life together, marriage

Cradled in Free-Fall

A man, standing on the edge of a cliff, holding a woman in his arms. Their summit is high, so high it’s impossible to see what waits below. He gives her one kiss and then–they leap.

This is the image that races through my dreams: man and woman, loving security and unfathomable risk. We do not  see what happens to the reckless lovers. There is no glimpse of what waits at the bottom, no rubric to measure those depths. Is it death or flight? Suicide or kenosis? One kiss, and then–

Like most amateur intepreters, I gloss the scene as commentary upon my own uncertainties: the delight of a future with him, the terror of leaving so much behind, the fall from prestige and profession and certainty. Counting the costs together, he can only say, “We cannot know God’s will in the ways we’ve known before.” And though I have heard the Spirit say, “I will go ahead of you,” I cannot help crying, “Yes Lord, but the way is still so dark.”

God, let it be not a fall from grace, but a vault into faith, a leap into hope, a descent into love.

***

Listen, and you’ll learn it isn’t just your story that matters. You dream–the man, the woman, the fall–and the next day you hear the words of a martyr. Imprisoned by wicked men, she smuggles letters beyond her prison walls. She dies, but the words ring out: “By God  and by your prayers, I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall.” (Kayla Mueller).

“Tenderly cradled in free-fall.” With the clarity and authority of one who suffers, she puts words to the baffling, hopeful image of my dreams. Her words are not about me, and yet their consolation reaches farther than her own brave witness. My dream is not about her, yet in that image I see her hope: strong arms and a fall that ends in loving mystery.

For our sins, we do not often see the patterns of God’s words and acts. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Eternity is within us, hidden in the rhythms of our time-bound hearts, but we cannot find it out. Only sometimes does it find us. With a still, small voice, it echoes through the dark hour, translates the chronic pain, kisses us at the edge of a cliff.

Only the One who emptied himself, who descended from the heights to the depths, can hold us safe against the terror of falling. Having plunged into flesh for our salvation, it is now he who cradles us, so tenderly, in free-fall.

Advertisements
Standard
faith, life together, marriage, scripture

Merry Apocalypse

For Christmas this year, I’m hoping for the apocalypse and sewing my own wedding veil.

I know, it sounds bizarre, like the teaser for a movie about zombie-brides or nuclear winter. Even without zombies, the image is still alarming, isn’t it? What sort of bride hopes for the end of the world?

“Apocalypse” comes from the Greek noun “ἀποκάλυψις,” meaning “an unveiling, a revelation.” Every wedding is a kind of apocalypse. As the bride unveils herself and holds fast to her husband, they become one flesh, revealing, says the Apostle Paul, the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:29-32). When Christians speak of “the Apocalypse,” we usually mean the ultimate unveiling of God’s Kingdom: Christ’s return, the resurrection of the dead (but as foreverstrong people, not zombies!), the reconciliation of heaven and earth, the redemption of the whole created order.

Christmas celebrates this revelation, too. When we remember that the Son of God was born as a wee baby, we see God’s hidden plan writ large among the stars. We believe that he came among us, and we hope he will return.

Hope. That’s a hard word, even for a girl sewing her wedding veil. In fact, preparing for marriage has burdened me with a paradox: that it is much harder to wait for a certain hope than a vague wish. Before I met my fiancé, the thought of marriage inspired neither joy nor despair. As I moved through my twenties and into year thirty, I didn’t think about the prospect of marriage with much hope, but neither did I feel its lack very keenly. I arranged my life in ways that did not require a husband, and I was content.

Now the situation is quite different. A man I love has promised to marry me in the summertime, and so I am spending this long winter waiting. Engagement, I find, feels a lot like Advent. It is a season of dreams and deferral, of smiles and sighs, a time when I must make decisions that include a spouse who is not here. I live, each day, in the confidence that our wedding will come. And yet, that hope unsettles me. Steven lives in Texas, while my home is on the Alabama coast, and missing him hurts more than not knowing he existed. Phone calls and letters offer partial revelations, beautiful but utterly insufficient. Could I have dreamed it all? But no — bright diamonds on a ring of gold say that the bridegroom will come.

In the same way, I think Christmas would be easier to celebrate if we didn’t believe that it heralds the apocalypse, if we didn’t, with all creation, wait “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). Most of us could manage a successful Christmas if the holiday meant only decorating a house and swapping a few gifts. After all, there’s nothing cosmic at stake if Christmas dinner isn’t perfect. But when Christmas asserts our hope in a new heaven and a new earth, redeemed and restored, it hurts to see how much of God’s kingdom remains hidden, even on December 25. It kills us to watch the news, to read the history books, to walk the streets, to listen to our friends–even to look in the mirror–and to realize that the world is still so deeply broken. Should we be preparing wedding veils or donning funeral shrouds?

