Jesus, if you are in all thirty-seven churches,
are you not also here with me
making it alone in my back rooms like a flagpole sitter
slipping my peanut shells and prune pits into the Kelvinator?
Are you not here at nightfall
ticking in the box of the electric blanket?
Lamb, lamb, let me give you honey on your grapefruit
and toast for the birds to eat
out of your damaged hands.
From “Living Alone with Jesus,” by Maxine Kumin.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
SIDE NOTE: NEW CITY ARTS FORUM
You know that I care about art. I am lucky to live in a town that also really, really cares about art. Little Charlottesville has more arts organizations than you can count and one of the very best is New City Arts Initiative, headed by Maureen Lovett. Maureen and her team are organizing a wonderful event April 20-22, 2012: New City Arts Forum. This conference pools together artists, presenters, musicians, and even brewers (like my husband) to discuss the big questions: What is good art? Why does art matter? How do artists get money to live? If you’re in town–or even if you’re not!–come check it out.
Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels, and this one, which was my favorite from the year. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.
Oh, THIS book. This, the most beautiful thing I read all year.
Housekeeping, published in 1980 and distinguished as a Pulitzer finalist, was assigned to me by our church book club. I didn’t know what to expect, but having read Gileada few months before, I figured I would like it. I had no idea how much I was going to love it, though. I read the book feverishly, swiftly, tearing through 100 pages in a little less than an hour, and yet, somehow, I took everything in; every word was absorbed. You have to understand how unusual this is for me. I have an unfortunate tendency to read too quickly, to skim over sentences like a fly over water. But Marilynne Robinson has this unparalleled ability to make me slow down. Not even my favorite poets can make me slow down as much as she can. This gradual consumption of the book, slower than I have read anything all year, contributed greatly to my deep appreciation of it.
When I arrived at the book club discussion, my brain swimming with delight over this novel, my eyes almost fell out of my head when I heard that the majority of the group hated the book. “I didn’t GET it; I don’t like any of these people; they’re so creepy and lonely; they need to get some mental help; I hated it so much, etc., etc.” I think I just gaped at them. Celeste, whose person and taste I admire, despised it and when she said she did, it actually hurt my feelings; I felt physically injured. She was totally rational in her expression of dislike, but my attachment to this book was so strong that to me, it sounded like she’d just insulted my grandmother, the salt of the earth. I flushed and said something rash and stupid in defense of the book, in defense of Robinson, and in defense of Ruth.
Ruth is our lonely and mysterious narrator. We learn that she comes from a long line of solitary, ruminating women, women who don’t say much, women who don’t spend time with men. (In fact, there is scarcely a man in the entire novel; they are either dead or peripheral.) Ruth has moved to Fingerbone, Wisconsin, with her sister, Lucille, to live with their maternal grandmother in the aftermath of their mother’s suicide. They are shuffled between their grandmother and two unhelpful, worrisome great aunts until their mother’s sister Sylvie shows up.
Sylvie is a drifter. She is unaccustomed to household living, to cooking, to wearing appropriate clothes. When we meet her, we understand the irony of the title, for none of these women are any good at housekeeping. Sylvie cares for the girls in a detached, dreamy way, which maddens Lucille but enchants Ruth. In time, we start to see Sylvie and Ruth as mirrors of each other.
Robinson writes like a poet, like a person who has spent much time in thought. Her sentences are careful and beautiful. Housekeeping, she has said, was based on a series of metaphors she wrote while studying for her English Ph.D., as she was largely inspired by American transcendentalists. Her thoughtfulness is evident in every line. In that interview with the Paris Review, she speaks to the mysteriousness that is so infused in her characters:
In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.
How could they not be mysterious? They live in passages like this:
We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and the nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others, and we had lost our sight.
Long after we knew we were too old for dolls, we played out intricate, urgent dramas of entrapment and miraculous escape. When the evenings came they were chill because the mountains cast such long shadows over the land and over the lake. There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hairs on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.
Essentially, it is a novel for readers. It is for people who love language and love the mystery of a good character. I loved every minute spent with this book. I finished reading it in the living room and declared to Sam and Guion, “When I grow up, I just want to BE Marilynne Robinson.” Housekeeping is all I’ve ever wanted in a novel. I wanted to live there, as frightening and dark as it could sometimes be.
