Saturday, January 19, 2008

Number 1: Sleep


I'm lacking it sorely right now. Too little last night, there'll be too little tonight. And the fact is I've struggled with my sleep for some time. But for whatever reason, the verse from Psalm 127 popped into my head this afternoon: "He gives sleep even unto his beloved." And it hit me in a new way. God wants to take care of me while I sleep.

While I'm un-conscious, inert and vulnerable, God wants to care for me. I can't do anything. I'm asleep after all. And there God is, working away, gently ministering little wonders into secret places in my soul that only He knows about. I like that. I need God to work little wonders into me, especially when I'm not in control and not trying to figure out the most efficient way to achieve the greatest, productive good for the Kingdom of God with all the resources and energies and strategies I have at my disposal.

If he takes care of his beloved in his sleep, when they're least able to co-operate--"Can I not help? Can't I at least do something?"--surely he's able to take care of us in our waking life.

I'm getting married tomorrow, walking permanently away from my singlehood, and now more than ever I feel my need for his care. So I will ask for his care.

I will ask for his care tonight, tonight when I'm bleary-brained, and tomorrow when I rise, and the next day when I rise a new man, the same but new, and find myself, as my dear friend Mike Akel puts it, "with new issues," and then rise into the next and the next after that and after that and on and on till I pass into my 40s and 50s and 60s and 70s and glide, like Dick Van Dyke, into my 80s, and if God gives me breath into my 90s, and if I keep eating my vegetables, into my centennials, and then wear out with life but trusting that whether I accomplish a great or little thing, whether I make a wonder out of my marriage and family or botch it repeatedly or somewhere in between that he will still give sleep to his beloved. For I am his beloved. My wife is his beloved. My children are his beloved. M friends are his beloved. My extended family are his beloved.

And so, again, it is good.

Finally, then, on the eve of my marriage, two and a half years after our first date, this is my last official thought. In marrying Phaedra I have come to conclude that I am getting something better than I could ask for or imagine. That's true too for the friends and family that will surround us tomorrow. I am getting something better than I could have thought up on my own. So thanks be to God for such a mercy. I am marrying a beautiful woman, better than I could have imagined.

When next I write--hm, say three weeks from now?--I will put to electronic paper the 77 reasons why I love Phaedra. Because I do. And much, much more.

Thank you for reading along. I feel sheepish and melancholy about it all, but deeply, deeply happy.

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

~William Shakespeare

Friday, January 18, 2008

Number 2: Rehearsing


It's 1:11 AM and I'm beat.

We've just returned from the rehearsal dinner. So beautiful: the food, the home (a restored historic home), the friends, the words, the table settings, the calligraphied placecards. Oy! But tomorrow is the rehearsal, Sunday the wedding. I'm sorry I haven't been able to interact more with the comments. I'm barely eeking these entries out. I should be in bed. But I'm doing it half as an act of discipleship, half as a gift to my future self standing on the other side of this mysterious, utterly other wall called Marriage.

As I was thinking about our rehearsal dinner, though, I got to wondering about this thing we do quite often but perhaps don't actually notice: rehearsing. Preachers rehearse sermons. I've acted plenty and rehearsed lines up to a hundred times just to get them right. We rehearse the consumation of Christ's Kingdom in the Lord's Supper. Athletes and dancers rehearse their routines before performance.
But what trips me up is this feeling that the actual event comes and goes so quickly that I'm left disappointed, even upset.

All this rehearsing happens, then the event, boom, comes and goes, and is gone. My disappointment kicks in either because all my faculties are not properly engaged--and so I'm reduced to living a partly distracted, instead of savorful life--or because I'm thinking about the event wrongly. For now I'll say it's probably both.

So as I ground my way through another day of to-do lists I kept offering little prayers to God. God, help me figure this out. How should I be thinking about it? And He did help me, in a manner of speaking. The insight given was this: the rehearsing is the good stuff too. And then the lightning bolt struck. "So thaaaaat's what people mean when they say cliches like it's all about the process, not just the product." It's really true.

