Freedom: What Is It Good For?

When I was a lad, I was generally considered to be an even-keeled, well behaved young man. But the truth is that I, even I, pondered such questions as, “Why be good?” and, “Why be responsible?” It seemed to me during those times responsibility was a trap: by exercising responsibility, I only set myself up for more responsibility, which, if exercised, led surely to yet more. And at each turn, when confronted with the choice to be responsible, or to do the irresponsible thing, the choice was not really a choice at all. Irresponsibility had its consequences, and responsibility had its…consequences.

So what is the point of this vaunted freedom which the Apostle Paul proclaimed that we, as believers in Christ, have? Did the devil’s track actually preserve my freedom to choose better than the straight and narrow? Because surely, if I leaned toward irresponsibility, the responsible choice was always there for me, should I want to take it. But if I stuck to the responsible path, I’d never have any fun!

Paul wrote a very succinct answer to this quandary in a letter to the church in Galatia. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” How cryptic. How circular. What a tease. What does it mean?

When an individual is given liberty to make choices, logically, he may make any choice he wishes. However, the best choice is always one which preserves and secures the freedom to make future choices. Let’s try on an example. As a Christian man, am I free to use heroin? Obviously, if I am free, then I must have perfect liberty to do so. However, this statement is true only the limited sense in which we might say, “I am perfectly free to surrender my freedom.” If I use my freedom to walk voluntarily into a prison cell whose jailer is my sworn enemy, then the moment the door clangs behind me, all proclamations about my freedom become hopelessly academic. By the same token, when I hear, “run for it, or be imprisoned by your enemy!” I would be a fool to stand still and dither about whether I really had any choice in the matter or not.

So does the exercise of freedom in the pursuit or protection of freedom constitute freedom at all? Of course it does. The reason is that not every choice is a choice between good and evil. There is also unwise vs. wise. And beyond that there is good vs better vs best. And finally, there is “What do you want to do today?”

Drug addicted deadbeats are seldom confronted with a choice between graduate schools. The ones who do face such choices are those who have consistently made decisions to study while others play, to persist when others give up, to take the hard road when others seek the easy way out. And one day, after all those responsible choices, the graduate finds himself in a test with no wrong answers, lying flat on his back 2 feet from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, trying to decide what color to paint with next.

Heaven is full of choices between colors. Heaven has a super abundance of the very sort of choice which the devil claims he can give us right now. But “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. . Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” –Galations 5:1

See also When Heaven Freezes Over

A Job Interview

With this scene is revolution concieved:
birthing one nation and crippling another.
Moses fears he’ll never be believed
God’s unphased answer: “take-a-long your brother.”

W A N T E D:

Now, Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, who was the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush. Yet the bush was not consumed.


The LORD said, “Throw it on the ground.”

Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he fled from it.

Then the LORD said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.”

So Moses reached out and picked up the snake by the tail, and it turned back into a staff in his hand.

“This,” said the LORD, “is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob–has appeared to you.


And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;

And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.


But then a man who was raised in Pharoah’s court from infancy said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”


Moses thought quickly and said, what if I tell the Israelites that the God of their fathers has sent me, and they say, “Oh yeah? Well, what’s his name?” What should I tell them?

God said to Moses, “I am who I am . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ “


And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you [a] will worship God on this mountain*.

CANDIDATE: “Who am I…?”
THE LORD: “I will be with you.”
CANDIDATE: “Who are you?”
THE LORD “I am who I am. Tell them I AM sent you.”

* Horeb, a.k.a. “The Waste.”

Interview With The Mud-Brick Prophet

The mud brick man did not seem nervous, but restive like a child, swivelling slightly back and forth in his chair. Immediately next to him was hip hop phenomenon Derek Forman a.k.a. D-Formed. Derek relaxed back into his chair, a heavy platinum chain sprawled across his muscled chest. His squawking, hacking laugh was bizaare given his image and reputation as a triple platinum Grammy winner. He teased his manager, Samuel Kords, sitting across from them, about a young female artist seen on his arm at a popular night club the previous night. Kords was gruff but good natured; he struck out as Derek guessed, but wouldn’t admit it. And then the journalist arrived.

