Friday, November 23, 2007

It Is Cold Outside of Boston (A Prayer for Helen)

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It is cold outside of Boston
And my breath hangs like a cloud
Like a fading moon of vapor
Rushing in, and rushing out

It is cold outside of Boston,
And the air, it smells like snow
And the sleep that I am losing
Is for things I cannot know

The leaves rain from the trees, so slow
Like upturned palms of praise
While the full moon laughs upon them
With a blessing in his gaze

And I wonder as I watch them,
As they rock down to the floor,
If it's only breath we're given
If it's breath - and not much more.
And what is in your breath, O God
That wakes a man from clay
And who are you that made a man
That loves to turn away?
Why can we not be like the leaves
And turn our palms in praise?
Why grant the choice of blessing
To a brief and flick'ring flame,
To a river that flows upward
To a son that jilts the Name?

It is cold outside of Boston
And the frost is on the ground
To freeze the sap within the bough
And sharpen every sound

On wintry nights like these I've heard
Your Spirit walks abroad
In search of hearts wherein
Still flows unfrozen love of God

Your heart, O mighty heart, my God
I wonder at its patience
At its loud, persistent knocking
At the love that charmed the ancients
That still, as though, untapped, untried
It looks for signs of life
In the wreckage of the Garden
In the scorched earth of our strife!
And while the breath that you once gave
Still in our breast does stir
May each heart that you made seek you
Ere that breath to You returns.

It is cold outside of Boston
Can I muster still a prayer?
While the grasping cold of winter
Strips the warmth from hearts and air?

Such questions now betray
That I little know of love
Of the love that made the cosmos
And sowed the stars above
Of the love that knew- that knew!
And what anguish in the knowing!
All the evil we would do
Saw the rivers ruddy flowing!
And still it said, "I'll make a man,
And make a woman, too."
Is a thing that only madmen
Or the love of God might do.

It is cold outside of Boston
And I tremble like the leaves
Though whether from the cold or
Something else, none but God sees.

And I break tonight from one thing
While my breath goes out and in:
With the burden of the choice I make
And every human being.
I can't choose for another
Can I choose it for myself?
Can I let you own me truly
Take your grace down from the shelf?
I'm bent, will you still lift me?
Will you make me straight again?
And strip my heart of all its weight
And all unnatr'l dread?
I need help just to trust you -
It takes grace just to fall
Into the arms of mercy
And on your name to call.

It is cold outside of Boston
Heaven's ardor yet is burning
It is cold outside of Boston
And some heart, please God, is turning.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Few of my Favorite Things

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I have a secret.

I love the Sound of Music. You remember that scene where Mother Superior and Sister Margareta are arguing over whether Sister Maria is more of a flibbertyjibbet or a will-of-the-wisp? I think it's hysterical. And that scene where the kids are hanging out of the trees like a troop of gibbons while the Captain and the Baroness drive by? I bristle in indignation at that primping usurper of domestic felicity. And that youngest daughter? Cutest thing ever! I love it all, except for that scene where the oldest Van Trapp daughter squeals like a piglet at the chopping block to express her admiration for Franz, the priggish Austrian Nazi. I, and the whole world, could have gone without that moment in cinematic history. Poorly done love scenes aside, I am a fan, and on rainy days, I am more likely than the average person to be humming drivel about rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

Without further prelude, on this rainy week in DC, here are a few of my favorite things:

1) Getting letters from foreign countries. No one can argue (and if they would, shame on them!) that getting a letter marked Par Avion with a strange stamp sent from a Rue or a Straat or an Avenida is not better than an e-mail.

2) Old stone churches with stained glass windows, architecture and imagery that does not forget that the traffic through the soul's windows flows in two directions.

3) Cuddling babies, particularly my nephew

4) Taking the concept of cooking from scratch to the extreme. If I could find a way to mill my own flour, I probably would, but so far, I've run into some insurmountable logistical problems.

5) I can walk away from woodwinds, piano, and brass but I will always stop to listen to anything with strings.

6) Rocking chairs on wrap-around porches while a summer rain falls

7) The painting of the Repentance of the Magdalene now hanging in the National Gallery of Art - it steals my breath away.

8) Running fast and far, along a river, in the woods, by the sea

9) "Aha!" moments

10) Reading aloud

I have often wondered why I like The Sound of Music. I usually don't succumb to the saccharine, but I think I've finally figured it out. The Sound of Music is a schoolgirl's tender manifesto, an affirmation of God, family, and human kindness presented to a world that his witnessed the most obscene betrayals of these things. The appropriate note to hit would be one of somber cynicism, and instead we get "Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun, me, a name to call myself, and fa, a long, long way to run." Sometimes optimism is a fool's retreat, like when Neville Chamberlain promised the world "peace in our time" after abandoning Czechoslovakia to the dubious mercy of the Reich; and sometimes, optimism is an act of supreme valor.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Dust and Diamonds

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Sorry for the long hiatus. The road was long that wound between Nashville and Houston and San Francisco. It is good to be back with you, and to be home.

Part of growing up is realizing that one's parents are people, like any others, not heroes or tyrants, but only people with excellent intentions, a few talents, a few flaws, some ambitions both too grand and too small to find a meaningful fruition. Like I said, just people.

But if part of growing up is learning to live with your parents' humanity, part of growing old is learning to live with your own. Let me speak frankly - with my own. Do you know what a mess of dust and diamonds is crammed under my skin? Perhaps it is easier for you to know, to understand, than it is for me. Perhaps that inward vision is the least focused of all.

First the dust.

Hearing daily the work that IJM does, living on a planet that might be slowly roasting, turning anguished eyes away from that last bomb to blow in some country I will never go to, I feel surprise at almost no depravity the human mind can devise, no calamiy that we can visit upon ourselves. That is horrific, but there it is. But I keep a reserve of shock at my own capacity for pettiness, vindictiveness, baseless fear, for gossip and grumbling, and every sin that starts with self-. It, too, is horrific, but there I am. I am not the first to know it of themselves; I shall not be the last.

Now the diamonds.

There it is, still, sputtering in the dark, that divine spark that will not be expatiated. That dream of a dream of heaven that goads me on in the soul's dark night. That echo of an eternal footfall. And if for the dust I bent my head, for this unaccountable splendour I lift it up again. For music and joy, for goodwill and forgiveness, for Rembrandt and Vivaldi and Fielding and even for Tolstoy, I cannot help but lift it again. At our best, we are none of heaven's angels; at our worst, no fiends of hell. No poetic device, in the end, can skip around the fact: we have only ever been men and women, who know what we might be, but are not! what the creation might be, but is not! Why else do you think we laugh and cry (which are in the end, the same thing) - in both, our clay bodies shudder with the gap. A sob and a chuckle are Eden's aftershocks.

It is difficult (I might dare call it the greatest challenge of knowing) to span, quitely simply, what we are, this dust and diamonds, to live in a world, to inhabit a self, that occasions both deep despair and impossible hope. We have arrived (where else?) at a mystery, at Incarnation. Divine spark and indwelt earth.

Jesus came to save us from our sins. That is true. Jesus came to fulfill God's promise to Abraham and all his descendents. That is also true. But I would like to add one more reason to the catechism. Did he not also come to solve the riddle, to be more dust than any son of earth, and to be, with the same breath, the Divine of Divines? To be, while walking down our streets that , sleeping in our houses, eating our bread, the Living return all of all we thought was lost, to show not only who is God, but what a man or a woman was made to be, and glorious hope! he shall yet make to be? Oh, I hope so, I long so, but words, be they many or few, fail the intensity of such a thing.