Friday, April 25, 2014

Of Patchwork Souls 1.0 (Of Dandelions, Sky-Combing, Heaven-Spears and Cold Water)

Breathe. Be filled. Strain. Take in. Breathe.
Inhale the world, and feel it pour through you. Feel your place in it, and know what you’re made of. You’re made of pieces, all stitched together. You’re made of scenes. Of sentences and glimpses and memories and fantasies. You’re a collage. We all are. We’re scrapbooks (at best). Note-pads (full of scribbles). Cameras with film to point and click and develop and cling to, even when they fade.  
We’re patchworks.

(Take a gander)

In N.D. Wilson’s book Death By Living (my favorite work by him, if not one of my favorite works in [modern] existence), he addresses the movement of time, the shaping of memories, the monuments that we build along our way in this never-ending river of time. In a quote, he says:
“…Humans are not intended for data storage (though we have that capacity). We are intended for living, for moving through a story….We fight to remember. We lose. It’s worth it.”
His words sink in and strike home, even in a life as brief as mine may have been thus far. But in the interest of binding together the ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for too long, I have collected and stitched words around three of the monuments in this river of a moving life. My Ebenezers. Stones and markers, moments of history that I hope never to forget. Moments of privilege. Moments of inspiration. Moments of soul-pioneering and exploring. Moments that, a mite on the mountainside of the universe that I may be, I partook in, and that partook in me.
(My place in the world was becoming clearer.)

To begin, it’s actually hard to say exactly how true these are. Time changes all things, and no doubt my memory of them is altered in some way. But I know that they have struck with me thus far, and they show no signs of dimming.
The first of three was also the longest ago, and also one of the clearest. The height of flood season was upon us; that time when the sun and the snow are battling for dominion, and the rest of nature holds its breath in anticipation of a victor. That year, the sun had won out (eventually). Snow had turned to water, and creeks into rivers. Dips were ponds. But no one cared; the sun was out, and the world was good and bright again. And the dandelions were alive.  
I don’t know exactly how I found it. Barefoot at the park, with a frisbee or a football, I don’t know which. Too old to play on the playground, too young to keep my shoes on in the grass (may the second always be the case, and may I grow out of the first). And there, abandoning the paved path, plastered with last year’s leaves, I stepped into the grass. The playground was in the middle of a lake; standing water had enveloped the pillars and the slide. The swing was in its own personal moat. Mothers were attempting to keep children out of the water, and children were happily trying to evade them. The thought of a partially underwater playground was (is) simply too much for any boy’s will.
I didn’t approach it, no matter how tempting it appeared. I may have, given enough time. But it was there, with my feet submerged in fresh thawed brain-freeze, I saw one of the strangest and most miraculous things.
Beneath the water, I saw fire burning. A dandelion, rearing its head, alone. It had sprang up before the water, but still stood tall beneath it. The sun, slanting and glorious and not quite warm enough, hit the water and turned the golden head into something alive. Something with meaning. Fire. Burning under the water. Resolute against the flood.
If it was an analogy, I don’t understand it. I only know that it was a sight that opened my eyes. Perhaps it was then that I started to see things differently. Maybe it was because I saw things differently that I noticed it at all. Either way, it was a moment unforgettable. A moment that took a curious little boy with bare feet and set a burning dandelion in the middle of his head and said “See this? There are other things like it. Find them.” It was like a quest.
A shaping moment. A knife taken to a clay vessel. Carve here. Scrape there. Add dandelions to the image. Stitch it into the quilted soul, and soak it in 33-degree snow-water. This is a moment to remember.
Cling to it.
It’s not every day that fire burns underwater.

