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November 2011

Oh, Melancholia

My son accuses me of only listening to songs that are depressing and gloomy.  It makes me sad that he would think that.

Chalk that propensity up to years of listening to folk singers and singer-songwriters, many of whom major in angst and world-weariness.  No, I can't blame them.  Really, it's deep childhood trauma, the emotional scars of two events.  One, our dog, Pug (haunting name, isn't it?) died on Christmas Day.  Imagine that, a day on which the Incarnation is celebrated and our dog chooses that very day to "decarnate" himself.  Well, or something like that.  I was four, and you can imagine what I suffer from these 49 years later.

And then there were my three wicked step-sisters --- no, really just sisters, though the idea of stepsisters just sounds more wicked, doesn't it?  Before I had any dignity, that is, about the age of four, they dressed me up like a girl and paraded me around the neighborhood.  Have I forgotten?  Not on your life.  And yet, by God's grace this has not created any gender confusion but only contributed to this melancholia of which I write.

Oh, melancholia.  What a delicious disposition.  It's coming on Christmas. . . and if I had a river I'd skate away. . . at least that's what Joni Mitchell says in that kind of but not really Christmas song called, in true holiday fashion, "The River."  On the day after Thanksgiving I pull out all my lyrically saddest or most musically morose songs  --- all my Joni Mitchell sound-a-likes --- and play them over and over again on long car trips to wails of complaint and gnashings of teeth from the rear quarter.  I love it.  There is nothing like a sad Christmas song to cheer the heart.  Give me a minor key, anytime, an unresolved coda, a santa-brought-no-gifts-wife-left-dog-died-got-fired sort of faux country song, and I'm happy.  Sorta.

This Christmas I'm off to a particularly good start.  The Moravian Star I always hang over the side door lights up just fine indoors but won't light up outdoors.  Peters out just across the threshold.  It's inexplicable.  Spooked.  Gremlin-ized.  I'm afraid to task my son with it, as he may well make it more aerodynamic and yet still not solve the lighting problem.  (He's an aerospace student/pilot type.)  I'll make it fly --- one kick and I'll put it in my neighbor's front yard, and then we'll see if it lights up.

Got my daughter a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with one sad ornament on it.  The acorn don't fall far from the tree, does it?  Sad, sad tree, and she's so happy with it. I may even get a big tree and decorate it Charlie Brown style.  Very feng shui.  It takes a lot of effort to be lazy and call it simple.  One ornament.  Just one.

[Dad, what are you writing?

A new blog post.

About what?

Joy and happiness.

No you're not!  It's you.  It can't be.]

You see what I must put up with.  My melancholia is not respected, not taken seriously.  I am the butt of jokes, at the forefront of derision.  That makes me sad.

I am predisposed to words like bittersweet, ambivalent, or even adjectival phrases like happy-sad, as they all seem to be saying two things at once.  Keeps people hopping when you talk like that, and it suits my inwardly smiling melancholic disposition to find sadness inside of happiness, to be both-and not either-or.

But speaking of words, and getting to the point of this meditation on my melancholy, there seems to be a bias against the melancholic, a sense that it means someone who is depressed all the time.  Dig a little, though, and you see another definition, an older one: "pensive contemplation."  In that, I hear the Psalmist and Jesus, something to aspire to and not avoid.

When David declared in that most melancholy of psalms that "I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof (Ps. 102:7, NIV), he wasn't simply depressed but both burdened and comforted ---  he laments his sin and that of a nation and yet is comforted by assurances that God is faithful and compasisonate and will "rebuild Zion" (v. 16) and "respond to the prayer of the destitute" (v. 17).  He lay in a state of "pensive contemplation."  And when Jesus said "blessed are those who mourn," which is a state, as John Stott reminds us, to aspire to, a burden over the sin both without and within, he did not fail to promise that those who aspire to such mourning "will be comforted" (Mt. 5:4).  There is deep joy and hope and promise wrapped in a holy sadness over sin.

I can't play the truly sad songs, the lyrically nihilistic or musically chaotic.  I can't play them because they aren't true, beautiful, or good.  They embody the despairing sadness of a people without faith, hope, or love.  That's not me.

