Archives For Christian Wiman

Elijah’s Sons

Jason Micheli —  June 17, 2015 — 1 Comment

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x6831111.jpgFather’s Day

Gabriel

I discovered this photo the other night, scrolling through the computer and finding others like it that, having been snapped, disappeared into the cloud. Unseen by me. Or, the scab always tells the truth: I was too busy to notice.

I cried big, eyelash-less tears when I double-clicked on it and watched us maximize the screen together. I didn’t realize Mommy had taken the picture, or possibly it was X who stole into the bedroom and snuck it, hoping to catch one or both of us drooling in our sleep.

According to the date on the computer, one of them snapped it on a Sunday this winter, but there’s no time stamped with the date. I don’t know if this image captures an early AM after you crawled into bed with us on late Saturday night or if this is you having joined me for a post-worship afternoon nap. So it’s a mystery. The winter light through the shades, the ratty undershirt, our exhausted faces. You could bet either way.

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This picture, Gabriel, was taken a couple of weeks before that night the doctor called me when you, X and I were in the car, pulling into the driveway from swim practice. He asked- you overheard- if I was driving. ‘No,’ I lied. Then he asked if I was sitting down. ‘Yes,’ I said. Then I told you two to run along inside, and then I came in maybe 30-40 minutes later, having called your Mom and your Grandma and your Godfather, Dennis. And then you asked why I’d been crying and, afraid of not getting the words out or what they’d even sound like if I did, I then just rubbed your hair and hugged you.

Then I told you I loved you.

‘I love you more- too bad, so sad, you lose’ you said, scampering, innocent and unblemished to the shower.

The harder work of explaining cancer to you fell to your Mom. It always does.

Looking at this picture now, and not knowing the time of the day, I can’t help but wonder about it. Are we both really asleep with you on top of me? Or, is one of us (or both of us) just pretending? My guess is we’re both faking it and both know it, neither of us giving in, which is another way of saying we’re savoring the moment, stretching it out until it twists into a smile. My guess, that a picture can’t capture, is that you’re bearing down on my belly with your full dead body weight, waiting for me to gasp like the old man you accuse me of being. Maybe you went a sneaker route and are now, poker-faced with ostensible sleep- squeaking little farts onto me. That would, after all, explain the slight smile pursed at the corner of your supposedly snoring mouth.

I’m just now seeing this picture; I don’t recall the morning or the afternoon, but we’ve shared enough like them that I can wager a guess how the rest of this moment went down. You grabbed my belly or my ‘disgusting hairy armpits’ and tickle attacked me. And I rolled over- maybe flipped you over WWE style- and we roughhoused until you got hurt or overstimulated or I got red-faced and winded and Mommy started wondering aloud why she’s stuck living with so many boys in the house.

I cried when I first saw this photo, a God’s eye image of us as innocent, happy and- dare your Preacher Dad say it- #blessed. Even though I just saw this photo the other night, I don’t think I would’ve seen it before.

Not like I do now.

Mary Karr (you should read her someday) writes:

‘What hurts so bad about youth isn’t the actual butt whippings the world delivers.

It’s the hopes playacting like certainties.’

I know you don’t think I am, Gabriel, but my oncologist keeps assuring me that I’m young (‘and healthy!’). Both youth and health, I’ve learned are relative terms when it comes to stage-serious cancer, but I’m at least not so old that the truth of Mary Karr says stings because hope charading as certainty is what I see in the picture, unexamined confidence that we have all the time in the world with each other.

And maybe we do- God, I hope we do- but I can’t pretend to be certain anymore. Even you know that now, I think, in your way.

We’re in a different place now than we were when Mommy or X snapped that photo of us, unawares in more ways than one. You’ve gone with me to the cancer center and visited me in the cancer ward. You’ve seen the old people and the people who look like me and the kids who look like you there, all sick. The same day I discovered this picture you got angry with me, Gabriel, righteously angry, while I made dinner. I’d gotten sent to the hospital that morning for blood transfusions and I’d missed your class play I’d promised to attend. Facetime didn’t cut it.

‘I’m mad that you weren’t there. You PROMISED. I hate cancer. I hate that cancer has you. I hate that God makes cancer. I just wish there was no cancer.’

It’s not just you though, G. Just a couple of weeks ago, I cried a guilty twinge of tears when I heard your brother say:

‘My real birthday present this September will be Daddy being all done with cancer.’

The innocent, unqualified optimism that I can’t possibly promise to deliver upon made my heart go slack.

