25 April 2020

Meet me

Meet me
in the quiet of the morning
in the red teakettle
in the candle lit against darkness
in the water and the Word
in the bread and the cup

On Being Half Dead

This morning I awoke at 4:45 with a keen sense of my own mortality. As I lay in bed listening to the dripping of the April rain and the occasional call of an overzealous early bird, a voice told me, "You're 38 and a half years old."

"Mmm," I mumbled, and rolled over to get some more sleep.

"A lot of people don't live till 80."

I rearranged my pillow.

"And you're obese. The BMI chart says so."

"Sure," I responded, sitting up and scowling a fat scowl. "People used to die before 80 quite a bit. But as Mrs. Lucy Nell Crater said, 'They wasn't as advanced as we are.' We're living longer these days.

"Look at this COVID-19 thing," I continued. "We've basically crippled our whole national economy in order to extend the lives of 50,000 Boomers long enough to vote for Trump again this November." I knew this was unfair and likely inaccurate, but being tired makes me cranky and cynical. I rubbed my eyes, keenly aware that in doing so I was also touching my face.

"We love keeping people alive longer than nature intended, and we're getting better at it all the time. But even if we weren't, and even if I'm halfway to death, 77 would be a great age to die at. It's the product of two primes. Now will you please shut your stupid imaginary mouth so I can get some more sleep?"

"Your Uncle Jim died real young," the voice continued. "What was he? 40? 45?"

I gathered the blanket around me and squeezed my eyes shut.

"You know the one! Worked for the Kansas Department of Wildlife or something?"

I began humming "Samson" by Regina Spektor to shut the voice out.

"You remember! Taught your mom to play poker when she was a little girl by holding her on his lap during games? Bald as a boulder? Loved beer and watermelon? Favorite ice cream was Rocky Road? And say, don't you love poker and beer and watermelon and Rocky Road? And you started balding at 22."

"Look, you... whatever you are. I'm fine with dying. Lived a good life. Ready to meet my Maker and all that. So whatever you're trying to do, it's not working." I rolled over and rearranged the blankets again. Next to me, Magen stirred. Shoot. Maybe I should get up so at least one of us could get some more sleep.

"'A good life,'" the voice rejoined. "Let's talk about that. What have you accomplished, really?"

I sighed and gave in. "My wife and I survived a couple of really hard years of marriage, and we are closer now after 15 years than we've ever been. We have four beautiful kids who don't behave like monsters. I have a cookie cutter house in the suburbs and a yard full of dandelion skeletons and two used vehicles and two brand new pairs of nice running shoes. I make six figures at a stimulating, enjoyable, and low-stress job. My relationship with God has seldom been stronger, and I'm learning to play the piano and teaching my four-year-old to read."

"Six figures, huh? Nice. But as Mr. Shiftlet said, 'There's some men that some things mean more to them than money.'" I could hear the voice's invisible smirk. "See? You're not the only one who can quote Flannery O'Connor all willy nilly. How's that Beowulf novel coming?"

"It's not. I put it on hold in February to write a commentary on Romans."

"Oh, another unfinished project. What a surprise. And how is Romans coming?"

"I'm on verse 4," I responded.

"Still in the first chapter?" the voice asked. "How many verses are there in Romans?"

"I think there are 434."

"I'm just gonna do some quick math here... Oh my. It's going to take you 23 years at this rate. You'll be lucky if you're still alive by then. After all, dear sweet Uncle Jim--"

"I'm sick of your lip, imaginary adversary. The bottom line is this: I'm doing the best I know how to do with the resources I have. I'm keeping my family alive, I'm making really good software for my customers, and I'm making it a priority to write. I'm sorry if it doesn't come up to your impossible standards. I'm giving what I've got."

"Just a couple more questions, " the voice said. "I promise. What apps do you have on your phone?"

"Um. The usual stuff. Email, Spades, Netflix, podcasts, news--"

"And how much time," the voice interrupted, "would you say you spend immersed in that tiny enormous digital world that you can exercise complete control over (and also completely controls you)?"

"Maybe... 20 minutes a day?"

"That's not what your phone says, and you know it," the voice said. "Try 85 minutes a day. And how long do you spend watching TV shows with your wife in the evenings?"

"Um. Maybe about an hour, most nights?"

"And when was the last time you read a novel or book of poetry... or any book, really?"

"Not sure. Maybe January? But I do read to the kids pretty much every day."

