To the right we have pictured my husband filling out a job application for the fall. We have our prospects narrowed down to two main options: either leaving the continent or staying in the continent. We have three months left on our lease, so I really feel like we're close to figuring this thing out*. . The awesomeness of the unknown keeps playing out before me, like the opening sequence of The Twilight Zone. Doors floating and turning sideways, ominous hitchhikers saying "Going my way?" I feel like Matthew is this man in a hat who I'm catching a ride with to who-knows-where**. . I tried to find a clip of that intro, but when I typed in the words "twilight zone going my way?" into Youtube, the first video that came up was of Alf. Having not seen Alf since maybe the third grade, I clicked the link and started to watch it. They're playing Scrabble and the daughter's about to leave for a date. Alf keeps trying to pass off words in Melmacian. The guy knocks at the door; Alf makes a series of witty remarks and the parents watch him walk in with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and disdain. . I wonder what my parents thought the first time they met Matthew. Did they know he was jaunty, clever, a gentleman? Or did they see a nervous kid in a ska band with patchy stubble who said things like "I have the reflexes of a jungle cat"? . It was at our wedding, during the vows, that I suddenly realized the gravity of the situation. I hadn't realized that to stick out your thumb is to stick out your neck. We were getting hitched, and I didn't have the wheel anymore. "You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance" - in retrospect, I feel like we should have exited the church to mysterious piano music. . I was a fool; he was my friend. We made it happen. . I'm aware now, seven and a half years later, that I'm entirely indebted to God for getting me to climb into the right car. And now that we traded it in for a minivan with three carseats strapped inside, even more so. I don't know where we're going in life, but I am so glad that I'm going there with him. . (Happy birthday tomorrow, Matthew Goodfella. I kind of love you like mad.)
*You know what's crazy? I'm not even being sarcastic. **Yeah, I realize I have it backwards. And I'm also mixing together two different intros. One has a cave in it and a clock and a man with a million books but no glasses (if I remember right) and the other is the twirling door with the stars in the background. Still, the point remains: Matt would look good in that hat.
My husband is teaching the Vietnam War novel "Fallen Angels" to his students right now, and with the book running through the back of his mind, he's been playing The Killer's cover of Kenny Rogers' song a lot. The Vietnam vet with the bent and paralyzed legs who's asking his girl not to walk out on him again. The paperback sits on the shelf next to the kids' books, and the Flaco occassionally picks it up and then brings me "Que Prefieres" instead. It's this book of hypotheticals: would you rather have a dog drag you through the mud or be soaked with water? Would you rather dance with a goat or ride on top of a pig? Lolita, who doesn't speak much, points excitedly at her answers and rises her eyebrows, head knodding up and down, "Yeah!" and then emphatically, "Yeah." .
There's a page of scenarios that includes a boxing cat, and the statement that the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians plays in my mind every time I see the illustration. The verse is one that I've pushed away a thousand times without even realizing it, "I do not fight like a man beating the air." It continues on to a verse that's easily misunderstood, which is why I suppose I have avoided it. The translation I'm familiar with says "No, I beat my body* and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I will not be disqualified for the prize."
Sometimes it's easy to see the Bible as a book of hypotheticals, where you're given the option of choosing a sentence you want to base your theology on. There are plenty of verses that would seem to say the exact opposite: the twenty third Psalm with its simple picture of a God who makes us lie down beside still waters. I picture these verses depicted on the page: Would you rather beat your body or rest? I would rather rest.
But what he meant by rest was of course an extraordinary exertion of faith: the verse would be better illustrated showing a pack of wolves around the edges, a shepherd saying "sleep" when every instinct in you says run.
We tend to view faith as something that is only of value if it passes some sort of litmus test: if it's real, it'll still be there no matter where life takes me. Rather than resting in faith, we rest from it: we handle it as something better left untouched. We think that true belief shouldn't require effort; we're afraid of becoming indoctrinated, brainwashed, convinced.
