Erring on the Side of Kindness

I’ve been grateful recently that in art, in the making of things, we have permission to be messy. I’ve been struggling the last few days to make myself sit down and write an entry here based on an idea I had about peace. But now I’ve deleted what I had and decided to tell you stories about my grandpa instead. He was, incidentally, probably the most peaceful person I’ve ever known.

When I was in college I spent most summers in Missouri with my mother’s parents. If you’ve hung around here long enough, you probably know that. One of the things I did, every Wednesday evening, was get in the car with my grandpa and drive him an hour southeast to a town called Moberly where he would lead a Bible study at the state penitentiary. I would sit in the local YMCA with my laptop to wait for him—it was the only time I got internet all week. As we drove we would listen to the radio or to the silence or sometimes, though he was a quiet man, Grandpa would talk. 

He told me about once when he’d driven himself to the prison and accidentally left the car running and the doors open when he went in, so that it looked like a getaway car. And he told me about his friend in the Air Force, David, who had been killed during training exercises at the end of the war. But one of the stories he told me most often was about a visit he made home to see his family when he was in college.

He went home for a weekend and visited his mother and aunt. His uncle, who was a bit of a drunk and the family black sheep, lived just across the street. This uncle happened to officially be on the outs with my grandpa’s mom and aunt the weekend he went home, so to keep the peace Grandpa didn’t go see him—just waved at him when he saw him sitting out on his porch. When the weekend was over, Grandpa went back to school, and not long after his uncle killed himself.

I’m sure my grandpa understood that his uncle’s death was not his fault, yet sixty years after the fact he repeated the story to his twenty-year-old granddaughter as if it had great hold on him. He knew he had not done what he ought. It was a story which I now suspect informed much of the rest of his life. I remember that when I started teaching, my mom advised me to always “err on the side of kindness” when dealing with my students. And that’s how he lived the rest of his life in full view of his seven children and exponential grandchildren: disregarding cruel feuds, generous to the point of seeming foolishness, willing to be taken advantage of by the least of these, erring on the side of kindness, salt and light.

The last summer I spent there, Grandpa, still his same gentle, faithful self, started seeing people who weren’t there. He saw children waiting in hot minivans who needed the door opened for them, strangers—perhaps hungry—approaching the kitchen across the back field, a boy sleeping at the end of his own bed who needed a warmer blanket. He always brought our attention to their presence in his soft voice, unwilling to make the mistake he’d made decades before, determined his uncle would not spend the afternoon alone on the porch.

But my favorite memory of my grandpa is perhaps my oldest. I was maybe five, and it was summer then too. The middle child of his middle child engulfed in a sea of visiting cousins, quiet and large-eyed. And he took me in his truck, just the two of us.

Our errand, I think, was to the slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef that had fed on their land, but that doesn’t color my recollections. What I remember is tearing down Highway F, the little pick-up catching air at every bump. My grandpa loved speed. When we got to our destination he bought me a soda from the machine—I think it was orange—a treat which overwhelmed me. As we came back, I remember soaring over the hills once again, half-full can in the cup-holder and pop sloshing in my stomach. It’s been well over twenty years now, but I would live that ride again and again and again.

Heartland

Last Friday, I got home from what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of the American midwest. I was gone for only about a week and a half and in that time managed Dayton (sort of), Chicago, the Iron Range, Minneapolis, Madison, and Indianapolis (kind of).

We drove a lot. I drove a lot. On the days when it wasn’t just me in the car, and I had a back up driver roster one or more family members deep, I spent a lot of time staring at my dad’s big road atlas. I’ve always done this. From the time I was probably seven or eight I spent a lot of time on family trips leaning forward from the cramped back seat of our little minivan and asking for the atlas. It was the way we all avoided “Are we there yet?” Look–here–see for yourself–then you tell me.

For me this habit grew into a love of knowing where I am, of placing myself. I look at the map of where I am, where I’m headed, where I came from, and I trace the blue interstates that connect them like arteries, but once I’ve done that, I still don’t put the atlas down. I’ve learned to go farther afield. And this time around, beginning with British Columbia, of course, I ran my fingers over Canada: the heavy pockets of civilization in the south, thinning out into the stark ranges of the north. (Did you know that not only does Nunavut have no road access in from other provinces, but there is no reliable system of roads between its towns and settlements? Most of it is above the timber line, and you have no choice but to fly in.)

Looking at Canada for very long scared me, though. In a month and a half I am moving to the other side of a notably large continent. The bed I will be sleeping in is just under three thousand miles from the one I’m sleeping in now. I checked. And all that space scares me.

But of course the land that lies between is not just some unknowable, disembodied thing. I can know it–I do know it.

