I heard a sermon a couple years ago that I still think about from time to time, as I did this morning when my notes from that morning popped up. In that sermon, the minister described a pseudo-baptism scene from the movie "Nacho Libre," starring Jack Black as a Mexican priest, named Ignatio, turned wrestler, named Nacho. Nacho wants his wrestling partner baptized before their match with “Satan's Cavemen” to better increase their chance for a win and so shoves his head in a bowl of water and declares a blessing. Disclaimer: I've never seen the movie, but this link goes to a clip of the scene.
The minister said this scene should tell us there is a better way for telling others about Christ than to push them into it. He gave the example of Philip in the story from Acts and went from there to cover much good and earnest theology about being a witness for Christ and about the movement of the Spirit.
But I couldn't stop thinking about the priest shoving the guy’s head into the bowl of water. Skipping past the false theology, past the adolescent sacrilege, what does it say about the hunger for a concrete splashing of grace, the reality of the place of baptism in the human narrative? It’s like finding a hieroglyphic or prehistoric drawing showing the offering of life for life.
Even the rocks will cry out.
Believe it or not, the junior/senior high school that my sons went to graded on “sense of wonder.” Realistically, no one expects a seventh-grade boy to score too high in this regard, but by ninth grade the expectation is that this sense should be observable and growing, and by senior year, it had better be a palpable driving force. The theory behind taking the temperature of each young man and woman’s growing sense of educated wonder is that it is wonder that will keep him or her learning and discovering when teachers and transcripts no longer require it. Wonder will keep them pushing back the boundaries of what has been done or known by themselves or others, to go further and deeper, to uncover yet more in every realm.
Last month the New Statesman carried an article, “Why science needs wonder,” by Philip Ball, author of the soon-to-be published Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. I hadn’t realized that "wonder" has historically been a controversial attribute, with a past false dichotomy between the kind of wonder that makes you curious and sends you exploring and the kind that makes you awed and speechless. In elegant fashion, Ball argues that science needs poetry and not just objective inquiry.
Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead and Home, has an excellent piece in The New York Times Sunday Book Review published yesterday, "The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible."
A number of the great works of Western literature address themselves very directly to questions that arise within Christianity. They answer to the same impulse to put flesh on Scripture and doctrine, to test them by means of dramatic imagination, that is visible in the old paintings of the Annunciation or the road to Damascus. How is the violence and corruption of a beloved city to be understood as part of an eternal cosmic order? What would be the consequences for the story of the expulsion from Eden, if the fall were understood as divine providence? What if Job’s challenge to God’s justice had not been overawed and silenced by the wild glory of creation? How would a society within (always) notional Christendom respond to the presence of a truly innocent and guileless man? Dante created his great image of divine intent, justice and grace as the architecture of time and being. Milton explored the ancient, and Calvinist, teaching that the first sin was a felix culpa, a fortunate fall, and providential because it prepared the way for the world’s ultimate reconciliation to God. So his Satan is glorious, and the hell prepared for his minions is strikingly tolerable. What to say about Melville? He transferred the great poem at the end of Job into the world of experience, and set against it a man who can only maintain the pride of his humanity until this world overwhelms him. His God, rejoicing in his catalog of the splendidly fierce and untamable, might ask, “Hast thou seen my servant Ahab?” And then there is Dostoyevsky’s “idiot” Prince Myshkin, who disrupts and antagonizes by telling the truth and meaning no harm, the Christ who says, “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”
Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms. These texts are not allegories, because in each case the writer has posed a problem within a universe of thought that is fully open to his questioning once its terms are granted. Here the use of biblical allusion is not symbolism or metaphor, which are both rhetorical techniques for enriching a narrative whose primary interest does not rest with the larger resonances of the Bible. In fact these great texts resemble Socratic dialogues in that each venture presupposes that meaning can indeed be addressed within the constraints of the form and in its language, while the meaning to be discovered through this argument cannot be presupposed. Like paintings, they render meaning as beauty.
Songs sung this week by the hundreds gathered at the century plus–old church for the funeral of a woman who died too young included the classics, "How Great Thou Art" and "Great is Thy Faithfulness." A soloist and musicians performed a song I'd not heard before and one that many in the sanctuary had probably not heard before, at least not at a funeral: "Come On Up to the House" by Tom Waits. Here's a You-Tube video of the song. Similar to Scripture's encouragement to write God's words in your heart, this filmmaker choreographed the writing of Wait's lyrics on one's body. In this woman's eulogy, we learned how she had perfected friendship to an art and continued to put others first even as she endured a particularly fast and furious case of multiple sclerosis. Her husband, two daughers, mother, sisters, and parents-in-law (or parents-in-love as a friend of mine refers to hers) sat bravely in the first pews. The minister read from Romans how nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. He told a story that Henri Nouwen told, about how he asked a trapeze acrobat (Nouwen was a lover of circuses) how it is that a performer is caught by another after he or she lets go from one trapeze and flings him- or herself into the air. The acrobat responded that the flyer must only fly, stretching toward the catcher. The catcher then catches. Nouwen saw this as a metaphor for dying: letting go, stretching toward and trusting the catcher who is Christ. The minister spoke of it also as a metaphor for living, with our lives designed to soar, no matter how long or short the arc, stretching always toward the catcher.
