Last week, ninjanun pinned this questionnaire on me, and having just completed another silly meme thing, I was a little hesitant to dive in. Since then, however, I've slammed up a couple legit Posts Of Substance, and now, resting on my laurels, I'm prepared to race through another exciting period of self-discovery. As always, I will embark on this voyage with an attitude of the utmost seriousness.
3 names you go by :
- Ariel James
- AJ (hoops nickname)
- The Great One (as I am commonly known)
3 screennames you've had:
- ArielJhawk (in tribute of the mighty KU Jayhawks)
- collegeguy2 (catchy, huh?)
3 physical things you like about yourself:
- My low-maintenance hair
- I can jump really high (or, uh, could)
- This 20-20 vision is nice while it lasts
3 physical things you dislike about yourself:
- I've always said my shortness was what kept me out of the NBA
- My knees make weird noises
- Back problems
3 parts of your heritage:
- white middle-class male (Yeah!)
3 things you are wearing right now:
- Quiksilver shorts
- two things will have to do
3 favorite bands / musical artists:
- Jars of Clay
- The Shins
- Coldplay (original, I know)
3 (random) favorite songs:
- "This is your life" by Switchfoot
- "A Million Parachutes" by Sixpence None the Richer
- "Bloody Sunday" by U2
3 things you want in a relationship:
- love of hoops
- thoughtful talks over coffee - coffee nonoptional
- sense of humor
3 physical things about the preferred sex that appeals to you:
- a really pretty smile
- blue eyes
- physically fit
3 of your favorite hobbies:
3 things you want to do really badly right now:
- Go climb Long's Peak in Colorado
- Read Augustine's Confessions
- Play full-court pick-up hoops and crush some mama's boy who thinks he's the man, trash-talkin' up and down the court until I drop a splinter in his eye...
3 of your everyday essentials:
- The Bible
- Lindsay, my hoops-loving wife who fortunately also likes coffee and possesses a strong sense of humor.
3 careers you have considered or are considering:
- Physical Therapy
3 places you want to go on vacation:
- The U.K. (Scotland! Ireland! England! Wales! - I'm agreeing with ninjanun on this one.)
3 kids' names you like:
I can't give out this info because our kid's names are so GOOD someone would undoubtedly steal them. Hey, it's been known to happen.
3 things you want to do before you die:
- Learn to pray well
- Publish a book
- Have kids
3 ways you are stereotypically a boy:
- Generally speaking, I'm right.
- I can run faster than you. And I can climb higher. And read more. And I have a better jumpshot... (I'm ridiculously competitive.)
- I will never wear pink.
3 ways you are stereotypically a chick:
- I like interior design, all those aesthetic details.
- I really like buying shoes.
- I know how to cook, which is not the same as saying that I do.
3 celeb crushes:
And that concludes the broadcast, folks. I'm still considering whether any of my friends are worthy of completing this survey...maybe Kevin? And it only seems right to give Grace a chance. Also, I could see Skor having a good time with this if he took it on. Shoot, I'll give Paula and Kimberly a mention as well. That makes an even five which means, if I'm not mistaken, that my responsibilities have been fulfilled. ;)
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Last week, ninjanun pinned this questionnaire on me, and having just completed another silly meme thing, I was a little hesitant to dive in. Since then, however, I've slammed up a couple legit Posts Of Substance, and now, resting on my laurels, I'm prepared to race through another exciting period of self-discovery. As always, I will embark on this voyage with an attitude of the utmost seriousness.
Monday, May 30, 2005
Staking Down the Afterlife
Misconceptions about heaven are as numerous as misconceptions about marriage and mail order companies, which is to say they’re everywhere.
Consider, for example, the idea that to hope for heaven is to effectively give up happiness now. In other words, “heaven” is for those weepy, downtrodden people who seem to get the short end of every stick, and then get beaten with it into the bargain.
Or consider the idea (conviction for many) that the ‘other side’ is necessarily and happily ambiguous. As one of my commentators said awhile ago, “I like the mystery of the sky, no pearly gates, no raging fire, just the sky.”
I think there are at least three “misconclusions” we come to about heaven—they begin as misconceptions and end up as latent convictions, exerting influence on our lives. Consider:
- Because we have no clinical evidence, we assume the afterlife is whatever we want it to be. (For a glutton, heaven is one long nap in the shade interspersed with buffet lines and Budweiser.)
- Resenting the spiritual overtones of the afterlife, we decide it’s irrelevant to tolerant, open-minded people, or should be. (“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try…”)
- Reacting to what we take to be an exclusivist, elitist quality in heaven, we conclude that everyone’s going the same place, and a good one at that. (“Free heaven for all!”) Funny how no one ever concludes we’re all destined for flames.
I think it’s important to realize that the afterlife, or heaven, to have any meaning at all, must be attached to a spiritual worldview—a worldview that necessarily has its own criteria. Therefore, in evaluating claims about the afterlife, we end up pitting heaven vs. heaven—i.e. the Hindu heaven vs. the Christian heaven—and in the end choosing one, which cannot be adopted without its corresponding system of theology.
That’s a clumsy way of saying that although some people would naively sign up for what they think is the “Christian-style” heaven (streets of gold, reunion with friends, luxurious mansions…*) they often do so while jettisoning Christ, which is not allowed. The Christian heaven is founded on Christ. Likewise, it would be untenable to scoff at Muslim pietism and still hope for 70 virgins.
Ultimately, a faith-neutral approach makes the afterlife laughable, mere prescriptivism: “Listen, let me tell you how it will be. Why will it be that way? Because I think it should.” Our personally “spun” heavens have all the allure of political ad campaigns. You don’t have to look far to track down the agenda that shaped them. And all too often, our perceptions of the afterlife reveal that we’re just projecting our own “best-of” reel in what we hope is god-endorsed Technicolor. When we think about it, this is ridiculous. If it really works, then heaven exists in a very elusive realm indeed—the worlds inside our heads. But heaven is not that way. Heaven does not need us—and does not wait on human imagination to actuate it.
Heaven, like earth, is real, and does not change with our preferences. We think that because we can’t yet see it, heaven possesses some malleable quality. We exercise the same inane optimism that some people display over their final grade reports, as if miracles might take place between the classroom and the registrar’s office—all because, “Well, until I get them back, who knows?” But heaven, like an exam scored with indelible ink, changes for no man.
Heaven’s hidden reality exerts a force like gravity—unseen, unchanging. Everyone is drawn toward it but not everyone will arrive. Some will never recognize the magnetism for what it is—“the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds” (C.S. Lewis).
