On Lament

I heard a co-workers story the other day: about how he, as a bi-racial adolescent in Chicago, was once picked up by the police. Together with his friends they were taken to another neighborhood, a neighborhood he knew he should never enter. He wasn’t involved in gangs but he wasn’t safe in this place, due to his own neighborhood and skin color. And I don’t mean safe the way people often use it nowadays, to say they don’t feel comfortable, or they might face memories or opinions that hurt. I mean he wasn’t safe because he would get physically hurt. Safe like it’s always meant.

The police dropped him off, after picking him and his friends up for no ostensible reason, and announced to anyone walking by where these kids were from, as my co-worker and his friends began running back to safety.

In the circles I frequent, which include many Christians, I continue to hear the need to lament. This seems an overly literary or bygone word, though it has deep roots in what Christians point toward as holy writ: one of the books in Scripture is entitled Lamentations. The psalms, which I read perhaps more than anything outside the stories of Jesus, boil and bubble with lament.

Yet, the terminology of lament, as I hear it after hearing stories of abuse of power, of someone being jailed after going nine miles over the speed limit, seems to encompass two main ideas: grief and repentance. The former we know from therapists and counselors, and we know we must grieve after experiencing loss or terrible news, and this grief is a process (with five stages if you’re so inclined). The latter is another religious word, and while it means a turning, I’ve only ever heard it to mean a turning away from what is hurting you and others and toward something good. Today, the dictionary says repentance is a similar feeling, but when Jesus came walking through Galilee and told people to repent and believe the good news, the first part of that exhortation meant to change. To act differently.

But back to lament. It certainly includes the idea of grief, and it may include repentance. Yet, it points to something beyond both of these. Perhaps the most famous poem on lament is attributed, in scripture, to an ancient king of Israel and quoted by Jesus a thousand years later as he died:

My God, my god, why have you forsaken me? / Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? / O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

Jesus only quotes the first line, but in a culture where memorization was still the primary way stories were passed, the first line was enough to evoke the whole poem (which goes on for some time beyond my quote).

If this is lament, it strikes to the core of our fragility and capacity to be hurt. It encompasses grief, yet extends beyond into a painful tension: suffering under the auspices of a good and powerful god. The next lines of the poem:

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. / In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. / To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

This strikes to the heart of critiques on religious belief: how can a good and powerful god allow this? For those of us who were suckled on logic and empiricism, who learned in basic argument that those in power should stop any suffering they see, we are faced with two options: either God does not exist as we conceive of God and doesn’t have the strength (or the kindness) we claim, or God does not exist altogether. Wouldn’t we do better with the power, armed with our 21st century liberal view of love and care for those hurting?

To which I believe, these ancient writings known as scripture say, “Now we are getting somewhere.”

The movement, in our human-centered age, is to place ourselves at the center of events and whatever happens around us. Think of it: thousands of years ago, a sacrifice to the gods meant they were at the center, perhaps capricious and moody, but they might be appeased by a little burnt meat, at least enough to help the crops to grow. This idea is laughable now, and liable to get you in trouble with animal control for your cruelty. But the gods were at the center of the story, and we had smaller parts.

Today, we’ve kicked the multiple gods to the curb and settled on one (though various religions each claim a different one) or none at all. Yet, we experienced an interesting development about 500 years ago, on our way to this moment. Ronald Rittgers, in the book The Reformation of Suffering, explains how Christian missionaries, especially Protestants, began focusing on the sovereignty of God as they faced communities with doubts and heartlessness, though probably little outright and outspoken atheism. God’s sovereignty, these missionaries claimed, is enough to see us through crises with consolation.

In other words, suffering doesn’t sell.

(You may be wondering how this puts humanity at the center, if we’re focused on the sovereignty of God. Patience. We lovers of literature like nothing more than irony, especially when you must wait for it.)

God as sovereign means that suffering comes about when humans mess up and muck around, and this is often true enough. We inflict heavy damage on each other, and I write in the midst of a global pandemic, where the suffering of a nation is largely dependent on the ability of those in power to protect and guide them through this crisis. The United States is not faring well.

Moreover, the past month has shown us the suffering we inflict on one another, especially through the systems we have either created or continued, and we’re beginning to see how they benefit those who are white, straight, and, as always, male.

Of course we do inflict heavy damage on each other, but this is a “free will” argument, and it comes up tragically short in light of the suffering we experience and see around us. Who is responsible for earthquakes and tornadoes? For tsunamis? Hurricanes?

At the very least, we must acknowledge (and holy scripture does), that all of creation is wracked and marred by the cosmic consequences of our brokenness and messed up lives. Though, we don’t see the easy connection between stealing from someone and a tornado. We can’t forget that humans did see this connection hundreds and thousands of years ago. But we’ve moved past the cosmic effects of our guilt.

Without this cosmic effect, this idea that creation is suffering alongside us, God does not need to be over all creation — sovereign — as those in the Reformation insisted he was. He simply needs to be able to atone for our sins: the unkind words I said and the — well, most of our sins have to do with words, right? We’re not murdering and rarely stealing, and we live pretty good lives.

