The Arduous Task of Resting

October 4, 2009

89845364I think today may be my first official attempt to take a deliberate “Sabbatical” rest type day.  Granted, the whole phrase doesn’t even really make sense: today is Sunday, the “Lord’s Day” in historical Christian terms, not the Sabbath.  In fact, as a Christian, I realize that I’m not obligated to “keep the Sabbath” (thinking particularly of Col. 2:16 and other Pauline discussions about “freedom from the law”).

Admittedly, for years this reasoning has served as my basis for resisting the notion of observing the Sabbath.  Emerging from an extremely legalistic atmosphere, specifically my years in college, I can see numerous ways that I have reacted against being pressed under other people’s individual convictions (i.e., those things that are not explicitly characterized as sinful in Scripture).  I’m not anti-authoritarian by nature, but the stifling atmosphere of that authoritarian environment certainly pushed me to treasure the freedom to work out righteousness by considering Scripture and not simply by following the convictions that someone has claimed for Scripture.  And in short, as I came to the conclusion that if the New Testament gave Christians freedom from the requirements of the law, then we ought not to return to the Pharisaic practice of throwing people under the burden of weights that no one can bear.

Fundamentally, I am still okay with those ideas.  And yet many things have changed.  I’d like to think I have matured as a Christian, that I’ve been able to become more positive about non-obligatory aspects of Scripture that are still valuable for spiritual growth, that I’ve learned to read Scripture with more insight and complexity.  But I also realize that a significant change in my response has simply been the positive example offered by other Christians, people who live in the Sabbatical principles with humility and love… and with shalom, a balance and a “right”ness in relationships.

Book cover for The Year of Living Biblically

So here I am: my first real attempt to have a day of rest.  I am surprised to discover how much discipline it takes to actually practice the art of resting.  After all, I could be reading or touching up a paper or translating.  I am reminded of A.J. Jacobs’s report of his experience in The Year of Living Biblically; sure, I found it amusing and a somewhat sad reflection of our busy culture when I read about his struggle not to check his e-mail, to refuse to write, ultimately, not to allow himself to do work.  My own parallel experience serves as reenforcement that I need to let go of that obsessiveness in me, to actually work at learning how to rest.

As I close my first week at the beginning of PhD work, I hope this is the first day in a lifelong line of “Sabbatical” rests to come.  It is an opportunity to take a break, to remember that the American fast-paced, goal-oriented lifestyle in which I too fully participate is not a faithful reflection of God’s intentions for toil or for human life and relationships in general.  It is a reminder that even though we spend so little time doing it, worshiping God and being with people is actually what living is about.


“Becoming American”

November 26, 2008

Leading up to Thanksgiving, NPR has broadcasted a series called “Becoming American,” which I found to be fascinating!  It includes three interviews of first-generation American writers (Joseph O’Neill, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz), focusing particularly on their experiences of coming to terms with what it means to be “American.”

This is a great motivator for me since–for about a year now–I have been trying to finish a short story that deals with the struggle over cultural identity as one its major themes.

Short post…but I highly recommend these stories!


Reflections on Suffering in the Aftermath of a Haitian School Collapse

November 8, 2008
AP (2008)

AP (2008)

I am feeling grieved today after seeing images of mothers wailing for their children in the aftermath of a school collapse in Haiti. It brings the issue of suffering immediately to mind. How do you answer a woman who asks why this has happened? What words do you hope to give in response to such a tragedy?

Feebly, I think of the human failures that have led to this injustice; the Haitian government blames the collapse on shoddy work and sub-par construction.  The blame is unequivocally attributed to the hands of humans.

Some children are pulled alive from the rubble, the bright gypsum dust coating their cocoa skin as if to symbolize the contrast between profound relief in one quarter and frantic howls in the other.

Yes, this awful tragedy is, once again, the result of human failure and possibly of human sin (greed? cutting corners for greater profit?). Yet as a mother of four watches her neighbor’s child rescued from the wreckage while she herself waits to see even one of her baby’s faces, how can we respond to how God could have let this happen?  Because if he has rescued that woman’s child, why could he not rescue mine?

