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Ours is a world of stilted prosody, flat and banal, the flourish of ad copy, the etymology of the focus group.  It is speech calculated to intended effect, never deeper than the sheen, no wiser than the fortune cookie paper slip.  It’s a monotone babble, furiously expounding the nothingness that fills that wasteland of spinning static, born of an ersatz orchestra of twittering chatter.

But we are made for much more.

In a mystery, we come to this at times when we are hollowed out by pain and loss, the trauma that raises that terrible tonicity, the deepening of the heart in lament.  Our mundane routine shifts, that sudden departure from the expected, the wrench that shreds us from within.  Suddenly what was, is gone, its fading imprint turning us inside out.  And the identity which shaped us is shattered at the leaving.  We are torn, the grasp on ourselves loosened.  We turn, looking for the poles.

We cannot speak of it.  The quotidian vocabulary no longer satisfies.  We are dumb, mute before the monstrosity which our world has become.

In that confrontation, sorrow stretches the soul into poetry.  We are given the unexpected meter and rhyme of tears and heartache.  New words are shaped, and we name again the things around us.  Including ourselves.

Trauma and loss are a sort of soul amnesia, the forgetting of the self that once was.  The stanzas which are written by tears, however, call out from the shadows the one we have been and are becoming.

It is through sorrow’s lament, that keening of the soul, that the self remembers whence it came, remembers and burns in that ache and that agony of loss.

In that piecing together of the self from the broken shards amid the ashes, there is a poetry that shakes and shapes, at once terrifying and comforting.  There I am, but who am I now?

We come to ourselves again, in these bits and pieces, glued together by compassionate embrace, the loving exhalation, inarticulate and fecund of meaning.  The breath trembles with the vibration of new harmony, the melody of a minor key, a refrain different but the same.

We are no longer, yet still we are.  New and fantastic, unknown to ourselves, yet known from the foundation of the world.  Poetry creatures in a prosaic world, we are misshapen and misnamed, but still anchored in the love which was ours, given and received, while being born in this strange new moment.

But ever the ache.  Hearts broken and not fully to be mended in this life.  Stuck in between until that reunion of lovers and loved.  Now singing, ever singing, in minor key, but lovely and beautiful.

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The U.S. has been affected by three hurricanes and a mass shooting in the last several weeks.  These are only the tragedies that make for news ratings.  There are countless, untold tragedies affecting individuals and their families that occur everyday.  Incapacitating illness, death, betrayal, economic loss.  Suffering and loss are grievous burdens.  They take their toll on all of us, especially if it is our loved ones who suffer and we can do nothing to alleviate their pain.

What makes it even more difficult in our twenty-first century is that we have lost a great deal of our ability to endure suffering and hardship.  Advances in medicine alleviate many great evils that have afflicted humanity throughout history.  The eradication of crippling diseases.  The prolongation of lifespans.  We are trained to end pain as quickly as possible.  A headache requires little else than an acetaminophen tablet and a glass of water.  In minutes the pain is gone.  Psychologically, we are not equipped to endure prolonged pain.  Microwavable meals.  On demand access to entertainment, on our phones wherever we are.  Our whims and desires met at a moment’s notice anywhere, anytime.  So when tragedy strikes, we are not equipped with patience and fortitude.

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The Story of Us

Hominis memorator.  Man, the rememberer, the story teller.  Narrative is inescapable.  Apart from mathematical formulae and shopping lists, we rarely merely recall facts and events.  Even the recollection of a mathematical formula is contextualized in the class and the teacher and the general events of our lives.  We didn’t just learn the Pythagorean theorem, but we had this teacher who . . . And we are off into story, narrative, beginning, middle and end.

The movies and books that sell well, however awful the writing and characterization, are the movies and books that tell stories that work.  Are they “formula”?  Yes.  Are they “good”?  Sometimes not.  But why do such things do so well?  Because they tell stories that resonate within us.  Good guys win.  Lovers reunite.  The travelers return from battling dragons with the elixir that saves the dying queen.

Because we are, all of us, storytellers to the core.  We organize the events and facts and desires and fears and all the flotsam and jetsam of our existence into coherent narratives.  Every instance we open our mouths to relate “how our day went” we have already interpreted these things in ways that begin “once up one a time.”  Our narratives are filled with heroes and heroines, victims and allies, villains and curses, and tragic or happy endings.

