Schema of a Soul

Although I share many book reviews on my other blog, I don’t share them here, preferring to reserve this space as a place for beauty. However, this blog is precisely the right forum for Kimberlye Berg’s book, Schema of a Soulone of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

In a world where nearly one million books are published each year, I would never have encountered Schema of a Soul apart from a chance meeting. Several years ago, I met Kim at Larry Crabb’s Next Step School for Spiritual Direction. All week, she sat a few chairs down from me as we listened and learned together. She struck me as a kind, unpretentious woman and only later did I learn that she had authored a book. Indeed, I am doubtful that she was the one who told me about it.  With just a glimpse of what the book was about, I added it to Amazon wish list where it remained for years. I ordered it last July, but it sat on a shelf in my library since then. I finally opened it this morning and was grateful for an unofficial snow day.

Describing books is sometimes a difficult thing to do. I found that to be particularly true here. In Schema of a Soul, Kim tells of coping with the death of her son nineteen year old son Michael, but that description is woefully inadequate. It is a memoir. A eulogy. A love letter to her husband. A confession. A prayer. Poetic. Raw. Honest. Tragic. And beautiful all the same. She treasures words. As I read, I was reminded of something I read just yesterday: “Language in itself, beginning with the name of ‘God,’ is holy, a precious gift that makes it possible to live in community” (Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places).

Though the book is just shy of 150 pages, I cried a half-dozen times today. Before I left for work this morning, I read my wife just one paragraph and felt that familiar hitch in my throat. Kim’s transparent reflections upon her grief, with hues of anger and fear and confusion stirred my soul. I found myself thinking about my own losses and those of friends, especially those who have borne the grief of losing their own teenage sons.

One of the joys of reading books by other readers is getting a glimpse of what writers have stirred their souls. It came as no surprise that Kim and I share an affection for Larry Crabb, but I was grateful to read of her other influences, among them Chesterton, Buechner, and Lewis. Midway through the book, she reflected upon reading Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, one autumn afternoon: “I had no idea the wringing I was in for.” The Great Divorce is not only my favorite CS Lewis Book, but one of my favorite books overall. As soon as Kim mentioned her “wringing,” I knew exactly what story would affect her so deeply, the story of a mother who goes to heaven and is looking for her son. Michael. I had forgotten his name was Michael. I wrote in the column of page 75, “Had you ever read The Great Divorce before?” It also brought to memory that when we attended Next Step, we were treated to a one man production of The Great Divorce by Anthony Lawton. I found myself wondering if Lawton brought the character of Pam to life and what effect that would have upon Kim. Upon reflection, I do not think he did.

Schema of a Soul is a gem, formed in the heat of Kim’s suffering, but polished to a rare beauty by her willingness to honestly wrestle with multifaceted changes wrought by the loss of Michael.

Thank you Kim.

Winter Kavod

The blizzard’s heaviness
omnipresent
branches genuflect
ancient trees
sigh beneath the weight
thoroughfares erased
houses too
subsumed beneath
opalescent quilt
the world’s cacophony
dulled
silence prevails for a time

How quick we are
to push back
resisting
the weight of glory
preferring disenchanted convenience
to the purity and power
of winter’s kavod.

*kavod is a Hebrew word meaning heaviness, usually translated “glory” in the Old Testament scriptures.

Creation Song

In Thumbprints in the Clay, Luci Shaw shared that fully one-third of the Bible is written in poetic form, yet we read it like an auto repair manual. In our desire to “get it right,” we read each line with mechanical precision, but we fail to notice the musical staff dwelling nearby. There is no doubt that God’s blueprints for creation were precise and logical, but I wonder how many of us, while considering God’s precision exclude beauty, consciously or subconsciously. For example, we attempt to wrestle Genesis 1 into submission, seeking to prove our preferred understanding of how God created, rather than wondering in amazement that He created. We fail to feel the rhythm.

