Friday, May 31, 2013

Towards a Better Understanding of James 4

As you know from my last post, I spent a few days in California earlier this month for a conference. Yet in spite of the fact that this visit was my first time on the West Coast, in spite of the fact that I desperately needed a few days away after a stressful semester, I deliberately reined in any enthusiasm until I arrived. I didn't plan much, besides making sure that I had housing and transportation. I didn't talk much about my trip with other people.

I've done this kind of thing before. Visiting Paris last summer, I planned my housing and transportation in advance. Everything else I planned during the two-hour flight from Prague, bookmarking interesting pages in my travel guide with the napkins from the in-flight snack. Visiting London two years ago, I did the same thing: There were a few things I planned in advance (my self-initiated, self-guided T.S. Eliot walking tour, for instance), but almost everything else I planned out on the plane.

For a long time, I thought I was the only one who did this. Then, a close friend of mine took a trip to London, and she too confessed that she was trying not to get too excited, lest the whole trip fall apart at the last minute. Even in the weeks leading up to a trip that had been planned for months, she was still holding back her enthusiasm, just in case. (For the record, she made it, and she's enjoying London right now.)

When I noticed this pattern, this tendency to rein in excitement lest something prevent our plans, I thought of a passage in James 4:
Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit' - yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'
In the past, I've always interpreted this passage as a caution against undue excitement: Because we will not live forever, because all pleasures in this life are but temporary, there's no need to get particularly worked up about any of them. Remember that only through the generosity of God do we enjoy any of our pleasures at all; when He turns off the tap, whatever we loved is gone.

Probably this interpretation owes a lot to the parallels between James 4 and Luke 12, in which Jesus, like a divine stockbroker, warns his readers that spiritual wealth is far more stable than material wealth. This, of course, is true. Yet I can't help but feel that the pessimism of this interpretation - beware! You're likely to lose everything at any moment! - is problematic.

Read as an indictment of planning ahead and getting excited about the future, James 4 turns God into a bogeyman. Sometimes, believers who subscribe to this interpretation will tack the phrase, "If the Lord wills" onto their plans, whether those be for a summer vacation, a new job, or a spouse. I appreciate the sentiment: Yes, everything we are or accomplish is designed by God. Yet I can't help but feel that repeatedly using the phrase to discourage excitement about life turns God into a killjoy, who wants nothing more than to spoil our happy plans.

Imagine, for instance, I said this: This summer I hope to visit my family, Lord willing. You could, in place of the Lord willing, just as easily substitute the (perhaps more honest?) phrase, If nothing goes wrong. Like so: This summer I hope to visit my family, if nothing goes wrong. In other words, what this phrase, as inspired by the pessimistic interpretation of James, does is repeatedly associate God with things in our life going wrong. Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying that God hangs around in order to make us happy, like some kind of cosmic vending machine. I'm not even saying that God tries to grant us plenty of good things in this life. As Stephen King reminds us, In this world those who do evil ride over the roads in Cadillac cars.

Yet our God is a good God, a gentle God, and to use a phrase that implies when things go wrong, God is responsible, does not do justice to the complex and deeply compassionate way that God is involved in our disappointments and sufferings, whether they be trivial or deeply important. From elsewhere in the Scriptures, we know that Jesus does not stand around waiting to yank the rug out from under our feet just when we are happiest. Jesus weeps when we weep.

I am therefore cautious about interpreting James's epistle in a way that makes it seem like our God is trying to zap us. As I thought about this passage before California, it occurred to me that there is a deeper theme, one more affirming and encouraging - and, as is true with almost all of Scripture, more difficult to follow.

Notice the context of James's words. When he instructs them to say, "If the Lord wills, we will do this our that", he has just finished comparing their life to a mist, to the morning dew. Imagine how long that stuck around in the summer! Confronted with such truths, the natural reaction is not to forge ahead; it is to pull back from life altogether. Think of the people who quit their jobs and traveled the country when Harold Camping preached the Rapture.

This is not the instruction that James gives to believers. Instead, he tells them to get back to life, to go on working and planning and dreaming, albeit with the single caveat "if the Lord wills". And in the context of their short lives, the phrase "If the Lord wills" takes on new meaning: Doom may be assured, but it is the Lord who holds back that doom, and it is the Lord who sees that their plans are carried out, that they live and do this or that. In other words, the Lord is a giver of good things. Thus, the goal is not so much to worry about what bad things might happen, caused by a vindictive God, but to recognize that we live in a world of uncertainties and rely on a good God for good things.

No, God will not always supply us with sunshine and roses. No, we cannot be certain that any of our plans will turn out. Yet as believers we are to make plans anyway, to forge ahead with bravery and faith because our God is good.