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Kansas Ground

The memories I carry of Kansas are marked with the feel of grass and earth, of wind, of open, arching skies, of the chill night air pierced by starlight, and the figure of a gibbous moon, chasing me as I looked out the car window, the night going before and after.

There were summers setting fence with Grandpa. That cold Thanksgiving as I sat in the pickup while Dad drilled winter wheat. Football fields and back yards, mowing lawns, weeding gardens, dust and grit, and mud.

From the soil Grandpa brought forth wheat, and Grandma snapped beans. Cattle dropped their excrement over the pastures. Grasshoppers danced along the waving grass, parting right and left as we made our way through the fields. From pastures and fields, I dug up cast off pocket knives, and rusted cans, broken bottles and snipped bailing wire, the flotsam and jetsam falling from tractor and truck.

There were and are, always, things buried deep in the loam of the heart. Pain and sorrow borne in silence. Anger vented in the slamming of a gate. Secret wounds carried, burrow deep under ground, germinating through the rhythm of the seasons. Heart-soil fed with fingers outstretched under the covers in sleep, reaching, seeking connection; or the hand on the forearm laid flat on the dinner table, briefly touching, the fleeting pressure of the grasp; a sigh. Hearts separated by, yet woven together in, the same silence, vocabulary too pale for the vivid colors of the soul. A domestic life, fenced and bounded by the shared look in the quiet home, the ticking of the clock marking the moments of integration.

Ever the contrariness of soil offers the risk of barrenness. It is a chancy thing. The ground is tilled, the seed sown deep, the soil watered and fortified. Yet the blowing wind, the beating sun, the icy blast, may shrivel what the farmer seeks.

He returns to a barn that’s empty, and a house that’s cold. He drinks his bitter coffee, tepid and stale from the day’s pot. The food taken at table is taken alone. He settles in the bed, the weight of her next to him, silent, breathing. The night passes, their backs to one another.

In another home, the same silence, the same pains and sorrows. But though she has taken her meal earlier, his coming late for the harried parsing of the failing sunlight, she sits with him. He eats, drinks his iced coffee. They sit together in the quiet broken by the scrape and clank of knife and fork, the tinkling of the spoon against the Mason jar, stirring. She clears his spot at the table as he rises stiffly to finish his day.

What fruits are harvested from this fertile ground may not be known till the reaping. To some, the yield is heartache and loneliness, the cyclic round of longing and indifference. To others a fecund grace imparts union, connection, the weaving together of sinew and joints, making of two the one. From the sweat of sunburnt brows comes love’s feast, and devotion, the cradling of one’s heart in the other’s hands. The emptying of one’s chest brings the filling of one’s heart. The joy the sweeter for having been broken. The harvest plentiful, watered by tears and sacrifice.

Memory Eternal

It was early, before sunrise, the morning of Wilbur’s funeral, and Grandma was awake, moving about in the kitchen, in her pajamas and bathrobe. She asked me if I wanted come coffee, and from a fresh pot already made, she poured me a cup. I sat at the kitchen table, and she joined me with her own cup of coffee. For the next hour, Grandma told me stories of how she and Grandpa had met, of barn dances, farm life, young romance and hard times.

It was just the two of us. As she talked, I entered with her the stories of her life with Grandpa. Although Grandpa had died more than a decade before, my own memories of Grandpa combined with the stories Grandma was telling.

A few months after that conversation, I found some genealogy documents about the Healy family, and there hidden away in the details of marriages, births, deaths, and hundreds of names of parents, siblings, children, out of nowhere a name leapt to my attention: Clifton Dwight. The name, Clifton, quite literally, appeared out of nowhere among all names listed in the genealogy. Next came Clifton Arthur. Finally, there was Grandpa: Clifton Fitzroy. I knew the rest. My dad was next. I had always been told I was the fifth Clifton. Grandma and Great Aunt Bessie were good to remind me of this all through my childhood. Here, in my thirties, I discovered that chain of names.

Shortly after my father died a year ago, I began to pray the memorial prayers for the dead. These prayers end with chanting, “Memory eternal.” It is a prayer. A plea not simply for everlasting renown, but for everlasting well-being.