And at this point, all the answers I’ve thought through about suffering seem to fall short. Yes, it’s directly the fault of humans, not God. Yes, God has allowed the actions of free beings to play out, even while acting mercifully within that situation to preserve life. Yes, we are still part of a corrupt and dying world where the effects of evil and sin manifest in so many ways.

But I see the face of the weeping mother, the lives of her children torn away as if someone had reached into her chest and ripped out her very heart, and I realize that these answers mean so very little. And the only place I find hope is in Scripture itself, where the righteous sufferer Job stood before God, even at times seeming to shake his fist indignantly on account of his own blamelessness, until he finally recognized that sometimes the answer to suffering is “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”

Maybe it seems trite. Naïve. Foolish.

But I don’t say it as a cop-out or because I just want to blindly be a Christian without dealing with difficult questions.  I say it because we are only human and we don’t always have the answers. We don’t always understand God’s wisdom or, oftentimes, how his arm works for redemption.

I say it because I know this is the God who cares for orphans and widows in their distress, who takes care of the foreigner in a foreign land. This is the God who sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, and healing to the lame.  This is the infinite God who has humbled himself and taken on human flesh, who has suffered at the hands of human beings to be treated with the greatest possible shame and to be subjected even to death. And this is the God who brings redemption precisely out of that.

So as I grieve over this loss, I grieve with the recognition that God is not pleased. Not only so, I grieve knowing that this God, whose eye is on the sparrow, has numbered the hairs of every lost child and every mother in lament, and I have the hope that God can somehow work redemption even out of this.


An American Gladiator Commentary on Suffering

June 24, 2008

(I feel like the following reference to American Gladiator should be accompanied by a disclaimer that I watched it while working out at the gym…where the televisions are often set on shows I would never choose to watch in the comfort of my own home.)

A few weeks ago I was working out at the gym when one of the televisions caught my eye. Let me assure you, it was not by virtue of the programming itself but because of a particular feature about one of the contestants that I paused to watch the final segment (the obstacle course) on American Gladiators. I didn’t realize it at first—I glimpsed it out of the corner of my eye—and I looked back and realized that one of the men competing had a prosthetic leg. It was black and flat, rounded on the bottom and looked like it was made out of plastic.

Watching this contestant was a mixed experience, both intriguing (how would he handle swimming in the water? Climbing the net? Crossing the tight rope bridge?) and painful (every part of the course seemed to be a struggle). The final section of the obstacle course is an inclined treadmill upon which the contestant is expected to run up the belt against the direction of movement; if he or she can muster enough momentum, a few feet from the top a rope hangs down for the competitor to pull him or herself the remaining distance.

During the race, the man with the prosthetic leg fell quickly behind is opponent, but he admirably pushed himself through each obstacle on the course. Finally, he reached the grueling inclined treadmill. He stepped back from the belt, took a deep breath, and leaped up, mustering momentum by planting his good leg. The prosthetic leg slipped against the belt and sent him sliding back to the bottom. He stepped back again, reconsidered his approach, and leaped again—his hand nearly brushed the bottom of the rope—but again, he slid back down. The camera panned over the audience, his family, all waving their arms and cheering him on. He attempted again. And again.

I felt my stomach sink, offered up my own silent cheer, but couldn’t help wondering how long the show would let him go on like this—would they eventually just make him give up? Would they go to a commercial break? No, they couldn’t! He would do it! He’d worked so hard to get this far.

But he was starting to look tired and frustrated, his face strained and his chest rising and falling with brisk breaths. He stepped back one last time, narrowing his eyes and focusing on the treadmill—he would make it this time, I knew he would!—and then bound forward with unwavering determination. And this time, he grabbed the robe, but as he did, I realized that the treadmill had been turned off so that he was leaping up a still belt. He climbed up to the top, was clapped on the back by his opponent and congratulated by Hulk Hogan (yes, you read right…Suburban Commando himself).

I have to admit, in some ways I wondered if this contestant felt cheated. I felt cheated watching because I really thought this time he would get up to the top. But he was a gracious finisher and his family was very proud.