These last 4 months I’ve done a lot of ill-advised late night Googling about expected life spans with MCL and average remission rates and median times to first relapse and what’s so overwhelmingly tone deaf in all the literature is how none of the facts and figures stop to consider how your Mom and I have the two of you in our (wing) span. These years are ours not mine alone.

There’s a word that comes to mind, Gabriel, when I look at this picture. You ready for it? It’s called THEOPHANY. You don’t know the word but you enough of your Bible to know what it means.

THEOPHANY = ‘A public presentation of God’s immediacy’ is how my fancy Bible dictionary puts it.

Theophany- you know the stories G.

As in, the LIGHT that strikes the apostle Paul blind on the road to Damascus. As in the VOICE that tears open the sky at Jesus’ baptism and declares ‘This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.’

Theophany. It’s God making himself known, in the now.

Like:

When God appears to Abraham and promises Abraham a future and a home and more children than the stars, God appears to Abraham as FIRE. Theophany.

And when the People of Israel cross over the Red Sea, the Lord appears to them as SMOKE and CLOUD and FIRE and finally in an EARTHQUAKE. And when it’s all over, the People of Israel are left promising: ‘We will do whatever the Lord says.’ 

And then there’s the story of Elijah. It’s in your Lego Bible.

But when it comes to Elijah, God is not so reliably typecast. When it comes to Elijah, God’s not there- not in the WIND, not in the FIRE, not in the EARTHQUAKE. With Elijah, there’s nothing. Just silence.

Elijah’s come to Mt Horeb, the place where Moses says to God, with bit lip and barely suppressed anger: ‘I want to see you. Show me…show me your glory.’ 

Elijah’s facing his biggest disappointment, his lowest point. Just when he should be celebrating, he has the rug of his faith pulled out from underneath him and he lands hard on his doubt and his hard questions.

For the first time Elijah can’t hear God all that clearly, and for the first time this prophet doesn’t know if God hears him. God’s gone silent on him. So, where does he go? He goes to the one place he can think of where he can ask God directly:

Why?

Why is this happening to me?

Why me and not them? Why me when I’m the one who’s been faithful?

Why have you let me down, God?

I thought if I served you, you’d watch out for me.

Isn’t that what relationship means?

Elijah goes to the place where God has spoken before, to the place where God has appeared as FIRE and WIND and SMOKE and CLOUD and EARTHQUAKE. He goes to the place where God gave Israel direction and certainty, to the place where God gave Moses comfort and guidance.

Elijah goes to Sinai in search of that word- theophany. You see, Elijah wants God to come in FIRE and WIND and TREMBLING. He wants God’s VOICE to tear open the sky and speak in a BOOM that sweeps all of his doubts and questions away. Just like Moses did, Elijah wants to put his foot down on Mt Sinai and demand: ‘I want to see you.‘ But what he gets is SILENCE.

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I’ve preached sermons on that story at least 6 times that I know, Gabriel, and every time I’ve always emphasized the the silence, stressed that God’s presence is found in the small, grace-filled diorama moments of our lives not in the thunder and boom of events in the larger world. And every time I would end the sermons with predictable lines like:

Just because you can’t see him clearly at this point in your life, it doesn’t mean he’s not there.

Just because he doesn’t feel as close to you as he did at a former time, it doesn’t mean he’s not with you.

Just because your doubt feels firmer than your faith ever felt iIt doesn’t mean he’s not with you. It doesn’t mean he’s not at work. It doesn’t mean he’s not speaking.

Just because you’d like nothing more than a mountaintop theophany in your life, it doesn’t mean God isn’t at work quietly and invisibly in your life.

Mostly, I think I’ve preached this way because I’m a product of Mainline Protestantism where we’re not sure if God actually works in the world anymore, but we’re definitely sure we don’t want to be mistaken for those other Christians who see God at work on the green screen of the weatherman’s map.

Looking at this picture of you, though, and thinking of that word THEOPHANY I’m now convinced it’s wrong to privilege one angle over the over because God is most assuredly in the fire and the wind and the earthquake as well the silence.

Lest God’s not God.

At the risk of sounding heretical (and, honestly, I’ve got bigger worries these days), a clearer way of putting this is that I think the narrator of Elijah’s story is wrong, no matter his/her dramatic aim.

God IS in the fire and the wind and the tremble.

After all, as God self-reveals to Moses: ‘I am He who Is.’

God, in other words, is the Source of Existence itself in that everything which exists owes its existence to God. God, please remember this in high school and college Gabriel, is the name we give to the question ‘How come________?’ God is our answer to the most important question of all: ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’

Of course, that doesn’t mean God is the direct cause behind every boom and bolt and quake, anymore than every diagnosis, but as Creator, continuously holding all things in creation in existence, God IS IN them.

