Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent and Good Old Charlie Brown

When the little tree falters and droops pathetically
under the weight of that innocent-looking
but fatal ornament, and Charlie Brown wails,
I’ve killed it, everything I touch gets ruined,
I feel for the guy: I know the sad prison
his heart’s doing time in.

-Troy Jollimore

This year watching the Peanuts movie I had a personal revelation. I am likely always going to feel this way. But what is "this way"? It is easy to diagnosis Charlie's "sad prison" as depression or perhaps as generalized anxiety disorder:

Lucy: Do you think you have Pentaphobia, Charlie Brown?"

Charlie Brown: What's that?

Lucy: The fear of everything.

Charlie Brown: That's it!

This all might be true, but then there is the context of Charlie Brown's frustrations. Despite the fact that he is known for being a loser and failure he is often shown occupying positions of prestige. He is after all the pitcher on his baseball team and the director of the Christmas play.

Charlie Brown refuses to withdraw from life. Indeed it is his stubborn persistence that is the immediate context of a good portion of his suffering. Most sensible people would stop trying to kick the football, or sending Valentine's cards, or attempting to woo the red-headed girl. Indeed in the full version of the Troy Jollimore poem excerpted above he imagines Charlie Brown in a bar, taking a stiff drink, potentially an embittered middle-aged man undone by his succession of losses. Yet, this is emphatically not the Charlie Brown that Charles Schultz portrayed.

Charlie Brown cannot stopped striving and herein lies the source of his suffering. One might like to offer old Charlie Brown a bit of Buddhist wisdom and remind him that maybe he shouldn't expect so much out of life. However, this doesn't seem to be possible because Charlie Brown (or rather Charles Schultz is a Christian.)

There is no doubt that Christians can learn a great deal from other religions, or that there is a steep and sturdy tradition of mortification of desire in the Christian tradition. However, I think in Advent we are especially forced to remember the "sad prison" our collective hearts are "doing time in." Like "Good Old Charlie Brown" we are prisoners of our hope. Or to cite another theologian of hope:

Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.

J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope

Hope isn't a very urbane or sophisticated vision of the world and it certainly isn't entirely comforting, but it is the only option left for us when we cannot accept that the promise that "each will live under their own vine and fig tree" applies only too a small minority of people capable of living out some sort of Jeffersonian, agrarian American dream.

...or when we cannot accept that the "lion laying down with the lamb" can only ever amount to a kind of non-tested, sentimental good-will between closely related neighbors.

...or when we cannot accept that the baby lying in the manger is a sign that God not only "so loved us" His enemies, but also that God "so loved" our enemies.

I guess this isn't the most optimistic post--my connecting Christian hope to Charlie Browns constant attempts to kick that darned football--but after 2,000 years of turning, ever turning in the widening gyre, of unconsummated consummation, it is better than nothing, or better than nihilism, or better than not suffering because we no longer desire something better.

Christian hope: the strange prison our hearts are doing time in...

Thursday, May 28, 2015

For Matt

I guess I am lucky.  I got to tell Matt what I wanted to tell Matt.  I got to tell Matt when he was living what I would like to say at his Memorial service.

. . . . .  but I don’t know. 

Within hours of finding out about Matt’s death it became very clear how suicide demands unrelentingly to be answered—asking its nagging questions--did I do enough?  Did I do it right?  … Did I say the right thing?   What if had…. ? What if I hadn’t?

So, that I said to Matt once--- while we were walking together on an early summer day entirely like this-- what I’d like to say now-- this is something that I am thankful for….

It takes a weight off, but it also places another weight on my soul.

Matt had recently shared really heavy parts of his childhood history…
… and as we were walking on that early summer day, he was telling me what a failure he was…..
and how there was no hope and he kept trying to do better and couldn’t  and I said something like:

You know I really think you are one of the best people I have ever known.

His love of Rachel had implanted in him a deep love of theology and apologetics and at this moment I appealed to a passage of C.S. Lewis’s in Mere Christianity. In it Lewis is making a case for our great surprise on Judgment Day. 

Lewis goes on to argue that

Some people that we take to be the very best kind of people.

Our extraordinary moral athletes….
They will shown to be morally average.

Their virtues really more the product of good luck, good upbringings, and good temperaments—more God’s gift to them than their gift to God.

I re-read the passage that I referenced that day this morning.

Lewis goes on to write:
But if you are person-poisoned  by  a wretched upbringing  in some house full of vulgar jealousies  and senseless quarrels-saddled,  by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion-nagged day  in and day  out  by  an  inferiority  complex  that  makes you  snap  at  your best friends-do not despair. He knows  all about it. You are one of the poor whom
He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying  to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can. One  day (perhaps in another  world,  but  perhaps far
sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you  may astonish  us all-not least yourself: for you  have learned
your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be  first and some  of
the first will be last.)

On the day I told Matt that the rest of us at Junia House were really pretty morally average.

And that he was pretty morally extraordinary and that was just the fact of the matter. 

We all have to pick ourselves up after some devastating loss or another…. 

….pick ourselves up after some failure that makes us doubt that we have much to offer the world….

In the brief time that I knew Matt I witnessed him rising from such devastations 20-30-70 times.

Sometimes it seemed almost daily.   

I simply don’t know anyone who tried so hard or struggled so much.

I can’t really blame him for not being able to pick himself up one more time. 

But, I really, really, really wish that he had.

He was such a good friend.

Matt was with me every single day in the months after my Mom died. We planted a small tomato garden and he helped me take the kids to Simeon's soccer games (pulling Jo and Sim in the wagon).

We frequented the local thrift shop.  Matt would buy so many clothes.  I can’t even estimate how many pairs of Black shorts he owned. 

He was fabulous with our kids.  When he played with them—-- he always reminded me a wee bit of the Cat in the Hat. 

It is hard to imagine that this world is no longer blessed with all that wonderful, anarchic energy. 

That Matt will never approach our kids with another good game that he knows. ….

Or Doug with some new scheme. 

That he won’t ask me one more time what I think about the “problem of evil” 

Or some other theological question dripping with so much real world pain…..

God, I hope that is all resolved now for Matt and better than either Matt or I could have imagined….

better than Lewis imagined. 

That he has been flung into a world pulsating with endless possibilities, pulsating with that incredibly thrilling gift for newness and new beginnings that he had.  

The kind of world that Matt so desperately needed and so deeply deserved.