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March 2013

The Good Offensive

That sounds more like a sermon title, and I know better than to preach.  I can simply tell what I see.  Trees budding.  Robins eating from my bird feeder, a gray squirrel gleaning the castoffs.  Chickadees stealing the bluebird house, early tenants.  Grass stirring from winter slumber.  Air wafting into my study hinting of warmer climes, a down payment on Spring.  From my window on Creation, good seems on the move.

 "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good," says Peter.  That, however, is a long war, and my contribution pitiable.

I have a long rap sheet.  In some way or another, I have broken every commandment.  Both tablets.  I have explanations, rationalizations, and defenses, but in the end my fingerprints are all over.  I am a repeat offender.  And there are witnesses to my crimes.  And yet even in me good is on the move.  I am arrested and booked by love, and there is One beyond me who inhabits my smallish efforts, my "working out of salvation."

 You can look at the world and see absence, or you can look at it and see presence.  I see presence, and that is grace.  And yet evil --- whether the vapidity of what passes for entertainment or the offense that marches through the statistics we read in the newspaper --- sometimes makes me hover over absence, pausing to complain, like grizzled Habakkuk, who cries out "Violence! and you will not save?," who wags his finger at God and says "Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?"  By His grace, not by me, I move on.  I see presence.

My mother always told me to "be good."  I can't be good.  I belong to the cult of me.  My good is undercut by the desperate hope that someone will catch me in the act.  Filthy rags is what I have.  But when I consider me, when I contrast the feebleness of me with the all-sufficiency of Him, I have to smile.  Oswald Chambers calls it "divine hilarity," Frederick Buechner calls it the "comedy of grace."  I have a permanent inner smile, and my failings only broaden that smile.

The other day I took my first ride with my teenage daughter at the wheel.  I had warned her that I was prone to being nervous, as I had never ridden with her driving, and could be impatient.  Still, she wanted to drive.  When we screeched to a halt in our driveway, I turned to her and said, "Did I do OK?"  She said, "Yeah, you did OK, Dad."  That's grace.  Salvation.  Working it out with fear and trembling.  Divine hilarity.  God working in me for his good pleasure.

When I'm nearly overcome by evil, I hold in my mind that image from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  The seemingly eternal winter world of Narnia is about to recede, and yet evil still is ever-present.  "Aslan is on the move," the Beaver says.  And then Lewis says this:

And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer. 

And then there is faithful Sam at the end of the Lord of the Rings, looking up from his bed at the towering figure of Gandalf smiling over him, saying, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?  What’s happening to the world?”  What's happening?  Wheat and tares growing up side by side, that's what.  Evil flourishing in the midst of good, for a season.  But it won't always be.

Aslan is on the move.  The last move. The last battle.  The end of the last war.

"You did OK, Dad."  Thank God.


Map in the Mind

MapIn Robert MacFarlane's epic compendium of journeys on foot, The Old Ways, he observes that maps of the Holy Land and West Bank made by the Israelis (or, before that, the British) "each had its own colonial biases of self-interest and misreading."  No doubt cartographers face numerous decisions about what to include or exclude, the relative importance of detail, and the value of notation.  It would be inevitable, I suppose, that each would bring to the task their own predispositions. Their maps are filtered through their minds and their own presuppositions about reality, through "legends" true and untrue.

Naming is, after all, an important and God-instituted means of our knowing and taking dominion over Creation, of obeying the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15, to "fill the earth and subdue it," to "till it and keep it."  As theologian Loren Wilkinson reminds us, these twin verses both state in unequivocal terms the rule of man over nature and the role of man as servant of nature: humankind is the ruler of Creation not for self-interest but to help bring to fulfillment all of its potential.

 That humble rule is marked by a sympathetic "naming."  God brings the animals to Adam so that he can exercise his rule by naming each animal.  To name them, he must know them.  He must have observed their unique characteristics and given them a now unknowable name, one fitting them, one they could grow into.  Though we are not told of it, surely Adam also named the plants and trees of his garden, the places where he walked.  He was, indeed, the first cartographer, the first taxonomist.  So, we come by naming honestly.  We make maps.  They make us.  They are our way of taking dominion.  To leave that task to professional cartographers is to abandon our own place-making and, ultimately, to neglect our role to rule over what God has entrusted us.

 The developers of my small puzzle-piece of suburbia named its streets proper English words fitting its 1970s Williamsburg architecture, names like Winthrop and Gainsborough.  They no doubt sought to market the development in part via its courts and lanes, providing an illusion that one was buying into a quaint, English village.  I live in the map of their making, one that I have to adhere to for sake of public clarity, so the postal service can find me, so you can find me.  And yet I don't believe its the only or best way to map the place I call home.

MacFarlane walks the hills of Palestine with his friend Raja, using Raja's "map in the head," one signposted by personal memories and references.  Raja made his own hand-drawn map as well, one marked by pictures and event-captions, like "Where Penny and Raja came under gunfire, "Where I found a dinosaur footprint," or "Where Aziz picked up the unexploded missile."  MacFarlane is reminded of his walk on the English moor with Anne Campbell and her similar event-mapping: "Where the dragonfly had laid its wings out to dry."  "Where the eagle had preened."  Each notation bears a rich association with a unique spot, a Global Positioning System of personal observation.

I too have a map in my head.  There's "Where my children played in the rain," as I remember my then small ones splashing in water from a Summer shower.  Or "Daisy's house," for the good-humored golden retriever that greets me as I round the corner.  There's the" Last Lonely House," where in the wee morning hours a woman sits alone at a breakfast table, "Pooh-Sticks Bridge," where my stroller-bound son watched a sometimes trickling, sometimes rushing stream.  Kill Devil Hill.  Raccoon tree.  Mockingbird sings.  Albino fox crossing.  The Three Trees (all that is left of the old couple's home).  The Forest where the Fire burned.  The Gutter Geese.  Silent Chimes. Where I fell over a tree root.  Cactus Garden.  Pink house.  (Thank God, no missiles or gunfire.)  It's all there, in the map in my head.  I even wrote it down.  By doing so, I better know my place.  When I talk to my wife or children, we have some of these markers in common, a shared legend, a common story.  I might say "I saw the raccoon today," and they see that vine covered tree, or "over by the The Three Trees," and they know the place, the old house replaced by new homes, the forest cleared, the three trees the still visible reminders of another, a couple and their life.

One day, no doubt, we'll leave this rude Garden, and you won't find me out walking here.  My then grown children may return, find the map I've drawn, or summon up the one in their mind, and remember.  The impressions I've made may summon up the past in a way that  grounds them and propels them onward toward their own place-making.  The map in their minds may just help them find their way.