What Paul says of God and us holds true of all created things: ‘God’s the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’

Or, as my teacher taught me:

‘God is the infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.’

In all things: fire, wind, dewdrops, silence, cells. Everything = THEOPHANY.

So if God is in all things, necessarily, including where Elijah’s narrator repeatedly stresses God ain’t, then what are we to make of the silence about which the narrator makes so much?

Despite committing rather elementary mistakes in the doctrine of God, what does the narrator of Elijah’s story want us to see by stressing that God is in that still small voice?

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Humor me. See if you can wrap your head around this-

Richard Taylor, a philosopher, once invited readers to imagine a man (or a boy) hiking in the woods where he came upon, out of the blue, a translucent sphere. Obviously, Taylor points out, the man would be shocked by the strangeness of the object and he’d wonder just how it should happen to be there floating in the middle of the forest.

More to the point, the hiker would never be able to swallow the notion that it just happened to be there, without cause or any possibility of further explanation. Such a suggestion would strike him as silly. But, Taylor argues- and this is money- what the hiker has failed to notice is how he might ask that same question, just as well, to any other object in the woods, say a rock or a tree or a spiderweb or a little boy as much as this strange sphere.

He fails to do so:

‘Only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. We’d be curious about a sphere suddenly floating in the forest; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place.’

Taylor says you can imagine that sphere stretched out to the size of the universe or shrunken to a grain of sand, as everlasting or fleeting. and it doesn’t change the wonder:

‘It’s the sheer unexpected thereness of the thing, devoid of any transparent rational for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.’

What’s all that mean, Gabriel?

It means every little detail and moment of our lives is a marvel no less than that sphere in the forest. It means every part of our lives together is a wonder  of which we could ask ‘Why this instead of nothing?’ It means everything around us is not necessary at all, not ‘natural’ unto itself and, as such, it’s charged, all of it, with the immediacy of God. It’s all graced. Back to that word again: its all THEOPHANY.

We just seldom stop to think/notice/marvel/wonder/praise that everything from the boom and bolt to your morning breath against my neck is as odd, and so a gift, as that philosopher’s sphere.

Looking at this picture, Gabriel, what’s so obvious to me now was missed by just as wide a mark back then, double-true for all the other moments we could have snapshots of but don’t. Funny how we take more pictures these days but give less praise, but that starts to sound like preaching and I’m on medical leave.

Here’s what I can say, G.

Only after the fright and upheaval, the pain and the uncertainty…of cancer do I see what was so clearly there. Is here.

I see it clearly enough it makes me wonder if Elijah ever had sons of his own.

My guess is he’d have had a hard time getting a date, but here’s what I think I missed about Elijah’s story all those other times. Or, at least here’s what I wonder. I wonder if Elijah would’ve heard God in the silence- in the still, small voice- had it not been for all the tumult that preceded it.

Maybe it’s not the case that God’s not in the fire and the boom but in the silent moments, as I’ve always preached.

Maybe the boom and the bust, the fire and the fear, calibrates our eyes to what’s there all around us. All the time.

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Christian Wiman writes that

‘Love is the living heart of dread.’

He’s got cancer too so he understands what others who just countenance optimism and perseverance miss. When love’s concerned, hope and dread aren’t that far removed from one another.

Dread is exactly what I feel sometimes and even when I look at this picture too, thinking of all the percentages and odds you can Google late at night.

Except thinking of that philosopher’s sphere and remembering that word, theophany, makes me realize that whatever we have to come- you, your brother, your Mom and I- are more marvels than we can count.

But that shouldn’t keep us from trying.

Money: A Poem

Jason Micheli —  November 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

ct-ct-ct-prj-christian-wiman01-jpg-20130419We’re in the middle of a sermon series on Generosity and Simplicity, a good time I thought for this poem from Christian Wiman. I love how the momentum of the speech tracks with the imagery, barreling towards it destination.

O the screech and heat and hate

we have for each day’s commute

the long wait at the last stop

before we go screaming

underground, while the pigeons

court and shit and rut

insolently on the tracks

because this train is always late,

always aimed at only us,

who when it comes with its

blue snout, its thousand mouths,

cram and curse and contort

into one creature, all claws and eyes,

tunneling, tunneling, tunneling

toward money.

– Commute (1)

Christian-Wiman-200x200Peter, I like to imagine, was a preacher after my own heart- and not just because of the ample baggage he carried with him into the pulpit.

