“Come Forth, Ye Drunkards”: Pity and Grace in Crime and Punishment

raskolnikov 3I am working my way through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and was struck by one of its early scenes depicting a drunkard in a St. Petersburg tavern bemoaning his vices, as well as the costs they have accumulated, to the novel’s protagonist Rodya Raskolnikov.

To set the scene, Marmeladov is a sickly alcoholic who has drowned himself beyond the breaking point in his sins. With each vain attempt at repentance, Marmeladov, like a dog to his vomit, returns again and again to his excesses, much to the despair and fury of his long-suffering wife and children.  In fact, Marmeladov mumbles to Raskolnikov that his drinking has even pushed his daughter Sonya into prostitution to keep the family above water while he lurches night after night down the old steps into the dingy bar.

In his extensive monologue, Marmeladov admits his depravity and the egregious consequences it is creating, yet he feels compelled to linger in his darkness, a tension that pits sin and redemption on opposite ends of the same locked door of the heart, thus foreshadowing Raskolnikov’s own division as he crouches behind the door of the old pawnbroker moments before her murder.

By the end of his rambling speech, however, Marmeladov rises to a momentous occasion in which he declares he “ought to be crucified” and judged rightly for his wickedness. He even tells the bartender: “Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and I have found it, and I have tasted it.”  Here, Marmeladov has reached the nadir of his troubles and has realized his inability to see joy, redemption, or hope in his bottomless search; neither in beer nor the tears it draws can salvation be found.

At the climax of his speech, Marmeladov looks forward to the final judgment of Christ in which all will be exposed and all will be made right. Read the beauty of his plea:

“And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once…Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much’ […] And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ […] And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.'”

Few moments in literature parallel with this piercing declaration of hope in the face of hollow living. Marmeladov, for all his sinfulness and despair, preaches the gospel in a dim-lit corner of a Russian pub. He has vainly sought peace in his drink and in his darkness, yet he discovers that it is in such darkness that illumination may rise. The voice of Christ beckoning all who are weary, all who are broken, all who are drunken to rise, like Lazarus, and come forth into the light is one of the most beautiful pictures Dostoevsky imagines, and he seats it right in the opening of a harrowing novel full of shadow and fear. It is perhaps no wonder his original title for the book was The Drunkards, for that is what every character, in his soul, is. And since Hamlet was right in declaring all art to “hold a mirror up to nature” and expose our own innermost realities, we as readers instantly recognize our own spiritual drunkenness, our own Marmeladovian depravity. Therefore, as Raskolnikov begins his own plummeting spiral over the rest of the novel, we too are caught in the plunge, equally complicit in the powers of darkness that await the resurrecting call of Christ.  We too are drunkards, and our only salvation will come from the belief that we are unworthy of it.

Like Jean Valjean’s defining moment of forgiveness from the bishop in Les Miserables, Marmeladov faces the depths of his own sin in the light of Christ’s glory and grace. It is not in the rack of guilt or the metallic strictness of the law that such men hear God but in the beautiful touch of pity and grace. Like Valjean, Marmeladov sees, though ethereally, the mercy of God extended even to him, and struck to the bone, he seeks the light of redemption. Like Valjean, he is brought to a full understanding of his wickedness, and there, only there, may he see the extended hand of God lifting him up. And so in reading such masterpieces, may we also be brought to the pits of our own sin, may we also see our offenses for what they are, so that we may be forgiven, shown grace, and restored to our full humanity. May we drunkards hear the call to quit the shadows and ascend from the grave into the marvelous light of God.

My Daughter Speaks with Thunder

This is a poem dedicated to my daughter Julianna, the girl who says hello to the thunder:


My daughter speaks with thunder,

Letting go of a thousand wishes drawn from her little well,

Lips stirred by the sweeping spells of starlight,

A congregation of electric clouds clapping the chorus,

Humming hymns.

 

When lightning rips the violet sky,

Like mice scratching faster than traps,

Cheese in cheek,

My child betrays her young lungs with the fragile yell

Of determined humans,

Daring to harmonize with the heavens.

 

She smiles and dances to me,

The harps in her throat still laughing with song,

When her hands outstretch to unveil

A dozen little berries,

Dizzy from the sugar they’ve drunk,

And I see the glory of this gummy communion,

As my daughter chomps on her backyard treasure,

Barrels her hellos to the evening,

And God the Father belly laughs

A shower of rain in response.