So, we need a God who can forgive us our unkind words and, perhaps while he’s at it, coach us up to our full potential. That’s part of our problem, too, in our therapeutic world: we’re not developed or mature enough. We need someone to make our lives better. Help us stop saying those bad words when someone cuts us off on the road, and help us become our full selves.

God as counselor.

As we removed the cosmic consequences of our brokenness, we lessen and reduce the weight of our sins, and our great and sovereign God becomes a divine counselor. He can show us how to make amends and live a better life. This is not to say counselors are not helpful, and not to say that God cannot guide us toward healthier ways of living.

Rather, it’s to claim our un-articulated belief: God exists to make our lives better.

When suffering does come our way, which for me as a white and middle-class American, is rare, this is at odds with our divine buddy-counselor (and at odds with the God who is powerful and loving, which we probably still partially believe). This cognitive dissonance either points us back toward the Reformation injunction of “grin and bear it,” because suffering doesn’t sell, or we find ourselves saying at best something ludicrous and mindless, or at worst cruel and patently moronic sayings.

We tell people God only gives them what they can handle, so this person must be able to handle a lot (I’ve never heard someone grateful of how much they can handle in the midst of suffering, because God gave them so much, but apparently it’s a nice sentiment to tell others). We tell people God is using the suffering to develop their lives and, one would suppose, give someone a debilitating illness or the death of a child so they can lead developed and full lives. This is God as buddy-counselor, who simply wants us to reach our full potential, and it’s devastating in action.

Over the past 500 years, we’ve reduced our need for God, which always means we reduce God. If we become like what we worship, and we worship a reduction of God, we can act no better than that when trouble comes.

But I was writing about lament. You see, lament keeps God in the driver’s seat, frustratingly so. Lament, as we see it practiced in ancient kings, poets, prophets, and a messiah, is about a divine give-and-take with God. It does not rush to answers or even reduce answers about suffering and evil. Lament carries a protest sign to the royal court, and keens and cries, and trusts it’s heard.

Lament carries a protest sign to God.

For on some level, while we may be complicit in the pain we feel, and we won’t carry a protest sign without, in some way, causing the problem in the first place: the pain and suffering in this world seem to go well beyond whatever divine redistribution needs to happen after what I said when I couldn’t get the boards to line up on my latest home project. Lament is sorrow, but it is also protest. This world is not right, and shouldn’t a good and loving God make it more so?

The Bible does a very poor job of theodicy, or the vindication of God by explaining the problem of evil. At least, it does a poor job from a modern lens of philosophical, ontological, and rational thought. Instead, we see that the problem of evil happens in relationship between God and humanity. We know we don’t experience evil as punishment or redress from what we said or did, and suffering does not fall on us based on the evils we (or our parents) committed. This is clear in the psalms, and it’s clear in perhaps the oldest book in the Bible — Job, and clear in more recent writers of the New Testament.

Instead, these holy writs move us to a place where the problem of evil is one to which we respond ethically and spiritually, both working to overcome evil and crying out for evil to be made right. We see that the protest and relationship between frustrated humanity and their Creator, while not the point of evil, is part of the remedy. Protesting evil through lament is part of what we are called to do.

We have forgotten this. Instead, we either grin and bear it or offer empty platitudes.

The effect of this, as Rittgers points out, is that, “in the the (very) long run the insistence of the Western churches that human beings must face suffering without the possibility of lament has worked to undermine the plausibility of Christian faith.” That is, when we don’t allow protest to the divine, our faith becomes sallow and thin, untethered from our experience. Our spiritual response to evil should have shades (or mimic) of what Jesus quotes while hanging on the cross. Otherwise, we find ourselves either minimizing the brokenness around us until we finally experience the true weight of it, at which point the whole construct of faith topples like a house of cards in a breeze.

For in the end, the closest the Bible comes to explaining evil ontologically doesn’t come very close at all. We have, I suppose, the snake in the garden. This seems to be the working-out of personal guilt and brokenness, but it hardly answers how the snake got there in the first place. And we have Job, who suffers greatly and his friends try to convince him of what he’s done wrong to deserve this. In his end, we get no answer about why evil happens but we see who is at the center of the story. God tells Job that humans are not at the center: God is at the center of the story, and it’s about God, and we get to play a part. Of course, the apostle Paul touches on this when he writes that the struggle for those of this faith is not against flesh and blood, but against “rulers of the darkness” and “spiritual wickedness.” As if a cosmic war were raging and we had part in one of the battles, and our supply lines were cut and we couldn’t quite understand why.

And so, we lament. The supply lines are cut and we see only a sliver of what happens, without any clear explanation of why. Only, we must stay in contact with the story. So we lament, experiencing the sadness and brokenness of the world around us, crying and grieving it. Yet, lament also means we get to writing our protest signs, and we carry it to God’s royal court to ask why things aren’t right. Or, to continue the war metaphor: we should into the microphone that we need air cover, and we don’t know why it isn’t here yet, and we don’t know who’s in charge over there. Does he want to get us killed?

