Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 6/12–The War)

Book six picks up where five left off; Raphael is in Eden with Adam and Eve, telling them the story of war in Heaven. Abdiel is flying fast back to the throne of Heaven, to inform the Father and the Son of the rebellion brewing. He arrives to war preparations: “Already known what he for news had thought/ To have reported…(20-21). Though Abdiel had left with the legions of the rebels, he is warmly welcomed back; he alone has returned. Michael and Gabriel are preparing for war that will toss the rebels into Hell. Smoke rolls; a sea of spears spreads into the distance; Satan and his hosts are already approaching fast, hoping that they will catch Heaven unawares, or at least, confident that they will win.

Here Raphael remarks, …strange to us it seemed/ At first, that angel should with angel war,/ And in fierce hosting meet, who wont to meet/ So oft in festivals and love/ Unanimous, as sons of one great sire… (91-5). Here, Milton gives the angels a kind of “sonship” that Biblically is only given to Christ and the descendants of Adam and Eve. Merely poetic or Milton’s theology? But there is a brief picture of what life in Heaven might have been like, which is totally poetic; a picture of traditions and daily life amongst angels, which goes on to include singing hymns. But it seems much more like what the New Testament describes ideal Christian fellowship to be like rather than angels, and by extension, the rending of those fellowships. In any case, Raphael seems to be fairly blasé about it as he moves on with his description.

At the advance of the armies, Abdiel meets Satan and they exchange pleasantries. Satan tells Abdiel that once, he had deemed Heaven and freedom the same; now he sees it otherwise. Abdiel objects: Satan is enslaved to himself, and is further, not blessed, or can he bless himself. Before Satan can raise his shield, Abdiel has dealt the first blow of the war, and Satan is sent reeling backwards; his followers are both shocked and infuriated and retaliate. Michael sounds the trumpet and the first days’ battle begins.  

“…all heaven

Resounded, and had earth been then, all earth

Had to her centre shook. What wonder? when

Millions of fierce encountering angel fought…” (218-20).

The battle field suddenly parts as Michael and Satan meet, and Michael deals him a blow that nearly splits him in half and spills his “nectarous humour” (332) (ew). But here, Milton (he’s earned it) waxes eloquent on how angels are made, the nature of their eternality, and how they had never felt pain until this battle; how Satan will heal overnight, though carried off the battle-field today by his compatriots. The day ends; Michael and his numbers set up camp on the battlefield. But in spite of his wounds, Satan is encouraged. His strength was met with strength; they were an actual match. “…fallible, it seems, /Of future we may deem him, thought till now/ Omnicscient thought” (428-30). In Satan’s mind, this means they really could win. He just needs bigger weapons…

So Satan’s minions dig…until they have the elements to make gunpowder “…whereof to found their engines and their balls/ Of missive ruin…with one touch to fire…” (518-9). Milton has set up a clear day and night even in these battlefields of Heaven, and all this building and alchemy only takes one night for the army of rebels. In the morning, a lookout from the army of Heaven sees them coming and flies back to warn the previous day’s victors. They soon see the weapon of war that Satan as constructed—something not unlike modern weapons of mass destruction, and what Milton might have called a cannon.

It is clear that Satan now has the upper hand; he laughs and mocks his enemies, and he and Belial are in a “gamesome mood” (620)…until the hosts of Heaven respond to the carnage the cannon has wrecked by throwing the very mountains back at them. The (literally) Satanic engines are crushed, and all they can do in response (once they dig themselves out of the upturned mountains) is to tear up their own hills. But here Milton returns to the mind of God, who has foreseen all of this, and has waited until this prime moment to act so that the Son may get the most glory.

