The Taser's Edge

On Being Wounded and “Getting Over It”

Lately I’ve been thinking deeply not just on suffering but on woundedness, the delineation being that suffering is a present experience and set of sensations while woundedness is about the changes that suffering causes in us, sometimes forever. At the encouragement of a friend, I finally got a copy of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

For those who aren’t familiar, the book is the very raw journal of Lewis’ mourning the death of his wife. It actually seems so raw, literally written within months of her death, that it’s difficult for me to reconcile the buttoned-down conservative C.S. Lewis with the author of this book which lets so many questions just hang in the air.

Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am trying to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.

Keep in mind that those words were written by a man who was a patient in the combat hospitals of World War I, and you’ll receive them more deeply.

In the quote itself, it all sounds so final, but one theme of the book as a whole is that grief is the revelation that nothing is final, that nothing we know now is permanent, that everything is passing away. Not that you one day grow a leg back, but that one day you lose that now-one-legged body altogether, and then that state passes away too. Ecclesiastes, anyone?

One thing Lewis doesn’t stress which I want to, however: there is nothing wrong with having one leg, and there is no less value, belovedness, or blazing image of God in the amputee than in the person who, after all, only seemed to be whole in the first place.

I hope that you know that.

Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) by Rob Bell–Part I of III

I love reading books because some Christians are talking about them. It’s one of the best perks of being a pastor. Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, The Shack. Even (a while back) I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

And I hate feeling the pressure to read books some Christians talk about: Left Behind, random Christian-branded self-help crap.

Rob Bell’s newest falls in both camps. People are angry, and I don’t particularly care about what they’re angry about. But I had seen one of Bell’s videos (The Gods Aren’t Angry), and although only somewhat drawn in by the message, I was blown away by his communication skills. Watch it, and you will be too.

Earlier this year, Love Wins dropped like a bomb with a beautifully (but not in the ick-slick way of some megachurchness) produced video, and the shock waves rocked the Twitterverse for a couple days thanks to a blogpost pushed by John Piper.

Rob Bell is an evangelical pastor that many evangelicals don’t like. For years, they’ve felt like he’s been squishy on some fundamentals (and I use that word purposely), but they had nothing really to get him on. Until now! Without reading the book (as you can see if you clicked through to that blogpost), they began to label Bell a universalist. Once again, however, there is still basically nothing to nail him for…at least from the perspective of evangelical theology.

The first half of the book (preface and chapters 1-3) are definitely the strongest. Here, Bell works hard and with great talent to help his readers explore the Biblical imagination of the breadth of God’s embrace of all things. Sometimes his exegesis is spotty (although I think he knows this, and is trying to push the envelope), but his main points come out well. And it’s totally uncontroversial to someone who has read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (or, at least, I haven’t yet heard about John Piper tweeting that Lewis is apostate).

As a review in one sentence, “Love Wins is what The Great Divorce could very likely have been, if C.S. Lewis were a gifted American hipster pastor instead of a gifted stodgy Oxford don.”

Part II begins now…

Sacramental Chocolate (a too-late-for-Easter-yet-still-important entry)

“There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from merely festal character of Christmas or Easter.  I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter a morning a poem of his own composition which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.’  This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety.  But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity.  He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental.  And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first.  If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat.  They have taken on an independent, and therefore soon a withering, life.”

-C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 48-49

Tuesday Reading Roundup

1. American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle–I checked this book out from Duke in May 2008, read a third of it, and then set it out down…for a year.  As the due date for all my items approached after I graduated this year, I decided that I would skim the rest of this book before returning it.   But then it was just too good, and I read the whole thing, including a lot of the end materials.

In this highly acclaimed book, DeParle follows welfare reform from Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” in his 1992 presidential campaign (a promise which DeParle claims raised an unknown Arkansas governor to national prominence) through about 2003.  To provide both the larger picture of welfare history as well as the smallest stories of individual people being affected by the reforms, he follows three cousins, all of whom have their genealogical roots in sharecropping Mississippi (and apparently lots of welfare research draws a connection between welfare and sharecropping structures), who come to Milwaukee in the early nineties, explicitly in search of higher welfare checks.

