"The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing —
to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from —
my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing,
all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back."

~C.S. Lewis

Friday, March 16, 2012

The lovely prison paths

Life isn’t made for people who go off the roads. The park’s paths were nice, it is true: they had lovely asphalt paving and lovely elderly bridges and lovely helpful signs and were so desperately lovely you couldn’t stand them for more than ten minutes. Too much loveliness and real beauty dies, and there was so much beauty today to absorb.

It was one of those afternoons where the heavens of God come down and touch the meadows of earth, but when I look, the scene glimmers with so much glory I can no longer discern the thread between them, though perhaps there never was one. I walk along the lake, escorted stoically by two Canadian geese, and I see the clear glaze of the water next to the sharp wave of the ice and wonder how both could exist side by side. Winter embraces summer, and we call it spring.

While Minnesota winters confine chatty girls to coffee shops, where they watch lace fall from heaven and feel steam rise from cups, prairie springs push them outside—outside onto the parks and the paths and the light and the sun. White face, pallid arms, ashen hands, we are glowing wraiths, or, perhaps, sleepy caterpillars emerging from our cocoons, ready to be transformed by the kiss of a passionate spring.

We were being kissed scandalously today, for the giggling March weather was playing dress-up in June’s best summer clothes, and my friend and I had made our escape to the park and the paths and that Canadian goose lake, and we were unfurling our mottled monarch wings under the sun’s approving rays. It is good to fly.

But those too-lovely paths keep us uncontrollably safe, for as our words fly along faster and faster (two girls energized by the drug-dealt high of spring), our feet keep having temper tantrums like small children not allowed to touch the glittered toys on the shelf. There is glitter in the fir-laden woods, in the crushed ice water streams, where the hills swoop down to touch the prison paths and beckon their inmates up higher to where the true beauty lies. But there are no paths there where the sunshine is mottled and the breeze is shy—no paths, that is, unless you listen for them.

Yet, somehow, we hear them calling. In the midst of our riveting discussions of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs and Harry Potter love scenes, suddenly, we stop. To our right, or our left, or perhaps we just imagined it, there is a small famished trail, starved for eyes to see its beauty. It is our duty to rescue it, no? I point to the lonely path (Harry Potter temporarily forgotten) and pronounce it an epic place to sojourn, and with a dramatic recitation of Frost’s poem—after all, the trail does make all the difference—we flit off into the sweet spiced warmth of this unknown woodchip path.

Yet it is sobering to walk on the dead. Those sacrificed trees remain largely untrodden, forced to turn their graveyard path into a mountain range. Our speaking slows as butterflies turn to sherpas who now wish for too-tight snowshoes to float them over these foothills of Everest. Through our sandals bites the dying wood, needles of penance punishing us for going off the Lovely Paths, spearing through thin soles and uncalloused feet.

But pain is part of beauty. Onward we move through it, until dead trodden tree bits turn to dead soon-living dirt clods, and we finally enter Narnia. The snow’s dripping music sings off the birches, causing the startled trilling chickadee to harmonize too loudly and wake the water nymph, whose leap touches us with a spray of hope. Spring is coming. The Lion must have shaken his mane.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The nature-learners

My education may well be right; yet nothing I heard in school, nothing I’ve read, no lesson reached by logic has ever convinced me as utterly or stirred me as deeply as did that red-tailed hawk… I learned from the land itself.
Scott Russel Sanders, “Buckeye,” p. 8

It was fuming at me, the snow was. It didn’t, always. Sometimes it seemed to have woken up in a pleasant mood, presumably having had an uneventful trip down from Canada and arriving at our barn door in quite enough time for tea. But some days, the prank-playing prairie birds gave it poor directions and the snake snow fence of my father’s caused a traffic jam and the brash blaring winter winds gave it a headache and by the time it arrived at our red barn door’s stop sign, my shovel was just the last straw.

It was angry today. I couldn’t exactly feel the snow, what with my nuclear holocaust body armor on, and I couldn’t exactly hear it, what with the pack of rabid dogs shrieking inside the barn, but I sure had to deal with it. The barn door, I had to free it, it needed to be rescued. Punch through the crust, heave out a shovelful, toss it a foot away, get it blown back in your face. Whack out the ice, scrape along the concrete, breath-thaw the frozen handle, kick free the frost-frozen door. Don’t stop, it’s your job. Do it.

The child, the shovel, and the snow. And the barn door. Every morning, every day, every week, all month, month after month after month until Minnesota finally got sick of winter and made it go away. That year I had been tasked with shoveling out the barn door, and, unlike when I was Morning Chores Person, my assignment didn’t switch off every week. Every day, no matter how upset the snow was that morning, I had to shovel out that barn door, crusading valiantly against the worst drift on the farm during the worst winter we ever experienced.

I rescued the barn door that year, but what I didn’t know is that it also, in a way, had rescued me. It had been speaking to me all winter but, like a voice carried back to you on the forgotten wind, I didn’t hear its whisper until I had left it years behind. Instead of going to school in nature, I left it for education in the city. And my fellow classmates, they often puzzle me. The December walk to chapel—I hear bitter complaints of the “cold.” Cold? You think this is cold? The early morning talk with a friend—I listen to grumbles about waking up seven minutes before class. But you don’t have any chores, think of that! I feel I don’t fit in here, where I get my education; I went to a different preparatory school.

