From the Rabbi: The Most a Poem Can Do

Bringing Four Worlds Together 

Slide1Stanford professor John Felstiner, reflecting on Paul Celan’s poem Es Stand, commented that the most a poem can do is to bring four worlds together through its metaphors or images. “And when it does,” he said, “the poem becomes explosive.” These worlds are the natural (creation), the spiritual, the political/geographical, and the personal.

When we apply the four worlds of the poet to David’s psalms, we can begin to appreciate their enduring significance through their many layers of memory. First, there is the historical situation that places them in the context of David’s story. Second, we find Israel using David’s psalms in new situations with different liturgical settings. Third, these prayers take on greater significance as they give shape to Jesus’ prayers. Finally, as we are “in Christ,” David’s psalms become our prayers.

I experienced the explosive power of the poem on my second visit to Romania in 1989.

While we were studying the David/Jonathan story, several agents from Romania’s secret police (the Securitate) were searching for us in the forest in order to arrest our hosts for housing us (it was illegal to have foreigners in their homes without reporting it to the police) and conducting a Bible conference. In the midst of their intrusions into our camp, four brothers (all were named Jonathan, as if by divine coincidence) put their lives on the line to protect us from the police. img124

I had never experienced this kind of sacrificial love before. It was as if the ancient David/Jonathan story was being re-enacted right before our eyes. At one point I took my position on a secure height to watch for any agents who might be coming up the road, while the Romanians took cover inside a large tent to worship and study God’s word.

Sitting in silence I began meditating on Psalm 27. David’s metaphors broke my soul wide open.

When evildoers assail me
      to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
      it is they who stumble and fall. (Ps 27:2)

On four different occasions, the Securitate came to devour our souls, but each time they stumbled and fell. And then I read further in the psalm:

                  For he will hide me in his shelter
                        in the day of trouble;
                  he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
                        he will  lift me high upon a rock.
                  And now my head shall be lifted up
                        above my enemies all around me,
                  and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of  joy;
                        I will sing and make melody to the Lord. (Ps 27:5-6)

As I was reading these verses, I could hear the voices of the Romanians singing their songs of praise concealed “under the cover of his tent.” The David story and song that had shaped Jesus’ story, was now shaping our lives in this new setting on a hillside in Costeşti, România. I was overcome with the joy of having a small part on the stage of God’s wondrous drama of redemption.

This explains why certain hymns or spiritual songs evoke strong emotions within us, while others may not. When specific lyrics give voice to significant experiences in our lives, or to emotions we haven’t yet been able to articulate, or evoke layers of memory and accumulated emotions, they can stir our hearts to the core.

The hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” has always been a favorite of mine. I came to appreciate it first for its lyrics that give voice to trust and contentment at a time of loss. My appreciation was heightened when I learned the occasion for which it was originally written.

But it wasn’t until I sang it with a couple grieving over their six-year-old son at Stanford Hospital, that its power became explosive. As Timothy had only hours left to live, we lifted our voices to sing the hymn. I didn’t remember the second verse, but the nurse taking care of Timothy did. And she did not hold back. With her full-throttled voice she boomed out the second verse. When she did, it was as if angels came into the room and flooded us with a peace I can only describe as transcendent. Suddenly the hospital room was transformed into the gate of heaven. I watched in awe as a mother held and caressed her dead son. Then Timothy’s nurse washed his body with as much dignity as if he was Jesus. The sting of death had disappeared, totally.

That Sunday at church our worship leader had selected the hymn not knowing what we had experienced earlier in the week. As the words rang out, I looked behind me and saw Timothy’s mother singing, tears streaming down her face. We made eye contact in the secret acknowledgement of what God had done that week. Such is the power of the poem.

[1] John Felstiner, Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 268.

Romantical Moments

We arrived in London two days ago and were treated to an absolutely glorious day — blue skis, warm sun, a light breeze off the Thames.