Note: Philip Pullman remarks (as do other literary figures of history) that this is, to his mind, the very thing that puts him on the side of Satan. Pullman notes that “…it’s difficult to warm to a God who watches complacently while his forces suffer terrible punishment, deliberately waiting before letting his Son rout the enemy so as to make his triumph seem more splendid…” But is this not the limitations of literature? We can only talk about the Heavenly in terms of the Earthly; so we only talk about God in terms of Man. If a man or woman allowed a war so that their child could win and look good, we should rightly condemn them—we who are condemned ourselves. Milton can only talk about Heaven itself in terms of Earth because that’s all he knows: mountains, mining, day and night. We can only talk about God in terms of our experience and our physical selves: for instance, we refer to His hands, Who has none. Likewise, Satan struggles in a very…human way. So we empathize. But I digress.

They throw mountains at each other for a second full heavenly day until Heaven is in danger of being destroyed. Then God grants the Son all power to end the war—which only the Son can do. So on the third morning, the Son rides into battle with twenty thousand Chariots of God. As He comes, he commands the mountains back into place. He is so terrible that that the previously fearless Satan and armies lose all courage, and even drop their weapons. “Yet half his strength he put not forth, but checked/ His thunder in mid-volley, for he meant/ Not to destroy, but root them out of heaven…” And He does: for nine days they fall down toward Hell; truly rooted out.

Here, Milton imagines that the Son had a triumphal march like that of the entry into Jerusalem before the crucifixion, palm branches and all: the conquering General of Armies. So Raphael ends his story to Adam and Eve, and further warns them of the enemy which stalks them—a third warning, mind you: “…remember, and fear to transgress” (912).

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 5/12)

Book 5 begins without Satan himself, but with the dreams he has left behind for Eve; his evil work over God’s new creation has begun. She wakes up startled, and not unlike a lot of us after a nightmare, she needs a hug. It is interesting that pre-Fall, Milton depicts Eve dreaming “…of offence and trouble, which my mind/ Knew never till this irksome night…” (34-5), and knowing it.  In the dream, a figure like an angel invites her to eat from the tree of knowledge. But the fact that Eve recognizes this dream as “not good” seems like she is immediately not deceived.

Adam recognizes this dream as “…of evil sprung I fear…” (98). But he knows that this evil can’t have been generated of Eve herself, and wonders where it came from. He remarks that he has “…hope/ That what in sleep thou didst abhor to dream,/ Waking thou wilt never consent to do” (119-21). So in Milton’s epic, they are once warned. They worship God together, and are comforted.

Meanwhile, God the Father calls the angel Raphael to him. He is sent to warn the couple of Satan’s impending temptations, and of their free that will allow them to give in–a second warning. So Adam and Eve are in their little bower, he resting and she preparing a meal, when Raphael arrives. They hurry to be hospitable and welcome their guest. Milton notes that upon arriving at the door of their bower, Raphael “Bestowed, the holy salutation used/ Long after to blest Mary, second Eve” (386-7).

Here Philip Pullman makes a humorous note. “…there is a curious passage of which I can only call gastro-theology: Milton becomes unnecessarily (it seems to me) literal about whether angels can eat, and if so, what, and what happens to the food once eaten. That’s the sort of thing that happens when a storyteller takes his eye off the impulse of the story for a short while.”

Eventually, after such peculiar conversation, Raphael gets around to his mission. Adam responds that “…nor knew I not/ To be both will and deed created free;/ Yet that we never shall forget to love/ Our maker, and obey him…” (548-50). But Raphael finds it difficult to explain how others before Adam have fallen from glory by disobedience. He describes a day in Heaven when (another frankly strange choice on Milton’s part) God announced “…I have begot whom I declare/ My only son…” (603-4) and went on to instate him at his right hand, and Raphael gives this as the reason Satan rebelled.