A novel that relies on memory and lyricism as its foundation is one that will not, naturally, appeal to everyone. But for me? It’s the perfect book. During Ruth’s strange and supernatural visit to the lake, Robinson includes a meditation on the person of Jesus Christ, on his life and presence, and on the ways that people remembered him, people then and now.
There is so little to remember of anyone–an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.
What do we have that allows us remember of anyone? Just words. And the hope of resurrection.
In the community I grew up in, the phrase “Christian feminist” would have been perceived as a laughable oxymoron. Surely, one could not be both a Christian and a feminist! This is what my childhood community believed and taught. For all of its benefits, the evangelical homeschool community has never been a champion for women. Thankfully, my parents were thinking humans. They never forced us to conform to our culture’s limiting and backward perspectives of women, which advocated that girls stay home and learn to sew and practice “godly homemaking,” in preparation for the strapping husband who would show up at their doorsteps to court them in a pre-arranged agreement between their respective fathers. We knew some families who wouldn’t let their girls learn how to drive or go to college. This is not a joke. These extremely patriarchal notions were taught, believed, and perpetuated. I am always grateful, however, that these beliefs were not taught, believed, or perpetuated by my parents. My sister, for heaven’s sakes, became a nationally acclaimed hockey player. If that’s not a slap in the face to the conservative picture of meek, dainty girlhood, I don’t know what is.
As I grew up, I learned to laugh about the misogynistic ways of the community I was raised in. All of the tight-fisted and closed-minded reasons I had for clinging to conservative gender philosophies began to fall away. My university education was eye-opening, as it was for all of us to varying degrees. In particular, I began to respect women as artists and academics in a way that I had not before. My primary school and high school education, while broad, was traditional and credible information always came down from the infallible hands of a white man. The university introduced a new way of thinking and a new way of perceiving women as leaders, teachers, and creators. UNC-Chapel Hill, unlike other universities of its size and prestige, does not give preference to applicants based on gender; so, UNC’s class profile is nearly 60 percent female. I had no shortage of intelligent, capable, ambitious young women to surround myself with. As you know by now, I also fell in love with Virginia Woolf and her beautiful and compelling words in her essays, novels, and letters were particularly formative for me.
But as all of my old beliefs about women were chipped away, what continued to bother me was how those patriarchal ideas about men and women weren’t entirely gone from my life. Vestiges of these patriarchal politics cropped up in the Christian groups and churches all around me. Yes, they weren’t as blatant as what I knew as a homeschooler, but the church at large wasn’t very progressive toward women. The general message I received from church was that I, as a woman, was expected to serve on the cupcake committee but not contribute to church leadership, which was a boys-only club; I was expected to be a stay-at-home mother and if I wasn’t, I was failing God, America, and my children; I needed men to teach me anything worth knowing.
This struck me as odd. It still does, I guess. Jesus was all about justice and fairness for women. Things get murky with Paul and other writers, but if we’re just talking about what Jesus did and said, his approach toward women was extremely radical and loving. Women were not second-class humans to Jesus, although they were to the rest of his entire civilization. Jesus would not have asked the ladies he knew to bake cupcakes while the men did important stuff. No! Some of the very first churches were started by women in women’s homes (at least in the beginning, until they were edged out of any positions of leadership). From what we know of Jesus in the Gospels, women deserved the same respect, attention, and education that men did. While the world at large still doesn’t believe this (yes, even us “modern” Americans, where women are STILL paid 77 cents for every male dollar for the same jobs), shouldn’t the Church at least believe this?
Yet. It’s not polite to self-identify as a feminist among Christians. This was something I learned early on. Eyebrows shoot up. Women whisper that you shouldn’t say that; don’t you want to get married? Men back away. Suddenly, you’re not a thinking human, you’re a MAN HATER! A destroyer of FAMILY VALUES! A lot of Christian men I know are afraid of feminist women. In their defense, they may have met some unfortunately vociferous and self-righteous feminists who made them feel evil just for being male. That’s wrong. But this, however, is not the majority of feminists. The majority of feminists I know love men and want men to do well and prosper. But they also want women to do well and prosper. That’s all. When I say I’m a feminist, all I mean is that women should be treated like Jesus treated them. In love, fairness, justice, and equality under the law. The majority of women around the world today are not treated with fairness and justice. This is why I call myself a Christian feminist.
