Angels' Music

NOBODY EVER TRIED harder at making God hear surely. He called on him till the veins on his neck swelled and his face went black. He kept at it till one eye got sucked deep into the socket and the other bulged out like a berry on a stem. He gaped his jaws at Heaven till his lips peeled back from his teeth and you could see down to where his lungs and liver was flapping like fish in a basket. Up out of the point of his head a jet of his heart's blood spurted black and smoking. That's how he told it.

"There came angels at last, Finn," he said. "They were spread out against the sky like a great wreath. The closest were close enough to touch nearly. The farthest were farther than the stars. I never saw so many stars. I could hear the stillness of them they were that still." I see his pinched face go silvery watching. There's silver in the hollows of his cheeks. He has silver eyes. His shoulder blades cast shadows dark as wings on his bony boy's back.

"Lofty and fair beyond telling was the angels' music," he said. "They heard me cry and they answered me. They weren't singing to me of the mercy of God, Finn. Their singing was itself the mercy of God. Do you think I could ever forget it even if I tried?"

-Originally published in Brendan


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One Step Forward

SHE TAUGHT THEM holy matters as well. Her wood church was long as it was broad. It had a thatch on it and daubed with the gaudy doings of saints inside. It had a hewn stone for an altar and seven fine lamps on it lit day and night and a cross worked with faces and leaves twined together. Ita's voice when she sang was like a sheep caught under a gate nor could she keep a tune to save her soul from the fire but she had her little ones chirping mass to and fro so sweet as to wring tears from a limpet. All scrubbed up they was too in their snowy gowns like angels.

"May the shadow of Christ fall on thee. May the garment of Christ cover thee. May the breath of Christ breathe in thee," she told them each morning at sun-up. Winters they'd sit there with blue noses and frozen fingers and the way their breath come out of them in white puffs you could almost believe it was Christ's indeed.

True faith. A simple life. A helping hand. She said those was the three things prized most in Heaven. On earth it was a fair wife, a stout ox, a swift hound.

Beg not, refuse not, she said. One step forward each day was the way to the Land of the Blessed. Don't eat till your stomach cries out. Don't sleep till you can't stay awake. Don't open your mouth till it's the truth opens it. 

-Originally published in Brendan 


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Psychotherapy

AFTER ADAM AND EVE ate the forbidden fruit, God came strolling through the cool of the day and asked them two questions: "Where are you?" and "What is this that you have done?" Psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and the like have been asking the same ones ever since.

"Where are you?" lays bare the present. They are in hiding, that's where they are. What is it they want to hide? From whom do they want to hide it? What does it cost them to hide it? Why are they so unhappy with things as they are that they are trying to conceal it from the world by hiding, and from themselves by covering their nakedness with aprons?

"What is this that you have done?" lays bare the past. What did they do to get this way? What did they hope would happen by doing it? What did they fear would happen? What did the serpent do? What was it that made them so ashamed?

God is described as cursing them then, but in view of his actions at the end of the story and right on through the end of the New Testament, it seems less a matter of vindictively inflicting them with the consequences than of honestly confronting them with the consequences. Because of who they are and what they have done, this is the result. There is no undoing it. There is no going back to the garden.

But then comes the end of the story, where God with his own hands makes them garments of skins and clothes them. It is the most moving part of the story. They can't go back, but they can go forward clothed in a new way—clothed, that is, not in the sense of having their old defenses again, behind which to hide who they are and what they have done, but in the sense of having a new understanding of who they are and a new strength to draw on for what lies before them to do now.

Many therapists wouldn't touch biblical teachings with a ten-foot pole, but in their own way, and at their best, they are often following them.

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words


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Denominations

THERE ARE BAPTISTS, Methodists, Episcopalians. There are Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists. There are Disciples of Christ. There are Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. There are Moravians. There are Quakers. And that's only for starters. New denominations spring up. Old denominations split up and form new branches. The question is not, Are you a Baptist? but, What kind of a Baptist? It is not, Are you a member of the Presbyterian church? but Which Presbyterian church? A town with a population of less than five hundred may have churches of three or four denominations and none of them more than a quarter full on a good Sunday.

There are some genuine differences between them, of course. The methods of church government differ. They tend to worship in different forms all the way from chanting, incense, and saints' days to a service that is virtually indistinguishable from a New England town meeting with musical interludes. Some read the Bible more literally than others. If you examine the fine print, you may even come across some relatively minor theological differences among them, some stressing one aspect of the faith, some stressing others. But if you were to ask the average member of any congregation to explain those differences, you would be apt to be met with a long, unpregnant silence. By and large they all believe pretty much the same things and are confused about the same things and keep their fingers crossed during the same parts of the Nicene Creed.

However, it is not so much differences like these that keep the denominations apart as it is something more nearly approaching team spirit. Somebody from a long line of Congregationalists would no more consider crossing over to the Methodists than a Red Sox fan would consider rooting for the Mets. And even bricks and mortar have a lot to do with it. Your mother was married in this church building and so were you, and so was your oldest son. Your grandparents are buried in the cemetery just beyond the Sunday School wing. What on earth would ever persuade you to leave all that and join forces with the Lutherans in their building down the street? So what if neither of you can pay the minister more than a pittance and both of you have as hard a time getting more than thirty to fill the sanctuary built for two hundred as you do raising money to cover the annual heating bill.

All the duplication of effort and waste of human resources. All the confusion about what the Church is, both within the ranks and without. All the counterproductive competition. All the unnecessarily empty pews and unnecessary expense. Then add to that picture the Roman Catholic Church, still more divided from the Protestant denominations than they are from each other, and by the time you're through, you don't know whether to burst into laughter or into tears.

When Jesus took the bread and said, "This is my body which is broken for you" (1 Corinthians 11:24), it's hard to believe that even in his wildest dreams he foresaw the tragic and ludicrous brokenness of the Church as his body. There's no reason why everyone should be Christian in the same way and every reason to leave room for differences, but if all the competing factions of Christendom were to give as much of themselves to the high calling and holy hope that unites them as they do now to the relative inconsequentialities that divide them, the Church would look more like the Kingdom of God for a change and less like an ungodly mess.

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark


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Godric's Love of God

WINTER CAME, OLD Wear froze hard. Snow fell on snow.

The woods were still. William trapped small game, but food was scarce. The three of them dwelled in their house, I in my cell. We dug a path between, but it would often lie for days untrod. God was the cause, for he and I were like a couple newly wed. I ever spoke my love to him . I bared my heart for him to cleanse. I sought to please him any way I could, and since there were no riches I could give to him whose coffers hold the sun and moon, I'd give instead by taking from myself.

Elric taught me this. The fire that I didn't build for heat, the wool for warmth I went without, the food I didn't eat—all these were like the trinkets that a man gives to a maid. More precious still, I gave him all the cheer I might have had with other mortals like myself. Sitting by a flaming hearth with bowls of broth and talk of times gone by, how we'd have laughed the winter wind to shame! And yet, instead, I gave it like a bright and fiery gem for God to pin upon his gown or deck some starless corner of the sky.

-Originally published in Godric


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