Last Thursday I left friends in Madison to head towards more friends (and my sister) just north of Indianapolis. I spent the first hour or so winding around on back roads in southern Wisconsin, and then glanced down at my phone and realized I had it set on “avoid tolls.” (Despite all my talk about the atlas, Google Maps is just easier when I’m alone.) But I didn’t mind. I accepted my fate even though it would take more gas and more time and once or twice included a gravel road. It was a hot day and the sky was very blue and the cornfields were very green.  For that first stretch, I rarely saw another car and drove on highways with letters for names. The houses and shining metal outbuildings I passed seemed settled in the soil, basking in the sun.

A few times recently I’ve found myself fancifully telling some patient listener that the British countryside (particularly what we walked through in Wales last summer) is the landscape of my soul. But as I drove those summer midwest roads I kept thinking of the commercials I used to see when my Missouri grandma would turn on the news as she cooked dinner, commercials for regional chains like Menards, boomingly announcing their home as America’s Heartland, and I know this seems silly, but for me it is. The midwest is the land of my heart. (I don’t know what this makes North Carolina–the land of my skin, the largest organ, the place I surround myself with? But I digress…)

Of course, the vast majority of my time in the midwest was spent in north central Missouri when my grandparents were still alive, and at no point on this trip did I set foot on its poor-cousin-of-Iowa soil. Instead I wandered through states which I mostly don’t know very well for themselves. But it all felt familiar.

Outside of Dayton my mom and Mary and I took a walk near our hotel and when everything dissolved to rain, we cut back through the parking lot single file, along one curb after another like children, our umbrellas held out for balance under the wide grey sky.

In Chicago we walked around U of C, trying to find the room where my parents first met. We never did find it, which perhaps made poetic sense, because it was called the Nonesuch Room.

The highways we drove were sporadically flanked with those monstrous, calm white windmills, and chains like Culver’s and A&W’s where my grandpa liked to stop to have a chocolate malted for dinner. I had never been down these particular roads before, but they tasted like home and my heart beat to the rhythm of tires on asphalt.

Of course I don’t mean to idealize the Midwest too much. After all, it was at a rest stop in Kansas when I was ten or eleven that I saw a Wanted poster for a sex offender who had escaped from state prison in the area, and then barely slept for the next few nights because I was fearfully processing the existence of human evil, perhaps for the first time. I could still give you a description of the tattoo on his chest. But the presence of wickedness does not negate the perseverance of good, and the heart beats on, yearning–sometimes self-consciously–for redemption.

After I walked out of my classroom for the last time in early June, I went downstairs with my last boxful of papers and books and told my friend that I felt a bit naked. I was leaving behind the teacher, the Miss Hodgkins, in the corner on the floor, and was stepping back out as only Alice. That’s how I left for the Midwest, stripped and small. The original point of the trip was my cousin’s wedding up way north of Duluth and the first night we got there, Mary and I went to the last evening campfire program of teen camp. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and we stayed for the whole thing as dusk slowly set in. Along with lots of laborious prize-giving for verses memorized and games won, we sang worship songs, and one in particular, which is notably not a favorite, stuck to my ribs. Every chorus ended with the line “Look to the sky!” And when I looked to the sky my uncomfortable nakedness and exposure, my unsteady weakness made sense. I fit, a small child in an immense and well-worn palm. I was at peace. The next night, I danced barefoot in the grass alongside my siblings and cousins because Joe and Becky were married and the sky was great above us.

I am still anxious when I think of August when I will get on a plane alone and spend a day suspended in the air between two places, but if I look down at those first flyover states I will see a place that has the power to make me calm. A place of ice cream and gravel, of dry bones and rich soil, of green-brown openness fading grey in the twilight, where they look their dead hard in the face before they bury them. It’s a place I know as well as my own breathing, that’s as close to me as the thumping chambers of my own heart.

Die before you die. There is no chance after.

Summer Update

This is going to be a little more of a vintage-Alice-blog-entry: more rambling and personal, probably not very philosophical. I guess summer brings out the nineteen-year-old in me.

I’ve been done with work for two weeks now. I’ve reorganized my bedroom, gotten a massage, accidentally made an obscene amount of corn pudding, had my oil changed, gone to a wedding, applied for a credit card, donated four bags of clothes to Goodwill, finished reading eight books (three of which I began at least a year ago, two of which were re-reads), and finished writing one (short) short story. Hello, June.

Other highlights so far have included more in-depth planning for trips to London this summer and next, getting to sit down and talk with various wonderful friends whom I almost never get to see, ordering stuff off Amazon Prime nearly every other day, and listening to heavy summer rains wash down my windows in fresh torrents.

Also, Karen moved out on Saturday. I will miss living with her and her habit of walking to my room and beginning enormous theological and cultural conversations with no preface whatsoever. Even though I have a lot more stuff than she did, it echoes here now.