Eugene Peterson wrote in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “There are two sets of three days each of creation activity. The first set of three gives form to the pre-creation chaos of [Genesis 1:2]; the second set of three fills the pre-creation emptiness…There is another interesting rhythmic variation. The third day of each three-day set comprises a double creation. So the cadence becomes: 1-2-3/3, 4-5-6/6…When we speak this text aloud, or listen to it being spoken, the text gets inside us. We enter the rhythms of creation time and find that we are internalizing a creation sense of orderliness and connectedness and resonance that is very much like what we get from music.”

As I think about God’s creation, I find myself wondering if God sang the world into creation. Words, yes, but music too. CS Lewis must have wondered this as well; in the sixth book of the Narnia series, The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan sings creation into being.

Christianity is not merely cognitive, but carditive; not merely brain, but heart. As we read the revealed word, we would do well to also pay attention to its rhythms.

And to our own.

A Morningtide Reflection

I arose early today, earlier than normal, well before the sun, even before my coffee pot began his daily work. I prodded him awake–yes it’s a him, his nametag does read Mr. Coffee–and he got right to work grumbling loudly.

As I quietly waited for him, I did a few odds and ends–a load of laundry begun, dogs let out into the darkness.  I confess, I too grumbled loudly as I cleaned up after the puppies.  It is most often at morningtide when I wonder why people have pets.

A hissing sound, Mr. Coffee clearing his throat, tells me that he is done brewing.  I fill my cup and sit at my desk.  Before turning on the lamp, I stare out into the darkness.  How long before the sun rouses? Two hours hence and he has yet to make an appearance.

I read from a variety of books, old and familiar friends: the Bible, a book of Psalms, and the Valley of Vision. I pick up a new book from one of the stacks that always surround me, Thumbprints in the Clay by poet Luci Shaw. Poets see beauty in the ordinary. Her opening chapter is a meditation on coffee mugs, a welcome read as I await the daylight. Shaw writes, “Somehow, the satisfaction of really good coffee is enhanced by the beauty of the coffee mug.” I pause to look up at my new mug, an object of beauty no doubt, hand crafted by the same caring hands that made my last one.

Somehow, the satisfaction of really good coffee is enhanced by the beauty of the coffee mug.-Luci Shaw

The casual observer would notice that the two mugs share a similar shape and size, but that the design is quite different. As an intimate observer, I notice it is lighter, perhaps only a few grams, but I knew the other so well that the change is immediately evident. I notice too that it fits my hand differently, perhaps in the same way that holding hands with my wife and daughter differ. Both comfortable, but somehow distinct.

As I feel the radiated warmth of the coffee upon my hand, I run my thumb over the textured trees, familiarizing myself with them. Lord willing, I will come to know this mug as fully as I knew the last.

And as I ponder, I am reminded that man too was fashioned from clay, bearing the marks of his Creator. Every person we meet bears evidences of God’s “thumbprints,” and each possesses a uniqueness and beauty found in no one else. Hand made things invite us to intimacy and point us to a deeper awareness of God’s love for the unique splendor of each image bearer.

Christians should be as delighted in the things of sight and sense as God is himself, when at the instant of every creational act, he declares goodness to be observable, enjoyable, and usable. Of all people, Christians should have the best noses, the best eyes and ears, the most open joy, the widest sense of delight. That the opposite is often the case is no fault of the Lord’s. How interesting that God, in correcting the ruminations of Job and his three advisers, turned to his work as Imaginer and Maker rather than his holiness.

-Harold Best

I did not
have to ask my heart what it wanted,
because of all the desire I have ever known,
just one did I cling to
for it was the essence of
all desire:
to hold beauty in
my soul’s
arms.

-St John of the Cross

Shalom Challenge

What if for the next two months, we intentionally committed ourselves to actively pursuing peace, goodness, and beauty?  What might the world look like if we purposed ourselves each day to look for ways to bring light to a dark world? How might hurts be healed if we actively sought to pursue relational wholeness?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I look around me, I see so much hurt. Our world exists under a smog of brokenness. When all we see around us is damaged, we begin to live as if the world were supposed to be gray. It becomes all we know. We fail to hope because we know from experience that hopes are rarely fulfilled and we become cynics.

