Nothing Safe

This past weekend was Albertville Friendly City Days, our little town’s version of an annual summer festival, featuring  a softball tournament, a pedal-power tractor pull, the Miss Albertville competition, live music, carnival rides and games, fireworks, clowns, and more. The highlight for our family each year is the parade — one of the biggest and best in Wright County, with more than 100 entries including several marching bands. The past few years we’ve enjoyed the spectacle from a beautiful old home on Main Street, right next to the announcer and judges booth, so everyone is looking and performing their best, and candy is tossed by the handful. This year we enjoyed the additional treat of Trevor’s debut as a percussionist in the STMA Middle School Marching Band, playing quads (technically quints, I suppose, since his drum harness has a tiny fifth tom, not just four).

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Trevor and bandmates marching

Earlier we had been discussing what we love and don’t love about Friendly City Days. Lily was strongly urging that we walk down to the carnival and at least check out the rides; Jodi and I weren’t anxious to do so. A friend agreed with us: Traveling carnival rides especially made her nervous, she said — so much so that she has been known to pay her children not to go, still spending less for peace of mind than she would have for ride tickets. She even shared a story about a girl who was scalped when her hair got caught during a ride on a classic old Tilt-a-Whirl.

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Jodi and Lily sliding

Although we rode the Ferris wheel, the carousel, and the giant Fun Slide last year, by and large, we agree. Anything that’s moves and spins and is not bolted down is just asking for someone to get hurt. Or throw up. Or both.

On the other hand…

What is it about a Tilt-a-Whirl, anyway? I used to love that ride: the unsteady motion of the platform, the off-kilter slide into your friends as your car tilted and spun sideways, first one way, then the other. Yeah, sometimes people puked (I never did), but that was part of the excitement — the sense that anything could happen, at any moment. You felt alive.

Dead people don’t barf.

I think I’ve discovered that ride was so appealing — and why I don’t care to do it anymore. Think about it: what else do we experience that is tilted, spinning, unstable, and potentially dangerous; that sends us careening into the people closest to us; that makes us laugh, cry,  and hurl?

We don’t need some old carnival clunker. We spend all day, every day, on a massive, unhinged Tilt-a-World. As a kid, the simulating is stimulating. As adults, it’s too real, like when you’re watching The Office and can’t laugh because you actually lived through that particular episode.

And it’s not safe. This world is broken, grimy and off-balance, hurtling through the cosmos, and run by grubbing scoundrels, leering ne’er-do-wells and lazing doofuses. We’ll never make it out alive — and yet, here we are: leaning, laughing, spinning…

So let go. Whatever you’re clinging to can’t keep you safe anyway. Let’s throw our hands up and enjoy this ride — together!

Featured photo at the top of the post: Abandoned Tilt-A-Whirl By Derrick Mealiffe from Toronto, Canada (Wet n Wild) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Lost Howls of Youth


Now it seems like too much love is never enough 
You better seek out another road, ‘cuz this one has ended abrupt
— Temple of the Dog, “Say Hello 2 Heaven”

I woke this morning to a text from an old friend that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell had died. A short while later I saw another friend had tagged me in a post on Facebook: it occurred after Soundgarden’s apparently triumphant return to Detroit last night, and the early speculation is suicide. He was 52.

I don’t generally go in for the extended mourning of celebrities. They are just folk, like we are: pray for their souls, and for peace and consolation for their families. Then again, sometimes a song, an image, a voice is so tied to a particular period in one’s life that there is no escaping the impact. Chris Cornell’s voice was the howl of my youth — the closest thing to a rebel yell I ever sounded in my relatively serious and square teens and twenties. His bands — especially Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog — were a part of me in my younger days.

I always enjoyed a diversity of music. I heard classic country at home, eighties pop and glam rock on the airwaves, and got an introduction to metal from my sister’s high-school sweetheart. In my own high-school days, a friend introduced me to the band Living Colour, which was my favorite band when I headed to Yale in the early 1990s. Grunge was beginning to emerge in my neck of the rural Michigan woods: the opening riff and drum fill of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could set a room of teens to pogoing in seconds, and Pearl Jam was seeping into the radio playlists. But in Durfee Hall, I heard Soundgarden’s album Badmotorfinger for the first time and was hooked.