In regard to earth, heaven is the “unshakeable kingdom.” Earth, in relation, is even now starting to sway on its legs. We’re far too cavalier in our trivializing of higher reality. We’re like art students in a teacher-less room. We paint laughable pictures—plaid skies and people without heads—as if the master won’t ever collect our work. In a world with an invisible God, we toy with the unseen like putty, forgetting that our bluff might be called. At the very least, we should grant that heaven, if it is to be talked about, is real. It has form and weight and edges.
In a sense, I think the label I’ve been using in this post, “the afterlife,” would be better termed the “priorlife.” Our adoption of "afterlife" merely reveals the near-blindness of our perspective. Heaven has been going on for millennia. It extends behind us and ahead, hems us in, and the only question is where we enter its arc. Heaven isn’t an optional, afterthought—it’s always been waiting, deeper and wider than earth, outside the illusionary walls of time. It is complete, if not fully populated. When we go there, we’re not entering a shadowy, low-light basement, forsaking our brief “live” status. Life is merely beginning. As C.S. Lewis said, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”
To sum all this up in one sentence I would say: Heaven is profoundly real—deep and wide, piercingly sweet—but it is not pliable.
It is one way or another, not both ways. It is not all things to all men. Therefore, to paint heaven with pc pretension or syrupy sentiment is to depict the sun with a yellow crayon.
* Heaven, as hinted at by Christ, is hardly captured by these words. But that’s food for another post.
Saturday, May 28, 2005
Yesterday afternoon Lindsay and I arrived home from a one-night camping trip, and the demands of civilization hit us like a load of Styrofoam. Piled-up email, a broken blog banner and a stack of packages waiting at the post office; they swarmed us like little technological gnats, and it took more than a second to swat them.
On the whole, I’m a fan of technology. One of my friends was convinced for awhile that big cities, and the technology thereof, were evil. Suburbanite that he was, I had a hard time taking him seriously, and the idea still seems laughable. However, there’s a lot to be said for the wilderness life.
Yesterday as we hiked over the crest of a wooded hill, Lindsay said something about how a forest ranger’s job wouldn’t be all bad. I don’t think I could handle the isolation of it, really, but the idea was interesting to play with. I juxtaposed our urban apartment—coffee shops, movies, the Saturday morning “city market”—with a hypothetical life as a ranger. A cabin, coffee over the camp fire, nature talks in the evenings, long drives to the nearest mom and pop grocer. Various things would have to give.
I tried to picture myself avidly clicking through websites during evenings at the cabin. Pounding out quick blog posts. Fixing up the site’s html tags. Man, it was hard to see it. Not that it wouldn’t be possible to lug a notebook pc into a national park—I just wasn’t sure I’d want to. After spending all day in sunshine and fresh air, would technology be the first thing on my mind in the evening?
In some senses, the world of blogging and the natural world seem diametrically opposed. If I lived in the “wilderness” for any period of time, would it be hard to care about All Consuming’s latest trick and whether the Lawrence Journal World had updated yet? Seems like it would. Not to the mention the petty nuances of culture news. New movies? New albums? New iPods? Who cares.
Hiking around in the woods yesterday, I got a sense of what it must feel like to come back to the U.S. after traveling abroad—say in Africa or India. The reverse culture-shock would make it hard to care about a lot of things. But no doubt there’s a happy medium, and if I ever get the chance to live near a frontier, I’ll find it.
“Let’s head into the canyon, people. And at the next mile marker we’ll pause for a quick blog post.”
Thursday, May 26, 2005
In case you haven't noticed, my self-designed banner has disappeared, replaced by a strikingly-blank blue space. As far as I can tell, the image host I was using closed up shop without telling anyone. Their website isn't even responding. I was able to relocate all my buttons and small graphics easily, but the banner may take some work. I had to tinker with my template for hours to make it look right. For the time being BitterSweetLife looks like an exceptionally unimaginative blog. Sigh.
Just so you know I know.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
I should clarify one thing right away. Coffee with God involves good coffee, dark coffee—something with character—Brazilian or Ethiopian or Tuscan, not Folgian. This point may seem irrelevant, but as the Puritans would say, “God loveth adverbs.” Idiosyncratic, I know, and hardly a requirement for holiness, but it seems worth noting that first-rate coffee is an appropriate complement to conversation with God, who knows quality, having invented it.
Coffee, however, is only a context here. We grab coffee with a friend, and the coffee is just an excuse for a good talk, something to do with our hands. Coffee is to good friends what movies are to lovers—a convenient meeting place. (If the inverse is true, and friendships are only an excuse to drink more coffee, I fear for you.)
Therefore, coffee with God is an artificially-induced context. And that’s just the point. Twice this week I drove off to a café, forsaking my own cappuccino maker and admirable bean supply, and sat down with my Bible and journal, having acknowledged that I did not intend to be alone. Neither would this be a casual hangin’ session. This would be real talk—the tongue-slowing, mind-changing kind.
It had been too long. Too long since I had set aside time for a heart-to-heart with Christ, made a special appointment, and driven happily away to keep it. There’s something inherently good about deliberate immersion in Jesus, but all the more so, somehow, when we carefully create a space for it to happen.
This morning, I read his words, they came off the page with vigor, and His presence at the table lifted a weight off my shoulders. I thought in the presence of this Friend, who is also Counselor and Master, and penciled down our shared thoughts. The longer I stayed, the more his thoughts became mine. I glanced out the window and the sky shimmered. The colors of my world were refreshed.
I sometimes wonder why I need coffee as a pretense for these conversations, and I really don’t. They can be snatched on a long drive to school or as I lie awake at night. They can even be had at home, sitting on the futon. But coffee is a context—and I’ll exploit any prop if it propels me toward a conversation that could change my life. I’ll bracket off hours and drive miles for words of life. Jesus’ words punch a hole in my mud-colored horizon so that delicious reality pours through.
Coffee with God is always bittersweet. When Christ has his say, and I sit back and listen, the sweet runs deeper and deeper. I come away happily realigned, the world brighter, Christ bigger, me smaller, smiling and shaking my head: Oh Jesus, You and I need to do this more often. I know his answer by heart.Go ahead and set the date, he says.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Taking the advice of people like Jordon Cooper, I signed on to del.icio.us a couple days ago, eager to dive into the world of social bookmarking. On one level, del.icio.us is simply an online “favorites” compiler—you pin a “bookmarklet” to your favorites menu and then go around posting any and all fascinating sites to your del.icio.us homepage, letting your imagination run wild.
However, the real beauty of del.icio.us emerges in the way your favs are organized. You assign descriptive “tags” to each site added, i.e. “Kuhoops” or “daily_news” or “coffee,” and thereafter, you can access the entire collection via your tag system. For example, click on your “C.S._Lewis” tag, and all pages with relevance to Lewis (however oblique) appear front and center. You can also combine tag searches for greater specificity, i.e. “C.S._Lewis+research.” All your tags are accessed via your personal page (here's mine).