Feminist friends find it hard to believe that I’m a Christian. It goes both ways; they also see the terms as exclusive. I remember the disapproving and surprised looks from my Harvard-educated lesbian thesis adviser when she found out that not only was I a Christian, but I was also getting married at the age of 22. “I know how this looks,” I always wanted to tell her. “I’m writing a thesis about the subjugation of married woman in a patriarchal society, and here I am getting married straight out of college! I know it sounds like I have no self-awareness! Maybe I don’t. But I think these values of feminism and Christianity can live together peaceably.”
They can, after all. If Jesus wasn’t a feminist, I don’t know who is.
I remember being forced to evangelize on the streets of downtown Winston-Salem with a bunch of other teens from the apologetics summer camp. After sitting through a few lectures on the right questions to ask, the right answers to give, we were split up into small groups and set loose by the bus station. Our minds were swimming with fear and scripture-based acronyms. My group started wandering around aimlessly, passing people and trying to decide when to make a move.
I was the first person from our group to have the guts to go up to someone. I walked up to an older white woman in a suit, standing in a courtyard. “Excuse me, ma’am? Can I ask you a question?” She nodded, and, as instructed, I asked her what she thought would happen to her when she died. Her face suddenly registered rage. She drew back and screamed in my face. “How DARE you! How dare you ask me that? I don’t want to be preached at! Leave me alone!” I was startled and scared. Tears welled in my eyes but did not fall; adults never screamed at me. We backed away quietly and piously said amongst ourselves that we would pray for her.
After another hour passed, we stopped a young black woman on the street. She was the first person who listened to us long enough to hear our full gospel plea. One of the guys asked her if she’d like to pray to accept Jesus. She said yes and, thrilled, we all prayed the Jesus prayer with her. We went back to camp feeling victorious, glad that it wasn’t a total waste, that we could brag to our other friends that we’d been “successful.” Looking back, I think the woman said yes so we would just leave her alone.
When I got back in my room that night, I remember climbing up in my bunk bed and thinking to myself, “If this is how you’re supposed to tell people about Jesus, I don’t think I want to do it ever again. Surely there’s a better way.”
I am not a theology blogger, so go easy on me here. This is just something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time.
I grew up in the company of strong, intelligent Christian women, my mother especially. It is fair to say that most of what I know about God has come from women. Yes, our pastors were always male, and from them I learned the tenets of theology, but I really learned about Jesus–his ministry, grace, and compassion from women, whether from doing morning devotions with my mother, from watching the many women quietly and tirelessly serve our church, or from small groups with other women in high school and college.
When I was old enough, I marveled at the injunctions in the Bible that said women were not permitted to teach or hold any authority over a man. How could that be? All of my best teachers in my faith had been women. This seems appropriate. I was, after all, a girl. But it seemed strange to me, even then. Women can teach other women, but women can never be permitted to teach men in the church. This is odd. No Christian I know is upset by the fact that 76 percent of public school teachers are women. Women can and do preside over men in the workplace (finally). The famously misogynistic Liberty University has Michele Bachmann, candidate for the U.S. presidency, give their convocation speech, and yet they won’t permit women to graduate from their university with degrees in biblical teaching. (Liberty, therefore, seems fine with the idea of Bachmann running the entire country, but she can’t give a sermon at a church. What superb logic.)
So, what gives, 21st-century church? At long last, women can teach and “hold authority over” men in every other segment of society, but as soon as they step inside a church, they become subjugated again, not fit to teach a man anything. We are told that we are all children of God, but as a woman, I often feel like the second-class child of God.
Scripture does plainly say that women should not be permitted to teach over men. I know it does. But it also says that women have to wear veils in church, because they’re a symbol of a woman’s subjugation to her husband. Scripture also says that women aren’t allowed to pray, speak, or even ask questions in church. Mercifully, most churches today do not force women to wear veils or keep silent. These Pauline rules are now interpreted as culturally specific mandates. So, yay, we don’t have to follow them anymore, because we’re living in a supposedly post-patriarchal age!