The last summer I spent at my grandparents’ in Missouri was in 2014. They were not really doing very well at that point and shouldn’t have been left alone for long, but sometimes I got restless. Some nights, despite all the books I had to read and the movies I routinely rented from the Redbox at Walmart, I felt like bursting out of my skin. Everything around me seemed to be either stagnant or in decay, so I would take my grandpa’s pick-up to the Sonic in town, where I would buy a large cherry limeade. Then I would drive out into the countryside for an hour or two, down all the little highways with letters for names, and I would try to get lost out there, in the silence of the thick summer. I was never able to do it, though. No matter how far I rolled down the windows, and how the wind rushed through my hair, all my responsibilities and cares stayed in their neat little pile on my lap. I never managed not to know who and where and why I was.

Over time though, I find I mind that less. Responsibilities and cares tie me to people and purpose and community. You don’t always need to be lost to be found.

So, like I said, hello. I’m here and I’m grateful.

 

Christmas and Tradition

When I was growing up, Christmas meant Grandma’s. It meant long hours in the car stuffed with puffy coats, reading Dickens’ Christmas Carol aloud stave by stave, and then arriving in Missouri to cousins and orange balls and running fast on carpet in sock feet. Christmas meant crowded rooms and couches and beds. It meant all twenty-some of us choosing a favorite carol in order from oldest to youngest while siblings switched off at the piano. It meant sitting hip-to-hip with contented joy. I was in awe of those Christmases, so in awe that they sometimes made me forget myself.

But I am grown now, and no Christmas will ever be the same. My grandparents have been gone for over a year and the house is sold. The place we went is no longer ours and the faces which used to await our arrival have been buried. The things which made me love Christmas so seem to have vanished. So it is tempting to me to spend the holiday mourning the traditions and the stability that are lost. This time of year, I want nothing more than to run back to the comforts of childhood or even adolescence, to revel in the reliable beauty of those Christmas customs.

But I cannot return to those traditions, so instead I will try to remember the self-forgetfulness that they taught me.  Because Christmas is not actually meant to be about tradition. It is meant to be about the world turned upside down, shook to its core. It is the story of a remote corner of a poor place where a child was born to speak truth, and to sweat blood, and to die, that I may know truth, and be clean, and live.

Every year that is true. The foundations of our little worlds may shudder, the walls which kept us safe and warm may crumble, the faces around us may seem strange and hard, but every year, if we look up, a star calls us to Bethlehem. We are meant to follow its light, to worship and be changed.

On Friday, I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas to my juniors for storytime. I laughed through some of it, but some lines moved me:

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

I am grateful for the Child who has come to save, and I am thirsty for his grace.

In Praise of Light and Salt

My grandfather died a week ago tonight. (Don’t worry, not many more entries will begin this way.)

He left us less than three months after his wife of sixty years, which is not surprising, but no less hard. This feels like the second half of a whole is gone. In September, when my Grandma died, we felt truncated and sober. Now sometimes we lose the feeling in our legs and we must reach down and check that they’re still there–he did show us how to stand on them, didn’t he?

On Monday night we prayed and my mom said that it felt like some of the light and salt had gone out of the world. It did–it does. There is no better way to explain him than to tell you how he lived.

In 1954, he graduated from medical school in Iowa, got married, and, in 1956, moved down to a tiny town in north central Missouri to  start a practice. And he stayed. While other doctors moved in and out of town, he always stayed.

In college I wrote a paper on small-town doctors, and in the process I interviewed both my grandparents. I dug that paper up last night and reread it and found myself smiling at the difference in the stories each of them wanted to tell. My grandma, who had a love of a good story and an even greater love of her husband, showcased him as the compassionate hero of the town. She talked about the time the child with the suicidal mother called in the middle of the night and he had to go and talk her down by himself, because the sheriff decided he wanted a full night’s rest. She talked about how he regularly treated the local prostitutes, one of whom would periodically slit her wrists, and then call him at his house for a ride to the hospital. The other had such great respect for him that she named her son after him and once asked him to testify for her good character in court. (He declined.)

Grandpa told different stories, though. Smaller stories, which always focused not on himself, but on the things he got the opportunity to learn or to love. He told me about coming out to the barn once and finding a lamb that had gotten into the feed box and was gorging himself. Annoyed, he knocked it out and went on with his chores, and when he came back later it was dead. “That was a good lesson to me not to be too harsh with people as well as animals,” he told me. He always said these things in a soft, light tone, not as if he were preaching it to you, but as if he were preaching it to his own heart and it was just possible you might benefit from it too.

He also talked a lot about delivering babies. Delivering babies was his favorite thing. I knew that, but I asked him why. “Everybody’s happy, even the baby,” he told me. “The baby’s crying, but happy.” He loved life, he loved its beginnings, and he loved its preciousness just as he loved the God who saw fit to give it to His people. Probably half the population of Brookfield over the age of twenty-five was delivered by my grandpa. Sometimes, growing up, I would be approached by strangers who told me wide-eyed how he had attended their entrance into the world: farmers, Walmart greeters, tired single mothers in screen-print t-shirts. All of them spoke of him not only with respect, but with a sort of foreign joy. When these same people would approach him, he would tell them, with quiet but evident pleasure, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you. You’ve changed.”