But the beauty doesn’t end there. The reason del.icio.us is a “social bookmark” system lies in the collaborative aspect of tags. Obviously, everyone who signs on generates her own system of tags, and these are searchable by all other users. There are no private pages on del.icio.us, so in a sense, the site is like a shared hard drive. You also have the option of subscribing to a specific tag or user (i.e. "myth" or "AjVan"), so that new posts from that topic/user arrive in your del.icio.us inbox. This has the potential to be a really cool research feature. Other people add pages on a topic, and you watch them stack up.
As a pseudo-techie who isn’t really hard-core, it took me a little while to find my way around the del.icio.us structure. Actually, I’m still waiting to reap the benefits of the subscription feature, as talked up by Mr. Jones. Maybe my subscription topics are just too narrow—or too non-technical. The latter could actually be the case, because judging from the popular tags (and lack of tags on non-technical topics, such as the Jayhawks and George MacDonald), del.icio.us’ user base is currently still pretty nerdy (in a good way, of course). I'll have to play with this feature some more. To my knowledge, there still isn’t a comprehensive, walk-me-through-this help file available, but I can’t imagine it’s far off.
Del.icio.us is free, fairly intuitive, and it's easy to jump in. Come help me generate some hoops and liberal arts tags, would ya? At any rate, my primary goal has been met, which was to do a rare thing for me: write a tech post. And here it is.
Monday, May 23, 2005
Saturday night, Lindsay and I were walking up the downtown block to our loft apartment when we were approached by one of our resident homeless guys. He came striding up behind me like they do, “Hey, man—” and I readied myself for the encounter. I must have looked more suburban and less collegiate than usual, because generally they take one look and then don’t bother.
Fortunately, my ingrained street smarts (gained by countless hours of blacktop hoops) must have been in evidence. They guy huffed up next to me and said, “Hey, if I could ask you a question…before you clip me with that two-liter…” Amusingly, his instincts weren’t bad, because when we’d seen the guy soliciting a couple of people up ahead, I’d tightened my grip on a mostly-full bottle of A&W Root beer. Nice heft.
We listened obligingly to his story, which was more imaginative than some, and rewarded his muse with a couple of oranges. As usual, the delivery of food (in response to a story about arriving on a train, desperately hungry) was met with mild surprise. However, the proffered oranges were taken with goodwill and we parted ways.
No doubt there’s a moral here, like Strong drink can be useful in some contexts, but what stands out was the guy’s inability to improvise. Surely there’s a lesson here about creativity, or the lack thereof. What should you expect when you approach a couple who are obviously on their way home from a picnic—bowl of potato salad, a grocery sack, a 2-liter—and say your friends are hungry? Really, a more innovative approach was in order, like the one about how the car battery died and some change to make a phone call would solve everything.
Chalk up yet another case of wheezing imagination.
Saturday, May 21, 2005
I can’t handle the idea of being a bad sport. So when grace slapped this meme project on me, I dropped everything, raced home from work, shut myself in with the computer and generated this list. Well, not quite. But I knew I had to do it. I’m still deciding which of my friends will “get to” do this next…
Ten Things I've Never Done
1. turned down a hoops game.
2. seen Michael Moore’s point.
3. met a coffee I didn’t like.
4. slept past noon.
5. been to Jamaica
6. driven a Rolls.
7. liked prime time tv.
8. assaulted a parking patrol cop.
9. dug rap music.
10. been fully appreciated. ;)
At some point I'll have to sort out how I feel about these things. Elated, at the opportunity for gratuitous self-revelation? Perplexed, at why anyone would want to read a random "top ten"-list? Happy, at having rediscovered my inner child? Austere, because I'm not listing sexy "nevers?" Or more likely, just distracted because it's sunny outside.
Time for some outdoor rec time, and in case you're wondering, this doesn't count as a Post Of Substance.
In a disturbing development at 2:20 a.m. Wednesday night—or early Thursday morning, depending on your orientation—one of KU’s top talents demonstrated he’s also the team’s top hothead.
Giddens' leg slashed outside bar
The headline almost says it all.
After a lackluster sophomore season, when you’ve been called upon for leadership and have a lot to prove to your coach, to your team, and to the NBA scouts, a lapse like this is hard to justify. J.R. Giddens just sacrificed a summer of much-needed practice, a likely starting position, and a leadership role—and for what? To take a swing at some punk with a knife? Did J.R. feel driven to add some street cred to his resume?
“By taking on this intoxicated dude with a knife, I'll prove I'm the man.”
Thank you, J.R., for bringing a taste of MU hoops to a classy program. Next season's hopes are resting ever more squarely on the shoulders of the incoming class.
Friday, May 20, 2005
As I struggle to reenter normal life after exam hysteria, several factors ease the transition: Summer weather, relaxed evenings, and luxurious reading, to name a few. No doubt each of these will be blogged about in due course, but it seems like a reading update is long overdue. The following titles (well, most of them) helped loosen me up for summer.
Some of these were read under academic coercion, several just because I felt like it and no amount of last-minute essaying or finals pressure was going to stop me, darn it. I've included "assigned" texts for my own gratification, just to savor the fact that I got the better of 'em. More flippant readers can feel free to skip those and note my "personal" reading only (helpfully asterisked). I saved probably the best title for last, so if you're going to read just one review, scroll down.
*This House of Sky – Ivan Doig*
Mr. Doig could be described in two words: stolid and perceptive. He is a poetic materialist, an imaginative phlegmatic. He impresses his own character deeply into what he writes, and his values emerge from under the printed words. In Sky's vast Montana panoramas, the people in his life appear as figureheads, each one a great entity, strong, rough-grained, durable. The keynotes of Doig’s life song—and it is poetic enough to consider a “song”—appear clearly: Independence, personal space, a knack for survival. A rough and ready brand of “making do” garners his respect and practice. Therefore, Sky has weight, it sits like a stone in a pocket, and holds a reader down. But in the end its earthiness defeats it.
For all its expansiveness, Sky is too small, and Doig’s world, replete with painstaking observation, overlooks the deep, transcendent thread that runs through sagebrush, sunrise, sheep and foothills. The glory of God is an alien concept to Doig; his magnificent capacity for straight evocative detail is ultimately shortsighted, self-contained. When he dismissively mentions “religion” (twice only, in the context of funerals), his trademark unflappability coalesces into smugness. Sky scrapes cloud, but fails to account for the infinite horizon.
A Survey of the Old Testament (2nd ed.) - Hill & Walton
You knew this was coming, right? I effectively finished the massive textbook as my second Old Testament Survey class wound to a close and I desperately sucked up material for the final. With my limited exposure to biblical survey material, I found H&W’s take to be succinct, conservative, and highly readable. Their footnotes, charts, and maps were helpful, and they successfully walked the line between paucity and verbosity. I was neither uninformed nor overwhelmed, but drew from the book often in my various exegesis assignments. I think, from my lowly state, this is what one’s supposed to call “a good introductory text.”
