First Stories First

The Bible is about God.

Perhaps it seems frivolous to clarify this, but I believe it’s a truth we’re on the verge of losing. These days, everyone caters to us because everyone wants something from us. The game is to find out what we want – and then beat the other guy in promising how fast they can get it to us. It matters little the trade, most everyone’s in on the racket — our corporations schmucking for brand loyalty, our politicians grabbing for votes, our pastors and priests (and of course, I wrestle with these demons) clamoring for affirmation and dollars. It’s easy to see why we might get the idea that everything really is about me. But this me that everything seems to be about isn’t the true me. None of these shucksters really know me, nor do they care to.

When the Bible enters this milieu, we assume that Scripture (or God) does the same. The Bible dashes after our questions. God rushes, like a zealous car salesman, to push a model than meets our every whim. But though we may drive off the lot with all the bells and whistles, are we any better for the transaction? Are we any more joyful? Any more alive? Any more human?

We may finagle a god who makes us comfortable or endorses the life we are set toward (with minimal adjustments as a nod to the Almighty). We may sigh contentedly if we locate a god who delivers quick pithy lines to our struggles, the immediate relief we demand. But if we settle for this god we think we want, we will never engage the true God who rules over the Earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Mary and Peter and Paul, the God who raised Jesus from the dead. If we are committed to the God we think we want, we will never know that the questions we are asking aren’t the right questions at all.

God is God, and we are not God. And the Bible is the book that tells us both of these things.

If I you will allow me to indulge in a moment of ridiculous oversimplification: some of our most vitriolic theological battles of the last two centuries seem to pivot on this question: Is theology fundamentally humanity’s story or God’s story. I have no desire whatsoever to enter the slugfest, but between these two choices, I opt for the latter.

But – it’s no better to go the other extreme and say that God (and God’s book) is so otherly, so divine, that we ought not expect it to engage the complexities and harsh realities and the wild joys of being human. By this way of thinking, you go to the Bible to discover whether or not it is okay to kill, but you have to go to a shrink to talk about why your heart feels like it may break in two. In other words, you go to the Bible to hear God’s story, but you have to go everywhere else to learn your own story.

The Scriptures – and our wisest voices over the centuries – have refused this dichotomy. They have taught us that the Bible is about God, first – but that it is about us second. And it must be in this order because the way we most truly know ourselves is to know God. As Augustine said, we know ourselves better in God than in ourselves. Our stories matter because God has made the remarkable (and at times seemingly foolish) move to intertwine our story within God’s story. God does God’s will, but God doesn’t rush past us. God wills that humanity be more than a blip on the celestial radar. Quite the opposite – in Jesus, God vested God’s full self in the human condition. Jesus was not a lab experiment. Jesus is the revelation that God is not distant. God goes local. God knows, as Hebrews tells us, all our human travail and weakness.

God knows these dark spaces intimately because God has suffered them, with us. Our pain matters – not because we are the center of the story – but because the God of the Universe endures our pain with us and longs for our pain to be no more. Our joy matters – not because the Universe will melt if we are not sated (our burden is heavy, but not that heavy) – but rather our joy matters because Jesus defeated everything opposed to joy and invites us into God’s kingdom where joy is evermore.

And every place where sin and death prevail and every place where joy is thwarted, every place in our story where we encounter injustice or loneliness or longing for freedom or a place of belonging – those are the places where Jesus wants to make our stories new.

Indigo Bloom

Two beefy fellows grunted as they lugged me into Harris & Sons Fine Furniture. I strained for a look, but my plastic-wrapped cocoon allowed only hazy glimpses. Unfortunately, I smelled everything. The moist armpits hugging me added a vinegary fetor to the fog of stale cigarettes and salami I’d inhaled the entire trip. Every stinky, bumpy mile from Hickory, North Carolina.

A bony man maneuvered me to the prime perch, the front window display. Apparently I was all the rage. The previous spring, a New Yorker copyeditor whose desk (so far as anyone knew) squatted among the clanking boilers received a last minute assignment to produce filler for an issue on nouveaux home décor. He had only twenty minutes to figure out what exactly home décor entailed before he sat down and banged out a title: “Return of the Blues.”

I once heard that most fashion crazes trace back to a rich, 70-something hippie in Topeka, stoned out of his mind but laughing his ass off. All I know is that here I was, soaking up the sunlight and enjoying a stream of women walking in to rub my indigo fabric. No complaints by me.