We are surrounded by more people than ever, 7 billion and growing. The worldwide availability of technology allows us to communicate with startling speed. We can still handwrite letters if we wish, but we can also call, text, email, message, Snapchat, Skype, Facetime, or Hangout. We have the freedom to share every passing whim on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube. Yet, despite more people and more ways to communicate with them, people feel less known than ever.

When I read my social media feeds, I am stunned by the mix of good and bad. On the one hand, there are encouraging flickers of human kindness and love. On the other hand, there is so much anger, dissension, haughtiness, and sarcasm that the dark clouds seem impenetrable. I watch conservatives criticizing liberals and vice versa; Catholics demonizing Protestants, and vice versa. In any given day, we can find 10,000 things that make us angry and indignant.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
-Isaac Watts

If you have been concerned about this, like I have, or you have contributed to it, like I have, I want to suggest a challenge. For the next two months—November 1st to December 31st—let us actively seek peace, goodness, and beauty.  Here are some ways to implement this challenge:

  1. As you begin each day, ask God’s help in pursuing peace, goodness, and beauty.
  2. Actively resist posting negativity on social media. In other words, do not share things that actively stir dissension or controversy. If someone else posts something controversial and you feel the need to run to your keyboard to “set the record straight,” resist doing so. If you can, let it go. If you cannot, reach out to the person individually.
  3. Similarly, avoid sarcasm. Yes, I understand that sarcasm is often just in good fun, but in reality, it often wounds people in ways we do not know and, if we are honest, it can mask unresolved conflict we have with others.
  4. When you are met with negativity, respond with kindness. When you are met with anger, respond with peace. When you encounter evil, respond with goodness.
  5. Actively seek for ways to demonstrate peace, goodness, and beauty. Stay attentive to ways in which you might encourage and serve others. You might offer a kind word or a listening ear, share something of beauty, or help meet someone’s physical needs. The opportunities are endless.
  6. Look for ways to create beauty yourself. Perhaps your first step here is to set aside your belief that you are simply not creative and then get about the business of creating.
  7. Encourage others to join in to this #shalomchallenge. Think of at least five people to invite to participate with you. An old African proverb says that “when we go together, we go far.”

Maybe this challenge will be fruitless.
Maybe after two months, you will miss engaging in controversy.

But maybe, a life could be transformed and that life could just be your own.

Kindness, Not Controversy

Cease to do evil
learn to do good
seek justice
correct oppression.
Isaiah 1:16-17

The world is filled with so much hate,
anger is not what makes us great.
We rant and rave, we disagree,
forgetting God who sets us free.
We look for ways to criticize,
echo chambers providing lies.
The New York Times or news from Fox,
we all live in a slanted box.
Closing our mouths, opening ears,
a great idea unrealized here.
But there is too much damnable pride,
hubris abounds, humility’s died.
God hides His eyes from those who oppress,
religious words fail to impress.
Cease to do evil, learn to do right,
seek after justice, for people denied.
Here’s an idea: get off your phone,
battling strangers in angry tones
will never amount to culture’s improvement
it only divides with negative movement.
Look to your neighbor, say “tell me your story,”
seek understanding, all for God’s glory.
You may disagree, you might even be right;
but harming another, is not worth the fight.
Also consider, you could be wrong;
your skewed perspective, false all along.
God honors those who live with mercy,
pursue kindness and love, not controversy.

A Virtuous Trio

We look for beauty
on a five inch screen,
surfing the web
for the next cool scene.

But if we open our eyes
and look all around,
in creational beauty
God’s glory abounds.

We search for truth
on Wikipedia’s pages,
trusting what’s current
not the wisdom of ages.

But if we open our Bibles
and read God’s holy word,
we’ll find indelible ink
where *true Truth’s conferred.

We seek after goodness
in the public square,
pinning our hopes
to politicians with flair.

But goodness resides
in God’s perfect law,
love one another
and God above all.

Ancient philosophers
said these three transcend,
all time and space
they will not end.

A virtuous trio
truth, goodness, and beauty,
seen most fully
in blessed Trinity.

*True truth was a concept put forward by Francis Schaeffer that what the Bible teaches is not just one among many truths, but truth that corresponds to reality.

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