To My Mother on Her Birthday

My mother’s birthday is today, and I wanted to honor her and everything she has done for my family and me by writing this poem for her. Happy birthday, Mom.


I saw her breathing deeply

As I stared through strands of tumbling hair,

Like little wispy veils,

Slurring my sleepy vision as I shivered at her bedside.

I was small and scared and four.

 

My mother’s sleep lay on her thick as quilts,

Lulling her tired bones to the rest of sacred dreams,

Filled with the iron ballast of a day of boundless worship:

Her living room worn by the hymns of an aged vacuum,

Choruses offered as sacred vespers,

The clouds of sunset filling her temple,

My mother’s domestic liturgy.

 

I see her hands fold behind her pillow,

Fingers faded by the baptism of dishes,

The scrape of cereal from the bowl and the wisdom of rags

Wiping away the filth of human failures.

 

Her forehead lightens as her mind replays

The wonders of laughter

And the splattering grace of the evening meal,

Smeared cheeks chewing on the Passover,

Remembrances of a body broken

As my mother’s bends beneath the steam of a swollen oven,

Her electric altar of praise.

 

My little voice whispers through missing teeth

That the dragon in my room was snarling again,

Its bared fangs aching for the taste of boy,

And I needed her to rescue my wet sheets.

 

Her eyes half-closed,

Limbs dangling from the strings of endless love,

She stumbles to the linen closet as I anxiously peer through the dark,

Searching for the twin braids of smoke in the shadows of my urine-stained room,

Trusting in the holy strength of my beautiful mother

Whose arms bear the load of a midnight sacrifice

And whose kiss can slay the dragons.

Grand Forces Afoot

“Picture a soldier pinned down behind a sand dune on Normandy beach. He’s just landed; he’s behind the sand dune and can’t get to the next sand dune. He can’t achieve his next objective because he’s pinned down by enemy fire. He’s just stuck, and he’s in a bad jam.

Suppose that, at this point, we make the illustration ludicrous, that a stray sheet of paper from Eisenhower’s invasion plans for Europe got detached from the notebook and is blowing down the beach. It lands on the soldier, and he looks at it and it says, “From Gen. Eisenhower…” and the orders to Eisenhower are to establish a beachhead on the continent of Europe and to take Berlin.

He looks at these orders, and he can’t even get past his own sand dune. He could be tempted to despair, on the one hand, because “How could we do this when I can’t even do that?“, but he could also be, if he is thinking about it rightly, he could be greatly encouraged and say, “However stuck I am, there are grand forces afoot. However stuck I am, there are whole armies in collision. I’m just one small part of the puzzle; I’m just one small part of this, and the only thing I can do is be faithful at my post, be faithful where I am, and if I am, then I’ll just leave the results to a sovereign God.

And that’s how I feel. There are times when I feel stuck behind my sand dune. There are times when I feel like, “Why can’t we do more? Why can’t we communicate more effectively? Why can’t we get this done?” And then, a page out of Matthew 28 blows down the beach and, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,’ Jesus says. ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them […] teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’

The Christian faith is a religion of world conquest.”

-Doug Wilson, Free Speech Apocalypse (for the quotation, begin at 1:28:03)

Doug-Wilson

Jean Valjean and the Face of God

tn-500_14.01_mir_les_mis_colm3949At the end of Les Misérables, as Jean Valjean lies dying before his beloved daughter Cosette and her husband-to-be Marius, the musical swells to a beautiful arrangement of different musical themes sung by Valjean, a vision of Fantine, and reprising his earlier role, the Bishop of Digne. In this stirring scene, Valjean commends Marius and Cosette to marry and reveals his long-held secret that he, in fact, is prisoner #24601, tired from a life of running from the law. As Valjean sings his last confession, Fantine appears to welcome him into heaven, accompanying his reflection on the grace he has been shown and his attempt to live a life worthy of it. At last, Valjean sees the Bishop, the noble priest who initiated the entirety of Valjean’s redemption by welcoming him to his home, forgiving his crime, and graciously setting him free, transforming him into a new man whose soul has been “bought for God”. Notice the kindness and sacrificial love of the priest as he gives Valjean the candlesticks at the beginning of the musical:

“But my friend you left so early / Surely something slipped your mind / You forgot I gave these also / Would you leave the best behind?”

