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I trail behind my toddling son down Essex street, past witch shops and street vendors, and he’s got a set of plastic keys with a large plastic remote attached to it, as if it opened some door somewhere. He holds it out in front of him, pressing buttons, looking all around, like somebody who’s lost their car in a Wal-Mart parking lot. He points it at entry ways, he presses the buttons, and it emits low-grade digital blurps. This isn’t strange behavior at all. We gave him a set of keys without a car, without a home. It’s natural to wonder where they fit and what it is they open.

 

He guides me into the mall, where there are plenty of closed doors to check. I wonder how anyone could be making money off of this deadly-quiet commercial space. There’s the little polish deli and the orangish photo gallery, featuring tourists dressed like sorcerers and pirates, contorting their faces into some half-hearted sexy/evil grins. There’s the back entrance to a fortune teller’s parlor, and the exit from a haunted house. And then a set of stairs, which is irresistible in his quest. From the top of the stairs I can look out at the skylights that are smeary tan, using the light from the sun to make a light unrelated to the sun.

 

He’s looking at all the glass doors, or panels, that have been papered over on the second floor, and have no signage or clue to their use. And as far as I can remember, there’s never been anything really up these stairs, except those derelict panels, and an elevator that goes down. He slips onto a very small walkway, too small for me to follow him, and shimmies his way between the banister and the glass panels, looking down at the mall thoroughfare, looking back at the hidden room, maybe looking for a key-hole, listening for a beep-beep.

 

Give a kid a set of keys, and he’ll search out the thinnest possibilities in the remotest stretches of civilization. His keen sense regards neither presentation nor excellence, intention nor pop-appeal. Not today, at least. He passed by candy stores, little kids, some lady in a bra singing loud blues music, and the beloved sunshine of a clear day, all for this uncanny little corner of neglect. I like being here too. It’s kind of funny, being in the most worthless part of an empty mall on such a lively and culturally explosive day (there is an arts-festival taking place outside). I might not have the courage to do this alone, but my half-me chum makes it legitimate, like it’s something to do on a Sunday afternoon. It’s also kind of scary, the fact of that big blocked-off room, and the existence of a foot-wide walk-way in a public building. They are haunted and unanswered architectural questions, hours of labor, thousands of dollars to make no meaning and no money. I like being with these things, and I like the trouble they cause me. 

Your Lot

My lot, for the past hour or so, was slowly easing my mucus-tyrannized baby boy into bed. In fact, I can still hear him howl out the last few complaints from his crib. Hopefully, for both of us, the last few.

Sometimes I hate it when my son is plaintive. I wish it were otherwise. I wish he would be more manageable, so I’d have more time. And there’s the catch. I hate having to father when I’m not at peace with my lot. I wish my lot were otherwise. And the more I dwell on that other thing, whether it be writing or music or play or sleep, the more fantastic that other thing appears to be in my imagination. But my lot cries to me, squirms in my arms, and I am indignant.

Sometimes I love it when my son is plaintive. Seriously. Like tonight. Tonight, despite the knowledge that there were other things to be done, other people to please, and other activities more pleasant than being smeared with snot and being emotionally rung out with screams, I realize that my lot is my gift. I center myself in it. I believe in it’s worth. I learn to value the needs of my son over the needs or desires of anyone else in that moment, which is as it should be. And then I start being good at my lot. I gather all my intelligence and care, my body and my voice, and I become an expert at swaying this boy and singing him calm, this boy, who is not the boy of a month ago. I become father and not any other thing, and this feeling of being swept up in what I’m given to do that moment, it is rapturous and rewarding. All I had to do was believe that it was supremely important, my God-given and innate work for that time-slot. And now I can move on in confidence, moving from task to task, not letting anxiety, anticipation, or desire reduce the moment to anything less than the most important thing I could possibly do.

If you’re struck by this idea of lots, of the roles God gives us and how we respond to them, I highly recommend a brilliant album by Jon Green called Lots. Many of the songs sort out the way that biblical persons, as well as others, respond to the lot they’re given.

The Gallery

Long live the art gallery. The place with white walls. The place with every eye alert, looking to absorb or debunk the things calling themselves art. The ruly place, the sanctum for art, the one guarded.

I know that for many, the art gallery is an annoying status experience, a place where we’re to flaunt our most excessive civilities. I know that art can be found on brick walls, in hutches, and in the framing of the shots in your favorite movie. I don’t elevate the gallery because it guarentees beauty, relevance, or truth that is greater than that which can be found in the art engrained in cultural experience.

