Homage to Walt Whitman

I remember the first time I read Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in college. The poem plucked some invisible strings within my soul. I discovered that the right words in the right order changed things. They gave utterance to stones we carried in our hearts.

Solomon sounded similar thoughts in Proverbs, predating Whitman by millennia when he wrote, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Pr 25:11a, ESV).

The English course was one of those introductory survey courses that non-literary type students dread–a multi-month burden to endure with as scant effort as possible and still pass. But when the instructor assigned the poem, and we later reread it in class, it opened to me musical language. Whitman conducted with a baton:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

As the teacher read aloud most students seemed as moved as molasses. But I looked at the teacher and saw the flame in his eyes, too, that drew light from Whiman’s light. This poem named the unnameable; it expressed how mystery unfurls into a soul. Mystery found relief in language.

Decades later I still go back to that poem, and picture the speaker in the poem trying to listen to pablum. He tried to act the part of dutiful acolyte. Perhaps he envied those who were satisfied with the trivial. But instead, he heard chords sound from outside him, and yet to him, as from the divine conductor. And then he discovered himself looking up at the firmament, almost daring to speak.

Beside

“I’m right behind you,” I said. That’s what I told my wife and son as they departed the hotel. They had been gone an hour or so and I had only a few remaining administrative tasks to accomplish. Then I would be headed home.

I was wrapping up another Strong Bonds for soldiers and families at an Atlanta-area hotel. The program is designed to aid soldiers in communication skills, in understanding trust and mistrust issues, in working through conflict, in fighting for our marriages, in knowing our own “love languages” and the languages of those to whom we are closest, in how we soldiers—married or single—might make wiser decisions regarding how to show love and sustain love.

All I had remaining, I told myself, were just these final signatures with my hotel contacts, accountability for personnel, double-checking my room for gear, and I could go. I was tired, and longed for my own bed. Long day tomorrow (Monday). Always, I thought, looking ahead.

I’d confirmed all of the soldiers and families who had participated in the three-day event had checked out of the hotel. Most had repacked their cars or trucks for the drive back to their homes. As each event finished, I liked to watch couples leave together. Often they held hands walking out from the hotel through the parking lot, their children pulling at the parents’ pants, asking, “Can we stop for lunch?” or “What are we going to do now?” Unmarried soldiers walked with their battle buddies and talked of common interests, or their evaluations of the training event. Single parents often wore expressions of enduring resolve amidst unspoken solitude.

I finished the paperwork with the hotel staff, double-checked I had all my gear, zipped up my backpack and computer bag, and headed out the door. A twenty year-old bellhop said, “Have a good day, sir” as I exited the vestibule and crossed through the closest parking areas down to the lower lot where I had parked my truck.

I placed my gear in the bed of the truck and got in the cab. I cranked the truck, let the windows down for the accumulated August heat to escape, and turned on the A/C. I sat for a moment taking mental inventory, thinking of anything I might have left behind.

When the cab was cool, I backed out and drove towards the exit gate. When I approached the area to scan my room key, I did. The red and white arm lifted. I dropped my key into the drop box and prepared to turn out of the parking lot onto the main road but as I watched the gate’s arm descend in my rear view mirror, a couple caught my eye. It was not a married couple. It was a father and son. The father was one of our instructors and chaplains. He was walking back to the hotel lobby. I stopped my truck and rolled down the window.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” the father said, his 10-year-old beside him.

Matthew leaned against his father’s leg, smiling.

“Matthew wanted to go walk through the hotel again. He likes it,” the father said.

Suddenly my thoughts flashed to my own 10-year-old son, and of what it means to walk beside.

I watched them walk on beside each other looking ahead together.

What a Survivor Learned

27 January 1945. That was the day that Auschwitz, a World War II death camp, one that defies sufficient description, was liberated, but not before 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there. Why should this matter to us and to our children, and to our children’s children, seventy-two years later? In short, it should matter because of love.

This week I’m reading Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It is his story of surviving the Auschwitz death camp. Frankl’s training was in psychology—the study of the soul/mind. In the book he explores the question of how and why some Jews were able to survive the agonies of existence within the barbed wire, the death trenches, the freezing temperatures, the inexorable starvation, etc.

How did some Jews survive the tortures of dehumanization and humiliation at the hand of the Nazis? The answer: love.