This is not simply the best we can do, as if we’re shrugging our shoulders and don’t know what more to do. This is part of what we’re called to do, to shout and stomp and call for the air cover, because we’re dying here, and to keep standing on our small piece of ground and demanding justice (fighting for it, after all). I think of the story, likely apocryphal, of the rabbis who gathered together after the Holocaust and first concluded God could not exist, and then went to worship. This is lament, and it is the only way to bring our full selves to the pain and suffering around us: demanding and cry and yet remaining in relationship. My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?

What I’ve Read: A Perfect Spy

Philip Roth hailed John Le Carre’s novel, A Perfect Spy as “the best English novel since the war.” While your list of top English novels since 1945 may not be quite as clean as you’d like, or misplaced like mine, or perhaps you’ve forgotten to create one altogether, the book still shines 34 years after it was first published. I would rank Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy as a late competitor, though the entirety of her work came after Roth’s statement.

I do find it interesting that Mantel’s work, and Le Carre’s, both fit solidly within genre fiction: historical fiction for the former, and a spy novel for the latter. I’m reminded of that crucial writing adage, that you must show up as yourself. I think of times I’ve come to writing with affect, in order to be someone more literary or someone with the requisite pathos of those I love to read, and I think of how my writing falls flat in such instances.

Fortunately, this desire to be someone I’m not affects none of my life outside of writing.

I’ve heard it said that every novel is about growing up, and especially those called literary fit this trope, partially because they are more about the interior movement of the hero — or at least as much about this movement — as the exterior plot. And this would be true of the novels you read in high school, even if your diet is genre fiction nowadays, and this is the difference between genre fiction and what might be called literary. Genre fiction often neglects such interior movement, whether development or destruction.

But I was writing about A Perfect Spy. While this isn’t a review, now 34 years after the publish date, it’s a reaction. We read books not simply for entertainment, but to enlarge our worlds, and we share our thoughts to show how our world was enlarged; we share because we are wired to share. So I have three comments about how Le Carre pulled this book off and what it might say today.

First, I love the trust Le Carre has for his readers. In his classic book (and a competitor for one of his best, even if it’s oddly not a competitor for one of the best English novels since the war), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he makes a monumental jump after Alec Leamas first receives his assignment, but we’re able to follow (even if we face a few paragraphs of confusion). Such trust allows us, as his readers, to continually “figure it out,” as the story of Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy jumps to Pym writing his autobiography and Jack Brotherhood on the trail of his spy who has gone dark. It’s not bedtime reading: I find I can read few of Le Carre’s novels as I’m drifting to sleep, because they make me sit up and pay attention. In this way, they mimic the genre of which they comprise, because the spy is continually trying to put things together.

I saw, yesterday, a video of a black British man explaining his experience of racism, and he told stories about experiencing racism: being denied a job, being mistaken for a security guard as the CEO of a company, being mistaken for a waiter. He told these stories in the context of his comments on racism and did not explain what they meant. He let the stories resonate. I don’t know if this is a British trait, to tell the story and trust your audience with it, as opposed to an American trait which desires to tell the point of the story for the next five minutes. Or, it may simply be the trait of good storytellers.

Second, Magnus Pym writes his autobiography in this novel while on the run, and we see how his father’s dishonesty and life that was one long con has affected his son. Pym writes, however, to his own son, Tom. In the final pages of the book he realizes, “You see, Tom, I am the bridge…I am what you must walk over to get from Rick to life.” We see, in this novel, generational influences and the desire to break free from them. Again, I wonder about this movement from grandfather to grandson, another British move because we Americans seem to think each generation has only the generation before to rebel against, but there are sins and virtues that go further back into the past than we know. At the very least, the novel declares our rootedness, as we cannot escape our families and create ourselves anew. We cannot walk out of our pasts and become new people with no reference to what has gone before.

As my friend Ryan notes, “Bags fly free,” and they follow us in new locations and roles and lives.

In this way, the work of the spy to piece disparate clues together is work for all of us, to make sense of the lives that have both come before us and that we have lived to this point, and to find some meaning them. We are all searching for clues that point to some deeper meaning of the events in our lives, some coherent story. A Perfect Spy could only be written by someone with the life experience to know that we don’t do this alone, or are the first person to ever do it, or do it without any influence. We search for clues within the context we know, handed to us from our parents and society. The British, with both their longer view of history and their tendency to rub shoulders with other cultures in Europe more readily than their American cousins, seem to know this more innately.

Finally, Le Carre calls this his most autobiographical work [plot spoilers ahead in this paragraph and the next]. He alludes in the introduction to his own father, and similarities with Pym’s father. Indeed, I could not stop from seeing the author behind the author (since Pym is writing, too) of this work, most clearly in the final pages of the novel. Pym finishes his autobiography and is exhausted, enervated, spent. He knows Jack Brotherhood is closing in. He gives himself, however, entirely to the work. And, he commits suicide after writing his opus. My friend Kristopher, a visual artist, speaks about a wounding after we create. I could not help but think of Le Carre, spending himself in this work.

