Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Good Rant

When I first started visiting an Episcopal church years ago, it was early on Sunday and the occasional weekday morning. I'd enter the church in the dark and the quiet, slip into a pew, kneel and say some prayers. Then I didn't know what to do. Whether or not anyone else was present, it would be ever so quiet and still, and my mind would race in a million different directions. What steadied me and prepared me for the Eucharist was leafing through the Book of Common Prayer.

I soon developed the habit of reading the Psalms. I'd simply open up a page at random and start reading, the more obscure and unfamiliar, the better. I was struck with the violence and anguish in many, but most of all the deeply human voices I heard crying and singing out of time and space. They came to me when I most needed to hear them, when I was lost, hopelessly I thought.

This morning it is dark and still. I recently put the Daily Office (courtesy of Josh Thomas at on my Google Reader, but this was the first time I did more than give it a cursory glance. Lo and behold, there was one of those psalms, the quirky, howling kind that came to me so often in that early morning sanctuary.

I can't explain why I love these so. I know -- they seem to speak in terms of violence, vengeance, and retribution, darkly dividing the world between Me and Them. That's not what I hear, though. It's the intensity, the emotion, the raw humanity that draw me in, yet leave me with a quietude and trust beyond all reason. It is the scandal of the Incarnation, the God who comes to us in the Bethlehem stable, knows the depth of our betrayal in the garden, and finally reaches out to us in our broken humanity as we kneel, trembling beneath the Cross. He knows and hears us when our voices cry out in anger and despair, yet steadies and draws us near. God is forever just and merciful through all the torrents of our human cries and cares.

Here is today's psalm from Morning Prayer

Psalm 55

Hear my prayer, O God; *
do not hide yourself from my petition.
Listen to me and answer me; *
I have no peace, because of my cares.
I am shaken by the noise of the enemy *
and by the pressure of the wicked;
For they have cast an evil spell upon me *
and are set against me in fury.
My heart quakes within me, *
and the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me, *
and horror overwhelms me.
And I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! *
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee to a far-off place *
and make my lodging in the wilderness.
I would hasten to escape *
from the stormy wind and tempest.”
Swallow them up, O Lord; confound their speech; *
for I have seen violence and strife in the city.
Day and night the watchmen make their rounds upon her walls, *
but trouble and misery are in the midst of her.
There is corruption at her heart; *
her streets are never free of oppression and deceit.
For had it been an adversary who taunted me,
then I could have borne it; *
or had it been an enemy who vaunted himself against me,
then I could have hidden from him.
But it was you, a man after my own heart, *
my companion, my own familiar friend.
We took sweet counsel together, *
and walked with the throng in the house of God.
Let death come upon them suddenly;
let them go down alive into the grave; *
for wickedness is in their dwellings, in their very midst.
But I will call upon God, *
and the LORD will deliver me.
In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday,
I will complain and lament, *
and he will hear my voice.
He will bring me safely back from the battle waged against me; *
for there are many who fight me.
God, who is enthroned of old, will hear me and bring them down; *
they never change; they do not fear God.
My companion stretched forth his hand against his comrade; *
he has broken his covenant.
His speech is softer than butter, *
but war is in his heart.
His words are smoother than oil, *
but they are drawn swords.
Cast your burden upon the LORD,
and he will sustain you; *
he will never let the righteous stumble.
For you will bring the bloodthirsty and deceitful *
down to the pit of destruction, O God.
They shall not live out half their days, *
but I will put my trust in you.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

This isn't love, or is it?

I realize that for some all the fuss about Harry Potter is most unwelcome. I like to buck fads myself, and with Harry Potter parties everywhere, I’d normally run for cover.

But I’ve known Harry a long time now. My children fell under his spell at the very beginning. When we first moved out East, the opening of the first Harry Potter movie coincided with my daughter's birthday. She invited a number of her new friends from elementary school, but a couple mysteriously declined her invitations. We learned later that it was because their churches forbade it. I could not for the life of me explain it to my daughter (“but it’s just pretend, Mom”). But that was enough for me to stand for, not against, Harry Potter, even after they came out with the overpriced Bertie Bott’s jelly beans in the bookstores.