I don’t know how many years passed before the next of those moments came. They may have been back-to-back or years apart, and I wouldn’t have known the difference. (As N.D. Wilson says, “Some people have razor-sharp chronology distinctions to their memories.” I am not included.)
I remember the setting only roughly. The smell of pavement (July), and heat refracting off the metal curvature of an aircraft hangar. An unconventional wedding reception. Typically the most enjoyable, but either way I don’t remember whose wedding we were celebrating. I wasn’t there for them. Or really for anything. I was there because the family car was, and because my father is a pastor. There was food, but it was unexciting. And a singer, but I don’t remember her, or her songs.
What I do remember was the pair of planes, shining on the blacktop, smelling like fuel and sunlight and adventure.
They were soul-honey. A biplane, glowing, just sitting there, and a pilot, heavily mustached ready to give those of us with the widest eyes a trip through the air. (I cannot definitely prove that he had a mustache. If I saw him today, I doubt I would recognize him. Nevertheless…)
I remember clearly getting to sit in the front seat, beside the pilot. The too-big headset was clamped over my ears, the microphone dabbing at my chin. And in my brain, voices were chiming out numbers and words that meant nothing, but that got my blood flowing. Excitement.
These words meant leather coats and propellers. They meant sky-sailing. They meant Errol Flynn mustaches and goggles and enemy lines. Exploration. Adventure. There it was again. That sensation.
Cross-strapped into the cockpit of that biplane, we soared. Not too high, of course; with my little brothers in the back, we weren’t going far. We were out for a joyride. A cruise. And the windows, to my astonishment were left open. So I did what anyone with half a soul should have done; I stuck my hand out between the glass and petted the blue.
The wind pinned it to the side of the wing, but it wasn’t so hard that I couldn’t resist, that I couldn’t splay my fingers and comb the breezes, as we swung wide over the glinting lakes, eying the sunsets from a perspective that is the envy of lowland birds.
Glory. Splendor. The static, popping to accompany the voice of my whiskered pilot in the headset; the wind, playing with my fingers and pinning them to the cold metal verticals between the wings. This was inspiration in its truest form.
Thank you, brothers Wright.

Last, but not least, only two summers ago (if time does not lie to me), on a day that I still remember with ease. Tally lake. 2012. Camping in the grand glow of the outdoor summer, soaking in the last strokes of august before it resigned from office.
Two kayaks and an air-mattress did not the noblest of vessels. Certainly, it was no envy of the old Vikings.
Even after the park ranger told us there was supposed to be a storm incoming, we decided to venture out, in search of cliffs from which to leap, because we are men, and men like to jump off of things. Onward we paddled, and it would have been hard to imagine a slower way to travel. But we made it to the cliffs, and after a few short-lived flights, the idea struck us. Fifteen feet was not much vertical. There were other cliffs.
Adventure. Find them.
In our kingly craft, we heaved out across the deepest lake this side of the Mississippi, in hunt of height. The clouds rolled in, but we ignored them as they came, and found ourselves scuttling up the sides of sparsely treed cliff-sides, from thirty-to-sixty feet above us, at the most accessible. Black water slapped against gray stone, and the rocks looked much more like teeth, from that height. Jumping didn’t seem so smart.
And now, the storm was upon us, probably to keep us from killing ourselves. But then the glorious task was before us. The thunder came, and we, the brave adventurers, had a shore to reach that seemed forever away.
How close the lightning came, I’ll never know. I only know how close I felt like it came, which was right overhead. Lying on your belly, clinging to a slowly leaking air-mattress, half buried in the deepest lake in the nearest states is only so exciting. But once you add the pounding of cold rain (I’m still not convinced there wasn’t hail involved), the slice of the numbing wind and the deafening, sky-rattling eruptions of thunder accompanying the stabbing tridents of lightning, you have yourself a camping trip not easily forgotten.
And there, on that air mattress, crammed next to two other people and pulled by two more in glowing orange kayaks, I witnessed the chorus of heaven. Wrath and power, the hurling of battle between atmospheric heavyweights. Blows fell and were received, and all the while, the clouds poured down on us.
Glory. Majesty. Here it was again. While I might not have noticed it at the moment, I was stranded in the middle of a moment the size of a lake, and I was one of only five people who saw it, and perhaps the only one who felt it beyond the fear and curiosity of what it would be like to be struck by lightning (and what happens if it strikes the lake you’re swimming in?).
The fear may have swallowed it, but the sensation remained. My quest went on. And there, in that moment, in that hail of crooked bolts, there was wonder. And after the fear subsided, when we stood freezing with bare feet on beds of pine-needles, and felt the rain pelt the forest, I understood it.

