Too Tragic for Real Life

A man on a bike slowly made his way along the dirt road. From the opposite direction, a column of eighty armored tanks crawled towards him like one giant, ornery caterpillar. As the two neared each other, the tanks uttered a pained moan as brakes were hastily applied and the entire procession ground to a halt. The hatch of the tank at the front of the column flung open, and the huge boyish grin of a young man named Eric De Vries emerged from the depths. “The war is over!” he shouted to the man on the bike. “It’s over!”

tank

The year was 1945; the war was World War II. They were Canadian tanks, steadily advancing across the Dutch countryside just east of Amsterdam, with Germans hastily retreating ahead of them.

The man on the bike was my grandfather. He went on to get married, have six children and many more grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and today he feeds ducks in his backyard overlooking a small lake in Western British Columbia, with a large local mountain putting a sizable dent in his horizon. It is the kind of view people pay for.

Eric De Vries, the man in the tank, lived for thirty more minutes before a crazed bazooka-wielding German reduced that tank to a ball of flames.

I sat in a coffee shop last week, browsing over a stack of war stories my grandpa had written down and asked me to edit. I waded through the broken, matter-of-fact English with pen in hand, marking up grammar and spelling, until I arrived at this story. The poor storytelling and broken English could not lessen the sudden impact of the tragedy. I set it down, overcome by the bizarre sadness of it all.

It is a dark twist, too tragic for real life. In what kind of world does a man fight a war for five years and taste victory for only thirty minutes before his life is snuffed out? What kind of God lets that happen?

Nevertheless, this is the world we find ourselves in. It is too tragic for real life. Some may read this story and ask, “Why?” and for those, perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps the darkness cannot be explained. Perhaps we’re not supposed to explain it.

It’s a strange poetry, this world. It’s bizarre, tragic in an almost comedic way, where the laughter is anything but light-hearted and more akin to insane hysterics. Often, all we are left with is questions without very many answers.

Is it all meaningless? Is this the conclusion we must content ourselves with?

There is something offensive to us about this story, something difficult to grapple with. It took me a while to put a finger on it, to actually recognize why it troubled me so much. This story appears, on one level, to be a story about a purposeless death. One man enjoys a half hour of peace before death comes calling; another lives a full life of peace, to die in his bed at a ripe old age. Right?

But when my grandpa biked away from that moment in 1945, it was not into a future of peace. He lived to fight one more day; he lived, in fact, to fight a few thousand more days.

You see, evil, the grim spectre that snuffed the life of Eric De Vries far too early for our liking, did not die the day Germany surrendered. It continued. And my grandpa continued to pick a fight with it. An insatiable hunger for justice drove him through his life even into his retirement years, when he channelled Christian refugees through a bureaucratic obstacle course into North America. He fought, and fought, and fought, and carried with him the memories of those whose fight was over. Now, the closing act to his own fight has begun, and he has passed me a stack of papers that tells the tale.

Who celebrated peace that day in 1945? It wasn’t my grandpa. The day marked the end of a battle, a fleeting episode, but the war continued. Men continue to do evil things, and good people die. Sin continues to tear us apart.

Who celebrated peace that day?

In Praise of Penmanship

I come to the realization that I teach English, not when I have encounters with simple past and past participles, but when I get to read student writing. I look at the stack of journals to be marked and avoid marking because it seems tedious. However, once I begin to read what my students have penned, it is usually a delight for me.

Sometimes what the students say is not as interesting as how they convey it.

One of my students forgot his journal, so at the end of the day he handed me the notebook in which he takes notes. Inside the notebook I found all manner of drawings of dolphins, horses, and stars. This student is one of the most engaged in the class—he offers feedback, participates in discussions, looks at me when I speak. When did I ever talk about dolphins? Never. I recall reading that some students process information better when they doodle. I assume this is the case for my dolphin-sketcher.

Another student is able to turn any kind of opinion writing into a chart, graph, or diagram. When I look at his writing, there is an overwhelming sense of movement on the page. Arrows, boxes, and circles assist his discussion. He always writes in italics. I am not quite sure how he manages to have all of his script at a perfect twenty-three degree angle.

Other students can’t write on a line. Some use circles to dot their i’s. Some have never used a comma, and some abuse the comma like it’s a drug. Some write incredibly small characters, causing me to beg for a magnifying glass as a gift. Others use letters so big that a one-page writing assignment can have only three sentences on it.

journal

I like encounters with the written word, the really, genuinely written word. I get a better sense of a person and of their personality. Typing is great; I like hearing the click-click-click of a machine. There is something melodic about it. But somehow handwriting is magical. It creates a different kind of connection between the reader and the writer. Handwriting conveys another level of understanding to the reader.