*The Eagle Has Landed – Jack Higgins*
After I heard Ravi Zacharias quote Higgins briefly in a talk, I noticed his best-seller going for $.01 on Amazon. After it sat on my shelf for a year, I read it so I could get rid of it. End of story, right? Just about. For a thriller, this novel read well, and I can see how it could have taken the nation by storm back in 1975. The characterization isn’t bad, but the book smacks of let-us-say-brave-words-and-die-ism. Too much black heroism, in my opinion. I guess existentialism was more in. Perhaps in closer proximity to WW2, this would have been fitting.
A few characters may prove memorable—such as Devlin, the “cold executioner” IRA man who is also the story’s most charming character, even though he’s a lout. Stock, true, but Higgins brought it off well. (The same cannot be said for the rest of his stock characters.) The blind courage of Steiner, the foremost “good Nazi,” is also not without impact. In fact, the book is full of blind courage, honorable men on the wrong side, and bravely-useless deaths. In a story like this, Higgins’ self-insertion at the beginning and end comes across as slightly egotistical.
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation – Klein, Blomberg & Hubbard
I powered my way through this 500-page textbook with the impetus of a letter grade nipping at my heels. Having polished the Intro off the afternoon it was due, I have to admit the experience wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Despite some redundancy in the O.T. genres section, Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard have created a first-class overview of the hermeneutical process from a soundly orthodox position. They refuse to sidestep nitty-gritty questions of application that more "philosophical" models overlook. For an "introduction" to hermeneutics proper, this book was thorough, and my feet are not just damp, but soaking.
*Shroud for a Nightingale – P.D. James*
Feeding a growing James addiction, I read this book during exam-cram breaks. Book number four in the Dalgliesh series provided additional insight into Adam’s principled nature. Dalgliesh also reveals a driven-ness and vulnerability not as visible in previous novels; we see him through the eyes of a sneering subservient and disgruntled suspects. Of course, I have yet to read a single book consecutively, so who knows what developments I may have missed—especially in books two and three. I continue to appreciate the authenticity of James’ work, even though I generally fail to do it full mental justice. This time around was no different, with finals bearing down. Maybe next time; and there will be a next time.
Whatever Happened to Worship? – A.W. Tozer
I was forced to read this book so I could write a paper on it, and with Tozer’s name on it, I wish I had enjoyed it a little more. Unfortunately, the volume suffers from posthumous compilation syndrome, and the collected sermons/essays lack Tozer’s characteristic depth and flow. There are still a number of valuable common themes (five of which I picked out dutifully in my essay)—such as man’s created purpose, artificial worship, worship as life’s fuel—but the book is too eclectic to be a masterpiece like The Pursuit of God.
*Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton*
After a period of anticipation spanning several years, I finally dipped into Chesterton proper. I’d read The Man Who Was Thursday in the past, but was still unprepared for Orthodoxy's ingenuity. If the mind is a think-tank, then some authors merely ruffle the surface. Chesterton thrashes up the depths. He’s an original thinker, mixing doses of hilarity with measures of sheer brilliance. He leaps from theme to theme and metaphor to metaphor with such speed and exuberance it’s sometimes hard to keep up.
Having done my best, however, I believe this book will be formative. Chesterton’s visions of God’s mirth, of the earth as salvaged from a wreck, of the imaginative soul, of the dead endings of mere systems of thought—and the high-spirited mode in which he expresses it all—are unique to him. The closest I come is Lewis, who readily admitted the influence of Chesterton in his own conversion. This is a book to be read, then read again, mined for insight, pencil in hand. Needless to say, a Book a' da Year bid is already pending.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
The battle is over, but my heart carries the scars.
The at-risk class’s final came and went fairly uneventfully, but what do you expect after a dozen hours of studying? I would have been disappointed if I didn’t know every iota of obscure minutia backwards and forward. Thankfully, this kind of exertion is only warranted once a year.
My second exam, however, came close to causing cardiac arrest. I flew through the front half, IDed my terms, unpackaged my syntax, and coasted through the first Hebrew translation exercise—a couple verses from 1 Samuel. Happily, I perused the final section, and it was in that moment that my unsuspecting heart almost “got me.”
“Translate Psalm 25,” said the assignment, “verses 1 through 10.” ONE THROUGH TEN? We hadn’t ripped off a chunk that big all semester, take-home assignments included. But fine, that’s cool. Whatever I need to do.
I chose the only real alternative in the situation, and “got mad at it” like I used to in PE tests, knocking out pushups. I manhandled my lexicon, whacked my Hebrew text around like a piñata, and mumbled under my breath. There was no way I would pull it off error-free, but sure as heck I wouldn’t come in last.
After about 40 minutes of accelerating wrath and jumbled verb clauses, my professor noticed all his students were thumbing their tests in disgust, breathing hard and glaring. Apparently, something clicked. He looked the test over, then cleared his throat:
“I’m afraid I made a typo on the exam. I converted the test from my Hebrew II class, and forgot to change one detail. The last section should read ‘verses one and two,’ not ‘one through ten.’ I’m awfully sorry.”
Sighs of relief. Disbelieving stares. Deranged laughter.
After roughly translating six of the verses at breakneck speed, smoothing out the first two was completely doable. Fighting down post-traumatic stress disorder, I did it. I got up. I handed in my exam. I left the classroom and entered the sunlight.
Now, in the insulated safety of home, my nerves are gradually calming down. I sip a calming post-finals beverage and gingerly relive the recent past, slowly finding closure. All is well, all is well, I whisper. Soon, I hope, I will be capable of returning to the normal world.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
About two weeks ago I described a disastrous episode in my ongoing quest for academic decency. I’ve been reluctant to bring it up again for fear of what may happen tomorrow, when I tackle the course’s final exam. If the final treats me badly, I’ll wish I hadn’t written this post and will never mention it again.
On the other hand, if I somehow get the better of the exam, my satisfaction will be enhanced by having written this beforehand. No doubt I’d even feel tempted to revisit this topic and add a triumphant end note. Predictive posting is a mixed bag.
Ridiculously enough, my two finals are scheduled back-to-back tomorrow morning. I’ve been studying the at-risk course slavishly, while trying to assure that I’ll be competent in the second final as well. Bi-directional cramming is a mixed bag.
I don’t normally study 5+ hours for exams, but the depth and breadth of my at-risk topic is forcing my study time into double-digit hours. Re-reading and summarizing notes, re-reading and highlighting textbooks and source material, practicing the spontaneous recreation of names, trends and facts…all this requires protracted concentration. And all good students and writers know the key to protracted concentration: coffee. Like Annie Dillard says,
I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.
