Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Biblical Midrash”

Remembering Lot’s Wife

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Here is a poem I shared with my class yesterday after we discussed Jewish Midrash and modern poetry.  The poem by Wislawa Szymborska is an allusion to a text in Genesis about nameless “Lot’s wife” who turned into a pillar of salt for looking back upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:26).  The destroying angel said run fast and do not look back or stop.  Nameless Lot’s wife looked back.  Interestingly, Jesus is reported as saying in the Gospel accounts, “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32), suggesting not to look back at the life you are about to lose.  Szymborska gives voice to nameless Lot’s wife and suggests she may have had plenty of reasons for looking back.

They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot’s neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn’t so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.
Our two daughters were already vanishing over the hilltop.
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
Serpents appeared on my path,
spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
They were neither good nor evil now–every living thing
was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
I looked back in desolation.
In shame because we had stolen away.
Wanting to cry out, to go home.
Or only when a sudden gust of wind
unbound my hair and lifted up my robe.
It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.
I looked back in anger.
To savor their terrible fate.
I looked back for all the reasons given above.
I looked back involuntarily.
It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me.
It was a sudden crack that stopped me in my tracks.
A hamster on its hind paws tottered on the edge.
It was then we both glanced back.
No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn’t breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
It’s not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
It’s possible I fell facing the city.

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How to Draw God

Last week I was walking across campus with a friend and colleague, Terry Martin who teaches art at William Woods University.  Terry was telling me a fascinating story about a autistic girl in one of his past art classes.  Young Katherine had sketched a spiral pattern on paper and when Terry asked her to talk about it, she said it was a picture of God.  The point in the center of the page meant that God is the smallest of all things.  The spiraling line extending off the page meant that God is bigger than all things. 

The child’s insights are profound.  For as long as people have thought about these things, they have used spatial metaphors to stress both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence.  God is the great, mysterious “Other”, the Holy One who is high above the heavens, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  God is more than our eyes can behold and unlike anything else we can know or experience.  And yet, and yet….God is near to us.  He is present and in the neighborhood. The God who is big enough to fill all in all is all big enough to become small.  Taken together, the insights suggest that God is both without and within and that faith needs both a telescope and a microscope.  Now, how do you draw that? 

Follow the lead of a little girl.  When Terry told me this story, a flurry of biblical texts came to mind.  Isaiah, the Hebrew prophet said so long ago, a “little child shall lead them.”  Jesus reminded us centuries later, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” and “out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise.” 

Or take Picasso who is reported to have said, “"It took me four years to paint like Raphael; it took me a lifetime to learn to paint like a child."

The original sketch is long since gone but I encouraged Terry to paint a piece in tribute to the little girl.  Here is Terry’s artwork and what follows is the story in his own words.

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Read more…

The Art of Changing the Subject (and Thus, the Predicate)

(originally published in The Upper Room Disciplines 2008)

image The Center for Survivors of Trauma and War Torture in St. Louis started in the early ‘90s after therapists began noticing the widespread effects of post-traumatic disorder within the immigrant community. Refugees from troubled regions of the world come to the Center in hopes of finding healing for their hurts. These men, women and children – victims of political oppression and social injustice – tell stories of horrific abuse suffered in their homeland. They describe their inability to eat and sleep, the panic that can arise from the slightest trigger, and the disorientation of their emotions.

The clinic director describes how the Center aims to rebuild lives: “So many [immigrants] come here saying, ‘I am destroyed,’ and part of the Center’s job is to change that sentence, to find a seed, so they’ll say, ‘I am alive.’”

In Psalm 17, David is under attack. He is surrounded by those who wish him harm, those without pity who are plotting his downfall. Tired of living on the run and hungry for home, he turns to God. And when he does, he finds a beacon of light in the midst of the fog. After all his anxious complaining, he concludes, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.”

We utter many statements throughout the course of our days that sound similar to the sufferings of the afflicted: I’m in trouble. How will I ever get through this? When will it ever stop?

As we learn to speak the name of God into our life, we change the sentence from one of dread to one of hope. We learn to say, I’m alive. I’m alive by God’s grace. I’m living in God’s care.

In Christian worship, we come together each week to change a few key sentences in our speech patterns, to find whatever seed of hope is there, so that we can walk back to our world and say, “I’m alive and well.” And who knows? You might get so good at this gratitude thing that you find yourself walking around humming a song by Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews.

P.S. I Love You

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In God’s world, you never know when and where you’ll find a gift from your Maker. He spends a lot of time surprising us, leaving notes that say, “hello” and “thinking of you” and “I’m with you.” You might find one in a falling star or a chance encounter or on a hayride down a country road. Or you might see His wrapping paper in the lyrics of a song or in an unexpected smile. God has so much fun with this stuff that he has even been known to give gifts to people in their sleep (Psalm 127:2) and at those times when they feel unsafe and unwell.

