Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Over My Head

I have a habit of getting in over my head, of over-commitment and under-resourcing, of squeezing too much from too little. In that spirit, I’ve been trying lately to wrap my finite intellect, which wheezes and huffs with the effort, around the efficacy of prayer. I have not been searching for a yea or nay – that particular question has been for some time resolved for me in the affirmative – but I have been searching for a glimpse, if it may be had, of the mechanics of that efficacy.

Suppose that I and many other people pray for improbable outcome X, and it comes to pass. Would it still have been granted if I alone of all that crowd had kept silent? Is any prayer ever the pebble that tips the scale? Or are the prayers of God’s people inseparable before Him, like drops of water in a river? And wherein lies the undeniable but inexplicable charm of a fallen race to move the hand of an immutable Divine?

I have no answers to these questions. I have read Spurgeon and Willard, Lewis and Tozer, Carmichael and Chesterton on the subject. From them I have gotten signposts, and not the desired schematics, truths that only deepen the mystery.

Scripture does not seem overly concerned that I understand the process. I am told not how prayer works, but “This, then, is how you should pray.”

If all the roads in this province of thought lead to befuddlement (and so far, for me, they do), then I seem to have three options: 1) I can, distrusting what I do not understand, cease to pray. But my very spirit recoils at the thought . . . 2) I can continue to pray out of habit, or grim-faced compliance, but with secret mistrust that my prayers make any difference. But no sane or honest person would waste time in this fashion . . . 3) I can, in obedience, go on praying, because I know on instinct that the Maker is far more important than the mechanism. And the Maker that I know would not tell me to ask, would not tell me to seek, would not tell me to knock, only to let it be a lie told for the comfort of infants.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Walk with Me

The fragmented stories below, all of which I have heard with quiet wonder in the last week, are true. I have had them all first-hand, or second-hand at worst. I have changed some of the particulars - name and locations - so that no one minds if I put them down, but the substance had not been altered. May they be of some good to you.

Act I : Maryland

About two weeks ago, Brian took Bethany salsa dancing at the Lucky Bar on Connecticut Avenue. Afterward, he took her to Volta Park and asked her to be he wife.

So the last few times I've seen Bethany have been a little giddy. She is trying to plan a wedding on very short notice (they are shooting for autumn), in a city where she no longer lives, while being almost constantly on the road for seminary classes or fundraising. On Thursday, she had an appointment at a wedding dress consignment store - somewhere in Maryland, I think. I couldn't go, but Ann, staying with us for the summer, was her willing consort. She didn't expect to find anything, but she was armed, at least, with the admonitions of her sisters, "Don't wear pure white. It will wash you out with your complexion," and "Pick something that accents your waist. You've got a cute waist."

When they arrived, they were met by a bleached blonde saleslady. She had ten visible body piercings, five in each ear. She was, to hazard a guess, sixty years old. We'll call her Cathy.

Bethany was not allowed to be alone with the dresses, not even for a minute. Cathy followed her straight into the dressing rooms, and while Bethany wrangled the yardage of ecru taffeta and candlelight satin - or whatever is the going term for off-white these days - Cathy talked.

Cathy asked Bethany what she did, and was impressed to find that she worked with students in a campus ministry setting. It was so good, she thought, for the young people to have someone who would talk with them, help them work through their feelings, listen to them. Cathy was raised Catholic. She tried to go to church on Sundays, but it was hard, and she rarely made it anymore. She got so tired.

When Bethany had gotten herself into a dress, she would come out to model them in front of Ann.

"What about you?" Cathy said to Ann, "Are you doing this anytime soon?"

Ann, about to start her second year of law school, demurred.

"Yeah, don't get me started on the marriage thing. I was married for twenty-five years. I'll never do THAT again."

Bethany, head-to-toe white in a dress Cathy was theoretically trying to sell to her, was not sure what to say.

When all the dresses had been tried on, Cathy walked Ann and Bethany back to Ann's car.

"You know," she said to Bethany, "I'm in Georgetown sometimes. I could call you. We could get lunch."

Bethany gave her her business card. Cathy wrote her cell phone number on the back.

"Just call me, if you want to. And if I don't answer, leave me a message. I can just call you right back. It's so nice to have people to talk to."

She hugged Bethany. She hugged Ann, too, who later confessed surprise.

