The dove, sent out again

First you shelter the mustard seed, and in time it gives you shade—once the paltriest underground thing, then grown to formidable herbage, with great branches sprouting from what once you padded down with soil, and birds of the air resting thereupon. And that’s not even mentioning all the free mustard you can get from it.

~

Hard work for years and years, but so restrained. A little more rocking around philosophically, then, rolling over floorboards as a loose ideological cannon; a little bloodying the nose and knuckles, bruising, scarring, warping to a final shape, letting go the fragments of former thoughts. Down with the bifocals and compass; on, the gladiator’s greaves, and flail the net and trident.

~

I realized that gray had seeped back in until streaks of it crosshatched my whole body. But when I was walking from my desk to the coffee pot for the second time, passing rows of closed doors, I felt a tremor and a burning along those streaks, shivering and sweet, and it could have been despair or longing, or caffeine, or gratitude: maybe it was for me to decide. Were these the birth pangs? Was this the sword that pierced your own heart, mother? Is this what that balm feels like, from the tree’s healing leaves?

~

By the stabbing, desolating thoughts, be pushed to God. They visit, untimely guests: give them work to do, and make them ready the house for the expected. Weren’t all sins to be given this task, that evil, too, should have a meaning? The devil himself is to serve, at the banquet that is coming.

~

There’s no particular mystery to the process by which politesse smears words as dirty: by and large, it’s a matter of purest contingency, colored by class and conquest. But this says little about whether one should observe the decorum, despite what the conversational libertines would have you believe. Acknowledge history’s chanciness, just as you would admit that scarcely a single reason favors the system of driving on the right side of the road—but, without drifting between lanes.

You may wish to reserve your most colorful language to state your most colorful feelings: the right tool for the right job. This is a sound instinct. But there is another reason to hold back, the same as the reason against picking your nose while staring at a coworker: it’s worth intimating to your compatriot: “I see you, and bridle my conduct accordingly.” To select the more housebroken expression is to bear on your lapel a little blue pin, the badge of the order of the minimally temperate.

~

Eden empties, deer running desperately between the withered trees, and a flaming sword turns every which way. Israel plods heavy around ramparted Jericho, Elijah scrapes his trowel in a circle at the mountain altar, water splashing after him. Leviathan flops on the hook, and paralytics inch around pools’ porticoes, earth moving in an unsteady ellipse. Buried at the heart of it: the Son of Man.

~

Novelists are always talking of their characters as friends who surprised them the other day by what they did, quite out of character. Our teachers of poetry, too, give the poem its leash: the dog knows the park better than its owner. When the text finally comes, then, it comes as a surprise, like birds appearing out of the wall.

But there must also be poems of another sort, and if Shakespeare (say) was what we thought he was then these are no worse. I dare an avowal: he was not surprised when his concluding couplet reversed the valence of the sonnet. Some poems are organisms, lily pads or hulking sea monsters or microscopic algae. But these other ones are artifacts. They are not received out of the deeps or from the lapping tide, but people assemble them, settings for the thought—which was itself, indeed, stolen from a distant mine or found in the jackdaw’s nest or taken quite by accident off the museum’s coat rack—but the poem was crafted for it, on purpose more than anything else we make.

~

Ask a poet to explain his poem, and he shakes his head sadly at you. He lays his hand on your shoulder and squeezes once, his mouth contracted in sympathy. By his silence he must shield you from yourself, since to answer you would be to steal the meaning from every word you know. Explain a poem? Better to cut out one’s tongue.

Well. He loves the mystery given him, and if he is too careful with it, he is someone else’s servant to rebuke. Still, that stony silence is more than I could justify, and if someone takes the trouble to mouth a few lines of mine, I would take her as far as I lawfully can. A poem is in this way only like a joke. Many things in both can usefully be explained: the dictionary meanings of words, the subjects of verbs, and the nearby thoughts that, out of frame, still cast their shadows. One thing only is the teller forbidden to sully by explanation, which is the reason why we bother with all this.

~

I am not feeling poetic or even grateful. But here in the rice paper veggie wraps and in my unfinished chores, in the roommate chortling away in his room, I think you are addressing me. I am Samuel. I am trying to figure out how to say: go on.

