Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Gazing upward at night (with Chesterton)" - a poem

(photo: Wikipedia)

Today, May 29, is the birthday of writer G.K. Chesterton, who was born in 1874 and died in 1936. In one of my posts from a while back, I  quoted from a passage in his spiritual memoir Orthodoxy in which he tells of his conversion to Christianity. He describes the experience like cogs in a machine clicking into place: everything he'd been questioning and pondering suddenly made sense, and all his "blind fancies of boyhood ... became suddenly transparent and sane."

My favourite sentence in his conversion account is this one: "The fancy that the cosmos was not vast and void, but small and cosy, had a fulfilled significance now, for anything that is a work of art must be small in the sight of the artist; to God the stars might be only small and dear, like diamonds." 

I love his description of the universe as "small and cosy," not cold and impersonal, and of God seeing the stars as "small and dear." In fact, I've looked at the night sky and, as I describe here, experienced that same sense of warmth and closeness.

Chesterton's words inspired me to write this poem. Today, being his birthday, seems the right time to share it.

Gazing upward at night (with Chesterton)

So I was thinking that if the stars
are (to You) small and dear, diamonds
skeined through the tissue of sky
by Your fond fingers,

and if, on any given night, You do not merely
stand back, admiring Your astral handiwork (finished
an infinite number of nights ago), but instead
begin afresh, newly sequinning the heavens –
naming, calling, loving each
and every star
for pure delight
alone –

well, then, I wondered
whether perhaps Your thoughts of me
are even more precious – that maybe
rather than surveying me from afar, You long to
catch my hand, swing me
into the celestial dance, laughter me
through the cosy vastness, while the stars
sing around us, joying in
Your delight in
(small, dear)


Monday, May 23, 2016

Sometimes a cliche is just what you need to hear

noun: cliché; plural noun: clichés; noun: cliche; plural noun: cliches
  1. a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

Most of the time I don't appreciate clichés. For a writer, they're the enemy: a good writer will try to say things in a fresh, vivid way, not just reach for an easy shortcut like "Suddenly the truth hit him like a ton of bricks" ... zzzzzzzzzzz.  

Clichés can also be clumsy attempts to gloss over a difficult situation or to offer phony comfort without real understanding: 

  • "Just fake it till you make it."  

  • "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." (My friend Tim Fall's version of this one is better: "What doesn't kill you can still hurt quite a bit.")

There are also quite a few clichés about special needs parenting, like 

  • "I don't think I could do what you do." (Meant as a compliment, but there's an unspoken "And I hope I never have to try!" in there.)
  •  "God never gives us more than we can handle." (Well, God may not, but sometimes life does. And anyway, I don't think God doles out people's circumstances according to what He thinks they can "handle.")
But sometimes, a cliché is just what you need to hear.

Two summers ago when we were in PEI, I attended a reunion for the New Christian Singers, a group I had been in when I was in my late teens. This reunion took place when my mom was in hospital and facing her cancer diagnosis, so although the event was happening at a very challenging time, it was an amazing opportunity to catch up with people I hadn't seen in years and share stories of God's faithfulness in our lives.

On that weekend our group performed three concerts. Because of what was going on with our family I could only sing in two of them; Richard and the kids came to hear us both times. At the Saturday evening concert, he and the kids sat in the front row, and a group of older people whom I didn't recognize sat behind them. 

As soon as the music started, Jonathan got excited. VERY excited. He called out "Mommy!" Throughout the concert he laughed and whooped and clapped and bounced up and down.

I was worried that the people behind them might be upset -- maybe Jonathan was spoiling the experience for them. But since I was up on stage for the entire hour, there wasn't much I could do about it.

The concert went really well. The church rang with our harmonies, and our hearts soared as we sang songs many of us hadn't sung in thirty years or more. Our group and the people who'd come to hear us all seemed to have a wonderful evening. 

Afterward, when I stepped down off the stage, one of the people who'd been sitting  behind Richard and the kids -- an older woman with a touch of a French accent -- came up to me.

"Was that your little boy in front of us?" she asked.

It did occur to me to say, "Oh, no, I've never met him before in my life" --  but I decided I should tell the truth and say yes.

She remarked on what a good time Jonathan seemed to be having and how well Richard had dealt with him. Then she told me she had had a handicapped son who had died many years ago -- and she said, "It's a special thing to have special children." 

