Friday, November 16, 2012

Wild things

So often, what I think I need is to be safe, secure, sure of things. Would a greater reassurance come, though, in simply observing and enjoying the infinite what-is, heedless of explication? In looking, marveling, and somehow accepting, instead of analyzing, what I cannot protect or keep?

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said, “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them.”

I like to think that to live heedless of explication—and without anxiety—would be to live something like Dash, my tuxedo cat, who is currently recovering from a feline issue that, if it occurs again (and it very well could), will likely require putting him down. But he's not mentally practicing this heartbreaking possibility like I am. Instead, he's watching a squirrel in the yard, and when I walk home from the bus stop later I will spy him on the sill again, attending closely to the still life through the window. He probably knows squirrels, and the whole yard, much better than me.

I want to know this kind of focus, this way of living as though a sense of security or certitude is really beside the point. Something like what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things, who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

It comes with no guarantees, of course. To live heedless of explication is also to live like Smoky, who was my dad‘s dog when he was young. Sometimes Smoky tagged along on his evening paper route, and once in a while he‘d wander off, out of sight. But soon enough the dog would grow tired of his solo adventure and, spotting his owner and friend again, would race, devoted, back to his side.

One day Smoky trailed off for too long, and my father had to cross a busy street without him in order to finish his deliveries. He waited and waited for the dog to reappear, but then finally crossed Fourth Avenue. After all, Smoky always returned home eventually.

Only that‘s when Smoky spotted him and barked, and my father turned to see his friend leap, unhesitating and loyal, into the middle of heavy traffic. 

Some say we're never given more than we can handle, more than we can bear. But I anticipate more. It will come. Life, or god, “stuns you by degrees,” Dickinson says, “prepares your brittle nature for the ethereal blow.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

This lane was made for you and me

Approaching campus on my trusty Schwinn this morning, I started coughing from the exhaust in the air. At times it's pretty difficult to breathe in stopped traffic, or even just walking on the sidewalk, with all of the fumes coming out of cars' behinds. Add to this the regularly nerve-jangling dance with the dangerous negligence and outright rage of so many drivers, and it's enough to spoil my outlook on the day and to drain any last inklings of sympathy for what folks are paying at the pump.

St. Louis's Cranksgiving 2011, one of the largest bike-propelled food drives in the nation
A couple friends recently returned from Amsterdam, where people have had the foresight to build places around walking and biking and transit, with infrastructure that actively and unapologetically discourages driving. Why do we stubbornly continue to make everything bow to cars in this country? Do we really love them so much? They don't deserve it.

There are big and small signs of change, I know, ranging from a planned high-speed train in California (the nation's first) to a minor but helpful increase in bike parking in the St. Louis neighborhood where I live (now I can lock my bike at the local grocer). My employer, Washington University, provides an all-paid regional transit pass to full-time students and employees and also charges a significant fee for parking on campus. So there are a combination of incentives in place there to encourage alternative transit--yet the sprawling parking lots remain packed throughout the school year. What will it take for our society to make a real honest-to-goodness crack at our dependence on cars and oil?

Organizations like Trailnet are on the right track. Advocating for long-range plans and policies that are cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly, Trailnet notes that these two commuter groups comprise 12 percent of all trips and 14 percent of fatalities but only receive a combined 1.6 percent of federal transportation funding. That needs to change in drastic ways, and Trailnet and other such organizations are on it. There need to be far more of us on it, though, too. Me simply feeling angry or frustrated about the situation does nothing.

Tonight I attended a short Shift Your Commute training event at Trailnet's downtown St. Louis offices, and it was just really encouraging to be there. I'm not a very serious cyclist--my bike is a cheap single-speeder, my clothes are regular non-spandex-y ones, I still get pretty afraid riding in moderate traffic, and I still hop on a bus or train more often than I do my two-wheeler. I was worried the fellow attendees and the Trailnet people would all be super savvy about this whole thing. But it wasn't that way at all. I came away excited to keep at it and reminded of so many reasons already to be glad about going car-less, despite the gaping need for more societal support and infrastructure.

The thing that really stuck with me was something one Trailnet employee suggested for dealing with drivers that endanger one's safety, fail to leave enough room when passing, or simply don't understand the rules of the road and don't respect cyclists as fellow commuters. Rather than shooting such drivers the death glare that is more often than not my go-to defense, the Trailnet lady says she will sometimes pull up beside the oblivious/reckless person's vehicle at the next stoplight, motion for them to roll down their window, and politely explain how their driving just put her at risk. "When you passed me back there, you nearly sideswiped me. Please allow several feet next time. I share the road with you."