~

Children lumbered up to you and clung to you: they went unhindered. But when a mob rushed you or the Sanhedrin’s examiners pressed in around you, no one could hold you, and when finally we nailed you down like an insect on a pin, labeled and arranged near other specimens, then you were farthest out of reach.

~

The musculature of faith slackened, and I seemed to have forgotten how to pray. But I groped around for nearby objects—the woman in the long red dress, the man whose arm and leg were touching mine, the bus all of us rode and its driver—and held them up to God briefly, like bringing one corner of a sheet to the other.

~

Can these bones live? You know. I couldn’t bring the spring birches and the ruined cities to agree. From the resurrected child one answer; from the withered fig tree another.

Can these bones live? A rattle as bones scrabble into sheaths of skin—still no breath to answer for themselves. You know.

Come from the four winds, O breath. Breathe on these slain, O strong one, who could love to the end.

~

Once more, I sent the dove out, and this time she did not return. Is that absence hope?

~

Deposit the conditionals here in stowage—

If you will, you can make me clean.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door—
If you can do anything

and leave them safe and dry. If the antecedents are provided, we’ll return to run the modus ponens.

For now, bending ourselves to subjunctive postures, diminished to dependent clauses, we hope beyond the page turn page turn there’s a main verb waiting, and the referent of our pronouns, and the substantive for every participle that now is dangling, dangling.

 

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Dark riddle

I was sitting legs crossed, eyes closed, hands perched palms up on my knees like two alighting sparrows, back straightened to raise the crown of the head to its highest potentiality. Meanwhile in my mind I was trying to press into the Father’s bosom. But God is not an easy one to spoon with.

~

It is the tree branches swaying and rustling, and it is glass bottles cooing faintly from their bins, and the ear itself is being made the breeze’s reed, but I might say: I hear the wind blowing. And so, if awaiting the breath of strong love, we may hear her in the flitting of thin pages, hear him resonating in the creed or even (when the lectern is placed at just the right angle) a stray pastor. We may meet God in an appendix or an old song where God asks in plaintive tones, Where can I go and meet with God?

~

When I step out in my jacket and earmuffs, turn to lock the door behind me, the mourning doves bobbing in their trim livery have begun to hoot their daily offices. And when I glide back to the driveway on my bicycle, sweater tied around my waist now in the humid evening, still they are not finished with their work, or tiring of it.

Lord, teach us to pray.

~

I keep plants now, finding that devotion to little green souls nourishes me. Hummus that I made is on my designated refrigerator shelf, next to a tub of bread dough ready for shaping. I noted the brand of shoes I like, and my size in Urban Pipeline khakis, and I have settled on what I think is the correct range of facial hair lengths for me to have. I’m damn close to deciding exactly how often I ought to go in for a haircut, with clipper guard number two applied to the sides and back.

These frames have steadied me, and I was glad of it. But—could a child still command me with a look, if she had a right? Could I kneel before a pansy? And, if you called me back from death, would I come?

~

Extra ecclesia there is, as a matter of fact, comfort, no worse for being tangible. And, by golly, if half of what people say is true, there is fun: less infinite, also less invisible. There is also real decency (actually it can be had almost for free, these days), and there is affirmation, and self-discovery, and delight in another, and love, even love.

Indeed, one would hardly have a reason to stay intra, if once the fat of friendliness and potlucks and quietness were trimmed—if it were not for the command. Which teachers of which law speak with the authority he used in addressing us? Did ever a psychiatrist or assistant professor of philosophy, sane or mad, lay on us the kind of burden he did, of universal and self-abnegating charity? If Peter had remained in the business of fishing for fish, to whom could he have said with the slightest claim of propriety: “command me to come to you on the water”?

~

No record remains of the time Jesus got off his meds, and would sit there on the floor of his room after waking up, will evaporated, staring at the arms and legs before him and faintly curious whether that body would ever have the whim to rise; and when throughout the day he met over and over with an obscure impulse to drive a pen up through the eye socket to rest, ensconced.

But what did you do with it, brother? I suppose you overcame death then as you were to do again: by enduring it.

Lord, teach us to pray.

~

If, early in the morning, on the first day of the week̦, you go to bury resurrection hope, may you find it fled—waiting to meet you, maybe, in some locked room.