If we’re like the wise virgins of the parable, we keep our lamps trimmed and burning, announcing our certainty that Christ the bridegroom is on his way. By that light, I’m sewing a wedding veil this Christmas. Mine is a little lamp, and it doesn’t give much heat in the dead of winter. And so I am doing what sad and hopeful people have always done: I’m spending Christmas with those who share my hope, gathering strength from our gathered lights.

Merry Apocalypse, everyone. Some people call it “the end of the world,” but I’ve heard wiser voices call it “the beginning.”

Standard
life together, marriage, poetry, singleness
My heart is like a singing bird
                  Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.

A Birthday (by Christina Rossetti)

Quote
education, life together, marriage, singleness

An Apprentice Lover: The Wisdom of Saying, “Yes”

There are so many ways to tell a story. I could begin in medias res and describe the moment, mid-July, when I stepped out of the shower and announced to God and to my hound-dog, “I want to marry Steven.” Or I could render our tale as an allegory. I would call it, “The Romance of Farsight and Tender-heart,” and there would be a ringing bell, a garden and an ivory tower and a dark but lovely path between the two. Narrating by mere arithmetic might cause a scandal, but the numbers are true, too: he proposed the second time we met face-to-face; I said yes after knowing him for only seven weeks.

I’m over-thinking this task; as usual. Then again, how could I change my entire life, my name, for something that could be easily summarized? This love, this coming covenant, is too much for any single telling.

I’ve always had trouble saying what I want: not because I don’t know, but because I have an instinctual, irrational conviction that being a bother is somehow the worst of all sins. When I was a little girl, six or seven years old, a lady at church came up and asked me if I wanted one of the cookies she had baked for the children in the nursery. “No,” I replied. In fact, I wanted a cookie quite badly, but it seemed greedy to say yes.  As I pondered marriage through my twenties, it felt greedy to ask God for any further blessings. The lines had already fallen in such pleasant places for me. Even more, some part of me felt that desiring marriage would somehow betray all the people who had helped me build such a beautiful single life.

I mention this to emphasize how remarkable it was that I knew so quickly, and so surely, that I want to marry Steven. We met on eHarmony (I had only had an account for a week, and that simply to prove to my aunt that it wouldn’t work), and the messages we exchanged in the first two days delighted and fascinated me: he mentioned both Bonhoeffer  and Anne of Green Gables among his favorite books, one picture showed him with a chicken on his head, and his first words to me were engaging and good-humored. That first weekend, I was checking my email every ten minutes, hoping he had responded to the next set of questions so I could read more about the friends he loved, or his dreams of living in intentional community. By the time we first spoke on the phone–only forty-eight hours after our initial contact–I already knew he was handsome, interesting, hardworking, and funny. By the end of our first conversation, I knew he was smart, visionary, easy to talk to, and far from shy. I said to my mother, “Even if I were a nun, I would still want to meet this guy. I’m just so glad people like this exist!”

When, at the end of our first phone call, he asked if I would meet him in New Orleans two weeks later, and I said yes, I knew that something strange was happening to me. The girl who hates to change her plans, the girl who hates to drive–here I was spontaneously agreeing to drive to a city I do not know to meet a stranger.  New Orleans was a weekend of serendipity and conversation, and the day after I returned he asked if I would like to come to Austin later in the summer. I did, traveling down the last weekend of July. By the end of that weekend, I knew that Steven is a man who loves Jesus and wants to live his life in a way that only makes sense because of the Gospel. I knew that he loves his friends and wants to serve others not only in marriage, but in community with others, and always among the poor that Christ loves. I knew that he can take charge of a situation but that he is not vainglorious. I knew that he can ask questions that provoke and clarify, but also that he longs to be challenged and drawn out, too. I knew that his boss, his friends, and even strangers on street respect him. I knew that he reads wise books and ponders Scripture. I knew that he prays well. I knew that he dreams but also put his dreams in to practice. I knew that he had begun to care for me, and that he wanted my trust, perhaps without entirely understanding why. I knew that each time we were in the car together, I would hope that the ride would be a long one, simply to prolong the pleasure of being near him and talking with him. I knew that I liked his friends, and loved the trusting, sincere way they would laugh or debate together. I knew that I felt safe with him, and that sometimes, when our eyes met, there was a tenderness in his that overwhelmed me.