From Milton’s perspective, it would seem, God the Father actually created God the Son, which is problematic from a good many theological perspectives. Raphael continues to tell about the ensuing plot against God; Satan cannot rest for jealousy against the newly appointed Son and convinces a third of Heaven’s host to follow him. Raphael tells about how only one member of heaven in that group opposes Satan: a seraphim named Abdiel. He tells the whole rebelling group how good God is; how just and delightful it is to worship him. “Cease then this impious rage/ And tempt not these…While pardon may be found in time besought” (845-6, 8). But no one backs Abdiel up. We learn that Satan felt himself as likely an “heir” to the throne of Heaven as anyone, thinking that he had created himself since he could never remember not being. Since the Son has been created by the Father (once again, problematic) Satan sees the Son as inferior to himself.

Abdiel has tried his best, and he leaves with a warning, alone, but secure in his scorn of the rebellious.

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 4/12)

We open Book 4 (I should note here that the “Books” are in essence, chapters) in Paradise, with a look at Satan’s inner monologue. He is awash with grief for what he so recently used to be—a glorious, powerful angel. Milton has described the fall from Heaven as physically changing Satan; certainly, he has lost innumerable glories. It is not exactly regret that he seems to suffer, but more like what we have all experienced at one point or another: grief over being caught and punished, not repentance. “Me miserable! which way shall I fly/ Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?/ Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell” (73-5). Yet he considers repentance in lines 79-80, and knows that it requires submission. But his pride is too great even now for that; he has too much to lose in front of all those who made him ruler of hell; he told them he was great enough to defeat God. And even if he could go back, be forgiven and reinstated, he knows it would never be genuine on his part. “For never can true reconcilement grow/ Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep:/ Which would but lead me to a worse relapse” (98-100). He arrives at this final conclusion: “Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost;/ Evil be thou my good…” (109-110).

Milton tells us that this inner discourse so affects Satan, that the disguise he has worn to worm his way into Paradise actually flickers, and Uriel—the angel who let him in—sees the shifting disguise. Unaware that he has been “seen through,” Satan enters Eden by leaping over the wall into the tree of life, and sits there, looking down and “…devising death…” (197). Here, Milton gives way to rapturous description of the most beautiful and perfect garden of gardens, and there, in the distance, his object: “…Two of far nobler shape erect and tall/ Godlike…” (88-9).

(Here, Milton takes a moment to describe a few things about these two people in this perfect place that appeal to OT hair-length laws and NT gender roles. It does make a person wonder if such things were in place–in practice only, of course–and the laws later were designed in reflection of perfection, or if it’s just an artist writing post-Fall, doing one’s best to be Biblical and describe the indescribable. But I digress.)

On the whole, the scene of man and woman in perfect union with the garden and the animals in it is so breathtaking that, for a moment, Satan forgets his purpose and is speechless. Shaking loose of his awe, he jumps from the tree and lands among the animals playing with Adam and Eve, taking the shape of several different creatures as he finds it necessary. Satan changes from lion, to tiger, and is preparing to pounce on these two perfect beings when Adam and Eve begin talking about their origin and Eden. Satan can barely stand their sweet conversation, and turns jealously away, but not before he learns that God has kept the tree of knowledge from them. “…do they only stand/ By ignorance, is that their happy state,/ The proof of their obedience and their faith?” (518-20). Now he knows exactly what he will tempt them with: knowledge, and doubt in God.  

Meanwhile, Uriel has gone to find Gabriel, and told him about the suspicious visitor, afraid that he is one of the fallen. Gabriel promises to find the unwelcome alien. So at the end of this day in the garden, Satan is touring, looking for a creature to help him, Gabriel is hunting Satan, and Eve is seeing the stars for the first time. Adam explains the night sky to her as we learn that this is the end of their very first day together. Yet even in their newness, Milton has already made sure that they have clear conversations about God’s expectations for them. There will be real deceit in this epic, not merely ignorance. So the two of them rejoice and praise God, and go to sleep.

Elsewhere, Gabriel is changing the watch, and sending out search parties. He sets a special watch where Adam and Eve are sleeping—and that’s exactly where they find Satan. He is in the shape of a toad, whispering into Eve’s dreams, having marked her as his target.