Here, in Valjean’s final hour, he experiences an almost beatific vision of the priest, surrounded gloriously in candlelight in the 2012 film adaptation, as they sing one of the show’s most gorgeous lines:

“To love another person is to see the face of God”

maxresdefaultNo statement better captures the spiritual center of the story as Valjean fully takes the measure of how strong grace truly is. One simple act of kindness, unmerited yet fully proffered, has the power to transform a filthy sinner into a forgiven saint. Even in his humble and lowly position, the priest became a vessel for Valjean and, by extension, the audience to see the very face of God through his indefinable love for an embittered thief.

For such wild forgiveness and abundant grace effuses from our Father, the Almighty God who turns slaves into sons and frees us all from the burdens of our many years in prison. Like the Bishop, God offers rest for the weary, comfort for the resentful, love for the unloving and unlovely. Like the Bishop, God transforms the nameless prisoner (24601) into a new man, restored to life, saved not by good works but to them, called to let the grace with which he’s been filled spill over to another. When Valjean is forgiven, he is free to shed his old life and commit himself to a life of service, redeeming little Cosette from her equally dismal life.

In I John 3:16, the apostle describes this love of the Father: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” This selflessness characterizes love and, as God is love, draws us closer to His nature. Since we are called to imitate God (Eph. 5:1), learning to love others as He is love is the way forward.

In Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Incidentally, this truth explains Javert’s ultimate self-destruction. No man so bound to the duties of the law can function, for the law is fulfilled in love; the only way Christ could fulfill the law is in his final breath dying for His friends. As Javert’s inability to cope with such love and grace becomes his undoing, Valjean’s embrace of it in giving his life to Cosette, Marius, and the dozens of young boys at the barricades becomes his way to salvation.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling . As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (I Peter 4:8-10).

Be Thou My Vision: Wordsworth and Seeing into the Life of Things

king-heartsIt is often said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Yet, what must be said of the two-eyed man?

This is the sort of binocular vision afforded to the follower of Christ, the man or woman whose soul has been quickened by the Holy Spirit and, as C.S. Lewis taught us, has been led no longer to look at the sunbeam but to look along it, to track the ray of light, the small coruscation of glory, to the majesty of the sun. Christians have been tasked to navigate this blinded world not with a limping myopia of self-reliance and DIY spirituality but rather with the full vision of God, “For God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6). Through His death, Christ has torn the veil, allowing all the saints a wide-eyed view of the wonder of Almighty God.

Throughout the Word of God, Christians are constantly invited “further up and further in”, a welcoming call to all who would follow Christ to see Him and all He will do:

Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)

Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man” (Psalm 66:5)

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)

Even the great hymnist composed the beautiful lines: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face”

The Christian, then, has a distinct blessing of vision; as we look to the heavens, we see declared aloud the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The early 19th century Romantic poet William Wordsworth, in his famous work “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, effectively demonstrates this sort of Christian vision as he meditates on the sublime beauty of the natural world:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things.”

-William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

This is the depth of Christian experience, what Jonathan Edwards would call a “God-entranced vision of all things.” Through the resurrecting power of God, Christians receive new eyes, new life, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. With these new eyes of faith, we perform miracles: we see “into the life of things.” No longer are we waylaid by reductive materialism, the false sturdiness of earthly gain, or thin pleasures masquerading as true joy; rather, we see through them to discover the thickness and robustness of God. Remember, Christ’s resurrection body could pass through walls not because it was ghostly or wispy but, perhaps, because our material world is thin and feathery compared to the rich thickness of God.

And so, we must learn to see into the life of things, to track the sunbeam to the sun, to see the great abundance of the pleasure of God in and through the things He has made. As Doug Wilson suggests, we ought to “turn the soup into stew” and thank God for the freedom to see Him, for “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18).

On Endings and Beginnings

T.S. Eliot once famously wrote, “In my end is my beginning,” a hauntingly lyrical and poignant claim on the glorious chapters of our story, the endless death-and-resurrection pattern of our lives. We move from day to night, spring to winter, orientation to graduation, birth to death…to rebirth.