Fred Talbot was never supposed to cover pop culture. In journalism school he dreamed of joining the rock stars of his profession to be, covering political maneuverings and intrigues, spotlighting scandal and making the people’s government squirm. But in college he just so happened to share a house with no fewer than four DJ’s who were solid experts in their chosen brand of music. There were frequent parties at the house, and when there were not parties, the DJ’s would mix music anyway, compiling playlists on the blinking banks of electronic gadgetry at all hours. Fred spent four years in a non-stop odyssey through the world of pop, funk, acid jazz, alternative and indie rock.

Fred had been proofreading an article on an upcoming mayoral election when his boss, the morning desk editor, had walked out of his office, and up to Fred’s desk, and said, “Fred, you’re good with music; Sonya’s in the hospital or something.” He plopped a manila folder full of article clippings, photos, hand-written notes on lined paper, complete with pen doodles of stylized band logos and the pseudo religious iconongraphy of the classic American high school goth. “Here’s her notes on ‘Kennedy & Groove.’ I need 750 words in an hour.” After a gut-wrenching diagnosis of hepatitus c, Sonya had returned to Elkhart. Nobody was more surprised than Fred. Luckily his tests came back negative.

But he had to admit, given enough time to gather material, the job could be pleasant; the dress code was hip and relaxed, and the music industry was nothing if not interesting. And he was more than a little intrugued with D-Formed’s latest move.

“Dee!” Fred smiled as he moved over to Derek’s side of the table. He pulled out the handshake his DJ roommate had taught him.

“You must be the dude from the Standard.”

“Yeah, that’s right, Fred Talbot, Culture Page.” Fred said as he sat down at the end of the table nearest Derek. He pulled out his tape recorder and stabbed the record button as it hit the table. Rule number one: don’t waste the subject’s time. “I gotta tell you, D” –this appellation felt awkward to say, but was well researched as Forman’s preference– “the Page is buzzing about your new project. Who’s the new guy?” This was presumptuous, and Fred knew it. No new project had been announced. All he had was a tip that the studio manager where Derek did his recording was excited about something.

“Aw, yeah, Fred, meet my man, MBP.”

The mud brick man swivelled toward Fred and look straight in his eye. He sat stock still.

“Ah, hi.” Fred nodded a greeting. “What does…MBP?…stand for?”

“Mud-Brick Prophet.” Derek said, feeling sidelined for a moment by the way that Fred and MBP stared at each other.

“Ah, that’s cool. Can I ask your real name?”

Derek looked across the table at Samuel Kords, who spoke up. “For the sake of our upcoming project, MBP would prefer to remain incognito for now.”

“Really. Ok.” Fred was nonplussed and looked down at his notebook for a moment. “So, what does he do?”

“Oh well, that’s, yeah, that’s really the question.” Derek sat forward in his chair. “It’s lyrics,” his gold bracelet and rings glittering as he gestured, snapping his flattened hands into parallel planes off his left shoulder, “it’s flavah,” he continued, boxing in a second parallelogram directly in front of him, “and its, ah…” his hands moved to the right, coiled to strike a third box, “…well, basically it’s flavah. But the thing is, Embie’s flavah is like, sparkin’ everybody else in the project. It’s crazy, man. We’ll be, like, layin’ down a groove, just layerin’ some tracks from some old stuff, and he just start spittin’, and everybody in the whole house is quiet, and all the sudden you realize, man, I got chills running down my back. It’s very, very cool.”

“What kind of, you know, themes are we talking about?” Fred asked.

Derek started to answer when the mud brick man suddenly spoke in a voice which cracked and rattled and buzzed in multiple tones:

The stones of the wall will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.

Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
and establishes a town by crime!

“Can you dig this?” Derek broke in, “This shit is off the hook!”

Has not the LORD Almighty determined
that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire,
that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?

Derek had his eyes closed; he was back on the streets of his angry youth, with one hand cupped around his mouth, laying down a ragged base drum and snare to prepare the way for the mud brick man’s steadily delivered verse.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD,
as the waters cover the sea.

Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors,
pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk,
so that he can gaze on their naked bodies.

You will be filled with shame instead of glory.
Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed!
The cup from the LORD’s right hand is coming around to you,
and disgrace will cover your glory.

