Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Paper is White

Excerpts from The Road by Cormac McCarthy:
The man took his hand, wheezing. You need to go on, he said. I can’t go with you. You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.
I cant.
It’s all right. This has been a long time coming. Now it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did it.
You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.
No I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you can’t take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?
I want to be with you.
You cant.
You cant. You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
Just take me with you. Please.
I cant.
Please, Papa.
I cant. I can’t hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.
You said you wouldn’t ever leave me.
I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were.

Do you remember that little boy [that we saw], Papa?
Yes. I remember him.
Do you think that he’s all right that little boy?
Oh yes. I think he’s all right.
Do you think he was lost?
No. I don’t think he was lost.
I’m scared that he was lost.
I think he’s all right.
But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?
Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.
When I first read The Road, it hit me pretty hard. That was about six years ago and at the time one of my best friends and most significant spiritual mentors was dying of cancer. My friend Andrew was 35 when he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. He was married and had three young boys. Slowly and steadily and quite painfully the cancer robbed Andrew of his strength and vitality and eventually his life. During that process, he had to face the fact that his boys would grow up without a father and there was nothing he could do about it.
I wasn’t a father at that time, but I am now. So let me tell a happier story in that regard. My daughter Lily is a boisterous and jubilant almost 3-year-old. I describe her as unbearably cute because sometimes I’m so overwhelmed with her cuteness that I’m sure my head is going to explode. In fact, I couldn’t help myself and brought this calendar from my office.
So, everyday, I look forward to the very special moment when I get home from work. Most of the time, I am greeted with squeals of excitement and delight.
When Lily started to become more verbal I sought to engage her in conversation when I would get home. I had to think about how to engage her appropriately, on her level. I found myself asking her the question: “Lily, did you have fun today?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a actually a very important question. In a sense, maybe it’sthe most important question.
Well, this semester’s topic for Tuesday’s in the Chapel is “One thing that’s most important”. Being a parent forces you to ask yourself this question. What are the few, crucial, most important things I want to impart to my child?
When I’m asking Lily if she had fun today, I’m essentially asking, was life a positive experience for you? Did you experience the world as a joyous and good place today? This question gets at the heart of this “most important thing” that I want to teach her.  Simply stated it’s the message: this is a good world. Life, to be alive, is good. Or another way of saying it: God, if there is a God, is good.
But honestly I can find it difficult to even physically say those words “the world is good”. Because what about Andrew? being systematically and gruesomely destroyed by his own body in the prime of life? What about Andrew’s family that has been left with an unfillable void? Three boys who, point of fact, need a father and don’t have one?
Or what about all the terrible, awful evil things that take place in our world everyday? What about the children who are starving or all the wars taking place? What about all the oppression, injustice, economic inequality, religious extremism and senseless violence? These things are clearly NOT good. Not good at all.
Well, it’s these things that make it feel like an impossibly difficult task to teach Lily that the world is good. I often have a hard enough time even believing it myself. Because the world so often doesn’t appear or feel good at all.
Most of the time, life teaches us the opposite lesson, that the world is not good. That the world, or God, is not on our side. The world is going to be quite mean to us and if we’re innocent and naive about it, it’s only going to be even worse.
I know that Lily will have to learn about how much evil there is in the world. She’ll have to face kids who are mean to her, friends who betray her, people who want to hurt her or take advantage of her. She’ll have to learn that life isn’t fair, that some things break and can’t be fixed, that people she’s cares about will die. Already she’s had to learn that her parents are not always loving and sometimes raise their voices in anger.
And yet, I still want to teach her that our world (and by virtue our creator) is good, and in fact, staggeringly, shockingly, overwhelmingly good. But there’s a paradox here because I don’t want to explain away all the evil that’s so obviously present in our world. I don’t want to wave my hands and call what is not good, good.
problem of evilThis is probably the oldest and most-often-asked theological question in history. If God is good, how is there so much suffering and evil in the world? It’s so often asked because all of us feel this question. It’s not just intellectual curiosity, we feel it. Because we have all experienced that suffering and evil firsthand. At a deep level, we want, even need to knowwhy?
I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever really heard one. But I do have another question that I think we should be asking. The question that’s always being asked is how is there so much evil in the world. But I think we’re actually better served by asking the question “how is there so much goodness in the world? What could possibly explain or justify this much good?”
Doesn’t the goodness need just as much of an explanation as the evil?
But for some reason it’s so much easier for us to notice the evil, the bad stuff, the stuff that hurts. I’m not a theologian, but here’s how I think of it. Let’s take the classic color scheme of white and black for good vs. evil. I think that life is like a white sheet of paper with black ink smudges on it. The paper can easily be invisible to us and all we see it the black smudges. We may examine the paper and say “there’s nothing here but nasty black stuff! nothing good at all!” We can miss the fact that the entire backdrop is white, that white is in fact the default.
All that said, I have to confess that I don’t usually do a very good job at appreciating how flat out good life is. And I’m woefully under qualified to teach this lesson to Lily. Usually, I’m just trying to get through my day, just trying to keep my head above the water. I tend to bevery focused on the black spots in my life, the problems that I feel like I need to solve.
So I’ve been really impacted by some of the words of Jesus in this respect. In one of his most famous teachings, he says this.
Matthew 6:26-30
Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
So Jesus is telling people not to waste their energy on worrying about things like food and clothing. But his argument is quite interesting. I think he’s saying that there’s no need to worry because God is good and will take care of you. And do you want evidence that God is good? Well look around you. Look at anything. Look at those birds over there. Or look at these lilies over here. Evidence of God’s goodness is literally everywhere. See the backdrop of the world you live in. The paper is white.
It’s as if the goodness is there, it’s all around us, but we do actually have to look for it. Not because it’s hidden, but because it’s everywhere, it’s the fabric of our existence. We have to train our eyes, we have to learn to see it.
This teaching from Jesus has been so impactful to me and my wife Mary that this passage is actually where Lily’s name comes from. She’s named after one of the beautiful lilies of the field that can remind us how good our world and our God is.
I want to teach Lily that, yes, indeed, there is real evil in the world and we can’t ignore it. But we can’t let it distract us from the disproportionate amount of good that permeates life. We can’t let it rob us of that gift.
This is what Andrew taught me in his last days on Earth. Things deteriorated pretty quickly at the end and he was struggling with a profound sense of loss. So he’s lying there in bed with a morphine drip and he says: a month ago I was able to be outside throwing a ball with my boys. I can’t do that anymore. A week ago, I was still able to walk up and down stairs. I can’t do that anymore. A few days ago, I was still able to eat, but now I can’t do that either.
He’s thinking about all the things he can’t do anymore and feeling a crushing despair. But then he realized that there was something he could do. He was able to very carefully stand up and slowly pace back and forth next to his bed and sing a made-up 5-year-old’s song of praise to God. And that’s what he did, because, even in that moment, or maybeespecially in that moment, he was able to see how good life is and express genuine thanks to God.
Singing that song did not cure Andrew of cancer, but it did do something to lift that oppressive cloud of despair. And for a man in Andrew’s situation, that strikes me as pretty significant. That’s the power of gratitude. If the goodness of the world is knowledge that I want Lily to possess, then gratitude is the skill that I want her to develop. I think gratitude helps us to put things in perspective, it reminds us that the paper is white.
On that note, I’ll close with a quote from Thomas Merton, a catholic mystic.
“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.
Adam Reynolds, Chaplain for the Vineyard Fellowship