Nature is a teacher unique among men because it does not follow any rules and speaks with an unadulterated voice. The blessed who grow up in nature, in wide-open spaces and far-flung skies, they think differently, live differently. They work because they have to, because there is no choice, but they are rarely bitter. They are not bitter because nature always reveals the beauty in the pain; that is the way of God. The furious snapping snow bites only because it is made of a trillion sharp diamonds and the sun only burns because it is filling your life with a million bright lights.

I did not find many of nature’s students in my new school, but there are some. We always do seem to find each other, the nature-learners. It is good to be together, to share the experiences of the snowy barn doors and the dragonfly wings and the red-tailed hawks wheeling where earth and heaven meet.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Failure and the word that is not quite in the Bible

A man slumps in a chair, covered with wires and patches hooked up to a dangerous looking machine. He is being interrogated in a polygraph test. Some questions he answers sarcastically.

“How do upsetting problems generally make you feel?”

“And when you get angry, do you have trouble staying in control?”

Some questions are downright strange.

“Would you rather ride on a train, dance in the rain, or feel no pain?”

But then comes the one that cuts me to the heart.

“How do you typically deal with failure?”


I understand what he means.

This scene, from the movie The Recruit, cuts close to home. The twin challenges of perfectionism and failure have been with me since I was small. Although I thankfully no longer have temper tantrums that last all afternoon, it doesn’t mean I have yet learned how to deal with failure. I guess I’m just better at hiding it now.

Over and over, I have pushed myself to be self reliant. If I failed, it was my fault. Bad grades? My fault. Lost money? My fault. Missed goals? My fault. There were no excuses, nothing I would or even could say or do to reduce the pain. If I had tried harder, I could have done it. I could have succeeded. Whatever it was, if it was humanly possible, I should have been able to do it.

And if I didn’t, it was my fault.

 A failure-focused life is a self-centered one. I rarely get angry at people and almost never at God. I’m not always proud of that. But I do become angry with myself, or, perhaps I should say, cripplingly disappointed. I wonder if that doesn’t show something deep about my character: I live an isolated life, a selfish life. It is about me, and my success, and my failure. Instead of living for and in and with others, and letting them life for and in and with me, I isolate myself in my selfish focus on my own failures.

I wonder what life would look like if I looked at myself with the same grace with which I view others. When another “fails,” it is so easy for me to see the larger picture, to say, it’ll be all right, to know unconditionally that whatever “failure” that was doesn’t always reflect on the character of the person. Sometimes, life is just hard. But I deny myself the same grace I so deeply want to give others. And yet, how do I think that makes my Creator feel?

I think I have understood failure quite wrong. Is failure not succeeding? Is it being weak and needing help? Is it making a mistake? It is none of those things. Failure is not “imperfection,” which simply means you make mistakes. But maybe, mistakes aren’t failures. Maybe, mistakes are life. And not even a bad part of life; they just mean you aren’t omniscient, which is no surprise to anyone, least of all God. There would have been mistakes before the Fall and there will be mistakes in sinless heaven; mistakes are not sin.

Are failures, then, your laziness, your lack of effort? I used to think so, deep down, but then I read a quote that caused my world to reel: “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” This was the opposite of how I had lived—it tells us that sometimes our human strength fails, and we are just blind.

I remember once making a silly mistake on a test I could not afford to make. I was so upset afterward I felt physically sick; I couldn’t accept that I was blind. And yet, that is exactly what Christ came to die for me for—the underlying blindness that I can never and will never get around. That is the gulf between me and God, why Christ came to die for me, and until I really see my blindness I will never really see Christ. But Jesus is saying, child, you are so blind, you are so lost, wrap everything in prayer because you will be blind to something. Stop looking at yourself and look at Me.

Why can’t we accept our blindness? Why are we so frustrated by our seeming failure? Perhaps it is because we feel we are letting God down. We want to give Him the best of us, and although we know He’ll “work all things out for good,” we figure He’d be happier if “all things worked out for the best” instead. Yet this comes full circle once more to a works-based Christianity, one that requires perfection, which I have already written about here.

What sets me free? I open my Bible and I search and search for what is failure, for what God counts as total loss. I find 1 Corinthians 4, and I see Paul saying that even he does not try to analyze what is a failure, what will be counted against him; only God knows. I find David proclaiming his righteousness and perfection before God even after deep sin. I try to find what causes a person to fail, and I stop again and again at a loss. God does not seem to think in those terms.

Perhaps, ultimately, “failure” is not even in the Bible, at least, not in the way we think. Ultimately, I wonder if failing God (and by definition, then, failure in general, as failing Him is all that ultimately matters) is rather like the “unpardonable sin”: if you are worrying you committed it, that is proof that you haven’t. Instead, it is simpler, more relational than we think, as, somehow, it always seems to be. It is about faithlessness and faithfulness. Just keep your face turned toward the Son and walk in the light you’ve been given.

It is a switch, to stop thinking in terms of shame, to stop seeing every place you could improve as a place of failure. I remember when I started to make the switch. I had not done my devotions one morning and immediately thought of it as a spiritual failure on my part; I resigned myself to needing to try harder and Do It Better in order to avoid such a breakdown in the future. But I fought the failure focus and tried to switch to a faith focus instead. It wasn’t a “failure,” it was just a choice, and I still love my Savior immensely; I am still faithful to him. As soon as I thought in terms of faith and not failure, the sense of shame dropped away. I felt free and light, no longer driven by failure but drawn forward by faith. I suddenly longed to do my devotions, then, not in an effort to fix anything, but to simply be with the One I loved.

It is strange, to not be driven by failure and shame. You wonder at the joy you feel, you wonder if it’s okay to feel this free. It’s a glory not quite like anything you’ve ever known.

But then, Jesus is radical like that.