Phaedra and I and all our friends and family are rehearsing tomorrow afternoon so we know where to stand, what to say, when, how and why. We really do want a smooth-flowing ceremony. And the ceremony matters--a lot. Those vows are there for a purpose. Events matter. Products matter.

But I need to keep reminding myself that rehearsing isn't half-living, it too is full-living. In a sense, then, I don't have to rehearse, I get to rehearse.

And maybe even better: a really great human life is not one expunged of rehearsing, a really great human life is one that is full of rehearsing. The media can trick me into thinking otherwise, with its finely polished final products. But balderdash on that. I need to keep resisting that way of seeing my life.

So the Gospel for me tonight is that Phaedra and I will get to rehearse a whole bunch of stuff the rest of our life and that will be the good life too. And so be it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Number 3: Poetry

I feel a little embarrassed to share this, and not a little self-conscious, but it was a gift, we received it as a gift, and so we share it as a gift to be enjoyed by everybody, as it were, who sits at our table, as if we'd be given an amazing bottle of chocolate liqueur that we would be daft not to share. It's a poem Luci Shaw wrote for our wedding.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that poetry is something that lives like fire inside of you. It surges from the soul's deepest places and sharpens the truth of things, whether sweetly or painfully.

But good poetry is always good for the soul. And I'm not a poet. I write my sermons with an ear for the lyrical flow of words. I like words. I like the act of playwriting. I repeat words out loud, over and over, the same words, because I like how they sound. But I'm not a poet.

And yet for experiences such as this weekend I really need the shepherding of poets to help me both feel and make sense of what is actually happening--the making of one flesh, for example, so common a phrase, yet so ridiculously outlandish. My desire for poetry explains, I think, why I'm so drawn to the Anglican liturgy.

It says things not only truthfully but beautifully; the liturgy captures our theology precisely but keeps reminding us, in its persistent return to poetic language, that God is more than, our experience of Him is more than, our experience of one another is more than, our knowledge of God is more than even soul-nourishing dogmatic theology and demands the poetic doxologies of artists for us to be able to say, "Yes, that's it. It's like that. That's close, yes, I think this is getting us closer." Closer to what? Closer to the personal truth of a transcendent, loving God, Jesus the Christ.

I'm grateful for all the poets who've helped me make sense of life. I know they don't get much credit for doing much good, but they're the closest to expert translators of the heart of God that we have.

Lastly, a technical note. An epithalamion is a poetic form that as far back as ancient Greece was used to honor a newly wed couple. We are deeply honored, and embarrassed in the best sense out there, that Luci would write one on our behalf.

Epithalamion
for Phaedra & David


As God, creating, lifted from Adam
the archetypal rib, now, David, because you were alone,
he gives to you Phaedra, telling you,
“Here. This is your woman, bone of your bone.”

And Phaedra, longing for your loving to come true,
remember how the Lord God spoke,
so that a curving, warm bone woke
into a woman--vital, beautiful, and new!

Lord, let now your word leap down again, restore
Eden, and innocence, and say once more
Good! Will you, who made one like yourself,
and from that one made two,
join them in one again?

Luci Shaw

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Number 4: Unnecessary


Pretty much everything in the world is unnecessary. I'm tempted to say everything in this world is unnecessary, but I'll wait to the end to say that.

For starters, pork loin in a tomatillo & chipotle sauce is unnecessary. So are pine cones. Golf is unnecessary. Golf really is unnecessary. The accordian is unnecessary. Churches sitting on the edge of a hill overlooking a bay of water are unnecessary. Panes of glass reaching 20 feet into the air. Black and white photography. An Armani suit. An Ethiopian gold cross. Medieval chanting in Latin. All unnecessary.

You know what else is unnecessary? The 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It's nice, but not necessary. Not really. Seriously. We appreciate it. It helps us, but ultimately unnecessary. And priests? They're not necessary either--not to formalize a marriage vow. That only happened post Council of Trent.