And so on the last day of that visit, after a long walk in the Texas sun, lunch in a soup kitchen, and a swim in the river, we sat on a bench and he asked me about my fears and hopes for our relationship. He asked if I could see myself in Austin. I said that I felt a strange kind of homesickness — strange because it is longing for a place that is not, and has not been my home. I thought the conversation would continue much longer, perhaps months longer, but I already knew that a season would come when he would ask me to marry him. My heart was abiding in that kairos time, waiting. And yet, in chronos, I was still shocked when I saw him before me, on his knees, asking me to marry him.

“Are you really asking this? Are you really asking this now?” And he was. Then we were standing, I saying, “I want to say yes, I want to say yes, but I need more time.” And clinging to him, as though we were still in the river, battling a strong current. “Bethany,” he said, “I cannot always trust my heart. What I feel right now I may not feel tomorrow, or next month, much as I want to. Feelings come and go, especially when what the heart desires is far away. I cannot trust my heart, but I can trust my will. And my will is this. I want to marry you, to love you, to build a life with you.”

For me it was just the opposite: my heart was there, had been there for weeks, but it was my will I doubted: did I have the strength to say yes, to make such a choice? I do not mean I doubted the strength of my will simply in that moment. I realized that all this time, for so many years, I have doubted whether I have the strength to say yes to something as deep and lasting as marriage at all.

We moved from the bench to the tree, and laid ourselves down side by side. I was silent, wondering, “What more do I need?” Information? Proof of character? Proof of his willingness to commit, to love?” I had these things, and more. I had said weeks before, that I wanted to marry him, had asked God for this. And now it was before me. And so I said yes.

I’ve told this portion of the story (from first meeting to proposal) so many times in the last few months that it has started to feel patterned, even normal. But it is far from normal, and we are now living in a strange time of transition and change, learning to dream together and to bring our stories into concord.  We talk, every night, for two or three hours, and every conversation raises more challenges & hopes. We have so many questions and so much still to learn about one another. As we discuss the work I will do in Austin, our differences in temperament, our hopes for children and community, indeed, as we puzzle through the point of marriage itself, we realize that we have made a choice that is simultaneously wise & reckless.

***

In his essay “People, Land, and Community,” Wendell Berry writes that “as a condition marriage reveals the insufficiency of knowledge, [and…] I take it as an axiom that one cannot know enough to get married, any more than one can predict a surprise. […] We can commit ourselves fully to anything–a place, a discipline, a life’s work, a child, a family, a community, a faith, a friend–only in the same poverty of knowledge, the same ignorance of result, the same self-subordination, the same final forsaking of other possibilities. If we must make these so final commitments without sufficient information, then what can inform our decisions? In spite of the obvious dangers of the word, we must say first that love can inform them…”

When it comes to knowledge, I’m something of a professional: PhD, assistant professor, author of such-and-such articles, etc. When I completed my doctoral work, the presiding official at the commencement ceremony said, “By the power vested in me, I confer upon you these doctoral degrees […] and admit you to all their rights and responsibilities.” With those words, I became a Doctor of Philosophy, with the full rights of my craft. The next time someone uses that phrase–by the power vested in me— it will be my wedding day, and the title I receive will be that of a wife. But whereas my degree required that I prove myself more than an apprentice, my marriage will make me an amateur again. Amateur. The word comes to us, via French, from the Latin amare, to love. While a professional works for pay or praise, an amateur works, learns, fumbles, fails, and persists out of love. The greatest masters and professionals, I think, never really lose their love, but at the beginning, just now, it is love, not skill, that I feel in my small and trembling hands.

I began my first blog because I wanted to start conversations about the beauty of single life, and so it seems fitting that I begin this new venture as I learn to practice the new crafts of marriage.  I have called this blog “Lady Wisdom’s Workshop” not because I think of myself as Lady Wisdom, but because if I am going to be an amateur again, I want to be  an apprentice in her workshop. In my marriage, in my teaching, in my writing, and in all the work ahead, I want to echo the cry of Wisdom’s maidservants, who call the simple and the hungry to come and feast at her house (Proverbs 9:1-12).

What, you might ask, have been my first lessons as an apprentice lover? What wisdom have I gained amid the whirlwind of saying yes to Steven? It goes something like this: In the Iliad, a text I teach each fall, Homer describes Aphrodite, goddess of love, as “strong with eternal laughter.” Before this year, I never had much patience for Aphrodite (or Venus, as the Romans called her). I thought her frivolous, far less interesting than the stern virgin Athena. This year, however, I’ve heard that strong laughter echoing in the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31, who “laughs at the days to come,” and–what strange grace!–I have heard it, again and again, on my own lips.

Standard