A New Year for the Dead Made Living

We are a sick house here, so 2015 came last night amid sniffles, snot, fever, and crying (don’t even get me start on how my wife and kids were doing har har). Reading often relaxes me in these scernarios (in between dispensing medication, tissues, and rocking babies to semi-sleep), and I came across a great passage by N.D. Wilson‘s Death by Living to start the New Year:

“Living means decisions. Living means writing your every word and action and thought and drool spot down in forever. It means writing your story within the Story. It means being terrible at it. It means failing and knowing that, somehow, all of our messes will still contribute, that the creative God has merely given Himself a greater challenge- drawing glory from our clumsy botching of the past. We are like factory workers in a slapstick comedy, standing at our positions beside the too-fast conveyor belt that flings the future and all of our possible actions at us. Corn syrup and food coloring everywhere (along with cheese and ceramic figurines).

Do your best. Live. Create. Fail.

And from it all, from the compost of our efforts, God brings glory- a world of ripe grain in the wind.

By His grace, we are the water made wine. We are the dust made flesh made dust made flesh again. We are the whores made brides and thieves made saints and the killers made apostles.

We are the dead made living.”

Cheers to all of us living into the Great Story this year.  Cheers to more frequent blog posts :-).

Wandering Tree 2011 Review: A Dialogue with C.S. Lewis

Note: Less a review and more of a reflection.  Much thanks to an unknowing Bruce Edwards, who wrote a much more informed and coherent Lewis dialogue here, from which this piece gets its inspiration.  Happy New Year to all!  

The roar of laughter rang from the small cabin as I tramped into the forest clearing, stamping my feet for warmth.  The windows were lit from the dancing light of a roaring fire in the hearth.  Smoke wafted from the chimney, as if the house itself were enjoying a pipe along with the inhabitants inside.  My fear of freezing overtook my shyness, and I knocked on the door.

A balding man in a worn tweed jacket, smoking a Woodbine, answered.  His face lit up with assumed recognizance, competing in welcomed warmth with the fire within, and he boomed a glad tiding:

“Hullo there, Mr. Pyne- er, Wanderingtree.  We’ve been having a lovely soak in your forest these past few days.  Come in, and pull up a chair, for heaven’s sake, you’ll freeze out there.  You know, at least know about, Tollers, Charles, and Warnie, I take it?”

“I do, sir.”

“Jack.”

“Mr. Lewis, for now, I think.  Sorry.  It’s been a hell of a walk.”

“The road is always long and hard, when you don’t stop for rest and perspective,”  Tolkien muttered through the pipe in his mouth.  He turned back to Charles Williams and continued his discourse with him.

Lewis took my arm and steered me toward an armchair.  He smiled knowingly.  “Been immersed in my books and still not taking the hint, eh?”

“I suppose.  I mean, what a terrific year, though.”

“The boy.”

“Rowan, yes.  Rowan William Pyne, born April 23rd.  Holy Saturday, in fact.”

“Congratulations.  And the girl.”

“Isabelle!  Yes, my niece was just born a few weeks ago on December 7th.”

“Wife, house, and job.”

“All present and accounted for.  No complaints, really.”

“And yet,” Here Lewis looked me dead in the eye.

I faltered.  What word really summed it up for me, both in spite of and also incorporating the blessings I’ve received this year?

“Er, rushed.  Yes, rushed.  I feel I’ve rushed past everything.  People, places.  I can’t remember all of it, really.  Stopped writing the blog for a while.  Been reading like a fiend, however.”

The room was warm.  I removed my sweatshirt, tossing it onto the empty dining room chair on which Lewis had flung my jacket.  Lewis took this moment to light another cigarette.  Laughter and the pouring of ales from casks into heavy tankards by Williams and Tolkien.  Lewis took two and gave one to me, taking a long pull at his own.  He smacked his lips.

“Yes, and I do appreciated the attention to my books- by the by, more MacDonald in your diet, I think, but I do like this man Brian Jacques.  Coarse and gentle at the same time, like a swaggering pirate bending down to pet a puppy.  Been meaning to have a pint with him since he has arrived.  But to the point, of course: down with my pen, and up with your own.  ‘Ink is the great cure for all human ills’ I think I said long ago, with some naiveté but some truth as well.  What stopped you?