The Celtic goose and the paisley design and a 10 Year-Old Tawny port are unnecessary. John Keble's poetry is unnecessary and he lived from 1792-1866, so he should know. China is definitely unnecessary--both kinds.

The cha-cha-cha is ridiculous. Nobody needs cha-cha-cha. Nobody would ever die if cha-cha-cha never existed. And I hate to say this, ladies, but chocolote is thoroughly unnecessary. Not milk, not white, not dark, not bitter, not any frufy kind of it, none of it. Deal with it.

All the flowers in this world are categorically unnecessary. They don't need us, we don't need them. I wish them gone.

Small talk is out. Trucks should never have been invented in the first place. And calligraphy is for people who can't handle the straight truth.

Glitter is for sissies.

And every single thing I've mentioned here is a part of our wedding. None of it is necessary, not a lick of it.

You may think I'm exaggerating but I'm not. I'm dead serious. You know the only thing we need to be wedded? It's this: I stand in front of Phaedra, she in front of me, and we say, "Do you want to get married? Yes." And we're married. That's it. Two people witness it and we're through. Worked for the first family east of Eden, works for us.

We don't need colors, we don't need fancy sounds, we don't need tasty foods, we don't need special movement, we don't need flowers that smell good. We don't need art. We don't.

And we don't need frolicking underwear.

That was bonus.

But let me put things more theologically sharply: This world is completely and utterly unnecessary. It does not need to exist. It never needed to exist. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost could live just fine and rather fully contentedly without it. You are unnecessary. I am unnecessary. And that's just fine. We really need to embrace this in our hearts. You and I are fundamentally unnecessary.

Look around you, wherever you're reading this. Everything around is unnecessary. Air to breathe? Food to sustain us? Shelter to protect? Clothing to cover? Safety from the elements? The "elements." Ha. You think that's what we need? And everything else is bonus? No, we don't need air, food, shelter, clothing, safety or any other of these so-called necessities. No, we get to have them. We get to exist. Get. There is no right to exist. There is only grace.

Everything is grace.

St. Therese of Lisieux might have made that phrase famous but she didn't originate it. People have been trying to get that into our heads since Eve long ago proclaimed, "With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man" (Genesis 4:1). Everything in this world is grace. Everything around you is grace. Everything in my wedding is grace.

We get to have color and sound and taste and smell and touch and laughter and dance and ceremony and ritual and sacramental words and church bells pealing into the air and amazing, beautiful, self-sacrificing friends and my beloved family and gold rings that are carved with leafy vines and the image of the Celtic goose who symbolizes the Holy Spirit and Who hovers over all our proceedings and inspires our imaginations with seemingly infinite number of things to make, experiences to dive into, new words to launch into the human vocabulary and ways to express our love to God through human creativity that in no way whatsoever could ever catch up to the Divine creativity which already spreads and spawns across the globe and out into incromprehensible expanses and activities of the universe with alarming joy.

Everything is grace.

And I for one am glad for every single bit of it. For example: I do not take my chocolate lying down. I take it dark, mean, bitter and with a JuJitsu hammer to the senses that makes you feel dizzy and wonder how something so screamingly, ridiculously good could exist--and you go "Wow!" and "Ow!" and "Dang it!" and "My brains are going to ex-pa-lode!"--and it dawns on you that you get to experience it.

And that's the kind of chocolate Phaedra and I are pulling into our wedding: Dark Chocolate Espresso Supreme. And Lemon with Butter Cream Icing. And Italian Cream. And Blue Ribbon Carrot. And Mocha Chocolate Divine the Gluten-Free Version. All in our wedding. All stinking grace.

And I'm fired up.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Number 5: Crying


I'm crying a lot these days, more than I usually cry.

Last time I cried in public was November 5, 2006. It happened at Hope Chapel. I was settling in to preach, adjusting the pulpit, when I looked out at the congregation and saw my friend Chris Mass. He was giving me the thumbs up, as if to say, "Hey, I'm with you," and I lost it. Suddenly I was weeping--not little tears but big, convulsive tears. It was the day after Phaedra and I had broken up. It took me about four minutes to get ahold of myself.