Photograph information: "Female acrobats on trapezes at circus," Calvert Litho. Co., Detroit, Mich.
A couple years ago (2009), I was asked to give a Lenten devotional talk at my church on the topic of silence and solitude as spiritual practice, integrating the text of Matthew 6:25-34. Since then a number of people have asked me for copies of this talk. It is again Lent so here is the talk as an audio file for those who may want to listen. Please note this is a "practice" recording and not a recording from the talk given in real time.
By day I'm a medical writer. After hours I do another kind of work. Creative writing, spiritual writing, essaying. This blog arises from those after hours. I write about work/vocation, meaning, hope, imagination, faith, science, creativity/writing, books, and anything else I feel the impulse to write about. I hope these short posts provide camaraderie for your own creative and spiritual life.
Many years ago I read Strength to Love, a book of sermons, by Martin Luther King Jr. It was published in 1963 just after the campaign in Birmingham and a couple years before the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. In honor of King on this day, here are some of the passages I copied out.
Here in the U.S., we’ve had a tumultuous week following a difficult election. In the midst of all the inner and online clamor, I read a social media post offered by artist and author Makoto Fujimura that struck me: "No matter what your reaction to this historic election, our response should be to cultivate the good, true and the beautiful.”
I've been thinking about the lines of the IRS Form 1040. The line for wages earned. The line for unemployment compensation. The lines for gains and losses, the line for deductions of multiple varieties (say, medical expenses or charitable giving). Check here for spouse. Check here for dependents. Has there been alimony? Social security distributions? A pension or loans or education? How succinctly these numbers capture a year in a life. Three hundred and sixty-five days knotted into odd and even numbers of variable digit lengths, with or without cents. Handle with care, I want to write across the top...
The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine featured a cover story on Marilynne Robinson. Her most recent books are the novel Lila and the essay collection The Givenness of Things. The piece gave much focus to her writing process. One of the photos was of a window in her home study that she sits near while writing long-hand in a hardcover notebook. Line-by-line, first sentence to last, she writes her books without revision. Let me say that again: without revision. While I can’t relate to the “without revision” aspect of Robinson’s writing process, I can relate to her distinction...
My point of view in Finding Livelihood resonates with Frankl’s. Losing sight of what lies beyond the work-a-day world, in terms of unseen reality, boundless and timeless, means losing your daily spiritual hold, means finding that only the is-this-all-there-is question remains. Without drawing a line too darkly between life in a prison camp and life on the job or life at any other daily post, I think the modern worker or modern person at any stage of life can learn much from Frankl.
At the upcoming Festival of Faith and Writing in April, I’ll be leading a “Festival Circle,” which is a small group that meets a couple times during the event to focus on a specific topic. My circle is on the topic of “How to Be A Writer with A Day Job.” If you’ve read my book Finding Livelihood, you will have felt that tension on the pages.
On a busy morning of a work-crammed week of a deadline-driven month, these words from Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography are like an island of calm. Taking two minutes to read them is act of guerrilla leisure, "guerilla" referring, of course, to an unconventional approach when you have little to spare or spend. Maybe reading them will be that for you too.
Lax was a poet who lived a reclusive life on the island of Patmos, Greece. He was a dear friend of Thomas Merton. He was a former circus clown (!) and writer for The New Yorker. I’m sure never before has circus clown and writer for the The New Yorker appeared on the same resume.
More good words about Finding Livelihood went out over digital space in the last couple weeks. It's not easy for books published by small presses and written by small writers to make their way in the world, and I'm so grateful when somebody spots mine and gives it a shout-out.
Last week Salon.com ran an excerpt from a new book by Allison J. Pugh, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity (Oxford University Press). The excerpt is published under the title, “Your job will never love you: Stress and anxiety in our frightening new job world.” This excerpt nails it. If you didn’t feel stressed and anxious before reading it, you will feel that way by the end.
It would take lifetimes to do all I want to do. I’m just finishing a new online class; the stack of books to read grows; the list of books and essays I dream of someday writing grows; there are so many publications to which I’d like to subscribe and have the time to read. Multiple careers still intrigue me. Life is so exciting in this way. I worry I’ll never get it all in—and I won’t. Nevertheless, it makes me happy that I think this about life.