Most years I read at least one book that shakes me to the core. A couple dozen books into 2015 I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014) and it shook me up good. I simply cannot recommend this book enough. Please read it. Stevenson’s story of fighting injustice in our legal system is heartbreaking but nevertheless impossibly hopeful. We often think hopefulness comes from strength. In some instances, perhaps it does. Yet, Stevenson shows how the brightest light of hopefulness shines through the cracks of the broken human heart. Late in the book he offers this reflection on brokenness.
When I hung up the phone that night I had a wet face and a broken heart. The lack of compassion I witnessed every day had finally exhausted me. I looked around my crowded office, at the stacks of records and papers, each pile filled with tragic stories, and I suddenly didn’t want to be surrounded by all this anguish and misery. As I sat there, I thought myself a fool for having tried to fix situations that were so fatally broken. It’s time to stop. I can’t do this anymore.
For the first time I realized my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of Joe Sullivan and of Trina, Antonio, Ian, and dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war, like Herbert Richardson; people broken by poverty, like Marsha Colbey; people broken by disability, like Avery Jenkins. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice.
I looked at my computer and at the calendar on the wall. I looked again around my office at the stacks of files. I saw the list of our staff, which had grown to nearly forty people. And before I knew it, I was talking to myself aloud: “I can just leave. Why am I doing this?”
It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill was being killed at Holman prison. After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice.
I do what I do because I’m broken, too.
Several weeks back, I found myself in Vancouver with nothing to do. So I left my hotel room to wander around the city and made it about fifty feet before stumbling into The Paper Hound, an amazing boutique used bookstore. The surprise of finding such an excellent shop along with the fine selection of books made me go tharn. I determined to return to my room for a few minutes to collect my wits and mentally prepare a list of titles to search. This is how I discovered my hotel room rested directly above the bookshop. The serendipity was irrefutable. I knew I had to spend time and money below the floorboards of The Victorian, where I was staying.
Over at Alan Jacobs’s Text Patterns blog, I have been following his technological history of modernity project. The thought occurred to me that so long as I was in Canada, I might try searching for a Canadian author in a Canadian used bookstore. Jacobs recommends Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology. She was German but made her life and scholastic career in Canada. Good enough. So I trotted out of my squeaky-floored hotel room, down the hall, past the fire escape, out of the front door, down the stairs, around the corner, and into the lusty smell of The Paper Hound’s book stacks, where I took my time getting to the section I figured would contain Franklin’s book. It did.
Ursula Franklin is my new favorite Wendell Berry.
This is only a small reflection on a large theme. A few videos and animations have made the rounds in recent years. These show the scale of the universe. I like being able to scroll from the smallest to largest known object in the universe, and it is fun to see the scale of the Minecraft world along the way. The size of the Virgo Supercluster is mind boggling, yet it is a spec. And seeing the scale of earth next to the largest known star, then realizing that the largest known star is just a pin prick of light in any of the billions of galaxies in the universe, well, it is marvelous beyond comprehension.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is the start of all revelation. It is how the revelation of scripture begins and it is how the revelation of nature begins. Our modern understanding of the scale of the known universe does not disprove a creator God, it merely underscores what ancients understood by the power of intuition; namely, a creator God must be powerful beyond measure.
If there is a creator God responsible for all that exists, regardless of how that God went about making it, that God is so powerful and awesome and impressive that if we ever came into that God’s presence then we would feel utterly powerless and insignificant and diminutive. This is a God who ignites supernovas a million times over as part of the creative process. We could expect our lives would be nothing to that God. Should we ever face that God, the only logical expectation would be instantaneous annihilation. But, if for even a moment that God paid attention to us, if even for a split second we were shown mercy, then our response would have to switch from terror to worship.
These are the options before the face of the creator God, and the options would present themselves in an instant: Insignificance and the expectation of immediate annihilation or else mercy and the hope of unending love. A moment of mercy before the creator God necessitates our eternal adoration.
A story is told of a wise old theologian who learned every jot and tittle of the Bible. Say the name Belshazzar in his presence and he would expound Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for an hour, then continue for sixty more minutes with a history of the Medes. He knew his stuff.