Here is where recounting this episode of American Gladiators actually touches on relevancy in faith and writing (it really does!). As I was walking out of the gym and driving home after my work out, I was still thinking about this man with the prosthetic leg who had struggled through the obstacle course and never gave up. I reflected on a lot of things: how his determination was so admirable; how hard he must have worked; how many struggles he must have already faced because of his handicap—and how often and much he must have overcome; how proud his wife and son must have been that he had made it on the show. I wondered if on the ride home, he would complain to his wife that they should have let him get up the treadmill on his own, and if she would assure him of that pride they felt and how much he really had accomplished.

But more than those passing thoughts, the aspect that has kept me thinking about this competitor with the prosthetic leg is our human nature to anticipate and expect victory. We are fascinated by struggle because we expect the struggle to be overcome. In many ways, this is the heart of a good story—any good story. Even stories that end in the hero’s failure often have significance because of what they have to say about overcoming struggle.

This is particularly poignant to me because I have been thinking and writing and reflecting on suffering throughout my spring semester. One difficult aspect about discussing suffering is that it is a complex issue; there isn’t one simple answer to deal with all the questions. A work like C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain approaches from a different angle and to address different issues than the discussion I had in my class on 1 Peter, where we talked about implications of Christians who suffer for the sake of Christ (because they follow Christ).

However, I think an important point of common ground from a Christian perspective about questions on suffering is that we see God ultimately has victory over suffering. And even now, as we live in a dying world, as we are confronted by the effects of sin and death, God is somehow able to act in redemption, to set aright that which is upside down. Even when the Son of God humbles himself and takes on flesh, when he is mocked and beaten and spit on and cursed, when he is unjustly condemned, when the Living Word who created all things is put to death on a cross by the hands of created humans…even then—especially then—the one who judges justly is at work to bring life from the dead. And this is the hope in which we rejoice.


Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners

April 25, 2008

Mystery and Manners

A blog is a place of such good intention.

I was thinking about this blog the other day, reflecting on the fact that I have this one entry that just kind of sits, and in the meantime, months have gone by and I haven’t added a thing. The only thing that gives me any consolation is the fact that I look at my friends’ blogs, and most of them do one entry every three or so months. It helps me to feel right on track.

As part of my class, I have been reading some selections out of Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, which has been delightful and insightful. To this point, the point that continues to return to me is from the article “The Fiction Writer and His Country” (published originally as a Life editorial), in which O’Connor is challenging the critique that American novelists are not speaking for America. O’Connor refutes the argument that Southern writing, a category that encompasses her own work, is too grotesque and does not genuinely reflect the prosperity and joy of life in American.

Not only does she question this categorization of the American life (“[The writer] may at least be permitted to ask if these screams for joy would be quite so piercing if joy were really more abundant in our prosperous society”) and that writers “write about rot because they love it” (“…some write about rot because they see it and recognize it for what it is”), she also makes an important point that a Christian writer often has the sharpest eyes to see the grotesque and perverse, and when she writes about such things, it is from the very perspective that recognizes it as such.

“Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live,” she declares.

This particular line has come to me again and again as a reminder and inspiration. More thoughts on this to come.


Writing without Qualms

March 5, 2008

Since I am taking a creative writing class as an independent study, I was able to choose some of my own reading material, and one of the books that interested me is How to Read Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I have come to be convinced in the past few months about the importance of reading a lot and reading a lot of different stuff as an important part of the writing procese; this is a point that Prose emphasizes.

In that process of reading and writing, I think one of the most valuable lessons I learned from Reading Like a Writer is about the freedom of expression we have in writing. As I have picked up writing again in the past few years, one of my biggest struggles has been about trying to write in the appealing way that other people write. And it’s been difficult because many of those people–people whose writing I really respect and admire and even, at time, think is brilliant–write in a way that I don’t write and I have never written.

This is not to say that I haven’t learned from the influence, but Prose helped me to understand that writers write in vastly different ways with vastly different voices, and while someone might suggest a “rule” that should never be broken, another might break that rule and do it well in a way that seems to be the most appropriate thing that could have been done. (Of course the challenge is in doing this well so that it is appropriate.)

All of this is to say that I have felt a lot of freedom in my writing lately, so instead of being stuck because I’m not sure if what I’m writing sort of fits into the mold of expectation or even trendiness (tsk!), I am finding a voice.