I meant to say more, but I am worn out and a bit overwhelmed by even beginning to tell these stories and here is why: we all, my siblings and cousins, even my mom and her brothers and sisters, we all grew up being told what a good man our Dr. Howell was. My grandma ceaselessly sang his praises to her children and later to her grandchildren. Not only my mother, but also my father, consistently used him as an example to us of patience and humility and godliness.

But here is how I am wonderfully baffled: this was not just the mythos surrounding a beloved figure. Everything we experienced of him bore it out. It was all true. I am sitting alone on my bed right now miles from most of my family, but I can confidently speak for all of us: he was the best man we knew. He is still the best man we know.

This is important. I am typing very slowly now because I am fighting for the words to tell you how important. For a while in his seventies and eighties my grandfather led a Bible study at a maximum security prison about an hour away in Moberly, Missouri. When the prison officials first asked why he wanted to do such a thing he simply said, “Well, I believe that the Word of God changes lives.” He said this because in the early 1940’s in Cumberland, Iowa, the Word of God changed his life. The Word changed his life and continued to change it. My grandfather and his kind are important, because in a world full of fear and violence and bitterness, where even as Christians we cling harder to irony and mockery than to truth, they are proof that God can clean a sinful heart so new and clear that goodness can can shine through it like morning sunlight and fill the room. They are proof that holiness is real and strong and will triumph. And that holiness is what Jesus means for each of us.

About two weeks ago, when we got to my uncle’s house for Thanksgiving, I walked into the kitchen and Grandpa was hunched over the table, thin and gaunt, focussed on finishing a sandwich, breathing heavily with each movement. I asked him how he was. “Greatly blessed,” he said. He knew. Oh, he knew.

Ho! Everyone who thirsts,

Come to the waters;

And you who have no money,

Come, buy and eat.

Yes, come, buy wine and milk

Without money and without price.

 

A Family Funeral

Late last Tuesday night, my grandma died.

Grief has been in the periphery of my vision all weekend, and I have avoided looking it square in the face, mostly because I don’t know what I will find there and how it will change me. Also, the whole situation is improbable. My grandmother dead? My grandma to be grieved?

Grandma was not a person of grief but of cheerfulness and hard work and practicality, of swift pats on the knee or a brisk kiss on the cheek, of getting out leftovers on Sunday night.

I did not like to see her lying there in the open casket partly because she never lay still like that. She was always doing and moving. Even in her last months, they had to put up a child-gate at the door to her apartment to keep her from wandering off in a fit of usefulness. And her face in the coffin was not right–they hadn’t drawn in her eyebrows and all the color had faded from her hair. But the hands were hers: round knuckles, dark, familiar sunspots on their backs. (But even her hands were never still and folded like that in my memory–they too were always moving, and usually wet from the water in the kitchen sink…)

I feel as if I am writing this underwater–all of my movements and thoughts are slower. I am unsure of my own feelings, but I’m trying to speak for all of us anyway, which is probably foolish. At the visitation on Friday night, I sat in the front pew with my sister and cousin and Mary suddenly said, “For some reason, I didn’t think this would be so sad.” I didn’t think so either. I didn’t think she would be gone. She was never gone and now she is. I didn’t really know that even in old age, death is ugly like that. It takes. The rest of us know how to keep going, sure, but our roots feel lost without her.

The funeral service was good. I played a few hymns on cello, which wound my nerves up tight into a little ball, the siblings shared memories, and, in an unexpected turn of events, the family stood up front and sang. My grandma would have said it was so nice. I was once publicly chastised in a college class for using that word, but for my grandma it was rich with meaning: appropriate, sweet, lovely, good and right, just-so. It was very nice and mostly we did not cry. Probably because we don’t understand yet. And we cannot express.

We don’t understand this impossible balance between the finite and the infinite. Her face and her voice and her words and even her approval of our niceness are all gone. But she read to my mother and my mother read to me. And when she laughed very, very hard her face crumbled up helplessly like she was crying. The same thing happens to my mother, and sometimes to me. She got up early, early every morning and prayed for children, grandchildren, friends, missionaries whom she’s never even met. These things are infinite, especially that last. At its highest point, her very active love for us meant very actively giving us over to the grace of God.

We came to her to find home, but she knew all along that there was a home and a Host beyond and above, bigger and realler. And in the last year of her life up in Minnesota she asked and agitated again and again to be taken home, until even she was not sure what she meant. But Jesus knew. The home that we found at her table she’s even now finding, to an infinite degree, with Christ.

My grandpa is very feeble, and tired, and now also pretty sad. But what he said over and over this weekend, is this: Christ Jesus does all things well. He did not say much else, but I suppose the things we repeat most often are the things we know we must preach to ourselves: Christ Jesus does all things well.

Houses of Memory

For weeks now I have been dealing with things: unpacking and repacking them, dusting them off, sorting them out, holding them in my hands, throwing them away.

