Sheep are completely defenseless. They have no sharp teeth, or fierce claws, or fast legs to get away. When under attack by an enemy, a sheep has two choices; stay in a group or flee. Predators attack the ones separated from the flock – the old, the weak, the ill, and especially the young. In the group with the shepherd, the sheep are protected. The shepherd provides that protection. The rod and the staff are the shepherd’s tools to protect the sheep. — The Writing Sisters
In honor of my writing friend, Michael Powelson.
In his novella “A River Runs through It,” Norman Maclean develops an unusual father-son relationship to examine the flawed nature of man in relationship to a theological philosophy of divine acceptance and unconditional love.
By developing his character Paul as a kind of prophet still trapped in sin, he suggest that man is both capable of identifying the path to redemption and simultaneously incapable of escaping death. By creating Paul’s life as an allegory to man’s relationship with God, he allows the reader to accept and understand seemingly unacceptable and incomprehensible levels of familial love for a difficult son.
Mclean uses the language of fly fishing to translate a Presbyterian family’s Biblical interpretation of this truth; his finest translation comes when the narrator’s younger brother Paul speaks words that reflect words from Genesis:
He thought back on what happened like a reporter. He started to answer, shook his head when he found he was wrong, and then started out again. “All there is to thinking,” he said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
The Genesis connection is not immediately clear, but the narrator’s father’s affection for and belief in his son Paul is. The narrator’s father is a Presbyterian minister, and Paul is a trouble maker. Paul drinks too much and places too many bets and is often in trouble. Maclean uses the father-son connection to truth via fly fishing to examine the father’s enduring affection for Paul.
Toward the end of the story, after Paul’s demise has been suggested as inevitable but has not yet happened, the narrator asks his father about something he is reading. His father is reading the Bible and says:
“In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”
The narrator tells his father that he (the father) is a preacher first and a fisherman second, and claims that Paul would say words are formed out of water. His father replies:
“No, you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing.”
In the final few pages of the story after this exchange, the reader learns that Paul has been beaten to death, presumably as a result of the gambling debts he owes and is unable to pay. There is never a firm explanation of his death. The father is heartbroken, and continues to ask questions seeking more information about how and why Paul died, but little can comfort him. The narrator suggests that the terms of Paul’s death are less significant than the terms of his life.
“I’ve said I’ve told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I know is that he was a fine fisherman.”
“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”
“Yes,” I said, “he was beautiful. He should have been – you taught him.”
This exchange is explained as the last thing the two men ever say to each other about Paul’s death and suggests a larger redemption/forgiveness dynamic beyond the characters and into the limits of even divine love to understand and redeem human nature. That man may be a mystery to God is an atypical idea, but Maclean executes it brilliantly with his father/son/fishing allegory.
Anne Lamott writes in her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith that the best prayers she knows are, “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I don’t argue too much with Lamott. About anything.
It took a little child to show me, however, just how true the concept of simplicity in prayer can be. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church and had my child baptized there. While I grew up with many beautiful and meaningful family traditions around spiritual observance, I admit I have been less than focused on how I want those traditions to be passed on to my child. I knew I wanted to begin introducing her to the idea that she can talk with God, that building that relationship between her soul and something bigger than the meanness of this world is very important.
But like many in my generation, I can be a tad jaded. We’ve lived and worked in more than one community. We’ve seen in living color the downfalls and moral failings of “holy” institutions and church leaders. We’ve pondered the dark side of many things once taken for granted as the good. Simply put, we struggle with how to help our children embrace faith without blindly following the absolutely certain failures of humanity.
Can you see how hard I like to make things?
They really aren’t that hard. We need to do more to let our children lead us sometimes.
My child recently announced we would be praying together before each meal. “Hands in your lap,” she says. We dutifully put our hands in our laps. “Now raise them up, slowly, like this,” she says as she directs us in assuming the traditional prayer hand press. “Now say this with me: God made the sun. God made the sea. God made the fishes, and God made me. Thank you for the sun, thank you for the sea, thank you for the fishes, and thank you for me. Amen.” There are little hand motions that go with each image of sun, fish, sea, and self.
Sun, fish, sea, and self. The hands of God nurturing you through the basic elements of the world, if you will only let it happen.