My question is: Why aren’t we interpreting the passages about women in church leadership as culturally specific mandates? These anti-women-teaching rules for churches were handed down by a man in an undeniably patriarchal society–at the same time as these other rules on veils and speaking. But the vast majority of churches are still keeping women from any teaching or significant leadership roles today.
I’ve really appreciated the perspective of Guion’s aunt on this topic. Dr. Jane Tillman is a well-respected clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, but she is also ordained in the Episcopal church. We’ve exchanged a few e-mails on this topic and I’ve deeply appreciated her perspective, as a woman, believer, and seminary graduate. I did a lot of research on this subject but had such a struggle finding a woman’s input. All of the opinions I read were written by men who were in favor of keeping women out of teaching roles in the church. Until I heard from Aunt Jane. After providing a thorough historical perspective on this issue, she wrote this to me:
The role of an ordained person is 1) to teach; 2) to provide pastoral leadership, 3) to exercise sacramental authority. I don’t see that women, by virtue of being women, are to be excluded from any of these practices. Of course there is SOME scripture and certainly the weight of tradition arguing against this, but if the Kingdom of God on earth means that we are growing, dynamic, people then change over time is part of the plan.
Preach it, Aunt Jane! I can’t say it any better than she can, but my last word is this: If Jesus should be our model for how we treat people, I think we’re a far cry from what he practiced. Jesus was radical in his approach to women. He welcomed them into his community and named many of them as his disciples. He reached out to them; he sought their company. Women are recorded as starting and hosting some of the first churches in their homes. Then patriarchy crept in and kept women out. I think it’s time for the modern church to reverse its antiquated and discriminatory policies against women. I can’t help but think Jesus would have pushed the religious institutions of his day to do the same.
A few weeks ago, I was walking with Grace around the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. We slipped in right before it closed and it was like stepping into a vault of solemn beauty. We spoke in our best library voices and talked about which paintings we liked the best, which Asian sculptures we’d smuggle home, which artists communicated well.
“I love being here,” Grace said. “It’s so peaceful. It makes me think that this,” she said, gesturing to the art all around the room, “is what I want to do with my life. I wish it mattered, though. I wish art did something for people.”
“But it does!” I exclaimed. “It does so much. Without art… well… people wouldn’t…”
I trailed off. I couldn’t find the right words for what I was trying to tell her. I believed wholly that art mattered and that it matters, but I hadn’t the slightest way to convince her of this. I was sad, scared that she believed that her painting, her photography, her fashion were meaningless–and frustrated by my inability to communicate otherwise. We kept walking around the gallery and the conversation faded, but her question has been ringing in my mind ever since.
I’d like to attempt a better explanation for what I was trying persuade Grace of. I’m fully aware that I’m not saying anything new or refreshing, but I can’t shake the sense that I need to say it. For my benefit, as well as for hers.
As you well know, we lived in the realm of imagination when we were children. The boundaries between the creativity of the mind and the reality of everyday life were fuzzy for us. Your old trunk of dress-up clothes was a seemingly bottomless repository of new identities, new stories. We made up for our lack of real pets by inventing invisible ones, “spirit animals,” whose appearances were ripped from the animal encyclopedia. We built miniature communities from Playmobil and Brio train tracks and played for hours in these tiny worlds. I think we lived more in our colorful minds than anywhere else.
As we grew up, we gradually shed these imaginary retreats. Kelsey started playing sports; I withdrew into books, to worlds that had already been created for me; but you didn’t relinquish your creativity so easily. In many ways, you’ve maintained it much more carefully than the rest of us have. This is why you are still an artist today.
You asked me in Ackland if art mattered and you seemed to have already reached the conclusion that it didn’t. I didn’t have a good answer for you then, but I wanted to let you know that I profoundly disagree with your conclusion.
This is why I think art–and your art, especially–matters. You asked if art really did anything for people. You’re right that it doesn’t put a roof over people’s heads or give them clean drinking water. Art doesn’t reform women’s rights in the third world or end famines. But it matters because it reaches the soul, a place that no amount of foreign aid or number of peacekeeping troops can reach. Great paintings, songs, poems, films, and novels accomplish a work in the heart and mind that nothing else can accomplish, which is also why art has existed for as long as people have existed.