I didn't know this lady at all. She was from way up in the west end of the Island and had come to the concert with someone she was visiting. Those words about having special children, coming from a stranger like she was, might have ended up sounding trite or simplistic. But to me, they were a blessing. She spoke from the heart and from a depth of personal experience that our brief conversation couldn't plumb. And Jonathan's enthusiasm hadn't bothered her or ruined the concert for her. In fact, she had enjoyed it, and she made a point of letting us know. Her words helped both me and Richard at a time when we were under a lot of stress. 

Proverbs 25:11 (in the Message) says, "The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry." Who knew: even a cliché can be the right word at the right time.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

May 2016 "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit," where we share short reviews of what we've been reading. 

About Grace by Anthony Doerr (fiction). Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize last year; About Grace is his only other novel, written ten years earlier. The main character, David Winkler, has been troubled since childhood by dreams which later come true in real life. When he dreams about his baby daughter, Grace, drowning in a flood, he runs away in a desperate attempt to prevent the dream from coming true. The novel chronicles his years-long estrangement from his family and his past, and his eventual journey back home to Alaska to see if Grace might still be alive. I was completely engrossed by Doerr's wonderful use of detail and his compassionate depiction of a flawed but sympathetic character. This book won't disappoint Doerr fans looking for more of his great writing. I'm also planning to check out his short story collections, The Shell Collector and Memory Wall.

 In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker (nonfiction).  When I read Steve Silberman's NeuroTribes a few months ago (see review in an earlier "Quick Lit" post), I had no idea that another book on the history of autism had also been published within the past year; a commenter on my prior post alerted me to In a Different Key's existence. This book covers a great deal of the same ground as Silberman's does. It details the varied contributions of autism researchers and addresses changing diagnostic and therapeutic approaches, the vaccination controversy debacle, and current autism advocacy by parents and autistic persons. 

However, this book comes at these issues from a somewhat different angle: whereas Silberman's overall approach is to celebrate autism's contribution to human diversity, Donvan and Zucker (both of whom have family members with autism) place more emphasis on how families and communities have experienced the mysteries and challenges of autism. Their analysis differs from Silberman's in some key areas, one being the extent to which Hans Asperger might have been influenced by Nazism. And some parts are tough reading, such as the chapter about a desperate parent who killed his autistic son. But the book as a whole is informative and empathetic and, like Silberman's book, is written in a way that creates suspense and humanizes all of the characters in this fascinating story. I would advise those who want a good sense of the ongoing conversation around autism to read both NeuroTribes and In a Different Key.

Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God With the Spiritual Disciplines by Preston Yancey (nonfiction). This book addresses the topic of spiritual disciplines from a fresh perspective, by linking them to the process of making bread. I enjoyed the seamless way Yancey moves from the "spiritual" to the "mundane" (showing, of course, that those aren't two separate categories). For example, he expounds for a few pages on the practice of examen, then says briskly, "We need to talk about your oven," and starts explaining how to prepare an oven and discern its hot spots. As we read, we realize he is still talking about self-examination, mindfulness, and discernment of our own personal hot spots. Kneading dough is discussed as analogous to intercessory prayer ... and so on. I particularly appreciated the part about iconography, which is an area completely foreign to my faith background; in fact, when the topic of icons came up in a Bible study discussion I was involved in recently, I was able to share material from this book and demystify the concept a bit.

While a more rigorous editing should have caught unfortunate errors like "the easy yolk of Jesus," the writing as a whole is warm and engaging. Yancey challenges us firmly yet gently, sometimes pulling us up short with a stark metaphor: "Fasting makes us uncomfortable enough to stop pretending Jesus is somewhere floating in heaven with a smile plastered on his face for all eternity. Jesus is here in the emergency room of our being. Jesus is with us." 

Questions and suggestions for deepening the practices appear at the end of each chapter. I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for an accessible yet challenging discussion of spiritual practice and sacramental living.

Epilogue by Will Boast (memoir).  Boast is a university student when his mother dies of cancer; soon afterward, his brother dies in a car accident and his father dies of alcoholism and grief. Seemingly alone in the world, Boast is  going through family papers when he discovers that his father was previously married and fathered two sons. As he makes plans to meet his "new" half-brothers he is forced to reexamine everything he thought he knew about his past. A very moving and gritty memoir. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

"Have a ... ROTTEN DAY"?????

A couple of weeks ago in a women's group at my church, we were reading the book of 1 John. We were talking about love -- a concept mentioned dozens of times in that book, and one that we all admitted we have trouble getting a handle on sometimes. 

One of the women shared the following experience: she was recently in the grocery store checkout line with a full cart of items. She saw that the woman behind her had only one or two things, so she kindly asked, "Would you like to go ahead of me?"

