July 21, 2012
The silence of God is deafening. A great, insufferable poison cocktail of blinding, putrid, stinging vapidness. The child is concussed, disoriented. His arms are outstretched, but they reach only coldness where warmth faithfully met them once. Walk in this direction, guided by faith, reason, and experience, and walk on into nothing. Walk on and reach nothing. Confused, he turns to another direction. Try any direction you like and walk your strength and nerve away, until only raw neurosis is left. What is this abandon?
The Word will set me back on a right path. It will help me keep my way pure, will be a lamp unto my feet. Surely. It will be a light for me in this darkness. Show me again the great vistas, the mountain ranges and rolling hills and unbelievable sunsets that came alive to me as I took in this Word. But what trickery is this? Even the great Sword is become dull to me. It does not cut through this thick skin, does not separate bone and marrow and lay my heart bare. The words all run together and melt on the page, pooling together in tasteless soup. Even my beloved passages, my broken cisterns, my heavy laden and weary heart, my great redemption, are so intolerably familiar, so utterly known and not to be rediscovered. Every word has been read, and nothing shines forth anew. “You may as well turn away because the longer you wait the more emphatic the silence becomes,” as Lewis so properly put it.
If ever I have been thirsty of soul it is now, but nowhere can I find that which satisfies. If the preaching is good, I grow frustrated at my unaffectedness, my hardness and blindness of heart. If it is bad, I grow frustrated at the dispensers of such thin spiritual gruel, such shallow platitudes pretending to be balm for the aching soul.
The silence is screaming now with lies, voices not His but the others, the pestilence which stalks us in the night.
Atheism doesn’t scare or attract me, really. Maybe it is different for others, but for me it would only be a thin veil excusing my indulgence in every imaginable craving my heart ever had. A great justification, no not that one, for sin and rebellion. No, the fear is not of atheism but of flat, lifeless Christianity. Never revived, never renewed, just tired and fat and comfortable, suspicious of “all this excitement” in others. God, kill me first. But rather, be true to yourself and meet me in my distress.
July 17, 2012
A close friend who has known me from childhood recently told me that it was impressive to him that I was already a father, that I was married and taking care of my family – day after day putting my family’s needs and wants before my own.
Well first of all I certainly find many opportunities to put myself first. But I know what he’s getting at. Yes – as a husband and a father I regularly, even daily, put my family first. But my first internal sense was that this was not necessarily a praiseworthy thing, because deciding to take responsibility forces you to take responsibility.
I came to embrace some profound beliefs about manhood and responsibility a few years ago, and I have allowed these convictions to guide my life decisions since. So I got married at 23 and became a father at 26. I made some BIG decisions early on that have fundamentally determined what the next few decades of my life are going to consist of. In making those decisions I embraced the responsibility of loving a wife and raising a child (or children, Lord willing).
But those decisions, in a way, have forced my hand. Short of being a completely delinquent father and husband, I have to be responsible day after day. I think that’s a good thing. At the very least, it’s a good thing for me. It has the effect of pulling me out of my insular selfishness in which I would otherwise happily wallow. I would never say that marriage and fatherhood are the only ways to get boys to grow up and take responsibility. Lots of guys do a fantastic job of shedding boyish behavior and embracing responsibilities without getting married or having children, but then again lots of other guys don’t. So even if it’s not the only way, it does usually help.
One last caveat: without a desire for and commitment to responsibility, marriage and fatherhood will not create a man but rather burden a wife and child with an irresponsible guy, so that’s not a good idea if anyone is considering it.
July 17, 2012
Concession of failure to blog regularly. List of explanations or excuses. Moderately noncommittal vow to blog more often, until life gets busy again.
You know the kind of post I’m talking about, we’ve all read them. Well anyways, for what it’s worth, I’ll try to post a few things here in the next while. My plan is to actually post some of my Mom’s writings that I’ve come across since she passed away, and then who knows I may add a word or two of my own.
May 22, 2012
20 Books Every Christian Should Read… (or How to Get Christians to Argue About Favorite Authors in the Comments Section).
March 29, 2012
I don’t know who all reads this but today you’ll need your sarcasm radar on. Once you sift out the unfortunate cynicism I think there may be something useful left.
If anyone knows of any exercise more disheartening than reading all the comments on a popular Christian blog, please don’t tell me because I’ll probably go and do that too.
Lord have mercy.
Maybe it’s just where I’m at these days but I find myself sighing in quiet discouragement more often than usual. Parochial narrow-mindedness reinforced by tribalism and smug self-righteousness (the really good Christians read these books) all justified by the pretense of being a defender of the Truth.