About two weeks ago, my mom and my aunt and I went to out to my grandparents’ house in Missouri to pack it up, to begin to get it ready to sell. We moved them up to Minnesota almost ten months ago, and since then the house has sat still, their aging black lab wandering aimlessly and heavily in and out of his dog door to garage, being fed by a family friend, the swimming pool hosting gleeful clans of mosquitoes. Various children have come by a few times: the fridge was cleaned out, the books were sorted, choice pieces of furniture were taken. Most of the beds got clean sheets. But that has been it.

When we got into town we went by Walmart to get cleaning supplies: paper towels, trash bags, work gloves, lighter fluid, and matches. Over the course of five days we sorted through about half the house. My grandparents lived in that house for more than fifty years, and for people who I know have stored up their treasure in heaven, they have so, so much stuff.

Highlights included a book of Ronald Reagan “full color” paper dolls, three Chinese checker boards, a forty-year-old speed reading course neatly packed in its own blue case, hundreds and hundreds of cassette tapes, three doctor’s bags full of hypodermic needles and prescription medication dating back to the seventies, drawers and chests full of baby and doll clothes, a 1993 picture of grandkids at a family funeral which someone had had produced as a jigsaw puzzle and then never opened, a ziplock bag of stockings neatly labelled as “Not Best Stockings”, designer ties mixed in with the polyester ones, boxes and boxes of microwave popcorn, dozens and dozens of Mason jars (some still containing homemade jelly,) and boxes of old forgotten family correspondence, all along with seven dead mice, thousands of mouse droppings in drawers and corners and plastic bags, and one small wasps nest.

We sorted things into piles to sell, to give away to the local charity shop, to take home with us, to go in the dumpster, and yes, largest of all, to throw on the fire out back. I carried huge bags out to toss onto the flames, and sometimes I would stand and watch them burn: all of these things which had sat so patiently at the back of a crawl space or at the back of a drawer, now gone so fast. Pages and pages of old medical journals turning ashy black, their edges curling and disintegrating. Boxes of ant-infested sugar cubes turning into syrupy brown rivulets, burbling down the side of the heap.

On our drive out to Missouri my mom told me about the paper she was writing for the conference she and my dad are at this week, and she explained that in ancient times, when education placed a great emphasis on memory, particularly memorized oratory, teachers taught their pupils to use a device called the “house of memory.” As a young man memorized his speech he was supposed to build a big house in his mind and walk through it as he recited. Each room was supposed to remind him of a different point or counterpoint, and then lead smoothly onto the next point in the next room. If you stayed safe within your illusory house as you spoke, you would not get lost in your own words.

I am very good at remembering: my sister and I have a running joke that I remember her own life better than she does. And because I am good at memory, I prize it very highly: to remember what has happened feels like having all the answers stored away for a rainy day.

And my grandparents’ home has always served as a tangible house of memory for me: It is the center of my extended family, the place I can remember all of them and all of our Christmases and summers. As we packed up the end room, and piled old appliances and furniture in the middle for the dumpster, I kept looking around and thinking about my uncles who grew up here when this was “the boys’ room”: they have gotten tall and grey, but the wooden paneling and the bright blue carpet still remembers them as scruffy loud little boys, reading Peanuts books, just as the now busted out doctors bags remember all the patients my grandpa cared for so faithfully, and the Mason jars remember my Grandma’s hard, satisfying work over a hot stove.

I know that memories can be a burden. But I also know that my grandparents are so old and have forgotten so much. If I cannot remember things for them, I wish I could at least hold onto the things that saw them when they did remember. But I know that it is better to try to live with empty hands.

Tomorrow I am moving into my first real apartment, so I have spent the last several days packing. While I do not hoard, there are certain things I have quite a lot of: I have a lot of dresses, tights and blankets, I have twelve boxes of books, and I have huge amounts of paper: mostly in ratty old notebooks of different shapes and sizes. Most of these things (except some of the paper) will come to my new home. I will not stay there forever: the new memories I will make in the rooms will become old, and I will leave them behind. It’s unavoidable, I’m going to forget. I’m going to forget my sixth grade email address and why I chose it. I’m going to forget what my cousins looked like when they were babies, I’m going to forget what year I took that favorite class in college, I’m going to forget students’ names, I’m going to forget what I did on my nineteenth birthday.

And someday I will probably forget that my grandma read Proverbs at the breakfast table. But she did not read Proverbs to her children and grandchildren so that we would remember that she read Proverbs at the breakfast table. She read Proverbs so that they would they would teach us to strive to “get wisdom” and “keep understanding.” And they did. They do. She would not mind if I forgot all the rest, so long as I remember that.

The old that is strong does not wither / Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

The Christmas in Minnesota

I have a week before I go back to teaching and there is so, so much to do (most of it having nothing to do with school.) But before I do all of the so, so much I need to keep up a tradition. Every year on this blog I have written about Christmas, with the exception of last year, when I must have been too busy with my novel to do anything here except whine about how tired I was. Oops. But anyway, this year there is no frantic writing independent study, only a surprisingly well-rested Alice, too distracted to take on her real to-do list.

