Beauty as Messenger

Beauty as messenger. I’ve taught literature for many years now. I remain convinced that great literature reflects man’s best, noblest, most exalted efforts to express truth beautifully. For some, that may sound sentimental and saccharine. For others, however, Browning’s line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” expresses what great literature aims for, namely, truth beautifully written. Might truth beautifully expressed be a messenger? And why do most avoid contemplating it?

The things in life that mean most to us are oftentimes the things about which most people avoid talking. It is more convenient to tweet or post. Headlines, not history. News is just that—new. We’re a “… and now this” culture, as Neil Postman wrote about. It’s what’s “happening now.” There is no room for the great enduring truths of literature when we can get updates sent to our phones and have news scrolled across the gadgets of our choice. We’re connected electronically but exiled in our souls. Where’s room for truth and beauty? Any room for a messenger?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” still speaks, does it not? Might these words, penned hundreds of years ago, serve as a messenger of that which endures?

This morning driving to work I had the radio on in my truck. The radio DJ was telling of how Tom Petty died this week, and of how his albums are now selling at many times the rate they were when he was still living. I was not a big fan of Petty’s music but I do respect how he labored in his craft. For Petty, it was music. His songs are played constantly because he spoke to the human experience and he tailored his talents to fit the genre of rock and roll. And music lovers continue to respond by buying up his albums and turning up the volume. There’s a message through all this and it’s not just the tunes. It speaks to a longing in the human heart for beauty and for truth. I do not wish to stretch the analogy too far. I would not choose to argue that Petty’s lyrics are great literature. However, Petty’s music has endured because it speaks to people in ways music mysteriously has the power to do. It touches people’s souls. It stirs them. It reminds them of what they value, of what brings joy. And those things endure.

I’ve read the following lines hundreds of times: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). It’s a reminder that we don’t know our end. I doubt that Tom Petty knew last week that he had less than a week to live.

James wrote in similar fashion: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14).

Why do I still love teaching Shakespeare and Faulkner? Why do I try to open the Psalms to students who malnourish themselves on intellectual Twinkies? It’s because I remain more convinced than ever that the human soul atrophies if starved of truth and beauty.

I plan to drive home late today. When I do, I will drive north and the sun will be descending over the trees over my left shoulder. When I enter the community where my family and I live, I will wind over hills and cross a lake. On that lake, the sun will place its golden fingers across the water’s surface. Loons and geese will likely be flying overhead. Drakes and ducks are likely to be paddling around and dipping their heads beneath the surface, then reemerging with drops of water on their glossy crowns. And again I will be speechless before beauty. I will be suddenly filled with a message. It’s a message worth telling.

 

He Still Is

I saw my grandfather today though he died in the winter of 2004.

I took the steps down to the basement searching for a tool. I had forgotten I had hung his worn and gray two-tine cultivator hoe (with the bent left prong and chinked metal on the blade) up on the brown pegboard of the basement walls.

When I saw it there, it was too late. I was as upturned as the middle Georgia soil he sank this hoe into. Torn open by steel.

I saw you again, Granddaddy, with your knotted hands around this handle, bent over the obdurate soil, importunate as the punishing sun, living sermons I was too immature then to appreciate, planting images in generations.

I saw you today, Granddaddy. And you were even grander.

Warning

Warning: The following paragraphs address an emotional issue—abortion. They also contain a link to a video of actress Martha Plimpton bragging about her multiple abortions. Finally, my paragraphs share some of my thoughts, some experiences germane to this issue, and a short confession. If you are willing, I invite you to continue. What is at stake is important; no, it is more than that.

I was driving home today to prepare my military gear. I am one of thousands of soldiers being called upon to support our nation amidst Irma’s lashing the land. But that is not what this is about. I had my radio on in my truck. Dennis Prager played an audio of actress Martha Plimpton who recently spoke to a gathering in Seattle, Washington. Her topic: the beauty of her abortions. Plural. Prager played forty seconds of Plimpton recalling her “best abortion” that was performed in Washington. The crowd reacted—with applause.
I’ve attached the link for you here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URiXH_iMLqo

First, I became viscerally angry. I felt my chest tighten. I felt my pulse quicken. I discovered I was squeezing my steering wheel. For a moment, I only pictured this woman’s face in my mind, and I despised her. I wish I could say I am more sanctified than that, but I’m not. I was angry.

Second, I turned off the radio. I pulled off the road. I had to. My stomach was hurting. Why? I felt I might vomit.