I know because I’ve been there and still visit from time to time on a tourist visa. It’s a land that looks lovely in the postcards but is in reality a cold, barren wasteland. Spiritual vitality cannot survive very long in that place, and never does, despite the rhetoric to the contrary.
Of course some books really are better than others, but I think objectivity in making that call is harder than it seems. What usually happens is someone reputable picks all the books that have spoken the most deeply to them and have corrected the imbalances of their childhood faith, which of course makes sense. These are the books that have opened their eyes to new truths, new treasures. But everyone has different imbalances in the faith they either grew up in or were saved into. And various books from various streams and eras within Christianity (or even outside of it?) may be the needed corrective in other cases.
But who has time for this kind of wishy-washy rubbish? Just give me the ten books I need to read… (in order for me to become the unique representation of Christ that I was designed to be in all of my individuality and with my specific personal history). I guess my point is that only God could give you that list. And not to cling too tightly to anyone’s recommendations, or get too upset when your favorite book or author doesn’t make pastor Joe’s or blogger Jim’s lists.
That being said, everyone should read these five books: …
March 27, 2012
Five years ago today, after New Testament Survey class, I asked a really pretty girl if she wanted to go on a walk with me, and she said yes. It was at least 9:30pm by then and we walked up to the park by the local highschool, and I asked her if she wanted to sit on a bench with me, and she said yes. Then I rambled on for a little bit while I nervously kicked some gravel pebbles with my toe and eventually asked her if she would like to date me, and she said yes. Then we were really happy and I asked her if she wanted to walk all the way to Crabby Joe’s restaurant where a large group of students were hanging out, and she said yes. Then when we got there I asked her if she wanted to share a strawberry milkshake with me, and she said yes. Then I asked her if she wanted me to pay, and she said yes. .. !! .. Just kidding I didn’t ask her that.
Here’s to five wonderful years with a wonderful girl by my side who has made all the difference in my life.
Here’s an old slideshow – it needs serious updating! I’ll see if we can’t whip something up. But in the meantime here’s a folksy song with some pictures of our dating life.
And here are two more recent pics, with a notable addition in one of them.
March 26, 2012
Life is full of moments. A million moments a day, strung together on the clothesline of time. Most of them are forgettable and so are quickly forgotten, but some moments, and we are not given the luxury of choosing which ones, lodge themselves instantly and forever in our minds.
One such moment in my life occurred in a conversation with my Mom a few weeks before she passed away. We were sitting together and talking, which is something we got to do a fair amount in the weeks and months before her death. Those conversations were both a blessing and a challenge. I was so thankful to have the opportunity to say everything that needed to be said, but it was also difficult to know what to talk about. Difficult to have a normal conversation about normal things amidst such abnormal circumstances. How empty and flimsy did my life’s little troubles seem as the gate of death loomed larger and larger in her path. How utterly mundane and inconsequential did the content of my usual conversations feel. Nevertheless she was always interested (or pretended to be, who knows) in whatever I had to say, and I know she really cared.
Anyways, as we sat and talked that day, I said to her how thankful I was that she had gotten to meet and spend nearly 9 months with her two grandchildren. She nodded joylessly and said “Yes, but I wish I could have seen them grow up.” Now when you’re talking to someone dealing with such terrible and heavy things, you always want to somehow make things a little bit better for them. Maybe that’s why when talking to the afflicted we avoid talking about the affliction, for fear that being reminded of their troubles will sink them even deeper. So when you say something that is meant to be encouraging, but turns out to be another sorrow – the sorrow upon the sorrow – well that is a very rotten feeling. In reality I doubt that our words have that much power over the suffering person. Their pain has deeper roots than most of our words can go. And in those situations it seems like words are always a gamble anyways. Good intentions have little bearing on the actual effect of our words, as my experience illustrates. The gift of presence – simply being there – is usually a better way to go.
Not knowing what to say, I just said “I wish that too.” She looked at me with a serious look – not a sombre look, but an expectant, hopeful look.
“You’re going to have to tell them what I was like.”
“I will – I promise.”
Of course. They need to know what kind of grandmother you would have been. My Mom was not a demanding person, she did not saddle me with all kinds of wishes and requests, neither in life nor in death. She was not a burdensome person at all, actually. You were almost always certain to leave her presence with your burdens lightened.