This Christmas was quietly different from all the others (related here, here, and here.) It was both more joyful and more painful. As I get older such feelings are more keen, but more often than I used to, I know what they mean and I know what to do with them. I do not, however, always know how to express them.

I thought that I would tell you about the week in the old way, beginning to end, like a story, but it does not have enough narrative thread for that. It has a setting, of course: a Bible camp up in the Iron Range of Minnesota, where the camp director has raised his seven children, and has recently moved his quickly aging parents. Because it is Christmastime children, grandchildren, husbands, wives, and two little boys named after the same great-grandfather have converged upon the camp, where the ground is slushy, but still a bit slick. With them, they bring chocolate and the old family Christmas songbooks. They plan to stay for four or five days.

So that is the stage set, but beyond that, there is no plot, one event does not lead to another, so if I told it like that, it would make no sense. That is was not what it was. The week was not a story in itself, but merely an infinitesimal part of a great and large story, a moment about the length of a heartbeat.

My grandparents are near the end of that story. My grandma is confused and sad and only partly herself. She tries to introduce her grandchildren to one another, but remembers the taste of the orange balls she used to make. My frail grandpa is contemplative and eager for coherent company. While the girls organized a game of cousin knockout on Christmas Eve he stood bent over in the corner of the gym and enthusiastically dribbled a basketball till it bounced out of reach. He stands up in Sunday meeting and says that we are greatly blessed by Christ’s coming. And he asks, again and again, that we all sing “Come Let Us Adore Him.” (That’s his preferred title for the carol, I think, because he does not consider himself particularly “faithful,” but he does know Jesus to be worthy of adoration.)

My mother and her siblings are at another part of the story. A part which is harder and less certain than they anticipated, I think. They take charge and they clean and they cook and they delegate and they worry. They find perhaps that, more than before, they have no one older and wiser to pass their worries along to, save passing them around in a circle to one another. They must go straight back to the Source with it all, give every bit of it up in prayer. Then when next their hands are free on Christmas Eve some one of us bestows upon them a child to hold: a quiet, solemn little gift-baby, theirs for a few minutes, who will nestle his head into their shoulder and rest.

Then there are the grandchildren. (That’s us.) We are at the part of the story in which we have come into our own, some of us without noticing. I can only speak for myself, but the old excitement for Christmas has been replaced by a certain sober joy. My cousins sat on the couch and helped grade the fill-in-the-blanks on the last test I gave, and I remembered sprawling on the end-room bed with them, summers before, reading To Kill a Mockingbird. On the 23rd we dragged down the tree from the attic, set it up with great care, and literally festooned the rafters with lights. On Christmas Eve night, we had a dance party (inspired by Sally’s cautious hip-hop moves.) When we are together now, we want to be together. We don’t care if we dance like Peanuts characters. We are not forgetting ourselves, but deliberately setting ourselves aside. We are slowly, at our own paces and in our own ways, learning the value of what has been given to us: the old summers in the above-ground pool, Proverbs read at breakfast-time, full couches and long legs, parents who name their daughters Hope.

Earliest in the story are Billy and Liam. Small lap-sitters, futures unseen, no worries beyond whether they too are allowed to have some of that candy they see everyone else has got. It is for them that Christmas is intended first and foremost. Jesus’s beginning as infant was his loud, clear announcement of his intentions: that since he was coming as the least of these, he meant to love and save the least of these.

And so, if we follow the story, beginning to end (or end to beginning, as it were,) we find the Son of God at its core: the adored gift-child, bearing in his tiny frame all the fearful hope and promise of his death for our redemption.

Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

Culture and the Gospel

I want to write about something I know I’ve already addressed in different ways in this entry from last Christmas and especially this one, from a couple years ago, but I’ve had a lot of time to myself to think recently, so what follows is going to be particularly long. Beware.

For most of us it is so easy to see the sharp disparities between Christianity and the culture in which we live. The situation in Iraq is suddenly turning awful and we’re all looking on in horror. And in our own backyard, we see so much bitterness and rebellion and mockery. There is greed and cruelty and an all-consuming cult of self, often espoused by people who claim to care a very great deal about “making the world better.”

We have learned enough about our Lord, who overturned tables in the temple, to understand that this is not what he wishes. We are able to see how what is around us is rotten. But I think the sight of so much that is dreadful often tempts us, as a church, to a subtle wringing of the hands, and to a sometimes not-so-subtle and rather despairing call to “reinforce the battlements of Christian morality once more,” to “save our God’s dying and unheeded biblical principles in the face of a perverse and evil world.” “Oh!” we say, “The culture has gone down the drain, and we must defend truth.”

First of all, God’s principles are not dying. They are quite as well and strong as He is, was, and always will be. (Whether anyone is listening to them is an entirely separate matter.) And the culture has not “gone down the drain.” I’m sorry if you are only just now noticing and it comes as a shock, but it has always been down the drain, ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruit. If you want to understand what is wrong with the world, the root of its rottenness, bitterness, and cruelty, we must always look at our own hearts.