A colleague informed me a few weeks ago that cursive handwriting will no longer be taught in schools. In 2011, several U.S. states erased cursive in favour of more practical typing classes. The trend has spread and reached the province where I live. Almost everyone was happy to see this change, except for a few nonsensical romantics like myself. When people do not yet know their own artistic voice, having an artistic way to communicate—with cursive script, for example—assists in the building of an artist.

declaration

Individual variation creates artistic distinctiveness. When I think of cursive writing, the first image that comes to mind is the original document of the Declaration of Independence. I could not quote the information contained within the Declaration, but the image is plastered on my mind like wartime propaganda posters on a wall. When I look at the writing in the Declaration, I can see the excitement without even reading the words. The style of writing itself communicates independence. Independence was celebrated three hundred years ago with plume and paper, and now it seems time to move on to something else. Perhaps this is why people are saying good-bye to handwriting. In the words of an Italian art-history student I once knew: “Independence is no more trendy.” Now that artistic style is being erased, let’s hope we don’t all start to say the same things as well.

My students don’t have to write in cursive, but they do have to write with their own hand. Perhaps more than an assertion of independence, it’s an acknowledgement of the incarnate self. The written word is the extension of a hand—a hand to help, support, to extend grace.

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. – 2 Thess 3:17-18

Come, Let Me Breathe on You

“Look! Look! Look!” cried Lucy.

“Where? What?” asked everyone.

“The Lion,” said Lucy. “Aslan himself. Didn’t you see?” Her face had changed completely and her eyes shone.

Lucy Pevensie and Mr. Tumnus

Lucy Pevensie and Mr. Tumnus

As I’ve been rereading The Chronicles of Narnia recently (soul food), C.S. Lewis has gotten me thinking about the nature of faith (a frequent theme of his). In the Prince Caspian scene above, Lucy has seen Aslan, but she’s the only one. The others must take her words on faith.

As Hebrews 11 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But this assurance and conviction is not blind, or unreasoning. As the group discusses what to do with Lucy’s information, Edmund points out Lucy’s track record: “When we first discovered Narnia a year ago—or a thousand years ago, whichever it is—it was Lucy who discovered it first and none of us would believe her. I was the worst of the lot, I know. Yet she was right after all” (emphasis mine).

Like the Old Testament prophets, Lucy’s words must have been proven true in the past in order to be considered trustworthy about the future. Edmund knows that common sense means they must consider who is speaking; they must look at the facts, and they must remember. Yet, how often do we not forget, or act as though faith is somehow divorced from the facts?

Yet, more important than the reliability of the messenger is the truth of the message. In what do the Pevensies believe? It’s not set of truths. It’s not “what” but “whom.” It’s Aslan. Ultimately, it’s not the amount of faith that matters, but whom you put your faith in.

Later in the story, as they follow Lucy, trusting her words, Edmund is the first to see Aslan. As Lewis illustrates, faith requires first an openness, a willingness to potentially believe what is not immediately evident or visible; of the four, Susan is the least open, and thus she is the last to finally see Aslan. The tension in this story between skepticism and belief hinges on personal desires and trust. Whom will she trust? Will her own desire for comfort and ease blind her to the truth? Perhaps Susan ought to have been more skeptical of her own desires.

We all take things on faith. But whom will we believe? Which sayings are “trustworthy, and deserving of full acceptance?” Whose story is true? Are we willing to potentially believe what is not immediately visible?

“Oh, Aslan,” said King Peter, dropping on one knee and raising the Lion’s heavy paw to his face, “I’m so glad. And I’m so sorry. I’ve been leading them wrong ever since we started and especially yesterday morning.”

“My dear son,” said Aslan.

Then he turned and welcomed Edmund. “Well done,” were his words.

Then, after an awful pause, the deep voice said, “Susan.” Susan made no answer but the others thought she was crying. “You have listened to fears, child,” said Aslan. “Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?”

Happy Father’s Day

The day after Father’s Day, my friends and I held our antepenultimate Bible study on Titus. “Bible study” is sort of an incorrect name. It has been more of a “commentary study,” looking at what newadvent.org has identified for us as John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Titus. Our study is precisely one hour long, and we usually look at three to five verses. This is not a lot of verses, but thanks to our endlessly intriguing homilies, during that time we have never once run out of interesting stuff to discuss.

The last homily explained for us that Paul never says that Jupiter is immortal. It had never before occurred to me that Paul might have said that Jupiter is immortal. Now it appears that I could well have been worried.

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom

The problem is that Paul says in Titus that Cretans are liars. According to the homily, when Paul says this, he is quoting the Cretan poet Epimenides. Epimenides said that the Cretans are liars because they think that Jupiter is not immortal. Thus, when Paul agrees with Epimenides that the Cretans are liars, it seems that he is also agreeing with Epimenides that Jupiter is immortal. If the Cretans were correct in their denial of Jupiter’s immortality, then they would not be liars and Epimenides would be wrong to call them so, and Paul wrong to quote him saying so.

This seems troubling. Happily, it is not. As is explained further in the homily, Paul might quote Epimenides, but he could be using Epimenides’ assertion that Cretans are liars to talk about other lies that they tell, lies not about Jupiter. So it is certainly all a bit confusing, but there is, after all, no reason to worry. Paul does not think that Jupiter is immortal. We can breathe.