You know, I should have probably said, “Help me” a little sooner. Today, I say, “Thank you.”
(This piece first appeared on January 16, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)
And then the Lamb invited me to look,
and I beheld a faithful flowing steed
with one glorious hoof atop the Book
my life faithfully kept in word and deed.
My ears perceived a gentle rising call
emitted from a distant room beyond
my sight, and all those lost to me were tall
and gathered locked in bright eyes wet and strong.
In life I rode in boughs the wooden frame
painted to color life but pulseless ran
amidst the kingdoms, rivers, stones, by name
I called them mine; yet now I rein my plan.
Gesturing to the stable my mother
stands before my sisters and my brothers.
I wrote this in honor of my grandfather, H. H. Sims. He is transitioning from this life to the next, the last of 10 children raised in Fayette County, West Virginia. Lopaz is the name they gave their rocking horse; he’s really more of a gliding horse. He has served many children through the generations!
This being human is a guest-house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
Who may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
When we asked our writing friends to talk about the deadly sins, Rich Farrell said he believes the sins resonate with writers because “the uninitiated must pass through a period of long trial.” He goes on: “The sinner becomes the saint, but only after passing through hell.” Wrath, for its heat, its terrifying ability to end things irreparably, its consumption of the self, its sheer noise, epitomizes hell.
“(P)rogressives have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.
You might say the same thing about conservative Protestants (i.e., “evangelicals”). But the thing is, their people pretty much know what they think of God. It’s well-known and on the record.” — Tony Jones, A Challenge to Progressive Theo-Bloggers
“On the record.”
These are some of the phrases that jumped out at me when Tony Jones issued his challenge to write about what I believe about God.
I’m not supposed to tell you what I believe about Jesus, or social issues, the church, culture, or society. This is specifically a request to write about the nature of God. Frankly, this is what I prefer to do anyway, and I’m with Mr. Jones in that I think slipping away from strong and articulate conversations about the nature of God is not doing progressive believers any favors. Part of the problem is feeling revulsion at the twisted theologies of God as politician, angling for a particularly powerful nation-state rise to global domination. Defining God as uniquely interested in one society over another is definitely not part of my God-talk. This makes me neither atheist, nor agnostic, nor unloving toward my own country.
I believe the nature of God is individual, and I wonder sometimes if this may be a major divide with believers who identify as evangelical or conservative. There is the “two or more gathered in my name” teaching, but all indications are that those are two or more individuals with a common devotion and general intent born of an individual relationship with God.
I believe the spirit of God seeks to be alone with every person on Earth. I will go so far as to say I believe that only that still and exclusive connection can save a life. I shudder when I see large groups of people pursuing some “lost soul” who they believe is in need of their assistance to be saved. I have to assume that their intentions are good, but God doesn’t need a gang. In fact, God “needs” nothing but the listening and sincerity of the individual.
I believe that Christians must be vigilant in our desire to know the difference — or to at least try to know the difference — between our agendas and the nature of God. The only way to approach clarity in this complicated zone is to, again, find a way to be alone as an individual with God and be willing to practice discernment in our faith journeys.
I often go back to the film Dead Man Walking. Matthew Poncelet has a close and devoted human friend and counselor in Sister Helen. He would never have reached his redemption moment without her unrelenting message of confession and forgiveness. But only he could choose to encounter God’s grace. In the end, he was alone with God. I believe that is the nature of God. God’s love and saving grace wants to mend a shattered soul, but it happens only when we say, “Enough of everyone else. I choose to be alone with you.”
Choosing to be alone with God is serious business. It is not just sitting quietly and thinking nice thoughts. It is choosing to let down walls you may not have acknowledged yet. It is choosing to be willing to hear that you need to put down your nets. We like our nets, don’t we?
I think progressive believers need to work through these questions of how to honor beliefs about God’s connection to us as individuals without being co-opted by the right-wing politics that claim the individual is all that matters. This will require getting more comfortable with keeping our social justice leanings out of every conversation, and doing more to talk about how individual devotion to God can change the world.
You can read some of my other writing about:
Faith and Science: https://essediemblog.com/category/faith-andor-science/
An excerpt from an essay: http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/2011/05/where-is-god-in-chronic-illness.html