Personal Journey, Poetry

Timothy McVeigh & I Agree on One Thing

DSC00183My favorite poem was basically written by the one-legged pirate, Long John Silver. What’s worse, my favorite poem was also the favorite of Timothy McVeigh, infamous building-bomber-baby-killer, who went so far as to quote it just before leaving this world by lethal injection in June, 2001. I remember thinking that McVeigh was about to meet the true captain of his soul. I remember wishing that “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, the real-life inspiration for Treasure Island’s antagonist, wasn’t my favorite poem. But still, it is.

Don’t go. Stay with me.

I can still picture my 8th grade English classroom, and the balding, feather-haired, doughy teacher who introduced “Invictus” to me. A muted man, I hardly remember a thing about his character, but I do remember the feeling of being broadsided by the power of words. It was the first time I loved words enough to write them on my heart. Perseverance was my only prince back then: the only strength I knew, and “Invictus” was the portrait of my prince.

Henley ascribes his “unconquerable soul” to “whatever gods may be.” This too, was me. I could have written that poem, had I been so gifted. And– agnostic I remained until I was 27, until my own strength failed me for the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back time, and I dived into a faith that has held me ever since.

Poor Henley. How he inspired 8th-grade-me and so many others. Yet he most likely died, not knowing how strong he could have been.The strongest we can ever be, we can only be after admitting our weakness– at least once. The moment I acknowledge my limit, God pushes it way beyond my wildest imaginings. That’s what Henley never knew, though he had an iron will.

A broken bone heals stronger than the original bone. Henley never broke.

Henley had reason to call this life “a place of wrath and tears.” When he was 12 years old, his father died. As if that weren’t enough, Henley developed tuberculosis and had to have his foot amputated. “Invictus” was written as he lay in the hospital, in the agonizing phantom pain that plagues amputees. His remaining foot was in jeopardy of being amputated as well, but Henley wouldn’t have it.

Just “how charged with punishment [were] the scrolls” for Henley? More than most of us can imagine. I don’t know about you, but I wish, when in my own shallow ruts of despair, that I could be half the person Henley was in that Mariana trench experience of losing a foot and a father.

When Henley speaks of life’s “bludgeons,” he’s not being theoretical.

So that’s it. Henley, in one sense, is my hero. In another, I pity him. I no longer agree with many of the notions in “Invictus.” I don’t think it all resides in me. I know that God is completely in charge of my ever-so-conquerable soul. I still hope to have an unbowed head–if it must be bloody– but a deeply bowed soul in the presence of my Lord and Savior.

Nelson Mandela drew strength from “Invictus” while in jail and passed it on to his fellow inmates. Later, he motivated the South African Rugby team with its empowering lines. I still love “Invictus” for its message of strength, but I now know the name of that strength: Jesus. He is my strength, my shield, my everlasting hope.

I wish Timothy McVeigh didn’t like my favorite poem.

But think about this: Hitler liked tea parties.

Invictus 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit, from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeons of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

 

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

— William Ernest Henley, 1888

 

 

 

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Personal Journey

Heal My Soul – Testimony Part III

Heal my soul, for I have sinned against Thee. – Psalm 41:4b

My memory in the months before I acquiesced to Jesus is hazy. I know I was desperate. I know circumstantially I had everything– as far as the American Dream goes, anyway. Although I had married my prince charming, I was disappointed that I had not become a princess. Like the frog in reverse, I thought his kiss would make me into something beautiful and worthy. When I stayed me, things eventually got ugly.  My twisted thinking went like this: if I can make him bleed emotionally, I can know he loves me.  So that’s what I did.  Yet for all that work and drama, I never felt satisfied that I was loved.  I was ever-grasping at some elusive feeling, some fullness or contentment that always slipped my grip.

stained glassSome Christians I knew seemed to glow.  I don’t mean in the figurative sense; I mean literally glowed– like the stained glass images of old, the sun-shape that seemed to mat the faces. I understand if you don’t believe me.  God gives us each just what we need to make a decision.  I guess I needed that.

Thomas.  Remember him?  He was a contemporary of Jesus and still he wouldn’t believe without digging his fingers into Jesus…

On the outside I was brazen and witty, sarcastic, athletic, in-control. On the inside I was screaming for peace and attention. I wore the slippery mask of confidence, but craved a heart of it.  Like the cowardly lion who wished for a transformation, so I wanted to trade my unstable, flimsy insides for something reliable. But there was no truth. The postmodern lie was nearly my undoing.  I remember reading a book that gave the nuts and bolts, if you will, of all the major religions of the world. One of them has to be right, I thought. When I read it… nothing. More head knowledge. How can there be so many versions of truth? With so many followers of every rendition? It must all be lies, all spins off the main lie that there is something beyond us…

What finally reached me was a man who seemed to be genuinely in love with this person, Jesus. How he addressed his God was both reverent and familiar. It was authentic and lacked the scriptedness I was accustomed to getting at church. My heart melted when I heard– straight from the Bible– who Jesus was and why He came to earth:

WHO has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of a parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.