This passage from Frankl’s book is profound:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature . . . .

 And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous that the sun which was beginning to rise.

 A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

 There is much to this passage that deserves thoughtful reflection. However, what interests me is the link between the survivors’ spiritual lives and their endurance. The spiritual rootedness of some people set them apart from their fellow men and women. They were sustained amidst unimaginable horror by their spiritual lives, by the lives, if you will, of their souls—their psykhe (soul) + logia (study of).

A fellow military chaplain friend of mine includes these words from General George C. Marshall in his emails: “The soldier’s heart, the soldier’s spirit, the soldier’s soul, are everything. Unless the soldier’s soul sustains him he cannot be relied on and will fail himself and his commander and his country in the end.”

Gen. Marshall and Victor Frankl both understood that the soul is what’s most important. They were not Gnostics; they were not arguing that the body and matter are bad, and that the soul and spirit are good. No. They were simply but profoundly calling us to think, and to admit the crucial role of the human heart, the human soul.

In the biblical worldview, Jesus teaches his followers, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 ESV). The human soul, then, is crucial, as is each individual’s standing with God.

In the biblical worldview, love is rooted in the nature of God. God has revealed himself in creation, in Scripture, in conscience, and supremely in Christ. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

I do much studying of history, especially military history, and as I reflect on the horrors of Auschwitz, and of how men inflicted unparalleled horrors on other human beings, I feel shame. I see what the human heart is like when it’s rooted in lies. But I also see how God reached down to a sin-soaked creation in rebellion against him. Jesus became sin. He suffered the horror of divine wrath. And he did it for love. Why? Because he is the divine redeemer who has infinite knowledge of men’s souls and knows that outside of his righteousness imputed to men by faith, our eternal fates are worse than Auschwitz. But because of Christ, we may be liberated.

I know this will sound simplistic for many—this idea of penal and substitutionary atonement for sinners, but Scripture reminds us that the message does appear as a stumbling block and folly to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:20-31). But the great promise is that others will be humbled, will be teachable, will think consistently, and will believe upon the loving savior of souls.

The Person’s Grammar vs. the Grammar of the Person

 

 

 

Eight years of marriage to an abusive husband yielded bruised arms, bruised cheeks, and a battered soul. Yet some good came from those years of suffering. Now, she’s begun to talk about it all. How may one’s sufferings yield comfort, even joy, later?

A teacher asked his students on the first day of class to begin writing the first drafts of their autobiographies. Several students took quickly to the assignment. After all, one’s own story should bimgrese easy material about which to write, right? Perhaps. For some people. But not for at least one lady. What if, after all, one’s past is filled with memories, not of love, but of loss? How may one’s suffering be explained in a written assignment for school? How is one to even begin, if the pain is too close to the bone?

Ever noticed the old men with wrinkled skin that sit on the pine bench in a shopping mall? Sometimes they’re sipping coffee. Sometimes they’re wearing Members Only jackets and a fedora. Perhaps they have on plaid shirts with khaki pants. They wear brown Dr. Scholl’s loafers with thick comfortable soles. What are they doing? I used to think they were lonely or misplaced people. I don’t think that way as much anymore. Those wizened men are watching other people. They’re wondering about their stories. I like the way these bench observers seem unhurried, content to watch, sip their coffee, and imbibe their surroundings. You can see the sorrows written in their eyes, too. But they’ve learned to shape sorrows into lives. They’ve endured. And for some, they’ve gained wisdom. They’ve seen into the heart of the matter. More than a little of that skill came by leaning in—attending—to people at the right time.

When I, as the teacher, asked for the students’ drafts to be turned in the following week, one lady’s eyes told the story, even before she spoke. But she did finally speak.

“I, um, really struggled. May I have some more time to work on it?” she asked.

I suddenly felt like the old man on the bench at the mall. I watched the lady. I approached where she sat. She cowered behind her desktop computer.

“I just can’t seem to find the words. I’m really sorry,” she said.

“May I see what you have written so far?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not much,” she said, “and it’s not very good.”

“Let’s just take a look, okay?” I asked.

It didn’t take long to understand. I began reading. She’d married when she was 17 years old, already pregnant with her first child. Out of shame over the pregnancy, she had married the child’s father. Over the next eight years, she endured physical and emotional abuse. But her parents told her, “You will stay married. You will make it work.” And she never told her parents of the degree, or types, of abuse. She just told them it was tough being married.

