A Worded Life

Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain…

…As Mo had said, writing stories is a kind of magic, too.

[Funke, Cornelia; Inkheart (New York: Scholastic Inc), 2003, pp. 1, 534]

Meggie’s begins with a stranger’s visit on a rainy night. It ends with Meggie’s decision to create new worlds with paper and ink, writing places for readers to visit. In between these lines, storytellers read villains and fairies out of their book worlds into ours through the magic of their voices. But there’s a catch: for everything that comes out of a book, something or someone leaves behind our world to enter it. Behind the words, through the pages and in the chapters, a rich life awaits – a place that some call home and others want to visit. So real is this story world that Meggie thinks that “perhaps there really was something behind the printed story, a world that changed every day just like this one.” (p.529)

I’ve spent thousands of hours in Middle Earth, the Hundred Acre Woods, Inkworld, Hogwarts, Tara, and countless versions of London, New York, and Maine. The ability to create a new reality on the page that changes real life is a powerful gift.

The words I read to myself can change who I am. The words I read to others can do the same, feeding the imaginations of adults and forming a child’s ability to reason. They can reveal marvelous possibilities for tomorrow or they can damage heart and soul. It’s vital to choose the stories I tell wisely.

The same can be said of scripture. It’s a world of love, pain, loss, ignorance, and miracles. But it’s not really just a collection of stories. It is a doorway into the biggest world possible: the one God created, nurtures, and enters to meet us. Not just words on a page, but the Word that created all possible worlds – most especially the beloved cosmos we all call home.

Also many other things…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. John 1:1, 21:25

Whenever I teach, I end the last class with John’s final words about Jesus. No matter the age and stage of the learners, how short or long the class ran or subject studied, these words have the last word. It’s a beautiful way to end a gospel or close a class, this truth.

Jesus did so much that I never saw or heard about, bringing the grace of God to unknown people and forgotten places. This sentence reminds me that I will never know or appreciate all that God-With-Us did when he walked this earth.

Paired with the opening words, John takes me from God-before-creation to God-in-Jesus. That’s a cosmic trip lasting billions of years, spanning unimaginable distances. The world that holds me could not contain the books that could be written about the beginning of everything – much too much for words to convey.

These words were written after Easter, after Jesus sent the Spirit to be God-within-us, God-walking-with-us, God-everywhere-around-us. Jesus is now with me through the Spirit. Of course the world itself could not contain the books that would be written about Jesus: the story continues to unfold in me, in you, in all that is, and in all that will be. Once again, much too much for words to convey. Isn’t that extraordinary? Isn’t that wonderful?

Photo on 2015-07-13 at 10.10

The Bad Beginning of a Long Journey

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book…

The car drove farther and farther away, until Justice Strauss was merely a speck in the darkness, and it seemed to the children that they were moving in an aberrant – the word “aberrant” here means “very, very wrong, and causing much grief” – direction. (Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning (New York, NY: Harpercollins publishers, 1999)

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It’s the story of the Baudelaire orphans trying to survive the fiendish plots of Count Olaf with life, health, and inheritance intact. As the three children get older, they grow from seeing everyone as either all good or all evil to seeing everyone (themselves included) as a mixture of light and dark, good and evil. Along the way, some good people make costly mistakes and a few villains find the courage to do what’s right. There is a lot of gray, and not all the questions are answered.

Like most of us, the Baudelaire children gradually come to realize that not everyone is willing to do the right thing. Some lack courage, others can’t figure out what the right thing is, and still others prefer worldly gain over personal sacrifice. Not everything gets resolved, and the three children don’t get a clear happy ending. What they get are moments of decision and the strength to accept the consequences of their actions. They make mistakes, they cause pain, and they grow up enough to withhold snap judgements about the actions of others.

At the end of the series, the children face an uncertain future together, willing to help others even at their own cost. They accept the world for all the hurts it has brought, and they accept their own inability to create a perfectly happy ending for everyone they love.

There isn’t anything particularly religious in this book or the twelve others in the series, but moving from a child’s simplistic view of people as all good or all bad to a more nuanced perspective is a sure sign of maturity. If such maturity evokes compassion for self and others, it is a journey of faith. If it ends in the rigid condemnation of others and personal despair, it’s a glimpse of hell.

Thank you, Lemony Snicket, for the ethics lesson, and for all the big and small words that took me on the journey.

 

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. Genesis 1:1, 50:26

 

It begins with the beginning of everything: space, time, matter, elements, life. It ends with the end of a single man dying in the foreign land that sheltered his whole family. It doesn’t get bigger than a universe whose size is beyond imagination. It doesn’t get more personal and specific than the last words and final resting place of a single human. Genesis stretches from our infinite creator and to our universal and very specific experience of death.