My arrival bumped an emerald green couch, a classy little import from a village on the French Riviera (or the Côte d’Azur she insisted), back to the showroom floor. I offered an olive branch, explaining how that of all the couches I’d known, her delicate curves and silk buttons were most exquisite. She only grew more livid. I’m a chaise lounge, you ninny!

A woman with grey-flecked hair and tired, kind eyes purchased me; and I arrived at the house where the years clicked by. The years and the people.

There was the boy who used me for a springboard. Cape attached, he bounced mercilessly until (sweet relief) he would catapult across the living room. The adults were convinced he needed meds. I think he just needed people to stop telling him what to feel. His grandparents cared for him best they knew, but what could ever make up for all the love he’d lost?

The young, giddy couple, bright for life. Many Saturdays, they’d collect the lingerie and underwear that landed on me the night before. Eventually they split up because she wanted more, while he could never say what it was he wanted.

Decades passed. The faces faded. I faded. Eventually, someone suggested a trip to the dump. Long ago – the show-window, that sexy chaise lounge.

But Thaddeus, retired now from the university, would hear nothing of it. Just gettin’ comfy, he said. Thaddeus had a couple college boys cart me onto the oversized porch, near the old Japanese maple. Most mornings, Thad comes to sit. He tamps his pipe, and together we watch the world and smile. We both think our upholstery is just fine.


This piece was written for the Life With Objects project brilliantly architected by my friend and fellow word-crafter Hope Voelkel. You really should hop over and check out what they are doing and some of the other writers. 

Holy Fools

I believe in purgatory, as should anyone who passed through junior high. Seventh grade, I believe, and I was on the basketball squad. I didn’t play much, only at the end of games when we were behind so far that there was nothing for the scrubs to screw up. I was tubby and uncoordinated, not the best year of my life. We were playing Reicher, the Catholic school where all the guys were at least a foot taller, had hair in all the right places and seemed oh, so incredibly cool.

Thirty minutes or so before game time, I walked in front of a small cadre of Reicher toughs. Nerve-wracking, let me say. Intimidation. I wore my green and white uniform, too tight, too short, too polyester. I was directly in front of them when I heard: “There goes Santa Claus.” Followed by lots of snickering and chuckles.

I kept walking, exposed, like a fish flopping on the beach while everyone gathers round and points. It was the gym shower-scene every boy fears, only it was out in the open, with total strangers.

We all have a story like this. The fear of being foolish, of being mocked or scoffed or dismissed, taunts most of us. For my boys, it shows up strong the first few weeks of school. They are desperate to go chameleon and blend, just blend. One of our boys has become obsessed, when in public, about whether or not his hair sticks up. This, the boy that would go weeks without showering if we’d let him. Somewhere in his elementary-school world, he’s been told that hair sticking up is totally not cool, foolish.

Later, our tactics to keep from ever appearing foolish grow more sophisticated. We become snarky or sarcastic, knowing that if we make others seem foolish, the light never turns on us. Or perhaps we grow distant and aloof because, if we never show desire or passion (nothing that would get us noticed), then there is nothing for others to ridicule. Some of us choose our words with impeccable care. Some of us spend many of our waking hours gulping down shame. Some of us are crass, mean and cold. Our words slice others up. Everyone supposes we are the rocks, the ones who even though we’re SOBs are exceptionally self-assured. But if anyone could see, they’d know we’re shivering inside, a flopping fish stuck in junior high.

This must be why I like so many characters in the Bible who come across as brazen, unashamed holy fools. Peter, David, Mary Magdalene, just to name a few. They cried and ranted and slept with the wrong women and stormed off and were generous to a fault and unleashed fits of rage and joy that were in every way unseemly. If you’re looking for models for careful, calculated un-foolishness, look elsewhere.

But, they loved. Oh, how they loved. And they lived. And God called them friends. Proverbs rejects “the fool.” However, for the wisdom writer, the fool is the one who arrogantly stands apart from God, detached and wooden (but entirely “together”). The ones who stumble toward God, awkward and a screw-up and forever on the verge of making a scene – that person is beautifully foolish and God’s friend.

Buechner put it well, “If the world has never lacked for damned fools, it has never lacked for holy fools either.” I should hope not.