It’s one of the most famous moments in the epic; the angel Ithuriel sees the suspicious toad engrossed in his whisperings to Eve and pokes him in the backside–ever so slightly–with his spear. Satan’s very skin responds, “…for no falsehood can endure/ Touch of celestial temper, but returns/ Of force to its own likeness; up he starts/ Discovered and surprised” (811-4). With a jerk of surprise and no chance to recover, Satan is standing before the two angels—who are just as shocked to see him as he is them. Yet they don’t recognize him. Zephon tells him, “…thou resembles now/ Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul…” (839-40). Refusing to go until he has seen their commander, the devil is taken to Gabriel—and Gabriel knows him. It looks like there will be a fight, but God puts a sign in the heavens, making it clear that Satan will lose, and he flees.  

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 3/12)

As Book 3 begins, the reader is treated to another panorama: God the Father, the Son on his right, both looking down to Earth on “our first two parents, yet the only two/ of mankind, in the happy garden placed” (65-6). God the Father points out Satan, “coasting the wall of heaven on this side night” (71) and “Him God beholding from his prospect high/Wherein past, present, future he beholds/Thus to his only son foreseeing spake” (77-79).

Here as reader, I pause for a moment to try to understand Milton’s theology. God tells the Son that no bars or restraints can keep Satan in, which seems to indicate that Milton thinks God isn’t capable to doing so. Satan learned by experience in Book 1 that God was powerful enough to defeat him and his entire army—but Satan didn’t know that until it happened. His insufficient knowledge of God was his undoing. Had he believed defeat impossible, he never would have attempted it. Yet, in the beginning of Book 3, we have here that same peculiar paradox: God triumphant, yet unable to keep Satan in hell, yet fully aware that Satan is on his way to the fresh, clean creation, yet also aware that he will seduce and be the cause of it’s fall. This is where Philip Pullman interprets Satan as the sympathetic character; what kind of benevolent God would allow disaster to fall without stopping it, and then further, lay the blame on the one who fell? Pullman doesn’t find grace to be enough of a gift, and we might agree with him in this text unless you have others which better speak of grace. But I might note that this work is called Paradise Lost, and more centered on how it might have happened and the ones who have lost it rather than on the promise of gaining it back. To continue:

Milton writes in the voice of God (a task too large even for high poetry): “…they themselves decreed/Their own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,/Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault…They trespass, authors to themselves in all/ Both what they judge and what they choose; for so/I formed them free, and free they must remain…” (115-8, 122-4).  He tells the Son that man, in his fall, will find grace where Satan will not, because man was deceived; Satan was not. At this explanation of the gift of grace, Heaven rejoices.

God the Father goes on to explain his plan for grace, mercy, conscience and bringing the blind to the light, but then says that in spite of his desire to do this, man still must die, unless another will do so for him. He asks Heaven at large: “…Which of ye will be mortal to redeem/Man’s mortal crime, and just the unjust to save,/ Dwells in all heaven charity so dear?” (214-6). Heaven is silent; no one responds. Man, then, is doomed, until the Son answers. “…me for him, life for life/I offer, on me let thine anger fall…” (136-7). And all of this transpires while Satan is still winging his way toward Earth. A hundred hymns could be written from this third book, the conversation between Father and Son covering grace, redemption, freedom, free will, eternal life dwelling in the Son, the judgement day, and at one point a remark that “…hell her numbers full,/ Thenceforth shall be forever shut…” (332-3), indicating that perhaps Milton did in fact intend to communicate that Satan escaping hell was part of the eternal, if ineffable, plan. In fact, Milton writes a sort of hymn that the members of Heaven sing in exultant response to the Son’s gift of himself, as Satan alights on Earth.