But this one thing she did ask of me, this one last promise, and somehow or other I will keep it. Of course I grieve that my son and niece’s lives will be the poorer for not having gotten to know and love Grandma, but hopefully a small measure of that blessing can be imparted vicariously through us as we teach them what Grandma was like, how she loved them with all her heart, and how she wished so much she could have been there with them through life’s ups and downs.
I could end here and leave it on this quasi-hopeful note, but truth be told, this is a rather sad thing. My son and niece will never meet their Grandma. Try as we might, their concept of her will be flat and lifeless, eclipsed by the brightness and vitality of so many other wonderful relationships. Death is death, and there is no way to escape its consequences, not in this life.
March 22, 2012
I’ve been a father now for 9 months. It was with great anticipation and excitement that I welcomed my son Jackson into my life. Years ago I decidedly rejected the popular notion that responsibility is a dish best served delayed. Rather I embraced the truth that marital and parental responsibilities bring out the best in a man, that they are primal forces that pull men out of the natural gravity of self-centeredness and usher them into the difficult but ultimately rewarding realities of selflessness and service. I have been living my life by those convictions for about seven years now.
What I am discovering about these convictions is that they are true but difficult. And since the difficulty was expected, then I guess my discovery is merely that they are true. Whereas at first I knew it to be true by conviction, now I am starting to know it by experience — to really know it. At first there was a testosterone-fueled excitement at embracing the challenge of it all. There was probably also a certain self-righteousness that felt good — I was not being one of those guys. But that is mighty thin gruel when the going gets grueling. The difficult aspects were very minor at first, and really the excitement at facing difficulties on the road of virtue was more than enough to overcome them. But now most of that has worn off, not surprisingly, and the reality of the matter is weighing more heavily on me. The clear coat sheen, the tinted romance, is wearing out quickly and I am left facing a truly daunting climb.
It’s okay though. This, and not the other, is actually what I signed up for. I don’t regret anything. And yet regret is not the same as a dawning realization of the magnitude and weight of a commitment. I am being sobered. Cold water on the face, wake up and smell the espresso kind of sobered. Loving sacrifice is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.
The first few months of parenthood in some ways feel like a practice session. I haven’t really felt like my heart, words, or attitudes could really affect or shape my son too significantly. But now his personality is really coming out. His stubbornness and strong will are on display every day. His heart is finding in his growing physical capacities the outlet for its desires and cravings, both good and bad. For the first time, it feels like we have a little heart on our hands that needs shepherding, not just a baby that needs feeding and clothing and changing. The complexity of his personhood is not only being revealed but also being fashioned in the process.
This has got me thinking about how a heart is shaped. What a marvelous, mysterious thing that needs pondering. Children can be taught to act in certain ways or to say certain things, but their hearts, their fundamental personhood, may remain unmoved. For example, you can teach a child manners, but that doesn’t make them a genuinely kind and caring person. And kindness is not intrinsic or hereditary, because we have all seen unkind adults raise children to be unkind, whether biological parents or not. Anyone can teach manners — a book or video can teach manners — but only a human heart can shape another human heart to be kind and caring or gentle and modest or courageous and bold. Virtues such as these are absorbed imperceptibly over time. What I want to aim at in raising Jackson is this deep shaping of the heart. But that is a scary thing.
A heart is shaped by another heart and, despite any additional exhortations on the matter, tends to mirror both the good and the bad in that heart. That means that Jackson’s heart will in large part reflect a mysterious cocktail of my heart and Kaitlyn’s. Anger, laziness, fear, selfishness; these are not our more subtle characteristics, but rather our crowning weaknesses which are displayed daily. We know Jackson will have faults, sins, and weaknesses like anyone else, but it is one thing for those to be chosen at random and quite another when they are directly inherited and modeled after your own image. What terrifying influence we have, what opportunity, what risk!
But there is no going back, and the practice session, if there ever was one, is certainly over. Onwards then, with God’s help, towards virtue. And for every countless failure, the gospel. And for every blessed victory, still the gospel.
March 18, 2012
February 2nd ~ A few days after hearing of my Mom’s worsening condition.
Call. Nods. Staring through the floor. Really? I understand. Sooner than we thought. My throat starts to tighten involuntarily, tears stubbornly held back. Deep breath.
Behind a frowning providence, a smile I know there is. Never do I doubt it, assured that I am his. But through this thick confusion, and through this steady rain, I sit in inner darkness repeating this refrain:
Source de vie, de paix, d’amour,
Vers toi je cri, la nuit le jour.
Entends ma plainte, soit mon soutien,
Calme ma crainte, toi mon seul bien.