“Nothing to…”

“Balderdash and rubbish, my boy!”

“Well, then, not enough time to…”

“Equal parts trash and buffoonery!  Didn’t my demon Screwtape teach you anything in his wicked way?  ‘Humans live in time…therefore…attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to…the Present.  For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity…in it alone freedom and actuality are offered.’”

“So when I rush past things and don’t stop to value or appreciate…”

“Then you live in the Future, that thing ‘least like eternity.  Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead.’”

“Hmmm…”

“Let me guess: Christmas slipped away from you this year almost as if it never occurred?  Even though you were with family?”

“How did you know?”

“The Incarnation remained in the manger.  You kept chasing the star.  Poor show, my friend, it needs to stop.”

“New Year’s resolution time, then?” I asked jokingly.

Lewis grimaced.  “Every morning,” he said, “and not with the morose face of the perpetual penitent.  He offers the morning star, you know.  And the repair, if you let it, is always constant.”

I leaned back and stared into the fire, which had started to burn low, with idle, comfortable clicks, snaps and sparks.  Williams and Tolkien still conversed animatedly, with Lewis now joining their laughter.  Snow fell into view from the window, framed by the dancing lights and shadows of the room.  More people entered the cabin, more than I thought possible- new friends and old, family living and dead.  Hugs, cries of greeting, and glasses filled and raised.  A call for a game, where followed jocular competition.  The beginnings of a poorly sung song.  More laughter.

I took a deep breath.  Then another.  Lewis beamed.

“More of that next year, my boy, understand?  Well, good New Year to you.”

To you too, Jack.

Wandering Tree Examines the Roots: 2009 Year in Review

A scattered mind like mine should relish the chance to take stock of the past, to reflect on where he has been in an attempt to be ever mindful of the Spirit who wishes to drive him forward.  I can say with all honesty that 2009 has been a year of hills and valleys, at times blinded by the sun, and others times trying to see beyond the mist.  It would be fair to say that I’ve traveled further than I ever have, given my trip to England, and interacted with an extraordinarily diverse group of people: pseudo-hippies, fundamentalist Christians, gay-friendly Christians, English pub owners, Baker St. employees, famous actors, less-than-famous ventriloquists, hobbits, gandalfs, and other LOTR fans, Harry Potter fans, AP instructors, New York cabbies, high school teenagers, monks, and authors of ghost stories.  I created a nonprofit, Hobbit Meals,  to aid the relief work of Second Harvest Food Bank, was entrusted with my first AP class, and drank a pint at a pub where Charles Dickens used to hang out.  I went to a Muppet-themed wedding. I saw Phish again for the first time in nearly 10 years, and Bruce Springsteen for my first time ever.  I met Billy Boyd, who sang extremely sad songs.  I finally procured my Professional Teaching Certificate for the state of Florida.  I met Rob Bell and told him about Hobbit Meals, which ended up in one of his sermons (or at least in a travelogue to keep his congregation up to date).  I turned 35.

Travel seemed to be the highlight of the year, with a week-long sojourn at Bonnaroo, where I was given the nickname “Gandalf,” due to my long pipe (filled only with tobacco, folks) and the enormous copy of Lord of the Rings I brought along with me, which I read each morning.  I was also in a “hobbit” frame of mind, allowing the summer break to relax me.  The trip certainly brought some amount of calm to this anxiety-prone spirit.  It was not long after this when my wife and I traveled to England, exploring, in that frantic American tourist kind of way, London, Bath, Oxford, and Edinburgh.  We met up with the Davis family, who were gracious enough to play host to two Yanks in their native country, including a tour of the Harry Potter set at Leavesden Studios.

School started once again, with more than a little anxiety.  The reason and goals for my profession seemed a bit lost to me this semester, therefore constant search for the foundation of my vocation and a renewed sense of a love for literature dominated my thinking from August to December.  Fragmented thoughts on the implication of tweets and the avoidance of Things in Capital Letters echo in my thinking as of late, to be written down in some reasonable semblance of cohesion soon.