Act II:

In a country in South America, in a hospital, there is a ten-year-old girl called Catalina. Catalina has no parents, so her uncle, Diego, takes care of her. Six months ago, she was raped by an adult in her community. Such crimes are not uncommon where she lives, and they are met with almost certain impunity. But the rape is not why Catalina is in the hospital.

Catalina is in the hospital because something is wrong with her, and the doctors at the public clinic do not know what it is. All that is clear is that she is dying. The doctors are not doing much, nor do they seem to care. They say that they are not treating her because there is no money to pay for the treatment, but they have also removed her from her bed at times so that they can use it as a place to sit.

The employees of a non-profit have taken an interest in Catalina's case. They have been driving around the city trying to find her new doctors, trying to buy her antibiotics and blood. That is the way the health care system works here. If the doctor is good, he tells you what you need, but it's probably up to you, or someone who cares about you, to find it and pay for it. Catalina is in and out of consciousness, but she is a little in awe of the strangers who seem to care so very much whether she lives or dies. She knows, in her own way, why they are doing it.

She wakes from a sleep of drugs and fever, to find one of the women at the edge of her bed. Quiere aceptar a Jesucristo en su corazon, she makes it known, and a little later she sleeps again.

That night, she took a worse turn. I have no reason to believe she is dead right now, but no very good reason to believe she is alive, either.

Act III: Moravia

It used to be that from a particular family compound in Moravia, Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, you could see the ocean. You cannot see it anymore. Now, all the houses have nine-foot walls topped with barbed wire. The rate of armed robberies following the war has made it necessary.

Eight years ago, a comparatively wealthy Liberian woman we'll call Debbie, who lives on the outskirts of Moravia, had a visit from a neighbor woman. The woman asked her to watch her two-week-old son (whom we'll call Anthony). She said she would return in a few hours. Debbie agree, and the woman left.

The neighbor never returned.

Debbie adopted Anthony. Today, he is a smiling, well-dressed little boy. In front of cameras, he likes to put on his Batman costume with the fake muscles. He is cloistered, most certainly, behind the gates of the family estate, but in Moravia, cloistered is also protected. There will be time enough to know the world outside the walls.

Anthony made a friend, Charles, who invited him to come over to play. Charles lived downtown in a less savory district. Debbie did not want Anthony to go, but in the end, he was allowed.

Anthony and Charles played together well enough for a while, but towards evening they got into an argument. Charles pushed Anthony outside the gate of his family's compound. He threw his belongings out after him. Anthony, who knew virtually nothing about the geography of the city, was miles from either his home or Debbie's office, but Debbie's office was closer. He started walking.

Several hours later, Debbie's sister, who worked at Debbie's office, was leaving at an unusually late hour. She was going to take a cab home. She raised her hand. A cab stopped, but she let it pass. Another cab stopped, but she waved it on again. She has never known why she let them go.

Suddenly she turned, and there was Anthony, carrying his backpack, his well-pressed clothes mussed and dirty,

On sight of her, he small knees buckled and he began to cry.

"Anthony, Anthony," she said, pulling the seven-year-old to her chest, "How did you get here?"

Anthony did not know the city, and between Charles' house and the office lay twisting miles of slums, violent neighborhoods, wracked by kidnappings, where he had walked, dirty but unscathed, in his well-pressed clothes. How, indeed?

Anthony looked at her and said, "Jesus walked with me."

Note added Monday, July 21: Catalina is dancing with angels.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Poems for Jesus #5

I fear this cannot be the path you chose -
That downward curves, in darkness, and apart
From all my friends, and sets me among foes.
I turn and say, “Some respite, You’ll impart?
There’s some escape you’ll show me from this place?”
But now my smarting heart receives no cheer;
Gone silent is Your voice, like flint Your face!
My fainting hope quails at your eyes severe.
And downward winding, twisting, while winds blow,
You lead me on and never turn around.
My sorrow grows that you would lead me low –
Until I see your tears have wet the ground!
“Did you not ask,” you finally say to me,
“That I would in my crucible refine you?
And from your mesh of fears to be set free?
The things you asked, I’m faithful now to do.”
And now I see this path has been well trod
By none you have betrayed, but by Your own
By saints and prophets – all well loved of God -
All on their way to praise You at Your throne.
You lead me low, that you might lead me higher.
For gold that lasts, these tears shall be the fire.

Brave or Safe?