And indeed, the unguarded consumption of coffee is a risky scheme which can easily be short-circuited. My medical precision is improving, but study sessions are still occasionally cut short by fatal doses, requiring immediate analgesic aid. Caffeine-fueled endurance is a mixed bag.
Come to think of it, this whole week has been strange, four straight days of scrambled baggage. I feel morbidly knowledgeable. My short term memory is smoldering like Mount Vesuvius. Supposedly it will all blow over tomorrow morning.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
It's twelve minutes after noon on a Tuesday, and I find myself in a strange predicament: I'm sitting here in the computer lab, keeping a careful eye on a room full of empty students.
Admittedly, I've had it easy before. Some of my finest subbing moments have come teaching subjects like Finding Nemo, Shrek 2 and Cool Runnings. I once spent a whole day playing kickball. But this... I hardly know what to do with myself.
Only four students showed up for the class. Then, one by one, they made believable cases for why they should be sent elsewhere: To the gym, for teacher-approved PE. To the library for a book report. To the office for a counseling session. The teacher's note said this class was basically self-supervising.
I didn't realize she meant it so literally.
Never before has subbing been so meditative, so calming, so therapeutic, so...quiet. I can hear the air conditioner humming. I can hear myself think. Twenty-five minutes to go.
This is creepy. The classroom seems almost like an alien environment. I feel like some warehouse manager, keeping tabs on an inventory of desks and PCs. Or like I'm walking outside time, a Traveler "exploring" the moment just before class starts and cataloguing its oddities—door open, lights on, teacher ready, no students. Or I'm shut up inside some unseen dimension just around the corner from normality, so close I can still hear everyone else walking around and talking nearby. Like I'm inside the school, but sealed off. Totally weird.
I kind of like it.
Monday, May 16, 2005
Sometimes I reflect upon what I consider the “best of days” and realize that the moments I regard as golden are nonetheless colored with longing. Perhaps, in the moment, I did not realize how golden or how incomplete the instance was—but in the glare of hindsight both beauty and lack become evident.
Gradually I’ve realized my experiences are entirely unoriginal. This is the Sehnsucht tradition; in C.S. Lewis’ words: “It was when I was happiest that I longed most…the sweetest thing in my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.”
Out of joy emerges longing—and inexplicably the something missed is sweeter than the original something had. If Lewis is my leader here, as he certainly is, then George MacDonald led him down the same path: “As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note… Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy.”
Lewis did not merely speculate about this feeling, but found himself confronted by “inconsolable longing” on every side. It was this pang of unrest, aggravated by joy, that drove him toward Christ. I, likewise, pick out this particular emphasis of Lewis, not because it’s intellectually appealing, but because it fits. I feel the call of beauty too, an elusive wistfulness at the center of felt joys.
In every generation, I’m sure, there are some who feel acutely this lovely lack. We could probably trace them back from Lewis and MacDonald, down through theological layers to Augustine (“Too late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new”) and from there to Paul (“I have not laid hold of it yet, but I press on…”) and to Christ himself: “In the world you will have suffering, but be courageous! I have conquered the world.”
Thinkers of this persuasion come to share the simple but unbreakable conviction of Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, who was imprisoned and tortured for 14 years under a communist regime. As Wurmbrand declared:
“One day the sun will shine in hidden places and all will be made plain.”
This seems the root of bittersweetness—the presence of yet-unfound goodness. Through our truest pleasures there runs a perplexing strand of loss. We feel the absence of something we have not yet had, but miss nonetheless.
Sometimes it is almost like being watched. Even as I taste the beautiful, I turn to catch the whisperer in my ear. The speaker is invisible, though; a rumor reaches me, but Joy himself remains a hidden watcher. His intangible presence explains my tangible deficit: The most transforming sensation is not sweet enough. The most brilliant moment is too dim. I cannot enter the sunrise or capture the morningstar. Every spring and fall, my heartstrings quiver for no known reason. And therefore the most realistic philosophy must be colored with longing.
Based on the relatively good reception of my recent experimental piece, and because Lindsay and I recently watched The Godfather, and because I'm studying for finals and feel like testing fate, I have decided to post another epic poem.
That's "epic" in a decidedly light-hearted sense.
Mob Errand Boy, On Reporting Back to the Boss
or The Made Man Who Got Away
When I gave him your summons
Over breakfast in bed
He said he’d get to it
But read Dilbert instead.
When he was reminded,
“A life’s a sad thing to waste,”
he stood on his mattress
and laughed in my face:
“The monogrammed rolodex
was a really nice perk
and my wife, so she says,
loves her new gator purse.
The Bentley you gave us
is still running fine,
so is the French poodle
with better bloodlines than mine.
Thanks for pouring our champagne
over diamonds on ice
and I’ve always liked Armani,
so the gift card was nice.
Thanks for all of the presents,
you silly, middle-aged clown,
but I’m skipping your meeting
and then I’m skipping town.
I know when the law finds me
there’ll be taxes to pay,
but taxes aren’t the certainty
I’m escaping today.
We both have been bloodstained,
we’ve both made our hits,
but remember your Dante,
a road leaves the abyss.
When there’s a debt to be paid off,
there’s a precedent for blood,
but not one drop was wasted,
and it was innocent blood.
I hope that you miss me,
I hope you age well,
If you start climbing now,
You might just get out of—”
Boss: “Did he really say all that?”
Jimmy: “Well, his lips were moving…and it sounded like his voice…”
Saturday, May 14, 2005
At age eighteen, in the middle of a gorgeous summer, I realized I was supposed to savor the glory of God. This was slightly perplexing. Summer—that I knew how to enjoy. Blacktop hoops, hangin’ with friends, working hard and playing in the sun. Enjoying summer is elementary; enjoying God seemed advanced. To enjoy divine glory was the goal. But how did one “get at” God?
I believed in Christ. I loved him. I knew he was powerful, merciful, perfect—“glorious.” But to “taste” that glory? To apprehend it in a more experiential way? I wanted something I could wade in, or taste, or inhale. I wanted tangibility.
My senses—the senses I used to enjoy other things, like Gatorade™ and lakes—balked at the concept of savoring God. I found myself fighting an instinctual disconnect. Tasting God seemed like smelling colors. Somehow, I knew this wasn’t the case, but I struggled to get past it.
I saw that Christ’s glory—the glory that satisfied like miraculous H20, if you could get a drink—was centered in the truth of his character. And since I had no immediate, sensory experience with Christ, I would have to apprehend that truth mentally, at least at first.
This took awhile to soak in.