Paul wrote of it as something to scramble after, something to never let go of. He wrote of a paradigm entirely different than the conventional wisdom that says follow your heart because your heart can't be wrong. He says we're like Ruby, taking our love to town. God has put himself in the position of the paralytic asking us not to walk away; with fickle hearts we paint up our lips and curl our tinted hair.
My dad saw a demon one night. He was in his trailer asleep, and he awoke to hear horrible laughter. He saw a face before him; he was frozen in fear, covered in sweat. He remembered Sunday School and called out the only word he knew to say, Jesus. The face disappeared and he dropped - he didn't even realize he had been hovering some six feet above his bed. And do you know what I do with this? My mind automatically tries to rationalize, to let the story be anything other than what it is. Like the man written about in Mark, I cry out "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
I cling to my faith with white knuckles and I beat my body because I know, even when I do not know, that Jesus Christ is real. And if faith is a flame and I spend too much time out in the wind, I cup my hands around the flicker that's left until it consumes me again. I see so much ambivilence: people let their knowledge of God go unfed, they douse it in water and say if it was real, they would feel the flame. They walk away from Christ and then marvel at his distance.
Oh Ruby, for God's sake, turn around.
*Some of Matt's friends were in kung fu, and as a part of their training, they had to strike themselves with two by fours. It was to make their bones stronger and their muscles more accustomed to taking blows. My assumption is that he's referring to something similar (as opposed to the other picture mind my jumped to of Shias marching and whipping their backs.)
Matthew comes home around 4:30 and I check out. He watches the babies and I put on my Arabic discs, which is a nightmare for him because he's trying to switch his mind over to Spanish. I wash dishes and tell my imaginary companions that I am going to eat dinner with my youngest daughter in Damascus at nine, and that my husband has rented a car and will come when he's done with work. I tell them I spent the day shopping and bought a mosque, because I always mistake it for the word newspaper. . Matthew holds a kid or two and cooks and I turn off Pimsleur once the table is set. I never noticed that he was listening too. Last night we curled up in bed and he said to me "Smaa u ait." (Listen and repeat.) He grinned at me. "That man sounds like a potato. Out of all the people in Syria, why did they choose a man who sounds like a potato?" I laughed. He really does. "Smaa u ait. Every time you play that disc, I picture a sleepy potato suddenly breaking into the recording session. Hella uul..." Silence. I could feel him thinking about it. "Smaa u ait." He snickered. . "It's like white" he said. What is? I asked. "Smah white." It's three words, I told him. "Oh. Smah oh white?" he asked. . He went from doing a dead-on impression of an Arab man who sounds like a potato to speaking with midwestern accent, all because he had written it out in his head. He picked out the closest letters he could find, and then pronounced them. . Our minds find the nearest thing and substitute in the familiar for the unfamiliar. It's like coloring a picture of a sunset with a box of eight crayons: you can only get so close. It bears some representation, but it's off. . As much as our sounds can be distorted versions of real words, our words can be distortions of concepts. Oprah, discussing a book she read, said that man makes God in his own image: that we can't understand him in his fullness, so we substitute in the familiar for the unfamiliar. We "reduce him" to the God of the Bible. . She said that she came to this realization after hearing a sermon where the preacher said that God is a jealous God. "God is jealous of me?" she asked. The word of and for: who thinks of even defining that? God is jealous for us, like a lovesick husband whose wife has left him for another man. Even that terminology carries room for error: we think of a man who can't wait to get his woman back to slap her around, leave some bruises, remind her that she's his. We don't picture a man who would literally do anything to win back the woman who has been unfaithful to him, who is not capable of loving him like he deserves. He is jealous for her love because he loves her. . She misunderstood a word, and so she has misunderstood God. . And now Rob Bell has a video out where he demands that the listener reconcile the terms love and hell (and appears to have done so by pouring contempt on the cross.) . He is the pastor of Mars Hill Church, which is named after the place where Paul pointed to an altar inscribed with the words "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD" and spoke the words found in Acts 17. The New Testament is full of his letters describing this unfathomable God. . The word logos means both word and concept: God, help us make them align.
"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, might have the power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and high and long and deep is the love of Christ,
and to know this love that surpasses knowledge,
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." -Ephesians 3:17b-19