…in which I discuss my poem “Yard Sale” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.
…in which I discuss my poem “Yard Sale” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.
I slipped deftly into Botticelli’s Primavera one afternoon,
Begging the pardon of the Three Graces in white
As I wandered toward the orange grove.
The little cupid, bow at the ready,
Failed to notice the bent flowers beneath my feet
And my slow reach into the branches
Where I carefully felt for a perfect orange,
Tore the globe of skin from its stringy flesh,
And held the dimpled smoothness of the flayed world in my palm –
The shred of color,
The fragrance of gravity,
The naked hue of hunger.
Then, like my father before me,
I dug my teeth into the tender spot and, somehow,
I have spent the sudden years trying to dig myself back up.
When God found me,
Wobbling my patched knees on the cobblestone of old roads,
We took a side street where
He beckoned me beneath the curtain of a tent,
Red and white, the blare of trumpets,
The breathless circus of all his grand design.
He showed me an elephant, and I sat down
To marvel for half an hour.
Then he tipped his hat and pulled out a canvas,
Stretched in white like a swollen sail.
He dropped it in my lap and told me to
Fingerpaint my theology, make it as big as my grandfather’s shoes.
So he held my shoulder as I bent over my creation,
Pressed thumbprints and fanning fingertips
Smearing the colors of childhood across my makeshift doctrines,
And I looked up to see him smiling at me,
His eyes as warm as lions.
He noticed I’d drawn two bluebirds, gliding in the sunset,
And an old man sitting on a bench –
I said they reminded me of him, for only
A good and loving God could create a bluebird
As well as the old men who noticed them.
That night, God and I sat together, coloring,
Weaving our fingers along the grain of each new blankness,
Picture after picture,
Until he finally helped me to my feet and commended me for my coloring,
For to see the glory of God, we all must learn to
As the night centered itself behind a thousand stars,
Your voice cut the cables in my mind,
And I fell to the corner of 8th street,
Where I found my shadow in some shallow gravel water,
My pupils exhaling,
Widening to devour my vision –
Dilated thick like dark ink.
The sharp steel of your footsteps raked like teeth to a stop,
Surrounded by the blur of city light
As I knelt alone, rooked in the corner, undone and
Enveloped in the venom of my name
On your silver tongue.
The earth stammered when you spoke, quivering beneath
The bass of your breathing lies
As you slowly taught me how to drown.
And now I see
How your every word howls,
Choking and decoding my defenses,
Coursing through my chemistry,
Anchoring the fever to my bones until they shiver
Like sparrows in the cold.
And when you lean in closer
To tear apart the helix,
My knuckles rust, robotic,
Helpless to your redirection,
Heavy with the burden of entanglement –
Short circuits and crossed wires –
Reprogrammed to believe in you
And all your bitter charming.
So I time a desperate prayer to touch
The crest of tossing waves,
To clear the fog and wind within
And find my loving Father,
Tell Him that I’m sorry,
Then beg He take a shovel to this serpent on the corner,
Calm my frightened eyes and
Pull the poison from my spine
That I might stand up straight
And finally become human again.
Your fingers felt the hem of your violet dress
When you first looked over at me,
And for a moment I swear the room rippled
Like water kissed by a skipping stone.
Then you spoke,
And all the watercolor rain
In every cloud between us
Began to fall,
Rinsing the beautiful stillness,
Bearing your words like notes on sheet music
Across the twirling wind,
The sweetness of roses,
The lovely taste of light.
Your smile curled at the corners like hymnals,
Bright with the glory of verse,
The joy of Christ resting on your gentle cheeks
And your eyes deeper than morning.
I stood helpless as you swept your hair behind your shoulder,
Arrested by a single sentence,
A hundred hummingbirds whirring in my chest.
For you were no mere person,
No woman on a busy street,
But starlight on the evening sea,
Melody in rosined strings,
Beauty in a violet dress.
