Monthly Archives: February 2012

Lenten Prayer Requests

Lord, bring us to our knees. Quiet our hearts.

Away from the onslaught of screens and tweets and texts, focus our eyes on you.

Abide in our perceptions, as we taste and see and hear that you are good.

In the stillness of dusk, on ever lengthening days; serenaded by car horns, engines, buzzing iPhones, birds, distant planes, and the mystical fugues of February vespers… speak to us oh God.

Remove us from ourselves. Help us to dismiss our notions of grandeur and relinquish our litany of self-appointed rights: that we deserve jobs, freedom and low gas prices; that our social updates deserve to be paid attention to; that the world revolves around us; that we can do with our bodies what we fancy; that the chief end of life is our own individual happiness.

Remove us from ourselves Lord, and draw us closer to You. Bring us to a distance–a desert, a depth, a hunger, Sehnsucht–so that what we see of ourselves isn’t glamour and greatness, but only your grace. Only your righteousness.

Only you, in fact, for it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Ashes to ashes, let us deny ourselves. Let us give ourselves away rather than grab what’s ours. Let us be crucified with Christ. Let us seek the cinders, Oh God, to be crushed as you were, refined to a new fragrance.

In the darkness, in the desert, in the endless debates, let us look to resurrection. The morning is coming.

Into debt we further go. Under avalanches of paperwork, tasks, and to-dos we further sink. Against our arthritic, cancerous, flaking-away bodies we further fight. The nations wage war and the blizzards take their toll. The groundhog saw his shadow.

But Easter looms.

We’re Not Anywhere

I was privileged this week to attend a poetry reading and lecture by poet Dana Gioia at Biola, and it was exquisite (I still look back on a 2008 poetry reading of Gioia’s at St. Mary’s in Oxford as one of the aesthetic highlights of my life).

Gioia shared several quite insightful thoughts about art, creation, and how we might become better artists/poets/writers. One of his observations particularly struck me. He said that one thing that most great writing, poetry and art share is a deep connection with and observation of place; that the best creators are usually the ones that are most connected to places and most attuned to the culture, people, customs and environs of the world around them, and particularly of the roots from which they’ve sprung.

Gioia lamented that when he observes people these days (mostly, but not exclusively, younger folks and “digital natives”), they seem place-less. They aren’t rooted in physical space or at all interested in observing the world directly around them. Rather, they live their lives through screens–computers, phones, televisions, tablets, connecting them in a mediated and abstracted way to anything and everything they wish. The world is at their fingertips; and yet, ironically, the real world right in front of them is hardly worth their notice.

He described a phenomenon we’ve all encountered (or, cringe, participated in ourselves): people walking in beautiful forests or down vibrant city streets with their iPod headphones in their ears, or their eyes glued to a phone. They’d rather escape into a private world of music, drowning out the sounds of nature or city life; they’d rather text or email as they walk, rather than look into the eyes of passersby or reflect on the curiosities of proximate physical existence.

Even as I write this (at Starbucks), I see it all around: about 20 college students sitting around tables mere feet from one another, and yet seduced by their own media bubbles, their attention focused on laptop screens, phones, their ears plugged by headphones. I’m frequently guilty of it myself. So much of my life as a writer is staring at screens, locked in to a world of text and www windows  for hours and days at a time.

I’m part of a generation that has “access” to more of the world than any prior generation in human history. Through our RSS feeds and Twitter streams of nonstop information, we zig-zag from one article to another, from music videos to streaming movies, stopping occasionally to chat, skype, or email someone on the other side of the world. Or maybe we pause for a reflective second to survey the collective outpouring of a thousand 140-character condolences when a celebrity none of us knew died in a hotel few of us ever will enter.

Gioia’s thoughts have convicted me, stirring up in me a sense of loss I’ve felt before: that our screens and media have gradually eroded our perceptiveness and (worse) our curiosity about that which is beautiful and interesting in the air and spaces in which we abide.

Before coming to Starbucks to write this post, I made a stop at a quiet rooftop garden on Biola’s campus, where for an hour I just sat on a bench and was present, observing the world around me–an activity all too rare in my life. I marveled at the beauty, silently taking it in: a hovering, buzzing hummingbird dancing around the blossoms of Salvia spathacea; the weightless purple-grey cloud cathedrals above; a palm tree shimmying with the wind in the sky, rustling like a cheerleader’s pom-pom unsure if it should cheer.

Oh what wonder there is in every moment and every place, if we only take a moment to explore and observe!