It’s a little bit like the recent movie, P.S. I Love You, where a husband arranges to have gifts delivered to his grieving wife after his death from a brain tumor. Each gift and letter remembers the relationship but also encourages her to go on. Or, it’s like the ambitious series of art murals that I recently read about in Philadephia:

The heartfelt rooftop messages promise it all, from dinner and car fare to day care and everlasting love. But you have to read fast.

Designed to be spotted scavenger-hunt-style from the elevated train rumbling through West Philadelphia, the “Love Letter” series of 50 murals was an ambitious undertaking even in a city known for such public art.

The recently finished project, which teamed a former graffiti tagger with his onetime (friendly) nemesis, parallels nearly 20 blocks of track. It gives riders glimpses into an imaginary love story through colorful images and quirky phrases of longing, like “Your everafter is all I’m after.”

“It animates a neglected, ignored part of the city,” said Paula Marincola, executive director of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, which funded the project. “It transforms a humdrum, everyday experience — riding the El — into something magical and wonderful and fun.”

God does something like that with us: painting a colorful landscape to our lives, diverting our attention from all the graffiti that can consume our minds, giving us glimpses into the love story we live in.

Let me tell you where I think I saw note from God the other day. I was having lunch with a friend at Chipotle. Each paper cup introduces you to a person you should know. And mine told of Wes Jackson, the president of a corporation, who is fond of saying: “if your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”

That reminded me of a certain Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who used to describe faith in such ways, saying it is a small thing – like a tiny seed or a pinch of yeast or a cup of cold water – that will eventually move mountains and change the world.

Keep an eye out for God today.

The Eye of an Artist

(originally published in The Upper Room Disciplines 2008)

Read Matthew 14:13-14

image Recently a friend and I paid a visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.  My friend, a gifted artist himself, was quite familiar with the gallery and proved to be an incomparable tour guide.  With all the passion of an enthusiast and the trained eye of a practitioner, he showed me more than I had seen before or would have seen on my own.  On my own, I would have seen “a painting’” and “yet another painting.”  But my friend Thom drew my attention to qualities of excellence, the refined techniques for infusing light and casting shadows, the skilled layering of paints on the canvas, “the clever way the artist caught the slight life in the subject’s smile”.”

Whenever we hang around with someone in the context of that person’s deep appreciations – carpentry, music, movies, cooking, birdwatching, dog training – we see through his or her eyes all that is worthy of attention and admiration.

It is not different with Jesus.  When we keep company with Jesus in the journey of the Gospels, we pick up on the his peculiar way of noticing what we so often overlook.  In the midst of a great sea of people, with all the commotion of a crowd, Jesus spots lonely and diminutive Zacchaeus, who climbed up in a tree, hoping to find new life.  In all such gatherings of the self-important, Jesus calls attention to the outcasts, the ashamed, and the belittled.

Here in Matthew 14 when Jesus “went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he has compassion for them and healed their sick.”  Jesus has the eye of an artist.  Be assured that he sees you and that he sees you with the eyes of compassion.

Prayer: Jesus, help me to see what you see, having your eyes and your heart for those around me. Amen.

The End of Suffering, Scott Cairns

My friend Scott Cairns has authored a new book entitled The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain. Its sudden appearance in the mail was timely: I had just been reading about the “protest theism” of writers like Twain and Melville and was preparing for the funeral of one of my uncles.

image The small book is a long essay which considers the purpose of suffering in its capacity to awaken us to certain realities; namely, the illusion of control, the grace of having the self “stripped away”, the gift of being alive to God and alive to life and the beauty of a heart that is turned toward others. Scott borrows from the wisdom of poets and ascetics to discover what can be learned in the land of suffering. He gives special attention to the insights of Elder Zosimas in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. For the past fifteen years, Scott has been in the habit of rereading the book at the end of the school year. He writes,

Generally, in late May, when administrative and teaching duties have concluded for the year and university life is winding down for the summer, I take up that weighty Russian novel for another go. For the most part, I manage to move through it steadily enough, except for the several passages having to do with Elder Zosimas, where I prefer to proceed slowly, deliberately, with increased attention to every word, and ever on the lookout for further illuminating connotation.” (47)

This practice caught my eye as I spent a semester studying The Brothers Karamazov under the tutelage of Eugene Peterson at Regent College. I did a guided study on the pastoral life and the practice of spiritual direction. One of Dostoevsky’s central characters, the Father Zosimas, received much of our attention. In his chapter on “Complicity”, Scott mentions the wisdom of Zosimas as it concerns our common humanity and shared culpability:

There is only one salvation for you,” he says to his gathered brotherhood: “take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friends, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.” (60)

Even as Scott lays out what is wrong with the world, he ends his essay by probing the mystery of God’s way of being in the world, a presence that is life-giving, recovering bodies and repairing persons. He writes,

The God-created world is an exceedingly wild place. Its weathers and its very makeup – its famously cranky geology – remain notoriously unpredictable. Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad. And even setting aside the simply bad, there is also no shortage of downright evil, from which the good do not appear to be uniformly protected…

What kind of God is this?