The mud brick man fell silent. Derek tattooed on for a couple more bars, and then froze, his hand still muting his mouth. Without moving his head, he glanced at Fred to see his reaction. And then he convulsed with laughter. “Hoooooo! That’s what I’m talkin’ ABOUT!”

Suddenly he spasmed, pointing at Fred’s arm, resting on his notebook. “Check it! Check it! White boy got chicken skin! That’s what my grandma used to call it; chicken skin!” He collapsed sideways into his chair in a cavalcade of guffaws, his arms doubled around his middle.

Last Impressions

Every person is unique.

In my hands are the inverse replicas of some hopeful soul’s snaggled teeth. The orthodontist had filled his mouth with alginate; a flood of faintly minty gunk rising against the pillars of his jaws and slipping gently into every crevasse, setting within a minute or two into a rubbery mold. This result was then wrapped in the wet napkin which –hours later– I now unfurled. The molds for the upper and lower impressions were cold, lifeless and oddly human in their pink and pliant intricacy. I sometimes thought my job was not unlike a coroner’s. These negative images came from corners which the patient himself seldom ever saw –at least not in this way, with open, thorough and clinical clarity.

The journey through life is filled with longing and loneliness.

The dust of plaster of Paris is dry; it desiccates the very hairs in my nose. It can’t be good for me to breath it in, and so I turn my head to the side, but I wear no mask. I dump the powder into a rubber jar pre-filled with the proper quantity of water, and begin to cut my way through it with a table knife. Once the mix has turned to snowy mud, I turn the dial on the vibrating pedestal on the counter. The gypsum’s gritty visage softens, pummeled by a million quick and minuscule attacks. Bubbles rise up through the milky sludge, looking briefly like grey-white eyeballs of frogs before they open up and simmer from shallow cavity into finely rippled plain. This part mesmerizes me, but I mustn’t linger. When plaster is wet the clock is ticking.

What purpose does this loneliness and desire serve?

The trapezoidal base is filled up to three quarters of an inch. And the the butter knife is out again, spooning hemi-hydrated calcium sulfate into the trench where teeth had formerly burrowed in, piling it on like bleached peanut butter on a stalk of celery. I set the mess upon the vibrator for just a moment to let the liquid limestone seep in every crevasse in the wall where once the seeping had gone the other way. Here was a war in Alcace-Lorrain between alginate and plaster for the pomp and glory of a perfect maxillofacial empire. Now the mold, plaster and all is flipped over plaster-side-down onto the base, I check the edges and then set it aside. In less than a minute the stalactite sisters from the upper teeth are set nearby to their sturdy stalagmite brothers. As they gradually harden they grow warm to the touch.

It can only mean we are meant to be driven on toward something; some change must come about.

Twenty minutes later these statues molt their whitening pink husks. I quickly peel and scrape the drying alginate out of the u-shaped perforated metal trays which held them and set the trays aside to soak. Now I survey the cooling damp greenstone product; starkly white as Dover with a soft eggshell surface which casts back no reflection from even the strongest glare. Betimes they need touching up. The impressions of bits of food are sometimes fossilized at the gumlines. With a tartar hook I scrape away the last bit of lunch re-imagined as chalk.

Some change feels like death.

The grinder is my favorite part. For objects of the grinding, it must be hell. Each horseshoe of starchy gums and teeth sit on an impracticably oversize chunk of plaster. When the teeth are fitted together these pedestals overshadow the teeth themselves, preventing study. In some cases the molars’ angle is such that the pedestals prevent them from meeting the way they do in the patient’s mouth. I take them to the grinder, a rough spinning, water-saturated splashy wheel which can devour hardened plaster like a dog eating raw hamburger. But I know every cut by heart. I move quickly yet carefully, gently pressing against the lower teeth to plane down its pedestal parallel to the bite line. Reinserting the wax bite impression (a billowy pillow of hardened wax the color and texture of red satin outlined with the patient’s teeth marks), I plane the upper model parallel to the lower. And then I guide the pair in together, clenched around the red wax against the wet roaring of the wheel, shaving each angle around the gums to specific distances.

It is immediately obvious what change takes from us, and generally less obvious that it gives us anything at all.