Under Governor Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin had become the state for welfare reform in the US, and Milwaukee became the city.  What was most strange to me about the whole idea is that all kinds of highly placed government officials, supposedly experts on welfare reform, were in fact just nursing pet theories and trying them out to see what worked.  The theories always seemed to have equal statistical likelihoods for failure and for success, and what actually happened never matched their models.

You might notice that you never hear about welfare reform in politics today, and that’s because the problem is now small enough that it has been largely considered solved.  Welfare reforms actually did shrink the welfare rolls dramatically, and not just by kicking people off the rolls as they reached the new federal and state time limits.  Wisconsin, for instance, created required work modeled on the public works projects under FDR.  The state created community jobs and paid minimum wage out of welfare funds.  If people didn’t find their own jobs, they could find themselves sorting pogs for 40 hours a week, with their checks docked for every hour missed.  And an unbelievable majority of people decided they could find their own jobs for a dollar or two more than minimum.  (This was actually possible in the late 1990s.)

But the big picture problem which DeParle leaves us with is not America’s welfare problem, but its poverty problem.  Of the three women he follows, one has her life destroyed by addiction to crack cocaine, losing her home, her children, and her lifelong friendship with her two cousins.  The other two women are considered to be “successes” of the system, women who moved from the welfare rolls to the workforce.  And while they miraculously (considering all the barriers) keep their own $7-10/hr. jobs, they also have to deal with violent neighborhoods and abusive lovers, their own addictions, and children whom they have to leave unattended in order to keep food (and there is still never enough) on the table.  And so they end up not receiving cash welfare, but still needing food stamps, having health insurance provided to their children, but lacking it themselves, simply surviving.  According to DeParle’s statistics, until a family reaches double the poverty line (still calculated using long outdated and always flawed formulas), survival is what they will be doing.

Highly recommended, even though heavy on statistics.  This was published in 2004, and I don’t know if there has been a text which has yet replaced it as the definitive voice on late 20th century welfare reform.

2. Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis–I have been choosing to read this slowly thus far, just a chapter or so each day.  And it’s very good.  One lamentable thing I have noticed are some problematic conceptions of Judaism in relation to Christianity, namely the classic Christian conception of Judaism as a religion devoid of grace.  (In fact, Judaism is grace-filled, although not in every iteration, similar to how Christianity is founded on grace, but grace is lacking in some of its iterations.)

3. Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, illustrated and lettered by Dave Gibbons–After this post I wrote back in March, celebrating the opening of the Watchmen movie with a list of graphic novels which I prefer to it, both of my brothers said they couldn’t understand why I didn’t recognize the greatness of Watchmen.  They have good taste, and so, even though I rarely re-read anything (there are just too many good books out there that I’ll never get to anyway), I decided to re-read it.  And in the midst of chapter 10 of 12, I have definitely been moved a lot more.  The problem before was a lack of emotional connection, not a lack of recognizing the book’s artistic merit.  This time, I am recognizing deeper layers of the art and feeling that I connect with the characters more.  With the emotional connection, Moore and Gibbons have better earned the grislyness and horror that sometimes marks his pages.

Still, for anyone who likes Watchmen, read From Hell, too, also by Alan Moore.  Unbelievable.  And also made into (apparently, as I’ve seen neither it nor Watchmen) a critically hated movie.  I should re-read it again.  It’s like if The Da Vinci code were amazing in conception and near perfectly executed.

Starting With the Broccoli Psalms

As I mentioned earlier, the primary way in which I am preparing for my upcoming CPE residency is learning the Psalms better.  I am trying to read at least a little bit each day from one of the books that I gathered around me.  And today I began C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms.  So far, so good.  I am reminded why I like Lewis so much, and that I shouldn’t have left him for so long.  Quotes and random commentary follow:

1–>”This is not a work of scholarship…I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.”  Okay, that second sentence isn’t quite true, though it does sound great.  Lewis seems to have read the experts; he just doesn’t want to speak as if he himself were one of them.