Sometimes in a moment of bright resolve, I set myself to come before him and pour out my heart to him as I used to do upon my bed, on lonely walks, in quiet corners, in the car along the way. But in the fleeting moment between the resolve and the fulfillment of my vow, a swift grayness steals my breath, like a cold breeze that comes in from behind and just off to the side and ekes in through the crannies of your clothing and you hunch your shoulders sharply in defense, and I hang my head and turn back to whatever dullness I was numbing myself with at the time. And as the deflated and stolen breath leaves me, I whisper “Abba, Father,” remembering that The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
At other times, unexpectedly, a chink in my armor turns into a crack in my wall which turns into a fissure in my dam and great heaving sobs pour out onto the ground leaving me embarrassingly exposed and relieved. But they don’t last long enough to empty the reserve for full relief, so quick am I, not even consciously, because consciously I am fighting to keep the blessed tears coming, to fill the fissure and repair the crack and patch the chink. And then, as one tends to quickly ignore an unforeseen moment of public vulnerability, it is gone. A suspicious wrinkle in my facade flattened by nervous hands.
My mother is dying. The life in her, that mysterious ambiguous energy that makes her her, is slowly being snuffed out. Where does this life abide in us? A heart can stop beating for a few minutes, but apparently life was still there because a good jolt can bring the heart back to work and the life is there just waiting to lighten up the eyes and animate the limbs again. I guess it’s in the brain somewhere, if it’s anywhere. But somehow that seems too crude. It’s not just sitting in the brain, some liquid or molecule or enzyme. No, life is still a mystery. Death on the other hand is not as much a mystery as an ugly certainty, a thief and a cheat.
It’s not easy watching the life slip out of a person. You can see it, in the skin, in the eyes, in the posture. And in the voice, whether silent, or slowed, or whispered; the voice is never the same. It’s been happening for months now, and at first I wasn’t sure if that’s what I was seeing, but now looking back I realize that of course it was. The life was just beginning to leak out. Now it’s almost gone, and her body is left like a dry husk, where the true substance, the life, is elsewhere. That elsewhere is a blessed consolation, though one that in my present state hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind. The elsewhere is the presence of the One I haven’t heard from or seen in quite some time. But that’s alright, there’s no bad blood between us. That elsewhere is a grand consolation, a very great balm for the sharp ache I anticipate in my chest, one that will no doubt grow duller and duller with time, until only a pleasant glow of cherished memories is left. At first though, it will take all the weight and glory of 1 Corinthians 15 to ease the burning loss, the scandalous absence, the haunting emptiness in the halls and at the breakfast table.
To have someone taken from you unexpectedly is different from the slow ebbing out of personhood that happens through deterioration. The stab in the sudden loss is not having the chance to say good-bye, not seeing the fulfillment of their life, of lost potential, and sometimes the open and never to be closed wound of being unreconciled, although the lingering memory is still of undiminished clarity and brilliance. With a disease like cancer, death takes its time, and the stab is followed by a slow twisting of the knife. This is terrible.
My mother is a strong, confident, beautiful, wise woman; a wife, mother, teacher, writer, author, editor, artist, and traveller. Yet in her current state, many of those things are already but memories. And still that isn’t quite right either. She hasn’t ceased to be any of those things, but every one of those wonderful aspects of her personhood, of what makes her, her, has been terribly muted. It’s like listening to a favorite and beloved song, but the volume is being slowly decreased, until some parts of the instrumentation are no longer audible, even though you know they are there, and the whole experience is so impoverished, so dissatisfying. You can’t help thinking that the song isn’t meant to be heard at this volume. It’s meant to be loud and glorious and subtle and appreciated in all of its nuance and beauty. Precisely.
It is a cruel thing that her weakest moment will be the last memory I have of her. But there is mercy in this too. And with time the memories will not be of hospital beds and of needles and tubes and frail arms, but of her as she really was, painting another beautiful pastel, glowing with warmth in her skin and her deep, caring smile. She will be remembered vividly with her gentle but knowing wisdom, her hugs, kisses, and overflowing love for her three guys, and her able mind full of places to travel to, articles to write and edit, lyrics to translate, and books to read. This will be dawn, but now it is dusk, and night is coming.