It may seem a small thing, but I'm going to give it a try. Kindness and education work wonders, right? It can't hurt to apply them on the street.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Bad ones

A “‘still small voice’ is calling,” wrote the young Emily Dickinson, and “people are listening, and believing, and truly obeying … the place is very solemn, and sacred, and the bad ones slink away, and are sorrowful—not at their wicked lives—but at this strange time, great change. I am one of the lingering bad ones, and so do I slink away, and pause, and ponder, and ponder, and pause, and do work without knowing why—not surely for this brief world, and more sure it is not for Heaven.”

Dickinson penned this in the context of the Second Great Awakening, but her sentiment is suited for today, too. Unwavering confidence in rigid ideologies pushes forward with popular conviction and very little patience for regular, honest reflection or rethinking. And if you don't get it, if you just don't see it that way, and you're not on board, you can't believe, can't claim the same all-encompassing hopes, can't write the others off so easily, or you just don't *know* the way they do, you feel a little off and pretty out of it and somehow guilty and stubborn and like you're the jerk ruining it for everyone else. Meh.

Bad ones, unite! There are worse things than pondering and pausing, mourning and doubting, reevaluating.  (Things like certitude, war, snakes, city driving, and Facebook, for instance.)

Okay, back to work.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

A quick look back at all that

At the time, if I could have known I‘d deny my evangelical faith within a year, I would never have agreed to lead the group of 100 college kids at church camp four years ago. And I would not have chosen to explore the topic of Christian apologetics, because once I delved deeply into it, I was unable to emerge safely.

I didn't agree lightly, and not right away. I consulted with a trusted confidante, who knew something of my spiritual waverings, about planning the conference talks and activities. But it seemed an honor, and I knew I was capable. I was pleased that they'd asked a woman, since only men could be pastors and elders (or even deacons, in many cases) in the Reformed Presbyterian denomination. In the end I said yes.

The program, which I titled "A Reasonable Hope," was aimed at "tackling some of the common doubts and objections that confront our peers and perhaps our own souls with regard to the gospel." Those doubts and objections kept confronting me. They never left. The more I studied in preparation for the conference, the more unsettling the questions became. What once belonged under the more gentle label paradox degenerated in my mind to simply contradiction. And the more I pored over scripture, the more some of its contents troubled me. These observations called into question the idea that the text was inspired, supernaturally imbued with the absolute authority of God. But I had to talk in front of these young people, my juniors by just a few years, and I had a responsibility to convey some shred of confidence.

Most of the speaking I delegated to co-leaders—pastors, in fact. But I did present an introduction to the topic, a 30-minute talk titled "That's a Good Question." Nervous, I planned it out word for word. It concluded with a poem by Emily Dickinson:

How brittle are the Piers 
On which our faith doth tread—
No Bridge below doth totter so— 
Yet none hath such a Crowd.
It is as old as God— 
Indeed—twas built by him 
He sent his Son to test the Plank 
And he pronounced it firm.

Elsewhere, Dickinson writes that if she were to suppose "falsehood" of God, that thought would "undermine the Sill/ To which my Faith pinned Block to Block/ Her Cedar Citadel." I didn't quote that poem during my speech. 

A couple weeks after the conference in 2008 I received a phone call from one of the pastors whom I'd enlisted as a fellow speaker. He said overall the program had gone well, but there was one main thing that he thought needed to change at the next conference. I waited on the other end of the line, ready for him to challenge my positive remarks about postmodernism or to say I seemed a little theologically fragile to be in charge of such a group. But no, he affirmed my organizational and speaking skills. He said I had good things to say. It wasn‘t that. Rather, the very fact of my role as the program coordinator "did not encourage male leadership."

I didn't say anything in response. He continued.

"All the speakers in the adult program were male, and so were the high-school and junior-high speakers," he said. "There's a pattern there, and having the buck stop with you as the primary coordinator of the college program … it just didn't encourage male leadership. I‘m planning to make this known to the conference board, and I didn't want you to hear it secondhand."

I was angry, but I wasn't all that surprised. And his wishes have apparently been granted, so good for him (yes, sarcasm): the 2012 conference website makes sure to list any lady-parts-bearing leads, in any adolescent-or-older age category, only in conjunction with a husband.

In high school I spent two weeks studying theology at the denomination‘s seminary with eight of my peers. There were many sobering lectures and activities, but then there was this--the leader's address, the final one, and it is the one that stuck: "Guys, the main point I want to drive home tonight is that the church needs you. We need you to seriously think about going into the ministry. There are congregations with empty pulpits, without pastors. We need you to strongly consider that calling."