Except, as far as I am aware, the notion that the Bible(!) might declare Jupiter to be immortal is not an issue that I think most Christians are particularly concerned with just at the moment. This is not something that I think anyone, recently, has actually stopped breathing over. It is also something that is easy to think a bit beside the point, a bit funny, a bit obscure, a bit antique. You would have to ask someone who knows what they are talking about, but it is possible that the reason that no one is worried about this is because it was all cleared up.

Sometimes, on Father’s day, I think about all of the wisdom and blessing that my “father” (dad, but that sounds less intelligent) has bequeathed to me. He has provided me with a gentle context within which to grow up. He has ensured that there are many difficult things that I have never had to deal with. If I am a “good” person, it is because I have no excuse not to be. Old homilies often seem to argue out the most obvious things. Over the course of this particular study, my friends and I have been having to remind ourselves that things that are obviously obvious to us, may not always have been so. We have inherited enormous amounts of wise exegesis and theologizing. That careful work has made it into our everyday assumptions. This is wonderful. It provides for us the opportunity to think even more carefully about more things that are less obvious. It also reminds us of those obvious things that we forget and lose sight of.

So, as a conclusion, this is my little encouragement of the day: next time you are looking for a book, go read something written by a Christian who lived a long time ago. Maybe read one of “the Fathers” (Wikipedia will provide you with a list). You might learn about Jupiter’s mortality or you might learn about Unicorns, but their insight and occasional absurdity pretty much guarantee that you will not get “bogged down.” Remember, while you read, to be thankful for all of our “fathers,” for the gentle context that they worked to provide, for the difficult things that they dealt with, and for all of the wisdom and blessing that they have bequeathed to us.

Jupiter is not immortal! Yay!

Go Thou and Do Likewise

Lately, I have been reading Douglas Wilson’s recent book, Against the Church. Despite its provocative title, the book preaches a message that many Christians can appreciate and affirm: namely, that only God is able to change hearts and make blind eyes see. Wilson strives to remind his readers that nothing can replace the saving work of God—especially sacred things like a robust liturgy, the institutional church, and the celebration of the sacraments. These things are good things, but we must take care not to equate them with the unseen regenerative touch of God.

While I’ve never been instructed to believe that such things are sufficient for salvation, I do appreciate these reminders. I am no stranger to complacency within myself, and I grew up with a number of people who no longer attend church, much less cling to the doctrines that their parents held dear. Sincere belief, like any tradition, is a hard thing to pass down.

That said, I must confess that I am puzzled by Wilson’s solution to this problem.

He is eager to counter a group of “sacramentalists” that, apparently, believe and preach a different gospel. By his account, these men allege that participation in ornate liturgies (along with baptism and the eucharist) is all any man or woman needs to be a follower of Christ. Do what you will with the rest of your time: as long as your worship features these elements, you will be greeted in the next life by a smiling St. Peter.

And so, Wilson responds by emphasizing the doctrine of regeneration: the belief that God alone is the author of new life and salvation. However, I find his articulation of this doctrine—and particularly of its application—to be downright confusing. In one passage he writes,

I don’t care what you call it—transformation, conversion to God, effectual call, being born again to God—but this reality is the only thing that will enable us to make faithful sense of the secular and ecclesiastical worlds around us. (87)

Now, please understand: I absolutely agree that on my own I am helpless, and that I have no life other than what was given to me by God. And if there are people preaching that new life can be obtained through mere ritualism, they should be vigorously contradicted. However, I do not think that the preaching of the doctrine of regeneration is as universally helpful as this good reverend suggests.

On the one hand, reflecting on God’s divine regeneration is a great comfort. Such reflection reminds me that God has deigned to work in my individual heart, which is both humbling and awesome. It also directs my prayers, inspiring me to believe that the words I utter—whether in silence or out loud—can actually be instruments of change. In short, this doctrine disciplines my heart to hope, to believe in things that I cannot see.

But on the other hand, such language seems inherently individualistic. Though these benefits are blessings, they don’t seem particularly beneficial to my relationships with other people. Whether I’m laughing with a good friend, or encouraging a brother in need, or sharing the gospel with a stranger, the doctrine of regeneration seems like a limited view of the full picture.

Allow me to explain:

It’s one thing to bring a friend or neighbour to God in prayer, and to ask Him to change his or her heart. But when we are encouraging one another face-to-face—either with words of support or with words of correction—I question whether such language is helpful. Even Christ, when in such situations, offered different advice. Specifically, action-centred advice. To the woman caught in adultery, he simply said, “Go and sin no more.” Why should our counsel be more spiritual than his?

As we engage in the life of our church communities, we will inevitably face situations in which we discover that our fellow worshipers are sinners. And I don’t just mean the common, relatable sins of arriving late to meetings or failing to follow the speed limit. Churchgoers, even those participating in the new life, are all fighting to put aside the old man and embrace the Way of Christ. Indeed, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll know firsthand the painful paradox of striving after Christ while wrestling with ugly, loathsome brokenness.