4-5–>”It is (according to one’s point of view) either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one [i.e., parallelism] that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.”  In the semester-length class on Hebrew poetry that I took at Duke, we talked about the question of whether Hebrew poetry actually exists, whether all of Scripture might actually be poetry, and the various types of parallelism outlined by various scholars, but we never talked about the divine work going on inside Hebrew poetry’s formal structures.  Thanks for reminding me of something so central to any study of Scripture, dear St. Clive of Oxford.

5-6–>On the same tack, Lewis points out that Jesus, “soaked in the poetic tradition of His country,” himself taught using parallelism: “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matt. 7:2).  More wonderfully, Lewis opens up the life of the holy family by comparing Jesus’ own use of parallelism in his teaching to that of his mother in her Magnificat: “That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all that hate us.”  Why not read this, asks Lewis, as showing how a human Son learned and received his personality from His human mother, just as all human sons raised by their mothers do?  An intriguing trail to follow.

6-7–>(This is where the title of this post comes from): “And I begin with those characteristics of the Psalter which are at first most repellent.  Other men of my generation will know why.  Our generation was brought up to eat everything on the plate; and it was the sound principle of nursery gastronomy to polish off the nasty things first and leave the tidbits to the end.”  He is being honest.  The first three chapters after this “Introductory” are “‘Judgement’ in the Psalms”, “The Cursings”, and “Death in the Psalms,” only then followed by “‘The fair beauty of the Lord'” and ‘”Sweeter than Honey.'”

And then a final wonderful question, which concludes the chapter, from someone who isn’t supposed to believe in Purgatory:

“Shall we, perhaps, in Purgatory, see our own faces and hear our own voices as they really were?”

Praying the Psalms

On June 1, I will begin my CPE residency at Duke Hospital.  Until then, I have very little to do, but as my mind likes to begin eating itself when left idle, I have been working at creating a schedule for myself for the sake of structure (which is just as healthy for 25-year-olds as for 5-year-olds).

So how do you prepare for a CPE residency, an experience which by definition is something which you can’t prepare for?  I decided that I would try to begin learning the Psalms.  Not memorizing the Psalter yet, but perhaps compiling a memory bank of what Psalms speak to particular situations.  Right now, I have a scrap of paper in my Bible marking the beginning of Psalms, covered with lists of Psalms, verses from Isaiah, and verses from Revelation to be read at people’s bedsides.

But I also thought I would seek out some expert opinion.  I’ve assembled this crack team to begin with:

1. Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton–Words cannot express how much I love Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, a book of which I own multiple copies, because I buy it every time I see it in order to give it away.  A modern saint’s spiritual autobiography seems much healthier to collect than, say, The Catcher in the Rye.  But back to Praying the Psalms, I just read the very brief  book this morning.  In it Merton speaks of how we as Christians need to move through three stages of relating to the Psalms: (1) knowing that the Psalms are good prayers but not really doing anything about it, (2) beginning to pray the Psalms out of that conviction, and (3) “entering into the Psalms,” where we live in their world and they are brought into our hearts as part of the normal furniture.

Wonderful writing as always.  Regarding why the Church still uses the Psalms: “The Church indeed likes what is old, not because it is old but rather because it is ‘young'” (7).  Yes!

And regarding why the Psalms are so important to our prayer lives: “There is no aspect of the interior life, no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of [hu]man[ity] that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms.  But we cannot lay hands on these riches unless we are willing to work for them” (44).

And then there are the other three as-yet-unread ones (each of which linked to more info):

Lewis is Christianity's "Stairway to Heaven." Wonderful work but frustratingly popular for my snobbish ways.

Since this is the best edition, I bought it even though I already own a dog-eared copy of Life Together.

Winner of 1985's coveted Hottest New Cover Art Award.

A Parent, A Gardener, A Sex Tip

One of the themes of the conversations at Church of the Holy Spirit in Roanoke, VA (see previous post) was the idea of taking risks in being faithful to God’s calling.  This feeds into something that God has been working into me for a while–the idea of being more adventurous and truly seeing the freedom that there is in God and in my calling to Christian ministry.  Few people have spoken more truly of God than Mrs. Beaver spoke of Aslan–“He’s not a tame lion.”  And while I’ve been warned that there’s some kind of political subtext to that statement, I still take it to mean a very simple and important truth about God: God is far, far, far more adventurous than Christians want God to be.  This is especially true for this Christian, especially when God calls me to live into the adventurous part of the image in which I am created.