One Sabbath a young woman new to the faith approached the theologian in the narthex after the eleven o’clock service. She wanted to get things straight and understand the details of this religion that had so smitten her. The old sage’s reputation preceded him. Though she was nervous, she was more earnest than scared. She inquired, “Tell me sir, I would like to get things straight and understand the details of my new Christian faith. What must I know first?”
The old bookman opened his eyes wide and raised an arthritic finger to the sky. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” he said. He spoke with such conviction, the young woman looked up, half expecting to see the Sistine Chapel overhead. She collected herself. “And what must I know next?” she asked excitedly.
The last time we tried to sell our house we made the mistake of putting the cart before the horse. We did that in this way: before any buyer made an offer on our house we started looking at replacements. Our agent showed us places in our price range. And that is how we met Spooky.
We were not in a financial position to consider the kinds of homes that show as if Sunset Magazine had just finished a photo shoot there. Instead we visited the kinds of homes missing toilets, which the previous residents had taken with them on eviction day. We encouraged ourselves, “Lots of our friends have tackled fixer-uppers. So can we!”
Spooky lived with his owner in a townhouse we visited. We entered through a stairwell hallway that led to the living area above the garage. “Don’t mind Spooky,” said Spooky’s master. “She likes people.” Spooky’s master was a rotund balding man wearing a white sleeveless undershirt and sweat pants. He lounged on a red leather couch in front of a 200 inch flat screen TV. Spooky was a tender-hearted cattle dog with congenital heterochromia iridis. Clearly, Spooky’s master had not moved from his perch recently. All about the floors were tales of Spooky—clumps of Spooky fur unswept, partially-eaten Spooky bones left to dry out, Spooky toys ignored.
One of my favorite anticipations of any new year is the first book I will read. Often the first book of a new year is a reread from years past, such as Augustine’s Confessions or Frederick Buechner’s Godric or C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. But 2015 has started well with a new book from the aging (though apparently not much slowing down) historian Mark Noll.
His latest book, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Baker Academic, 2014) is typical of Mark Noll when he is asked to speak about himself: it everywhere tells the story of others. The agenda for the book, in the series Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity edited by Joel Carpenter, is personal memoir. The outcome is an engaging narrative highlighting key elements of Noll’s faith journey and academic career. Yet the main character of the book is Christ’s church universal, which despite foibles and follies manages to survive and even thrive right up to the present day.
[Warning: severe Interstellar spoilers ahead]
The most beautiful and lovely things always have been, and always will be, slow.
Almost anything moving fast is naturally appealing. Where I live there is a kind of zoo called the San Diego Safari Park. Essentially the Safari Park is 1,800 acres of Africa relocated to north San Diego county. (By comparison, the more famous San Diego Zoo is 100 acres.) At the Safari Park there is a lot of land for animals to cover if they get motivated to take off running. Sometimes there is motivation. It is just awesome to watch a gazelle trucking across the savannah. Or there is this bighorn sheep exhibit that is basically a hundred-foot sheer rocky cliff. Occasionally you get lucky and see one of these beasts leaping up (or down!) the cliff like a bullet. Fast is beautiful.
When my daughters were younger I often traveled for business. Returning home from a trip, Leanne would bring the family to pick me up from the airport. I would get through security and make eye contact with my daughters. The older ones smiled but played it cool and waited for me. The younger one took off running. Trying to look like an adorable dad getting home from a long trip, I stopped walking, swatted down, and spread out my arms for a big hug. And waited. My kneecaps began to swell. Lactic acid stabbed like switchblades into my butt cheeks. All smiles and big eyes, she had wobbled half the distance and I was growing faint. Slow is more beautiful.
The antidote to an unsustainable life is to stick around a place.
I have been thinking about this a bit. At the university where I work, this semester I am teaching as an adjunct, handling the course “Sustainability In Action” for a colleague on sabbatical. Texts on sustainability tend to focus on the very real challenges of climate change and emerging economies and dematerialization. It is good to think about these issues when we think about sustainability, and to try to work on solutions to them. But preceding the sustainability problems that make news headlines comes a decision that regularly goes unnoticed. It is a decision by some person or persons to leave. Here is the versified form of what I am attempting to say.