Of course we only spend ourselves when we show up as ourselves, which brings me back to where I began. It’s no surprise that the most autobiographical of Le Carre’s novels is also described as the best, for the author has given us the most of himself. In the end, A Perfect Spy is also a book about writing, about showing up to the page as you are and giving yourself to it. If you’re not a writer, it could be about any of those passions you follow, and the urge to spend yourself. For, the vision of suicide in A Perfect Spy may be morally dark, but it follows this ancient and religious idea: Unless a kernel of wheat falls…

On Alchemy and Indifference

On the long Memorial Day weekend, I wake early, aware of what I didn’t finish yesterday. Awake with anxiety that I have more to do. There is more to do. Always. But emails late last night compound and aggregate my anxiety, so I rise. I read; I write and send two emails. Now I can rest.

Later, I read of prayer and indifference by Ignatius. This doesn’t seem to me so much indifference as we use it today, but expectation: God uses all creation and circumstance to draw us to himself claims Ignatius. The prayer of indifference is one meant to make us open to this, whether we have wealth or health or the opposite of both.

In our Western world, travails and trials in life often anticipate our right to question God, or what we claim is our right. I believe it is, and we see this as far back as Job, which may be the oldest book in the Scriptures. We want to shake our fists at whoever created this ramshackle world, where everything seems to wear down, run down, break.

I think of the final scene in an action movie, where the hero defeats the bad guy and gets the girl (at least in older action movies), and all is right with the world. This happens — what? — a handful of times in our lives, when all seems right and we have no other preoccupation waiting on the windowsill of our minds, gathering dust. The medical bills will be due soon, the nagging doubts about yourself, the need to do more at work. The closest we regularly get to this state of mind might be the contemplation of beauty: Yosemite Valley or a piercing sunset. We realize, if only briefly, our place and smallness and our problems shrink with our own importance. More profane, sex is another place where we become caught up in the moment, forgetting all else (I write this as a man, who can enter this state — I am told — more easily due to both biological and cultural factors). This explains, too, the pandemic of pornography in our culture. Sex like this is escape, the cheap final action scene, though the hero never had to sacrifice to get there.

We long for escape because of our expectations of this world, which lead to disappointments. I found this especially true in the decade after college, when I waited for the world to open and pave the way to my dreams (notwithstanding the fact I wasn’t, and still am not, entirely clear on those). And when our lives refuse to conform to the ends of movies or even the curated lives of our friends on social media, where is God? Not to mention, where is God in the cancer diagnosis on Christmas Eve or in the weeks following a miscarriage? Where is God even when you wakes with anxiety at 4 a.m. on your day off?

After all, we enter the world armed only with desires and will leave it only with memories, and the alchemy of turning one into the other is what we’re all trying to learn. We want to work this magic reliably and predictably, but our desires do not so easily bend to our wills. If they did, I think of the Tolstoy line about Vronsky in Anna Karenina: “The realization showed him the eternal error men makes by imagining that happiness consists in the gratification of their wishes.” We know, somewhere, that a world fashioned to our desires is one of egoism and greed, not only impossible but horrifying when we get glimpses of it in the Citizen Kanes of our day. The fulfillment of our desires and caprices creates its own prison. I think, and have heard, this is especially true of the wealthy — and most of us with a computer and a car are some of the wealthiest who have ever walked this earth.

Yet, I want my desires even when I know they aren’t the best for me, like ice cream or a day of movie watching. As someone middle-class, however, my wealth is largely spoken for each month: a mortgage, groceries, two growing daughters. My time has more flexibility. I jealously guard it, caging time to write and exercise each day. I battle meetings at work and fence-in time to rest on the weekends. Where, I have wondered recently, is my time set aside for making memories, for this alchemy we all hope for? After all, making memories is also almost always an act of love.

Indifference, as Ignatius reminds us, that sixteenth century warrior turned saint, comes packaged with the ends in mind: I must love and serve God and love others as myself. This reorientation positions me not toward my own ends, but outward. My wife has spoken recently of self-comfort as opposed to self-care. Comfort is candy bars and movies; care — for me — is prayer, writing, exercise, good meals with those I care about, a desire to make memories as an act of kindness and love.

I do this by entering into the world of another or inviting them into mine (backpacking with my ten and seven-year old daughters as an example), and seeing what comes. The alchemy of making memories demands expectation: show up and expect God will be present and active. This means the memory may be backpacking and finding a snake to the screams of my girls, or sitting next to my daughter after she was picked on one day, or roasting s’mores in our backyard. My best memories occur when I show up and expect God to do the same (even if I realize God was there after the fact).

This, I believe, is what Ignatius was driving at with indifference, and he unspooled all of its potential to claim I should seek love even over my desires for my self: health or long life or wealth. For God is also present in sickness and death and poverty. I remember this, God feeling strangely close when Dad was diagnosed with cancer on Christmas Eve and I held my younger sister in the upstairs bathroom, where I had found her crying. Or, the nearness of God as my wife and I wrapped the grape-sized form of a miscarriage in yellow cloth and buried it in the backyard. Not until the weeks after did God feel far, and I read Kierkegaard and tried to spar with a God I couldn’t see.

Only with time has the alchemy turned my desires, and even the loss of them, into a memory of God walking with me in pain. Ignatius allows for this, too: we expect God’s presence in a meadow of calm, and we can only see afterward how he was there in the fire, as well. Our role is to expect and look, even when — in the words of Robert Frost — “life is too much like a pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it, and one eye is weeping / From a twig’s having lashed across it open.”