Whether or not you think the world was initially created as the shaky sphere is is – a notoriously unstable crust skidding over a roiling swirl of molten rock – there’s no arguing that it isn’t something of a crapshoot now. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, famine, flood – take your pick. And lest we forget the human hand in our crapshoot’s wealth of crap, we must remember to add to that wild mix our own pathological history of aggression, murder, war, and genocide.

And where, exactly, is our God in all of this?

Well, the story goes that He has descended into the very thick of it.

The story goes that He remains in the very thick of it.” (108).

Cairns book is also a descent into the thick of it. His reflections on the purpose of suffering in helping us to become fully human call to mind what fellow writer Anne Lamott has described as the writer’s task:

The writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words; not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues (Bird by Bird).

Scott has done his job.  The End of Suffering is an honest look at the unbearable and unspeakable stuff.  Thankfully, though, it is more than that.  It a hopeful song with some soul in it – or perhaps even better, some Body. 

Paraclete Press, 144 pages, August 2009

The God Who Loves Stories

When the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the great Rabbi Israel Shem Tov, saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and again, the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it feel to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”

And it was sufficient.

For God made man because he loves stories.

from The Spirituality of Imperfection

Draft of a Reparations Agreement

Like you, I am hungry for a world that is ordered and in place.  In this poem, written in the sickening shadow of the Jewish Holocaust, Dan Pagis reworks the biblical text of Ezekiel 37:1-14 and its vision of restoration, and drafts his own version of a reparations agreement.

All right, gentlemen who cry blue murder as always,
nagging miracle-makers,
quiet!
Everything will be returned to its place,
paragraph after paragraph.
The scream back into the throat.
The gold teeth back to the gums.
The terror.
The smoke back to the tin chimney and further on and inside
back to the hollow of the bones,
and already you will be covered with skin and sinews and you will live,
look, you will have your lives back,
sit in the living room, read the evening paper.
Here you are.  Nothing is too late.
As to the yellow star: immediately it will be torn from your chest
and will emigrate
to the sky.

– Dan Pagis (1930 – 1986)

Finding God in the Dead of Night

(originally published in The Upper Room Disciplines 2008)

Read Genesis 32:22-31

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Chris Cook, American Artist

Are you prepared to accept that a dislocated hip can be a sign of both the presence and the blessing of God? Will you allow, if only for the sake of argument, that the loss of creature comforts might itself be a comfort from the Creator?

More typically, we connect divine blessing with favorable circumstances – financial prosperity, a good report from the doctor, satisfying relationships and safe neighborhoods. If we are really creative, and determined to count all of our blessings and name them one by one, we might even reckon that getting a good parking spot at the mall is one more indication that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives.

Jacob found divine blessing in an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger. In the darkness of night, with his household at rest, Jacob was left alone to struggle and fight. Like two prize fighters going the distance, Jacob and the man went at it, each determined to come out the victor. How the fight started is anybody’s guess. But when it ended at the break of day, Jacob was weary in body and soul. He limped from the place of encounter, realizing that he had seen God’s face.

Be prepared to locate God’s presence and blessing in those places where you least expect to find them – in a broken body, a heavy heart, a painful loss, a winding road, a sleepless night. Learn to trust that God always loves you, even where you struggle – and especially when you think the night will never end. The saints who have gone before us keep insisting that they have often spotted God’s face in the darkest of nights and the most unlikely of circumstances.

God give me the eyes of faith to recognize how you are with me, at all times and in all places.

Growing Up on the Late Great Planet Earth

Originally published in Crux, June 1999

rapture2-1 Every month or so I would see it again. A giant billboard blurting out the question, "Are you ready?" You couldn’t miss this sermon of a sign. It was posted at the T-junction of Illinois State Highways 36 and 79, just before you turned right to cross the Mississippi River heading west into Hannibal, Missouri. Our gray Chevy Impala would slow to a stop sign and meet this message head on as if we were momentarily parked in the front pew. The billboard pictured cars careening off other cars, recklessness resulting from The Rapture. The picture frightened me. It introduced hazards into my life of a size and proportion I had yet to encounter. Nevertheless, I knew that this sign asked a question I would one day need to answer for myself before ever getting behind the wheel. Having Jesus with you in the car was something like wearing your seatbelt or putting on your glasses for proper nighttime vision. It was essential to good driving. One could be warned against hydroplaning, or could take precautions against over-aggressive motorists. But what to do when cars on the freeway were suddenly abandoned by the mass disappearance of other drivers? I figured any safe motorist concerned with defensive driving would no doubt repent at the junction of State Highways 36 and 79.