Cultures of all kinds and ages, after all, are changing, ephemeral, and really rather insignificant in the scheme of things. I have been watching Ken Burns’ Civil War series in preparation for my debut as a history teacher in the fall, and I keep thinking of what Dr. Edwards used to say: that the great sin of our country in the nineteenth century was slavery, and that now it is abortion. I believe there is quite a lot of truth to that, both specifically and generally. Most cultures are born with their own virtues (usually rather scant) and their own sins (usually quite profuse,) and are eventually, and often violently, overtaken by the next human concoction for governance, approximately opposite in its schemes of morality, but just as self-sick.

The problem is humanity. We are the common denominator. I have been rereading Mere Christianity (if you couldn’t tell already) and Lewis is quite clear about the ultimate unimportance to the Creator of these revolving human civilizations and their timely deaths. “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one.” The marvelous mystery is that, though cultures will eventually fade away like bad dreams, mankind can be real, as our Father is. In fact, in the great spiritual war, we, the men and women made in His image, are the battlefield, the ground to be gained, of much more significance than “kingdoms and principalities.”

Yes, Christ came to save, but He did not come to save our crumbling, sello-taped culture. That will pass away. He came to save you and He came to save me—he came on a quest for our sinful, maggot-ridden hearts: to take them, and if we will let Him, to remake them out of entirely fresh stuff, to remake them out of Himself. He came to teach us, by example, to how to die and then how to live anew.

But I know that the question remains. How do we live anew in a world filled with machinations which are so clearly built for the purpose of degrading what is holy? I remember the Ten Booms, living out the gospel in Nazi-occupied Holland. (I have picked an extreme example on purpose, because perspective is a healthy thing, and also because you ought to read The Hiding Place.) I remember that they prayed, and took pity upon their oppressors. They prayed, and opened their doors to every man, woman, and child who needed them. They prayed, and even in prison sent messages to one another pronouncing the goodness of God. They prayed, and, at long last, transformed concentration camps into places of healing and new life. This, I believe, is what it means to live faithfully.

We are to be the people in whose homes and minds “mercy and truth are met together.” We are told to seek the kingdom, to take heart, to trust the Lord, to love our enemies, to fear no more, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to be patient and joyful, to store up sound wisdom, to pray without ceasing, the bless those who curse us, to forsake foolishness, to walk humbly, to be kind and tenderhearted, to freely give, to serve the Lord all the days of our lives, “and, having done all, to stand.” We are told to speak, to do, to go, to give, to pray, to love, to die, but never, to my knowledge, does God tell us to be concerned citizens. He wants quite a lot more than that. He does not want His people to make the world fit for Him, but to make His people fit for their true home.

I‘m still struggling to express what I mean, (probably because I’m still learning all this myself,) so I’ll borrow an old puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision:

Thou Great I Am,

Fill my mind with elevation and grandeur at the thought of a Being with whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, a  mighty God, who, amidst the lapse of worlds, and the revolutions of empires, feels no variableness, but is glorious in immortality.           

May I rejoice that while men die, the Lord lives; that, while all creatures are broken reeds, empty cisterns, fading flowers, withering grass, He is the Rock of Ages, the Fountain of living waters.

Turn my heart from vanity, from dissatisfactions, from uncertainties of the present state, to an eternal interest in Christ.

Let me remember that life is short and unforeseen, and is only an opportunity for usefulness;

Give me a holy avarice to redeem the time, to awake at every call to charity and piety, so that I may feed the hungry, clothe the naked, instruct the ignorant, reclaim the vicious, forgive the offender, diffuse the gospel, show neighbourly love to all.

Let me live a life of self-distrust, dependence on Thyself, mortification, crucifixion, prayer.

Of course, I have been holding back. I have been holding back the greatest, grandest thing: “In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer,” Christ says, “I have overcome the world.” Everything I have been saying is just talk, really, for He has already done it. It is in the Divine character to act as savior and conqueror. It is in our Lord’s character to be more powerful and holy and loving than we can even conceive. Even when we are so often faithless, He promises to remain faithful. I’ve been reading Psalm 46 a lot lately:

God is our refuge and strength,

A very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear,

Even though the earth be removed,

And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though its waters roar and be troubled,

Though the mountains shake with its swelling.

There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,

The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;

God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.

The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;

He uttered His voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

The God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,

Who has made desolations in the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;

He burns the chariot in the fire.

Be still and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!

The Lord of hosts is with us;

The God of Jacob is our refuge.

And He always says what He means and does what He says. When he hung on the cross, he said, “It is finished.” And so it must be. As Julian of Norwich repeats so definitely, because it is the surest truth she knows: “All manner of things shall be well.”