And still, now,
As I rake the snow with my right hand,
Five fingers along the length of our front yard,
And the cold night laughs a flurry of new blankets,
I see our children dance around the staff that I have drawn,
Stepping out a chorus, leaving notes beneath their shoes,
And I know when I look up,
I’ll see my lovely wife,
And we’ll smile in quiet gladness
For the time that we’ve been given.
I 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.
At 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”
No 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).
In Charles Dickens’ near-perfect novella A Christmas Carol, the iconic miser Ebenezer Scrooge endures a painful series of journeys to the past, present, and future to discover the depths of his selfishness and to redeem his crooked heart. Among his famous visits to Mr. Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchit house, and his own grave, one scene in particular is quite moving. As the Ghost of Christmas Past reveals to Scrooge a number of scenes of his boyhood and younger years, a vision of his potential, yet ultimately unrealized marriage to Belle appears, causing Scrooge to beg the Ghost to “show [him] no more!” In this episode, Belle pleads with the younger Scrooge to remember his former love and affection toward her, feelings which had grown cold over time as his piles of gold rose ever higher:
“It matters little,” she said softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”
“What Idol has displaced you!” he rejoined.
“A golden one.”
For Scrooge, his obsession with his “master-passion, Gain” through the pursuit of money clouds out the real warmth of a woman who loved him dearly.
Similarly, in George Eliot’s 1861 novel Silas Marner, we see another instance where money-chasing leads to destruction. Upon his exile from Lantern Yard following false charges of theft, the weaver Marner winds up a stranger in Raveloe where he stays alone in his cottage on the fringes of town and hoards his income beneath his floorboards. Like Scrooge, Marner’s soul becomes intimately connected with his wealth as he sits alone at his table in the company of gold coins:
“The light of his faith quite put out, and his affections made desolate, he had clung with all the force of his nature to his work and his money; and like all objects to which a man devotes himself, they had fashioned him into correspondence with themselves. […] His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own.”
For both Scrooge and Marner, their stacks of gold became surrogates for the people they once loved, standing in for fiancees (Belle and Sarah, respectively) they lost long ago. Their love of money, an all-consuming obsession, serves as a coping mechanism for fear, loneliness, and, most of all, purposelessness. Wishing to discover a sense of significance and identity, they resort to chasing money in hopes to find security, control, and assurance that they will never be hurt again. As Jim Carrey famously quipped at the Golden Globe awards, they were on a “terrible search” for joy and satisfaction.
Yet, money-chasing can never provide genuine rest. The quota mentality remains a stubborn factor: How much money must one have to be happy? When will enough be enough?
While the first half of Paul’s statement to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evil”is more famous, it is the last half of the verse that is most striking. See the full verse:
“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (KJV, emphasis added)
Paul notes that money-chasing is not only a poisonous root to further evils but also an invitation for many sorrows to pierce the heart. In other words, the pursuit of money for its own sake is a confident step directly into enemy fire, an intentional upward look at a shower of arrows, barechested and shieldless. The love of money is lethal, a greed and discontentment that festers and rots until the heart is brought to ruin. It drives people away from any sort of need for faith or trust, tempting them to see their own wealth as a mighty fortress. Ironically, our currency is right: In God we certainly trust. I just wonder if that god is the piece of paper we’re holding.
So our only hope is to release our clinched fists and let our dollars go because palms that are freed from the grip of gold are free to be given grace.
Over the past few weeks, I have seen an old foe rise from the troubled waters and beckon me back to an ancient struggle.
The fear of inadequacy.
For as long as I can remember, I have felt the ache to be enough, to measure up to some impossible standard, to gain some infinite approval. I grew up sandwiched in the middle of an unbelievably remarkable family, and, as a result, I have often tasted the lie that I must do an endless number of things to meet the wave of expectations that, like a tide, arrive just as quickly as the former one falls. I felt that to be something, I must do everything.