The melancholy songs speak to me because they carry the weight of sin and yet are better able to hold the promise of joy than the light and happy fluff.  A pensive contemplation is a posture that often suits me.  The deeper trauma that affects me is not sibling devilry or the loss of childhood pets but the trauma of grace.  From that, thank God, I will never ever recover.

That Other Country

A couple of weeks ago I remarked to someone outside my church that "people were dying all around me."  She advised that they had been dying all along, that I just hadn't noticed.  Fair enough.  Still, it seems there has been an unusual spike in deaths. For example, on October 15th my mother died.  One month previously, her brother died.  One month after her, the other brother died.  My cousin's wife's mother died.  My pastor's mother died.  A co-worker's mother died.  And so it goes.  People truly are dying all around me.

The monk, Benedict, once said that as a Christian one is to "keep death daily before your eyes."  When I wrote that quote down on January 11, 1997, I don't think I fully appreciated what it meant.  It's easy to avoid death in this culture.  I drive 20 minutes to work and back each day, and I pass no cemeteries.  I saw a rare funeral procession the other day, and no one seemed to know (or care) how to act in its wake.  Few pulled over or made way.  A couple of drivers even impatiently tried to pass the line.  And when death does come home to some, they do not know how to behave. They stumble over it, run from it.

When I was laid up in a  hospital once for six weeks, someone told me not to "waste my suffering."  I didn't want to hear that, and yet it was good advice, though it has taken me years to understand it.  Rather than giving into distraction or denial, it's better to let death wash over you, to live in it for a season.   I wouldn't say that's fun, but it is good.  I'm not at all happy about death, because it's not normal, was not intended by God, and yet it holds its lessons.  It's a great reminder that we live in a shadow-land of distractions and cares that diverts us from our homeward focus, that "other country" which all of scripture points to.

In an essay published over a decade ago, "The Glory of His Discontent," Don Hudson asserts that we are consoled in our own discontent --- our "holy" discontent --- in that God is also discontent.  He longs for  an end to the suffering of the world, to a final end to death, to a time when all is made right.  In imaging Him, we do likewise.  After all, something is amiss if we believe that this world is normal or as good as it gets, even though in the best of times we may deceive ourselves with such thoughts.

"Keep death daily before your eyes."  I doubt I can ever not do that now.  But I wouldn't have it otherwise, as it has made me a little more dependent on the only One who offers true consolation, to the One who knows our discontent better than do we.  Jesus wept.  God looks longingly out over a planet and people bent and marred by an unholy Disruptor, and He waits.  The Comforter comes and encircles us, carries the weight of our discontent.  And we live in the hope that our discontent will finally be undone, that all that is wrong will be made right. . . in that other country.

From Saint to Saint to Saint

"The colored sunsets and starry heavens, the beautiful mountains and the shining seas, the frgrant woods and painted flowers, are not half so beautiful as a soul that is serving Jesus out of love, in the wear and tear of common, unpoetic life."  (Frederick William Faber, in All for Jesus)

Of the nearly 400 books and notebooks which I cleaned out of my mother's house before she died, I found very few that yielded any personal reflections, any key to who she was and what she was thinking.  Perhaps it was characteristic of her generation not to speak about themselves.  But in additon to her well-marked Bible, one book that stands out (and which I have) is one I have seen on her nightstand or table by her chair for many years.  Streams in the Desert, by Mrs. Charles E. Cowman, is a book I never once looked at though it is one that my mother obviously read and re-read many times.  The cover of this 1992 large print edition (which, I confess, is nice for my eyes now), is well-worn from hands that carried it, opened it, and closed it, many of its pages falling from the binding.  It's not that she made notes in the book, as she did not, but she placed bookmarks in various places.  I can only guess at why the words on the marked pages meant something to her, and yet it gives me pleasure to follow her path, to look on pages that made her pause and reflect.