Yesterday was my last day with my seniors, as they don the cap-and-gown and prepare to graduate into this busy world with the wealth of their dreams and plans excitedly following them like a beautiful comet’s tail or a squeaky red wagon obeying their urgent lead . As such, it seems inevitable to think on endings, both big and small, with a note of sadness, for it is certainly a grief to say goodbye to anything, no less a collection of wide-eyed teenagers ready to grab the world. 

And so, I dug into the recesses of writings past and unearthed an article I wrote ca. 2009 as I prepared to graduate from college. May our endings only ever serve as calls to see beginnings; may we learn, in all of our many evenings, to eagerly await the dawn.


2812548241_53fe9e959d_bThe inescapable truth of life is in its ending. By no means do I wish to sound morose or despondent, but it is the truth nonetheless. Part of the universal human experience is aging, the bittersweet feel of birthday after birthday as we watch that person in the mirror change on us. With every passing moment, we are collectively growing older. Unfortunately, Barrie’s play is fictional, and Neverland will always be just a little farther past our fingertips.

So how do most of us handle this? We discover how simple it is to reduce our life simply to what we tell strangers – “What’s your name?” “Where do you work?” “When do you graduate?” “Are you dating?” Whereas the answers to these numbing questions are important, they cannot become the identities that make up our life. The beauty of life is in the process, the things we embrace to get us from one photo album to another. Anyone can hold on to the big moments – graduation, promotion, championship, engagement – but the gift of life is so much larger. It has to be.

I often laugh at myself for relaying my goals and ambitions to people in the form of a personal bucket list, a seventy-year checklist of dreams. Though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, what I fail to realize is the extreme importance of those seemingly little moments: that night I couldn’t fall asleep or the time my best friend made me laugh so hard I choked on something. But the best part of these “everyday” moments is the surprise of God. Somehow we expect that God’s presence is at an all-time high during our celebrity moments, the times we feel exceptionally accomplished. We are tempted to believe that He is to thank when we feel great, and He is absent when we do not. But this is wonderfully wrong. Life is a race that we are ever finishing at a pace that is always uncomfortably fast. It’s easy to tell ourselves where we’re running, but the how is where we get caught. God is always willing to guide us through each big moment in our life, but the “everyday” is God’s playground for miracles, His behind-the-scenes workshop.

Of course the trophies, the diplomas, and the diamond rings are enormous moments to be excited about, but we should never lose the music, the midnight drives, and the out-loud prayers. We should never attempt to escape the everyday moments by way of that second star to the right; rather, we should learn to find the adventure in the little things. Of course, the daily process of life can be painful and overwhelming, but even if at times we feel it’s in circles, we should always keep running.

The God of Great Feasting (The Joy of the Lord Is Our Strength)

full_cropped_LOTR---The-Return-of-the-King-471In an age of rampant cynicism, intense narcissism, and deep defiance toward absolutes such as truth, goodness, and beauty, the ache for passionate and rich festivity must burn ever more feverishly in our hearts. This sour world, lost in the mirrors of its vanity and drowning in the white noise of feeds, posts, snaps, and late-night binges, is in dire need of a good feast, what Tolkien saw as an evening by the fire, filled with boisterous laughter and great dancing. Or, as Lewis saw, what greater way to herald the breaking of winter than the carousing of creatures at the coming of spring? The promise of resurrection is a great promise, full and strong, breaking like the tide against this screen-drunk land.

I am fond of saying Christians, by definition, ought to be the most celebratory, revelrous, festive, merry, jubilant, glorious, and passionate beings on Earth, for we are little Christs, microcosms of the cosmos-Creator. We are followers of the Maker of laughter, the Author of baby-babble, the Sculptor of forestry, and the Inventor of the taste of s’mores. We are disciples of the One who ringed Saturn, spoke light, and lulled the raging seas. We serve the God who made music and poetry, and as we behold His glory, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18). As we become more and more like our wondrous Creator, the world ought to see us laugh as He laughs, forgive as He forgives, dance and sing and shout. He is the prodigal Father, excessive and exuberant in His splendor. Indeed, as His cup overflowed with His grace, so must our cups overflow with His praise, held high in joyful cheer and strong power.

The psalmist declares, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Ps. 4:7)

—“Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).

—“Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations” (Ps. 57:8-9).