The other woman refused, but not in an "Oh, thank you, but I'm not in a hurry" way; she refused rudely. She then proceeded to make disparaging comments about the items our friend was buying -- criticizing the excessive salt content, and so on.

Our friend just shrugged and completed her purchase. Then, when leaving, she said to the other woman, "Have a nice day."

The woman replied, "Well, you have a rotten day, Miss Nosy."

It was such a bizarre response, all we could do was laugh and shake our heads. Everyone knows a simple act of kindness can be all it takes to make someone feel that this world is a good place to be. I've been on the receiving end of kind words or actions like that from a stranger, and even the smallest thing can make a difference in my outlook. Such acts and words benefit the giver, too. It seems like a win-win.

But for this woman in the grocery store, an act of kindness was an insult and an affront.

What makes people reject kindness and love? This is not a rhetorical question: I'd love to hear what you think. Please comment.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Keeping my fork

I celebrated my birthday a few weeks ago, and my mother-in-law gave me this card with a sparkly three-dimensional fork on it. I'm seriously tempted to pull the fork off the card and try eating with it -- very princessy!

I laughed out loud when I opened the card because I knew just why she'd chosen it. Whenever she comes over for a meal and we're clearing up after the main course in preparation for dessert, we always mention "keeping your fork" -- referring to that expression "Keep your fork; the best is yet to come."

Our pastor used this expression a while back, too, citing a man who apparently asked to have a fork placed in his casket with him when he died, to signify his conviction that he knew the best was to come after his death. (In the same sermon, Pastor Mark also mentioned those little pink Baskin-Robbins spoons: how they allow us a small taste of a particular flavour to see if we like it -- and if we do, then we order a much larger amount. As I recall, his sermon was about how the restoration of the temple in the book of Nehemiah foreshadowed a bigger and better restoration still to come.)

I found out you can also get "Keep the Fork" bracelets: click here to see.  That actually doesn't look like a fork to me at all, though it could be useful for spaghetti. But I can't imagine wearing it on my wrist!

Who knew that cutlery was such a fertile subject for spiritual metaphors?

If you believe in the afterlife, as a Christian, then "The best is yet to come" holds true. In the Bible passage that Mom's funeral sermon was based on, Jesus says, "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:3) As I listened to that sermon, I felt comforted knowing that Mom was now experiencing the very best: she was in the presence of Jesus, and her body was no longer ravaged by the cancer that took her from us so quickly.

But at the same time, "they're in a better place" arguments can sound hollow and trite, too -- especially when someone uses them in a clumsy effort to make us feel less sad at a time when sad is just what we should be feeling. When we've lost someone we love, it's not always easy to accept that the best place for that person to be is away from us. (And for the record: I hate cliches like "God needed her more" and "Heaven must have needed another angel.")

Another problem with focusing solely on what's yet to come is that we may fail to appreciate the beauty and significance of life here and now. If what comes after is all that matters, why not just trash our planet? All we can do is grit our teeth and endure this second-rate life until our "real" life starts. And I just don't see either of those as an option for a Christian. Yet I don't necessarily buy the "Life is short; eat dessert first" option either: seeking only short-term pleasure without taking the long view seems selfish and myopic.

I often find that something I'm currently reading speaks directly to the subject I'm pondering in my writing. I've been re-reading Jerry Sittser's beautiful book A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. In it he talks about how Jesus' resurrection defeated death so that death no longer has the last word: life -- eternal life -- does.

Of course that is in the future. But we live in the present, which is often full of sorrow and pain. Suffering engenders a certain degree of ambivalence in those of us who believe in the resurrection. We feel the pain of our present circumstances, which reminds us of what we have lost; yet we hope for future release and victory. We doubt, yet try to believe; we suffer, yet long for real healing; we inch hesitantly toward death, yet see death as the door to resurrection. This ambivalence of the soul reveals the dual nature of life. We are creatures made of dust; yet we know we were made for something more. A sense of eternity resides in our hearts. Living with this ambivalence is both difficult and vital. It stretches our souls, challenging us to acknowledge our mortality, and yet to continue to hope for final victory.

The word ambivalence -- which he uses three times in this short paragraph -- is what struck me most. Like all of the most profound truths, this one is a paradox. If we acknowledge this "dual nature of life," which suffering often forces us to do, then yes: we do look forward to what is to come, like a person anticipating the best part of a meal. But we also try to embrace and be grateful for what we've been given here and now -- both because of and in spite of the fact that it won't last forever.

My birthday cards are still up on the mantel; I'll have to put them away soon. But I think the fork image is going to stick with me. It's a good reminder of the in-between-ness of our days and the challenge of living in current reality and future hope at the same time.