I’ve always loved- relied upon- the full-throated, ballsy way Peter begins his Pentecost sermon:

“You people of Israel, listen to this. Jesus of Nazareth, you people used those outside the law to nail him and kill him. But raised him from the dead.” 

And when you stop to recall that Jesus’ tomb was only a stone’s throw away from Peter’s listeners, you realize it’s one hell of a way to begin a sermon.

You had him killed. He was buried right over there. God raised him from the dead. He’s not there anymore. 

And when you stop to consider that any one of Peter’s listeners at any moment could’ve gotten up from Peter’s preaching and simply walked over to Jesus’ still fresh tomb to see for themselves whether or not this preacher was a liar, you quickly realize that Peter’s preaching in no way allows for any vague, spiritualized notion of resurrection.

Similarly, I’ve always leaned on the way Paul defends the resurrection not by way of scripture or philosophy but by ticking off all the names of the people encountered by the Risen Christ. Over 500 of them. Including, last of all, Paul himself.

Paul won’t coddle any pablum that tries to water down this defiant declaration of resurrection to a limp existential feeling that ‘Christ is with us still.’

Of course that limp, reductive, hesitant, existential feeling (love is stronger-fingers crossed-than death) is precisely what many of us call ‘Easter.’

RELIGION_680X382Take, for example, this exchange cum confession from the conclusion of the article I posted last week from Texas Monthly about the poet Christian Wiman:

“When asked if he believes that the son of God, the Word made flesh, was actually crucified and placed in a tomb only to rise again after three earthbound days, Wiman glances up at the ceiling of the perfectly quiet conference room in the stylish offices he will soon vacate. His eyes close behind his rectangular glasses. It’s probably unfair to ask a poet and a conflicted Christian, a man who writes carefully and slowly and wonderfully, to opine off the cuff about a topic so weighty. He does believe it, he says, though not in the same way he believes in evolution or in the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. It is a different sort of belief, a deeper kind of truth. Finally, he finds the words: “I try to live toward it.”

Okay, so this isn’t as limp and lifeless a profession as, say, ‘Jesus is still alive in our hearts’ but it’s still nowhere in the neighborhood of Peter’s clear-eyed profession:

You had him killed. He was buried right over there. God raised him from the dead.  

I bring this up because a reader of the blog asked if I would respond to Wiman’s appraisal of the resurrection.

‘Isn’t it just Bultmannian pablum?’ I think was the exact question.

And to bait me even further, the questioner compared me, in sarcastic tone and depth of substance, to Bishop Will Willimon.

Nice.

To return the flattery with a kindness of my own, I wanted very much to drag Christian Wiman through the rhetorical mud. I wanted to stuff Wiman with straw and then knock him over with heavy-handed prose.

But, truth be told, I can’t bring myself to do it.

As much I don’t want the Willimon comparison to slip away, I can’t write Wiman’s comments off as ‘pablum.’

And not just because I admire Wiman’s poetry.

I can’t because Wiman has cancer. Will always have cancer. Near certain death has intruded upon his life at several junctures. Tumors in his blood have welled up to push and stretch at his skin. Pain has at times crippled him.

Wiman, therefore, is someone who’s carried a burden I only know from a distance, which makes him someone who would know very well how empty are our culture’s spiritual cliches.

He’s also someone, I imagine, whose own likely shortened life has prompted him to wrestle earnestly with what Peter and Paul have to say about life after death.

And so I’ll have to save the snark for another day. Christian Wiman’s words may not be Christian enough for me.

They may not bear too close a resemblance to Peter’s words, but I’m wiling to grant that they are nevertheless words hewn on faith.

 

 

 

 

 

Christian-Wiman-200x200Christian Wiman is one of my favorite poets. He is, by any measure, one of the most skilled writers working today. He’s the sort of writer that makes you never to want to write another word again.

A friend’s post on Facebook recently alerted me to the news that Wiman is giving up his position as editor of Poetry Magazine and taking a teaching position at Yale Divinity School. Wiman’s prose has often dealt with his battle with cancer and his return to faith after a hiatus of doubt. Here is the essay, Gazing in to the Abyss, from the American Scholar that first introduced me to his work. It’s well worth the read.

Though I was raised in a very religious household, until about a year ago I hadn’t been to church in any serious way in more than 20 years. It would be inaccurate to say that I have been indifferent to God in all that time. If I look back on the things I have written in the past two decades, it’s clear to me not only how thoroughly the forms and language of Christianity have shaped my imagination, but also how deep and persistent my existential anxiety has been. I don’t know whether this is all attributable to the century into which I was born, some genetic glitch, or a late reverberation of the Fall of Man. What I do know is that I have not been at ease in this world.