~

The closet emptied until I could see my old tennis racquet, finally unhidden as I pulled a few flattened duffel bags from behind the laundry baskets. By a minor magic like that which keeps Excalibur unrusted, the strings had stayed taut these five years, until the hour when they should be called on again. And oh, I had need of their strength today. There is something special about a form of exercise that consists in walloping.

~

Keep your wits about you, for we walk on a knife’s edge. Any moment we may slip and, sipping coffee, forget to notice anything of its taste. Shudder, to think that you might drink as the dead or sleeping would! Or you might bicycle down the next block and breathe only for bodily requirement, and not for the blooms that were waiting, blushing pink, until you should notice their curtseys.

Sit still and watch it, then, as the morning grapefruit coruscates like a pink, bowl-sized ocean. Wade through the darkling garden of the street, once, in a spring dusk, lantern-lit by the yellow windows of dwellings. Duck under a bending willow on your path. Let your hair be lifted by an inquiring waft of the warm night: see if you are really so dry as to remain sober after that liquor. See if you don’t say with unfeigned fierceness Jerusalem! If I forget you, may my right hand forget its skill.

~

There’s this to say about the Austin heat: if there’s watering enough, the basil grows in lush bouquets, and no one worries about a few pale, wilted leaves at the base of the plant.

Lord, teach us to pray.

~

Quoth Kierkegaard: “If God is love, then he is also love in everything, love in what you can understand and love in what you cannot understand, love in the dark riddle that lasts a day or in the riddle that lasts seventy years.”

Maybe you’re in the one with the liar and the truth-teller, and scarce opportunity for cross-examination: sit with them a while, reciting poetry. Or if it’s the nonsense about ravens and writing-desks, the one even the riddler can’t answer, bear with equanimity the balderdash; preach to the birds and the furniture meantime. Is the Sphinx asking you what it means when life grows too long and, after your seeming progress from the crawl, even the strength for bipedalism leaves you? Be amused to play the laboring three-legged animal. The race is not to the swift.


In lieu of the assigned prose

I take up the inkpot and the quill pen
for a moment only, in postponement of when
I’ll give them rein at last, to write
the words they merely guarantee tonight.

What beauty in that coming hour
shall spring up in the coming world,
when the seeds impatience hurled
before it to tomorrow flower!

The dawn’s charioteer impatiently flies on
to outflank the earth’s curve and mount the horizon
and see what today he despaired to lay eyes on.


The old iambic melancholy

We do not know how to write as we ought, but the Spirit himself writes for us (ghost-writes, really) with memoirs too poignant for words.

~

For release from sin; and for the ones we, if untethered, would have comforted—we pray to the Lord.

~

Day risen, you wake again and venture out, tying laces, unlocking your bike, thinking of work. Something’s there on the ground this morning, a thin deposit crackling under your shoes, white, flaky. What is it? A kind of bread.

Grainy sediment of pleasure on your toil, or consolation in the way the branches are catching the light just now. Five minutes of self-forgetfulness. Receive what is given, and be fed. Let it melt like a wafer on the tongue, as soon as you find it: it won’t keep.

~

If you’re scheduled for an execution, you don’t need to watch your cholesterol intake. So why the fear, still, of a stupid question, and why the resentment of a classmate looking smarter than me? I have been given five, six years to do what I hoped I loved. In that time let us see if I can contrive to feast.

Is it required of me that when I consider an objection or dig for an essay’s dubious meaning I must scowl? Is it advised, at any rate, that I hold my brow knit and keep the mouth’s corners level, and would it be a scandal, or would it get around to hiring committees one way or another, if I were to laugh and raise eyebrows expressively, and if my eyes were to glint with study’s serious play? Shall I, or shall I not, let the work I chose enchant me?

~

Even while the Bible is called Holy, and is framed as scaffolding for the virtues, it is also true that footholds can be found in it for every mistake and sin. If it were only as sharp as your average two-edged sword, it would still be better not to take it up without knowing how to use it. But the hearts of many will be revealed.

~

Chesterton’s magic we would not smear, but there is a magic that is the gospel’s enemy. Not always marked, this, by newts and cackles; it may be white-clad. And it need not make use of Latinate chants or more guttural languages; the humble ploughboy may invoke it in his mother tongue, in his mother’s church.