Friday, July 4, 2008

My First Publication

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Following the Leader

Brent told me outside the cafeteria that had no use for Jesus. He said that after consideration, he rejected the notion of substitutionary atonement. I thought that was ironic, for a Jew, since it was a Mosaic doctrine long before it was a Christian one, but I had to respect him for it. At least he had thought that far. Though we differed on that score, it did not keep us from getting Philly cheese steaks at a dive on M Street, or from dancing the rumba, the quickstep, and the mambo.

Ballroom dance practice took place on Wednesday nights in the Copley lounge. It was a smallish, oblong room wil columns ill-placed for dancing. The floor was old wood, honey-colored and buffed to a high sheen by the brushed, suede leather on the soles of the ladies' shoes.

Brent stood around 6'4". Four-inch heels and my best posture brought me level with his perfectly symmetrical chin.

We learned slowly. He liked to take big steps, and his feet, too, were big and square-toed and heavy. The women dancers learned faster than the men in general, feeling fewer impediments to the union of their bodies with an external influence. But the women, learning faster, wanted to lead. That was their trouble.

Brent and I were no exception. One-two-three-four, and start again, and again . . . and again. Brent was no help, making wisecracks in his lispish Castilian Spanish so that the instructor could not understand. It's hard to suppress a giggle and maintain correct posture ("Pretend you're carrying a heavy tray.") at the same time.

After a month, the men learned the steps. In another month, they, including Brent, began to learn to lead. They learned the circumference of our turns, the lengths of our arms, the accomodations of stature and momentum. Above all, they learned to keep the tension. That was the moment of revelation. The gentleman leads and the lady follows, by the setting their weight each the other's in precise counterbalance. The sign of a weak lead wass that he pushed his partner around the floor like a vacuum cleaner. A good lead had only to touch an elbow, vary by slight degree the pressure in his palms, and her steps were known to her like a sudden flash of intuition.

In October we went to the Ohio Star Ball in Cleveland. We went on a big bus, me and Brent and Pola and Meg and Thuy and a dozen others. Thuy's family was from Viet Nam, and she had been raised since adolesence in Los Angeles. She was impossibly compact. The cha-cha came hard for her, but she moved like a swan in the waltz. At a rest stop in Ohio, she stepped off the bus and put up her gloved hand to feel the first snowflakes of her life lap against her.

The competitions were unpleasant. The make-up was garish, the application of hairgel an impossible ordeal. But I loved the Jack-and-jill dances. Every now then, I got an experienced dancer, a really good lead. A good lead makes you a better dancer.

There's probably plenty of earthbound applications for this, something about men and woman that is obvious, but it sets me to thinking about God. About why His words sometimes seem like incomplete directive. About why we are left in positions of great paradox and unbearable tension. Perhaps He is just a really good lead.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


There were weeks in college when I lived for The Compline. It goes also by the name of "All Praise to Thee, my God, This Night." Whatever its name, it is one of the oldest and loveliest hymns I know, penned in the late 17th century by Thomas Ken, an Englishman. The simple music, by Thomas Tallis is a century older still. And even if you have never heard of it, you may have sung the last verse, known by Protestant Christians throughout the English-speaking world. It is the source of The Doxology, or Common Doxology.

I read it today for the first time in its entirety. Usually, I have sung only four or five of its twelve verses. But even in its shortened version, it was for me, from week to week, in the breathing space between a capella verses, a place in which to feel brave enough to go out again and charge the darkness, to use a term of Gary's.

All praise to Thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
Beneath Thine own almighty wings.

Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son,
The ill that I this day have done,
That with the world, myself, and Thee,
I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.

Teach me to live, that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die, that so I may
Rise glorious at the judgment day.

O may my soul on Thee repose,
And with sweet sleep mine eyelids close,
Sleep that may me more vigorous make
To serve my God when I awake.

When in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with heavenly thoughts supply;
Let no ill dreams disturb my rest,
No powers of darkness me molest.

O when shall I, in endless day,
For ever chase dark sleep away,
And hymns divine with angels sing,
All praise to thee, eternal King?

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

My father died on a Monday. I was a visitor at a downtown D.C. church the night before. I had not sung the compline in a year (California churches know less than one might hope about 17th-century British worship). And a woman at the front played it on the guitar. I sang with sudden joy, and knew thereafter the gift of preparation, the promise of the Lord's companionship, that had been given to me.