The feeling that came to my stomach was the one I felt when I took fellow soldiers through Nazi concentration camps in Germany. I’m thinking of one time in Dachau. Some of my fellow soldiers and I took a few days and I led them on a tour of Dachau. We walked under the iron gates, stood in front of trenches that Jews were forced to dig; we stood in silence before the ovens where men, women, and children were incinerated; we walked into concrete rooms where Zyklon B poison was used to gas millions. We stood under the smokestacks where charred human remains billowed out like snow. We saw rooms stacked with Jewish hair, teeth, and shoes—all torn from them, since they were “undesirables.”

Back to Plimpton. As I heard her speak, and I heard the crowd cheer, that old feeling returned—that sickness that rises in the stomach when we see evil, whether in a concentration camp, or when mothers are lauded for murdering their boys and girls in the womb. One word only I could think of: barbarism.

Third, I thought of my wife. Several years back, she was unable to carry two of our children to term. We lost both of them. I won’t give you all the details, because this is not about us, but about something that affects civilization–if we call it that anymore. At any rate, after several weeks of pregnancy, we had been to the doctor, and we had those proud moments when we bring ultrasound pictures back and display them on our refrigerator. But those children were not to be born. I suffered in a way that defies language. But it was nothing to compare with what I saw my wife suffer and endure. She still grows silent around the time their birthdays would have been.

How do these three things relate? How do they cohere? I pulled off the road because my stomach hurt. It hurt in a way that was visceral. Today brought up some of the greatest pains I have ever known: the horrors of witnessing the remains evil men unleashed upon other men, women, and children in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe—because of a secular worldview; and the horrors of seeing my family’s children die in their mother’s womb, and our praying for God to save them, to deliver them to us healthy; and an American actress boast of multiple abortions to an audience who applauded.

What did I do? I pulled over. I tried to pray. But I wept. I lamented our barbarism. I saw the irony of how we deploy soldiers to save our fellow men from hurricanes, but we murder our sons and daughters in the womb. Barbarism. And I wept and prayed some more.

I wanted to write of literary things, or of history, or of theological interests again. But today I could not. Some things are too important; silence is not my choice.

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.

Battle at Sauder Hill

My family and I were thrilled about moving into our new home. Tucked in the hills of hardwoods, a lake below promising days of fun, and woods where deer and turkeys are more common than people, all seemed right. If things went according to plan, this was to be the next to last trip up. “Just let me get this load done, and then one more trip up with friends in a couple of days, and we’ll be in,” I thought.

I was driving my midsize Nissan pickup, and pulling a 14’ trailer with a sofa, a rocking chair, and various other belongings. My daughter was in the front seat; my wife and son were in the backseats.

It had recently started to rain. The road was blacktop. The sky was gray and solid, in a way that December seems to specialize in.

imagesUp ahead I saw the sign: Sauder Hill. Hill, I suppose, defies precise geometric qualification. But this hill was at least a 50-degree incline. As we started up, I put my truck in low gear and flipped on the tow switch. I hoped for the best.

The battle began within seconds. We ascended 100 meters or so, and my right rear tire began to spin. Soon it was buzzing on top of the pavement, but no longer pushing the truck and trailer uphill. All tire traction broke loose from the asphalt, and we started sliding backwards.

Out of the right side of my truck, I saw a laurel canyon of hardwood trees, and a menacing ravine eyeing my family. It struck me as some yawning beast set on our destruction—a maw ready to swallow my whole family.

My wife screamed, “Pirtle, stop!” (She’s almost never called me by my first name. Too many Jons in the family.) Well, telling me to stop my truck from sliding down Sauder Hill was, shall we say, a bit obvious. “If I could, I would!” I said, in a voice that likely sounded less than kind.

The weight in the trailer was now likely all towards the back, behind the axle. Because I’d not packed the trailer correctly (I was just ready to be done moving), the contents had shifted to the rear during the ascent. The tongue of the trailer was pulling up on the ball of my hitch, and the bed of my truck was now too light for traction. On the slide backwards and down Sauder Hill, the trailer slid off the asphalt and perched on the lip of the remaining road, just above the ravine.

Our daughter, the calmest of the four of us, said, “Dad, maybe we three should get out.”

“Yes,” I said, “you’re right. Go ahead, you guys get out and walk down to the bottom.”

As my daughter, wife, and son opened the truck doors, I looked down at my left leg. It was shaking. Visibly. I could see it bouncing like I was keeping time to electronic dance music. Dada, dada, dada, dada… I begged God not to let us slide another inch, at least not while they were trying to get out and away from the truck and trailer.

They made it to the bottom of the hill.

