forgive the dream
FORGIVE THE DREAM
All your images of winter
I see against your sky.
I understand the wounds
That have not healed in you.
Because God and love
Have yet to become real enough
To allow you to forgive
You still listen to an old alley song
That brings your body pain;
Now chain your ears
To His pacing drum and flute.
Fix your eyes upon
The magnificent arch of His brow
And allows this universe to expand.
Your hands, feet, and heart are wise
And want to know the warmth
Of a Perfect One’s circle.
A true saint
Is an earth in eternal spring.
Inside the veins of a petal
On a blooming redbud tree
Are hidden worlds
Where Hafiz sometimes
I will spread
A Persian carpet there
Woven with light.
We can drink wine
From a gourd I hollowed
And dried on the roof of my house.
I will bring bread I have kneaded
That contains my own
And cheese from a calf I raised.
My love for your Master is such
You can just lean back
And I will feed you
Your wounds of love can only heal
When you can forgive
* * *
I have given up asking too many questions about Scripture. Instead, I try to do the daily readings on the Orthodox calendar (most days), and fancy them sinking into my mind like water receding into a thick rug. This week I was certainly tempted to ask: Why was it acceptable for Rebekah and Jacob to conspire against Isaac to steal the blessing away from Esau? Poor Esau, really. But I happily decided not to go there. I am getting too old for this. I love the Bible as much as ever, but it may be enough just to read it and let it sink down into me, become a quiet part of me which may, at some crucial juncture, resurface and make itself available, rather than ask these questions, which only get more impossible with time.
I am beginning to understand something about myself: my theological curiosity has grown old before its time. At age thirty-two, I have come prematurely to the end of my life’s quota of youthful vigor necessary to wrestle with angels. Theology, at moments, makes me wince. While working for a short time at an academic press, my boss, the press director, who had a wonderful sense of humor, had a little scrap of paper taped to her door with a quote that said something like: “I have but a tiny light to guide me through the dark forest of life. A theologian comes and snuffs it out.” She also, for the record, had a rubber ink stamp with the word, “BULLSHIT.” I really liked that boss.
I think my theological exhaustion may be rooted firstly in the fact that I have had so many theological teachers–more than anyone should rightfully have in the course of one lifetime. And their voices are still very present in my mind, as if a disparate group of people are simultaneously talking to me.
It began with family members, like my grandmother, whose favorite topic was soteriology (although she never would have called it that), and was very keen on preempting any doubt in her grandchildren that we might not be eternally saved. I think this was because she had herself wrestled quite a bit in her life with this precise doubt and had finally settled firmly on the doctrine of “once saved always saved.” She always talked about a time in her twenties when she had been running herself ragged trying to volunteer, and basically be a perfect Christian, until one day she collapsed onto her bed and told God that she couldn’t do it anymore. I cannot remember enough to recount exactly what happened next, but vaguely remember that from that point on she understood that God did not expect perfection and had wrought salvation on her behalf. Based on the number of times she retold this story, I can only imagine that it was a kind of mystical experience that shaped the rest of her life and her identity as a Christian.
She prayed faithfully for a list of people every day, and knew in a very definitive way who on the list had ever prayed the prayer of salvation, and who had not. She knew for a fact that so-and-so had once gone forward at a Billy Graham rally and prayed the Sinners’ Prayer. One of my older cousins was on the list of people whom she had seen with her own eyes go forward at a Billy Graham rally, and I know that she clung to that fact when, during his teens, he abandoned going to church.
She could quote a large number of scriptures supporting this position and, whenever my sisters and cousins were a captive audience in her living room or gathered around a table, having lunch at the Orlando Country Club, she gave us this presentation in various permutations. I have no doubt that she was motivated by sincere love for us, and by a deep belief in God, and I remember listening to her earnestly and taking her words to heart, even though I often craved a less formal relationship with a jolly grandmother who simply gave me bear hugs, and dug around outside in a garden.
The photo above is a page of her father’s five-year journal from the 1930s. He was a Presbyterian minister who founded Park Lake Presbyterian Church near downtown Orlando in the 1920s. I love old fashioned things like this that promise to illuminate the past, and was thrilled when my grandmother gave it to me a few years ago, before she died. But if I expected anything terribly gripping in these little entries, I was disappointed. I knew that his children– all six of them–both idolized and feared him. I knew that my grandmother routinely ran and hid under a desk when he returned home, because he was so strict. I knew that his legacy was responsible, in a large part, for many of the fears and anxieties that shaped my grandmother’s life, and, in turn, my mother’s.
