Monday, February 18, 2008

wrestling with a nasty procrastination habit

petty crimes of forgetfulness:
failing to avoid failure, as I
drag and defer.

who drags the sea of days for my wasted time?

does my life leak out
through the crack of my unwillingness?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

a little flannery (or a long philosophical post)

"Oh, Matt. There are spaces of sorrow only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt, a terrible thing. But you have a dignity now. Nobody can take that from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet."

I'm like a broken record, but I'm unrelenting and unapologetic about that. Hopefully there are enough individual nuances to each post, so that even though they all say the same thing, they're still worth reading.

Last night Kevin and I watched the movie Dead Man Walking (see quote). It had been sitting in its Netflix sleeve for over a week, because we knew it would be tough to watch--not exactly your typical Valentine's Day flick. But we both felt up to it last night, because we'd had a pretty restful day, and I can now confidently say that this movie drove my ability to worship Jesus this morning. As with The Kite Runner, I can't openly recommend it, because it is utterly painful and horrifying at times (I would absolutely not recommend it to anyone who has ever been abused in any way). But if you're open to it and up for it, I would say, give it a shot, but read some Flannery O'Connor first.

If it seems like this woman is the one dead person with whom I'd like to spend a day, then I've represented myself correctly. Yesterday morning, without knowing how much it would help me understand the movie, I read an article by her called "The Church and the Fiction Writer" and then promptly stumbled (without even looking) upon an article written about her called "Who's Afraid of Flannery O'Connor?" by Douglas Jones, which I would recommend if you want a sweeping overview of her work. Both wrestle with the question of whether or not Christians must be willing to face abundant horror in order to understand abundant grace.

Flannery O'Connor's characters are total creeps, just exactly the kind of people you would hope never to meet on the street. I've been saying for two years that The Violent Bear It Away is my favorite book in all the world, but I think I am just now beginning to understand why. A spare summary here (don't read if you want to experience the shock of it all on your own): 1) kid is hellfire-brimstone despicable, 2) kid drowns his disabled cousin, 3) kid gets horribly and randomly abused, 4) kid experiences the extension of God's merciful hand into a frightening and horrible landscape of suffering. (All the credit for the fact that I understand this book at all goes to my favorite professor of all time, Cindy Sowers, the one living person with whom I'd like to spend a day, to see if I can find out what she's really thinking).

"The violent bear it away" is the King James Version of "forceful men take hold of it," which I quoted from Matthew 11 in December. God is weaving this verse into my very essence. (Too dramatic?) It's true! In O'Connor's book, the violent boy takes hold of the kingdom of heaven and bears it away. I don't think that's what those KJV dudes meant when they translated it that way, but I know it's what good ol' Flannery meant!

This is where Dead Man Walking comes in. This movie was the bare, ugly bones of the Gospel: that Jesus accepts even the murderers and rapists (though we don't want to know it), and in the end, they probably understand what's really happening better than anybody. And it's beautifully and violently clear--you don't have to derive your own Christian meaning. People are talking about Jesus and thanking Jesus and crying to Jesus the whole time, even while the vicious sin of the crime is available for all to see, reminding us, the viewers, that there's a reason we all need our Deliverer.

The film was broken up from beginning to end by short shots of the crime, so that I could never forget what had really happened. It helped me remember that murder is real, rape is real. This is important, because it's easy to say that God will accept even a rapist, when you don't have to think about the brutal reality of it. But Jesus looks upon the crime without a filter, weeps and holds the wounded ones, and then extends forgiveness to the criminal. I've never known Jesus' love to be that big, never tried to get it till now. Dead Man Walking made it real for me.

There are other people who have a little Flannery in them:

--Brennan Manning (he writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel: "At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.")
--Sufjan Stevens (John Wayne Gacy, Jr. is a song about a serial killer that makes me sick to listen to, but there's the line: "On my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floor boards for the secrets I have hid." And then there's Seven Swans: "He will take you. If you run, He will chase you." That's a rather foreboding sort of grace, but I like it.)
--Over the Rhine (Everyman's Daughter: "I carry the inward aching. Like you, I too am naked. I don’t look that good, but this is flesh and blood. I’m everyman’s daughter.")
--Rainer Maria Rilke ("We must not portray you in king's robes, you drifting mist that brought forth the morning...")

I'm always looking for more.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

right here, right now

At New Life, we've been talking about "the Kingdom" and what it means to pray for God's kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven. This means thinking about things, both big and small, in terms of how God's kingdom might come right here, right now. The bulk of the work is small.

Last Sunday was a big day for me though. A representative from Compassion International brought 100 pictures of children who need sponsors. He also brought along George, a Kenyan man, perhaps my age, who was the first child to be sponsored in his specific project in Nairobi, back in the 80s. Right now, he is getting his MBA and wants to go into public health in Kenya, specializing in infectious diseases.

I got to go out to lunch with George and some others. I also got to man one of the Compassion tables and watch as people searched the faces to find their child. After hearing George's stories about life in Kenya, the impact $35 a month makes, the kind of changes that can happen in a country at the hands of its children--I knew that these flat-broke college students were going to see God's kingdom come in their midst in big and small ways. I'm not sure I've ever been this sure that I am right in the thick of it. Right here, right now.

My second book of 2008 was The Kite Runner. If you feel willing to open the floodgates of your inner sanctum, go ahead and read it. I wasn't totally prepared--that's why I'm warning you. I'm unsure about how to talk about it. The general plotline is a major stretch, particularly towards the end. The prose is often beautiful, but then sometimes I felt insulted by the author, like, "Thanks, but I was catching on to that on my own."

I guess it doesn't really matter, though, because the characters were so real. Since the vast majority of the book takes place in modern Afghanistan, the characters were also in a whole lot of pain, and the things that happened to them were unimaginable; also unimaginably commonplace, as if they weren't that big of a deal.

There is a character named Ali, who had polio as a child and thus walks with a limp, swinging one leg out to the side with each stride. There were little boys. It's hard to even think about them.

The question that rolled through my mind right after I finished the book was: How would I react if I could truly confront the fact that these things happen to real people, not just to characters in books? It was 4AM, during that sick time when I wasn't sleeping much, and I asked God to send me rejected children to adopt someday.

I remember wondering if I'd care as much about this when I woke up the next day.

I think I still care, I really do. Kevin and I chose a Compassion boy named Johnston, who's 14, and just not that cute anymore. My guess is he's been waiting for several years to get a sponsor. The older ones rarely, if ever, get picked, because those little three-year-olds are absolutely irresistible. Still, Johnston, I have to say, it's good to know you. I hope to meet you.

I have to ask myself if I am writing this to proclaim my good deeds before men. If you like me more, whomever it is that reads this, then I guess that's my reward.

But truly, this what I'm thinking about these days. This is what is on my mind. I am overwhelmed and moved by the lonely and rejected, the ones that nobody wants. I want those people to know the love of Jesus through me. I really really do.