Most importantly, I believe art communicates the divine. As a Christian, all forms of great art–even if they are not explicitly Christian–point me back to God. I am reminded of the goodness of the created world, the beauty that we have learned to find and express, and the strange mercy of Jesus. Even those who do not believe in a supernatural force find something uniquely spiritual and enduring about the communion between the self and a great work of art. (Just talk to Edmund Burke a little bit about this and you’ll see what I mean.) The next question, then, is what is a “great” work of art, but that’s another pompous, rambling letter for another time.
I just wanted to tell you to keep doing what you’re doing. It matters.
I am writing a series of posts about why I love my (immediate) family. This is the final installment. You can read the other posts here. All wedding photographs courtesy of the incomparable Meredith Perdue.
Sam, Sammy, Samantha, Lil Bro Peep
When Samuel Chase was born, it was, collectively, the best thing that had ever happened to us three girls. He was our living doll, our breathing plaything. And he was a BOY! We had never seen one of those before. He was also the most adorable baby ever created. I wish I had photos of him as an infant to share here; these pictures would make you weep, overwhelmed by the unbelievable CUTENESS of this child. It was unreal.
We fed him, stuffed him in doll strollers, changed his diapers, bathed him, spoke for him. Mom likes to say that he didn’t learn to walk until he was three because Kelsey carried him everywhere and that he’s still a reticent talker because he’s used to the family women, his four mothers, speaking for him. Poor boy.
By the misfortune of his birth order, he was forced to play with us girls. He was always a good sport, though, and tolerated our dressing him up in Grace‘s endless treasure trunk of costumes. One memorable evening, when he was about four, we put him in Grace’s beloved Queen of Hearts satin dress, outfitted him with a blonde Dolly Parton-esque wig, and called him Samantha. This proved to be immensely entertaining… until Father came home and saw his only son prancing around in a dress. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY SON??” he bellowed at us when he walked in the door. We all burst into tears–Sam most of all, because he didn’t understand what he’d done wrong. Again, the poor child. How he suffered for us.
He got shafted a lot, as the youngest. The family travel rule was that whoever was lowest to the ground had to check under all the beds before we left a hotel. This thankless task consistently fell to Sam, although he has now surpassed all of us women in height. (Grace would now be the Lowest to the Ground.) He’s always been Mom’s favorite, which was natural and unsurprising to us all, but he was never given any special privileges. He was an occasionally dramatic child (often having “the worst day of [his] life,” multiple times, before the age of eight), but probably for good reason. Dad was always intent on cultivating manliness in him, and soon Sam took over all of the yardwork and mechanical maintenance tasks that we girls once had to perform. He was expected to be good, strong, and capable. Luckily for all of us, Sam is all of those things.
Over the past few years, however, Sam has developed a wickedly good sense of humor, a softened blend of my father’s cutting sarcasm and Sam’s own gentle wittiness. I think it surprised us, to learn that Sam was funny. He spoke so rarely that we often had no idea what was going on in there. He is delightful company at any moment. And he will almost always make you laugh.
Sam is known as having the best heart in our family. We tease Mom about saying this so often, but she only does because it is true: The man has a tender heart. I don’t know how it happened. By all accounts, he should have wound up bitter and confused at life, at his unfortunate birth order. Instead, he is deeply compassionate to all people, understanding beyond his years, and emotionally profound.
The story Mom tells about Sam’s exposure to Jesus always gets me, even though I’ve heard it a hundred times. Sam was about three and Mom told him the basic outline of the Gospel: God sent Jesus to earth for you; he loved lots of people while he was here; he extends love to us even though we don’t deserve it; and then he died on a cross for us. At this last point–the crucifixion–little Sam burst into tears. Mom was surprised. “Sam,” she asked, concerned, “why are you crying?” “Mommy,” Sam said, “why would Jesus die for ME?” It is a simple question, and the truest expression of humility that I know.