After dinner we decided to catch the last ride of the night on the London Eye.bigben_night

As we strolled along the pedestrian walkway that stretches over the river about halfway between the Waterloo and Westminster Bridges, this was our view — Big Ben and the Parliament buildings aglow, their lights mirrored in the river below.

As you might imagine, people had stopped up and down the footbridge to take in the view, and quite a few were sharing the moment with a lover. Hands held, kisses shared. Quite romantic.

Julia — ever the observant one — said to me, “Mom, there are a lot of romantical moments going on right now!”

I replied, “Well, Joey, this is quite a romantic spot don’t you think? In fact, maybe Daddy and I will have a romantical moment too!”

At which point, Julia wrinkled up her nine-year old nose, tried very hard to suppress a wry little grin, and squealed “OH NO!” and ran off down the bridge in search of her sister.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.


Jacob’s Ladder at Sacre Coeur

Two evenings ago, sitting around the dinner table, the Downings had a epiphany: we only had one day left in Paris.


Our lollygagging over croissants and coffee, our wanderings in the time-stopping halls of the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre, not to mention strolling through the back streets of Saint Germain des Pres, had conspired together to tee us up for seeing, well, none of the tourist attractions in this city. We were stricken.

So, we quickly drew up plans to see the entire city the following day, because that always works.

No, seriously, out came the city map and then the metro map and we figured it out. The following morning we would start early (ok, 10a but that’s early when you go to bed at midnight!) and head straight to the top of Paris – crepes in Montmartre and the gleaming white Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

Friends, I was On A Mission: my Type-A personality was in full tilt, my determination pinned at 100%. We would see it all, take it all in.

It was in this state we arrived at Sacre-Coeur. It was a spectacular, cloudless morning and we stood for a while at the aged wall that surrounds the courtyard, tracing the Seine and searching the topography for familiar landmarks.

Finally, we wandered in and the girls stopped dead in their tracks, necks craned to take in the expanse. I realized a few minutes in that there was actually a mass being held, though to be honest, the droning voice of the priest hadn’t really broken through my consciousness. The faithful sitting in the pews were indistinguishable from the tourists getting off their feet for a few moments.


Sacre Coeur and the Sacred Heart of Jesus

But then, something brand new happened, something I’ve never heard in all my visits to landmark churches both modern and medieval all over Europe: an angel started singing.

It took me a moment to figure out what that unearthly sound was, as it rang out in the acoustical masterpiece that is the copse. I searched the platform and there she was, a small nun, about my age, blue habit, barely tall enough to reach the microphone at the podium. But her voice, crystal clear and unaccompanied, floated and danced, ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder as Heaven came down.

I stood there listening … entranced. I stared, not at her but at the immense mosaic celebrating the heart of Jesus, and tears sprang to my eyes.

Who would have thought a busy day in Paris, an on-the-go day, a day I had all planned out, full of tourist attractions, would begin with a surprise encounter with the living God?

The “old” me would have felt a twinge of guilt at having “forgotten God” in all the hubbub and busyness and stress of traveling and the allure of sightseeing.

The “new” me – OH I like her so much better, am so grateful for all God has done in me to birth her, this “new” me stood there with tears in my eyes and gratitude swelling in my soul that God would find me there, fill a thin space with His presence, sing life into my soul – a song that would carry me through the rest of the day and infuse everything with grace and beauty and truth.

I am so very, very grateful that I am not required to create opportunity in order for Him to accompany me on my journey, although I am welcome and invited to do so.

This Person who I love – He found me once, a long time ago and has been finding me over and over again ever since.








On travel


A strategically placed olive oil bottle, Greek restaurant, Holland.

I used to travel regularly for work, back in the day when my job involved launch plans and budget spreadsheets and international marketing entities.

Then I had kids and my job involved launch plans of a different sort. Budgets went out the window and my wanderlust was confined to the 5 mile circuit of school-soccer field- grocery store-home. Nothing at all wrong there — in fact, I wouldn’t trade this past decade for anything on earth.

But finally we are out on the open road — this road happens to be in Europe. Amsterdam > Paris > London to be exact. And while friends and family make great use of our homestead and pool, I am remembering why I loved Europe so much generally and travel in particular.