I have been playing hymns on my cello lately, and my grandpa will come in and sit down and close his eyes. By the second or third note he is always singing along. The other day I found myself watching him and wondering what it took to be the sort of person who, at nearly ninety, loves his God so well. And then I realized. My grandfather is the best man I know, but his devotion to his Lord has nothing to do with his virtue. He loves so deeply because the gospel is so rich and so true. Everything and everyone he meets compels him to hold onto Jesus so much tighter.

And I have been listening to my grandpa’s prayers better recently too. He has trouble with many words now, but there is one word he always speaks clearly: blessed. He never asks God for blessing, but seems always to be thanking Him for it. “You have blessed us,” he says, “We are so greatly blessed.” He knows the abundance of mercy that is promised, and that what our Lord promises he will accomplish. “Behold, I make all things new.” My grandfather comprehends the gospel so much more fully than I do, but still, he is only standing at the edge of God’s goodness, and even there he is overwhelmed.

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Do not listen to any nonsense about culture wars. The battle is spiritual, it is for the hearts of the children of God, and victory is already certain. We’re going home.

Cricket Neighbors and a Spread of Books

I’m at my grandparents’ in Missouri for a couple weeks, and there’s a cricket in my room. At first he was in the corner by the chair, chirping cheerily and loudly all night long. He kept me awake, but when I searched for him, I couldn’t find him, and the internet informed me that he would probably live for weeks on end. I was a little lonely after my sister left so I resigned myself and thought, “Oh, well, I guess it’s nice to have a friend.” One night he seemed to be in the closet and one night in the shower (though I was grateful to find it empty when I got in a few minutes later.) Eventually I thought there might be two of them, calling back and forth to one another about secret cricket things. I would lay awake listening, and wondering what they were saying, and generally wishing that if I was to have roommates we could maybe all be on the same sleep schedule at least one night a week.

Then on Saturday evening I was sitting in my chair reading, when my elusive friend emerged from under my bed. He was larger, uglier, and altogether looked much more like a cockroach than I thought he would. He stopped in the middle of the carpet and stared, so he may well have been thinking the same thing about me (though I know I don’t look like a cockroach.) In any case, I immediately realized that I had been deluding myself to think of him as a friend and that we would in fact always be mortal enemies while he insisted on keeping me awake at night. I lunged for him with a shoe and he retaliated by taking one great leap back under my bed.  So I turned out the light and took a less impressive leap onto the bed and under my covers. He continues just as awful every night, and I’m seriously considering moving down to the end room just to escape, even if it means having to wash an extra set of sheets.

I’ve been doing other, more valuable things than running away from crickets, though. Last night after Sally had had her fill of the game between “the Spurs and the Heats,” I watched the first bit of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War to help me out with teaching next year. At first I nearly cried because it was so good, and then I settled down and took notes.

I’ve also been reading. Or, rather, spreading books all over my bed, face down, and switching between them at a hectic pace.

The Wingfeather Saga (by Andrew Peterson, yes, the one whose music you love): As I said so many times this year, I’m not normally into fantasy, but these were lovely, the footnotes in the first book particularly. If you like very large puppies, people who can fly, and noble twelve-year-olds, you will like this. (I would guess it also has a niche market with people who hate cows and forks.) The fourth and last installment comes out later this summer and I’m pretty excited.

Between, Georgia (by Joshilyn Jackson, worth it for her first name alone): I found this in the massive Ed McKay’s in Chattanooga. I enjoyed it. It was worth the time I spent reading it. Now go find your own summer novels at McKay’s.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (by Milan Kundera, that Czech man): I’m part way through this. I like the bits about the one character’s crass mother, but every time he goes back to talking about all these love affairs that all these neurotic people are having with each other and obsessing over, I get bored. Probably won’t finish it.

Radical Femininity (by Carolyn McCulley, whom I know nothing else about): I’m not a huge fan of the title. (As my dad says “I only like the word radical in math. It actually means something there.”) But I like the history in it very much and wish there was more of it. Also only halfway through, so the verdict is still out.

Home (by Marilynne Robinson, she of Gilead fame): I’m enjoying this. I like Glory. I like her father. I like John Ames. I like their little town. But here’s the thing: they’re all preoccupied with and fascinated by Jack Boughton and his sudden reappearance, and I’m not. I’d like to move along and hear about Glory’s divorce and other things that are not Jack. But then again, I’m halfway though. We’ll see what happens.

Mere Christianity (by C.S. Lewis, of course): I don’t think I’ve read this since high school and I’m very pleased to be coming back to it again. It’s my grandparents’ copy, but I’ve been sneakily marking the bottoms of pages for bits I want to copy down. Hooray for truth.

After I’ve finished wading through all of these to my satisfaction, I plan on rereading all the Little House books for the first time in a very long time, and then moving onto Robinson’s Housekeeping (not about Jack Boughton! Hurrah!) and the “spiritual biography” of Flannery O’Conner that Mary got for me. Please write me a letter and tell me what you’re reading, in great detail. I will add it to my list and perhaps get to it in five or ten years.