What is the difference between the one pronouncing an incantatory rhyme to pull down fire on her enemies, or inscribing chalk circles on triangles to call up a mangled spirit, and on the other hand one who prays to God for victory or consolation? There may be no difference. If there is, I suppose it is that the one who prays, and doesn’t only make a show of praying, but prays, in spirit and in truth—that one submits.

To hope in magic is to make even God only another kind of flesh, forgetting that there is or could be anything but flesh. And what else, indeed, is there? What could spirit possibly be? Well, that’s the mystery. Whatever it is, it seems to be something so different from the rest that even death isn’t evidence against it, even abandonment and despair aren’t evidence against it, since Christ did not die like those martyrs who laughed as they burned—who nonetheless have their place, too, in pointing the way.

~

Though I had pleaded to meet the Christ
before dismissal,
you sent word in the apostles’ epistles
that words sent secondhand sufficed.

~

Jesus, you were coming in order to open up holes, tearing the temple curtain, unburying the dead, piercing hands and hearts. But everything now is rushing out through the rents, the sky sucked away into a dark star, the oceans draining through a hidden vent. Are you going to make me a home in the void?

~

The old iambic melancholy tires, after a while. Have I written more than one thing in the last five years? Punch things up—see if you can. Inspect new candidates for themes: forget bleak self-inspection a while, and frame refrains on rainforests and hulking machines. Scribble out a placid sample paragraph—then scatter the syllables into a volatile meter: welcoming dactyls, you’ll find new materials swelling your lexicon. By any apparatus necessary pull those lines up from their slouch.


Out of this silence yet

To settle into a new city:

Finish a podcast episode begun in the last place you lived. Take some longish showers. Find a good shirt at the thrift store—the locals like your style, or used to like it. If all else fails, move away from that place, and find your memories of it immediately tender and piercing.

I lay up my Madison years to mellow and age. A draught of them will lighten the heart in heavier days.

~

Possibly whole libraries of alluring letters are waste, distraction, baubles that should not exist in the same world as morality. Remember that everyone must build upon the foundation, and what is built of straw and the lighter sorts of wood will not escape the conflagration. So maybe there is a wisdom for me, too, in what the apostle says: “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” But I decided to rearrange conditions, struck out for the study of philosophy, and impertinently enough invited God to come.

Or did I forget to ask, until now? God, will you come?

~

I’ll pray five minutes, or sit and think of praying. Nothing will be said to me, and maybe it will be a mistake to wish it otherwise. Just to leave a little air unbroken, then, for now. To leave a blank page in the manuscript, where the quiet one may read from me what he knows how to find. 

Where I have come, great clerks have purposed
To greet me with premeditated welcomes;
Where I have seen them shiver and look pale,
Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Throttle their practised accent in their fears
And in conclusion dumbly have broke off,
Not paying me a welcome. Trust me, sweet,
Out of this silence yet I pick’d a welcome.

Self-effacer, how to hail you? Can I even make my “you” refer to you? By your name I supplicate, maybe, some bent idol of the mind’s welding. But let your playfulness overcome your jealousy, and for your own mirth answer mercifully the prayer you intercept.

Our sport shall be to take what they mistake.

~

After they scraped away a half-mile of ash and cracked ice in the excavation, they uncovered him there in the shell of an old apartment: one who had endured in hope.

~

(Gen. 32:29)

“Please, tell me your name.”

“Why?”

Is it that he wouldn’t tell you, Israel? Grappling with you at the ford when you were left alone, holding you—but only to wrench bones from their joints, unsteadying your walk forever—then, when you clung to him and clawed at him until dawn, and somehow by your desperation overcame his strength, did he keep back the prize?

Or was the name given in the wound he left you, was your limp the prayer he taught? Was that ache a burning of the unconsuming fire in your limbs, and what it meant for you to be renamed by him?

~

As for you, slowcomer: we are trying to keep our eyes clear; we are rubbing condensation from the windows, scraping off frost; changing postures to feel for a wait that’s more than vacated time, where trust meets death, and parts with it again.

The blind man at Beth-zatha, the one who waited thirty-eight years—he was not told a name, either. For him, the healing was name enough.