Stories and memory, these are the things that make us persons. We do not know who we are apart from stories, the memories of our own lives, and those memories we inherit through story from our parents, our grandparents, our larger families. We do not merely remember events and feelings. We weave those memories together in a narrative. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

The Gospel does not come to us in propositions and syllogisms. It is not a summa, it is a story. Indeed, it is the Story. That is to say, it is the Story that transforms all stories. Our lives are the same group of events, the same set of dramatis personae, but now the plot has changed. In the muddled Middle, there is a twist, a surprise. We see our story differently. It is now part of a larger Story, a subplot that has been woven into the whole. Our memories are reordered. We see things differently.

It is not simply that our own personal stories are reordered and retold. It is that our own stories change. Our plots go in a new directions. We, and all who are ours, become stories in a larger whole. We become part of a community, a community who has its Story. The Story of the Church, the community brought into God himself, the Holy Trinity, by grace. A Story whose beginning stretches from the foundation of the world into a future we do not now see, and a way of everlasting well-being in which our memories, and our stories, will never fade.

One Year Later

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Yesterday evening, I was able to drive to El Dorado, Kansas, to Sunset Lawns Cemetery, and Dad’s gravesite. I arrived just after sunset, as last light was fading in purple and indigo. Facing Dad’s headstone, I looked out to the west. To my left, the high-pitched hum of pipes and gauges and pumps of the refinery accompanied the rhythmic chirruping of crickets, underneath an undulating meson of a Kansas breeze.

It was important to me to be there on the anniversary of Dad’s passing. I wanted to mark the day praying the Trisagion at his gravesite. I wanted to share my heart, how much I missed him. To say again those words I said repeatedly a year ago as my family and I shared his final struggles: “I love you, Dad.” And, yes, to cry a little.

The grief is different a year later. A year ago, it was sharp and fresh and new, chaotic and disorienting. A year later it is still as painful, there are still as many tears which still come at the oddest moments. A year ago, the grief was ever-present, extended out over everything. A year later, it feels deeper, more settled. And a year later, in these recent days, it has been stirring deeper things.

A year ago, I was confronted with the previously unthinkable: the mortality of my father. I prayed desperate prayers for Dad’s healing, prayers that he would rise from his bed and remain a while longer with us. A year later, I am more deeply confronted with my own mortality.

What is this life that I am living? Certainly not the one I envisioned newly emerged from my college graduation. Goals and plans and dreams left undone, mouldering in the pile of the untried and undone. What legacy will be mine after my own departure? My daughters are barely on the way to their adult lives. What have I given them, what am I giving them, that can orient them and shape their hearts and minds such that they embrace beauty, goodness and truth? What have I left my fellow man in the way of love and service that will outlast and outlive me? Do I have anything to give? Even something as ephemeral as an essay, a book, a novel? What sort of son and brother am I? What mercies am I offering to family?

Though we now know Dad’s diagnosis was long in coming, the news for us was so sudden, and our final days with him so short. And yet, what grace we were given in that two and a half months. Maybe God can take such a life as mine, one so lately marked by constraints and struggle, and by that same grace turn it in to something.

These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.

First, let’s just starkly admit the truth: political conservatives (and their conservative Christian allies) long ago lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the young. We bolster ourselves with this or that poll which shows millennials more opposed to abortion on demand than at any other time since its legalization, or with this or that sociological study that similarly promotes a view of our youth as politically more conservative in this or that area of political life, which we most desperately want to be true. And to be sure, there are plenty of youth who are conservative politically or are devout adherents to traditional forms of Christianity. We ought to be heartened by these studies and polls, for they are heartening. But let us not lose sight of the larger reality that our society by and large is sharply opposed, and growing more so each day, to conservative political thought and to traditional Christianity.

Traditional, or conservative, Christians and political conservatives have lost the cultural and political battles. We have lost because we foolishly agreed to fight the battle on the one area that progressives will always win: moralism. Moralism is, fully and completely, the core of our civil religious life. Moralism is, simply put, the external adherence to a particular code of belief and behavior. Moralism is politically a more powerful weapon than reason and argument. It is more powerful because it relies on feeling and connotation, it is evocative. Moralism is entirely binary: this not that, good or evil, love or hate. And it is always a tool of comparison, to be used against an opponent. By comparison, we can free ourselves from condemnation: “I’m a good person, I’ve never murdered anyone.” We can even condemn someone with our faux humility: “Who am I to judge someone else?” Moralism always turns upon the personal, and always uses comparison and judgment as a tool for division and conquest. That is why it is so powerful politically.