Fire, beneath the water. Fire above it. Sky-Sailing, with a hand out the window. Deep water and tridents from heaven.
These are not the only moments that come to mind, when I think of shaping experiences. There are, of course, dozens more. But these, perhaps, are the ones that have stuck with me the best, and the ones that stand out the clearest.
Life is a story to be told, and when you skip all the boring (haha) bits, you get a patchwork. You get action scenes. You get scenes dipped in bronze or hung on mantles, seared into images of ink and of words, stitched into hearts and woven into hearts.
Burn them or rub them in. Keep them and wear them around your neck or in your skin. Scars on your memory. Glad scars. Tear-stained smiles. Build them into yourself.
We are all patchwork souls.
And these are three of my favorite patches.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Harvester (A Post for Easter)

That great equalizer of all men.
The Abomination. The Harvester. He who reaps. He who moves in the dark; who cannot be escaped. Men have tried to outrun him. But he is patient.
He is at the beginning of the race, to see the runners off. He watches, from the stands as they sprint, sometimes with ease, sometimes panting. And he is there, at the end, to shake hands with winners and losers alike. All men are equal to him. Kings and peasants. Old and new. No prejudice stands, in him who in time conquers all things.
Men have tried to overcome him. Kings have sought godhood. Mortals have hunted for immortality. Gilgamesh sought a fruit, to keep him young forever. Xerxes sought a power that would never fade from the earth (and Death saw them both beneath the ground, clearly as above). They have built palaces to last through all ages, and tombs to house them after their earthly time is spent. Death laughs at them all; at their grand schemes and their endless armies, their stores of wealth and golden temples. He laughs at them because despite their splendor, he knows that he will greet them all in time. He will shake their hands, and walk them away, another soul hewn down at the ankles.
Wheat. He, the harvester, must hew it all in turn.
Of course, death knows nothing of what awaits the souls on the other side of him. He is a gatekeeper. He is the toll-collector, to pass the bridge. He is the price that all men must pay, willing or not. Adam-spawn. Humanity’s Bane.
All things of this world are his.
Or so it seemed for many years. Eons of human lives were spread out before him; races run and ended, and he lay his axe to the roots of the young and the old, and let their ankles splinter.
All men had to pass him.
Then came a day, when something was not quite right.
Death stood as death has always stood, smiling. He had set his axe against a young tree; his might could not stay the stronger and the older blade. He had passed by, and there was fear in his eyes, as there always was, as he went on. Then, for a few moments, Death remained. He wanted to watch. To witness the fruits of what he had wrought. The sorrow that followed. Such a peculiar trait, so human in its essence. Sadness.
He watched, and was satisfied.
And then, something changed. It appeared that there stood a man, before him. Not a king. A simple man. But he stood as one that none could refuse, as one whom even the stars trembled to praise, and for the briefest moment, Death felt something tremble inside him.
The man stood, and he looked Death straight into the eyes. Fear. Death had never felt it, himself, though he had seen it enough to understand what it must have been like. The man was not afraid to look at him, to see him for what he was. And then the man reached out his hand, and spoke quietly:
From behind, emerging from that void into which Death himself had never looked, the man who had already passed by him, appeared again. He walked away, and with his back towards the darkness, he returned. But of course, Death knew that this wasn’t possible. No one walked away from him, once he had taken their hand, or greeted them with a kiss. No one returned from that great beyond.
Something most certainly did not seem right.
And this was not the last time that he saw that man who stood so boldly, who spoke so clearly, he who looked Death in the eyes. Not much time had passed before his axe had claimed another. Her ankles were taken from under her. She had fallen gently, and passed by him afraid. He had greeted her with a nod and a smile.
But then the Man had appeared again, and stared with unwavering eyes. He lifted his hand, and spoke that word again: “Arise.”
And from the darkness, the girl stepped.
This could not be so. No one returned. No one. Death knew that much. Not kings, not queens, not prophets. All died, and all stayed dead.
Even this was not the end. The man, with those blazing eyes, had stared into his dark soul again. Another life claimed, that would not be allowed to rest. “Come forth,” the man cried, and the tomb was opened.