In Isaiah, “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Is. 55:2)

In Ecclesiastes, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Eccl. 9:7, 9).

In Romans, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

In Thessalonians, “Rejoice evermore” (I Thess. 5:16).

And from Nehemiah, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

3 Classics that Preach the Gospel

pile-de-livres-e1418392637859As my classes this year begin to wind down, I find myself making frequent glances in the rearview mirror, looking back at all the worlds I have led my students through. From the electric streetlights of New York to the vast acreage of the Russian countryside, from the courts of Denmark to the Paris Opera House, the wintry streets of Victorian London to the cramped apartment of a desperate salesman*, I am taken aback by the sheer beauty and splendor afforded in the simple pleasure of reading books.

One particular glory, and perhaps the preeminent one, is the power stories have to speak the truth. As someone once said, fiction is “the lie that tells the truth,” and so, I’d like to share three classic works of fiction that, I contend, edify and encourage the believer through their depiction of the Great Story that God is telling. These are simply a small handful of works that reveal, in some measure, either in their portrayal of man’s tragedy or his redemption, the awesome wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  1. Silas Marner by George Eliot

Falsely accused and abandoned by both his fiancee and his best friend, the weaver Silas Marner’s most grievous despair comes from the loss of his faith in the process. God, it would seem, has also withdrawn, leaving him desperate and alone in a home that has lost all familiarity, all comfort. So Silas retreats from his beloved old life and further into the darkened caverns of his battered heart.

Yet, in true form, all is not lost, for God, the beloved Father, has never left Silas Marner’s side. As the weaver burrows himself deeper in his gloom, God sends a wandering, helpless child through his door, toddling her way to the warm fire. As the novel progresses, Silas must learn to father little Eppie and raise her to love and care in a world lacking such virtues. A beautiful work of loss and redemption, sadness and joy, Silas Marner shows us the goodness of a sovereign God who designs all things, both sorrow and gladness, to His fullest glory.

2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip, the poor orphan boy raised “by hand” by an abusive sister, lives on the scraps and meager margins of life. Opening the novel alone in his parents’ graveyard, Pip suddenly finds himself on the receiving end of death threats from a hardened, terrifying convict, demanding food and a file to free his chains. Yet, though Pip has nothing of a future ahead of him, he dreams of a life in London, the top hats and cobblestone streets, the theater and the busy coaches. In short, Pip dreams of being a somebody.  And so, when a mysterious benefactor sends him an inexplicably magnificent fortune, granting Pip the impossible opportunity to attain his expectations, Pip is ecstatic.

But, as Pip finds, not all that glitters is gold. Throughout Pip’s experience in the city, he must, both literally and figuratively, wave the fog and chimney mist from his eyes, constantly wiping away the crumbling illusions of his makeshift fantasies. The world, Pip discovers, is greedier, crueler, dirtier, and lonelier than he had imagined. What remains for Pip, then, is to watch his worldly ambitions fade to nothing only to discover the true joy and grace that had been beckoning to him all along. Considered by many to be Dickens’ masterpiece, Great Expectations guides its reader from the warmth of home to the prodigal “far country” and, thankfully, back again with the spiritual richness and stylistic aplomb typical of Dickensian fiction.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

At once both Gothic thriller and philosophical discourse, Frankenstein perhaps is one of the more misrepresented works of Romantic literature. Dr. Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with scientific exploration and daring feats of progress, namely, the discovery of reanimation and the source of life. Written in the short wake of Galvani’s work with electricity, Shelley’s novel examines the ethical, social, and religious implications of playing God as Frankenstein assembles a motley cadaver from dead men’s limbs and surges it to life. Yet, the creature he thought would bring him worldwide renown and adoration in the scientific community turns out to be a harrowing monster, eight feet tall and more powerful than Frankenstein had ever dreamed. What follows is a cat-and-mouse pursuit as Frankenstein runs from his creature and, ultimately, the consequences of his deeds.