1. Step outside the bubble of Silicon Valley and you are confronted head on with the reality that people work to live, not the other way around. There is such a thing as “quitting time” and it usually involves a cafe and friends and relaxed conversation. It is not at all unusual to watch as people wander by on foot, catch sight of old friends, and pull up a chair. I have no idea where any of those folks were headed, but wherever it was, it was not as important in that moment as a coffee and smoke with an old friend.

2. Which brings me to smoking. Gasp. Cough. It does not appear to have lessened in the 15 years since I have been here. Not At All. My kids can now pick up the smell of pot 2 streets away (eeww they say!) and are getting a full picture of just how dull life is as a pothead. #howtoinnoculateyourkidsagainstdrugs

3. It is amazing what you will eat when you can’t read a menu. You do your best, handwaving and interpretive dance, and in the end you eat whatever it was you ordered because A) you paid for it and B) its all you are getting and C) for some miraculous reason risk comes naturally on a travel adventure. The kids are trying all sorts of things they’ve never eaten — some of it gets devoured, some politely rejected, all of it tried.

4. The entire world is not glued to a smartphone. Sure, folks are packing, no doubt. The thing is, if you are trying to do email on your morning commute you might actually die, as in get run over by a tram, a bicyclist, a taxi. At the very least you are going to be bumping the myriad people sharing the sidewalks with you, so it behooves you to look up.

5. Then there’s the walking. My kids are already loving it. At home I can barely bribe them to walk to Peets for a Saturday morning Cinnamon roll — a mere third of a mile. Here, they’re on their feet for hours at a time, and have energy to spare such that when we arrive at one of those wonderful European parks the soccer balls come out and juggling and keep-away ensue. David and I can’t get enough either. There is just something so wonderful about perambulating, then on a whim tucking into a side street to see what’s down there. Walking on century’s old cobblestone doesn’t hurt.

As strange as it sounds, in the end, I love the sense of being slightly out of control that foreign travel affords. Of having to struggle to figure out the train schedule. Of ordering off a menu you can’t read. Of reading a map to get somewhere. Of that first moment when you realize you are beginning to hear actual words in all those foreign morphemes. All of these small tasks conspire to slow me down, engage the present moment. I can’t churn over some existential problem (real or imagined) when the basics take full concentration. I appreciate help from strangers and friends in ways I rarely do at home, where mostly I eschew help as if I am too good for it, as if pride dictates I go it alone, all Marlboro Man-ish. My girls hold my hand everywhere we go, a little nervous at the strangeness but definitely captivated but a world much larger than the one they knew until today.

And like all great excursions, when we have a few minutes of downtime, we are already planning our next trip.

What about you? Any favorite things about traveling?

From the Rabbi: “Daughters, the doorway to a father’s heart”

Scholars tell us that over thirty percent of the Hebrew Scripture is poetry. 4-006_017Man’s first speech recorded in Genesis 2:23 is an exquisite poem of appreciation and praise, celebrating his wife’s equality.

This one at last, bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh,

This one shall be called Woman

for from man was this one taken. (Gen 2:23[1])

Exuberant lines spill over with exultation. No other form of speech would do, which may suggest that poetry is our highest form of speech––that which elevates us, making us feel wholly human and alive. Stanley Kunitz writes,

Poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world. The experience of love and the creative act are the supreme expressions of the life force. They do more than express it; they refresh and renew it and give it back, magnified.[2]

For David poetry was not only the vehicle of articulating and processing his lament, but it was also his primary expression of thanksgiving and praise, so much so that he mandated it for future generations in Israel’s liturgy.


Becky and I getting acquainted.

