The “protest ” novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary. Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” and American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right.”
- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1949).
Baldwin is my teacher this summer. In this essay he has in mind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin- what they are meant to do and what they actually do for their readers. The section above reminded me of the recent collective reaction to Donald Sterling. For Baldwin it was a certain kind of book that provided the progressive citizen with the “thrill of virtue.” We are more likely to derive such assurance from the public figure’s racist comment or outdated assumptions about the world. I doubt Baldwin would be any more impressed with our tame outrage than he was by those taking solace in their enlightened literature.
Maggie and I were married fifteen years ago today. After the ceremony in the beautiful stone chapel on our college campus, we receded down the aisle and into the muggy night air. The Blue Ridge Mountains – so beautiful in that western corner of North Carolina – guided our pick up truck and twenty-one year old bodies away from the friends and family who’d gathered to bear witness. We drove into the dark night, toward something new.
All these years later it’s hard to remember what we thought we were moving toward, but I’m sure we imagined more. Somewhere wrapped within our expectations and desires was the sense that marriage opened doors and expanded horizons. And in so many ways it has. On Monday evening I tossed fresh asparagus in olive oil and reminded Maggie that she’s responsible for my much expanded palate. Too trivial? Well then, you must not understand the sacramental goodness of springtime vegetables- but I’ll indulge your skepticism nonetheless. How about this? I care more about people than I did before marriage. My wife delights in people. If you take photos on your vacation, she will be genuinely interested in seeing the pictures and hearing your stories. You get the idea. And over these fifteen years her interest in friends and neighbors has begun to capture my own, more introverted affections.
But what we couldn’t have expected, not with any imaginative clarity at least, was how we’d each be limited by marriage. Such a grating word to our American ears, limited. But there it is, and there it’s been- a real part of our marriage. Simply, there are things she and I have not done and do not do because we are married to the other. This is partly practical. Take Maggie’s social nature for example. Though I’ve come a long way in enjoying the act of hospitality, I’m still tired by it. And so we host less than Maggie would on her own. She knows fewer of our neighbors than she would had she remained single or married an extrovert.
But the limitations of marriage are more than practical. For us, and I suspect many others, marriage is a place of weakness. I imagine it must be similar to those who accept a monastic vocation in which they are bound in covenant to others. Such covenant relationship is sure to expose my weaknesses because I cannot walk away. I cannot leave. How much of what we perceive to be strength is just avoiding the people who bring out our worst? This isn’t possible for two people committed to moving into the deeper waters of trust and faithfulness. We remain with each other in our weakness and so we cannot deny that such weaknesses are a part of us. As the years pile up the vows we made in the chapel in front of the congregation begin to make more sense: an anchor is needed if we are to remain present and vulnerable despite the wounding potential of our weaknesses.
In all of this has been a gift that I wouldn’t trade for any American dream of a life without limits. Because, in the end, that dream is a delusion. To be human is to be limited, weak even. There’s no need to pile up examples of this- we bump into these parts of our humanity as often as we’re actually paying attention. But more than simply accepting reality, the limiting nature of marriage has shown me the flourishing that limits can nurture. Living within limits opens up possibilities of faithfulness and longevity. Remaining cognizant of my weaknesses gives the Christian practices of repentance and forgiveness an immediacy that slowly redeems.
Is such flourishing only available to the married? It’s a question that deserves a thoughtful answer but briefly, no. Like the married person, the single person will benefit from relationships that aren’t subject to transience. But unlike the married person – and I’m thinking here of Christians – the single person is free to pursue a vocation with a single-mindedness that will bring about its own encounters with limitations and weakness.
I’ve reached the concluding portion of this short essay where I should say sweet things about these fifteen years of marriage, but if you were paying attention earlier you’ll remember that I’m an introvert and so am not given to saying personal things publicly. But they have been and will again be said to the woman who stays with me and loves me in my weaknesses and despite my limits.
I made sure to sit by the airplane window during some recent travel around the pacific northwest. I knew the scenery would be spectacular – made even more so by the sunrises of my early departures – and I wasn’t disappointed. Though my small window I could see Rainier, Hood, and other mountains rise to their snowy peaks, spectacular in the early morning sunlight. It was awe-inspiring.