Numerous books devoured over the year, including a romp through my C.S. Lewis collection, N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, Peter Rollins’ Orthodox Heretic, Mcfague’s Speaking in Parables, G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, and other theological writings.  Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, Harold Bloom’s Stories and Poems, Marilynne Robinson’s Death of Adam, and R.W. Emerson’s Essays and Poems are notables.

What of 2010?  Will I journey to England again, thanks to a scholarship for which I am applying?  A family?  Success or failure for my AP students?  A renewed willingness to seek Truth (yes, capitalized), no matter how quaint that might be?  To see the glorious divine comedy and tragedy of life?  Shall it be to the gym, to rid all signs of a contented life?  Perhaps even a short story or two?

Whatever it might be, may I make my ship seaworthy, checking the riggings and knots, hoisting the sails, with no fear for the line on the horizon.

Happy New Year to you all!

Faith and Focus for the New Year: George MacDonald

George Macdonald (1824-1905)

George MacDonald (1824-1905)

That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, “Thou art my refuge.”

Happy New Year to all! I have not made any New Year’s resolutions per se, but in order to offer some focus to this blog, my writing, and my devotional meditations (3 birds with one stone!), I am embarking on a journey through C.S. Lewis’s anthology of George MacDonald. This consists of 365 readings of the Scottish novelist, poet, and clergyman focusing on everything regarding to the faith, from God’s Love to Death, Forgiveness, Prayer, Miracles, and everything in between. I will use the blog to either simply post the daily reading as I go along, or reflect on portions of the daily reading. Normally my modus operandi consists of devouring several books at once, and from there attempting to sift through the information to find a kernel of wisdom lost from the inundation of my gluttonous reading habit. This different approach, similar, I think, to the monastic practice of lectio divina, will hinder the sense of confusion which usually results from my normal practice, and do what all good reflective reading is meant to do: slow down the mind. I usually stay away from “devotional reading” books as I find them trite and often too sentimental. I trust that this anthology will be different, as I do have respect for the discerning mind of its compiler.

For those of you who do not know much about George MacDonald, you can find a biographical sketch of his life here. The Golden Key is another good resource.  MacDonald was influential in the writings of both C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and many others. Oh, and we share a birthday, too. When you get a chance, please wish him a happy 184th birthday.

So, onto the quote above “That man is perfect in faith….” Here I think we start off the year with a wonderful paradox. How can one be perfect “with the weight of low thoughts” and “wandering forgetfulness?” We are able to come to God in prayer sometimes with a joyous heart- if we have had a good day, or in the memory of a good day from the past. However, often I know I settle down for my prayers not even wanting to pray, with my mind distracted with thoughts and activities that either will be coming up (morning prayer) or which I have had to deal with (evening prayer). But MacDonald seems to bring that act of prayer back to its barest essence- the recognition that, with heads bowed, our reliance is on the God who offers Himself as refuge for us- no matter what the circumstance. For we are perfect in faith when in any situation, we rely and hope in the love of God the Father. When we see those low thoughts, distractions, and failures as the ultimate reality of our lives, then we have no faith. But turning to the One who can lift us beyond that “reality,” therein lies the hope and joy that comes from life in Him.

School Approacheth…

It’s that time of year again- time to pick up pen and paper and figure out exactly what to do this new school year.  My first thought is to try and find a place to hide with a good book and reemerge next June, which is not a unique thought pattern among English teachers (given that time frame, perhaps choosing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time).

However, the “teaching dreams” have plagued me for the past few weeks (for those not in the know, this is similar to the “actor’s nightmare,” but in this case you find yourself in front of a class of students with no lesson plan, no idea what to lecture on, and no idea of how long of a time you have to teach), and now I sit eyeing a stack of lessons, textbooks, and a syllabus needing revision.  With coffee brewing and poured generously into my Shakespeare mug, it’s time to get back to work.  As I take a deep breath, I quote the mantra from Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “DON’T PANIC!”