I did, however, have a good friend who a few years into the craze told me how fearful she was about its influence on children. She’s a conservative, evangelical Christian, of Midwestern Lutheran roots, but she’s my friend and, in my eyes, a wise and wonderful woman, even though there are some things we agree to disagree on. So all I said to her was that my children simply took it as fantasy and, at least for them, I didn’t see any harm in it.

I haven’t thought much about it all in recent years. I did spend one winter listening to my daughter read out loud one of the longer books (No. 4?) simply because she enjoyed reading out loud, loved Harry Potter, and it was a way to kill time on the long drives to and from soccer. Yet some of the later books were, I thought, tiresome in spots, and some of the characters seemed to deserve better and fuller treatment. So, I tried to keep the initial enchantment in mind, and not think too deeply about it all.

Indeed, the last thing I’ve ever wanted to do is to analyze the books. I studied literature in college and I can dissect and deconstruct words and cultural concepts with the best of them. But those games haven't been fun for me for a very long time, and, for me, reading Harry Potter has been about pure and simple pleasure, the kind I used to get as a child from crawling into bed and reading under the covers until late at night. Taking it too seriously, beyond affection and adventure, always struck me as besides the point.

Yet something finally did hit me in this last book, like a bolt of lightning. As I’ve said before, I won't leave any spoilers. I just want to pluck out one line that struck me deeply when I read it.

It’s this. Harry, about half-way through, ruefully reflects on Dumbledore and says:
This isn't love, the mess he's left me in.
That’s Harry for you. So simple and direct. Not Hamlet, Ulysses, or even Frodo. Just a boy, now seventeen, who’s lost his mother and his father, his beloved godfather, and, finally, his mentor and protector, who left him with only confusing and mostly useless clues as to how to survive, let alone conquer, the dark forces threatening his world.

I happened to see that boy this week, myself. In my case, it was my son, the recent high school graduate, cocky, sure of himself, at least when it comes to ignoring unsolicited advice and avoiding any semblance of parental controls. The kid who wondered why we wouldn’t let him drive alone the thousand miles to the cabin on the lake in the Midwest, and why we won’t let him take a car off to college, called me at home, in near hysterics, because the car stalled and would not restart in what he described as the middle of a busy intersection down in the village. I told him to calm down, put the emergency flashers on, and call the police and they’d direct traffic and maybe suggest who to call for a tow truck. But he was in total, emotional meltdown, so I ended up calling for him and going to the scene and taking care of things myself.

I’m not sure when or how it came up, but at some point he said something to the effect that of course he didn’t know what to do, his dad was gone and never taught him about cars and such. That didn’t make a lot of sense. Although his dad, who worked in the auto service industry and was a life-long aspiring race car driver, certainly knew a lot about cars, his stepdad had done plenty, including teaching him to drive the manual transmission (after I gave up on him) and getting him through his final practice runs at parallel parking before taking his driver’s license test. So I took it instead as something deeper, some lurking fear, insecurity about heading off to college, all in the shadow of knowing that his dad (who died last year) was gone for good.

So when I read that line in Harry Potter, that’s what hit me full force. It’s a cry we all make from time to time, either to a lost parent or to our divine Father, who often seems to have left us in a terrible mess with no discernible clues as how we are to manage on our own. And sometimes it really pisses us off. The least they could have done is leave a set of clear instructions.

I know that pain and frustration myself, the many times I have earnestly sought God’s will in prayer and could not be certain of the answer. I wanted a clear guide, a path, and sure knowledge that I was making the right choice, even though my choices were extremely limited and none appeared to be good.

I do believe, as the Prayer Book says, that the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation. But that’s not the same as the rules that so many crave, the maps and the clues Harry yearned for. We have God’s love and grace in abundance, but we are left to struggle, to blunder, time and time again, at times wondering what kind of love would leave us in this mess, even or especially when the mess is of our own making.

Sometimes we just don’t have the luxury of knowing ahead of time what we’re supposed to do, no matter how well we try to learn and prepare for life. It’s a hard lesson to realize that we have to take things as they come, to risk making mistakes, and to just do the best we can, sometimes finding ourselves in messes only we can clean up. Yet, even though we are very much on our own, we are not alone and we are not unloved. It takes awhile, but when we are calm and quiet inside we can come to know how deep, how broad, how high that love really is, the love that surpasses all understanding and will be with us always.