That, at least, is the place where it all came together for me. I began the day shopping in Illinois a sinner, unprepared and unrepentant. By the end of the day I had met God at the gospel junction. While my dad was watching for a break in the oncoming traffic, my eyes were transfixed by the sign. My heart was beating to the rhythm of a blinking turn signal. Before Dad turned right, I turned to Jesus — a kind of metanoia in motion. Less than thirty seconds later I crossed the baptismal waters of the Mississippi and came out on the Missouri side a seven-year-old saint.

Saintly living in Hannibal was none too easy for me, however, and I needed a lot of help. The periodic shopping trips to Quincy, Illinois were too infrequent to keep me from backsliding in between junction stops. The billboard couldn’t always remind me of who I was and where I was going. I needed something more local than that. Help arrived in my mother. She was a sort of in-house invitation hymn. She lived to make sure my head was bowed, my eyes were closed and that I was ready to meet God. Mom had given some money to the PTL and 700 Clubs, and for her advancement of the kingdom she had learned how to decode Satanic messages encrypted in rock music. She knew when music had left that old-time religion and was no longer "good enough for Grandma." She could keep time well enough to know when a beat had jumped the chasm between heaven and hell. For the price of a love offering, Mother’s ear was trained to discern the subtle nuances of heaven’s music and the distinct bugle sounds of "the last trumpet." Any other music was suspect. Any other music would precipitate one of her apocalypses. "Travis, they’ve done backward masking on ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Hotel California.’ You listen to that music and you’ll still be mowing the lawn during the Rapture."

Mom was a guard dog who could smell the scent of fear. She knew exactly what to say to make sure I didn’t commit a pleasure in humming my brother’s tunes. Because of her I was born with an over-realized eschatology. An end-times fixation passed right through the placenta. I could chart the last days before I could say my ABCs. I began counting 666 before I ever got to 1-2-3. While other children were watching Sesame Street and Jailhouse Rock, I was watching A Thief in the Night. While they were learning the fifty state capitols, I was plotting global developments with Gog and Magog. I knew how ominous the future could be. Rapture reality was nothing to take lightly. Cars swerving off the road without drivers. Jumbo jets falling out of the sky as a result of white-robed pilot souls ascending from their cockpit to higher, more heavenly altitudes. Cemeteries swirling with saints rising like hot air balloons. A woman wakes up and her husband is suddenly gone, nowhere to be found — faucet water still running, razor still buzzing. There’s no time to change your mind; the Son has come and you’ve been left behind. The unraptured penitents going hungry and homeless during the Tribulation. Getting turned down at the grocery store, not because they are shoeless and shirtless, but because they don’t have the mark of the beast, the end-time equivalent to a Sam’s Card. (A mark, incidentally, which had already been spotted on the UPC codes of all General Mills cereal boxes.) A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold. Running until your legs feel like Jello as you flee satanic surveillance at every turn. Finally getting trapped in the middle of a bridge and given the Tribulation choice: get tattooed or guillotined.

My eschatological imagination was feverish. Not a morning went by but I woke up expecting Jesus to return. Every breakfast became the battle of Armageddon. A spoonful of wrongly coded cereal might involve me in the work of Antichrist so I had to be on guard in this skirmish for the soul. Fortunately for me, I had a mother who shopped for groceries as if Ezekiel’s watchman. She labored to deliver my family from hell by avoiding Satan in the cereal aisle.

Such was life on The Late Great Planet Earth. It was high drama stuff. Other neighborhood children might fritter their time away, but I was different. My life was cosmic in scope. At any moment I could be whisked away. . . .

Some years have gone by now and I am still here. The sign at State Roads 36 and 79 has been taken down, replaced by more worldly commercial interests like advertisements for Chinese buffet and a free checking account at Farmers and Merchants Bank (perhaps signs in their own right that we are "as in the days of Noah"). But the billboard served its generation well. It lodged a question in my mind that will last for a lifetime: are you ready?

That question for me is no longer framed simply by the wooden construction of a junction sign and its picture of urban apocalypse. It has taken on vastly wider, more biblical proportions. It stretches across the horizons of time to include all the saints of God who have ever hoped for something: the nomadic patriarch who walked with his head up to heaven counting the stars of the sky as his promised future; a captive people who cried out for deliverance amidst the sweat of an Egyptian sun; the Hebrew poet and king who sought to dwell in the house of the Lord and gaze upon the beauty of his face; the spice-bearing women who received Easter good news from an angel at the empty tomb; the exiled islander who daydreamed of a new heaven and a new earth to come; African-American slaves who put a melody to their mistreatment by singing of a chariot "coming for to carry me home." And . . . I suppose it includes me, driving down the highway ready for ascension, having second thoughts about my box of Cheerios and wondering how many more weeks I will need to mow the lawn.

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