No! It wasn’t possible. Death roared at the unfairness, at the unrightness of it all. No one came back. No one passed him by a second time. No one. No one challenged him and lived. Of course, he knew, this man would be the same. Like all the others, he would have to meet Death himself, one day. He would feel the axe at the ankles, the scythe at his shadow, and he would tumble. He would have to walk that dark road, into the shadows of the after-path, with the fear in his eyes.
And soon enough, the day came. Death was pleased to watch. Because now, of course, he got his answer. This man, who challenged him so bravely, was nothing to fear. He was another prophet. A madman, and a fool. His own people handed him over to die, and Death was not begrudged a smile as the man was hanged upon the tree.
The blood. The tears. The sweat. Death loved an execution. He loved the taste of it, and the billowing ripple, which poured through the crowd. He loved to stand before them, with his axe in hand, as he struck at the roots of his victim, and took a soul by the scruff of its neck. Here, he was in the spotlight.
Here, the man on that cross was just like every man. He had no power to stay the axe, to rebuke he who hewed every ankle. And soon, the man released his last breath. He fell, and when his soul slipped free of its frame, the earth rattled. The sky broke, and the whip of heaven tore across it.
When he passed by Death, he passed with doubled shoulders. He was a broken man. Little better than a slave. In his eyes, terror shone; the terror of a condemned man. The terror of a man who knew that he was stepping into the dark. Death laughed. Even this man, who spoke and called men forth, could not overthrow him.
Long, Death waited in the streets that day, tasting the fear and the sadness, the hatred and the loathing from every soul he found. But soon, even those flavors died, the excitement at the end of the hunt. All that was left was sadness. The numbness of mourning.
Until, that is, something happened that he had never felt before. That flicker of fear that he had felt, when those human eyes had met his, had returned. This time, it was worse. It was greater. It moved in his soul and it shook him to his feet. The road beneath him was buckling. Something was happening that had never happened, in all of history.
He turned, for the first time in his entire life, and stared into that void, the fearful blackness, and saw it shake upon its pillars. He heard the screams of voices and the cheer of celestial trumpets, rattling his teeth inside his jaws. Horror and jubilation mingled.  
And then, in the midst of the darkness, a shape appeared. The shape of the man, returning, but not as Death had seen him, before. He stood tall, now. He stood as a king. But no king of earth was he; no king who claimed a scrap of stone and sought to be a god. This was much more than that.
The light that shone from him was not stolen light; it was his to give, and his to take away. It was the same light that he had spoken himself, and which Death had never seen with his own eyes.
Fear. Deeper and more horrible than Death had ever imagined it could be, surged within him, knotting in his stomach. An anchor in his soul. He was captivated, and for the first time, it was he who found himself incapable of fleeing. There was no escape. There was no conquest, here. Death raised his axe, but it wilted in his hands. He bared his fangs, but they were dulled to nubs. His venom was dried. His malice was spilled out, and as he fell to his knees, a collar was bound around his neck.
A yoke. Death became a slave. No more to run free. He was turned into a trophy by this shining Prince of Heaven. “But how?” He cried in misery. “I am Adam’s Bane. Only Adam can undo me.”
And the man replied, with a voice that rumbled in the sky: “I am the UnAdam. I am Adam as he should have been. And you, Death, the Abomination of Creation, have lost your power.”
Bound. Once stronger than all the nations of men, Death was lay upon his face, and the man passed by him, into the light again.
For not even Death could escape the fate, which he had so frequently wrought. For here, he had no place to stand. Here, in the glow of the UnFuneral. Here, in the presence of the Prince of the UnDeath. The New Adam.
He who snatched souls from the jaws of darkness, and rescued them into the light. Before him, Death’s knees were weak. The axe fell to his own ankles, and he, one time the gate-keeper, found himself peering deeper into the darkness which waited beyond, into that mouth which would swallow him, someday.
For Death was dead. His time had expired, and in the light of the Death-Conqueror, the Soul-Saver, Death was no more than a memory. For Christ the Unbreakable has broken the Breaker.
The Abomination was Bound.  