I labored under the modern conception of “facts” as miscellaneous details piled in a game box, a kind of sterile trivia. The average fact is highly irrelevant to life. Since when do congruent angles move hearts? Since when do people weep for joy over the evening news? In this info-bit context, I struggled to bridge the gap between God-“facts” and some kind of experiential “glory.”
How could “information” about Christ translate into tasted goodness, flavor in the soul, fiery and sweet? It had to enter through the mind, apparently—but first I had to let Truth reemerge. My preconceptions had obscured it, relegated it to list form. But stripped of its newspaper wrappings, truth shone with its own unrivaled glory. It was beautiful indeed, but on its own terms. Today, if I found truth lounging in the Sports section or promenading on the Morning Show, I would feel betrayed.
For the truth, I discovered, was not temporarily helpful or momentarily entertaining. It was not “interesting,” thank God. I was pleased to discover that truth defied the casual slickness of FYI, and I was elated to realize that Dan Rather and People Magazine never featured it. This ultimate, soul-filling truth defied the sophistry of pundits, periodicals, columnists and clinics. Truth was the home I lived in, not the phone book where I was listed. The truth surrounded me. I walked in it, breathed it, climbed up through it. The truth had everything to do with me, and I had everything to do with it.
Therefore, after an interval of some years, I found myself returning to an ironic place—the land of relevant truth. The grass hadn’t looked this green since I’d abandoned my tricycle, and the sky shone like it had from the jungle gym. With amazement, I watched the tedium of the information age fade.
I was developing an amateurish custom of stumbling on the truth; that summer it was furthered, by happy accident, and I forced myself to keep on going. I sensed that something waited up ahead—a Truth too big for daily slices; a mind that words could hardly sketch; a Fact that defied all “facts.”
That Fact seemed radiant as stars and hard as bone. Smash all the decade’s information to bits, assemble it as a mosaic, and what would I find? A puzzle that could occupy me for five lifetimes but bore me in five minutes. Journey toward this great Fact for 80 years, and what would I discover? Glory.
Glory himself, in his original and mysterious and non-dictionary sense. A Being so multi-faceted, so huge, so deep, that I could only brush at the surface of him—and be transformed anyway. A mere taste, a partial apprehension, would color my character. A 12-ounce drink would enliven me for a lifetime, and after that…? An oasis, a great revealing.
I was learning that truth was phenomenal and not merely empirical. It possessed a primal energy and magnetism, it walked the earth. It could be met and tasted after all.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
Normally, Thursday morning finds me sitting with a couple friends in a café. We drink coffee, talk about the Bible and admit the past week’s moral lapses. Uh…sounds fun, you say. Fortunately, we divulge the previous week's victories too. Shorthand for this interlude is “accountability.” We're there to help each other stay on-task. We want to live determinedly for Christ, and we don’t want to pull punches—so we recruit each other for help. Not everyone has the guts for it, but such good-but-painful authenticity is invaluable.
Left to ourselves, we can invent a creative motive for anything. It only becomes ludicrous when someone else laughs at it. All alone, we can default into reprehensive habits and cycles. Someone else may need to remind us we can get off the ride.
Recently, though, I’ve been absent from our weekly talks. Lindsay and I have a “work schedule” that’s constantly in flux, and between ferrying her to a subbing assignment and rushing to make my first class, the accountability time has fallen in the cracks. In the final analysis, eating won out over regular spiritual tune-ups.
With the arrival of summer, this problem will resolve itself. In the meantime, though, I’m highly conscious of the value of the Thursday morning sessions—crucial, but often overlooked. Asking questions like How much money can we afford to lose for the sake of accountability? has a way clarifying things.
If you seriously want to know Christ, you learn to be transparent. You develop heart-honesty—with God, with yourself, with a few close friends. Accountability is not for everyone—but that’s like saying that good health is not for everyone. Serious Christ-followers need a time to be in earnest.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Good Sticky Theology
Providence & Prayer : How Does God Work in the World? – Terrance Tiessen, A
My theology professor introduced this book with the bold pronouncement, “I, that is, we—think this book will be a classic.” The move from first person singular to first person plural did not add significant confidence to those of us who were leafing through the 362-page tome.
In successive weeks, as I made my way through Providence & Prayer, I found myself alternating between extreme fascination and mild derision, depending on the model being discussed. Occasionally, the speculative nature of it all annoyed me. In retrospect, the whole exercise was unquestionably worthwhile, blunt mental trauma and all.
Tiessen brings considerable knowledge and scholarly acumen to bear on the topic of divine sovereignty vs. human freedom, especially as it pertains to prayer. As he poses the question: “How does God work in the world?” The meticulous nature of Tiessen’s approach to the issue is substantiated by hundreds of footnotes. Ten models of God’s providence are assessed—ranging in tenor from deism to open theism to Calvinism and fatalism. Finally, Tiessen lays out his own proposal, including, he believes, the best and most biblically-aligned elements of other models.
The book is demanding, introducing an array of theological terms that require concentrated integration. As well, the abstract conceptualizing that makes up the meat of the text is only slightly offset by the “case studies” Tiessen provides. To read and enjoy this book requires a willingness (and ability) to “play with ideas,” as Joseph Epstein puts it. Some may be turned off by the high degree of theological speculation involved in several models—and in fact, an amused chuckle will go far in keeping the reader sane at some points. However, once one enters the ebb and flow of successive arguments, the discussion is fascinating, and its vital relevance to coherent living and praying becomes evident.
As finals approach, I can think of no better time to think about two beautifully complimentary themes—eternity and Summer. I’ll be working hard, but Summer will be a breath of freedom. Trees and sky will be part of life again. Better yet, the azure ozone and eager grass will be reminiscent of something bigger—colors on a giant canvas, vivid moments in a cosmic movie. Years are frames in a work of art, telling moments in the Editor’s cut—and in summer, somehow, it’s easier to see it. When this short film ends, the credits will roll…
and the larger part of life will start.
In summer I’ll play in paint—
Soaked in blue
Stained with green
Spattered with brown—
Hike this watercolor sketch
On eternity’s easel
This bright-hued canvas
This commemorative portrait
Of how it all begins
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
She sees more than meets the eye.
In the aftermath of Corsage Day, I’ve continued to think about the various reasons I love my mom. One of them is worthy of special attention because of its rarity and charm: her unbridled enthusiasm regarding my abilities. Lest I sound arrogant beyond belief, let me hasten to add that she no doubt has a similar enthusiasm for each of my siblings—and this too is praiseworthy. Praiseworthy, but secondary. This is my blog, after all!
For about two years, while I was absorbed in pre-med studies, my mom was my top booster. When I jettisoned medicine in favor of journalism and switched to the liberal arts side of the tracks, she switched allegiances with me. When I expressed a temporary interest in acting, she didn’t blink. Incredibly, she didn’t shoot down my FBI musings either. Now she’s a loyal follower of my theological development, somehow still finding time to suggest I may have latent leanings toward screenwriting.