People these days pack up to get to the next place.
No one seems to stick around anymore.
Who can say they’ve heard laughter after the decades;
the same laughter that they’ve heard,
over and over before,
or the same tears splashing down on the same old floor?
People these days hurry off to the next place.
Everyone seems headed through a door.
The inaugural Hutchmoot in 2010 was something else. All the speakers were amazing. Walter Wangerin, Jr. was masterful. Months later, Wangerin visited San Diego to see the premier of the Lamb’s Players Theatre production of his The Book of the Dun Cow. Chauntecleer and Cockatrice battled it out above the stage suspended by theatrical wires. It was awesome.
There is a small café next to the theatre and during intermission Leanne and I sat chatting with Walter Wangerin. We mentioned Hutchmoot.
“You’re some of those young musicians then,” he said.
“No, just fans of the musicians, and of writers like you,” we replied.
I added, “Clearly, you have never heard me sing.”
We discussed writing and his writing process and publishing and some small talk I cannot remember anymore.
The mission of Lamb’s Players Theatre is to “tell good stories well.” It’s one of the most simply stated mission statements I have ever read. Over the years we’ve spent quite a bit of time at Lamb’s and so have experienced their mission statement in action. They fulfill their mission with abandon. When Les Misérables made the lineup for Lamb’s 2014 season, I knew we had to take the kids.
Our oldest daughter saw the movie. That’s one of my major parenting regrets, that I took her to see that royally stupid movie before taking her to the theatrical production. Just one more topic to discuss with her therapist some day. “So then Eponine sings, ‘…a stranger’s just a stranger…’ and like literally a stranger walks right by her. And I am wondering, what am I missing? Tom Hooper must think I’m like an imbecile.” “Hmm. So, your parents took you to see the movie before the Broadway production?” “Yes.” “We’re going to need at least three more sessions,” says her therapist jotting something down on a yellow legal notepad.
Here is a literary exercise which might help illuminate a dilemma nagging my real life. When we are done with the exercise, hopefully, you can give me counsel.
Think of one or more novels (or movies) that have shady characters. In the comments, list the title of the novel (movie) and the shady character. Now, by shady I mean to imply a character of doubtful reputation. A shady character is not definitely bad. Neither is she certainly good. Usually a shady character seems to be up to good but somehow gives the impression her motives are dubious. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they are not. Other characters are attracted to a shady character but never feel comfortable they should be drawn to her. Almost always, no matter how the shady character turns out in the end, the other characters are better off for having journeyed with the shady character for a time . . . but not always.
A shady character can be as subtle as Mr. Tumnus leading Lucy Pevensie into the woods. A shady character can be as enigmatic as Sunday taking Syme on a wild goose chase. A shady character can be as unpleasant as Haymitch Abernathy mentoring Katniss Everdeen; Katniss herself is a shady character. Shady characters are most of the people sitting around Edna Spalding at church in that final scene of Places in the Heart.
It happened driving home the other day and I am nearly sure it was not my fault. Yes, I was on the phone and the conversation was a touch heated. But, like always, I talked hands-free and cut my usual path northbound in the next-to-fast lane without swerving in and out of traffic. Moreover, I was such not a distracted driver that I heard the honk and therefore checked my mirrors.
Her tiny reflection was in the fast lane several cars behind me. She was waving one-tenth of her manicured fingers and repeatedly mouthing a short phrase that ended with the second person singular pronoun. “South Pole elf,” I thought and turned my attention back to my phone conversation and to the road in front of me. But she pursued.
If all goes according to plan, in the fall I will be filling in for my colleague on sabbatical and teaching the course “Sustainability in Action” at Point Loma Nazarene University. The purpose of the course is “to equip us as scholars and citizens of the United States, the world, and Christ’s Kingdom to be effective champions of the changes humanity must make in order to live sustainably within the ecological and social limits of earth.”