But the journal really sheds no light on any of this. Instead, the entries are strictly quotidian, records of who he “visited” that day (it seems that his ministerial career was comprised primarily of visiting, visiting, and more visiting), the names of gentlemen elected as deacons in the church, the topic of his last sermon, and whether attendance that Sunday was good or poor. The thing I like most about the journal though, is simply his penmanship, and the creative variations he uses throughout when writing the day of the week with a fancy first letter.
My own mom did not feel bound to the traditional Protestant Christianity of her upbringing and was more inclined to shop around. My dad, mistrustful of most people and churches in general, and not terribly invested in where we attended church (because he basically ignored whatever happened in the worship service and sat in the pew reading his heavily highlighted Bible) always let my mom pick which church we attended. We went to a Baptist church until I was about eleven. Then came a day when my mom ran into our Baptist pastor’s wife at the grocery store, and had a chat. Somehow the topic of healing came up and the pastor’s wife said: “Oh, we don’t believe that those sorts of things happen nowadays.” My mother was somehow deeply dismayed by this statement, and became restless at the Baptist church. It was on the basis of this ill-fated grocery store encounter that she decided to shift our family to an Assemblies of God church, where they believed that those sorts of things could happen nowadays.
This was how, in my teens, I got swept into a really gigantic, 300-person youth group with a rock band and a youth pastor who, in a desperate effort to identify with high school students, wore really dorky ripped up, stone washed jeans and t-shirts, and preached bombastically and ceaselessly about resisting the temptation to have premarital sex.
From the time we began attending the Assemblies of God church, was, as best as I can trace it, when the tiny fissure in my religious psyche began. I remember how sad I felt that my oldest sister Kathryn, probably a junior in high school at the time, refused to switch churches with the rest of us. She played (or, according to my dad, pretended to play) clarinet in the Baptist church orchestra, and had too many friends there. She was incredibly social. Plus, she said, she was not going to attend any church with a parking lot as big as Disney World’s. Although I could not articulate why, and probably never admitted it to myself, I sensed that she was being the sane one. It depressed me also to suspect, somewhat remotely, that it might behoove me to be a more rebellious child than I was capable of being.
The other day my mom, on the phone, said something out of the blue that surprised me. She told me that she and my dad are “proud of the church we are in,” (meaning the Orthodox Church), and that she was sorry that I was subjected to that terrible youth group in my teens, and that, at the time, she really hadn’t known how crazy it was or what was going on. Thinking back to my mom during the course of most of my childhood, she did seem perpetually distracted, and I, spiritually unsupervised.
There is certainly a lot more to the story. I ended up attending a Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee sight unseen, and things got even messier for me there. Chapel attendance was required, and students whose attendance lapsed went on “chapel probation.” To keep track of attendance, the college had a team of student volunteers, whom my friends and I called “chapel police” who scanned your student i.d. card at the door. I survived college by banding together with anyone else who had a sense of irony, and others, who, like me, may have been hard pressed to explain exactly how they wound up at a college like this. One especially brilliant friend showed up at chapel one day with his i.d. taped to his forehead, parodying the mark of the Beast in Revelation– an allusion which would not have been missed by anyone in that crowd. He was always doing things like that, making the dissenters happy.
But without turning this into a full-length spiritual biography, it may explain in part why, when, as a junior in college, I first stepped into an Orthodox Church and saw a large fresco of the Annunciation–an angel with swift feet greeting a peacefully receptive Theotokos–I felt a profound sense of awe and relief. Of course, I still had a lot more fight in me, and hauled myself off to an Orthodox seminary, which was quite happy to help me finish the wrestling match. I really will never forget how the dean said during orientation: “You’re here to have your edges sanded off, to be broken so that you can be rebuilt,” and so forth. Broken indeed.
These days, I can sense that such ordeals are not in the cards for me. My life feels so much safer, thank God. Even a two-minute “hard” sermon is enough to really tire me these days. Whatever zealous fire of faith burned brightly in my great grandfather and motivated a lifetime of preaching, visiting, leading, organizing, founding, and building–doesn’t seem to burn in me, at least in that particular way.
I’m sorry, but I would like to relax now. It seems that, for me, this may be the only way to let God into my life–to relax and feebly invite him, or rather, feebly RSVP to his invitation to the wedding, even though I really have nothing to wear. This might have to be enough for nowadays.
This week I have been intrigued reading a thirteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. And no, I am not dabbling in other religions. Even if I wanted to, I lack the energy.