This means even our questioning of God is an act of expectation, whether from tragedy or lucky disappointment — for who is more unhappy than the man who has all he ever desired?

“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

This questioning means we expect God in the hardest and bone-aching circumstances, and this, too, is what Ignatius pointed out. His own life story: he found his purpose after being hit in the leg with a cannonball. He would never walk the same again, but he read the lives of the saints while convalescing. No cannonball, and Inigo from Loyola would not even be a footnote in our lives, but a soldier who died young and was forgotten, like many others in sixteenth century Spain.

Expectations — or indifference, as Ignatius would have it — asks where and how God is present in cannonballs and miscarriages and cancer and anxiety at 4 a.m. Sometimes, it demands to know. Sometimes, it asks quietly. It may be hanging by a fraying rope, faith almost disappearing into the darkness. Sometimes, we know in the moment God is present. But we expect, again and again, because we were born with desires.

And over time, we learn we are not alchemists at all, able to form desires into memories. God is.

On Consumption

We use this word of consumption to talk about what we do, that we are consumers. This is the perfect word. Of course, the imagery is of someone or something voracious, eating everything in its path, wasteful, even malicious. We are some rough beast taking the fat of the land and leaving the lean. I don’t feel like this, until I know the ease with which I can buy a new shirt or coffee grinder with the click of a mouse, and upon receiving it, find that I hardly every wear or use it. What if everything we bought became part of us and shaped us in some way?

But it does. This is where the other connotations of “consume” find their mark. Why are holidays — formerly holy days — signified with a meal? Why do we put so much significance in the Christian tradition on eating a little bread and drinking a little wine? Why do other religions signify what is kosher or halal? It’s as if eating, or consuming, has some deep spiritual significance, marking us as a certain type of people. 

Naturally, this stretches into what sort of clothing to wear, such as head coverings or tassels on your jacket or avoiding pearls. Again, this is less about the inherent danger of pearls than how to live and act in this world, and what people and God you claim. 

Of course, if consuming, including both what we eat and what we buy, marks what sort of people we are and what sort of God we claim, we see how consumption of anything is alignment with that thing: a movie, a steak, a shirt. Our religions claim to us that each of these decisions has spiritual implications in ways obvious (a diet of booze and parties) and in ways not so obvious, as each item we consume shifts our gravity with permutations unseen.

So the phrase, “you are what you eat,” or you are what you consume, takes on new weight. In the shimmering light of the New Testament, how we consume seems to make even more difference than what, though there remain some things we can’t seem to eat even if we do it very carefully, because of the stomachache we’ll get in the end.

On Performances

Performance. In our age of authenticity, where everything must be felt in order to be real or true, where everything must be exciting in order to be significant, performing rituals or practices smacks of both something not necessarily true and not necessarily significant. The rote church services performed each Sunday underscore this. They seem neither true nor significant.

But, as any psychologist can tell you, feelings are a poor substitute for truth or even reality. At the very least, if feelings were the guide, I think ice cream would be much healthier than it actually is (Another paradox of our society: all our feelings around eating sugary foods seem to be wrong, but all our feelings around, say, hook-up culture and casual sex seem to be right. We listen to dietitians around the former, but if someone tells us the latter is unhealthy, they are a prude. It leaves one adrift as to which appetites and desires to listen to.)

And if something needs to be exciting to be significant, I think my lack of excitement around organic chemistry — and the vaccines created and diseases cured by its study — would at the very least declare that many things that I find unexciting are, in fact, more significant than what does excite me. I’d rank organic chemistry as more significant than a football game, though football has brought me to my feet and consumed my thoughts infinitely more.

The role of a performance, then, at least partially: to remind us what does matter, to invite us into a broader story than our own appetites and excitements, to orient us. I don’t know if those who are enthralled with their appetites need to hear this more or those who go through the rigmarole each Sunday, out of routine and habit. I suspect the latter.

On Bread and Writing

I continue to see my cat. A hat on the chair. We’ve placed a stuffed bear in one of the windows, so kids who walk around the neighborhood can go on a bear hunt and find the hidden bears in windows or lawns (I assume the latter would not be stuffed). Our cat would sit between the glass of the window and the blinds, dozing in the morning sun. I see him, momentarily, in the hat and the bear, before my thinking brain catches up to my roaming mind and tells me that this cannot be, because we buried the cat under a rock in the backyard, both as a marker and so the dog wouldn’t dig him up.

I’m reminded that I see the world out of habit. That is, I see what I’ve always seen before. This is true as I drive to work, as I go through my morning routine, as I answer emails. I become inured to the world around me. The quarantine of this coronavirus, then, is both a discipline in the medieval sense of the word — a punishment or scourging — and in the classical Latinate sense of the word: stemming from the word for instruction or learning. The former sense lands keenly on the front lines of those fighting the coronavirus, or on those who have lost jobs, are wracked by anxiety, fear, loneliness, and pain. 