Here, he finds the staircase ascending into Heaven that Jacob later sees in a dream, but of course, he cannot mount it. But beyond that, “…some renowned metropolis/ With glistening spires and pinnacles adorned…” (448-9). At the entrance, he encounters Uriel, one of the seven who stand in God’s presence. Satan pretends to be a member of the cherubim choir, only desiring to see this new creation of God’s. “So spake the false dissembler unperceived;/ For neither man nor angel can discern/ Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks/Invisible, except to God alone…” (681-4).

So Satan is admitted into Eden.

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 2/12)

By John Milton; introduction and academic notes by Philip Pullman; ISBN 978-0-19-955422-5

“Oh shame to men! Devil with devil damned firm concord holds, men only disagree of creatures rational, though under hope of heavenly grace: and God proclaiming peace, yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife among themselves, and levy cruel wars, wasting the earth, each other to destroy. As if (which might induce us to accord) man had not hellish foes enough besides, that day and night for his destruction wait” (496-505).

Satan speaks to the company of Hell: “…but who here/Will envy whom the highest place exposes/Foremost to stand against the thunderer’s aim/Your bulwark, and condemns to greatest share/Of endless pain? Where there is then no god/For which to strive, no strife can grow up there/From faction; for none sure will claim in hell/ Precedence, none, who portion is so small/Of present pain, that with ambitious mind/ Will covet more. With this advantage then/To union…” (26-35).

This is part of Satan’s reasoning as he opens conversation with his followers. No one, he argues, has a better cause for unity than they do, in their shared misery. But how should they proceed ? Molech describes them as “Heaven’s fugitives” (57) and argues further that as creatures which have nothing now to lose, even fear itself, another full assault on Heaven is called for. Belial persuasively and gracefully objects; now that they know their enemy’s immense power better, another attempt at armed coup seems futile; “ignoble ease and peaceful sloth” (227). Mammon is next, and agrees that war is pointless, and a return to worship the one that they hate, impossible. He suggests that they should “…rather seek/ Our own good from ourselves, and from our own/Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,/Free, and to none accountable…” (252-5).  

Belial and Mammon’s point of view is applauded loudly, until Beelzebub stands up to speak. He is stern, and Hell falls silent at his face. He reminds them that their enemy has not granted them a free place to roam; they are in a prison. “…be sure/In height or depth, still first and last will reign/Sole king, and of his kingdom lose no part/By our revolt, but over hell extend/His empire…” (323-7). Their fate is sealed, and they should not delude themselves by thinking they can change it. But then Beelzebub reminds them that a new place, and a new race were being planned. What if, “…To waste his whole creation, or possess/All as our own, and drive as we were driven/ The puny habitants, or if not drive,/ Seduce them to our party…” (365-8). He suggests this as a much better revenge; one that will strike just will it will hurt the Creator the most.

But to find this new world? Satan alone volunteers and sets out on a sort of hero’s journey to find it. When he finally reaches the gates of hell, he finds them guarded by Sin and Death (whose origins is a true horror story), and persuades them that he intends to free the both of them in his quest to find a new home to inhabit. So Sin opened the gates—though Milton tells us that she doesn’t have the strength to close them again—and Satan flies out…until he finds, in the distance, “…fast by hanging in a golden chain/This pendent world, in bigness as a star/ Of smallness magnitude close by the moon” (1051-3).

Paradise Lost: a book review series

By John Milton; introduction and academic notes by Philip Pullman; ISBN 978-0-19-955422-5

I will be reading and reviewing the second edition that Milton published in 1674. He reworked the piece from ten books to twelve and made a few minor revisions from his first edition. In this review series, I will be reading and writing about one book at a time.

Book 1/12

“The experience of reading poetry aloud…like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ…The sound is part of the meaning, and that part only comes alive when you speak it.” –P.P.

When Milton wrote that he intended to create “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (16), I think it’s fairly safe to say that he accomplished it, though it sets the bar pretty high, but to say so inside the work itself is brazen. There is no clip-clop or sing-song quality here, but a reader better have a fair background in the Bible as well as Greek mythology or a reference book nearby.