I am torn. I expect to grieve deeply and fully, but might that in some way belittle the glory, joy, and fulfillment I believe will then be hers? How can I grieve fully but not as those who have no hope? My hope is real. But so is my sense that this is much too soon. My hope is real. But so is my pain and loss. Might I not just as easily belittle the humanness of suffering and death and love and life that we all share in if I pretend like peace, joy, and hope are all that I feel? If I know myself at all, I know that my tendency is to be a cyborg rather than a human. To grieve and mourn is to embrace my humanity, and therefore to share in the deep kinship I have with all my fellow image-bearer. I know the hope that I have for my mother, the hope she has for herself, and I know it deeply to the very core of my being. What I struggle with is knowing how to walk this valley, the same valley that Adam and Eve first wept through when their beloved son Abel was taken, the valley that nearly everyone since then has had to walk also.
Life and death, like ying and yang, are intermingling in my life. New life is bubbling up beautifully in giggles, smiles, and wide-eyed discovery, just as death closes its inevitable grip and pulls steadily down. Tears of joy mingle with tears of agony, a storm is born, such screaming contrast. I am left in the middle of mid-air, an unstable emotional paralysis, punctuated by exclamations of joy and bouts of grief, but somewhat numb the rest of the time. For me the only thing to do is to give words to these things, like giving birds to these wings, and hope that therein lies the way forward. Full of hope, of death, of life.
* March 13th ~ 4 days after Mom’s death
If behind a frowning providence, God can hide a smiling face, then perhaps behind the weakness of death he hides the finishing steps of a winning race. I still can’t believe she’s gone. I keep on having to realize it over and over, realize that it isn’t some story I heard about someone else. It’s me this time, it was my Mom this time.
It was so hard to see her like that at the end. Just a frail trace of her former self. In life she was strong, courageous, and beautiful. And really, before it weakened her completely, the disease actually amplified those qualities. Before she faced cancer, she didn’t need to be so strong, or courageous, or filled with faith, but the adversity revealed the quality of the inner character, yes and even strengthened it. She was more beautiful for having faced this trial, even as it ravaged and destroyed her body.
As the end drew near and her body slowly surrendered to death – trusting she could still hear us – we sang softly to her the song she sang over me a thousand times for a thousand bedtimes.
Oh, que ta main paternelle
Me bénisse à mon coucher,
Et que ce soit sous ton aile
que je dorme ô mon Berger,
que je dorme ô mon Berger.
They were some of the last words I ever spoke to her, and probably some of the first she ever spoke to me. And while those words ushered me into sleep and dreams of unreality, they ushered her into the last and final sleep, into realities more true and solid than any known here. The unseen world revealed as real.
In life she taught me to bask in God’s love like one enjoys a warm ray of sunlight, with eyes closed, a slight smile, and a deep breath. I imagine she is in the Holy One’s presence at this moment, drinking deeply of this warmth, no longer enjoying it by faith but now by sight, perfecting the life of worship she practiced on earth. She bathes in His splendor and soaks in the glory and love that sustained her and now perfects her.
January 28, 2012
This book is the second of two books I’ve read recently dealing with Iran. I’m not sure where this interest sprung up from but it’s been a fascinating time of learning. The first was a biography of current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Kasra Naji, an Iranian journalist, and it was excellent. It really helped me understand the mindset of not only President Ahmadinejad but of that entire regime, not to mention other similarly minded religious regimes. The contrasts between the Western way of thinking about politics and life and the current Iranian way of thinking could not be sharper. But I digress, this post is about Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat.
Now a Canadian living in Toronto, Marina was born into a Russian Orthodox home in Iran. She was in high school when Iran experienced a cataclysmic revolution from a secular government to one under the Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini. She started to speak out at her high school, first complaining that one of her teachers, an Islamic fundamentalist herself, was teaching religion instead of the subject matter. That’s all it took for the Revolutionary Guard, the military police of the regime, to arrest her and other classmates at the age of 16. They were taken to the infamous Evin prison. At one point she was moments away from being executed but was saved because a high-ranking guard took a liking to her.
The rest of the story is similarly incredible. The book shines light into the darkness of Iran’s supposedly righteous religious state, and indeed into the pathos of any religious fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian, or otherwise. The same patterns of self-righteousness, hatred, and justification of evil are present here as in other instances of narrow-minded fundamentalism.
One of the encouraging aspects of the book was the surprisingly solid grasp that Marina had, even at that young age, about God’s character and God’s heart towards her. Although tortured, belittled, humiliated, rejected, and shamed, she somehow knew that God continued to love her. It wasn’t expounded on very much, but it was certainly a pleasant surprise for me.
This book is eye-opening and riveting. It’s an incredible story of one woman’s hellish trial, one that no teenager should have to experience, and the glimpses of hope and redemption that shine through. I am looking forward to reading her second book, After Tehran, which chronicles her attempt to put the pieces of her life back together after her release from prison.