Before that it was somewhere around 1990 that I had cried in front of people. That would be about a sixteen year gap.

But now I'm crying again. I cried two weeks ago Thursday in a counseling session with Kyle. Then I cried, or sort of cried, the following Sunday during a prayer time with friends who had gathered to pray over me and Phaedra. Then I almost lost it at the restaurant with my dad yesterday as we talked about the ending of this season of my relationship with him and mom. And then as I later relayed that conversation to Phaedra I really cried. And I didn't try to stop it. I let myself cry and get that quivering sound in my voice that frankly makes me embarrassed.

I am turning warm-blooded again.

I cried a lot as a kid, growing up in Guatemala. Then I stopped. I no longer wanted to feel the devastating consequences of bawling in front of my new American friends. I was in 8th grade when that happened and I despised the way I was made to feel ashamed for crying. I took a vow and I faithfully kept it.

Now, very slowly, painfully, I am beginning to experience the fruit of renouncing that vow. I still feel afraid, embarrassed, awkward, unhinged, self-conscious and only God knows what else when I cry. But, honestly, I'd really like to give that part of me to Phaedra . . . the Weeping, Vulnerable David. With my body I thee worship.

A VALEDICTION OF WEEPING

by John Donne

LET me pour forth
My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth.
For thus they be
Pregnant of thee;
Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more;
When a tear falls, that thou fall'st which it bore;
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.

On a round ball
A workman, that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afric, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, all.
So doth each tear,
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world, by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mix'd with mine do overflow
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolvèd so.

O ! more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere;
Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea, what it may do too soon;
Let not the wind
Example find
To do me more harm than it purposeth:
Since thou and I sigh one another's breath,
Whoe'er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other's death.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Number 6: Sex

Sex with Kyle Miller.

It’s all in the grammar. Good man Kyle Miller, intrepid professional counselor, has been a force of nature in our pre-marital counseling.

He kept threatening us back in early summer with sex talk. He would say it with a slight cackle. We laughed nervously, "ha ha, that’s funny, Kyle." In his mind, yes, it was funny too, just a little more painfully so. So at last, in early December, we reached the sex talks. And I tell you what: sex is far more interesting than movies make it out to be.

“You mean you have to learn how to have a great sex life?” (I hope this is ok for me to write.) I thought it just happened magically—with a great soundtrack.

No. Alas. It’s not as easy or silly or tediously melodramatic or tediously animalistic as movies make it out to be. It’s much better. And it’s so much better when you have local saints like Kyle and Geno & PJ and Cliff and Christine (and from my end my parents) shepherding our hearts and minds and expectations and visions for married life. I’m profoundly grateful for all the help we’re getting. It’s that village thing again.

This morning we had our last session with Kyle. We talked sex. We also laughed a lot. I really wished we pastors preached more sermons about humor. Since when did it get left off the preaching docket? I don't think God imagines we'll make it through life without one. And that's a funny double negative sentence to write.

But I wonder if God laughed really hard when He thought up sex, because it is kinda funny, especially if you've never had it.

Anyhoo, Phaedra and I used the English language this morning in ways we're not accustomed to using with each other. We also laughed at things that might seem stupid or boring to your average sophisticated American but which for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve is a good cause for blushing. My feeling of innocence remains a terrifying thing, and sometimes embarrassing, though I know I shouldn't feel embarrassed about feeling innocent.

We try not to use euphemisms. Kyle said that was a no no. No wee wees and no boobies, he exhorted us. He said euphemisms keep you from dealing with truth. They're appropriate in certain settings--for kids perhaps, or at a dinner party with the Queen of England, or maybe in good Victorian novels--but not when you're dealing with person-to-person, human-to-human, heart-to-heart, healthy, holy, whole relationships.