~ 

I have my worries and my happinesses—this can always be said. But it is not always worth saying, least of all now that the kingdom has changed hands, and the term papers, the bank accounts, the career prospects of this world have become those of our God and of his Christ. Now let those who rejoice live as if they were not rejoicing; those who mourn, as if they were not in mourning. Those who boast and those who weep, as if they were only unworthy servants, and all things were theirs.

~

A chocolate-colored puppy nosed up to my bike while I waited at a traffic light. It was as if the franchise manager of sweetness and light, seeing how busy I was, sent out to me a roller-skating waitress balancing a platter of rest.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. If I give them time, if I go slow and remain deliberate and predictable in my movements, they may even catch up to me. 

~

The hair in my nose froze together and my chin numbed to the air’s sharpness. Kip the dog clip-clopped over shoveled sidewalks in his little red booties, shod against the cold and salt. Houses nodded to us as we passed, shaking snow from their laden roofs. Perched on a million capillary branches to the west, tender, pink, the sky exhaled its daily breath.

We turned onto the last, familiar block, warm breath pluming off us. It might have been an owl I found abruptly in the air ahead, launched noiseless from a tree across the street—an owl or a hawk (both alike, for me), a sweep of angular white past telephone wires and deep-furrowed trunks into the next copse, only visible in flight.

 


Wording expedition

Today I whirled around like a dog chasing her tail, trying to understand what value was. Is this philosophy: to lose your shoe in the sidewalk crack that millions are stepping over every day?

~

Among this tribe that has now built self-seeking happiness into almost the highest tier of morality, think less about what makes you happy and more about what you admire. Some have found themselves happy on the way to a fine end, but you are not going to become admirable by accident.

~

Most of the time the wide world’s multitudinous ideas manifest to me as lupine eyes, aglint in forest spaces beyond the campfire’s reach. My knees shake as I ready for another encounter, always another.

Or, ideas are guests you have to entertain no matter how rude they are or what time they call.

If anyone but a confrere were to look into my eyes without blinking, what would they see but how tired I am of trying to love them?

~

So many meaning-paths followed to dead ends, so many listed rhymes and synonyms discarded as spare parts, syllables rummaged through but never fastened to the page. The poem left behind in the end is partly an expression chosen over all others, partly a monument to the expedition that found it.

~

There is an idea abroad: yes, you have your values and your definitions and watchwords; but other cultures and subcultures have their own. And once you see this—good luck avoiding it, by the way, on this contracting globe—you can’t insist on imposing your own categories on everyone.

The speaker makes a show of stepping back out of subjectivity into the objective, but if you keep your eyes on his ankles you see this is an illusion. (It always is; or at least, that expectation is a good starting point.) The movement really being made relies on a culturally determined principle of live-and-let-live, professes a creed that all should act in accordance with their own values. Now in fact that value is very powerful and is likely to make a good deal of room for itself in the speaker’s belief structure. He cannot be blamed for voicing it, even if we would prefer that he not adopt an absolutist air to state contingencies. In the systems of others, however, it may be that while tolerance is valued it is not the ultimate value. Maybe we value love more, or a flinty justice, or the maximizing of global paper clip production—it is hard to set limits on rational preferences, so long as they remain coherent. In that case there is no reason not to answer: it is certainly true that other people do not care much for paper clips. But I wish, all the same, that they would create more paper clips.

~

They are safe Christians only in appearance and not in reality who look for the label “Christian” to run to, and commit their souls in the hands of any fake or fumbler bearing it, in order to be on the right side as quickly as possible and to say to the Lord when he returns: Look, see, here is your deposit!

~

We are given scripture that we may tend our hearts with it. Here is a parable of mercy: convict and compel me, Lord. Now a vengeful psalm: Lord, convict and compel. This history, this doctrine, this poem, let them be reading me. A hero of the faith—then I approach her meekly to receive the gifts of fear and trembling. (I am not like that. I could be like that.)

So Kierkegaard told me to listen, and one Sunday morning in the spring I obeyed. I entered the text with a seriousness borrowed almost from childhood religion, and it left me in a grateful heap.

“Ah, what a faking social club the rest of the congregation must have seemed, then? How did their casual chit-chat about football games and weather, in the moments after the final Amen, sound to you in such a state?” I can understand the grounds of the question, I am sorry to say; but no. It was on this Sunday that I saw most clearly in the figures around me the saints’ tender or severe profiles.

