Kara, but Kara thought it was an April Fools joke. So she waited till she was back in the room before calling Dave. He picked up on first ring; it took a bit of hemming and hawwing, but eventually he managed to invite her to a movie after his concert that Friday night. She said yes. He hung up and added it to his iCalendar. And then he changed his Facebook status to "In a relationship." And the rest is history.


OK, so new technology doesn't change the story as much as I thought. But this is sort of how I imagine kids today getting together--the same amount of social clumsiness and testing emotional connections, spread out over a number of alternate technologies. Back in the day I had one phone number and a wall phone with a cord. Today I could reach out and touch Kara any time, any place. I'd still do so awkwardly and anxiously, though, and we'd still have to do the hard work of connecting. It'd still be worth it too, for the record.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Every Little Soul Must Shine

Last month at my other blog (which I share with three people) was "March Music Madness": we took turns blogging about songs and artists who get in our heads and linger. Turns out I really like to write about such things; I wrote eight of the ten entries. It wound up being mostly a nostalgia trip for me; I mined the backlist for songs and albums, and reflected on the first time I heard the song or artist. I have a lot of sense memories attached to music, I guess.

Today's yet another nostalgia trip for me, as my wife and I travel back to the college town where we first met and I first asked her out (twenty years ago today). When I first asked Kara out I was really into Sinead O'Connor and They Might Be Giants and Shawn Colvin and Sam Phillips. I was also still a jazz musician then and playing a fair bit of (at the time) contemporary and classic jazz with my combo, Active Ingredient. Kara and I bonded over the Indigo Girls and Kim Hill, and she got me into the Beatles, but we parted musically over artists like Trip Shakespeare (mine) and Bon Jovi (hers). We made mix tapes for each other and all the other sappy lovey-dovey stuff that college students do. It was fun.

We're driving back to our old school today to see how much has changed since the day I called Kara and left a message with her roommate, since Kara worried that her roommate was pulling an April Fools Day joke on her by telling her I'd called, since I finally pushed through my insecurities to ask Kara on a date. It's easier to track the passage of time by looking at places than by looking at ourselves, I think: for all my age spots and weight gain and wrinkles and other markers of the aging process, I still think of myself the way I thought of myself back then--young, alive, full of promise, scared out of my mind about all that lay before me. Twenty years later I still think like a twenty-year-old sometimes, but I think if back then I could look forward twenty years--if I had as much foresight then as I have hindsight now--I would have been able to relax a bit. Life's been good, and I've had a good time with it. I'm reminded of a song that often comes to mind for me on the first of any month: I know "Mr. Rabbit" as a song by Paul Westerburg (of the Replacements), although apparently Burl Ives (the snowman in the claymation "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer") recorded it first. Like Mr. Rabbit, my coat today is might gray, but I can bless God in spite of it, even because of it.

mr rabbit, mr rabbit
your coat is mighty grey
yes, bless god it's made that way
every little soul must shine