I am reminded of something that Lilias Trotter, one of the first missionaries to the Muslim world, wrote:
Faith learns to swing out into nothingness and drop down full weight on God - nothing between us and the abyss but Himself - A rejoicing in every fresh emergency that is going to prove Him true - the Lord Alone - that is trained faith.
Surely the future - what will happen to us, who we will know, what we will do - is the deepest abyss of all; there is no seeing what may come. Yet that is no excuse to hold back in fear, to choose the clear, safe course. It is a call to draw up our plans, and in those plans to 'drop down full weight on God' - our loving, gentle God who may (or who may not) will for those plans to happen.




Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Time with Friends

As many of you know, I took a few days at the tail end of my time in Prague to visit London. One of the things I remember most about that trip is how refreshing it was to hear and see English everywhere. After six months in the Czech Republic, I was fairly comfortable with the Czech signs and the basic Czech phrases (especially the one for, "I don't speak Czech."), so I was astonished that the pleasure of the English language was powerful enough to be almost physical.

This weekend, I experienced something similar: I spent a long weekend at a literature conference in California. Before I went, I was looking forward to giving my talk and sharing some of my own poetry. I hoped to see the Pacific Ocean. Yet I was only mildly interested in the conference itself: In graduate school, I attended two conferences (one on rhetoric and literature, another on Willa Cather) and while I enjoyed both, neither stands out.

My conference in California was outstanding. Yes, I stood at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and yes, I read my own poetry to an audience of perhaps fifteen people. Yet the conference itself was equally a treat. There, I talked about narrative structure, the horror genre as a vehicle for religious themes, Lady Julian of Norwich and phenomenology, and T.S. Eliot. I picked up tips on using literature circles in class, and I brainstormed about how to fold service learning projects into the notoriously messy English Composition class that I teach. At the end of the conference, several other (very sporting) participants and I headed off to a nearby trail for a hike and trooped through the Southern California sun heatedly debating the narrative potential of video games and the differences between English and French romance novels.

Confession: I kinda want to go back for a PhD now. Oops.

(For those of you who don't keep up with humanities higher education, the job market for PhDs in literature is terrible these days.)

Here's what I think made the weekend such a treat, especially compared to conferences I attended in graduate school: I am trained and love to analyze literature as a scholar, but I rarely hold scholarly, in-depth conversations about literature anymore. In graduate school, I had such conversations all the time. I was guaranteed an interesting, thought-provoking discussion about literature whenever I showed up to my class on DeLillo and the postmodern American novel or to my seminar on literary theory. Now, the closest I get is teaching Four Quartets to my mother so that she can teach it to her high school literature class.

I am reminded of a passage in The Last Battle. Towards the beginning of the novel, nearly all the characters - Edward, Lucy, Peter, Jill, Eustace and the Professor - meet to "have a good jaw about Narnia (for of course there's no one else we can ever talk to about things like that)". What made my weekend in California such a treat was the chance to "have a good jaw" about T.S. Eliot and Julian of Norwich and all the rest.

When I was a child, I used to wonder how in the world the early Christians could bear to be together so much. They seemed to gather all the time, for great lengths of time. You remember the young man who fell out the window during the middle of Paul's sermon? I always had complete sympathy for him, thinking to myself, "How I would hate to be stuck in a church service that long!" Or Paul will instruct the elders of a church to read the epistle to the rest of the church, and I would imagine sitting through a reading of all fifteen chapters of I Corinthians and think to myself, "How boring!"

Of course, my problem was not that I was disinterested in faith; I was simply saturated with it. I was homeschooled. I had Christian parents. I read the Bible daily and I prayed daily. Sunday mornings were simply an extension of my ordinary week, but with me stuck in a hard pew and growing hungrier by the minute.

Now, I am better able to appreciate why the early Christians met so often and for such long times. The fact that no one else in my world reads literature like a scholar does not, of course, compare to the fact that no one else in the world of the early Christians cared two cents about Jesus.

Yet all the same, I know now that what compelled them to meet until they could not stay awake any longer was the almost physical pleasure in having a good jaw about Jesus Christ. From dawn to dusk, they were surrounded by members of the Roman Empire: people who worshipped Anubis and Isis, Jupiter and Minerva; people who regularly engaged in temple prostitution or who spent their wealth acquiring wines and spices from the far corners of the universe. No wonder they stayed up till all hours listening to Paul whenever he came to town.

To turn again to Lewis (this time, his nonfiction), I am reminded of his analysis of friendship: "born", he writes, "at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" Especially since we are not created to live alone, the discovery of like-minded people - whether they share the same language, the same scholarly interests, or deepest of all, the same faith - is good. 

