Thursday, July 26, 2007

Facing Death

I just read a very moving article by Tony Snow, press secretary for the Bush administration. In March of this year, doctors discovered that his abdominal cancer had returned, and he had surgery. Christianity Today asked him what spiritual observations he had concerning this time.
He wrote this, in part. (Read all of it at this linked site.)

Those of us with potentially fatal diseases—and there are millions in America today—find ourselves in the odd position of coping with our mortality while trying to fathom God's will. Although it would be the height of presumption to declare with confidence What It All Means, Scripture provides powerful hints and consolations.

The first is that we shouldn't spend too much time trying to answer the why questions: Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can't someone else get sick? We can't answer such things, and the questions themselves often are designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer.

I don't know why I have cancer, and I don't much care. It is what it is—a plain and indisputable fact. Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out.

But despite this—because of it—God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don't know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face.

Second, we need to get past the anxiety. The mere thought of dying can send adrenaline flooding through your system. A dizzy, unfocused panic seizes you. Your heart thumps; your head swims. You think of nothingness and swoon. You fear partings; you worry about the impact on family and friends. You fidget and get nowhere.

To regain footing, remember that we were born not into death, but into life—and that the journey continues after we have finished our days on this earth. We accept this on faith, but that faith is nourished by a conviction that stirs even within many nonbelieving hearts—an intuition that the gift of life, once given, cannot be taken away. Those who have been stricken enjoy the special privilege of being able to fight with their might, main, and faith to live—fully, richly, exuberantly—no matter how their days may be numbered.

Third, we can open our eyes and hearts. God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease—smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see—but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension—and yet don't. By his love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise. . . .

There's another kind of response, although usually short-lived—an inexplicable shudder of excitement, as if a clarifying moment of calamity has swept away everything trivial and tinny, and placed before us the challenge of important questions. . . .

Finally, we can let love change everything. When Jesus was faced with the prospect of crucifixion, he grieved not for himself, but for us. He cried for Jerusalem before entering the holy city. From the Cross, he took on the cumulative burden of human sin and weakness, and begged for forgiveness on our behalf.

We get repeated chances to learn that life is not about us—that we acquire purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God's love for others. Sickness gets us partway there. It reminds us of our limitations and dependence. But it also gives us a chance to serve the healthy. A minister friend of mine observes that people suffering grave afflictions often acquire the faith of two people, while loved ones accept the burden of two people's worries and fears.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Snake Story

A few months ago, we noticed our calico cat Berry was acting strangely; she was sitting very still except for her tail, which she twitched excitedly. We discovered that she was focused on a large rattlesnake curled up next to a pot of ivy on our deck.

It was a stand-off. She stayed about fifteen feet away from the snake. It was raised up in the striking position and its rattles were buzzing a soft warning to her.

We are always prepared for snakes, since we live several miles out of town. Usually, though, we see copperheads. This rattlesnake was kind enough to wait while my husband loaded his shotgun and went out to get a bead on its head.

“Do you care if I destroy your flower pot?” he asked me. I assured him I would gladly sacrifice the pot to get rid of the snake.

His dead-eye aim proved accurate, and he blew its head off. It writhed around for about thirty minutes, a gruesome sight. I took the picture after it finally decided to be dead. The snake had nine rattles.

The flower pot survived, but the deck has a dent in it.

The National Geographic web site has an interesting snake feature, at this linked site. You’ll see a fascinating photo essay with enough scary snakes to make you want to look under your chair.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stephen King: On Writing

I don’t ordinarily read Stephen King’s books—don’t care anything about the horror genre. However, this summer, I am making a study of writing. So I fell into his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

The first part of the book is an entertaining autobiographical account of how he got into his writing. He was a constant watcher and reader of horror movies and books from his earliest days; so it isn’t something he just stumbled into when he grew up. He started writing those scary stories when he was just a child, and his first published work was a novella “in a horror fanzine issued by Mike Garrett of Birmingham, Alabama.” The title of the story was “I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber.” Yikes!