“He (David) appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, even to celebrate (“to lament/petition”) and to thank and praise the Lord God of Israel.” (1 Chron 16:4)

In Israel it was a sin for the king not to offer public thanksgiving when God had answered his prayers. This is what David means by paying his “vows.” Though I did not discover the gift of poetry until I was thirty-seven, I have found to be a supreme delight in articulating my appreciation to God for the incredible gifts of daughters he gave to Emily and me after the death of our first two children, David and Jessica. After Jessica died on December 4, 1976, Emily and I wondered if we would ever experience the joy of being parents.

But the next day a strange sensation came over me. I felt as if God was doing something to intervene on our behalf. I said to Emily, “Let’s not put the baby furniture away like we did last year. Let’s just pray for a baby.” And that is just what we did. I asked Walt McCuistion, one of our pastors, to share the news of Jessica’s death with the congregation and to make our prayer request known. When I mentioned to him the feeling I had experienced, he indicated that he felt that same sensation of faith. Emily and I were too numb from grief to attend the service that night. After the service I received a call from Walt. He said that after he shared the news of Jessica’s death, his wife boldly asked God to intervene give us a baby by Christmas.

At the service was a young girl whose roommate was pregnant and due to deliver a baby the next day. Up to that point in her pregnancy, she had not told her doctor that she was interested in adoption. He had eighty people on a waiting list. After hearing our story, she said she wanted us to have her baby. Hearing the news, I felt an inconsolable stab of joy.


Emily and Becky bonding.

The next evening we drove to an attorney’s house to make legal arrangements for the adoption. I’ll never forget Emily asking, “Do you think it is okay to pray that the baby might look like me?” After we arrived the attorney shared with us notes from the birth mother about her personal background and that of the father. As we listened to her personal profile, it was as if she was mirror image of Emily. We were caught in the amazement of something wonderful, much bigger than ourselves. Legal matters progressed quickly, but the birth was delayed two weeks. Finally, on December 18, one week before Christmas, Becky was born. As the attorney drove us to the hospital he asked us what we were going to name our new little girl. “Rebecca Louise” was our reply. He quickly responded, “Why don’t you name her Noelle, since she is your Christmas gift?” And so her name became Rebecca Noelle, our Christmas joy.

Becky entered our lives like a bundle of joy and dried our tears. As Becky grew, she became bold, audacious, daring to go anywhere, and to try anything. She possessed great social skills that made her comfortable with adults as well as her peers. She also exuded a self-confidence that stretched beyond her means, sometimes got her into trouble, but always kept life interesting. Whenever Becky was around, you were never bored. As parents, she always welcomed us into her world and I was honored to coach her softball team during her high school years. She had a keen love for music and would often play the piano after dinner. She was unashamed to sing. Some of my favorite memories are of her singing scores from Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera at the piano while I dried the dinner dishes. I miss her voice terribly as our piano lies mute since her departure. I dedicated the poem to her on her graduation from High School, June 8, 1995 and re-read it to her on her graduation from nursing school in June of 2013. She is married to Corey and has two daughters, Mary and Emily, and one son, Wesley.

