hope takes a helmet


    One of the many things my wife does well is preach.

    I look forward to Sundays to hear her offering (no, I don’t get a sneak preview, as a rule) because she listens hard to both God and the world around her before she starts talking. And our world (meaning our personal world) has a lot to say these days: I’ve made yet another career adjustment, we are buying and selling houses so we can make room for her parents to come and live with us as her father’s Alzheimer’s worsens (I just can’t bring myself to say, “progresses”), things are hopping at church, and our growing swirl of friendships here in Durham is proving to be sturdy support.

    On Pentecost, she quoted Annie Dillard. The words have yet to let loose of me:

    On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return. (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

    I’ve almost stopped in a couple of pawn shops to see if I could find a crash helmet. I need to be reminded to show up awake and ready to engage the God of prairie dogs and platypuses, of cyclones and shooting stars and, well, sea squirts.

    Yeah – you heard me. Sea Squirts.

    I had never heard of the strange creatures until Ginger mentioned them yesterday (and then – get this – NPR did a story on them today). Turns out these spineless vertebrates share about eighty percent of our genetic map, so they are quickly becoming aides to all kinds of research, not the least of which is Alzheimer’s, which is how Ginger found them as she was reading about what scientists are learning about what is happening to her father. And she was talking about him in the context of Romans 5, and these verses specifically:

    Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

    When I was in high school, I had a job as an office boy for a doctor’s clinic. Every afternoon I would drive about fifteen minutes from Westbury High School in Houston to the Clinic of the Southwest and spend a couple of hours doing whatever odd jobs they had for me to do. My ride was timed most everyday to hear Paul Harvey (it was the day of AM radio, after all) and “The Rest of the Story.” Each afternoon, he would unfold the story of someone’s life, usually reaching a point of extreme adversity, tragedy, or failure and then tell us to wait until after the break for (dramatic pause) the rest of the story, which was one of endurance, character, and hope.

    The hope, it seemed, never came without the heartache.

    I learned from Ginger that the term “Ordinary Time,” which describes the weeks from Pentecost until Advent, is a new term, liturgically speaking and doesn’t mean ordinary as in plain or uneventful, but ordinary as in without special emphasis: rather than looking at one aspect of Jesus’ life, we are looking at the big picture. We have moved from birth to death to resurrection to the birth of the church, now let’s move on to how the story plays in the middle of our polarized culture, in the wake of oil spills, in the continuing fog of war, in our desperate need for crash helmets and sea squirts.

    I have to admit the introduction of the sea squirts sent my mind wandering, but only to make a connection to another Annie Dillard story, this time from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

    Along with intricacy, thee is another aspect of the creation that has impressed me in the course of my wanderings. Look again at the horsehair worm, a yard long and thin as a thread, whipping through the duck pond, or tangled with others of its kind in a slithering Gordian knot. Look at an overwintering ball of buzzing bees, or a turtle under ice breathing through its pumping cloaca. Look at the fruit of the Osage orange tree, big as a grapefruit, green, convoluted as any human brain. Or look at a rotifer’s translucent gut: something orange and powerful is surging up and down like a piston, and something small and round is spinning in place like a flywheel. Look, in short, at practically anything – the coot’s feet, the mantis’s face, a banana, the human ear – and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing

    Utility to the creature is evolution’s only aesthetic consideration. Form fellows function in the created world, so far as I know, and the creature that functions, however bizarre, survives to perpetuate its form. Of the intricacy of form, I know some answers and not others: I know why the barbules on a feather hook together and why the Henle’s loop loops, but not why the elm tree’s leaves zigzag, or why butterfly scales and pollen are shaped just so. But of the variety of form itself, of the multiplicity of forms, I know nothing. Except that, apparently anything goes. This holds for forms of behavior as well as design – the mantis munching her mate, the frog wintering in mud, the spider wrapping a hummingbird, the pine processionary straddling a thread. Welcome aboard. A generous spirit signs on this motley crew.

    The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sun-lighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork – for it doesn’t, particularly not even inside the goldfish bowl – but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, it’s soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.

    What do I make of all this texture? What does it mean about the kind of world in which I have been set down? The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty in which answers in me a call I do not remember calling and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.

    In these days where I am once again sharing time and space with teenagers, I see that one thing that still gets traction among adolescents is that cynicism is somehow cool. Let me just say, “No.” Hell, No. Cynicism is cheap and lazy – an escape hatch from both life and learning. If patience leads to endurance and then on to hope, cynicism leads to, well, not much of anything except more cynicism. It’s an existential cul de sac.

    And, I must say from personal experience, a seductive one. I have to own up to my own slide into cynicism when I watch the lack of imagination with which most of our governmental leaders appear to approach their jobs. But I am made for more than taking cheap shots at easy targets. I am called to do more than add my voice to the polarizing cacophony of our culture. I am meant for more than pointing out what is wrong, or allowing myself to feel superior. I was breathed into being by the One who dreamed up horsehair worms and sea squirts, who thinks I come in a little lower than the angels and right alongside the Schnauzers, who expects me to live with all the joy and pain that I might endure what it takes to be created in the image of an untamed God.

    Hope, my friends, takes a helmet.



    1. Oh my. I am so relieved to “hear” from you, and I was impatient, but you were right on time again, for both my sore heart and for my aunt, who was grilling me (English major as an avocation) as to why we need or use Shakespeare. Being from Pittsburgh, she actually lived in the same neighborhood as AD, and I was happy to tell her the quote about “a beauty which answers me in a call I do not remember calling . . .” I’ve never been able to convince her yet that we need beauty as much as air and water, but this resonated with her, and with me because that is often the position I find myself in with God. So thank you, and thank you more because I know you and your wife have so very much to cope with right now. kait

    2. “Cynicism is cheap and lazy – an escape hatch from both life and learning. If patience leads to endurance and then on to hope, cynicism leads to, well, not much of anything except more cynicism. It’s an existential cul de sac.”

      Milton, you’ve no idea how much this resonates with me. I am doing the best I can to fight that Beast cynicism & hopefully, everyday, I get stronger in that fight. Your words are very, very warmly welcomed into said battle. Hope all is well.

      all my best & light,

    3. Wow. This is me, pinned down by your words. It’s been a rough time, and cynicism has definitely been having its way with me. I’ll join you in owning up to it and vowing to do better. Thanks, Milton.

    4. I love this post. I’m getting Annie out again and think I will appreciate her even more with my new outlook on the “…free,fringed tangle.” Thanks, Milton! (Patty)

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