But it does guarentee other unique gifts. It offers a chance to focus, a chance to intend on looking. Media images wash over us and leave subliminal impressions. Gallery art asks us to approach a limited object, an object that is vulnerable because we could often pick it up, sometimes tuck it in our handbags. The object stands alone, unsupported by other stimulae. All of its strengths and limitations are laid before us for as long as we’d like to consider them. And these finite objects, these pieces of art invite us to a slower meal, one where you have to carefullychew around each bone to be full of it. Gallery art reminds us how good tasting is, when our culture is so caught up in consumption and volume.

Sometimes I look up “new art” as a google search. Amidst lots of noisy images, a picture of an object in a gallery will strike me. I know the gallery so well that I don’t have to be there to remember the feeling. Just seeing something new appear in that place, just knowing that people revere that thing enough to buy it, to show it, to look at it and argue it, to praise it and share it; this knowledge satisfies. I believe the stimulation we recieve from “fine art” is very special, because it has to be more than the celebration of status. Many poor and disenfranchised people have taken great joy in fine art. It doesn’t touch the art lover socially, not sexually, politically, or financially. It stirs something altogether useless in the quest for survival. It stirs something, rather, in the quest for envelopment, the quest for being consumed by something greater, the quest for dying to the ugly little selves we can become. Fine art is an evidence of the glory of God in us, the glory that has been comprimised by petty selfishness.

Nora Ephron died just a few days ago. She wrote the screenplays for some of the most archetypal romantic comedies in American film (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle). And while there’s plenty to loathe about that contribution to our culture, and while she also made some unbearable flops, Ephron should be remembered with some serious hat-tipping.

If you doubt my sincerety, I direct you to two of her movies: My Blue Heaven and You’ve Got Mail. The first is easy to like for any unromantic cynic. It’s about the criminal instinct being played out in a serene suburban world. The script is a sharp brand of artificial realism, and Rick Moranus, Steve Martin, and Joan Cusack embody the story with sensitivity and commitment. The second might seem particularly vulgar to my readers, but within its commercial fabric there is real life, real pain and vulnerability and hope. Get past the warm colors and panoramas of New York City that deaden the movie-going experience, and you’ll find something worthy of your consideration.

That’s the miracle of Nora Ephron. Even in her worst moments (Bewitched) she managed to make particles of human truth marketable. If you and your significant other shudder at eachother’s movie selections, try out one of my recommendations. There is something psychologically democratic about her work that makes it true for men and women. Let me know what you think.

About two or three months ago, I was accosted by a mad man in the religion section of Barnes and Noble.

I was trying to find a good gift for a friend. As usual, the religion section was largely alienating and depressing, with a few (usually thin) spines of inspiration. I didn’t know I was prey until I saw him smiling at me. I felt his insanity in the extra curl of his hair, in the ill whiteness of his complexion, and in the fact that his smile was tight, quivering, generous, and sardonic. But I felt the madness most in his eyes, which seemed more than fifty percent out of his head. This is not for added dramatic effect: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much of someone’s eyes at once.

The insane are often obsessed with religion, which is always unsettling in a few directions. On one hand, I wonder if I’m just a lesser version of crazy for believing. On the other, religious sentiments horrify when handled by an unstable and ultra-dramatic mind.

I’d love to pull together a dialogue to recreate the scene, but I need your trust, so I’ll stick as closely to the remnants of my memory as possible.

He was definetely there to challenge me. He wanted to rattle my conscience and my intellect. Few sane people are so bold or dynamic, so I was glad to engage him. I try to engage the insane as sanely and directly as possible. I don’t want to insult or overlook the traces of lucidity and dignity in anyone. As unsettling as it was, I locked with those eyes, and I considered the man and his challenges in earnest.

He asked me whether I thought it was best to be positive, negative, or neutral. I can’t remember my exact response. I must have leaned in the direction of positive for the sake of his discourse. He was madly pleased with my predictable cultural response, and proceeded to explain that I was misled. He preached the necessity of all three forces in balance. He spoke of God, and then suddenly electricity, explaining that all electrical current requires positive, negative, and neutral forces (is this true?). As he gave the electricity example, he looked up at the flourescent light above, and saw through the ceiling to the three wires of which he spoke. I was worried by the way he saw.

In a crescendo of surprising clarity, he related this balance of forces to church traditions. He noted that the evangelical church is out of balance, focusing too heavily on the positive, on assurance and empowerment and praise. He saw this manifested in all the standing and raising of hands. He then drew attention to Orthodox traditions, emphasizing the importance of kneeling (which he demonstrated in the aisle of the religion section at Barnes and Noble) and pleas for mercy. He explained that evangelicals are in trouble for not embracing the negative force of the gospel. I was blown away by his words.

Then he went off about some theory involving secret embedded messages in religious terms. I told him that I thought this theory was really crazy, but that I enjoyed our conversation about forces. He turned away, and the performative intensity drained from his face.