Let it loose, I say. Live wide-open. Live. Foolishness is underrated.

Turks of Finance

This past weekend, we had a yard sale, clearing out a few closets and trying to unload a mish-mash of, uhm treasures, on unsuspecting neighbors. It took a bit of coaxing to convince Wyatt and Seth to relinquish a small collection of busted cars and forgotten stuffed animals. These toys were all buried in the dark recesses of their room, places where even an OCD-for-clean mother dares not roam (I’m not saying we have one of those in our house – just a literary image, work with me); but as soon as they caught wind of the fact that they would no longer own these tattered items they didn’t remember they had, you’d have thought we suggested they abandon their closest, dearest friend to a life of misery and pain. How could we…? 

Their disbelief at our cold-hearted ways did an about-face, however, the moment they saw the possibilities. They concocted a scheme. Rather than contributing to the family pot like the rest of us, they would keep the proceeds from their items. I’m not sure how Miska and I let that one sneak by, we’re still piecing that together. But now, finding stuff to sell was no longer a problem. They would have sold one another if they could have figured out how.

Next, the boys talked Miska into a lemonade and cookie stand. Lemonade Miska and I paid for, cookies Miska made. And the two young titans informed us that, if we cared to taste either, we were more than welcome to make a purchase. We could even charge it, if cash were a problem.

That afternoon after we finished, Wyatt and Seth were flush with capitalistic visions. And Wyatt wanted to share.

Wyatt: I know something a little bit good.

Me: What’s that?

Wyatt: When you guys die – well, its not good that you will die – but when you guys die, Seth and me are going to inhale a lot of money.

Miska: Do you mean inherit?

Wyatt: Yeah, we are going to inherit a lot of money. We’re going to have a big sale with all your stuff. And we are going to make a lot of money… like $200!

Two Benjamin Franklins, that’s it. And maybe the cost of a lemonade and chocolate chip cookie tossed in, just to be generous.

Goodbye

I can’t say it surprised me when she left. I would have thought we’d have a final conversation, an argument at least. Maybe sit on the floor of the living room and drain a last bottle of wine while she would cry and tell me again how much I’ve changed, how she doesn’t know me anymore. We’d let loose with all the regret and sadness and rage and then send it all up in flames with the sex we hadn’t had since God knows when. At the least, she’d leave a letter, the tired words of a woman lamenting what should have been.

But I came home to a yellow post-it stuck to the refrigerator: Goodbye, ~L. And that was that.

I don’t know where I was going, but I drove and drove and banged my fist on the dash and drove some more. Morning found me in a diner, seated in a faded red booth next to the window. At least it was quiet. Only me, a couple farmers and a waitress named Iva. The eggs and bacon grew cold on the greasy plate while I watched the rain splash off the asphalt and stirred two Splendas into my coffee. I stared and stirred and stirred and stirred, a clinking cadence of spoon and cup.

An hour later, I drove north on a familiar stretch of road. I didn’t know if I’d still find Prof Bogert at the university, years since we’d talked. I hadn’t planned this route, but of course this was where I was going. This drive was the most predictable part of the whole drama. When you’re lost, you’re desperate to be found. And Thaddeus Bogert was the one man who had never stopped looking for me.

After graduation, Thaddeus and I shared a farewell tea on his porch. “Good days are ahead,” he said. “Just remember – doing good isn’t the same as living good..”

“Alright, Thad. But you can stop scratching around for something. This is Yale. I made it!”

“You are on your way, well on your way, and I am crazy proud of you.” Thaddeus smiled at me until he knew I’d noticed. Then he tamped his pipe with a rhythm, a cue he was thinking more.

“Prof, you worried about me?”

“Worried?” he said, looking up and chuckling. “No, not worried. Hopeful.”

“You obviously have something else to say.” That’s one of the things I admired about Thaddeus. He never offered words uninvited.

“I’m still wondering what kind of man you want to be. And I’m curious if you are still wondering what kind of man you want to be.”

The conversation ended awkwardly. I loved that old man, but he didn’t always know the way the world actually works, how to get things done and make things happen. I was aiming for answers, but he was only getting started with the questions.

The wipers sloshed the rain back and forth. I could use one of those steaming cups of tea. I think I’d finally run headlong into the questions.

****
If you’d like, you can read an introduction to Thaddeus.