Incidentally, in writing this post I caught myself slipping into a kind of utilitarianism. I spent perhaps thirty minutes with visions and revisions of what I should write about why friendship was good. I had very practical reasons: It encourages us. It keeps our interests going. It keeps faith from dying out. This is true, but I think we forget that friendship - that being with other people - is created to be an intrinsic good for us. God has designed us to spend time with people who share our language and our interests and our faith, and when we take delight in that, we take delight in a goodness that He created for us.

Yet it is this goodness that should send us away from our friends and back into the world again. Here, I can write more concretely. If I never stopped talking about T.S. Eliot, none of my students would read him. Too much time with literature scholars, and I am no longer able to talk intelligibly to non-majors (Just ask my senior English class in Prague, whom I overwhelmed with twelve pages of Milton.)

If we believers never left the church, no one would be converted. Perhaps expectedly, the church emphasizes the need for more church. Go every week, our pastor tells us. Join a weekly Bible study! Meet up with Christians for prayer before work and lunch during work. This is true and good advice, yet it is just as important that we eventually leave church and talk to other people.

As individuals with a wide range of interests and faiths, we are not meant to indulge those alone. What we are meant for is to indulge them in community, to drink deeply of the pleasures of friendships, and then to pass the cup around for those who have not yet tasted them.

Coming up: I plan to post about faith sometime before the end of the month. Keep your eyes peeled!

Poem: Several of you (meaning, my parents!) have asked about my poems. I have a separate post with all three poems here.

Three Poems

Here are the three poems that I read at the conference in California, May 2013:

Resurrection
All this has happened before. All this will happen again. ~ Battlestar Galactica


What’s dead (you say) is dead. What’s
Lost will not return again.
Yet Spring is the death of winter;
Winter, the death of spring.

Thunder ushers in autumnal rain
To harvest the last of vermilion summer fruits.
Cherries fade beneath the snow, then rise –
New-made – in tender shoots.

Stubble fields ripen, then whiten
In the first light snow. That prime
Crop then plants a richer one: Winter
Wheat, white in its proper time.

In the waning dusk, a fat florid
Bird ruffles his feathers – southward flies
Till his brown-backed twin sail north
On a warm breeze and bright skies.

Aged trees shake from trembling
Boughs dead and ragged brown leaves.
Yet from this death is born abundant life – first
New buds – then blossoms, for the bees.

What’s dead is never dead. What
Lost always returns again.
As spring cedes place to winter,
Winter gives birth to spring.

*This poem was published in the Gallery, a yearly collection of poetry and prose from local writers.

Pentecost
Abruptly the vertigo of lightning
And shrieking thunder ceases. You hear the
Quiet. The world fades from black and white to
Full colour: the dripping emerald trees, the
Rain-streaked red truck, your pale, frightened face.
In that pregnant stillness you marvel at
The certainty of the wet, black wood of
The pear trees. Naked they stand beside their
Bright white blossoms, scattered across the grass.
Beneath the eastward-sailing clouds rises
The flame of sunset. In that fiery sky
You find renewed the conviction of
Peace.

*This poem was published on Ancient Paths, a literary journal that is exclusively on Facebook.

Kyrie Eleison
While sacrificing hands upraise
The chalice flowing to the brim,
Tell no more of enchanted days.
~ Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Winter sunrise is a sordid affair –
Less dawning light than lessening of
Darkness, to reveal all our secret
Sins.

At night, graceful shadows conceal my sins
Among their vague grey lines. Yet at dawn dim
Light seeps through dusty blinds and betrays the
Telling scene: On the bedside desk are piled
Balled-up ledgers, a calculator, an
Empty whiskey glass, a hard, half-eaten
Roll. With cracked, bleeding hands I push back
Unkempt covers to admit crypt-cold air –
Oh, satisfy us with your mercy – and
Fill last night’s tumbler with stale tap water.
Beside the sink is a withered basil
Plant and a plastic ring of ivory pills,
Edges printed with the days of the week.
Oh, teach us to number our days aright.
With ritual precision I take the
Pill, I taste its sour flavour, I raise
The overflowing glass and gulp it down.
In a sudden hush the tattered peace flag
Taps against the wall, each tap keeping
Time with the sacramental rhythm of
The heating vents. Amid this bitter
Ceremony I thirst for the sudden
Fire of summer mornings, which shall not seep
Between my blinds but set my sins ablaze.
Lift thou up the light of thy countenance –

Summer sunrise shall be holy –
Not lessening of darkness but light that
Shines in darkness, and in that light is found
The life of men.

