Friday, March 18, 2011

Cultivars of Grace

It is my vacation. The girls and I returned to visit my in-laws in a hiccup-sized town in the Florida panhandle scrub country. The scarlet waves of clover billow in the wind (I avoid the words "crimson tide"), and the jonquils give rise to the suggestion that Spring would soon dance out of the wings and onto center stage, moving even the brittle live oaks to a greening. Ah, the oaks - our alter egos according to Isaiah, and always the last to sprout leaves.

Going down for a visit is always a ritual of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I am lovingly haunted by the stark, lonely beauty of those wide, forgotten flatlands. They are the face of Moses, of Elijah, of Christ walking out of the wilderness to speak to the people after a harrowing unmasking of the self before God. On the other hand, the town is awash with my wife's memories, cracked and rusted in the marches of time. There is always the mixed wine of tidings good and ill. Small town life seems to either drift away, leaving a nostalgic shadow in its wake, or it stays near and becomes ingrown. It is very good, but emotionally taxing.

Taking shelter from a midday rainshower, I ducked into the old potting shed on the property, a ramshackle affair being continuously given the nudges of resurrection by my father-in-law Richard. It being mid-March, Karen, my mother-in-law, was in the midst of coaxing audacity out of a few timid tomato plants and Brussels sprouts beneath grow lights. The rest of the shed was taken up with mud-stained gardening implements and dusty bric-a-brac. A small selection of gardening volumes and cookbooks lined a shelf, and the prehistoric hulk of a tiller squatted against a wall. Stacks of upside down flower pots filled in the gaps between spades and hoes and watering cans. It was all dead tools, or at least only potential energy. The only life present was the fuschia feathering of miniscule tomato leaves under womb-colored light, and I couldn't help but think of my upbringing in the church.

So many of us, in the States especially, were brought up surrounded by the riches of Scripture and the admonitions of humble and human saints. We were immersed in the silly but wonderful and purposeful vagaries of our respective traditions, enfolded in great clouds of witnesses, the channels and vessels of grace. Yet in the midst of it all, life seemed strangely absent, or at least hard to come by. Given all the books and tools, one would expect life to be overflowing, but it was merely a secret, waiting pregnant in a dark corner like a dormant seed. Somehow or other, God shook us loose into life, pruning and urging, feeding and covering before frosts. It is no wonder, then, that many of us don't easily recognize the Spirit in saints who sprouted like wild mustard on the fringes of some wasteland, their joyous golden sprays of blossoms unseemly and unhinged in their grace. They are the AA Christians, the profligates-turned-preachers, the outlandish stories of failed suicides becoming visions of Christ and the saints. They are the Twain to our Fenimore Cooper, God's wry grin over the ornate and ludicrous prose of our theology.

Surely they must often grow frustrated with us. They leap toward the light with all their strength, all their soul, all their might, often failing in spectacular fashion without the bourgeois skills of hiding it. We require gentle prodding and rich soil to grow, while they latch onto any near scent of the Gospel and explode with praise. My view of them is the poet's view, not the theologians. Of course it falls blithely short of an understanding of Christ's parable of the soils (the theologians' views fall short too, one might argue), but truly I sometimes long to be like one of these, wild and unbounded in love, passionate and expressive. My comfort is in the knowledge that the author of life is the author of both the wolf and the dachshund, the mustang and the cart pony. Both wild and tame shall be in his fold, but even on our best days, none among us approaches either the inward cultivated richness or the wild outbound leaping of the love of God.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Temple Sounds

There was a line outside. Men with goats, bulls, doves, bowls of flour and oil, all stood about waiting until the priest was ready to receive each of them. Some spoke to their neighbors, glad-hearted and expectant. Others were silent, watching from within themselves as if from a long way away. Added to this moderately patient crowd was the cackling racket of the animals. The helpless bleating of lambs and flapping of pigeons in makeshift cages played a reckless counterpoint over the disquieted lowing of great bulls, one scuffing its hooves anxiously, one searching through the grain sack of a waiting stranger with its great purple tongue. Goats grunted and whined and stared about with their almond eyes. All these, of course, contributed to an extensive carpet of defecation which every waiting man was keen to avoid, most of them with the mild attentiveness of one who is acclimated to such things. The Judean street bustled about them in the jovial ho-hum importance of its daily market affairs. Men and women carried bundles of firewood, homespun fabric still suggestive of the oily, metallic smell of sheep, precarious jars of water, bags of dry spelt, dates, grapes, stonily crusted loaves of bread waiting to be broken open to reveal the wonderful riches inside – all of it accompanied by the hocking sing-songs of those who would trade, their voices trying not to betray the desperation to sell.

Upon finally entering the gates, each man from the line was greeted by a terrific onslaught of his senses. Smoke and incense perfumed the air. The priests on duty looked positively monstrous, their ceremonial clothes saturated with blood spatter across the aprons, their sleeves acrid with smoke. The cacophony of wounded livestock echoed off the ornate walls, mingling with the tinkling of tiny bells from the priests’ once beautiful garments. The greatest sensation was the smell – blood, death, cooking, incense, offal, smoke, singed hides – all of it together in the expansive and elaborate temple court. One could never grow completely accustomed to it. In the heat of the day it was almost unbearable, and you never left forgetting it.

This is the place where sin is atoned for. The raucous din and unforgettable smell surrounded by lavish architectural adornment paint an unmistakable portrait of the intersection of holy mystery and the chaotic business of redemption. It was not, is not, sexy, and never shall it be. It is the necessary mess, the alluvial muck wherefrom springs the golden corn of wheat – life-giving only when it has fallen into the earth and died. Redemptive work saturates us in the leprous putrescence of sin, not as those who partake, but as the physician’s assistant – doing his fallible best – is covered in the smears and viscosity of the physician’s work. His life is lived in a rhythm: scrub up, dive in, scrub up dive in, scrub up, dive in, with all the human business of living and learning in between. With tending, and with time, what he finally sees emerge from beneath the caked bandages and dripping tubes is the wholeness of a human being.

Friday, March 04, 2011

House Show

Amid the trumpet blasts of daffodils, the spangling of crocuses, we gathered in the home of two dear friends. They were gracious enough to allow six unpredictable musicians (are there any other kinds?) houseroom to set up the fittingly weird marriage of electronics, strings, wood, and metal. We had rehearsed, but what we hoped for was not a perfect show. We hoped for a miracle, that blatantly real and unearthly thing that happens when Good gets out of control and we begin to hang on for dear sweet life.

The table was weighed down by the richest of fare. We ate and drank and stepped up to the microphones with fear and trembling. All the world is desperately important - life and death. But when the last note had rolled out like the trailing whisper of a thundercloud, we realized that we had been a part of something which was more than the sum of its parts. I am thankful. Much thanks, as well, to all those who came to Nate and Emily's house tonight. It's never the same without you.

Cast List:
Taylor Brown - drums, percussion, piano, hats
Burt Elmore - electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, bedlam
Robyn James - viola, vocals, stomping, clapping, grooves
Ethan Norman - acoustic, vocals, Saxony
Patricia Peacock - cello, stomping, clapping, fantasy creatures
aw - guitar, harmonica, accordion, piano, vocals, shenanigans
Nate & Emily Sharpe - house