Train Tickets

One of the only books I had space to bring with me from North Carolina was Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and a few weeks ago, my housemate and I started reading it aloud after dinner, but very gradually because we are often busy. And more than once while reading, I’ve found a lump in my throat that I must push down and push down again.

In the second chapter, young Corrie sees death for the first time when visiting a neighbor and is terrified, most particularly that she will lose her parents like this. Her father gently asks her, When you and I go to Amsterdam–when do I give you your ticket? And she admits, Why, just before we get on the train. He wants her to know that God gives us things only when we need them. Certainly he gives fish instead of snakes and bread instead of stones, but he doesn’t stockpile the bread and fish up around us to go stale and rot. Instead he.places them fresh into our empty hands at the moment we are most hungry for them.

For the adult Corrie of most of the novel, the train tickets God gives her one by one are to deal with the horrors she will witness and experience. I am not experiencing horrors or even hardships, but learning in small ways is learning too. Moving here has been overwhelmingly full of blessing, as I knew deep-down it would be, partially because in so much newness I can’t possibly see more than a step in front of me, so I can’t possibly plan my life the way I did in Greensboro. And as I inhale sharp gulps of fresh air which I sometimes don’t know how to take into my lungs, how to begin to eke the oxygen out of, I have had to rely on those train tickets, one by one.

And this week it was George Herbert’s “Love III.” I can’t say that I found it, more that it found me:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

I’ve known this poem since I was small, from my dad’s little pocket Temple, but it hit me with great force on Wednesday night: knocked me down and lifted me up again. And I don’t think I’ll ever fully comprehend its meaning. In fact, I don’t think Herbert did, either. He, too, was only human. We only begin to understand, but we must keep beginning, over and over.

The line that I wrote on my arm to remember was one of Love’s: “And know you not who bore the blame?” But the one that kept echoing in my head all Thursday morning was the speaker’s petulantly self-flagellating excuse: “Let my shame go where it doth deserve.” Strangely, it was not repeating itself in my own voice, or even Herbert’s. They were still, small words that kept saying, gently, but authoritatively: Let your shame go where it doth deserve. And it meant something quite different than when I say something like that to myself. Instead of implying that I ought to be wrapping myself in my sin like a comforting, moldy blanket and traipsing off to Sheol because that’s where I belong, this whisper meant that I am not my shame and guilt, that I am a made, loved creature, and that Christ bore the blame, lifted the weight off my shoulders and onto his own so it could die. And I must stop clinging to it so that he can throw it far, far away, far as the east is from the west. Yes, let it go where it doth deserve…

You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. Always.


The Midwest

I should not have waited till now to write this entry. I should have written it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before. But I am writing it now, from gate forty-five at the Kansas City Airport, and all I can possibly think about is home. All I can think about is how devastatingly pleased I am that Karen and Hannah and Abby are going to be waiting at the Raleigh airport for me. (For me! So pleased!) But I am determined that, even as I leave the Midwest, I’m going to write to you about it.

On Sunday evening, I drove my grandpa over to Chillicothe so he could remove a catheter for an old friend. Other people bring a bottle of wine as a hostess gift, Grandpa brings his black bag and his kind hands. While he helped Lloyd, I sat in the front room with Doris, who worked for Grandpa for thirty years, and she told me about back when her daughter was “Miss Missoura” and she, herself, almost went to New York City.    We stayed after to visit for a little while. Doris left her walker in the other room and my grandpa, who hunches so that he only comes to my shoulder when to retrieve it. He was delighted by how much fun it was to use, until we pointed out that he had it backward. I’m blessed to be my grandpa’s chauffeur and phone dialer, even if it’s on catheter business. When I walk into Walmart, the greeter, a little man named Stan, stops me to ask if I’m Dr. Howell’s granddaughter. When I say yes, he beams. Everywhere I go I am Doctor and Georgeanna’s granddaughter, Hope’s Alice to those in the know. The name of Howell means something in Brookfield. It means an open door, an open wallet, an open hand. For those in trouble it means a number more reliable in the sheriff’s. It means a freezer full of beef, duct-taped copies of The Hiding Place, and a whole lot of large-print Holy Bibles. For countless people, the name of Howell is all they really know of Jesus. From experience I know that it’s a pretty good sampling.                                                                               It’s different here, you know? In the past two months I’ve had healthy doses of Des Moines, the Twin Cities, Duluth (especially its mall!), a few little towns in the Iron Range, and, of course, north central Missouri. Good old Brookfield. When my grandma announces that we’re going out to a nice restaurant for Sunday Dinner (eaten properly at about one p.m.) she means some place with a big buffet, metal chairs and linoleum. She cooks her vegetables with butter, and is a little baffled by my penchant for olive oil. When I am sent for errands it is not to a Harris Teeter with a sushi counter and olive bar, but a Walmart with a cheese aisle full of Velveeta, where the only salmon comes in cans. The middle-aged women who shop there do not have careful tans and silver jewelry, but sloppy ankles and tired faces. (There is a Redbox, though. Ah, there is a Redbox.) Someone’s always starting a beauty parlor and naming it something like “The Rusty Razor” or “Curl Up and Dye.” Welcome to this place where people live.

Last February I flew up to Grand Rapids, Michigan for a college visit, and here is what I wrote on the plane home:

There are no words for my loathing of the color of Midwestern asphalt in the winter. It is a mixture of the worst of brown, and the worst of grey, ending in a color which could aptly describe the worst of everything. It is the color of hell. On the other hand, when I look down on the Midwest from an airplane my heart swells, because it has its moments in a way North Carolina does not. North Carolina has its blue skies, its mountains, its beaches, its green hills, its talkers, its thinkers, its doers, its dreamers. The Midwest has few of those things. On poor days it has none, but it has plain moments of clear life which no one bothers to cover. There is a boy on my plane, not much older than me, who is going to be a U.S. Marine. His mother and his grandparents saw him off. They all hugged. His mother cried awkwardly, and his grandpa told him to “Keep his eye on the ball.” That was it. Then he left. They left. They love that he’s going, and they hate it. They love him, though, and they want him to do them proud, and come back a better man. They don’t really have those words, but that’s okay, because he knows. There are no waving signs of adoration, no groups of hysterical friends, just a boy with a short haircut who knows what he is about and what he is doing. Sometimes I think what all the North Carolinian talkers and dreamers really are striving for is something these people with their ugly streets have had since birth: grit, plain sense, and an understanding which requires no words.

In one sense I will never be a Midwesterner. I am too much enamored of elegance and education. I care too much about white tablecloths in restaurants and Renaissance poetry. But the Midwest has taught me, even just this summer, some rather important lessons. It has taught me how to use a riding mower, how to clean a pool, how to pull a sticker plant, how to pass a slow bailer on the highway, how to scour a counter, and how to be patient. I have been taught over and over again how to be patient. Patient with slow steps and oft-repeated stories, patient with people and patient with God. I am learning, slowly, to wait. I am learning to live in this in-between space. I am learning to want what Paul has in Philippians 4: 12. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”

On Wednesday evenings, when I went to pick up my grandpa from the prison in Moberly after his bible study, I usually had to sit in the parking lot for a few minutes. On my right was the prison, looking like a gargantuan middle school, wrapped round and round in yards of barbed wire that sparkled in the heat. Immediately on my left, on the other side of the drive, was the flag pole, surrounded by carefully manicured little flower gardens full of some of the most brilliant and lively colors I’ve ever seen. I sat in between, and waited. They’ve got a pretty huge sky out here.