The latter is an invitation. I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna that denies the suffering around us, but I mean to be a realist: out of our vulnerability and pain something new is always born. The same is true simply from the discipline of staying at home, as a change in routine helps us see life from a fresh vantage. Such sights are instructive if we watch for them, if we pay attention to the new rhythms and fears and hopes springing up inside us and around us.

But even with new rhythms it is hard to see new things. Hence, the cat I keep seeing. Enter the role of the artist. Whether writer or painter or sculptor or dancer or actor or preacher or singer, our role is to point to what we see and amplify it, distill it, help others to take notice. Of course, this first must happen within ourselves, and this is why I write every day. Writing is a way of seeing. In fact, it is my way of seeing the world around me, of taking notice, of becoming awake.

For example, this morning. We attended church via Zoom, which is somewhat of a depressing experience. When I attend work meetings all week on Zoom, I want the physical presence of others as we engage in something spiritual and real and, ideally, a performance that ties us back to the true story and realities of our lives. Calling this a performance doesn’t cheapen it, for we always act out our stories, whether in pews or bleachers at a football game, and Jesus came acting as if he were the head of Israel, and John records how even on the cross he proclaimed his thirst so Scripture would be fulfilled. On one hand, you can claim a performance cheapens this act; on the other, I claim such a knowledge of all the stories before and the culmination of his own story made Jesus more aware of his place in it and what to do at that time.

But I’m straying from my point.

I didn’t “feel” spiritual or holy this morning, and I went through the motions: singing songs awkwardly over Zoom, listening to the homily. We came to the Eucharist, this climax of the service where we share the table. We had picked up bread the day before that had been baked by a deacon and blessed, bread that symbolized the work of the community. We didn’t have wine, because we had no way to safely share it. And in our living room, we broke the bread and we were intent on serving it to each other. I told Macia, our eight year old daughter, that this bread was the body of Jesus broken for her, because he loved her. She took her own piece and said to me, “This was the body of Jesus broken for you, because he loves you,” and she offered me the bread.

I act out the performance because, at some point, light will shatter in and show me the truth of it, even when I’m not “feeling” it, even when I’m tired and thinking what else I could be getting done. My eight-year old giving me bread was that moment: the innocence and smile as she learns her own place in the play.

But I wouldn’t have seen this moment without writing: without writing about my life in the days before and coming to the blank page now. The act of writing makes me more awake; it is an act of seeing. It solidifies the beauty of what happened; it helps me to see the shift inside myself, because without noting it and writing about it I may never have seen this shift at all. And if I don’t see it, the shift may as well not have even happened.

On Air Hockey and Dirt

Each afternoon, or often in the evening, I come downstairs and challenge Brooke, my wife of thirteen years, to a game of air hockey. Her dad gave us the table for Christmas, and we play with our girls but we also play each other. Most often, I play left-handed so the game is more even, and this way I can try as hard as I can and we have a close game. I may be the best non-dominant hand air hockey player on my block.

During this time of quarantine, air hockey has become a ritual of sorts for us, like prayer and exercising are rituals. We don’t have a set time, and it’s either when I’m done with work or on a break in the afternoons when my energy lags and I need to move. But the play is the important thing.

In the rush of news, and news conferences, and expert opinions, and stress, and even in death, play becomes an act of — not protest, but perhaps revolt. Or, I like rebellion better. Play is an act of rebellion. The protestor is serious and acknowledging her rights, and the revolutionary is trying to start something new that will do away with the old. The rebel is simply showing that things can be done a different way, and should be tried a different way, but isn’t after those who set things up in the old way.

The one who plays when all is serious is the one who helps show that life is worth living:  we’re tempted to become so serious and anxious that we live only for the moments when the crisis is gone, rather than the moments throughout the crisis, rather than creatively exploring and engaging with life while quarantined. You may say it’s just an air hockey game. To which I reply, like rebels from time immemorial, “You just don’t get it, man.”

Playing air hockey says that life is worth living now. So does reading good books and lingering over meals, so do the blocks I’ll get out with my girls later today as I challenge them to build bridges with blocks and to puzzle and fiddle their way through the problem. To create.

This morning I read, in the Scriptures of the Bible, the story of Jesus as he pardons a woman caught in adultery — an antiquated and barbaric account to us today: antiquated in the morals of a Jewish society 2,000 years ago, and barbaric in that the author, whoever he or she was since this isn’t in the earliest manuscripts written by John, says the leaders wanted to stone the woman. 

Of course, we don’t stone anyone anymore, but we shame and “cancel.” Some practices change less than we think over time. They may become less physically violent, which is good, but the impulse to exclude those who fall outside our moral orbit remains. 

Today, in this passage I’ve read or heard many times, I was focused on the stones. The scribes and Pharisees picked up stones to destroy this woman. Jesus, however, bends down and writes in the earth, in the dust. One wants to use the earth to destroy, the other to create. We don’t know what he wrote, of course, the author seems to think that’s beside the point. The point is the contradiction: using the earth to destroy or to create. One is an act of seriousness and becomes an act of hopelessness. The second is an act of creativity and, I would argue (and am arguing), a playful act. “While you all are ready to vent your anger and picking up stones, I’m going to write in the dirt.” It arrests and exposes their seriousness and hostility, just like a rebel would. 