Eight years and three more children. And abuse through it all. How could she write now, years later, divorced and scarred, in an English class with a deadline, about events that had battered her body and soul?

After I finished reading what she had written, I was not the same person. I raised my eyes. She was staring straight at me, to see what I thought. A stream of tears poured from her right eye, and moisture was building at her left eye. Her glasses were fogging from the tears. She’d begun to perspire. She was terrified about how I’d react.

“This is incredible. Not only is this the beginning of a remarkable autobiography, but you are remarkable for writing the truth, and for coming through to this point,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.

“Yes. Let’s work on it, okay?”

I pulled my MacBook over to her area. Now we both were behind her desktop computer. But she was no longer cowering. A wall had been demolished. I was not a threat. I was not a mean condemning man in her life. I was just her English teacher, and wanted to help.

We began reworking her autobiography. We did not erase her painful past, with all its horrific accuracy, from her autobiography. Initially, I had walked back to her in order to help her with written expression. I’d come to aid with mechanics, with subject–verb agreement, with diction. But life’s bruises intruded. Platitudes gave way to tears. She cried as she typed, and I tried not to look too much, but to encourage her as she pecked out her past on the keyboard, word by word.

We are continuing to work on it. But she’s writing now. The words are coming. She talks to me, too, about her past. I’ve become the old man on the bench at the mall, just by observing her—what she wrote, and what she couldn’t write yet.

There’s a unique humanity in teaching. It is akin to reading the soul’s language. Perhaps it’s not so different from that old man at the mall. He watches. He leans in. When appropriate, he advises.

I learn from my students. No, they’ve not taught me grammar, or love of language and literature; I’ve had those passions for decades. But I continue to learn that people are primary. Many live untouched by one who will attend, who will lean in, who will read what is there, but with compassion. We might find that our sorrows are more easily borne when shared. One of my favorite songwriters, John Brine, writes in “Hello in There”:

Ya know that old tress just grow stronger

And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day

Old people just grow lonesome

Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello’

Sometimes it takes a song to remind me. Or perhaps a student who lets me read her current autobiography, and lets me lean in, and help her to form her future one. “Hello in there, hello.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deep within the Birches

“Come on, Dad, let’s build a fort!”

“Okay, bud, let’s do it.” And we left the house, unsure but eager for what we were embarking upon.

The back yard has mature pines, a fruit tree, red tip shrubs more than ten feet tall along thimgrese fence, and river birches. It’s September and the birches’ fallen bark coats the corner of the back yard in khaki scrolls that crunch under our shoe soles.

We trimmed low lying limbs from some of the trees, shaved them to where we could fashion them into the thick red tip that was to serve as our little camouflage fort. We raked fallen leaves and pinecones from the earth’s floor. We fitted small branches within larger limbs, fashioning more from energy than from thought.

As I watched my son cut limbs with his machete, and saw him carve notches in twigs with his new knife, he was utterly engaged and content. In his mind, he was erecting a fortress, a boyhood castle from which he’d rule his kingdom.

And as I watched, and crouched beneath the limbs with him, and crawled into our growing fort, pulling honeysuckle vines and briars from the fence line, the incalculable weight of grief reached for my heart. I longed for nothing so much as to always see boys so happy.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the Problem of Evil

Certain passages haunt. Some books are remembered for first lines or opening paragraphs. You’ve invariably heard many people quote the first line of Melville’s Moby Dick. A perennial quotable is the first paragraph of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Others often sample soliloquies from some of Shakespeare’s plays. But some novels are filled with certain passages that haunt. One cannot shake them. Why? It’s because they make the universal concrete and particular. They capture the soul’s longings. Faulkner said the best writers write about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” One of my professors from many years ago taught us that the best writers of literature dealt with the “imaginative concretization of universal themes.” Sound too sophisticated? It’s not. The bottom line is that the best writers capture what it is to be human and to wrestle with God, with one another, with death, with love and heartbreak, with friendship and loneliness, with ourselves. For me, McCarthy’s The Road exemplifies many passages that I’d rate alongside certain works of Shakespeare, Milton, and T.S. Eliot. Soth-1 much has been written about McCarthy’s fiction, and about The Road in particular, that I’m almost loath to comment further, but as I wrote above, certain passages haunt. The question that concerns me is this: Have we followed the logic of how we answer the questions the passage raises? It’s a passage dealing with ultimate issues of God, evil, and meaning.