Book 1 lands the reader in the middle of the action in Hell. We are given a panorama of Satan’s downcast army, lying stunned in the lake of fire. Satan awakens first, and confers with his second in command, Beelzebub. It is they who have lost Paradise, for thinking they could overthrow God. He realizes—seemingly for the first time—how powerful God really is, to have defeated such an illustrious army. Satan promises that “…But ever to do ill our sole delight/As being the contrary to his high will/Whom we resist. If then his providence/ Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,/Our labour must be to pervert that end,/And out of good still to find means of evil” (160-5). Book 1, then, is really about Satan; he is our protagonist. It closes after he strides ashore and calls his army back to life, and their chief architect—having once designed the vaults of Heaven—builds them a palace wherin they plot their next move. They have heard that the Most High was planning to make a new race—how best to keep their new vendetta?

Pullman notes, then, that he personally is rooting for Satan’s success. How different from a religious reader, who sees the stories of the Bible as history. Pullman, a well-known atheistic writer, explains that this work inspired him to write his own series His Dark Materials, the very title itself coming from Book 2. The context of the reader does inspire understanding; it is an interesting juxtaposition of modern writer against John Milton.

We Turn Keys

We decided that we were going to write short stories.

An annual contest publishes the first and the last paragraph; contest writers must supply 18 paragraphs that fit neatly between them. That means, of course, that every story submitted will start and end the same way. It must be fascinating to read.

E and I decided to do it together.

We would each pursue the prompts in our own way, then take a look at each other’s work. We’d ask questions, poke squishy plot points, and encourage each other’s ideas into existence. We would not have the same story, but it would be a way of doing something long-distance together.

Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

There’s a lot of that going around right now; people figuring out how to be together when they can’t actually manage it in person. It’s not all ye-old-plague-related, but that has stimulated community creativity on the subject. If you’ve ever played an online game with someone you know, invisible to you and yet present, that’s kind of what we did. Oh right, E said that was confusing; I’ll try to come up with three different ways to say this…Ok, if she laughed at that comment then I’m on the right track. E was my test audience and an editor; a friend and a critic. It feels like what friendship is supposed to be. This is why, I suspect, we had The Inklings and The Detection Club, the Wolfe Pack and, I’m sure, others. We need creative fellowship.

It took us both about three days. An old axiom of writing is that the fewer words you have to write, the more time you will need to write them. Thank goodness we didn’t decide to write haiku. Short stories turn like a key; they require the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to actually practicing magic. I’ve written a fair number of them where I knew good and well that I had mispronounced that incantation. The darn tumblers wouldn’t turn and I had to abandon the effort. But this short story, whether it will be a winner of said contest or not, had magic in its ether. I liked it; it had promise. But E helped make it sparkle. She asked, poked, encouraged and texted late into the night and little by little, the key turned…

I will probably never be good enough as a writer to be truly independent, but I don’t think that’s the point or the goal. (Is there even such a thing?) While writing may always be an inherently lonely sort of work, that doesn’t mean the entire process is accomplished alone. Most frequently, it isn’t. And in some ways, it never will be. For the process to be complete, there must be readers or listeners invited in. And as I work, I will always need another to give me a little shove, a good boot, or a lit match, as the case may be. The longer I do this, the more I value the small writing community I have around me; people who haven’t stopped writing, making, building, creating.

Creativity isn’t born into empty space; it’s nudged into being by something else. Anything else. Sermons, movies, scenery, broken things, new things, lost things, tears, goodbyes, chaos, calm, offhand comments, intentional words, memes, jokes, insults, songs, poems, trees, clouds, children, empty playgrounds, walkers, coffins; all of them light fires of thought. We are inspired to build, to make, to write, to try.

E is one of my intentional people. Her photography, persistent writing, determined shepherding (I mean that literally; she has a growing flock), and forward motion encourage me to keep creatively moving forward, too. You need that, sometimes. It helps to know that you’re not crazy for still turning keys.