I want to be connected to the places that define me. And I do want places to define me. I want to understand the world right in front of me; not just through the screens 1 foot in front of my face.  I want to take note of the little things, relishing them as God-given invitations to worship: the way that a smell in church this morning brought me back so clearly to a memory of my cousins’ house as a boy; the way that the air feels in Southern California on a cool February day: faintly moist and salty, blown over from the Pacific, a refreshing contrast to the dry desert scents ushered in by Santa Ana winds.

I want to be a better writer, thinker, human being, because I’m as floored by the mystery and majesty of my neighborhood’s native succulents as I am with whatever trendy Tumblr everyone is sharing on Facebook today. The Internet makes it easy to be alert to everything that’s going on in the world, to know what all the important people are saying; but I think we must remember that we can get all that and more in the smallest of things, well observed–even in a grain of sand, William Blake might say.

Thank you Dana Gioia for reminding me to not take the world around me for granted, and to sometimes shift my gaze from rectangular screens to the planes and horizons beyond.

I’ll conclude with a poem by Gioia which seems fitting (from his award-winning volume, Interrogations at Noon):

“A California Requiem” 

I walked among the equidistant graves
New planted in the irrigated lawn.
The square, trim headstones quietly declared
The impotence of grief against the sun.

There were no outward signs of human loss.
No granite angel wept beside the lane.
No bending willow broke the once-rough ground
Now graded to a geometric plane.

My blessed California, you are so wise.
You render death abstract, efficient, clean.
Your afterlife is only real estate,
And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.

I would have left then. I had made my one
Obligatory visit to the dead.
But as I turned to go, I heard the voices,
Faint but insistent. This is what they said.

“Stay a moment longer, quiet stranger.
Your footsteps woke us from our lidded cells.
Now hear us whisper in the scorching wind,
Our single voice drawn from a thousand hells.

“We lived in places that we never knew.
We could not name the birds perched on our sill,
Or see the trees we cut down for our view.
What we possessed we always chose to kill.

“We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim,
And when we died, they laid us on her breast,
But she refuses us—until we earn
Forgiveness from the lives we dispossessed.

“We are so tiny now—light as the spores
That rotting clover sheds into the air,
Dry as old pods burnt open by the sun,
Barren as seeds unrooted anywhere.

“Forget your stylish verses, little poet—So
sadly beautiful, precise, and tame.
We are your people, though you would deny it.
Admit the justice of our primal claim.

“Become the voice of our forgotten places.
Teach us the names of what we have destroyed.
We are like shadows the bright noon erases,
Weightlessly shrinking, bleached into the void.

“We offer you the landscape of your birth—Exquisite
and despoiled. We all share blame.
We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth
For killing what we cannot even name.”

The Grey

Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is the first truly great 2012 release. Which is surprising. I didn’t expect all that much from it, thinking it might just be a typical “angry Liam Neeson” action film. But wow is it more than that.

Ostensibly a “been there done that” narrative (survivors of a plane crash in the harsh environs of remote Alaska try to stay alive), The Grey adds impressive layers of depth to what might otherwise just be a serviceable action thriller.

Neeson leads a band of seven survivors when a plane full of oil drillers crashes in the wintry, impossible wilderness of Alaska. From there, the movie could essentially be called Man vs. Wild. Or, more appropriately: Man vs. Wolves. There are wolves everywhere, and they are territorial and hungry. They like killing humans. And, one by one, they savagely pick off the band of plane crash survivors, stalking them mercilessly with those big, bad, glow-in-the-dark eyes.

The only option for the men is to fight back. To become wolves themselves, savage as they have to be. But just when you think this movie is going down the well-worn, Jack London-esque path of “humans are just as base, savage and instinctual as animals!” it becomes clear that that’s not what this film is about at all. The “grey” is not about the blurry lines between man and beast. It’s about the mysterious no man’s land in between life and death. It’s about the spiritual space at the end of one’s life, as the light of life dims and mixes with the unseeable darkness of whatever lies beyond.

The Grey is a movie about death. But don’t worry, it’s not depressing. It’s about dying well, dying humanely. What separates humans from animals? Among other things: the way that we die. Sure, we are like animals in that we instinctively fight to the death. Like wolves, we do not go quietly into the good night. But unlike wolves, when we do go into that good night, we do so self-reflectively, mournfully, existentially. We reflect on our lives and contemplate our conclusion  like a philosopher, holding the hands of our loved ones as we go.

The Grey is essentially one death scene after another, though not in the Final Destination sense. These are beautiful scenes. They don’t milk emotion gratuitously or take up more time than is necessary. But they pack a punch. Especially in the last 30 minutes of so, The Grey really hits you.