A Shout of Joy Comes in the Morning
Clothed in darkness
shrouded with pain
my soul poured out like water
drenched by heaven’s rain.
Was it not enough to journey to Moriah
to leave our first born, days from his birth
that he might reign above
an angel not destined for earth?
But now death’s dark shadow crushed my chest
to steal again the light of day and with it, dreams
and to stand before an empty crib, silence screams
no daughter to place upon a breast.
Would our home never hear an infant’s cry,
or see a mother’s gaze enfold a child
for whom she feeds,
would I never ever be a dad on earth.
But God,
bent the heavens and came down,
he heard the cry of this poor couple
and considered our low estate.
And did He delay?  Not even for a day!
Before Jessica found her place of rest,
he sent a messenger to pray,
“By Christmas Lord, and do not delay!”
With such strange inward stirrings
we knew, we knew a baby was on the way.
and while we waited expecting you,
he turned our darkness into day.
He bent the heavens and came down
he rode upon a cherub and flew,
he sped upon the wings of wind.
Oh, how my anticipation grew.
This is Rebecca Noelle,
heaven’s gift, Christmas JOY,
first carried, then caressed,
at last one to be laid upon breast.
A gift of grace from God alone,
who delights to repair a broken heart,
by breaking in from without
a New Creation to impart.
O Rebecca, will I ever forget that Day,
when I learned what it means to pray,
and see him touch our lives,
and turn our darkness into day.
And from that day
the void that grew,
that gaping ache,
he has filled with you.
Your vivacious smile,
your spirit bold,
unthwarted, undaunted
living life in ways untold,
To shatter walls,
fearing no place and no one,
but gathering all,
What you have been to me,
from those dark days,
so long ago yet so near,
words cannot tell, except to say,
“Tears may come to stay the night,
But a shout of joy comes in the morning.”
You have brought me more joy
laughter and song,
than ten sons.
How can I ever forget memories
etched upon the heart, playing ball,
being a dad, a coach, a friend,
even a Swiss comedian.
But what I’ll miss the most,
is that sweet angelic voice
which lighted among us
unashamed to sing and praise.
And now Rebecca, leave our nest,
take off and fly amidst the clouds
touch the sky, see his face,
but most of all, feel his grace.
But as you leave, glance back, and know
that though we shall never be the same,
it will be enough for me, your Dad,
if you take thought from whence you came.
Yes, these were the days
when words of the Ancients came true,
he bent the heavens and came down,
and dried our tears with you. 


Our three daughters, Katie, Jenny & Becky.


[1] Robert Alter, Genesis, Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 10.

[2] Gary Pacernick, Meaning and Memory, Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2001), 38.


Lately, my words have been hurting someone I deeply love. My temptation is to be self-righteous, self-justifying and defensive, but I hate that tendency as much as I hate being hurtful, however unintentionally.

I want to come easily and without self-aggrandizing explanation to the notion that I am wrong (see previous post). The details don’t matter — if I am wounding someone I am, in some way, wrong. Insensitive. Not listening. Putting myself above. Defending myself when I ought to be defending them. Shrinking the acceptable space instead of expanding it. I am not loving well.

I’ve spent a lot of waking hours — even the ones I should be sleeping — praying about all this, and have come back over and over again to my Psalm 7 poem. I wrote this in the spring of 2011, but it is as true today as then.

I cannot wait to be rid of this body of sin.


Superscript: In Psalm 7 David represents the typical worldview of his day, namely that he is experiencing persecution as a direct result of his sin, that God is inflicting him with dire circumstances to force his repentance.  But David emphatically rejects this as the case, deciding instead that his enemies are unjust in their assault and that God will vindicate him.

This turnaround should give us pause to observe that David has just rewritten the “rules” that governed his theology. God is supposed to be like this, he says at the beginning, but then as his poem takes shape he discovers to the contrary that God’s dealings with him are less punitive and more faithful than he first supposes.

It only took one reading of this psalm for me to conclude that I was fully unlike David; whereas he was innocent, I was guilty through and through. God unflinchingly directs my attention to the breadth and depth of so many ways I fall short of His standard every day; my sin is ever before me. But God is also more than willing to painstakingly unmake me, beginning ever again to create in me a pure heart. It is the greatest hope of my life.

(Psalm 7)
If I have done this
If I have taken what is not mine
If I have spoken what should be left unsaid
or been silent when words were required
If I have played the part
If I have played pretend
If I have dug my own well
or forced new wine into old wineskins
If I have whitewashed my own tomb
If I have forgiven my own sin
If I have been deaf to Nathan and Shimei
or the donkey, even
Then Hound of Heaven
Rend me limb from limb
Tear flesh from bone
Leave no sinew or tendon whole
Trample my life to the ground and
make me sleep in the dust.
Then, El ‘Elyon, from the dust I will
sing praise, finally, with a pure heart.



I Am Probably Wrong

I am probably wrong — if not in entirety, then at least in some portion, about everything that matters to me.


About who God is.

About how to read the Bible.

About what it means for Jesus to be a human being.

About politics — and history too while I’m at it, and oh heck, eschatology too.

About raising my daughters and the assumptions and decisions I make for them.