~

I am desperate for love and at the same time prone to coldness. But when I thanked you for each one my eyes fell on, when I thanked before those eyes winced or sharpened, then I was not afraid of them and I did not seize them in my mind. Something obscuring fell from those shapes; something else came into focus.

~

The reverend popular scientist: “We humans think we’re pretty hot stuff, but did you know that there are more microorganisms living in your intestinal tract than there are human beings that have been born in history? Did you know that if the Milky Way had the dimensions of America, our solar system would be the size of someone’s lost penny?”

Wow, that really changes my perspective on things, as one who had valued humanity and its home exclusively as fodder for counting, and for possessing what I so naively assumed was a high volume.

~

I hope before too long someone will ask me, “Why go into philosophy and not something useful?” Many things could be replied in many tones, but the answer I have been workshopping keeps a friendly composure and employs words like these: “Huh, that’s a really interesting question. Thanks for suggesting it. In fact, I think your challenge deserves to be thought about hard for a long time, and we should try to make sure we understand just what you mean by it and what would count as a good answer, admitting nothing shoddy into our premises or inferences. But then, if we really were conscientious about all this”—here let slip the smile of one magnanimous in victory—“I suppose it might begin to look like we were doing philosophy.”

~

Most people, I concede, manage to feel ill at ease and marginalized in some groups—in the midst of ivy leaguers, or Hells Angels, or evangelicals, or the Green party. But I showed my cosmopolitan bona fides by becoming troubled no matter which sympathies I was asked to adopt. I have learned the secret of being discontented at all times.

~

You have only to look to see that in regard to circumstance, beauty, health, talent, cheery constitution, friendship, the rule for us is cruel inequality. In this one respect are all set together, and only here are all favored: that all bear equally the burden of the command.

~

Once I almost thought that God was calling to me to sacrifices and to dry labor for the sake of others, but at the last possible moment the lovely phrase human flourishing occurred to me, and the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and, scales bursting from my eyes, I repented of my error like a guilty child.

~

Jesus: drained by even quiet departures from the allowed middle-class luxuries, by even brief abstentions from the age’s sanctioned vices, I am not asking now to be set apart by a life of full-bore freedom. If it were given, perhaps I could not understand. But let me strain for one more marginal second of patience before admitting bitterness, shift my eyes once more before I nod to envy.

~

A flutter, chirp, trill drifts to her; streaks flash of plumage trim or bizarre. There in a dense, scrubby paragraph—isn’t that a postpositive adjective nestling beside its plainer noun? Here a barbarism or a Latinate corruption flinging itself with a flurry of consonants from more sedate derivations; or, further on, a rare imitative expression mimicking the song it heard from the world?

She stares, rapt, then leafs feverishly through her reference guide to unfold the labeled evolutionary charts, the maps of migration patterns; tries out for herself those sonorous and foreign calls. Such are the worder’s delights, who with no thought of possessing hails whichever airy visitors will come.


After reading Kierkegaard

Who is his mother and who are his brothers, this one with whom the whole world claims kinship? They are the ones who do the will of the Father. But say a wise scribe comes and speaks with him, and, while giving no signs of great obedience, shows by earnest speech that at any rate he understands what was asked of him, that he has heard and can repeat the command that has gone out, that one should love the one Lord with every muscle and nerve, and give oneself to the neighbor. Even he, who for all we are told does not love and does not give himself in this way, even he is told: not far from the kingdom of God.

Who then is far from the kingdom of God? The one who thinks a burnt offering suffices, or a tithe of one’s mint, dill, and cumin; membership in a relatively compassionate political party; the staunch repetition of uninhabited beliefs. There is no more extreme distance from the kingdom than to be an alien to it and think you are a native: to smile while tending pigs in the far country, and bless God for the happy lot of living in the Father’s house.