*This poem has not been published. Nevertheless, it is my favourite of the three.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rest

Today, I turned in grades for all my classes. The semester is, as far as my teaching responsibilities go, over.

It's an oddly quiet feeling. Like when I leave home after the holidays, I've gotten used to some hustle and bustle and having that suddenly vanish from my life leaves me at loose ends. According to Microsoft Word, this semester I've spent 115 hours planning lessons for writing and literature class (This doesn't include the time I've spent planning for Lewis or the Writing Seminar that I teach.) I've spent an additional 90 hours in the classroom during the semester, and I've spent far more hours than I care to remember grading. And now it's all finished.

Tonight I will go home, and there will be nothing to grade, nothing to plan for, nothing to correct for the next day. I could watch a full-length movie, not just a 50-minute TV show (I'm still working through Stargate and Battlestar Galactia, alternately.) I could read a book all evening. I could surf the Internet for three hours and not feel guilty (Okay, I probably would feel guilty about that.).

In a way, I have that feeling when you leave on vacation and there's something you forget. Surely there's one more paper waiting for me to grade? One more student to email?

But there's not. It's very unsettling.

I once heard (from whom, I cannot remember) that one way to trust God was to sleep. When we sleep, we put aside our own troubles and worries long enough to rest, and because we put them aside, we acknowledge that our own efforts are, in the end, not enough. For a little while, we leave our efforts in God's hands, and when we pick them back up again in the morning, it is only because God has and will continue to sustain us.

The interesting part about this observation is that sleep is forced, and therefore to some degree, our dependence on God is also forced. Yes, I know that sleep can be put off, sometimes for several days (I work with college students, and so people putting off sleep is a fact of daily experience.) Eventually, however, the body rebels; everyone sleeps.

I also know Tertullian's argument: Because true faith must be chosen, not forced, it follows that the trust in God as a way of practicing that faith must also be chosen, not forced. Yet C.S. Lewis believed that the world was so made that we, by the fact of existing in it, would be drawn to God: We could resist, but it is easier not to. We could refuse to trust God, we could keep matters gathered in our own hands, but it is easier just to leave them in God's and go to bed.

In many ways, the end of the school year's work load brings me to much the same place as the end of the day does, with the need to (however briefly) surrender what I think I control and trust God.

Partly, this is because I do have outstanding responsibilities; I am simply choosing not to do them today. Today, there is no need to rush through some personal financial tasks. There is no need to figure out what books I need to read for a professional development event towards the end of June, nor is there a need to purchase them on Amazon today. There is no need to deep clean my office today. There is no need to deep clean my house today (Mom, I'm glad you aren't visiting me this spring.) All that will come, but since I finished my grading, it's good to take a break.

Partly, this is because I have a forced gap before I can do substantial teaching work again. Already I have several ways that I would like to change my writing class, but it won't start again for three months. Already I have some plans for the tutoring center, but that won't kick off for three months, either. I have made mistakes and learned from them and I want to put what I have learned into practice, but I have to wait, just as certainly as I have to wait when it's late in the evening and I still have a six-inch stack of papers to grade but can't (The later at night, the meaner I grade.)

Just like sleep forces us to trust God, my schedule has brought me to the place where I have a sharper need than usual to lay my work aside, even if it's just for a few hours, and leave things in God's hands. Tomorrow I'll take my responsibilities back, and I'll probably even worry about them again. For tonight, though, they can stay there.

As I near the end of this post, it occurs to me that this one sounds rather more navel-gazing than normal for me, as though I jumped on my blog and shout, "Let me tell you all about ME!" I could, I suppose, make a more personal application to you: Do this. Don't do that. Take a rest. Stop working.

I could do that.

But I won't, because I think it's contradictory to end a post about rest with a specific command to do something (even if that something is more resting.)

No, the point of this post is an observation, not a command: Into our world are built forced pauses, times that we have to let go of our responsibilities and leave them in God's hands. This is a truth both terrifying and restful.

Perhaps thankfully, most pauses are fairly short. Mine won't last more than about twelve hours. Eventually, our human love of feeling in control and active gets to reassert itself. Yet the fact remains that God whispers to us in the rhythms of life, reminding us that as we work, He works too, that sometimes He works most of all when we don't.

George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis' inspiration, once wrote that Every day begins with sleep. It's an unusual saying, since most of us tend to think that the day ends with sleep and begins with the blaring of an alarm clock. Perhaps, however, if to sleep is to trust God, then to say the day begins with sleep is simply to say that all our efforts are, in the beginning, God's work. Whatever we accomplish in the course of the day, the foundation was laid by God. Ultimately, this is what the pauses in life remind us of: that even when we stop working, God is still there, at the beginning and end of all things.