There are so many ideas about why God created, and why God chose to make the great, big world that is our cosmic home. I think it’s one of the reasons we tell our sacred stories, writing them down as our best attempt to give those who follow us a glimpse of how we saw God moving across the depths of our souls.

There are just as many ideas about why God made us, and why we all die. Saying goodbye to our holy, mortal flesh is another reason we tell our sacred stories, writing them down as our best attempt to give those who follow us a glimpse of our return to the God who made us.

The Bible is a magnificent library, full of books written by men and women who found God waiting for them on mountains, in shrubs and jail cells, in the belly of a big fish, and in the birth of a baby boy. If I had to sum it all up, this talking with and listening for God, it’s this:

The universe is very big, and you are very small.

You belong to the entire cosmos, and you are precious.

I love you so much.

I love everything and everyone else, too.

You are never lost to me.

The words aren’t really the point; they are an invitation to fall into the arms of God. I doubt I’ll ever receive another such beautiful invitation.

Running Away, Coming Home

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away…

…”Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.

The Runaway Bunny

I’ve read these words hundreds of times to nieces, nephews, and sons. I’ve admired Clement Hurd’s black and white sketches and full color illustrations with many toddlers, their little hands pointing out the little bunny in his boat, flower, and fish disguises. I’m on my second copy now – the first was loved to tatters before my younger son turned two.

I’ve read these words to hundreds of Sunday school children and their parents. I’ve read them to hundreds more sitting in pews in half a dozen churches. It’s one of the best interpretations of Psalm 139 I’ve ever found, and the simplest. Like the little bunny, most of us try to run away from God’s love and care, changing identities to avoid the holiness of our unique lives. Fortunately, God comes looking for us, bringing us home.

If you have the time, read all about the little bunny who wanted to run away. Pull out your Bible and look up Psalm 139, the grown-up poem about the same thing. Take God’s hand and come on home.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me…

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways…

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me…

I come to the end – I am still with you. Psalm 139:1, 3, 9, 18b NRSV

Brown, Margaret Wise; The Runaway Bunny (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), 1942

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Opening Sentences, Parting Words

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I may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but the words that come before its first period often determine whether I will take a book home or put it back on the shelf. A surprising turn of phrase or an intriguing question are enough to keep me reading. Sometimes the first sentence stands on its own, other times it takes some explaining. Somehow, it leads me to the last few words and the final punctuation mark: period, question mark, exclamation point.

The last words in a book are the door out of its world and back into my own. I don’t read them until I read all the words that came before them – why spoil the surprise? But I do like to go back and read the first sentence again before I put the book away, seeking again the words that began the whole adventure. Do the opening sentence and the final one have anything in common? Could the story in between be something other than what it was?

Sacred or secular, stories begin and end. But the best don’t really end because they have taken residence in the story that is my life. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of my favorite beginnings and endings. I hope you enjoy them. Perhaps, if you are feeling bold, you will share some of your own favorites…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…

…But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. John 1:1, John 21:25

Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain…

…As Mo had said, writing stories is a kind of magic, too. Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

In those days, there were prophets in Israel…

…Warm and gold the sunlight lay over Greece. Robert Nathan, Jonah

Mickey Cray had been out of work ever since a dead iguana fell from a palm tree and hit him on the head…

…”Me, too, Lucille.” Carl Hiaasen, Chomp

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…

…And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed  and placed in a coffin in Egypt. Genesis 1:1, 50:26

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away…

…”Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny. Margaret Wise Brown, The Runaway Bunny

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book…

…The car drove farther and farther away, until Justice Strauss was merely a speck in the darkness, and it seemed to the children that they were moving in an aberrant – the word “aberrant” here means “very, very wrong, and causing much grief” – direction. Lemony Snickett, The Bad Beginning

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw…

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. Revelation 1:1, 22:21

 

Bibliography:

The Holy Bible, NRSV

Brown, Margaret Wise; The Runaway Bunny (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), 1942

Funke, Cornelia; Inkheart (New York: Scholastic Inc), 2003

Hiassen, Carl; Chomp (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 2012

Nathan, Robert; Jonah (New York: Robert M. Mcbride & Company), 1925

Snicket, Lemony; The Bad Beginning “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), 1999

I’M NOT DRUNK: I’m avoiding potholes

I read this off the bumper of an SUV a few days back. Living in New England, I’ve lived these words. Late December through March involves a lot of swerving around frost heaves and craters that could swallow a Vespa. On some of the back roads in town, potholes are a year round constant.

I don’t know where the driver with this bumper sticker lives, whether he or she chose these words or if they were a gift. But it struck me today that there’s a certain sadness to them if they extend beyond seasonal driving adventures. If I’m so busy avoiding the bumps and ditches on this road of life that I’m mistaken for a drunk, perhaps I’m spending too much time focused on the pavement (or lack thereof) and not enough time looking out the window at all life has to offer.

Lord, give me eyes to see your glory. Amen.