Vulnerability is the point

Of course, vulnerability is the point for us as humans. If we are not vulnerable, we are not open. We have these choices in life, to become open and wounded by it, and to find new life through our openness. Or, we can remain closed. We will still be wounded, but will not find new life; instead, a hardening of the old will come.

Either, however, has spiritual implications, because either is a reminder of my lack of control, and control or power and where I find my sense of it has deep consequences for my mind, my body, my spirit. When we deny our vulnerability we grasp for power and fashion it after ourselves. But vulnerability is the point because it compels us to look outside of ourselves for control and power, and this is a spiritual exercise, whether we find it in money or appearances or God. 

So vulnerability itself is a spiritual exercise, to remain open to the world around us, the life and Spirit waiting to be let in.

On Cats and Normalcy

On Monday we put down our cat. Over the weekend he had developed an odor and couldn’t walk correctly, and he hid under my daughter’s bed where he never really goes. My wife researched enough to determine he likely had kidney failure, and the vet agreed. There was nothing they could do.

They allowed us to be together as a family, even in this age of staying-at-home and quarantining, and for that I’m grateful. We sat in a small room while the vet took our cat and examined him, then prepared him for the IV. The girls said goodbye and we stroked him until his tail started twitching, which was his sign to stop. I appreciate that even in his last moments, he had some spunk.

And the vet put him to sleep. Our girls cried, and Brooke cried, because she got him soon after living on her own and probably spent more time with him than any other living being, certainly over the last sixteen years, which is how long he lived. She may have spent more time with him than anyone else. He was, as most pets are, a companion. Infuriating at times, lovable at others.

On one blush, this seemed a cruel addition as we stayed at home for the coronavirus. From another angle: I was home and the girls were home, and Brooke did not take him to the vet’s alone, but we traveled as a pride. And upon returning home, we said what we remembered about him, and we buried him under a rock in the backyard, with a blanket he loved and hairbands. He used to play with hairbands.

So we are left with the finality of death. Even for a cat, who — truthfully — was often on my nerves, scratching our couch or climbing onto the counter. In this way, a cat’s death fits with the distancing of the coronavirus, with the season we’re in of Lent. His death, a reminder of our own temporariness on this earth. We try to deny this in our everyday lives, but the death of an animal — or a pandemic — will remind us. We are more vulnerable than we admit. 

This is where religion operates best: binding us together and pointing to truths and stories bigger and brighter than we can hold and embrace alone. Religion struggles, and hence the decay of the church in the West, when we are insulated from our vulnerability, when we can deny it, when we can pretend that thinking good thoughts is enough to satisfy the terror at the pit of our souls. 

The religious argue for a teleological meaning to both our fear and our hope, and that we were made for more than this present and passing life.

But I did not come here to write about religion, through writing about death may make religion inevitable. Instead, I am struck by this idea of normal: that either this time of sheltering at home is a “new normal,” or a passage of time until life “returns to normal.” I must admit: I don’t know what normal is. Cats die at inopportune times. Pandemics rage, and while we haven’t seen this in our lifetimes, such a phenomenon has been very much normal throughout human history. Measles, or something like it, ravaged the Roman Empire from 165 to 180 A.D., killing millions with a 25% mortality rate. We all know about the plague that ran through Europe, and sprouted again and again over centuries, or about the Spanish Flu. This pandemic event is normal.

Normal, as we use it and now long for it, seems to me to be two things. The first is rhythm. We find this rhythm by going to work and staying on schedule, eating at certain times. Certainly, a change of work location and what we’re doing every day affects this. We lose our rhythm and say that life isn’t normal.

The second aspect of normal seems to be about our vulnerability, or our isolation from it. Life is normal when we can forget how fraught it is, when we can forget death’s end for all of us, when we can trick ourselves into believing that health and life insurance, that a 401k and good home are enough to insulate ourselves from disaster. When we cannot, as we can’t right now, we claim that life is not normal. 

Instead, I think it best to call even this time as normal life: isolated and unsure of the next day. This is much more akin to our true lot as humans, as we are in need and vulnerable, and life twists and wriggles out of our grasp again and again. Only, most of this wriggling is around work stress or a speeding ticket, and it isn’t so pervasive and blatant about our lack of control. But life is, and always has been, on an arc that reminds us of our vulnerability; it’s just that our last generation has been abnormal, and we only glimpse our vulnerability with a cancer diagnosis (ours came twelve years ago on Christmas Eve, for my father), a car accident (for three successive years in high school, someone died in a car accident in December), or even an empty bank account (early in our marriage we were landlords and had to evict our renters, which drove us into debt).

Perhaps I did come to write about religion, for such a set of circumstances demands our binding together — the Latin religare means to bind — and trusting that our vulnerability is not the last word, but that there is more to the story.