This is a poetic film. There is literal poetry in it, and it’s central. But it’s also poetic in the way that’s it’s shot, in the way that flashbacks are utilized (like in The Thin Red Line, women only really appear in flashbacks), in the way that manhood and masculinity are explored. It’s poetic in its honesty about fear, dread, bravado, faith.

God is a major character, albeit mostly as an absentee, unbelieved-in-but-raged-against force in the sky. He may not seem to have a place in a story about plane crashes, unholy blizzards and demonic wolves who tear apart humans, but make no mistake: The Grey has its mind on God, or at least His imprint on it. What gives humans the grace to die well? What is it really that separates us from animals and makes us, for example, willing to appreciate a handshake, a memory, and a mountain vista in our final moments of life? The image of God which we bear. It sets us apart. It is the light that gives reprieve from the “only the strong survive” darkness. It is the light which, in clashing with the dark, creates the grey.

On Sleep

I’ve been fascinated by sleep lately. And so, late though it may already be on a Friday night, I thought I’d write down some of what I’ve been thinking/asking about sleep, before I give myself over to it for 8, or 9, or 10 glorious hours.

I love sleep. Who doesn’t? I look forward to it. After a long day at work, and especially after a long week, or even in the middle of a tiring day, sleep is as or more exquisite than almost anything I can imagine. Why? 

The main question I’ve been pondering is this: Why did God create human beings to need to sleep? There’s really no reason he needed to. He could have just as easily created humans to be creatures alive, alert and productive 24 hours a day. Instead, he created us to be people who sleep about one third of our lives.

If I live to be 90 years old, I would have slept for about 30 years of my life. 30 years… of me being horizontal, eyes closed, unproductive. 30 years I could have spent doing, well, something more productive than lying in a bed! It seems almost wasteful. Foolish. Why did God create us to need so much sleep?

Why does sleep happen when the world turns dark? And why, after all, does the world need to turn dark for a large portion of its day? Why must we close our eyes and lie horizontal during sleep, as if mimicking death? Is sleep meant to be a daily reminder of our mortality? Is the vulnerable, subconscious state and the accompanying rising up again in the morning some sort of microcosmic circadian narrative clueing us in to the mysteries of death and resurrection? Is the daily energy cycle (sleep, renewal, work, tiredness, repeat) related to scores of other cycles of renewal in creation (seasons, photosynthesis, the renewing of cells in skin, etc), and what does all this reveal about the character and purposes of the Creator?

Maybe sleep is meant to be a sort of Sabbath reminder in every human body–something that forces us to stop, pause, rest, reflect, be. Like the 7th day of creation, like the Sabbath day of a Jewish week, we are to regularly rest, quit trying to be productive for a while, and just embrace waste.

God seems to find waste important. Or, at least God doesn’t seem to exist in a time-crunch. He’s not really in a rush. Which, if we consider the rather flimsy scale of time as compared with eternity, makes perfect sense.

On a similar note: Why did God create humanity to take so stinkin long to develop to full-functioning adulthood? What’s up with all those years of childhood before we actually start contributing something to the world? Most animals take just a few years, or months, or days to develop from birth to fully functioning adult. Not us. Waste? 

But back to sleeping. What on earth is going on with TIME when we sleep? This is the insanely trippy part. Sometimes when I go to sleep I’ll wake up in what feels like a second, even if its been 8 hours. At other times I have such vivid, involved dreams that in some mysterious sense it feels as though I’ve lived an entire life during the few hours I’ve been asleep. Weird. Is sleep meant to be some sort of removal from time itself? In the oddly unstructured, atemporal reveries of sleep are we getting glimpses of our eternal destiny, the unbound-by-time self we were created to be?

And what about dreams? What is going on there? Of all the great mysteries of  human existence, this is up there. Does God use dreams to speak to us? Do dreams help humans make sense of their waking lives? Sometimes my dreams do seem to make sense or at least compliment my waking thought life. Sometimes they terrify or confuse me. Should we even consider dreams “useful”? Or is it more proper to consider them cheerfully wasteful cerebral rabbit trails? (For more navel-gazing about dreams, see the wondrous philosophical ramblings of Waking Life.)

Another question: When God “caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep” (Genesis 2:21), was that a fluke thing or was Adam a pretty regular sleeper already? Was nightly sleeping a result of the fall or a part of the created order of things from the moment God called light “day” and darkness “night”? Will we sleep in heaven? I kind of hope so. I love naps.

Speaking of… I need to get to bed.

What a glorious mystery.