I didn't know anything about the author, Lettie Cowman, but I found out that she and her husband were missionaries to Japan and China during the early years of the Twentieth Century until they were forced to return home because of her husband's health.  She nursed him for six years.  Other than that, little more is to be found in her bio, and perhaps that is as it should be.  And yet her book, first published in 1925, has sold more than two million copies.  Like my mother's library and her bookmarks, it reveals the path she walked, the quotes and writings that meant something to her.  As such, it is a great source of encouragement to anyone struggling with a trial or difficulty.

One page marked by my mother had the quote from Faber in it.  Though the text does not make it clear, Faber was a Catholic priest in London who wrote, among other works, a book called All for Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Love Divine.  The fourth edition, the only one I found on Google Books, was published in 1854.  Reading just a little bit of it shows a man consumed with love for Jesus and for the common life he shared with his parishioners.  For example, he begins the book like this:

Jesus belongs to us.  He vouchsafes to put himself at our disposal.  He communicates to us everything of His which we are capable of receiving.  He loves us with a love that no words can tell, nay, above all our thought and imagination.  And He condescends to desire, with a longing that is equally indescribable, that we should love Him, with a fervent and entire love.    

And so it goes.  And then the quote that forms the epigraph for this short post has a beautiful phrase that demonstrates his celebration of the common life --- "the wear and tear of common, unpoetic life."  I love that sense that it is not the sainted who are to be revered so much as are the common, faithful Christians, those in the mud and muck of life, in the unpoetic trenches of daily obedience.  There is my mother who no doubt had her share of tribulation; Lettie Cowman, who cared for an ailing husband for six long years; and William Faber, parish priest faithfully serving his people --- the communion of saints, all now together in the presence of Jesus.

Don't discount the the paths taken by the aged and the long-dead.  They have tread where we shall go.  Follow the bookmarks of their lives.  Go from saint to saint to saint.



On October 15th, my mother died after a long bout with Parkinson's Disease.  She was 84.  I miss her.

I miss a lot of things.  I miss the ins and outs of my childhood, the home I grew up in, my father, my cat Pumpkin,  and my dog Faith.  I miss a world without cell phones, the internet, and cable tv which, despite the good they bring also bring so much that is destructive and distracting.  I have no love for nostalgia, for a time that I know to be somewhat illusory in memory,  yet what I really miss is my mother in that time, in a  time when she was there and all was right and the world was under her care.

A few days ago, coming home from a time with family, I passed by the exit to the hospice where she spent her last eight days of life.  I was overcome with sadness borne of what I think is really a lingering homelessness.  Though my mother had declined to the point where two-way conversation was not possible, she was still present in body.  There was always a place for me to go, a person to see, a reminder of the home I once had.  Though I long ago made a new home with my wife and family, my mother still represented my childhood home, the last physical reminder of that home.  Now, I really can't go home.

Francis Schaeffer once wrote (and no doubt many times spoke) of the world as we know it being abnormal.  It is not what it was intended to be.  Death is not normal.  My lingering homelessness is not normal.  When you are confronted by death, then like no other time you realize the contrast between what was intended by God and what is.  Loss is now part of our life.  The curse of sin, like a relentless entropy, is winding down the world.

And yet, thank God, it doesn't end there.  When my mother died believing in Christ, I sensed a new reality, one in which she is literally living on right now in the presence of Christ.  What I have assented to in my mind for many years I now assented to in heart.  And if she lives, then there is deeper magic at work in the world, one undoing the curse of sin and ultimately reversing death itself.

In some moments over the last year I allowed myself to think that all my mother did and thought, all the books she read, Bible study notes she took, dreams she had, and letters she wrote were all lost, would go to the grave with her.  They are not lost.  Every single thing she did mattered.  Not only is it part of her legacy but also a part of who she still is becoming. Nothing is lost but sin.  In Paradise she is only more of who she already had become.  There is no subtraction in death.

And yet still I miss her and what she represents.  I miss home.  I know something of what the Israelites felt in their Babylonian exile.  The Psalmist says that "[b]y the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion" (Ps. 137:1).  Whatever home they made in a foreign land, they longed for their true homeland.

Alien, stranger, sojourner, and exile --- so do I.  But my mother knows no homesickness or homelessness.  She's already Home.