An hour or two later, the teeth are pulled from the drying oven. Now they are brittle white and lighter than before. When the upper and lower teeth brush together they rasp and set my own teeth on edge. I carefully sand down a few rough spots on the base, and blow away the dust. Now I turn to the Rubbermaid vat of polishing soap and remove the lid. The soap is thick and yellowy clear; it oozes up around my fingers as I lower the models in.

The process is so interminable it is seldom distinguishable as a process.

After an hour in the soap, the plaster of Paris has begun to spread an aura in the surfactant surrounding each piece. I carefull grip each slippery one as I pull it out; I am loth to chip what I have worked this carefully to build. Upper and lower is laid separately on paper towels to drain. There they stay for two to three hours.

And when the reward finally comes, will it be of any use?

Finally comes the polishing stage. I strike quickly using more paper towels to squeegee the excess soap away. Then with fresh dry towels I rapidly buff the dental statuettes to a gleaming shine. I am proud of this stage; many other dental impressions makers don’t bother shining up the models. When I am finished I fit them back together and inspect my work. They are a glorified grimace; for some a motley freeze frame of the present and the past. For others they are the straightly ordered similitude of a smile at the future. There is hope in all of them for the patients from whose dentim they were struck. For the final impressions are made more glorious by the story they can only tell when sitting side by side with the earlier record of the orthodontist’s charge.

How Can You Believe God Exists?

When I was a boy in the Lower Penninsula we had fieldtrips near the end of the school year. My favorite trips were those that took us to amusement parks. One trip in particular, to Holland, Michigan was long on culture, history, authentic food and tulips, and rather lacking in the gut-wrenching rides department. They did have one ride of note, however. It was a swing-merry-go-round; intead of horses there were seats suspended by cables to the high, round mushroom cap atop the carrousel. As the great, ornate machine spun up, the swings would fly outward until the riders who had started with their toes dragging in the pea gravel, would be suspended between the curvature of angular velocity and the rest of the linear world.

I remember the thrill I felt; a rush of adrenaline, wind on my face, a mad riot of yellow and red tulips veering off away from me at every instant. These fields of color were punctuated at each rotation by a slowly spinning windmill whose motion drew me in each time I passed it. We seemed to commune, that other spinning thing and I.

At one point I looked down. The ground was probably twenty feet below me. And heights made me nervous; I was no cliff dweller at that age. And yet I felt no fear. I do not know exactly which of the reassurances I quickly and silently catalogued was the one that convinced me I was safe. A great host of others had ridden this ride before me. There were competent and sober dutchmen who pored over the wires and gears with scrupulous periodicity. But more likely it was the fact that with the centrifugal magnet in the seat of my chair, the very idea of down had skewed away until the ground frightened me no more than would a wall across the room.

This is how it is with my belief in God. I don’t believe that He has chosen to present himself in all his glory (yet), to confound our instruments of measure and astonish us with a Roswell-like landing party. But there is other data which I have to take into account. It is personal, but do not mistake unverified for false. And at any rate, it’s not true that these data which support my conclusion are without verification.

I find no comfort in measuring the distance I hang above the ground; the comfort of His presence is in the speed and in the spin.

Deep Descant (We Buy In Volume, and Pass the Savings On To You)

Subterranean prayers are the best prayers; the ones which for a thousand weary and silent weeks could not be spoken aloud, or even spoken of between the closest friends. They hang like a heavy stone around the neck, a bittersweet burden, hot like sauna rocks, a comfort which gives no ease. I picked up a prayer like that for you today, dear reader. My earnest prayer is for anyone who listens for the distant sound of singing on the wind; some of you can hear it better than others. Let him who can hear it listen.

Such a petition always has its answer: like an angry choir which shouts atonal challenge from the lofts of a lower cavity-cathedral, it cannot be unnoticed. Who could fail to hear it? How could the very corpses of the dead fail to echo back, if only to join in the singing? The skin of the listener prickles up startled and embarrassed.

And whose is this chthonian song which rises up against the stunned and ringing lithosphere? What tortured lyric could be drawn across the bullet-bones of all this shouting? What rough and ragged hide could cover up the sinews of the prophet rising up from brownian motes of mud and sticks and grass?