A name is a name for a reason and some names weigh more than others, and rightly so. Your gluteous maximus is not a cedar chest (as the mother of a lady in my church called it).

We've met with Kyle around, say, ten times? Lots of identity in Christ stuff. Lots of mortification of the flesh and family patterns, father-image, mother-image, God-image stuff. Family patterns are like the force: it's everywhere. You can feel it, you can navigate around it, you can redirect it or run with it but you can't escape it. That's the sucky part. The non-sucky part is that the force is not with you. Jesus is. With Jesus family patterns can get redeemed; some can even get torched like a tantalizing mound of gun powder.

But mostly it's complicated, and slow-going. I think that's why we met with him ten times and then another seven with our other older friends, Geno and Phyllis Jane. They're not that old. They're in their fifties. Geno said he was at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago and a guy--a young guy--started talking to him telling him about this great ministry they had, called "The Simeons and Annas" which was for old people; yeah, he said, for people over 50! Geno smiled politely. But inside he was thinking, this kid is on crack. 50? 50 is the new 21.

I told Phaedra while we were drinking coffee and tea at Wholefoods following our session that our experience with Kyle was an honest-to-God experience of submitting ourselves to authority. It certainly isn't the easy thing to do, and it's not like it's the latest craze, but it sure feels good in the soul. Thank God for spiritual older brothers and surrogate moms and village elders. I keep thinking I have my act together. They kindly remind me that A) I don't and B) it's ok that I don't all the time, in all matters.

And you know what? Rugged individualism is for the birds.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Number 7: Age


I am getting married in 7 days. I'm 35 years old.

I've been consciously as well as eagerly ready to be married since I was 25. I had no idea back then I'd have to wait this long. It really chew me up for a long time, especially around the 30 mark. Most of my peers were married with children and I'd never get to share with them the same season of family life, not in the way you experience it with a couple whose children are in the same season as yours.

I asked God why. Why am I waiting? What am I being made to wait for? Is there something wrong with me? Am I an especially stubborn coot? I know I'm demanding. I keep high expectations for myself and others. If it's worth doing it's worth doing well (not badly). And my tastes and interests are omnivorous.

So my greatest fear has been of being bored. I remember in college looking with excitement on a career in the foreign service because I knew I couldn't possibly be bored, not when they shuttled you around the world every 2 to 5 years.

The fear transfers to my longing for a wife.

Then one day, say around 32, I woke up and stopped asking why. I lay in bed and saw a 1 and a 0 floating over my head. It was simple: either I trusted God or I didn't. Yes or no. (Or mostly yes or mostly no.) It was one thing for me to be engaging in gross sin or wasting away my life in frivolous, self-indulgent activities. That, I figured, would make it twice as hard for God to accomplish his purposes in me. Why push his buttons needlessly. I really did want to cooperate.

But still, nothing. There were relationships, yes, and with each one I learned. I learned often the hard way. But eventually I got sick of hearing this statement: "But David, just think how this experience is preparing you for marriage." Good God, I thought, I'm going to be the most prepared bachelor for marriage--ever. I'll be so prepared I'll simply osmose into nuptial happiness.

At what point do you stop paying attention to these amazing preparatory, sanctifying, humbling and humiliating experiences and go, "Folks, that's just life. You mess up, you learn, you grow up, you keep going. But not everything has to become THE AMAZING CONSOLATION OF AN AMAZINGLY HARD EXPERIENCE THAT IS AMAZINGLY GETTING YOU READY FOR YOUR AMAZING FUTURE SPOUSE."

That kind of thinking makes you really wacked out.

All of a sudden the sole purpose of life--yea, the chief end of man--is to find that wife. And in the desperate search for the wife, with the help of all the nosy babushkas, there is no God. There is only a capricious, inscrutable Divine Being who doesn't really have your welfare in mind. If the main or sole purpose in life is to find a wife, all the theological affirmations of Genesis notwithstanding, then we no longer have orthodox Christianity, we have quite frankly the trinity of life, liberty and the pursuit of (my) happiness.