Here is the context: A father and son are laboring to survive. The adjective used so often to describe The Road is “postapocalyptic.” There has been some kind of catastrophe or series of catastrophes. The sky is gray. The normal means of technology are gone. The few survivors are reduced to primitive scavenging and foraging. A father and son speak cryptically about their ominous and precarious state. The son begins the conversation:

 

Can I ask you something?

Yes. Of course you can.

What would you do if I died?

If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.

Okay.

He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

He woke before dawn and watched the gray day break. Slow and half opaque. He rose while the boy slept and pulled on his shoes and wrapped in his blanket he walked out through the trees. He descended into a gryke in the stone and there he crouched coughing and he coughed for a long time. Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? He whispered. Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God. (11-12)

 

No quotation marks. Just naked emotion in staccato questions and answers between a boy and his father. Do we sense the love, the sacrifice the father has for the son, and vice versa? If there were separation, it’d be better to die.

Then the father is apart from the son in the next narrative paragraph and he (the father) petitions God. I don’t see how the context could read otherwise. Observe the imagery and language. Ashes, cold, silence, opaqueness, a cycle of tragedy (Eccl. 1). Their tragic life is a breath (Job 7:7: Ps 144:4). The father almost curses and yet petitions the God he’s not sure exists. This is sublimity.

Who does this remind us of? Job. He endured unimaginable suffering (deaths of his entire family; loss of his wealth and property; flawed counsel from his friends; boils on his skin; and apparent abandonment by God). And yet.

I have read The Road several times and yet I’m reading it again. Why? Because I think McCarthy puts his finger on the problem of evil, but does not preach the answer. He leaves it to astute readers to follow the logical outflow of their worldview.

Evil is unexplainable in a naturalistic worldview (where all that exists is material). Simply put, there is no answer in a secular/naturalistic worldview to the problem of evil. In fact, evil is not (for the materialist) a real thing.

In the biblical worldview, evil is real but explainable. Suffering is real, but explainable. Man’s tragic state is real, but explainable. The Fall was real, but so is God. The father in McCarthy’s The Road sacrifices himself, as it were, for his son. The son is left on his own to seek whomever else might be “good.”

In the biblical worldview, however, the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) sent the Son for the world. Rather than a father who petitions a (silent?) heaven for answers, history records that God sent forth his Son to seek and save the lost. Tragedy is not the necessary endgame. Tragedy can lead us to look up and see that Jacob’s ladder has been extended (Gen 28:12; Jn 1:51) and trod upon by the Son. And rather than tragedy, redemption. The road ends, in the biblical worldview, in restoration.

 

 

Five Books and a Question

“There are two types of books,” my professor said, “those of the hour and those for all time.” Thus said one of my favorite professors of literature as we met in his office one afternoon and discussed what we were reading and what we wanted to read. That conversation happenth-2ed over twenty years ago. I doubt Dr. N. even remembers it, but I have kept his words in mind.

He gave me a copy of Donleavy’s The Ginger Man and told me that I might enjoy it (I’d been trying to get through Joyce’s Ulysses at the time—a sort of literary rite of passage). I still have the copy of Donleavy’s novel and have not gotten to it. But I will. There’s just so much to read and it can be difficult to know how to divide one’s time wisely.

It’s common to make resolutions for the upcoming year. However, there is at least as much value (perhaps more value) in looking back—especially upon one’s reading. Reflecting upon history (one’s own, as well as the larger context and flow of worldviews) enables perspective that prognosticating may occlude. For fellow readers, you understand the joy of revisiting your books. In 2015, I did not read as many as is my custom. However, below are five volumes I particularly enjoyed and have wrestled with. I revisit each and ask myself what idea(s) remain after having gone through them. I welcome your reflections and recommendations of books you have found worthy of the effort. The titles listed are not in any particular order or preference.