Soundgarden’s music was unlike anything I’d heard before: deep, sludgy, and dark; brash and thrashing, like a mastodon in a prehistoric tar pit. Cornell’s voice could be low and soulful, brooding and angry, blue and weary — and man, could he wail. The music wasn’t typical — I didn’t think at all at the time about odd keys, time signatures, and rhythms, or a general lack of conventional guitar solos. I just knew that for me, it was interesting. In a good way.

And since I enjoy word-play, I always enjoyed Cornell’s lyrics, which were witty enough to be taken almost seriously, if they weren’t so abstract:

Every word I said is what I mean
Every word I said is what I mean
Everything I gave is what I need
Virgin eyes and dirty looks
On what I have and why I took
Counting all the hands I shook 
— Soundgarden, “Slaves and Bulldozers

I recall an interview I read in which he admitted to messing with people who looked too deeply for meaning in his songs, giving different and sometimes conflicting interpretations to his odd lyrics. And a video clip in which his sarcastic humor shines through as he explains just what Soundgarden is while his bandmates try not to crack up:

“Soundgarden is a state of mind. Soundgarden is a frame in time. …Soundgarden is a tear from an eye — dreaming.”

Soundgarden (and Badmotorfinger in particular) was the soundtrack to my college years, the go-to late-night rock when assembling the newspaper late at night at the Pioneer (sorry, Suz), the dark cosmic heartbeat that lulled our eldest to sleep when he was a baby, and the music that has tested every stereo system (home or car) that I’ve ever  purchased. It is also, unfortunately, the reason I purchased my first stereo system bigger than a boombox as a college junior, and used a credit card for a non-emergency purpose. Soundgarden shook the dorm-room walls in those days, and I purchased rarities, bootlegs, whatever I could get me hands on. That’s the sort of influence, for better and worse, Cornell and Soundgarden had on my younger self.

They were that band for me.

I don’t listen to that sort of thing as much as I used to, but my sons still do. I never saw Soundgarden live, though I did see Cornell in Detroit when he was touring to support his solo album Euphoria Morning. Bren and I talked about trying to get tickets this time around. I guess we missed the opportunity.

I don’t remember half the time
if I’m hiding or I’m lost
but I’m on my way
— Soundgarden, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” 

I didn’t know him, but I’ll miss him. Prayers up for Chris Cornell, his family and friends — may God grant them all peace and consolation.

God’s Love Is Mercy

“Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God.”
– Jesus to St. Faustina
Devotion to Divine Mercy is not every Catholic’s thing. Some people struggle with the image of Divine Mercy: Jesus, His right hand raised to bless and heal, His left indicating his heart, from which rays of red and white, symbolizing blood and water, pour forth as a fountain of mercy for souls. Every version I’ve seen has been a bit mysterious and unsettling—which seems appropriate, given that it’s a vision of the resurrected Christ.
Some don’t like the chaplet, which is simpler and more repetitious than the rosary. Some consider the visions of a poor Polish nun to be private revelations: fine for her, but not necessary for us (even though she is a saint and was canonized by another saint).
And some struggle with the emphasis on God’s mercy, seemingly at the expense of His justice or even over His love. At first blush, saying that “mercy is God’s greatest attribute” (Diary of St. Faustina, 300) appears to downplay the seriousness of sin and the need for repentance. It suggests—much to the comfort of some sinners—that God will invariably forego His justice. It seems presumptuous.
But let’s think about what love, justice, and mercy actually are. Love, we are told, is willing the good of another regardless of the cost to yourself. Justice is giving another what is due. Mercy is often regarded as a bridge between these two: sparing someone just punishment for his or her benefit.
Because God is infinitely good, justice requires complete goodness from us in return. That is God’s due. But we are all sinners, and even the smallest sin stands in stark contrast to God’s infinite goodness—a grave injustice toward One who loves us perfectly.
What is our due as a result of this? Condemnation. We ought to suffer, not out of retribution, but as the natural consequence of our sins.
So God’s mercy does not deny the reality of sin or the need for repentance. Instead, it depends on these things. Without the grave reality of sin and the suffering that justly results from it, we would have no need of mercy. God’s mercy exists because of sin. There is no other reason.
But how can God be perfectly loving, perfectly just, and perfectly merciful—all at the same time? And how can mercy be God’s greatest attribute, when Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8)?
Look at it this way:
  • If God is love, then His very nature is to will our good, whatever the cost to Himself.
  • What is our good? Ultimately, it’s the end for which we were made: union with Him.
  • What is the cost to Himself? He sacrifices His claim against us for sinning against Him—He shows us mercy.