So it is, that if a political group can fight on the ground of moralism, the more progressive side will always win the battle and the more conservative side will always lose. Conservatives cannot judge a moral act, because moralism makes such judgment personal–the political is always personal. Thus if we disagree with a particular action, then we condemn not the act but the person. Responses which run along the lines of “loving the sinner but hating the sin” are completely unpersuasive, because in a moralistic framework that is not possible.

There is no way for conservatives and traditional Christians to win on these moralistic battlegrounds. Conservatives and traditional Christians have tried by pitting one group of persons over against another: transgendered persons who want to use a particular bathroom versus young girls who are vulnerable to exploitation and assault, or unborn babies versus the mothers bearing them. And while sometimes these tactics work, temporarily, in the long run they will all ultimately fail because the battle is being fought within a paradigm that guarantees conservatives and traditional Christians will fail.

Part of the reason for this political failure (and the exacerbated acceleration of the fragmentation of the conservative movement in this election cycle) is due to the ceding of ground by conservatives and traditional Christians in the social and cultural life of our nation. Traditional Christians, among whom I list evangelicals (though clearly I am not using the term “traditional” in any technical sense), either simply have retreated from the public square (such are my fellow Eastern Orthodox Christians), or they have separated out into their Christian ghettoes with substandard and bastardized forms of media expression (and such are the evangelicals among whom I once considered myself a member, with their Christian rock bands, their Christian publishing houses, and their bald imitation of pop culture in their services and ministry efforts).

This laziness in engaging our public square and mainstream culture–or if not laziness, cowardice–has become, in part, the downfall of the conservative movement. Conservatives delighted to argue and form think tanks and advocate for this or that policy–if they were able to resist the lure of gilt and power and privilege in the hallowed halls of our bloated government. And while millionaire and billionaire donors were wont to give to this or that super PAC to prevail in this or that political contest, little of that money was invested in cultural and artistic endeavors. There were, of course, a few notable documentaries that were nothing more than the same morality tales that progressives told in their own documentaries. Bowling for Columbine or Hilary’s America? Opposite sides of the same moralistic coin.

And progressivist moralism will always feel better than conservative moralism. Both are the same form of binary legalism. Both have their own forms of damnation; with conservatives it’s Kafkaesque government that swallows up the individual, with progressives it’s being conservative.

But American Christianity (and here I want to exclude the Eastern Orthodox, which I will explain), is itself to blame for this moralism. American Christianity made a false dichotomy between law and grace. It wrongly excluded ascetic endeavor from grace, calling it works righteousness, and thus paved the way for its own expulsion from civic life. Ironically, however, what you did mattered a great deal as to whether you were truly a Christian or not. You could not make yourself one by doing this or that, but you sure could prove you were one if you did do this or that. Thus was born the moralistic framework that progressives used to dominate the cultural and political landscape.

To be sure, the progressivist worldview is an Enlightenment prejudice, the Enlightenment itself being an antithesis to Christianity, and into the vacuum created by the western schism (and the various schisms within Protestantism) the Enlightenment worldview rushed to become the predominant cultural view which then ate away at western Christianity from within. Thus progressivism is in many ways little more than the Enlightenment packaged as a form of civic religion, with Christian vocabulary (though increasingly less of that).

This progressivism infected artistic endeavors, with each successive transition in the arts seen as a progression, a forward evolution from what came before. From realism, to impressionism, to expressionism and onward, each new development somehow “more” than what came before. And while at various periods this or that artist (painter, writer, composer) held to one of the forms of Christian faith, such faith less and less informed that art form. After Bach came Wagner. First Milton, then Whitman.