By now, several drivers had stopped their cars and trucks to watch. Several men in large 4-wheel drive trucks and/or Jeeps offered to pull me up the hill. One elderly gentleman stopped in his Ford F-350 and said, “Hey, I’ve got a chain and we can hook it up to your tow hook on the front of your truck, and we’ll get you up.”

But I thought better of it and asked my wife to go to the security gate and tell them what had happened. She did, and called me on my cell phone a few minutes later. “The security guard says you can get a tow truck from Jasper for seventy-five dollars.”

About forty-five minutes later, the prettiest truck I’d ever seen showed up. At least it seemed pretty at the time. Beautiful, in fact. A deliverer. A truck and crew who reclaim life. It was a four-wheel drive Dodge dually. The driver’s name was Billy. How appropriate, I thought. Billy, the tow truck driver. His demure wife sat in the front passenger seat. They could have been angels!

He said, “Just hook this cable to your tow hook, put your truck in neutral, and release your emergency break.” I obeyed him like I was a little child.

My wife, daughter, and son got into Billy’s tow truck, and sat in the rear seats. Billy mashed the switch on the back of the tow equipment, pulling the steel cable taut. He got back in his truck and pulled me up.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were all at the top of Sauder Hill. We paid the man with a debit card that he swiped on his phone. It was all in a day’s work for Billy, it seemed. But for my family, we’d done battle. We’d escaped from a yawning ravine that snarled at us, as if to devour us whole. We’d battled with Sauder Hill—and lost. I’d lost presumption. I’d been borne up by others.

It’s now two days after the battle, and my left leg has almost ceased to tremble.

 

 

 

Missing

As I pulled the brass door handles at the bookstore toward me, and followed the green carpet worn smooth by soles, tob6j6nqqwk-kgrhqmokiceyvlzcryrbmegfhwg-_35 the cafe, and the smellscapes filled the room, I said, “A medium house coffee and medium hot chocolate, please,” and reached for my wallet to pay.

The cashier canted her head to the left and wore a quizzical look, but she slid the steaming cups towards me, and took my debit card.

I thanked her and turned to hand the hot chocolate to where you’d be, with your smile at another cup of hot chocolate.

“Sir, is the hot chocolate for someone with you?” the cashier asked.

“Thank you,” I said, “yes, um, thank you.”

I flushed at how I must’ve appeared to the girl behind the counter–a man ordering a coffee for himself, and a hot chocolate for someone the cashier didn’t see.

But I was sure I’d press the warm cup into your hand, and see you smile, and reach my fingers to your free hand and bring our hands to my lips to kiss, and peruse shelves of my favorite writers, and relearn what Wallace Stevens’ line that “being there together is enough” means.

But the cashier was kind, and only smiled at me, as I discovered what we both missed: you.

The Great Reversal

“Silent before the scene.” That is the phrase from the song this morning still echoing in my mind. Sung by the choir and musicians this morning at church, the theology of that phrase stabbed me, and taught me.

The phrase pierced me. Why? It’s because when I, a sinner, come to see myself in the light of God’s holiness, my words fail. I am undone. As the writer of Hebrews expresses it, I am “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13 ESV).

I am “silent before the scene” of God’s justice as it was meted out upon God the Son, Jesus. The horror of the only holy one taking on the sin of others—becoming sin—defies my sufficient description. The more I study and grasp the meaning of the cross of Christ, the more I find my words insufficient. I fall “silent before the scene.”

However, this silence is temporary for the redeemed. Let me summarize a conversation I had with a fellow minister this week. He is a music and worship leader, a minister of the gospel. He has so much talent, he’s hard not to envy. He sings beautifully, plays multiple instruments, encourages, teaches, etc. He’s one of those men I love for the light he brings into my messy darkness.

We were speaking of ministry, some common joys and some common struggles. But then he said something that relates to this idea of being “silent before the scene.” “Talkers,” he said, “will be out of work in redemption, but singers won’t.” He was teaching me of how voiced songs are inherent to redemption.

He said it as if it were fundamental–that singing praises to God because of his redemptive work will be ceaseless. Whereas my writing about redemption will cease, voices of praise for redemption will go on and on.

Falling “silent before the scene” of God’s justice is temporary for the redeemed. Moreover, I relearned why Jesus said in Luke 19:40, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Who are  the “these”? Christians. They’re the redeemed.

What will the redeemed do? They’ll not be silent. They’ll not be “silent before the scene” forever. They’ll sing; they’ll praise. And if they don’t, the very creation will erupt in chorus to its Maker.

For those of us who love the written word, who bathe in the beauty of well-crafted words, we need to confess something: there is a great reversal wrought from heaven; therefore, let us fall “silent before the scene” of God’s works, yes, but then let us join in singing the incarnate conquering word of redemption.