He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.

All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. – Isaiah 53:1-6

And this, written about Jesus, hundreds of years before He stepped foot on earth. That wasn’t mentioned in my nuts and bolts religion book. And there’s so much more inexplicable prediction in the Bible. I challenge anyone who hasn’t thoroughly checked out the prophecies on Jesus to finish Isaiah 53 and read the book of John.  What we holiday churchgoers were taught in our brief catechism is the tip of an iceberg so majestic and irrefutable, that, once uncovered, will forever subject us to its awesome power. That is what occurs in the heart of one who comes face to face with Jesus. That is what happened in my heart.

After church, the pastor’s wife came over to me to say hello. I apologized for the blubbering wreck I was. And I’ll never forget her deadpan answer.

That’s the Holy Spirit.

She believed that God’s Holy Spirit was responsible for making me cry, that a physiological reaction was the result of something beyond me, beyond the natural realm, even. Wherever it was from, this brokenness was new and bitter.  It was the beginning of my journey’s end as far as the search for meaning was concerned. The journey was uncomfortable; I had to come to terms with  my own limitations and inadequacies, and accept– as a gift– that God provided a way for me to be right in His eyes.  It is the greatest gift, accepting that Christ died for my sins, that He loved me enough to withstand such humiliation on my behalf.

The love of Jesus: I used to spurn it, used to mock and maul it, but now I embrace the gift we celebrate every year when we stop our freeway-style Christmas season and consider what the essence of Christmas has always been to those who keep it:

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people,for today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10 -11

theWordwasmadeflesh

Personal Journey

No Thanks, I’ll Do This Myself – Testimony Part II

air marshallI didn’t kill her, of course.  I just moved my car into the spot as if she were invisible, which was hard to do because she was yelling her head off and waving her arms around like my own personal air marshal helping me park my plane.  That stick shift came in handy when I revved the engine at her for good measure.

As we strolled into the mall, she stomped behind us for a ways, hurling lawsuit threats about my trying to run down a “pregnant woman.”

In my defense, she wasn’t showing.

That was me.  I always took the fight; I usually picked it.  And I’m not even Irish.

When I wasn’t being mean to people, I had this insatiable desire for approval, no– for worship. Even my goodnesses were bribes meant to gain or keep the fountain of affirmation flowing.  My happiness depended on a constant firehose stream of compliments and awards.  I won 1st place in a poetry contest? Cool, now I need The New Yorker to publish me. You say I’m beautiful– that makes me feel pretty as long as you don’t look away.  Witty?  I’m good as long as you’re still laughing… Such was my existence– endless calculating and striving after approval, adoration, accolades.  I couldn’t figure out why I had no peace, which is what led me through a litany of self-help books, including Life 101, The Healing Power of Humor, Dianetics, and The Tao of Poo (a book that pitches Winnie the Pooh as the ultimate Taoist and instructs on a Pooh-like life, full of happiness and honey).  I even got so low sometimes I tried the Bible. But that wasn’t helpful because I tried reading from the Old Testament, starting at Genesis.  After the first juicy chapters, reading the Jewish laws felt like reading the IRS tax code; I failed to see the connection between this book and help of any kind. Mind you, I was an English major. I had read Paradise Lost with an amount of relish; I even struggled through the literary gauntlet of  Leaves of Grass, but the Old Testament?

Uncle.

sacred-heart-jesusGrowing up, one of my first memories of God was the picture in my grandfather’s spare room. Since we often slept there, I’d wake up to this monstrous piece of art staring down at me, depicting an anemic, effeminate, sorrowful-looking man whose heart was visible and belted in thorns.  DIS-turbing. One arm was raised as if He had the answer to a question, and the other rested languidly near that… heart.  He did not comfort me, this Christ; He both unnerved and confused me.