In the second half of the book, King gives very straightforward, practical advice for budding writers. Here are some of his best pointers:

  • Don’t get a huge desk that you place in the center of a room, he says. Put a small one “in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind your self why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” Don’t abandon your life. Live it; then if you pay close attention, you will recognize good subjects when they show up.
  • The “bread of writing is vocabulary.” It’s your most common tool, so keep it handy. Don’t “make any conscious effort to improve it” because if you do, it will become stilted, and it won’t sound like you.
  • Read constantly, whenever you aren’t writing. Your handle on the language will improve, and your vocabulary will improve without your having to work at it.
  • If you aren’t good at grammar, you need to be. A good help is Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition; “. . .almost all you need is summarized on the front and back endpapers of the book.” A great style manual is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
  • Avoid adverbs, the passive voice in verbs, and any kind of “dialogue attribution” other than “said.” “Do as well as you can,” he said, “and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.”
  • Don’t be overwhelmingly wordy.

If you want to be a writer, he says, you have to be seriously committed to it. Stephen King says he writes about 2,000 words a day. He is willing to let us get away with 1,000 words a day, and he will let us have Sunday off. This is a concrete goal, which we need.

Write about whatever you want to; “anything at all . . . as long as you tell the truth.” By truth, he means the things the heart knows. He says, “The job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck.” People want to read stories in which they recognize themselves, in which they hear “strong echoes of (their own lives) and beliefs.”

Somehow, King gives me confidence that maybe I can improve my writing. What I have been lacking is the serious commitment part. I’ve been the one who takes care of every other little problem first and then I get around to writing, if there’s still time. I hereby commit myself to write at least 1,000 words every day . . . well, lots of days, anyway. King says there’s a sort of “redemptive power of writing that I had long felt but never articulated.” I think he is right.

*The picture comes from

Thursday Thirteen: Books a Wanna-Be Writer Needs

Thirteen great books that should be on the shelves of people who want to be writers:

1. The Bible

2. A concordance so you can find what you’re looking for

3. A big, fat dictionary

4. A thesaurus that’s almost as fat

5. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style

6. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, the 30th anniversary edition

7. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

8. Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings

9. Zinsser’s Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past

10. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones

11. Jerry Jenkins’s Writing for the Soul

And then about a hundred wonderful books that you love, for example, these and/or many that are like the kinds of things you want to write:

12. Elie Wiesel’s Night

13. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Do This in Remembrance of Me

I just got home from the last session of the Bible study I’ve been in this year—lesson 32 of Disciple 3: Remember Who You Are. It was a wonderful study, the best yet of the Disciple series.

We had a covered dish dinner and then we did our lesson. After we finished talking about the readings for this week, we had communion together, using a beautiful handmade chalice and dish, grape juice, and a small loaf of homemade bread. We had communion by intinction which is explained at this very good linked site, in case you want to read about it (scroll down, down); to do that, we took a pinch of bread and dipped it into the juice.

Our pastor’s wife made the communion cup and plate on a potter’s wheel, using lumps of clay. She made the colors herself, experimenting until she got them just right, so that after they were fired in the kiln, they would look the way she wanted them to look.

The inside of the chalice is dark red, exactly the shade of red grape juice or wine. On the outside, the dark red appears spilled down the side, and it fades into a lighter shade of the same color. The deep red becomes a light wheat color. Then the bottom of the cup is blue, the shade of the deepest sky blue.

To me, the red symbolizes the blood of Christ held in the chalice and the “wheat” shade, his body in the bread. In communion, we remember. We pledge ourselves again to love him, to live our lives for him.

I always think of Jesus offering the cup to his disciples, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” He told them, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

What is the new covenant? It was the new agreement instituted by God through Jesus that people would no longer have to engage in animal sacrifice to have their sins forgiven. Jesus would be the ultimate sacrifice, given by God, for the forgiveness of human sin. It’s a marvelous, no-strings-attached gift to us.