Poetry, for me, has always been bound up with this unease, fueled by contingency toward forms that will transcend it, as involved with silence as it is with sound. I don’t have much sympathy for the Arnoldian notion of poetry replacing religion. It seems not simply quaint but dangerous to make that assumption, even implicitly, perhaps especially implicitly. I do think, though, that poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me. Partly this is because I have at times experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am, and it seems reductive, even somehow a deep betrayal, to attribute that power merely to the unconscious or to the dynamism of language itself. But also, if I look back on the poems I’ve written in the past two decades, it almost seems as if the one constant is God. Or, rather, His absence.

There is a passage in the writings of Simone Weil that has long been important to me. In the passage, Weil describes two prisoners who are in solitary confinement next to each other. Between them is a stone wall. Over a period of time — and I think we have to imagine it as a very long time — they find a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall is what separates them, but it is also the only means they have of communicating. “It is the same with us and God,” she says. “Every separation is a link.”

It’s probably obvious why this metaphor would appeal to me. If you never quite feel at home in your life, if being conscious means primarily being conscious of your own separation from the world and from divinity (and perhaps any sentient person after modernism has to feel these things) then any idea or image that can translate that depletion into energy, those absences into presences, is going to be powerful. And then there are those taps and scratches: what are they but language, and if language is the way we communicate with the divine, well, what kind of language is more refined and transcendent than poetry? You could almost embrace this vision of life — if, that is, there were any actual life to embrace: Weil’s image for the human condition is a person in solitary confinement. There is real hope in the image, but still, in human terms, it is a bare and lonely hope.

It has taken three events, each shattering in its way, for me to recognize both the full beauty, and the final insufficiency, of Weil’s image. The events are radically different, but so closely linked in time, and so inextricable from one another in their consequences, that there is an uncanny feeling of unity to them. There is definitely some wisdom in learning to see our moments of necessity and glory and tragedy not as disparate experiences but as facets of the single experience that is a life. The pity, at least for some of us, is that we cannot truly have this knowledge of life, can only feel it as some sort of abstract “wisdom,” until we come very close to death.

On another level, though, the decision to stop writing wasn’t mine. Whatever connection I had long experienced between word and world, whatever charge in the former I had relied on to let me feel the latter, went dead. Did I give up poetry, or was it taken from me? I’m not sure, and in any event the effect was the same: I stumbled through the months, even thrived in some ways. Indeed — and there is something almost diabolical about this common phenomenon — it sometimes seemed like my career in poetry began to flourish just as poetry died in me. I finally found a reliable publisher for my work (the work I’d written earlier, I mean), moved into a good teaching job, and then quickly left that for the editorship of Poetry. But there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.

Then I fell in love. I say it suddenly, and there was certainly an element of radical intrusion and transformation to it, but the sense I have is of color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly alive. I remember tiny Albert’s Café on Elm Street in Chicago where we first met, a pastry case like a Pollock in the corner of my eye, sunlight suddenly more itself on an empty plate, a piece of silver. I think of walking together along Lake Michigan a couple of months later talking about a particular poem of Dickinson’s (“A loss of something ever felt I”), clouds finding and failing to keep one form after another, the lake booming its blue into everything; of lying in bed in my highrise apartment downtown watching the little blazes in the distance that were the planes at Midway, so numerous and endless that all those safe departures and homecomings seemed a kind of secular miracle. We usually think of falling in love as being possessed by another person, and like anyone else I was completely consumed and did some daffy things. But it also felt, for the first time in my life, like I was being fully possessed by being itself. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.

I don’t mean to suggest that all my old anxieties were gone. There were still no poems, and this ate at me constantly. There was still no God, and the closer I came to reality, the more I longed for divinity — or, more accurately perhaps, the more divinity seemed so obviously apart of reality. I wasn’t alone in this: we began to say a kind of prayer before our evening meals — jokingly at first, awkwardly, but then with intensifying seriousness and deliberation, trying to name each thing that we were thankful for, and in so doing, praise the thing we could not name. On most Sundays we would even briefly entertain — again, half-jokingly, — the idea of going to church. The very morning after we got engaged, in fact, we paused for a long time outside a church on Michigan Avenue. The service was just about to start, organ music pouring out of the wide open doors into the late May sun, and we stood there holding each other and debating whether or not to walk inside. In the end it was I who resisted.

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