This is why the ersatz “art” of twentieth century conservative American Christianity became so utterly banal, and is so utterly a failure. It appropriated art forms it did not understand, which had long ago left their Christian moorings, and inserted a moralistic “Gospel” into it without understanding how or even whether such things fit. And while western society moved further and further into the late Enlightenment (or postmodernism), conservatives (political and Christian) remained stuck within earlier forms of the Enlightenment, and progressives merrily sailed along on the currents of social mores. Both still utilized the tools of the Enlightenment, but conservatives used such things to construct, whereas progressives utilized them to deconstruct. And since progressivism won the cultural and political battles, conservatives were left speaking Anglo-Saxon in a land of twenty-first century slang.

So the arguments, art forms and speech of conservatives, political and religious, don’t communicate, aren’t persuasive and therefore are ineffectual. We are shouting at ourselves, but we are not making a dent in the public discourse, let alone transforming our cultural forms.

But the answer is not to become more postmodern than the progressives. We’ve already lost those battles with our Christian glam rock and our Kirk Cameron movies. The answer is not to fight a losing battle. Which means not to fight the battle as determined and as outlined by progressives.

This is where the pro-life movement can be illustrative. Rather than allowing itself to be shoved into the either/or box of moralism, the pro-life movement became the both/and way of life which loved the baby and loved the mother. Advocating for adoption of babies into loving homes so that they would have the resources and support and love they needed, or providing homes for expectant mothers to live in and be cared for while bringing their babies to term. Abortion on demand groups attempted to paint such endeavors within the either/or paradigm of loving or hating the women (and still do). But the quiet way of living exemplified in this way, powerfully affected the younger citizens in our society. And yes, reasoned arguments in the public sphere helped as well. But it was the powerful witness of people like these, including the courageous witness of Mother Teresa as a further example, a witness that did not allow the fight to continue in the either/or battle of moralism, that is prevailing.

Earlier, I excluded the Eastern Orthodox for two reasons: the first of which is that Orthodoxy did not participate in the Enlightenment, which was primarily a western phenomenon, and thus has been able to preserve its categories of thought and terms and practice across various languages and cultures; and the second of which, more negatively, is that Orthodox have been largely ghettoized by the manner in which Orthodoxy came to the United State via immigration. Orthodox comprise at best perhaps just under a million adherents here in the United States, and have not been in a position to have much cultural impact, as a group. Further, the Orthodox manner of enculturation is typically to embrace various aspects of a nation’s culture that are amenable to the Christian Gospel and from those leverage points to then transfigure the culture from within, such that it’s expression of the Orthodox Faith, while the same in substance to all other Orthodox churches, is yet culturally located. Unfortunately, however, the “culture” of the United States is neither monolithic nor really a culture in the traditional sense.

That is to say, at the root of all of this must be a way of living that eschews a binary moralism for a maximal experience. In Christian terms, it must be a way of life in which grace changes what we do and frees us from the bondage of moralistic legalism. It must be a way of life in which ascetic endeavor (caring for expectant mothers and their babies, say) is itself motivated from a previous transfiguring grace. Our artists must be disciplined by their art, and freed by their faith, expressing a view of a fallen world which is yet sustained by grace. Our politicians must have the courage and the will to resist the easy moralism of political discourse, rejecting its terms and making new arguments. This will mean the exploration of new forms of media, and the discipline to understand the media. It will mean hard, hard work to speak to shattered and fragmented audiences. It will mean the rigorous application of humility to engage constituencies hostile to the message. It will mean the discipline of learning how to communicate in new ways beyond binary moralism, and to do so with far less shouting and rancor. It will most assuredly mean the formation of new political parties, as the binary moralism has most definitely benefited specific entrenched groups to the determent of our political process.

In the end, it won’t be reasoned argument that ultimately persuades. Only beauty and goodness can do that. If we can’t make beautiful art, our fellow citizens will not leave their glittering images to hear us. If we can’t speak in beautiful ways, our fellow citizens will not stop shouting long enough to listen. If we fail to manifest the beauty of our way of life, our fellow citizens will not stop moving to behold that which is good. All we have done so far is to join with progressives in a war of coercion, in a contest to see who can exert their political will on another. We must, for the love of God, cease doing this. The will to power is satanic. Whoever lives by the will to power will die by the will to power. This is not the way of Christ. We must first, middle and last, be beautiful creatures of a glorious Creator. Not in the worldly way of beauty. But in the beautiful way of Christ our savior.

Because all politics is penultimate. But beauty is forever.