The true beauty of this novel, however, lies in the way Shelley provokes sympathy for the monster. In her world, this creature becomes a being that longs to know its telos, its purpose, in this hostile and chaotic world. The monster, in this sense, is transformed into a type of Adam, created and designed by an expert hand, as he subsequently roams western Europe in search of his maker. Perhaps the most climactic and stirring moment occurs when Frankenstein and his monster meet atop Mount Blanc, embodying the classic , almost mythical confrontation between creature and creator. In this sequence, the monster finally interrogates Frankenstein, begging him to accept him, love him, and explain his purpose for being. Yet, for all his earnest pleading, the monster receives no kindness in turn as Frankenstein berates and abandons him, damning him to his alienated and miserable state alone and confused.

As awful as Frankenstein treats his creature, the story awakens the reader’s heart to the contrary opportunity we all have in addressing our own Maker. Unlike Frankenstein, He will never spurn us with disgust; rather, we serve a good Father who made us in His living image, not from the rotted, corroding skin of death. In this way, Frankenstein shows us the inadequacy of humanism compared to the lovingkindness of a sovereign God. We, as it turns out, make lousy gods.

 

*These works are The Great Gatsby, The Seagull, Hamlet, The Phantom of the Opera, Great Expectations, and The Metamorphosis.

“She’s Wonderful!”

83c2f10655cbee2174dd0a444fc0048eI am sure with a recent post of mine from last November riffing off a scene from Mary Poppins, many of you may be thinking a second one would simply be milking it.

Well, here goes.

First, Mary Poppins may very well hold the top seat in my list of favorite movies. It is one of the most finely crafted films I’ve seen, certainly Disney’s best. Mixing pathos, charm, depth, and the right sort of Dickensian atmosphere (though the film is set in 1910) with Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews at the helm is simply remarkable. Add to that a medley of film’s most iconic moments (tea parties on the ceiling, jumping through chalk pavement pictures, merry-go-round horses in the derby, the bird woman at St. Paul’s) and best lines (“Posts, everyone!”, “Kindly do not cloud the issue with facts”,  “A wooden leg named Smith”) and you’ve got the makings of a masterpiece. Mary Poppins is the film that is at once both familiar and new, timeless and exciting. It is the only film I know of that allows its audience to feel like Mr. Banks and Michael Banks simultaneously – to be steeped in the wildness of childhood and burdened by the cages of adulthood in the course of two hours. It is a charming and delightfully fresh world that we have somehow always known.

One scene in particular has struck me recently as I have been watching it with my girls over the past few weeks. As Mary Poppins arrives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane and makes her way through the nursery, Jane and Michael spot her rather cumbersome carpetbag (“You mean to carry carpets in?” “No. Made of.”). Yet, as she places the bag on the table and begins to unpack, the children are bewildered by what lies inside. Though neither Jane nor Michael can see anything in the bag, Mary Poppins pulls out a mirror, a floor lamp, several articles of clothing, and her famous tape measure.

It’s quick and subtle, but Jane and Michael have a short exchange that is, in its own way, quite revealing:

Michael: “We better keep an eye on this one. She’s tricky.”

Jane: “She’s wonderful!”

In this moment, I can’t help thinking if their response to Mary Poppins is the same sort of response the world has to the miraculous glory of Christ. Many may look at the gospels, hear accounts of healings and resurrections, and come to the same conclusion. This man is tricky, claiming to be the Messiah. He’s a charlatan, an illusionist, a sorcerer, a mere carnival barker if anything at all.

We better keep an eye on this one.

Surely no one can take seriously stories of a Jew walking on water, calming storms, and raising the dead. It’s a trick that the Pharisees and other Jews kept an eye on, even to His death.

Yet, there was a remnant that believed Jesus was not tricky, but wonderful. Though they (and I) cannot explain how He accomplished all that He did, the beauty of Jane’s response is the beauty of childlike faith. She did not have to figure Mary Poppins out. She did not belittle her position by assuming she was devious or false. She simply chose to submit herself to the enchantment of a charming mystery.

And so must we. It is not for us to “keep an eye on” God. We must simply open ourselves to the grand delight of a God who has come to fix everything, regardless of whether or not we can explain how He did it. As Jesus said in Matthew 18:3,

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

In their own way, Jane, Michael, and even Mr. Banks needed a nanny to swoop down from the clouds and fix all their chaos with a spoonful of sugar, someone to “turn bread and water into tea and cakes”, and in a very meaningful way, so do we. What’s more is that we, like the Banks children, must decide whether this savior is evil or good, wrong or right, tricky or wonderful.

I side with Jane.