But how many artifacts of piety are invented to assure me that I am safe at home in grace, that the call of the cross not only does not dismay me but actually draws my lips into a benign smile—it must be so, since after all I am a Christian. And I know that I am a Christian because from earliest childhood my religious education has consisted of exercises in declaring this to be the case: At about the same time that the existence of God was proposed to my toddling intellect, I was also taught that I was a true believer in it. Possibly I never knew the spelling of the word “Christian” until I memorized the song that told me I was a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N. I learned about joy, faith, love, and the peace that passes understanding by avowing, in conjunction with hand motions, that I had all these things down in the depths of my heart, and consequently was so happy. In a sense, all these concepts were defined for me by reference to my own form of life; and inasmuch as this is how it happened, the suggestion that I do not in fact possess such virtues, that Jesus might ask more from me than I now have, must be as absurd as the theorem that triangles have four angles.

I believe an analysis of children’s worship music will conclude that it is designed to produce not Christians so much as people who believe that they are Christians. And this is understandable since the latter, besides forming a more reliable voting bloc, is also much easier. To teach Christianity would mean teaching longing, repentance, confession, dissatisfaction, sacrifice—a whole bestiary of religious acts and speech-acts; but a self-identified political allegiance needs only a banner with a name on it or a distinguishable trumpet cadence for coordinating troop movements. Therefore what might be a word of discipline, calling, and so freedom is frequently heard instead as the Spirit’s cooing over our religious identity, as an invitation to tribe, friend groups, a rich cultural inheritance, architectural styles and Christmas pageants. Ah, but all these things are good and beautiful—yes: if they are directed to their ends. Childhood is beautiful, very beautiful, just until the child demands to remain in it forever. Christian children’s songs and coloring books are charming, unless we mistake them for Christianity. Many will say to him on that day: “Lord, Lord: didn’t we love sacred choral music, also stained glass? Didn’t we both attend youth group and, when the day finally came, dutifully escort our children to youth group? In your name we brought egg dishes to a hundred potlucks and calmly yet firmly objected to the spinelessness of ‘Happy Holidays’ greetings?” But he is not so cruel as to guard our indifference by illusions of alliance. Depart.

On the other hand, how many say “Oh, I’ll be no dupe of tired old institutional religion, that crude sociological phenomenon,” and thereby escape sustained self-examination, since no other authority is requiring it of them? About the same number, perhaps, as those for whom the institution itself numbs the conscience. So if you say that your religion is love and all humanity are your brothers and sisters, I ask, and really do want to know (or, weak as I am, at least wish to want to know) how it is you remain vigilant in practicing the faith. Only, make sure that after all the talk of love, which is a most pleasurable and lyrical aspect of it, you are in fact remembering to love in some half-costly way. (“Well, I ceased to associate myself with the family members and acquaintances who were most irritating to me and who expressed themselves in a way insensitive to my ideals. Isn’t that something?” It is some evidence, at least, that love to you was a bold word for your own army’s banners. It is some evidence that it meant you and the ones who liked you were good and others were bad.)

If I ever wake up in the night in possession of a brilliant thought for a screenplay, I will know that the only way to secure that idea is to lock it in a notebook until daylight: if we are earnest in wanting to do something, we will usually write it down, or we will set up recurring reminders on our calendars—that is, we will externalize it. A written word, a cattle prod, and institutional religion are all externalities and bear no meaning in themselves; but when they make contact with the eye, the flesh, and the heart they are meaningful enough. Because of this I hope I will go on holding down my sanctuary pew with neighbors’ help, and when the time comes I will take up the gray hymnal, at least until I pray by heart the prayers within. I will again trek up the aisle toward the broken loaf. At some moment in all of this I may think to remember more than verbally: I am a sinner awaiting mercy.

“Ugh, why return again to such a surly theme? Isn’t there supposed to be some glimmer of good news in all of this?” But would it be good news to hear instead that in this life of cooled love and weak effort I had in fact hit the nail on the head, reproduced the Trinitarian pattern? Is it encouragement, when a five-year-old exhibits her crayon drawing, to tell her, “That’s very good, my dear; indeed, you are already at the height of the discipline”? Compared with the soporifics of self-assured hymnody, even Satan’s accusation carries true comfort. Better, though, to hear from the Lord’s mouth: How slow of heart you are—“Ah, then you mean there is a faster way!” Lukewarm—“thank God there might be greater heat.” Poor, blind. “Then, what magnificent visions of wealth could open to me yet, what beauty and life in them.”

Lord, still you have not given virtue: blessed are you, and your judgements just. But hear the prayer of your servant, and do not deal with me so severely as to let me believe that I have it, or that I am anything but the lost son.