Church confused me too.  We went a handful of times, and everyone seemed to know the steps but me.  Kneel.  Stand. Kneel. Stand. Mumble. Kneel. Everybody else leaving their seats, going up to the front wearing serious expressions.  I’m sure I asked why we stayed in our seats when everybody else went up, but I don’t remember what my Dad said.  He was careful with our feelings.  He probably said he preferred to stay seated– which I’m sure was true.  The singing and chanting from the front was as boring as it was unintelligible. The echoing dirges from somber, gowned men and the strange, ancient feel of the place gave me the same twisted guts as when I was sent to the principal’s office, a feeling with which I was all too familiar.  So no, I didn’t care much for the God of church.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

1 John 4:10

 

Personal Journey

God Loves Even the Meanest Person – Testimony Part I

There was a time when I did not take God seriously.  But no matter.  He took me seriously.

Of my early memories, this one stands out– my husband and I at age 16 were climbing on a jungle gym, talking about the meaning of life, and blithely dismissing God’s hand in parting the Red Sea because, thanks to advances in technology, we could do it ourselves.  He was into Scientology; I into the Tao of Pooh or Danse Macabre, whichever suited the moment. The deep questions of life I thought could all be solved with reason and logic. I ridiculed faith wherever I saw it and in all its forms, considering it absolutely equivalent to stupidity.  Once, in what I intended to be an act of malice, I sent my sister and her friend to a booth at the county fair that had nearly wasted more than five minutes of my time trying to shepherd me into its folly with a logical question: What is the #1 cause of death?  Bob and I watched, full of venomous giggles, as Heather and her friend listened– it seemed to us, in rapturous attention.  I kept waiting for recognition to register on their faces, to see surprise and annoyance that the booth was a swindle, that big sister had pulled a good one on her little. None came. The joke was on me.

That was interesting, she said when she came back.  Seriously?  Interesting?  How about baloney?  How about gentle people who are off their rockers?  How about being mad that they suck you in with a scientific question and then bait and switch for faith?  I was beside myself.  And confused.

Fast forward ten years.  My husband and I were buying a used car.  We took it for a test drive and of course blasted the radio, which was the most important feature (because we were in denial that this minivan would suck out whatever cool we had left in our souls, and we hadn’t even come to grips with the fact that loud noises of all kinds would be poisonous to us as we advanced in years and had to share our eardrums with little people and all their natural audio).  But what should come pouring out of the speakers?  Jesus music.  I nearly threw up my hand in protest.  I couldn’t turn the station fast enough.  WMMS, please.  And we left it there for them, turned way up so they could get at least a few seconds of good music.  That was the present we left them.  Nice, huh?

I was the kind of person you’d think would never, ever come around to God.  To say I spoke in the dialect of sailors would be an extreme understatement.  I used expletives more liberally than article adjectives and offended anyone misfortunate enough to be within reach.   Here’s an example.  Chrismas shopping at a mall with half the number of parking spaces it needs.  My little sister chats happily next to me about what stores she wants to visit, and my 1-year-old gibbers in her car seat.  Neither one seems to notice or care that I’m in parking hell.  Every time I see an open space it’s taken before I can even shift up into first gear. Stupid stick shift… I am swearing, and not under my breath.  Wait.  Up ahead. An open spot.  As I fumble with the clutch, lurching into 1st gear, a woman sprints by my car.  That’s not surprising, but what is, is that she bolts past my very obvious turn signal and plants herself in my spot, hands on hips, feet wider than hip distance apart.

Brazen.

I politely tell her to move with my teeth clenched and a face not unlike Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining.  I’m here.

“I’m saving this spot for my mother,” she tells me.

“I don’t see your mother,” I say, “and I’m here, with a car. Right now.” The idea of saving a spot with your body broadsided me, I must confess.  I think I lost my head for a minute because I warned her that if she didn’t move I was going to run her over.

She, unlike my sister, didn’t believe me.

I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say I parked the car and commenced our Christmas shopping experience. This is the person God took seriously. When I say God can love the meanest person, I know.

Here is a trustworth saying that deserves full acceptance– Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. — The Apostle Paul, 1 Timothy 1:15

Poetry

The Agnostic Goes to Church

Brittle as my polish was, and subject

to my ensemble’s perfection;

yet it so swiftly deteriorated, as if God wanted

that I should not be wearing my best, but honestly

clothed in the dust I carried around each day,

and would become soon enough.

Impulse buying does not work with God.

He wanted me to pick through the junk, to smell

the souls of old clothing, and feel their months against

my skin.  He wanted me to choose the modest dress for Him.

However did I make it out of church, holding myself in?

I left there a beggar, a shoplifter

with words in my skirt folds, words

for later, pressing them against myself, dropping

some.  Everybody’s hungry for words.

But certain words are harder to eat than others.

I wanted to get home and spill them on the kitchen floor.

I wanted to hold them until they didn’t feel like pieces.

Surely if I turned them around enough, if I

kissed them a while, they would change magically

from verses and mines into mincemeat pies I could eat.

1998