  • Parables: The Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Revealed through the Stories Jesus Told by John MacArthur. This was the most recent book I completed. MacArthur is of course a Greek scholar, prolific writer and longtime pastor of Grace Community Church. True to MacArthur’s style, he deals relentlessly with the text of Scripture and focuses on the single meaning of each of Jesus’ parables. The book is an excellent return to the authority of the Bible amidst the melee that is endemic in literary criticism. MacArthur writes: “Jesus’ parables had a clear twofold purpose: They hid the truth from self-righteous or self-satisfied people who fancied themselves too sophisticated to learn from Him, while the same parables revealed truth to eager souls with childlike faith—those who were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” Near the end of the book, MacArthur concludes with a restatement of his thesis:

Because truth itself is critically important, and the church today is in imminent danger of selling her birthright in exchange for a postmodern philosophy that in effect would do away with the very idea of truth.

That is ground we cannot yield. We must be willing to submit our minds to the truth of Scripture, and we must refuse to subject Scripture to whatever theories or speculations happen to be currently popular in the realm of secular philosophy.

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The author relies heavily upon surveys of corporate America and academia, and fills much of the book with historical accounts of the value many introverts have brought to civilization. At other times, she puts her finger on cultural trends:

 America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman Called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality—and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover.

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth.

Cain delineates between extroverted buzz and introverted depth. She helpfully encourages introverts throughout. Consider the following:

If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way. It’s up to you to use that independence to good effect.

  • Pagans in the Pews: How the New Spirituality is Invading Your Home, Church and Community by Peter Jones. Like MacArthur, Jones is a Greek and New Testament scholar. His thesis in the book is that paganism has invaded not just the Western culture, but the church itself. Feminism, liberalism, and monism have invaded many churches. The results are seen in the breakdown of binary distinctions (male and female; Creator and creatures; heterosexuality vs. homosexuality/lesbianism, etc.). Rather than worshiping God alone, man has descended into self-worship and godless humanism:

Today atheistic humanism is on the run. The new enemy is a spiritualized view of man. He is no longer simply the measure of all things, as rationalism maintained: Man is now also the measure of God, for man is God. This new spirituality is the final expression of idolatry because it is not just disobedience of God’s laws: It replaces the divine with the human.

Dr. Jones’ terms of One-ism (all is one/pantheism/monism) and Two-ism (God and His creation are separate; Creator and His creatures/creation; binary; dualism) help to illustrate Paul’s words in Romans 1—namely, that the essence of human sin is evidenced in our behavior. We “[exchange] the truth about God for a lie and [worship] and [serve] the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Rom 1:25 ESV)

  • Still the Best Hope by Dennis Prager. I heard Prager on talk radio one day a few years back. He referred to his belief in “ethical monotheism.” I could tell from that phrase that he was someone I needed to research. I bought some of his books, but this one is (in my view) his best. The thesis in his books, this one in particular, is straightforward: Leftism demonstrably fails because it starts with the wrong assumptions about human nature and about God.

 

One of the most helpful things Prager illustrates in the book comes in the addendum, wherein he lays out the differences between Leftism vs. Conservative values. Below is just a small sampling of his charts:

  Conservative Values Liberal/Left Values
The State Small Large
Source of Moral Standards American & Judeo-Christian values Individual consciences, the heart, science
Attitude toward Wealth Create more Redistribute
Morality Universal Relative (to individual/and/or Society
Primary Sources of Evil The individual and the state Socioeconomic forces
Humanity’s Primary Division Good/evil Rich/poor; strong/weak

 

  • Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness. I’m unashamedly an admirer of Guinness’ work, but I especially enjoyed this volume because I think he’s quite sober and winsome when dealing with the issue of how to deal with skeptics of the Christian worldview, especially if detractors are steeped in postmodernism, multiculturalism, pluralism, relativism, etc. Consider the following from Guinness:

What it means is that Christian advocacy must always be independent. It must always be consistent to itself and shaped decisively by the great truths of the Scriptures, and in particular by five central truths of the faith—creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross, and the Spirit of God.

I did not even comment on my favorite non-fiction books I read in 2015, Nancy Pearcey’s Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes and Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. In my view, those books are so important, they deserve their own articles.

So, did I learn from my former professor’s counsel, about books being divisible between those of the hour and those of all time? Did I make wise reading choices? Admittedly, I did not include the fiction, drama, poetry, or biographies I read in 2015, but these were some volumes I particularly appreciated.