The retreat leader abruptly paused, as though the make-up of his small audience--four teenage males, five teenage females--had suddenly dawned on him. He continued more tentatively: "And ladies, we need you too. We need good pastor's wives."

I see the church of my youth exhibiting not less but more rigidity and certitude and nearsightedness in a world sorely in need of other things, and while that makes me sad and even angry at times, I also feel a great deal of relief. Leaving it three years ago was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but now I'm so glad for the break. I'm not afraid of being honest anymore, and I'm encouraged to contribute to the world whatever I can rather than admonished for those attempts.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and accomplished poet Lloyd Schwartz spoke at the library tonight, about his editing of volumes by and about Elizabeth Bishop. It was interesting to hear the perspective of someone whose decisions impact the legacy of someone like Bishop, choosing which items and versions to anthologize, including unpublished work.

But Schwartz was also her friend, and he seems exactly the sort of person one would want making those determinations. His appreciation of Bishop's work was infectious today, and he read several of his favorite poems of hers. One of them was "Breakfast Song"--an unpublished piece that he copied by hand when he came across it in one of her notebooks:

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.

Schwartz told us he'd kept it to himself for years, expecting that like many other manuscripts the notebook would eventually turn up in this or that collection. But it never has. The most original version that exists is Schwartz's hand-copied one.

I asked him afterward how he'd come across the notebook; he said he was visiting Bishop in the hospital (he'd met with her many times before), and it was there. At some point in the visit, with little to occupy his time, he opened the notebook and felt compelled to copy down the lines.

Schwartz also shared a few of his poems, some of which were produced in the context of his time spent in Brazil studying Bishop. He read his English translation of a poem, "Friendly Song" I think he said, that appears on Brazil's equivalent of a one-dollar bill. The last lines were something like
I am trying to write a song that wakes men up and lets children sleep.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thoughts on "Love Wins"

Part of what's refreshing about Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins, is that it mostly refuses to answer the stubbornly human question, "What must I [do] [say] [believe] to be [saved] [whole] [safe] [right]?" In this way the book echoes the Jesus of the four gospels, who really had a remarkable way of not nailing down a doctrine of salvation in the course of his recorded teachings and interactions.

The opening chapter highlights that ambiguity by placing some of these conflicting passages alongside each other as well as several disturbing present-day exchanges--an adult telling a teen that there is "no hope" for her unbelieving friend that died; a churchgoer writing anonymously, on an artwork celebrating peacemakers like Gandhi, the words "Reality check: He's in hell"; and the modern assertion that what really counts is "a personal relationship" with Jesus.

Given all of this frank attention to problematic contradictions and Bell's brave solidarity with the less-than-convinced, what follows after is somewhat disappointing overall (though there are many good moments throughout). Bell seems to collapse the opening complexity and honesty into something too pat. The low point for this reader was Chapter 4, titled "Does God Get What God Wants?" Here, Bell goes to great lengths to assure the unorthodox that "not all Christians have believed [in an eternal hell], and you don't have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives" (page 110). Apparently this is supposed to be a relief, but I think it backfires. After all, isn't that like saying that within an organization that considers itself the epitome of love there is room for both horribly abusive authority figures and remarkably good ones? Not a perfect analogy, I know, but yikes, talk about a "big tent." Who knew love could manifest itself in two such violently opposed forms?

Maybe part of the issue with the book's trajectory is the nearly impossible task Bell has before him as it moves along. He's not going to make most of his fellow evangelicals very happy (exhibit A: John Piper, who casually consigned Bell to heresy with his influential three-word tweet, "Farewell, Rob Bell" before the book was even out). But Bell also won't loosen his grip on his assurance (certainty?) about the centrality/reality of the Jesus he describes, and that doesn't sit well with the agnostically-minded. He seems remarkably sure of this personal, good, monotheistic god and of all injustices being made right in a conscious age to come for someone who has just been pointing out the confusion and complexity of both the general and special revelation we have to work with.

Still, the book's high notes are a help. Especially moving was Bell's reading of the request Jesus makes from the cross in Luke's account: "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." There is no belief or trust or recognition on the part of this crowd, Bell observes. But they are forgiven nonetheless. For those of us still sometimes afraid of ourselves and our fellows being eternally screwed for not being able to know/believe the right stuff, this is a helpful idea. It frees us from trying so hard to figure everything out, leaving us energy to live with focus and integrity and heart.

"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." -Emily Dickinson