So, I conditioned myself to chase excellence at all costs, to show my father, mother, sister, brothers, teachers, friends, and God that I mattered. And I exhausted myself in the process. So consumed was I by this pattern of thought that, were I whisked away to heaven, the first words to tumble out of my mouth upon seeing the Father face to face would be:
“Are you proud of me? Did I do well?”
Well, all this to say, I would like to introduce my guest writer for this post. Julie Blanton is a previous student of mine; she is a brilliant writer and a passionate follower of Jesus. I asked her some weeks ago if she’d be willing to write something for Eden.Babel, and I was floored by what she sent me. May you be as blessed and encouraged by this post as I was as we all seek to experience the full mercy and grace of our loving, welcoming, kissing, embracing, dancing, rejoicing Father.
I was raised in a Christian home. I went to a Christian school from the ages of five to eighteen. Church on Sundays was very familiar to me and was never something to be missed. I am so blessed to have been raised in such a loving, Christ-centered family.
But, at 15, while I was going to youth group, while I was going to a great church every Sunday and while I had the freedom to pray to God any hour of the day, I was still missing something.
On the outside, I was living a typical Christian American life. I fit into the mold. Yet, although I went to church on Sundays, tried my best to be a “good person”, followed all of the rules, etc., I still felt distant from God. I believed that God was a God of mercy and grace and I believed that He loved us. I believed all of these things, but I never believed them for myself.
I was caught up in rules. If I was struggling with something, I never remembered the truth of grace for myself. I would immediately tear myself down and realize that I needed to work to “make it up to God.” I was so deceived. I told myself that God was grace and love, and yet, in my mind, I couldn’t accept the grace and love God was pouring out to me until I was maybe slightly “worthy.” I couldn’t accept what Christ gave His LIFE for until I had worked to earn it.
Looking back, it still haunts me how deceived I was. I was a 15-year-old girl who was working to follow a set of “rules”. I was a 15-year-old girl who was trying to work toward the impossible. Some days I felt like a “good person”. A “good Christian”. I felt put together. Other days, I felt so alone. So undeserving. I felt as though I was in the middle of a constant, uphill battle that would never cease.
One day, at 16, it all changed.
I had the most real encounter with my Savior and I can say with complete certainty that it changed my life forever.
I truly saw Jesus for the first time.
I quickly learned that once you truly see Jesus, you cannot help but fall in love. I finally was able to break free from the chains holding me back from a pure joy that made me feel whole. Once I really saw Jesus, I felt His love for me. I was no longer a slave to the rules and I was no longer a slave to all of the expectations I put on myself. Most importantly, I was no longer a slave to the lies that had kept me captive for so long.
Judah Smith, a pastor at The City Church in Seattle, WA, (and one of my all time favorite pastors and authors) said something that truly impacted me:
“I think if Jesus had one shot at fixing us, He’d tell us how much He loves us. Jesus loves us right now, just as we are. He isn’t standing aloof, yelling at us to climb out of our pits and clean ourselves up so we can be worthy of Him. He is wading waist-deep into the muck of life, weeping with the broken, rescuing the lost, and healing the sick.”
Jesus didn’t sacrifice His life for you and me just so that we could feel hindered and alone in our attempts to work to become “right with God.” Jesus wasn’t tortured and hung on the cross so that I would feel as though I would finally be truly loved, forgiven, and cherished once I had my life together.
That’s just not how it works.
Once I truly entered the presence of Jesus, one thing became clear: I am loved as I am.
I had the order all wrong. We don’t somehow earn our salvation by living a sin-free life full of good works and then get to experience Jesus and all that He has to offer.
Jesus was reaching out to me in my darkest times, loving me in the midst of the pit I was in. He meets us exactly where we are. Instead of scorning us and looking down on us, He wants to pick us up off of our feet, scrape off the dirt, and carry us in His loving arms. He wants us to walk with Him out of the deep pit that we found ourselves in.