The woman next to me wasn’t impressed. Her attention was kept by the game on her tablet. Doesn’t she know what she’s missing? I wondered. I silently judged her until realizing that I’d been looking more intently at her tablet, trying to figure out the game she was playing, than the landscape below. How quickly the amazing becomes mundane.
In his new book, Drew Dyck pushes hard against this tendency to turn away from the spectacular for bells and whistles of our own making. Yawning at Tigers is Drew’s successful attempt to remind American Christians that the God we claim to follow cannot be domesticated. Theologically nuanced and very accessible, the book repeatedly puts forward a vision of God that elicits awe: holiness, love, transcendence, and immanence are all clearly articulated. Hardly a page goes by where Drew doesn’t fill in these potentially fuzzy words with stories that bring them to life.
This is a serious book in the way any attempt to describe a holy God must be. “God’s holiness is deadly, incompatible with life, especially for sinful mortals like us.” Yet Yawning at Tigers avoids heavy-handedness because Drew is more interested in describing God than in defending him.
There’s an important assumption running throughout the book: “Rarely do we hear about God’s mystery and majesty, let alone whisper a word about his wrath.” Of course, depending on the reader’s experience this assumption will ring more or less true. There are plenty of congregations with a high view of God’s transcendence and righteousness. Even so, I think Drew is right to point out this broader tendency within much of American Christianity and those who’ve avoided this pendulum swing away from certain of God’s characteristics will benefit from the well-rounded vision of God found in these pages.
The Christian’s hope is tied to a holy God becoming like us for our salvation and the world’s rescue. In Jesus we have the ability to consider and worship this righteous God without being overcome. Yawning at Tigers is an invitation to consider again our dangerous God. His perfection and holiness stands ready to provoke awe and wonder within a people who’ve become bored by bells and whistles.
I’m in the middle of a week of church planting related travel that has me on both coasts. Because I was already in Portland, it was possible to rearrange some flights in order to participate in my great aunt’s funeral. Aunt Corrine passed away last week and, in God’s providence, I got to be in Bellingham with family yesterday as we remembered a life very well lived.
This morning, as my flight east reached altitude, I pulled out my laptop to catch up on email. There I found a prayer Michael had posted for me yesterday, for the funeral and the time with family. If this sounds odd then you probably don’t have a friend like Michael and, for your sake, I hope one day soon you will.
I’m posting Michael’s entire prayer here and I hope you’ll drop by his blog to read more of this sort of thoughtful, kind, and true writing. He’d take a break from blogging for a while during a busy season but it seems that his public writing is back.
This evening I’ll land in New Jersey and drive into the Bronx for dinner with a good friend. After spending a few days with prospective church planters in Connecticut I’ll drive to Harlem to preach at another friend’s young, multi-ethnic church with whom our church shares much in common. I thank God for these friends and for the family I spent time with yesterday. Some, like Michael live nearby but most don’t, so these times together are gifts.
It’s probably around the time that Winston is standing near the casket of his aunt, saying things about her and saying things about you. Will you be with him in the midst of a long day of many feelings?
While you know the joy that comes at the entrance of one of yours into bliss, you know the mixed feelings of grief and sorrow and pain as well. Will you accompany him in the fragile experience of all these emotions and grant him a strong sense of your nearness.
You know the deep feelings of love, the memories, the jokes, the stories. Enable him to remember with truth and humor and affection.
You know all the things that make us love animals, all the things that make us good and bad at loving. Redeem every moment that he’s spent, and that his relatives have spent, combining those times into full experiences that help them support each other now.
You see those memories coming back when we see our loved ones, the remains of them, the last pictures of them. Give Winston and his family and their friends a host of things to see during this day.
May they see you in the midst of their tears and their prayers and their songs and their presence. May you be in the midst, drawing them all into your embrace.
Give them joy and praise and kindness. Let them eat well and restore each other through loving touches and long laughs.
And when the days pass, after others have stopped mentioning their relative, after they themselves have forgotten or begun to forget their loved one, make every spontaneous memory that arrives unbidden an occasion for gratitude and peace and anticipation for that last family gathering.
In the name of the One who conquered death. Amen.