About your motivations and the ways your wounds have shaped you.

About my own story and how I’ve made sense of it.

About your story too and how I judge it.

About All Those People and what I “discern” about them.

About what is actually happening in the world, and even about how the world actually came to be.

About …

About …

About …

I have this experience, all the time if I’m honest, where I am Trying So Hard to get it right, whatever “it” is — and it is usually more than one thing. And deep down I know I’m getting it wrong. I know I don’t have all the facts, all the information, the circumstances are too complex, the possible outcomes infinite and unpredictable. I am overwhelmed with the imagined voices and faces of the witnesses that have gone before me who understood God, the Scriptures, the world and their place in it differently than I do. I see myself in contrast as small and hanging on for dear life, shaped in mysterious ways by my affluence, my education, my family, my historical moment, my personality, my church, my DNA.

And I picture myself finally, in that first moment, just after my last living breath, standing there before God and realizing all at once how wrong I was about all sorts of things that mattered, how I didn’t see clearly and how dim that mirror really was as I stared into it all the while thinking I had it all figured out.

But in that same moment — last living breath, first eternal breath — recognizing Jesus.

Recognizing Jesus because I have known him all my life, imperfectly for sure, but I know the sound of his voice when he speaks my name, the cadence of his speech when he describes what he sees, the marks on his hands and feet and forehead.

In the face of the overwhelming complexity of modern, or really post-modern life, I sometimes think, why, really, am I a Christian? Is it because I believe the Bible, prayed the sinners prayer and had a conversion experience? Is it because I grew up in a Christian home and an evangelical community instead of a Muslim family and Islamic community or some other religious or secular equivalent? Is it because I am afraid to walk away from ancient religious beliefs or too delusional to see the truth of our material existence? I have friends who would — who have — pointed to every one of these possibilities as the cause celebre of my faith.

This is why: I am a Christian because of the unbelievable grace of God who loves me, knowing fully well my human frame, knowing fully well I cannot, will not Get It Right. I am a Christian because God did everything I could not do, moving heaven and earth to make a way for me to belong, once again with Him. And as if that were not enough, God then condescends to accompany me on my journey even now in this liminal space of a now-and-not-yet Kingdom. Here, faith and doubt open up the widest road possible, a journey of shadows as well as light.

I find it breathtaking that in the midst of my deepest doubts, awash in the most excruciating tensions of daily life, the Person I most want to talk about it all with … is God.



A few more links on personal narratives and trigger warnings

Here are two very well-written pieces that circle around the ever-growing popularity of “trigger warnings” and more broadly, the contributions and limitations of personal narratives, especially when considered up against the Scriptures in the life of a Jesus-follower.

Trigger Warnings and Trust, by Alan Jacobs

Why We Shouldn’t Trust Our Stories, by Alastair at Alastair’s Adversaria




“Men want significance and women want security.”

Ella, ever the gadfly in our house, is doing a book report on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.eowyn-wiki I can’t believe anyone reading my blog does not know the story, but just in case, it traces an epic quest of 9 male characters (4 hobbits, 2 men, 1 dwarf, 1 elf and 1 wizard) through Middle Earth to defeat an overpowering evil. Along the way, Tolkien incorporates a very small number of notable female characters: 2 elven queens and 1 human woman (and an embittered hobbit, but she’s beside the point).

In the movie version of LOTR, the female characters are bold, courageous and determined, but the one that captured Ella’s imagination was Eowyn, a noblewoman who disguises herself as a man so she can ride into battle against the great and growing evil, even at the risk of death.