The prophet looks at his unwitting congregation –those who gathered here but did not come in by any doors– and turns, and turns, and looks, and looks. And finally he speaks, his gravelly voice cracking like granite at the boring holes:

The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

Soon I Will Be Done (With the Troubles of the World)

It was a blustery night in spring when my friend came after me with a gun. We had called a hiatus during a study break (there were girls there, after all), but that was over now, and he was after me. And he was motivated, because I had been a roadblock to his winning streak for most of the week. During the first two or three days, he had collapsed the list with gusto, collecting bounty cards at the rate of one every few hours. When he got the card of the guy who was supposed to get me, he gave me fair warning.

I thanked him for the warning, expressed amazement at his record (I had only managed to get one or two cards), and began thinking of how I might skulk past him for the rest of the week. My friend was innovative; he had taken out one of his targets by having a buddy drive him around campus prone in the back seat of a convertable. When his driver spotted the target, he drove slowly past, and my friend popped up for an easy and surprised kill. My friend also had athleticism, and a certain agressive instinct on his side. On my side I had my own prediliction toward caution and preparation.

As he arose the next morning and, wrapped in a towel, headed for the showers (our dorm rooms were adjacent), he exclaimed his frustration at seeing me showered, dressed, and, books under my arm, headed out the door. It was six am. But getting out the door ahead of him, while giving me the advantage of terrain, presented another problem. The cafeteria was a no-fire zone, but the cafeteria was closed at this hour. In fact nearly all the buildings on campus were closed. So I chose a high hedge which flanked an administration building opposite the entrance to the cafeteria, crept in and waited. Having lost his bid to ambush me on the way to breakfast, my friend took his sweet time getting ready, undoubtably taking a shower so lengthy it would put Seattle to shame.

At length he appeared, strolling along the long sidewalk that lead to the cafeteria, and from my cramped vantage point I realized I had a choice to make. Were I to emerge from the hedge and close to firing distance, I’d lose the advantage of concealment in exchange for a chance at an hour’s reprieve. On the other hand I’d face him with no cover and no surprise. I let him go into the cafeteria, and settled for needling him again by sauntering up behind him as he walked toward the counter.

Later that same day I needed to move from the student center back to my dorm room, and noticed that my friend, who had been hanging around, had suddenly gone scarce. He must have sensed I was planning to leave; perhaps I looked nervously at the exits as I chatted with my friends. There was nothing to be done but to run for it. I chose an obscure exit –an outer door at the bottom of a stairwell– opened the door a couple of feet and stood on the threshold watching and listening for a long time; must have been a couple of minutes. I decided it was clear. Gun in hand, I pushed my way through the door, and just as my eyes came past the swinging door’s edge, I saw in my peripheral vision a form behind the door. My left hand swung up reflexively and I pulled the trigger. He never got a clear shot at me. My little rubber bullet hit him in the eye.

He was a good sport, my friend. Shots to the face were considered bad form; intentional head shots were taboo and wouldn’t count. But my friend wouldn’t hear of anything but a one hour reprieve for me. Chagrined, concerned for his reddened eye, and distinctly relieved and delighted at the sudden lifting of the stress of evasion, I quickly set out through the campus running any and every errand I could think of.

The next several days were a blur of study, fatigue, ragged nerves and sleep deprivation. By the night of the study break I was very tired. There were only three of us left. We met briefly at the end of the study break and decided to end this thing, OK-Corral-style. The dorm where we met had a quasi half courtyard surrounding a parking lot on three sides. We’d each come from a different entrance and converge in the parking lot.

As I waited in the south wing for the signal to charge, I felt my spirits rising. I wanted to be the last man standing (I wasn’t one to take winning lying down), but win or lose, it would be over soon. The balance of the contest would be decided in a final blaze of glory; a few minutes confused running, yelling, shooting, and then we’d have a winner and two losers. And we’d all go and get a good night’s sleep. Out in the parking lot, a former contestant threw down a makeshift flag and yelled “Go!” I plunged out of my darkened doorway into the dim, yellow-purple glare of the street lights.