This is what it means to be a member of a body—or more colloquially, a member of a community. No one really works alone, and much is lost by pulling away from the whole. It takes effort and deliberation to be a meaningful member of something. It can be inconvenient and irritating when we are opposed, but how often do we inconvenience or irritate others? This is what it means to live with others when we cannot read their minds. It’s inevitable. It is the effort to understand that counts; the sweetly persistent, intentional trying.

We turn keys.

Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

Jesus Doesn’t Cancel Me

I have had an enormously encouraging recurring thought in the tumultuously political past few weeks:

Thank God that Jesus doesn’t cancel me.

In Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve ONE rule in a perfect world; they broke it. Surrounded by goodness, they just had to find out what was being kept from them. There is no doubt in my mind that if I were the Artist who had created the world, I would have called it a failed Round 1 and started over. But I’m not (thank goodness) and He didn’t. He promised Eve a redemption.

God didn’t cancel Adam and Eve.

When I think of the Apostle Paul, it gives me an odd sense of comfort to remember that this man was once a government-mandated murderer. He chased people down and had them executed because he thought their religion was false. The resurrected Jesus Himself met Paul on the road to show him he was wrong. Paul later became a martyr himself.

Jesus didn’t cancel a grossly erroneous Paul.

I next think of a nameless woman. I often wonder about her. She was married five times, and when Jesus met her, the guy she was living with wasn’t one of them. To the religious people of her day, she was anathema; avoided on the streets, at the local well, likely kept from many social gatherings. Jesus waited for her by a well specifically to talk to her.

Jesus didn’t cancel the woman by the well.

There is no forgiveness in the social medias. There is no room for growth or maturity; what is forgiven in person when a foolish high-schooler speaks is not forgiven when it is Tweeted and re-discovered ten years later. There is no forgiveness in a public interview, a public opinion, or a quote out of context. Even without proof, certain kinds of accusations are political and social death knells. But my God doesn’t only forgive me when I ask, for He does something else I cannot do and forgets what I have done against Him. He wants my reconciliation. He has given and gives me every chance to come.

The more broken the world is around us, the lovelier is the God of the Bible. He doesn’t constantly change His mind. He is utterly remarkable and unique in His forgiveness. He is completely perfect in His equity: all are under perfect justice for sin and all are offered forgiveness. We get to choose. Try reading the book of Romans. He doesn’t forgive me and then put my relationship with Him on trial, nor wait for me to perfect myself before He takes me back. He does not surgically remove me from Himself when I am unpleasant or downright toxic. Anyone can come to Him and be changed; everyone is welcome to His forgiveness and grace.  

Thank God He takes me as I am to make me better than I was.

Have You Ever Held a Rainbow?

Have you ever caught a rainbow?

Chased it around the room?

And wondered why

It keeps itself

So shyly back from you?

Basement Door.jpe

But what do you do with a rainbow?

When you can finally call it, “mine”?

Can you eat it or sell it?

Does it stay bright and fresh?

Or does it still fade with time?

Cabinet Door.jpe

Does the joy that it brought fade with it?

Or can memories build joy on delight?

To joy in its Maker

To delight in this chance

To hold this brief, flickering light?

Sink.jpe

Perhaps rainbows are simply meant

To be joyed in from afar

Not to be claimed

Just to say that they’re ours

But to enjoy them where they are.

Closet Door.jpe

Perhaps that is why they appear

On dark days after a rain

And haunt unlovely places

Grace unsought-after spaces

And bring smiles even through pain

Grate.jpe

I held a rainbow today

I really caught nothing at all

But I am smiling still

So I pass it along,

This shining memory so small…

Hand.jpe

I held a rainbow today.