Ella’s identification with Eowyn got me thinking about a phrase I heard routinely at church as a teenager, this little ditty that, “men want significance and women want security.” This statement was evoked as a way of instructing us girls that since we were created by God to want (and need) security primarily, we would find our deepest satisfaction in marriage and homemaking. Likewise, we were not — and ought not try to be — like men, who had a deep, God-given need and desire to participate in an epic story and struggle valiantly with their fellow brothers-in-arms — to give their lives for something significant. You can see the chalk outline then of the male/female model, where the men engage in epic battle in the public square and the women wait at home for the return of their conquering hero. This idea is illustrated quite clearly in the hugely popular (among Christians) Wild at Heart and Captivating books by John and Stasi Eldredge:

In an interview with Beliefnet, they explain,

“In fact, in “Wild at Heart,” I (John) said every man wants a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue. And in “Captivating” (Stasi) -every woman wants to be romanced; every woman wants to play an irreplaceable role in a heroic adventure, not just to be useful but to be irreplaceable; and every woman longs to have a beauty that’s all her own to unveil, both an external beauty and an internal beauty as well. To be the beauty and to offer beauty.

The woman in this scenario, it should be noted, was part of the man’s spoils, his reward for having fought the good fight, so she had certain essential obligations to look the part. By extension, as I have heard many times in my short, happy life, when women refuse to be the prize, when women take up arms (metaphorically and physically), it demotivates men and deprives them of their masculine prerogative.

Some of my friends loved this narrative and Could Not Wait to fit themselves into it vis a vis marriage.

But me. Oooh no, this narrative made me crazy — C.R.A.Z.Y. Even as a young teenager, I knew deep in my soul I had very little desire for security (as it was conceptualized anyway) and even less desire to be someone’s prize. I was drawn to all the stories of epic questing and never, ever imagined myself in the role of fair maiden. My go-to childhood superpower? Flight. Way better than Spidey sense or a Lasso of Truth.  I wanted wings more than roots. If there was a mountain to be skied, I was at the top of it. If there was a boundary, I pushed it. If God was offering something, I was first in line even if I was uninvited by the powers that be. The edge has always been my comfort zone.

Even as a child I wanted to see the world, and I still do. When I get cranky and irritable my husband starts making travel plans, because he knows how essential it is for me to breathe fresh air and set my sights on something new, set myself against a task yet untested.  I am beyond fortunate that he’s that way too, and so when life throws us lemons we let the lemons mold and rot in the fridge, and we pack up the kids and hit the road.

I see the same hunger in both of my daughters, although scarcely can they identify it yet. What captivates them: challenge, risk, adventure, the open road. Julia will go on epic quests in the interior of her own imagination, and I guarantee you she is the hero in her own story, and rightly so. Of course, we all of us love to come home after our adventures, sleep in our own beds, get reacquainted with the cadences of daily life. It is not either-or for me, for my daughters.  It is both-and.

There are those who would argue (and have) that what feels to me like an innate desire to engage the big wide world and play a part there, to be significant, is a socially conditioned response fomented in the 60s by radical feminists and is (thus) not the way God made me. Who knows, maybe they are right. I guess someday I’ll find out if I became the person God imagined before the foundations of the world, or instead became some silly, deformed cultural cliche. I, for one, have more confidence in God than that, though. I have confidence that He is able to do all He sets out to do, that He is able to complete His work — even in me.

Perhaps it is security that gives us the courage to quest and seek a role in God’s epic adventure. Perhaps it is the desire to contribute in some significant way to a story larger than our own that drives us to form the securest of bonds with kindred spirits, those born of blood and those born of faith and covenant too.

The more I think about it, the less the bifurcation irritates me, and the easier it is to simply dismiss it out of hand. The truly stupid part of this idea, sold to me in those formative teenage years, is that any one of us can be cleanly located, because of our gender, into one or the other little, tiny box. As if God has boxes at all.

God made each of us in His image and called us to wage war against evil and bring heaven to earth — what role could possibly be more significant?

God made each of us for Himself and named us — brother, sister, daughter, son — what relationship could possibly bring greater security?

Let the Owen Strachan’s of the world keep on deriding women like me. I’m sticking with Eowyn.

On Millennials and trigger warnings

My friend Roxzana, an outstanding English literature teacher, sent me this piece from the National Review and I started thinking about it. I know: take cover, right?