I think the other place in my brain that I got screwed up about was what exactly Jesus meant when he said he came to give us eternal life. You see, in my mind getting married meant that a) I could have a companion for life, b) I could have safe sex and then wonderful sex and then also lots of sex, c) I could bear children, and d) I could join the club of humanity that has been happily forming families for millenia.

But well, you say, What's wrong with that list? It looks good. It looks biblical. And you're right. It does. By itself it's all very fine: companionship, sexual intimacy, a quiver-full of blessedness, and social belonging and procreational obedience. It's great.

But the heresy in my list lay within the crevasses. The heresy was this: David, your experience of a truly fulfilled happy life can only take place while you're on earth. Once you die, that's it. That's it. Then it's done. Then it's all choir-practice, white robe large gatherings (are they see-through? do we wear underwear?), everlasting gregorian chants, looking dreamily at the crystal sea but never swimming in it, and hoping you really don't get bored or get caught looking bored or staring out the window while you hear the frightening Kreature-Beasts sing holy, holy, holy for the 182 quadrillionth time.

When you die, David, there is no companionship with the wife. There's no sex. There's no bearing of children And by that time we're all one big happy family. We're the same.

You see? We're the same. Ugh. Let's call that the heresy of dodgy vanilla pudding sameness. Heaven is a place where everything is static and spiritually plastic. Everything I love--smoothies, leather satchels, habanero hot sauce from South Africa, the volcanoes in Guatemala, running 5ks and swimming laps at the local pool, Golden Grahams, afternoon siestas, writing historical fiction plays, sitting around with friends playing cards, drinking wine and laughing our heads off, modern dance, belching, mowing my lawn, kissing on the lips, the national German soccer team, riding up the elevator in skyscrapers, running a film festival, learning languages, listening to the silence of my house at 3 AM, cranking up the speakers when the hip hop station plays, writing sermons, so on and so on--ceases when I die.

That's it. Then it's just heavenly stuff that honestly doesn't look all that interesting. And I don't mean to sound ungrateful. Glorification is a great thing.

But practically, and if the predominant Christian way of thinking about heaven is correct, then I need to get with it. Live it up. Do all the fun, satisfying earth stuff while I can. Get married as early as possible, have kids, get good jobs, acquire hobbies, serve the community, drink good coffee and hope you have enough of a retirement fund to not live a sucky elderly life.

So to summarize: If a) the sole purpose in life is to find a wife and b) heaven is when all the fun earthy stuff stops, then at 35 I'm almost screwed. Just barely not screwed. Very nearly, most probably screwed. If I start having kids fast enough, I won't be ancient by the time they reach college. I may even have strength to out-wrestle my grandkids. Maybe.

The heresy, then, is actually two-headed: "Can you really trust God with your life?" (with implied answer: in actual fact no) and "Earth life is when all the good, colorful, relationally and vocationally and aesthetically and culinarily satisfying stuff happens" (and so by implication: heaven is boring and utterly unlike anything you'll ever know on earth.).

I've come to think differently. I figure now that if God is good, powerful and wise, and I really believe that he is, then I can trust him with my life, the empirical data, specifically what I see and what I feel, notwithstanding. I don't have to know why God has allowed me to wait to 35. I can simply trust that he honestly does have better ideas than I about my life; that in fact it will be better than I could ask for or imagine on my own engineering.

Lastly, I have decided that all that is good on earth will be carried over into our heavenly existence, and there it will be even better. I've also chucked once and for all my dating relationship with gnosticism.

Heaven is not ghostland. Heaven is the realm where the effective will of God is always done, thank you Dallas Willard. In the end he will create a new heaven and a new earth. All will be redeemed. My smoothies will be redeemed. And hip hop will be redeemed. And I will commit to train--yes, train--to run a marathon. And spend as long as it will take me to learn Latin. So I can talk to old church fathers.

I'm getting married in seven days to Phaedra Jean Wendler. I'm 35 and so be it.

It is very good.