Compassionate Correction

hanging lifesaver

Photo by Tobias Bjørkli on Pexels.com

I don’t remember much about the class I took with her that semester, but I do remember her. I was somewhere in my undergraduate years, and was coming back to school with a chip on my shoulder and a grudge sitting snugly inside of it. Over the break, someone had managed to hurt me in perhaps the most vulnerable place in my soul, but rather than make it right, I had decided that the thing to do was to settle into a life of despising the person who had hurt me. I arrived back at school in that condition. My teacher met me in a unfrenzied moment in the hallway and invited me into her office to catch up. She was one of those people who managed to know exactly the right questions to ask, and in minutes, my bitterness was dumped out on the desk between us.

What caught me completely off guard was her compassionate correction.

Had I been long-practiced in the twisted art of grudge-holding, I might have still held on, even while she leaned toward me, her voice soft but earnest, immediate tears standing in her eyes. But I was so taken aback by her intensity as she begged me to make it right that I couldn’t resist. Her argument of compassion was too persuasive. She told me in no uncertain terms that bitterness had no place in my heart even while her voice and her eyes told me she cared about me.

Maybe you memorized Hebrews 4:12 like I did as a kid. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. But that was the first time I ever experienced it with such suddenness. Her warm, loving, and swift correction cut me in half. As soon as I got out of her office, I ducked into a bathroom and cried. She was right. I had been ready to sacrifice at least one relationship and all other connected relationships because of a few misplaced words. Did they hurt? Yes. Was my response justified? My ego said yes, but I was ready to cause a crazily disproportionate amount of hurt to satisfy that ego. It was easier to hate someone for the rest of my life than it was to admit I was wrong. So God gave me a teacher who both knew how to love and how to correct.

I have thought of her often over the years since then. It is true that Jesus overturned the money changers’ tables in the temple in what people called righteous anger; it is true that sin does, and often should, make us angry. But He was perfect and angry simultaneously, and at least for myself, I find that seldom does the anger itself draw me to correction. I am repulsed by anger; I respond in kind. But compassion does draw me. When my teacher saw something really ugly inside of me, she didn’t go on a hunt, but a rescue mission.

When I think of compassionate correction, I also think of a certain Jewish man, sitting beside a well. It is blazingly hot; he needs a drink. In the custom of the day, he only needs to wait until someone comes along who has a pitcher to dip out water. But this is a Samaritan well, near a Samaritan city. Jews and Samaritans aren’t friends. So when a Samaritan woman comes to fill her pitcher, cultural bitterness dictates that he remain thirsty. But Jesus doesn’t particularly care about cultural mandates, and asks her for water. The request turns into a conversation; the conversation into a compassionate correction; the compassionate correction into a town gathering where lives are changed forever.

We like to correct people. Very often, if we are honest, correction ever-so-subtly points up our own superiority. If they are wrong, then we are right. Correction without compassion makes a whole lot of assumptions and just goes for the gut. It doesn’t ask questions; it doesn’t seek clarity; it doesn’t wonder gently and thoughtfully where that idea or word came from; it often doesn’t even bother to check whether or not its hearing was working. It is armored. It hunts.

But this compassionate correction of Jesus is restorative. It is on a rescue mission, and is ready to get hurt too, if it has too. It is patient and gentle, knowing how much wounds hurt. It doesn’t assume it knows all or understands, but inquires. This compassionate correction may have to do hurtful things like stitches and medicine and bandages. Rescues can hurt, too. But in the end, the object of this compassionate correction is healed, restored, and home. If this sounds suspiciously like a relationship, that’s because it is. It’s one-on-one. It takes time—maybe years. It’s not looking to gain anything, but looking instead to be spent. It is rarely (can I say never?) accomplished with one withering witticism. If rebuffed, it comes back again, and again, and again.

If we are not already awed by the love of Jesus, then we should be. He alone was fully justified to correct us all in one fell swoop. And yet He chose to correct us by compassion; to seek us in love and gently, kindly, earnestly call us home. And when we seek to practice this kind of compassion in the lives of others, we might just find that they return the correction in kind when we need it most.