We were all bundled up against the cold wind. My friend was wearing shorts, but also wore a bulky sweatshirt. I had on a sweater. The other guy was wearing a windbreaker. As my friend veered toward me, I shifted right and took aim at the fellow in the windbreaker and pulled the trigger. And again. And, slewing back to the left, again. Amazingly, I was still alive for a fourth shot. Now I was litterally fleeing my friend, and pumping shot after shot at that blue windbreaker. And then we all stopped. My magazine was empty.

“Did I get you?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t feel anything. Did you feel anything?”

“No, I didn’t feel a thing. You may well have hit me, but I can’t tell in all this wind.”

And then we stood there, less than an arm’s length apart and laughed. Nobody reloaded. Nobody pulled a sneaky shot. We just stood around planning the next final showdown. We settled on a cease fire until 10:00 am the next day. At that hour we’d meet and end it.

The weather wanted to win, and none of us wanted to be shot down like dogs in the rain, so we postponed the showdown a couple of times throughout the day. Finally we decided to end it inside the student center at 4:00 pm. This gave me time to finish my classes, take a nap, shower and get dressed. I arrived at the student center still weary from the week’s pursuits, but also refreshed. My limbs were loose, and my mind was calm and disposed toward humor. At the appointed time we each took up a corner of the student center’s main social area (having shooed away anybody who didn’t want to get caught in our crossfire). Our master of ceremonies gave us the go, and we just kinda stood there, looking at each other. We were all tired and wanted it to end. Yet we had all survived so long, and hated to end without victory. Except for me. I didn’t care anymore.

I stepped forward, grabbing a nearby chair as I strode into the middle ground. I swung the chair around in front of me, and sat down, crossing my legs with my gun laid casually accross my lap. My friend vaulted a couch and moved in like a lion stalking his rightful prey. But my passivity opened up my friend’s flank; the WindBreaker could now target my friend without much fear of me, and so he moved in with speed born of anticipation of an easy kill. And just as he closed with my friend and prepared a careful shot, I raised my gun and shot him from my seat. I shot without aiming; no aiming was necessary. The WindBreaker was standing no more than ten feet away. I savored the look of betrayal in the WindBreaker’s eyes for just a second, and then I felt the sting of my friend’s rubber bullet hitting my neck.

You Can’t Handle The Truth

I have a philosophical bent. I like to contemplate truth, God, life, the universe, mankind, and myself, and the way these things are connected or related. I wouldn’t call myself a philosophical tour-de-force, by any means. Still, I enjoy thinking about such things. Doing so is one of my favorite parts of the experience of living my life.

This evening I stepped out onto my porch with some iced tea, sat down in the dusky light and started thinking. It wasn’t long, however, before I began formulating a more perfect glass of iced tea. And then I considered some family matters coming up this week. And I thought about my mood today; this light mixture of delight and vague unease which leaves me happy, but unsure if I should be so. And then I thought about how stupid is our family cat in his wreckless disregard for his own safety. And finally, I contemplated the fact that I wasn’t contemplating the things I had stepped out onto the porch to contemplate.

This is hard, I thought. What I meant is that it’s very easy to live life without contemplation of greater, philosophical and metaphysical matters. Not only is it difficult to push through the daily cares to contemplate the edges of the universe, but it’s frowned upon, at least in some circles. Sometimes I wonder to myself, am I so heavenly minded that I’m no earthly good? Or worse still, have I gone insane?

Obviously I don’t believe I’m really insane. And unless I become truly unhinged, I suppose no one will ever know the difference. For the crazy and the sane have this in common: they both proceed on the assumption that they are sane. That’s a philosophical conundrum we can’t escape; if we accept as a premise that our minds are utterly unreliable, then no further analysis or contemplation is efficacious. We might as well give up on philosphy and just live life attached to the mundane stream of events which come down to us through the job and the television and whatever are the most immediate demands upon us from our relationships. That oblique critique having been delivered, I still have to admit that striding through the worries and the problems and the distractions into the wide green pastures of meditation is difficult.