"So," the voice said, "You're giving everything you've got... except for the 15% of your waking day that you're essentially pissing away."

Now I was mad. "Just who do you think you are, anyway? What gives you the right to talk to me like this?"

The voice softened. "I'm you. The obnoxious, driving part of you. My job is to make sure we don't have any regrets. We've used half of our time here already. We're feeling deader every day. Haven't you noticed your hair turning gray? Or that your knees get sore after a five-mile jog?"

"Yeah," I said. "I guess I have."

The voice continued. "Can we use our time any better? I think..." It faltered, just for a moment. "I think the world really needs what we have to give. Is there any way we can give it more faithfully? Remember what Annie Dillard wrote:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: "Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time."
I sighed, rolled out of bed, and pulled on my pajama pants. I shuffled out of the bedroom, resisting the urge to grab my phone on my way out.

As I measured out the water for my pot of coffee, I said, "Fine. I'll write for a couple of hours. But after that, can we have a nap?"

"Oh, you poor simple fool," the voice said. "Don't you know we can only nap when the kids are napping? By the time you're done writing this morning, they'll be up and hungry for breakfast and Dad Time. Maybe we can nap when we're dead. Just another half-life to go."

Note: Just as I finished the final paragraph, this happened: 

03 January 2020

A Prayer Before Debugging

Almighty Mender
Who works order from chaos,
Who delights
In making broken things new,
Be my Wisdom this day.
Reveal to me the source
Of this problem that preoccupies me,
This error unseen
And unforeseen,
The subtle bug
That wrenched my best-laid plans
Utterly out of joint.

Remind me,
O my Peace,
That I am dust and ashes.
You can accomplish all things
In a single master-stroke;
I cannot.
Let me sit with these truths
And be satisfied --
Even delighted --
In them.

Deliver me from
From an irritation
That lashes out in anger.
May the grace of my Savior
Overflow from my mind,
My lips,
My hands,
As I interact with others
Who also bear Your image,
Others for whom You paid
The same unspeakable price.

May I move slowly
And thoughtfully today,
Taking small steps
With wide eyes
As I ask, seek,
And knock my way through
This troublesome bit of code.
May I persevere in faith,
Following in Your footsteps,
O Great Redeemer of all things,
That those who ask shall receive,
Those who seek shall find,
And those who knock
Shall see doors opened.

Photo Credit

25 December 2019

Advent: Arrival

The newborn king, heralded by angel armies,
Lay without pomp or ceremony
In a feedbox, surrounded by scents
Of hay and dust and manure,
Cattle and afterbirth and blood.

Israel’s Great Shepherd was greeted
Not by her high and holy ones,
But by a band of literal shepherds,
Smelly and earthy and common,
Full of faith and wonder and praise.

The king’s virginal mother sat nearby,
Grateful to be far from Nazareth
And the vicious whispers of neighbors.
She smiled at the shepherds’ amazement;
She, too, had known angel-awe.

Her husband, discreet and righteous,
Quietly rearranged her bed,
Working to provide more comfort
For the wife who was his
And the child who wasn’t.

Thus the Maker came to live
Among creatures He had formed,
And He shared their form:
Tiny, helpless, humble, poor, weakness born
To shame the things the World prized most.

Cross-Posted at the Mustard Seed Conspiracy

Photo Credit

20 December 2019

Advent: Reclamation

His smile was grim as he looked over the land:
Thickets of plum and honey locust twined with poison ivy,
Clearings all but choked with thistles, weeds, and vines.

He was old enough to remember when this was a vineyard,
Renowned around the world for its fine wines, subtle yet robust,
And now a family of raccoons resided under the ruined winepress.

The cistern had cracked. The spring that used to feed it
Burbled down the hill now, giving life to other, less ungrateful, lands.
The soil, once rich and fertile, was now drought-dry.

The grapevines had gone the way that wild grapevines go:
In every direction they could. They were prodigiously leafy
And all but fruitless. The few grapes they did have were tiny and bitter.

In short, it was a mess. But, like just about anything,
It could be salvaged, given enough time, tears, sweat, and blood.
He had loved this vineyard once, and it was in his heart to remake it.

He noticed a full-grown timber rattler sunning itself atop a fallen log
And made a mental note to have his son come down
And deal with it. Snakes would have no place in this vineyard.

It was a huge job, but he was unfazed. He had an abundance
Of time and strength and zeal. No matter the cost, he would accomplish this.
He turned to the nearest tree, unshouldered his ax, and started chopping.

Photo Credit