By doing this, it appears that God abandons justice in favor of love. But how can He do this, if He is perfectly just? Doesn’t sin demand punishment?

Yes, sin demands punishment. But with so much sin against so perfect a God, who could possibly bear it? Who, except God Himself?

So He becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, living, suffering, and dying for us—willing the good of each of us at whatever cost to Himself. God’s perfect justice demands a perfect price be paid, so He pays it Himself. His love is mercy.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loves us to death. All that remains for us is to return the favor.

Lightning on the Stone


Blogger’s Note: At the Easter Vigil last night, the Resurrection account was from Matthew. The image of the angel appearing like lightning and sitting upon the stone struck meand Lightning on the Stone seemed like a bluesy spiritual someone ought to try to write. So I did this morning. It’s not quite as raw or ragged as it might be if someone sang it over a blues riff…but I’m satisfied.

In dark we walked to that dark tomb
And darkly dreamt of you
Your broken body sealed in stone
And lost in darkness, too, Lord
And lost in darkness too
In gloom we came to Golgotha
As black gave way to gray
I asked our sister Mary who
Would roll the stone away, Lord
Would roll the stone away
The Skull grinned blue—when like a flash
Of lightning from the Throne
An angel, gleaming white, threw back
And sat upon the stone, Lord
And sat upon the stone
As at the rising of the Sun
The Daystar shares its rays
Just so my face with wonder shone
To hear you had been raised, Lord
To hear you had been raised
The sky above was brilliant blue
As blue as any sea
And we rejoiced to tell that you
Were bound for Galilee, Lord
Were bound for Galilee

Book Break: The Great Divorce

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had a profound Good Friday, but that was only half the story. The other half of the story is that, early that Friday morning, I sought out some spiritual reading for the day, and wound up with a new top-five favorite book: C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Of course, when reading spiritually, the Bible is always a good place to start, and I’m also making slow but steady progress through Dante’s Divine Comedy a canto or two a day. But I wanted something fresh, something I could possibly read in a day, and something related to the penitential character of Good Friday and the great saving act of our Lord.

On a hunch, I took C.S, Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the bookshelf. I have great regard for Lewis as a writer and had heard good things about the book, particularly from my good friend Angie at Take Time for Him.

Lewis had me hooked from the preface, which begins by explaining the title of his fantasy:

BLAKE WROTE the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either-or”; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.

The book begins with our narrator in line at a bus stop in a grey and gloomy town, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and wouldn’t want to — unsure of where he is or where he’s going. It unfolds like Dante’s Divine Comedy in modern miniature: a pilgrim’s journey from hell to the edge of heaven in just 128 pages. I’m reading Dante now, too, canto by canto, and it is powerful in its way, but this held my attention from the preface to the end, with every word relevant to this sinner and this sinful time. Lewis articulates with poetic beauty and unflinching honesty the glory of God and his angels and saints, the pain of detaching from this world, and the stubbornness, the grasping, the pride and distrust that keep even “good” people from choosing God and reaching Heaven.

The book challenges the reader particularly on the Greatest Commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). On this point, Dante provides an unintended summary (being some seven centuries older) which, as providence would have it, I read over lunch on Easter Monday. In Purgatorio, Canto IX, Lines 127-132, he writes the words of the angel guarding the gates of Purgatory proper:

“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised
‘Admit to many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.'” 
Then pushing back the portal’s holy door,
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned;
to look back means to go back out again.”

We sin when we put anything — even the blessings of life on this good Earth — ahead of loving and seeking God. Pilgrim after pilgrim turns his or her back on Heaven because the cost of entry is too high: the cost of admitting that they are mere creatures and of letting go of their earthly pleasures, passions, and prejudices. They want Heaven on their own terms and choose Hell to feel like they have some say in the matter. They cannot stand the humiliation of grace as an unmerited gift.

It is a powerful book: perhaps tied at this moment with Steinbeck’s East of Eden as my favorite of all time (although Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings (which I still need to review as an adult) and Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy are right up there, too!) It paints a stark and revealing picture of how far so many of us have to go to be purged of all sin. So I will end this post with Lewis’s words from the Preface, on a hopeful note:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot “develop” into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, “with backward mutters of dissevering power”– or else not. It is still “either-or.” If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.”

The Great Divorce. Find it. Read it.