A poem to my students…

I wonder if it’s a sonnet,

The poem of your life,

As I hear your shoes squeak their stanzas across the floor to your desk

And you click your blue mechanical pencil

Twice to take a quiz.


For I happened to notice two index cards,

Like a light pink couplet,

Tucked beneath the tidy layers of your notebook

As you closed your eyes, breathed, reassured yourself

Of what you knew and filled your name at the top.


Or do you live and breathe in music,

All elbows and gym bags, your fingers

Twitching steadily the edges of your sweatshirt?

Perhaps your life is a lyric, a rhythm

Kept in meter by the beat of basketballs,

Or the wild and fearless drummings of your

Feet along the track?


Or you, there in the far row,

Do you see the world in free verse?

Eyes bright from gazing through kaleidoscopes,

Bending the sky around your ballpoint pen?

From here I see your frenzied scribbling in that beat-up journal,

The back of your homework, the length of your arm,

Scrambling to seize your swelling thoughts,

Your echoing afterthoughts,

Your madcap fever of creativity.


And I bet hers is a ballad, a song,

Her eyes telling the fear in the horizons,

Dreaming of afternoon, of evening,

Of the time she’ll spend with her father

Before his illness takes a turn.


Whatever they are,

These poems in your mouths, your hands, your smiles,

They somehow fit each one of you, like shadows

Filled with beauty and, ironically,

With light.


And when I am old,

Beyond the reach of my podium,

My pen, my worn and dog-eared Hamlet,

I will see you all,

Again and again and again,

As young as autumn leaves

Reddening, then leaping

Into the constant winds of change.

“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.

The Past Tense in Our Present Time

cross-shadow-kerepesiAs an English teacher, I often instruct my students to discuss the characters and actions in whatever work we are studying by using the present tense. For instance, Hamlet contemplates death as he faces Yorick’s empty skull, Beowulf aspires toward a sense of eternal glory as he wrenches Grendel’s arm off, and Gatsby stretches ever farther for that ephemeral green light on Daisy’s dock. I remind them that the literary present tense preserves the immediacy and continuous action of the narrative upon each individual reading; these characters, in a sense, are always contemplating, aspiring, stretching every time we open the book.

By extension, we often consider ourselves to be winding our way through an eternal present; even now, I am typing, and you are reading. We seem to be quite smitten by the present tense. As American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day

We seem to believe that our present action is the fulcrum on which our entire life is balanced, and, in a way, this is true; our choices have consequences, and our actions have reactions.

Yet, perhaps even more true is the asphalt-solid reality of the past tense. What if we must look to the past for that fulcrum? What if our most important reality is behind us?

Throughout the New Testament, God calls us to live a life of calm assurance and steady footing based not on our present circumstances or the sheer potency of our daily choices but on the power of a work He has already accomplished. In II Corinthians, Paul discusses the transformative power of salvation, concluding:

All this is from God, who through Christ has reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation […] We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:18, 20-21).

Notice the verbs. Christ “has reconciled” (past tense) us to himself, and, on that basis, we must “be reconciled” (present tense) to God. What God has done allows us to be what we must be. He made (past) him to be sin, so that in him we might become (present) the righteousness of God.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul makes a similar case:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:21-22).

The reconciliation necessary to make us worthy of welcome into God’s family has already happened. “Take heart,” Jesus says, “for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He is the LORD, and He has done it. For all your anguish, your waiting, your grieving, your anxiety, your frustration, your tedious repetition, your feelings of insignificance, your worry, and your regret, God has assured you that He has made all things new. He has reconciled us to Him; He has fought the good fight; He has defeated death and all of his friends.

There is no more glorious truth than the triumphant whisper on our Savior’s lips: “It is finished.”

Therefore, be reconciled to Him. Align your heart to the truth that has already been accomplished. He has reconciled the world to himself, so be reconciled! Trust the King; He is good! Be done with your nail-biting, your heavy shoulders, your saddened eyes. Sin is unraveling, and the glory of the LORD is filling every pore of this universe. Everything sad is coming untrue.

Rejoice evermore.