With a mom like this, one feels the sky’s the limit, and if one eventually discovers the limit is actually around tree level, there’s no harm done.
Where she finds grounds for such persistent optimism I’ll never know. If it is all a charade, then she’s carried it off incredibly well—and only came out of character when we discussed my calculus scores. You're a visionary woman, Mom.
Monday, May 09, 2005
Yesterday at church someone made the comment that Paul, the great theologian, must have had self-discipline down to a science. My reaction was, That means that for Paul it was not a science at all.
If Paul mastered the spiritual disciplines—and his life makes a strong positive argument—then he would certainly have grasped their purpose: to know Christ and “be found in Him”—“to know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings…” (Philippians 3:10, The Bible)
Paul would have broken through to the fundamental reality “hidden” behind the disciplines; he would know they are far, far from clinical. They smell of sea breezes and mountains, not disinfectant. When Paul’s alarm clock went off, he heard the voice of Christ again.
The disciplines only seem “scientific” until we begin to exploit them as intended. Then we realize the beautifully subversive point of their existence. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
Discipline…exists for the sake of what seems its very opposite—for freedom, almost for extravagance. The pattern deep hidden in the dance, hidden so deep that shallow spectators cannot see it, alone gives beauty to the wild, free gestures that fill it…
Me, I can’t wait to make the disciplines a science. Like dribble drills are a science in hoops. Like vowels are a science in reading. Like pleasant compliments are a science in love…that is, I can’t wait to prove that spiritual disciplines are not a science at all.
Saturday, May 07, 2005
Inspired by my pal Oneway's recent excursion into rhythmic rhyming, I dug up this rag I threw together awhile ago.
I've Discovered This
A funny thing happened to me on the way to the studio.
Ok, so I'm running late as usual, just walking down the sidewalk, skipping the cracks for luck, and this ragged phat boy walks up to me, sipping a green one, and says, “I'M THIRSTY! Do you have something to drink?” Good one. So I said:
“I've discovered the fountain of life—
It flows in the way I walk.
See, I've encountered my Creator;
When we met, He posed the question:
‘Rot in hell or live forever?’
Tilt. Now it's the outcome that I mention.
See, I've discovered the fountain of life,
And it flows in the way I walk.
Funny, though, the things I notice:
People laughing, time still passing,
But I do more than talk the talk.
Clocks are merely sentimental:
Another sunset, games I'll forfeit,
Tick tock tick tock tick tock.
Hands go 'round, I don't get older
'Cause a fountain's bubbling over.
I've discovered the fountain of life,
And it flows in the way I walk.
Things people say just don't affect me…anymore.
'Cause the immortal know they're going…home.
Men like to say that life is showbiz. Sad.
I'm glad that I know what the truth is. ‘Fraud!’
You choose fire or a fountain:
Die forever or live young?
Don't kid yourself, you're not alone here.
Don't think that you're the only mother's son
To beg the question.
Faced with two choices, I chose the right one.
See, faced with flames, you'd better balk.
As for me, I've discovered the fountain of life—
It flows in the way I walk.”
“Does that answer your question?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Then better get something to drink.”
Friday, May 06, 2005
“Do you believe in love at first sight, or do I need to walk by again?”
“I want to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”
“Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
The problem with a lot of brave words is that they’re inherently stupid.
I was thinking about the relationship between heroic words and actions last night, as I watched an in-house dramatic production put on by the younger set in my church. The scenes were rough-hewn but effective, with a provocative “put-your-life-on-the-line” missionary theme. Christ calls us to live heroically, to step away from the entangling vagaries of life, regardless of cost.
Ironically, as much we love valiant pronouncements (review your favorite movie epics) most of us can’t do much more than make them. Have you ever considered how many brave words end up as just that—brave words? The majority of bold assertions don’t survive past childhood; apparently, once they leave your lips, the odds are against it.
All this was highly relevant last night, as I considered the correlation that gutsy statements should have to defiant action. There ought to be a distinct line of causality, especially for people who know Christ. I believe “brave words” are necessary—essential, in fact—to a bold life.
We identify the fire-eaters because their fiery words tip us off; they didn’t down that kerosene thinking it was lemonade. Likewise, if someone is lion-hearted, at the right time he is willing to say so, to clarify that he didn’t stumble into the battle zone by accident.
In terms of proof, consider David’s pre-battle chat with Goliath.
This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel (1 Samuel 17:45-46, The Bible)
For sheer bravado, no one has anything on David’s call-out. No need to mention the outcome of the engagement. In a similar vein, consider the words of Paul the theologian:
One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14, The Bible)
No armchair philosophy here. For pure knock-down-drag-out GRR, Paul’s purpose statements cannot be touched. One has only to read the book of Acts to see whether he made them good. Finally, consider the words of a pre-crucifixion Jesus:
I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32, The Bible)
Jesus’ assertion is pure audacity. When I die, he says in so many words, I will become the magnetic center of the world. Questions, anyone? His statement is one that would be hard to argue today. And Christ, without argument, made more fearless, brazen assertions than any of his disciples—perhaps more than all of them combined.
Things to say and things to do—they are linked, both worthy of a calculated flair. But never an empty bluster, never egotistical airs. A Christian is called to say brave words and then intrepidly do them. The mysterious faith which Christ unleashed still fuels the most audacious assertions and the most daring lives.
Where bravery’s concerned, a Christian should have the highest word-to-action ratio of any man alive.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
Or....The Newest, Darkest Era In My Academic Career
Normally, getting exams back is a little like Christmas. You’ve made your list, checked it twice, turned it in, and viola!—you got what you asked for, with a few delightful variations. (The accompanying wait—for Christmas and for exams to be returned—is also similar.) Today, however, a grim new chapter opened in the happy, movie-script-ending story called “My Test Experiences.”
I am incredulous to report that on my latest exam, in my toughest class, I just notched the lowest grade I’ve had on a test in five years. And the five years simply refers to my undergraduate experience, so it would also be true to say this is the lowest graded I’ve received ever.
The surreal flavor of this outcome is still registering.
Matters were made worse this morning by the fact that my exam had somehow been misplaced. My professor’s stat sheet revealed my abysmal score, but as all my classmates checked their mailboxes for the red-streaked remains, my box was glaringly empty. For a few minutes, it seemed perfectly logical: the test was too awful to exist. However, my initial amusement led to an increasingly angst-ridden journey from my professor’s office to the academic secretary to the business office, then back to my mailbox—and all in vain.
Finally, in the late afternoon, the missing exam magically and randomly appeared in my mailbox. Too relieved to ask questions, I began the postmortem and preceded to diagnose the cause of my death. The carnage exceeded my worst expectations—but then, it would have to, since my score obliterated my most pessimistic predictions. Incredibly, I lost a cool 20 points on misreading/misinterpretation issues, 15 of them on an ambiguously worded question.