I can’t even tell you about Sam’s speech to me and Guion at our rehearsal dinner without wanting to break down and sob. I didn’t cry during our entire wedding weekend–except for Sam’s toast. It was simple and pure and unrehearsed. At its most basic element, Sam just wanted to make sure that I knew how much he loved me. I certainly did, and I always have. He is a good brother–the best, in fact–and my life would be profoundly empty without him. I need to do a better job of telling him that, in the manner that he told me: Simple, pure, unrehearsed.
On Sunday, our rector talked about the passage in Matthew in which Jesus provides a litany of parables to explain the kingdom of heaven. It’s a mysterious series of similes and they don’t exactly line up at first glance. Even if you do know what the “kingdom of heaven” actually means (I’m not sure I do), it’s still mystifying as to how it could be a mustard seed AND a fishing net AND a pearl of great price AND a treasure buried in a field.
The kingdom of heaven can be many things at once, I suppose. It can be deceptively small. It can have a wide reach. It can be what you sell everything for. And it can be hidden.
The hiddenness of God and the kingdom of heaven particularly struck me. Why would God hide? When I feel far away from God, is it because the kingdom of heaven is hidden or because I’m not looking hard enough? I don’t know. I wish I did.
One of the main lines that I remember from Paul’s sermon was about our interaction with the divine. “Trust is often the most difficult thing,” he said. “It is often more difficult than faith and belief.”
Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing lately. I’ve been trying to amp up faith and belief, but maybe it’s the trust that’s really absent.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Matthew 13:44
When I was a young blogger, I wrote more freely about my faith. At that time, I assumed that all of my readers were also like-minded Christians. This was a fair assumption, since I think my mom, my grandparents, and my sisters were my only readers. But over the past two years or so, I’ve more or less stopped writing about my faith and I regret that. The gospel is important to me, but you’d never get that impression by reading this blog. I write about all of the other things that are important to me–Guion, friends, family, books, dogs–but not about Jesus.
Here’s my best guess as to why I stopped doing this. I have followed the tendency of many bloggers to whitewash my life. The one thing you learn about blogging for a few years is that you can’t express an opinion about anything without offending someone. Because of this, I have tried to avoid topics that are inherently personal and offensive, like religion and politics. While most casual readers could probably divine my political leanings (it is evident that I am not a Sarah Palin or FOX news fan), it would be trickier to actually figure out what I believe about God.
Lately, I’ve tended to keep my thoughts about God closer to my chest. I have many friends who are not Christians. I am hesitant to write about my many religiously oriented thoughts and concerns for fear of alienating people. Even I don’t like to read long-winded and highly emotional posts about religion. It’s not often enjoyable and it is often hard to relate to; faith is, by definition, such an intensely personal thing. Even more than puppies and books. It’s generally more enjoyable to read a post about someone’s kitchen makeover than it is to read a post about their internal turmoil over transubstantiation. Intensely personal things are not always blog (aka, The Entire Internet Can Read This) material.
However. All of this to say: I think there are appropriate and considerate ways to write about one’s faith on the Interwebs. I am going to try to do this with more frequency, but I think I’ll also spend some time studying good examples. Mrs. Pinckney and Betsey come to mind as people I know who blog gracefully and fluidly about the intersection between Jesus and life. I hold them up as valuable examples.
So, here’s a short attempt:
Part II. I Knew I Was Not Magnificent
No one enjoys receiving criticism. But when you don’t hear it for a while, you start to think that you’re pretty awesome. Boy, there’s nothing wrong with me! I am the best.
If we’re lucky, however, we have people in our lives who are able and willing to tell us that this is not the case. After a few months of believing that I was super, I’ve received a lot of criticism from important people in my life over the past few weeks. As these people pointed out, I am grumpy, judgmental, and anxious. I am an energetic young curmudgeon most of the time. I am fundamentally cynical about most things. I am an obsessive planner because I tend to expect worst possible outcomes and because I thrive on a high degree of responsibility.
As these people kindly pointed out, these aren’t the best personality traits. I had more or less forgotten about these unfortunate aspects of myself until I heard these reminders. To be pushed back to God, to a place of humility–it is a necessary chore. I think God speaks to us through other people sometimes. Often, through our closest friends and loved family–and sometimes, through a much-lauded hipster musician.