On Combat and Kierkegaard

I was thinking about leaving work for the day, not yet getting ready but in that hour before when you begin to think about what you need to do in order to leave: how many unread emails would you like to respond to, how many of those niggling tasks that you’ve been putting off? But my friend came in, and we sat at the table in my office, the one with the globe and the stack of books — my wife buys me globes because of how I like maps, which she learned on our honeymoon when we drove to Cayucos and I charted our progress on a Rand McNally atlas. So my friend I’ll call Michael and I sat at the table with the globe, and we talked a little about work, and he also talked about combat, since he is ex-military. He told me about parachuting into a combat zone under fire, and how he was trained and prepared for such an event, prepared to see a member of his squadron get hit, prepared to hit the ground and begin moving, working to accomplish the mission. 

“I miss that clarity,” Michael confided. “Civilian life is so confusing.”

I’ve thought of this over the past weeks, this moment of connection and grace and insight. We lack clarity to our lives. On one hand, this makes sense: if the stories we live are first shaped by our desires, by the want to have something and the need to reach out and get it, ours is a world where desire proliferates. Simply watch a commercial break on television, and you are inundated with all that could be missing from your life. A new car. The right dishwashing detergent. The phone to help you experience life more deeply. Even your dog isn’t living his or her best life without the right dog food. You hear and see this in 120 seconds.

At work, we’re told our white-collar jobs engage us more fully than adding parts on an assembly line, and yet the meetings and email are endless, each with a different priority, each asking something of you, some engagement, and you shift between tasks constantly for nine hours before you drive home in traffic and watch email from your phone. Shifting from task to task, responsibility to responsibility without true awareness of which is more important, science tells us is the perfect way to diminish productivity. Yet, this is how we’ve set up our modern offices. Such shifts in our focus and such clamor to shape our desires: this is why life is confusing to people like Michael and, often, myself. 

If our lives are to have the meaning of a story, I know of no cohesive story where the character wants a new car, and a bigger house, and a wife, and a new phone, and better dishwashing detergent. In fact, stories based on what you can buy — outside of desperate need or sacrifice — are not engaging stories at all. The same is true at work. If I want to move forward on a technical project, and support a branding project, and also spearhead a project with the marketing team, I am quickly in a place of confusion and exhaustion. After all, I also have a day job outside of these projects.

Kierkegaard writes, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

If we go too long without one desire shaping our stories, or if we go too long with incoherent stories, shaped by myriad desires, we risk our lives falling into meaninglessness. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue, “When someone complains…that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement toward a climax or a telos.” A telos is an ultimate objective. An aim. An overarching goal.

Combat provides a telos. I think, in some way, so do maps. They offer a chance to chart progress against a goal, to see where we’ve come. Maps, of course, also offer possibility: “If we turn here we can see Mono Lake.” Maps are an opportunity for a journey, and journeys are not necessarily from point A to B, but opportunities to move forward while experiencing the world. 

MacIntyre goes on to write, “The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.”


If our desires shape our stories, Kierkegaard and MacIntyre argue for one great desire. Kierkegaard calls it the good, and MacIntyre writes of recovering the Aristotelian telos. But how are we to do this? Or, how am I to do it with my white-collar job and endless supply of emails? A telos, it seems, is for the weekend when I can focus on one desire of, say, loving my family and see the narrative of life. What am I to do — what are we to do — on Thursday afternoons when the weekend is far away and life is not a narrative quest but a comedy, where my best efforts turn against me? For this is also a uniquely modern problem — not only to identify a telos but to move toward it, and we can often be uniquely situated where meaningful work toward a goal is difficult. But I’m straying into other ideas.

MacIntyre argues for a certain type of narrative, against a life being a comedy where my efforts turn futile. A quest has a certain narrative shape, against a tragedy or comedy or rags to riches story. In its classic form, it’s meant to get something and bring it back for the good of the community, and half of the story is convincing the community they need whatever you have. For Odysseus, since the Odyssey is one of the most famous quests, almost half of the story occurs after his return to Ithaka and now must make it clear that his return is good — though it assuredly won’t be for the suitors. 

If the stories we live are about our desires, a quest asserts that one desire must be above those others. If we want our stories to have coherence, to have meaning for us, we cannot pull from a grab bag of desires every morning or every commercial break, or even every workday. We must have some conception of an overarching desire. MacIntyre again: “Without some at least partly determinate conception of the final telos there could not be any beginning to a quest.”


I cannot answer your telos. For myself, however, I have thought about who I was as a child, and who I want to be when I am fully grown. I have thought about what I need to live, and what makes me alive. I have, tentatively and carefully, shared these ideas with others to see if my work has resonance in the world. And I return, inexorably, to the ideas of meaning and awareness. We must become aware of our lives, of turning off cruise control or autopilot or however we go about our days, and we must see our lives anew, and we must do it again and again. Otherwise, our lives fall into routine and rhythm — which can be helpful — but we must always know why we have such routines and rhythms, or they become banal and binding. Such awareness, I believe, invites us toward meaning. And meaning is always infused with significance and hope, for a meaningful act is a hopeful act. I know of no better way to bring awareness and meaning than story, by telling stories and by urging people to see the stories of their lives. This is my quest.

I will lose the thread, likely later this week. And I will need to build up, all over again, what I truly desire, and whether I am pursuing this, and where I can impart meaning and awareness. A quest is not a decision, but a daily journey, an overarching shape to our lives, and while I’ll have detours I also hope to move forward. I suppose it would be similar to tracking my progress on a map.