The gist of the article is that the Millennial generation is comprised of a bunch of wusses because they want to attach “trigger warnings” to all forms of public narrative to ensure that those who have been on the receiving end of sexual, emotional, physical or spiritual abuse can avoid any and all public art (including literature) that might remind them of their injury and, presumably, set back their efforts at healing.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time reading commentary, comments, blog posts, etc written by men and women in the Millennial generation, I think the writer of this NR piece is on to something. But, in my opinion, while his instinct is correct, his understanding of the substance of the matter is inadequate; or, perhaps he knows fully well the issues at hand but just wanted to write a sarcastic rant and push as many rhetorical buttons as possible. Either is OK with me, but it is the underlying issues of this piece that interests me.

The central issue is whether the “trigger” warnings that now accompany much of the post-modern discourse among Millennials are necessary or, possibly even, essential. If you don’t know much about trigger warnings, you can start here (the link is in the NR piece as well). Suffice it to say the concept originated out of the post-modern feminist discourse and the intent is to encourage society broadly to create safe, shared space for individuals who have experienced life-altering trauma. As with feminism broadly, the goal is to honor and dignify a plurality of voices, not merely the powerful and privileged ones. This, in my opinion, is a good thing, although I am 100% clear that many people view this agenda as the reason for the downfall of civilization. I was recently told in an indirect way that if the women and gays would just go away, back to their proper places (one at the hearth, the other in the closet), the entire culture would be better off. So, that’s out there.

At face value, it would seem that almost every Millennial woman or gay person has been egregiously abused at some point in their life and hence these trigger warnings proliferate. I suspect some of it is just people wanting to belong, and so being a victim is part of the ethos of the Millennial generation. But more to the point, the post-modern way of viewing the world is complicit: in the absence of anything grounded, absolute, or even remotely approaching a shared narrative for social experience, individuals are left to fend for themselves and create their own story — in fact, to fail to do so is to fail to participate in the cultural moment.

When there is no such thing as an organizing narrative — epic or otherwise (think WWII, eg), the individual story reigns supreme. In my opinion, this is why the “trigger” warnings have become so popular and are seen as so necessary — all narratives are legitimate, even conflicting ones, and one effective strategy to have one’s personal narrative elevated above the noise of competing narratives is to lay claim to victim status — you are, at that point, uncontested in your right to have a voice.

(As an aside: this is one of the reasons why religion is so powerful and why, at least in the Evangelical community, there is such a battle raging for competing interpretations of the Bible. What is at stake is the organizing narrative of the people involved, the shared story against which all individual members are measured and to which all members must submit; to lose the battle is to lose control of the discourse and thus become disenfranchised. I wonder if folks realize the person they are attempting to control here is God … but I digress).

The issue, then, that the NR writer is talking about is central, because what happens when culturally we take aim at the art and literature that forms what is left of the basis of shared experience? If all our works of art are labeled with “trigger warnings” we end up dismantling a critical element of our shared discourse.

In my view, the better approach is to attempt, culturally, to advance the idea that victimhood is not a viable or desirable self-identifier. Survivor — for those who in fact have survived trauma — is an excellent self-identifier. A survivor is an agent in their own lives; a victim is not. A survivor has at their core a strength that is resilient and capable of handling onslaught; a victim does not, and so on. I am not saying there are not real victims out there — they are legion, I’m sure. But the goal ought to be to support victims into a place of wellness and health, through first allowing them to tell their story and be validated, but eventually to emerge as strong and capable, not defined by their trauma, able to contribute to society rather than need society to perpetually prop them up.

This is why the NR piece is ultimately not helpful. In calling out Millennials as “worthless and weak” the author reinforces the penchant for victims to self-identify as such. Shame is a horrible and ineffective way of motivating people to change. In fact, the NYT ran this week an excellent article (pertaining to education in this case) that makes a profound argument for using the precise opposite strategy: if you want people to change, make them believe they are strong, they are achievers, they are capable, that their environment and handicaps and setbacks do not define them.

Believe in a person, and before you know it, they have become more than they ever thought they could.