But it is worth it. Of that I am unshakeably convinced. Why? Because in some way that Wide Green World is where we actually live. Our daily grind only has meaning in as much as it is pinned up by our dreams, our desires, our principles and even an honest acknowledgement of our shortcomings. In short, it is our well contemplated ideals which shape our lives. It isn’t always obvious from the close-in view. But in the widest of views, out past the eulogies and biographies, anyone can see it is our ideals which not only shape our lives, but are, in and of themselves, the picture.

It’s just odd and difficult and generally annoying that we can’t do this all in a day. Our ideals are (or should be) too big for that. They ought to be so big that it takes an entire lifetime of toil to flesh them out. First we struggle to arrive at a conception of them. Then we labor every day to craft a picture of ourselves and of everything we love. This lifelong oeuvre is, ultimately, the truth about us. We can’t say the whole truth about ourselves in one day, anymore than Michaelangelo could carve the statue of David with a single blow of the hammer and chisel. We are a magnificent feat of engineering with a curious fact about our manufacture: it has to be done in little pieces.

When Heaven Freezes Over

A friend of mine once described heaven as utterly still –elaborate and dazzling, yes, but completely without motion forever. I do not know if my friend was inspired by Mark Helprin who depicted a reminiscent cosmology in his book Winter’s Tale. Helprin had the constellations as manifestations of beasts bigger than the universe who moved constantly, yet were utterly motionless. I think Helprin said something like the distance was sufficiently great that the whole beast could be seen at once, both all its physical proportions and all its proportions in time, from it’s beginning to the end of time.

This seemed to me to be, in a vague way, horrible. If I declaim my own inadequacy in comprehending this idea, please don’t take it as vanity: I know I will apprehend it, if only because I desire so much to do so. But I always shuddered at such a view of eternity because it seems to suggest we will be like insects eternally stuck fast in amber. In this life we value uncertainty. We like the fact that we are free to choose one thing or choose another, or wait a bit and choose later, or not choose at all, or unchoose and rechoose. The possibilities are not actually endless, but they do stretch far beyond our line of our sight. Will heaven lack this freedom? Surely not. How could it, and still be heaven?

On the other hand, there is a sense in which we want this life to stand still. What is the sweet wine of nostalgia if not the wish for things to be as they once were? Moments which were rough and bitter when they passed us by may later become fine, inlaid with gold, and music and love. We want those moments back. Or maybe we just think we do: if they really came back as they were, instead of as the tender feelings they evoke in later times, would we really want it so much? It isn’t always an exactly re-experiencing of the moment that we want. I think, somehow, we have a longing to re-experience and simultaneously remember such moments. We want both the rich, tactile texture of the experience, and the ripened nectar which it later becomes. An experience does not reach its azimuth until we have long since finished experiencing it.

And that, I think, is a key to understanding heaven. When we imagine heaven as a golden concerto hanging in the heavens, full, complete, dazzling, motionless and timeless, we are failing to imagine the little textures which enrich this life. Little things like breeze on the face, or choosing to follow a country lane simply because it looked interesting at the time, or the warmth of watching someone warm to a fire you have stoked — these are absent from the glorious, all encompassing visions of heaven. The problem is those visions do not encompass all. If heaven is as great as it is supposed to be, no single abstract image could ever encompass all of the thing itself, anymore than a painting of a farm in springtime could encompass everything about the farm.

Heaven must be timeless and full of time without end, larger than a billion universes and as intimate as a table for two in a tiny cafe, thrillingly cold and as warm as the sands of the Bahamas. The thing to remember is that when it does not seem attractive enough, this is because it is more attractive than we are able to apprehend. In this life we are gamblers whose hopes and dreams swim in the vast reservoir of everything we don’t yet know. But eventually the dice must roll, and all possible outcomes funnel down to exactly one. What if heaven is the gamble and the outcome all at once?

See also Freedom: What Is It Good For?

Ring True

Robert Frost said:

We dance around in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

This poem comforts me. When I go back and read my inaugural post, I can see I’m not in the same mood today as I was then. This feels awkward. But the feeling of awkwardness comes from the fact that I am dancing around in a ring, I suppose. I waiver, I wander, I weave, I wobble. One day I’m full of piss and vinegar. The next day I’m as bland as warm milk. Or as odd as beer and sardines. But the Secret (the truth) sits in the middle and knows. Its perspective does not change.

See you tomorrow on the other side of the ring.