If you don’t know me at all but have read at least two of my blog posts, you might already realize that I think too much.  Realize that I know this, and I’m working on it in different ways.  As my AMP group talked Friday afternoon about faithfulness and risk-taking ministry, I began to dream up how that would be great for a church.  Set aside time each week for the staff to dream ridiculous dreams together.  All of the dreams just thrown out there so that they can be heard.  Although I’ve been warned (and believe) that the church shouldn’t emulate the corporate world, it’s hard not to think of Google’s elevator to outer space idea.  The point behind such a practice (crazy dream sessions, not transporting goods to space) is that too often we turn our brains on too soon, and it chokes both our imagination and God’s work in our lives.

When I was doing my senior seminar at Concordia University Wisconsin, Dr. David Krenz provided us with a metaphor (or is it an analogy?) of two parts–parent and child.  The child (who didn’t make it into the title due to the close proximity of the word “sex”), Krenz said, is the part of us which has all the creativity, the wonder, the wild abandon, and the ability to make wide-ranging and sometimes ridiculous connections.  The parent is the part of us which clamps down on that child to make sure that everything in our lives is respectable and looks good to the neighbors.  When you write a paper, he said, make sure that you let the child play for a good, long while before you let your parent step in.  Although you do need the parent to work things together for the finished paper, if you release her too soon you will lose those creative sparks and intuitions which are so important.

To put it bluntly, I have an overactive parent.

To turn to another metaphor (and this time I know it’s not a simile), my mind is a garden.  My ideas are its plants.  Some are full and flourishing, while others are just coming up from the ground.  But my overactive parent has now become, very unfortunately, an overzealous gardener who has also undergone a sex change.  He looks out over the garden plot, and as the tiniest shoot is coming out of the ground, before he can even see what kind of plant it might be, he makes a judgment of whether it will survive and be something desirable, and on that poorly informed basis decides whether to pluck it.  He usually plucks it.  He also usually decides to keep only plants that look fairly similar to plants he’s seen before.  And while I like snap beans alright, I don’t necessarily need 37 varieties; sometimes I think I might like some variety in my diet.

I’m not a violent-natured person, so rather than strangling my gardener (he is, after all, my mother, to continue mixing the metaphorical metaphor pot) what I want to do is sit down and give him a stern talking-to.  But that would be overthinking.  Instead, I want to try this: journal without thinking.  I journal from time to time, sometimes with great regularity and sometimes only a couple times a month (a little more regularly than this blog).  What makes it onto the page are my thoughts, but I think that sometimes they hit the page in a too highly developed form.  I strain out all kinds of things, making sure that I really think something or really feel something, or that I’m not going to change my mind in two minutes, or that I haven’t changed my mind since yesterday.  I don’t consciously think all that stuff, but there is a whole lot of refining, and I think it needs to stop.  I need to write my perceptions in that particular moment and not feel guilty that my impressions may be wrong or self-deceived or fleeting or whatever else.  I need to copy it onto the page, otherwise I think that I am missing beautiful sparks of the imagination and beautiful and risky visions of God.

What exactly am I fearing if I were to change my mind on a subject?  As I always say, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”  (Then most of the time I follow that up by admitting I don’t always say that, but Emerson once did.)  I need a place to pour out all those imaginative thoughts and dreams because otherwise I often won’t see them for what they are, and I’ll miss some beauties.  Let the child keep playing.  Who’s he hurting?  Let the plants keep growing.  You’ve got plenty of soil and you might as well see what those new plants turn out to be.

You might just find that you even like those random rutabagas better than your snap beans, although I doubt it.  I’m told rutabagas are gross.  I’ve never tried them to find out and I swear to you I never will.

Bonus tip: Sex can also be better when you turn off your brain.