And Christ, the Emerger, holds his chains.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Of Footprints (Of Sky-Riding, Soul-Encountering, River-Shaping, Trace-Leaving)

That’s the first word that comes to mind at the moment, to describe what it’s like. Riding the sky, on a craft that was surely never meant to leave the ground. Second place would have to go to the word jostling. Elbowing through the wind. Not the most graceful creature to have ever flown, but the largest in recent times, certainly.
Perched between heaven and earth. Bird-country.
Hurtling. Ears popping. Pressure building. Sky blurs past, mangled by whirring turbines; a never-ending cacophony of sound.  
Men were never meant to sit here. To see the sunset from this angle. To look down at the clouds. This is the throne of nobler birds; the courtroom of angels. And yet here we are. Ever the intruders.
Tormented by the words of thirteen hours of sermons from the week’s conference, and by the book I just finished, it is hard to let the mind relax. Because here, hanging in the hands of mortality, I am forced to wonder about the souls that surround me. The lives. The stories, all woven out of memories and characters I will never know. On my flights, (four) I have had the (risky) privilege of sitting next to complete strangers (also four).
To begin, a woman named Linda was excited to be on her way to Venice, Italy.
I don’t know Linda. I know that she likes to paint. That she reads novels about the history of various diseases (conversations get weird above 10,000 feet). That she has seen the Lord of the Rings, and thinks that I (presumably all young people) should travel abroad. And here, heaving and hiccupping through the air at 500 mph, I met Linda and had an hour and a half to talk or not to talk. To rub souls with a stranger.
Next was Jack. Young. Snappily dressed. He had none of the enthusiasm to be heading off that I did. He was on his way to a business retreat. Nice shoes, nice glasses, exhausted looking eyes. Few words. He looked like he was in the opening scene of a Hallmark movie, where (hopefully) he would wind up completely happy by Christmas (just speculating).
Then, a week later, Daryl. Middle-aged. Talkative. Wealthy. A man who specialized in getting casinos running and resorts flowing. A man who likes to drink, gamble, and find a sunrise service come Easter to spend with his children.
Carrie. Quiet. Even forgettable, in her mannerisms. Polite. With her glasses and her concentrated gaze out the window, there does not seem to be much to her. Indeed, she is certainly less memorable than the handicapped boy who spent the whole flight kicking the back of my chair and chattering with the stewardess. At least he earned a few smiles.
As lives meet, as they collide and react and alter one another, as they flitter in and away, I wonder how people can actually know one another. I touched four lives, and all that remains to me now are the details.
Linda’s excitement. Her simple clothes. Jack’s tiredness. His shiny shoes and five-o’clock shadow. Daryl’s 10,000 unchecked emails. Carrie’s slightness, her forgettable character. The scar that was too big on her left hand. Doubtless that is all that will ever remain, and eventually those will fade as well. After all, my life was not changed by Linda, or by Jack, or Daryl or Carrie.
Four lives. All heading off in their own directions. For a few moments, we shared a row of seats. We shared a touch of souls, for an hour-and-a-half. If life is a river, then these four people were nothing more than a stone to rub against. Not enough to break the path, or divert it, not to dam it up and change it.
Every day, we encounter souls. Today, in the airport, I have encountered thousands. I have sat with and counted myself as one of these hundred odd passengers four times, always different. But I don’t know them. They don’t know me. Chances are that they never will know me, or see me again. Lives and stories and dreams, all crammed into these bodies, all quietly (or not quietly) sitting around me. Souls. Souls with flavor. Characters in stories that I will never read.
But what if we could?
I am reminded of Russian roulette. A revolving door. As I sat in the terminal, I knew that any of the people on these tired looking chairs could be my neighbor for the next hour or two. Not much time. Easy enough to avoid speaking, and simple enough to avoid being spoken to.
That is one option. And the other is to wonder.
Wonder about the story beside you. The state of that soul. Who is this person? For an hour and a half, I had a chance to see. And I’m not sure if I did. But I learned their names. And for a moment, I stepped into the water of their river, encountered the endless flow of their lives. I witnessed one chapter. Not even a chapter; a page. A scene in a bigger play, whose characters I don’t and can’t know. But for a moment, I did get to see them.
Every day, we are witnesses to the lives and the emotions of characters in a greater story, to see their scenes and their chapters and maybe glimpse their hardships, or their joys.
Our stories converge with theirs. And, for that one hour (or however long we have), we have a window not only into their lives, but an opportunity to let them see us. We have an hour to make an impression. To prove what we are, to reveal a glimpse of our character. Sometimes an hour can change a life. Rewrite the course of a river.
You have an opportunity every moment of every day to be that person. The person who, whether or not your name is remembered, can change a mood or a day, if not a life. The person who meets eyes and smiles. The person who lends yourself and spends yourself. The person who didn’t mind giving up the window seat, or letting someone get in front in line.
One hour. One moment. One footprint in a river that will probably forget it at soon as it arrives. Impressions will be made whether you know it or not, and you have a chance to make them work for you or against you. Whether you stand out or blend in, whether you talk like Daryl or stare out the window like Carrie, we are all mingling with other stories. We have a chance to read and be read. We have a chance to change or save a life every moment of every day.
Perhaps this will help only to remember that, in the midst of the great cacophony of human souls all around us, in the great mingling of their stories and rivers, we have power. The power of influence.
So whether you are a cheerful talker, or a silent window-starer, remember that no matter how much time you have, you have that much time to make an impression. An impression that lasts longer than scarred hands or expensive glasses or foreign diseases.
We’re all characters. Be a character worth reading about.
Step into a story. Be stepped into. Shape and be shaped. 
And leave footprints. 

Just a thought.