And that’s not the end of it.
He wants us to continue walking straight out of the darkness, and He wants us to grow closer to Him.
Judah Smith says it perfectly in his book “Jesus Is __”:
“Get to know Him yourself, and let the goodness of God change you from the inside out.”
We don’t transform ourselves so that we may experience the love of God. We experience the love of God first and that same love transforms us.
The day I saw Jesus, I fell in love. The lies that had held me down shattered like glass, and I started a true relationship with Jesus and saw quickly how He was transforming my heart.
Every day I get to walk with God, and I know that He will never forsake me. Every day I am reminded of the truth and the lies of working for salvation will never have power over me again.
The day I saw Jesus, I experienced a love like no other.
To read more from Julie, you can follow her blog here.
One of the most powerful insights I’ve heard regarding the nature of worship is that our worship is transformative; in effect, we become like what we worship.
G.K. Beale, who authored a book with a similar title, puts it this way: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration.” This concept has made its way through my mind quite often over the past few years, and I continue to dwell on its real-time implications in our modern culture.
I am currently teaching through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my British Literature students. Sir Gawain is a medieval poem that follows the challenges and trials of one of King Arthur’s most noble knights as he seeks to prove himself worthy of honor. As I’ve been rereading through the story, I have found myself quite struck by a particular quality of Sir Gawain’s quest. On the outside of his shield, the side he brandishes in the face of combat, is a pentangle, a five-angled star that symbolizes the ideal perfection and exaltation of a true knight. The chivalrous knight par excellence is brave, good, chaste, loyal, and unerring in his manner and conduct; he is the paragon of medieval society. The only problem is that behind the knight’s armor stands a mere man – utterly unable to achieve such a standard of perfection.
This notion of expectation vs. reality cuts deep to the bone of our American society. For example, I have encountered a number of young ladies in my classes over the years who are beside themselves trying frantically to reach the bar of feminine beauty and fashion that they feel our media culture has thrust on their small shoulders. “Whatever it takes to look like her” has become their mantra, “accept me!” their daily cry. And so, as an inevitable result, we have waves of girls dragging the ghosts of self-loathing, inadequacy, and shame down the halls. We have girls pushed toward seduction with their hearts stitched tight in straitjackets. In short, we have girls who are told to reveal as much and as little as they can – show your skin, hide your scars.
Prodded by the flood of advertising and celebrity mania, these young ladies are being converted to a hollow religion, a new devotion towards thousands of graven images carved on our magazine covers, spreading the lie that these are the women that girls ought to look like. But in our heart we know they are no longer really women; they are our feminine form of the deus ex machina – goddesses out of machines. Mangled by the digital scalpel, processed through the filters of Photoshop, airbrushing, and cosmetic overload, these women in the spotlight have become mere echoes, shadows of their true humanity. They are a part of a smoke-and-mirrors gimmick, a ruse. I can almost hear the Wizard now: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
Yet, the principle remains: we become like what we worship (Ps. 115:8). We reflect what we behold (2 Cor. 3:18). Contrary to what they are told, these young ladies pining for acceptance and worth by straining to look like cover girls are not becoming more beautiful; they are becoming less human. They are worshipping an image of edited humanity, images of women scrubbed of their flaws. This ache to see oneself as, and ultimately become, utterly flawless is a consequence of the primal temptation to be God. We are running Eden on repeat, reaching to take and eat of the fruit with every glance at the mirror.
How gracious is our God for spilling his blood, his real, warm, human blood, to buy us out of our cold, self-absorbed condition. May we yearn, like Moses, to see glimpses of God’s glory and, to quote the old hymn, “turn our eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face.” May we see Jesus and “behold his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). May we learn to acknowledge our brokenness, our failure, our human limitations and look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For we are most certainly becoming like what we worship; let us worship the God of mercy and of grace who forgives our sin and truly makes all things new.