Certainly, many evangelicals love standing and stretching their hands toward heaven. And I have to assume this is the response of a heart enlivened by the Spirit. And I bet many of those same people kneel reverently in their closets of prayer. It is strange and out of balance, perhaps, that we don’t kneel together. It’s not a specific New Testament imperative to do so, but it would be a great reminder and realization of our continued need.

As for me, I sit too much. I sit in my ambiguity, in my inaction, in my doubt. I am the embodiment of the neutral, and it is a source of shame for me.

It’s my goal now to stand in God’s presence at least once a day, and to kneel in His presence at least once a day. When I stand in prayer, I will try to fully embody and embrace the truths of creation and regeneration. When I kneel in prayer, I will try to do the same for the truths of sin and need.

I suppose I should begin by praying for that guy from the book store. His life is probably frightening and lonely. I’ll kneel on his behalf. And I’ll stand on his behalf as well, thanking God for the strange and beautiful insights he passed on to me.

Of course, ours is the least labeled culture in civilized history, mocking the “sirs” and “ladies,” “dukes” and “esquires” of the hierarchical past. Then again, where official titles have fallen out, those regarding our political, religious, social, and racial affiliations have come to the forefront. So many conversations seek out a short list of loaded headings in their participants. Finally, after all the small talk about issues, we’ve come to the only important, lasting information: you’re a liberal organic-eating WASP. Such finalities put our minds at ease, either to hate or accept the being before us. It’s elementary social chemistry.

When we regard labels as the source of understanding someone, we’ve exchanged the truth for a lie. That lie will quickly assualt our self-knowledge as well, as we feel forced to render ourselves first and foremost as this or that title.

This mad rush toward cultural ID tagging is only socio-political. In other words, when we prioritize titles, it is always about our self-consciousness and about our quest to be established in the social world. It is a thin practice of placement, and the cultural system will gladly place us, like pieces on a chess board, more or less important, more or less powerful, always diametrically opposed to something. This becomes most painfully obvious in political campaigns, as candidates resist or embrace titles, often ones that fit them awkwardly at best, clearly with the sole motivation of winning votes. We engage in the same nonsense, though more subtly, couched in casual conversation.

While I believe “Christian” is an indispensible title for me, I also believe it can be destructive in my efforts to  communicate valuable truth to others. As soon as the label has been stuck to my shirt, my fellow conversant will often either disengage intellectually, or accept me too unreservedly. Now more than ever, Christianity has become a dead title, no longer invoking the power of its namesake. No matter how inaccurate their view, people are  “certain” of what the word means, and there is no space between the word and their definitive reaction. There is no space for doubt, wonder, searching, questions…

I am going to try some experiments in avoiding this title. My goal is simple: replace any self-titling moment with a story of Christ, a descriptive alternative, or a probing question. This was the way of Jesus. He didn’t emphasize branding in his ministry, and he didn’t limit his vocabulary to describe the truth. His proclamations were always intuitive, awakening, and unsettling to ears hungry for a title to emptily praise or condemn.

Cultivation

Entanglement, weight, digression, futility; these are the laws of the land. These deadening agents curl around and choke us, roll us slowly backward, cast us into gloom.

I’m reading all the major renditions of the King Arthur legend for a class. Perhaps the strongest and most admirable theme, one that is common throughout the centuries of the story’s development, is cultivation. Always, Arthur is hacking away at the wolves and nettles of the wild English island. He, with Merlin’s aid, establishes a realm of order and definition, a task as painstaking as the upkeep of a pristine English garden.

From its inception, the engineered Eden of chivalry is threatened with the insistence of the untame. All Arthur has to do is loosen his exhausting watch over the kingdom, and the dark tangle readily rolls back into his courts. One lapse in leadership, and his valorous round table becomes a pagan circle of lust and rage.

And so, Arthur’s legend teaches two lessons: the beauty and brevity of cultivated humanity. There is doom in the very dawn of civilization.

My professor wisely suggested that the brevity of civilization doesn’t preclude its beauty, and that it is still worth our efforts to press toward perfection, even in the knowledge of its fate.

But followers of Christ cannot fully embrace this mortal struggle. While Arthur tries to make the mess of Earth a temporary paradise, we must reserve our greatest anticipation for a renewed Earth, one eternally and securely perfected. That means we can strive to construct and organize in this life, but always under God, through His guidance, and in anticipation of His grand interruption. And our works of cultivation must always serve not as mere temporary havens, but as hints of the divine, which is neither wild nor cultivated. In Christ, we have faith that our greatest strains of beauty and justice are not incoherent struggles against a harsh and entropic universe; those strains are heard, understood, and lifted up to our Lord through the intervention and interpretation of our High Priest.