We were listening to Bon Iver’s new album on our drive to North Carolina this weekend. The gorgeous song “Holocene” came on and we talked briefly about the chorus.
we smoked the screen to make it what it was to be
now to know it in my memory:
… and at once I knew I was not magnificent
high above the highway aisle
(jagged vacancy, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles…
“I knew I was not magnificent.” What a simple and perfect expression. It’s that place of humility that we all have to reach with ourselves at some point or another. Acknowledging that I am not magnificent was a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Difficult, but essential.
(This was supposed to be posted on the 29th, but WordPress decided not to. Oh well. Here it is anyway!)
One year ago today, Guion and I got married at the Chapel of the Cross. Guion’s mentor and our pre-marital counselor Cleve May gave a beautiful and soul-stirring homily for our ceremony. He was kind enough to send it to us a few weeks ago as a reminder of the promise we made to each other, and so I wanted to share it with you today.
We’re celebrating our year together on the beautiful shores of Atlantic Beach right now, but our thoughts will be very much with that heart-stopping moment on May 29, 2010.
Abby and Guion, I know that the commitment you make to one another today has been thought through and prayed over for a long time, and over the last several months I have so enjoyed the privilege of sharing with you the counsel of the Lord through the wisdom of scripture concerning the beautiful gift and awesome responsibility of marriage. With these things in mind, I want to encourage you to continue seeking deeper understanding of God’s will for your lives. To this end, I exhort you to implant yourselves in the community of the church, in order that God may grant you wisdom and grace with and through God’s people, that your marriage will be refreshed, strengthened and held accountable in the body of Christ, and that you may continually realize and live into God’s calling for your marriage to witness to the love and faithfulness of God exhibited in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the Gospel Lesson Jonathan read a moment ago we heard some of the most potentially daunting and yet hope-filled words Jesus spoke to his disciples and now speaks to us: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… love one another as I have loved you. In similar fashion, Paul calls us to Christ’s likeness in the Philippians passage Mac shared with us: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Love like Jesus. Think like Jesus. Guion, do you feel the weight of that? Abby, need we any explanation of why these words can feel so daunting? And particularly in this context, as we gather to witness and bless your marriage, these calls to imitate Christ can sound completely overwhelming because there is a simple fact that everyone here who has ever been married will attest to; there is nothing like marriage to open our eyes to just how un-Christ-like we can be. No other relationship can so expose the sin of our selfishness, our insecurities, and our pride. And yet it is precisely in the face of this simple fact that Jesus’ and Paul’s words are so profoundly hopeful!
You see, Jesus did not merely love us in the past by giving himself to us and for us; Jesus loves us now! He prays for us, and dwells within us by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is not only a gift of presence, but also of power! Jesus never gave a command in order to crush his people under impossible expectations. Rather, Jesus’ commands operate as sure promises of all that He intends to work in us through the power of the Spirit. Love one another as I have loved you is a command of promise; the Spirit will empower us to love this way. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus is an exhortation of hope! The Spirit will so tutor our minds!
You see, the sustained beauty and blessing of your marriage will require the miracle of God’s producing in you the love and the mind of Jesus. Guion and Abby, as much love as you feel for one another at this moment, I can assure you that there will be days when you wake up and wonder why on earth you committed your life to the stranger lying next to you. In your life together, the feelings of love will come and go, and it will be in the hardest days that you will discover the true depth of love that persists, not because of romance or utility or convenience, but because of the love and humility of Jesus, who determined to love both neighbor and enemy alike, humbly laying his life down for both, and calling us to do the same; because in marriage you will undoubtedly find your spouse to be both your most intimate neighbor, and sometimes the enemy who can hurt you the most. In both instances, you must determine to humbly love, for our Lord so commands, and what He commands he can accomplish in us through His Spirit.
Guion and Abby, I am so thankful that God has given you both the gift of faith in Jesus, and the desire to honor God with your lives, but for the sake of your marriage and ultimately for the sake of Jesus’ name, you must never cease to steward that gift, nurture that faith, and feed that desire. As Paul puts it in the verses immediately following what Mac read about Jesus’ humility: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Guion and Abby, by the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells and works in you, love like Jesus, think like Jesus, and your marriage will be what it is designed to be, a beautiful, living picture of Jesus. Amen.