In preparation for the class I have been brushing up on my agrarian readings. Today I have been enjoying Norman Wirzba’s edited volume, The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land: The Essential Agrarian Essays. By itself Barbara Kingsolver’s “Forward” is worth price of the book.
Yet, this afternoon I took a break from reading agrarian prescriptions for sustainability to watch the livestream of the SpaceX Falcon launch to the International Space Station. It was killer! And yesterday’s news from NASA that the exoplanet Kepler 186f orbits within the habitable zone of its star was awesomeness on a Perelandraic order. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to confess I am secretly writing a sci-fi story.
Between any person and any other person is the middle. What happens in the middle makes a significant difference. For not one of us ever experiences another person without first passing—physically, emotionally, spiritually—through the middle. Picture the middle by looking over this simple illustration:
Any other person
Think for a moment about all that happens in the middle. Take a simple relationship, a husband and wife. Consider everything between them. They see each other, hear each other, touch each other—bodies are in the middle. Usually they are wearing clothes—fashion is in the middle. Usually they are somewhere—a house and parks and all manner of created spaces are in the middle. He was the first child of three and she was an only child—all the experiences of their families of origin are in the middle. She speaks English and so does he—language is in the middle. But she is from New England and he is from the Pacific Northwest—cosmopolitanism and hipster culture are in the middle. She grew up Catholic and he grew up Baptist though now they attend a Presbyterian church—religious expression is in the middle.
In his poem, “A Footnote to All Prayers,” C. S. Lewis insisted whenever we speak to God we must acknowledge,
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou, …
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
Saint Augustine expressed it succinctly in his small book, On Christian Teaching, “God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept our praise.”
This is one of the most remarkable paradoxes of the Christian life. The more one realizes how no expression of praise could possibly be worthy of God, the more one feels compelled to shout Hallelujah! It is nothing short of audacious that for the past two thousand years believers have gathered every day to worship Him whom they know they could never adequately worship.
[Editor’s note: David Bruno is a graduate of both Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College and calls himself a “wanna-be” scholar of church history. He’s also the author of the 100 Thing Challenge and one heck of a nice guy. He’s diving in deep today with this first Rabbit Room post. Don’t be afraid to dive in with him.]
Saint Augustine wrote a small book in 393 that I like to use as a reminder. The book, Faith and the Creed, was an address he gave to a plenary council of the African Church. In it, he exposits a combination of the Nicene and Romano-Milanese creeds. As you would expect from Augustine, the entire short book is good. Yet, I especially like the introduction, where Augustine explains the use of the creed and the importance of its defense. He begins with its use.
But the Catholic Faith is made known to the faithful in the Creed, and is committed to memory, in as short a form as so great a matter permits. In this way for beginners and sucklings, who have been reborn in Christ but have not yet been strengthened by diligent and spiritual study and understanding of the divine Scriptures, there has been drawn up in few words a formula they must accept in faith, setting forth what would have to be expounded in many words to those who are making progress and are raising themselves up to attain the divine doctrine in the assured strength of humility and charity.
The Bible is a big book and theology is an expansive discipline; there is much to learn. The creed serves as an orientation to the Christian faith for those who are new to it. But also, the creed is a reminder for those Christians who have dug deeper into the Scriptures and have lived in the faith long enough to have experienced the conundrums of discipleship, which often engender doubts. Be sure, doubts will arise. Not just because faith includes disheartening mysteries, but also because there exist people who do not believe the Christian faith and who are not content that others should. This is why Augustine makes a case for exposition.
But the exposition of the Faith serves to fortify the Creed, not that it is given to be committed to memory or repeated instead of the Creed by those who obtain the grace of God. But it guards the things contained in the Creed against the wiles of heretics with full Catholic authority and with a stronger defense.
In a word, all Christians need to remember the basics of faith and also we need individuals who will expound the complexities of faith. Few of us would feel comfortable categorizing ourselves alongside the likes of Augustine, one of the great expositors and defenders of Christianity. But, neither with false humility should many of us claim only to be sucklings. The majority of us are in between.