Appeals are pending, but it will take a Herculean effort to rebound from this fiasco. The final is still two weeks away, and I'm already pumping iron.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Who says it doesn't pay off to feel strongly about small things?
Last night Lindsay and I enjoyed a moment of special comradery at dinner because we both like our eggs over easy. Runny yolks, we agree, are a joy inherent to eggs. We also share an affinity for "breakfast at dinner," instilled somewhere in childhood. Of course, our shared "like" is also nuanced—I think eggs fried to the point of plasticity are just dumb, while Lindsay is inclined toward a more tolerant view.
Small, shared opinions are highly valuable in a relationship. I could list out a few more, like our movie preferences and abhorrence for diet soda, but you get the idea.
Being opinionated over trivial things can add spice to a relationship. Where life’s trifling preferences are concerned, it may just be a good idea to "major in the majors" and the minors. ;)
Monday, May 02, 2005
How We Look for Humility In All The Wrong Places
Like many people, I believe a sense of smallness in relation to the universe is wise, and can be useful. But unmediated smallness can leave one comatose, hiding under a rock, or locked in a “religious” trance—which is really the same thing. How can we acknowledge our finitude without drowning in it?
Sometimes the problem is one of initial orientation. As the proverbial farmer supposedly said to the disoriented traveler, “If there is where you’re trying to get, here is not the place to start.” We often let the wrong things reduce us.
Repetitive trials often seem the common factor in life. Arguably, life “belittles” us, but there’s a horrible irony in how she does it. It’s the minutia that get us, small details that ruin us by their pure banality. Parking tickets, spilled coffee, petty snubs, network crashes, nervous ticks, messages buried in junk mail… Stacked end to end, life’s trivialities dwarf us. Long commutes home break more people than the waves of the Atlantic. Few people lie in bed whimpering over sunsets.
In reality, the necessary finitude of life is not generated by faulty traffic flow or corporate politics. Nuisances are not ultimately humbling.
When a hundred paltry necessities neutralize us, or we’re smacked down by King Urgent, we may think we are learning “smallness.” In reality, we’re watching traffic zoom by the neck of a dead-end alley. We think we’re approaching humility when in fact “here is not the place to start.” “Today was a bear; therefore I’m humble” is an invalid syllogism.
Suppose we step back. We’ve been trying to document smallness in the wrong environment. Realizing all our camera work has been in vain, we pull down the lights, throw it all in the van, and restart the shoot. On the new set, we open the aperture wide, then pan in. What’s this, a dirty golf ball? Ah, my bad—in the words of the Switchfoot song, “Welcome to the planet, welcome to existence; everyone’s here…” We’re seeking a new context for smallness, and we think we’ve found it: the gigantic universe.
We’re staring into the cosmos, and there’s earth, a small watery sphere wrapped in cloudy gauze. We see the globe, and it’s…little. Little?—it’s infinitesimal. The golf ball idea was more apt than we realized. Here, then, is the setting for humility. The surrounding bigness, not the surrounding pettiness, is the source, correct? And so we stare into the sky after a long day at the office, and muse, like Stephen Spielberg, that we are just little blips of A.I. after all. Or do we?
As we look into the star fields, it strikes us, as it did G.K. Chesterton, that there is nothing inherently better about bigness. As he wrote, “Man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” If we revere the starry nebulae, why not the Grand Canyon? If the Grand Canyon, why not a whale? If a whale, why not our fat uncle? No one argues that, obviously, Oprah is better than Mother Teresa. Bigness is not the key. If painful minutia is a dead end alley, plain magnitude is an empty auditorium.
Where then should we turn in our search for cogent smallness? We’ve ruled out grating nuisances as petty and chaotic. We’ve disqualified the cosmos on the basis of their inexpressive vastness. Somehow, though, we know that “littleness” is desirable—we all long for it in others, however disingenuously we cultivate it ourselves. We sense that a person should have a quietude about her, a willingness to admit limitations. The words “reverence” “awe” and “wonder” may or may not come into play, but they likely represent part of what we think: that wise people are not pretentious. If we come to the point of honesty, we wish to acknowledge our own bounds; some corner of us wants to throw up our hands and bow to something.
After surviving a few firefights, we acknowledge the innate rightness of modesty. We don’t always win at everything. We must be taken with a grain of salt, and most of us know it. But a smallness built on air is ludicrous. No one is pleasingly self-doubting and deferential merely by intending to be so—he must have provocation. And ultimately, because we know a sense of finitude is necessary for every human (not just those who admit it), the provocation must be universal.
We don’t question the reductive ability of our failed alternatives; taken in isolation, they work, but they work to the wrong end: Nagging mishaps may “reduce” us—but the result is an anguished driven-ness. Spatial vastness may dwarf us—but the result is a limpid passivity.
Undeterred, we continue to seek this elusive smallness, this existential modesty we sense is right. And this time our search is rewarded. As we begin to pull our cameras down again, the scene instantly changes—but we haven’t moved. A drama unfolds in front of us, and we didn’t cue it up. The lighting dims, and an altered world appears.
The universe, the part of it surrounding earth at least—flares with light. The light is brighter than stars, and it dances like no radiance we’ve seen before. A divine electricity arcs and gleams with laughter, and for a moment, we get it:
The cosmos are electric with the power of God, sparking with his expectation like a high voltage wire. The world spins—a foam fleck in the sea of space—the sea of God’s purposes and plans, and God waits—if God can be said to wait—for earth to run its course, to fulfill her purpose as the prime jewel in his crown. Christ tends his creation artfully, and it grows, with us inside it. The next journey—the greater and truer and unending journey—will soon begin. We sense, without seeing, the God of unbearable brilliance, whose suns revolve in his palms like fireflies.
This God of mice and men, Ruler of creatures and cosmos—his world is not a dingy world, nor materially insignificant. But “size” transcends mere mass, and in relation to Christ, the galaxies, let alone the earth, are tiny. The world is a speck, a dot, an atom—but it’s an atom that shines like diamonds. The Creator has infused it with life. As the reel runs into blackness, we sense a Presence at our backs. There is an Audience behind the audience; the footage flickers in our retinas.
When the theatre leaves us, it is still daylight, and we rub our eyes. Beneath us, our globe hangs in space, a brackish blip on the canvas of all created being. It keeps turning, but the universe is not huge, and life is not annoyingly monotonous.
We can hardly reckon the course of our spiraling lives, let alone their worth. We do know one thing, though: as we kneel before the Creator, we feel the gravity of a momentous smallness and a terrible beauty. We are smaller and more valuable than stars, we who walk “alone” on earthly streets.