Worse Than Being Pursued

For everyone who has ever doubted the force of His love, this is for you. Very few things have ever really “changed my life.” This is one of them.

From a sermon on Communion, this is Kierkegaard:

“‘Love (Christ’s love) covers a multitude of sins.’

“And is it not true that you have felt that, and precisely today, for a love that can cover your sins–therefore you are indeed going up today to the Lord’s altar. For while it is only too true what Luther says, that every human being has a preacher within him who eats with him, drinks with him, wakes with him, sleeps with him, in short, is always about him, always with him, wherever he is, whatever he does, a preacher who is called flesh and blood, lusts and passions, habits and inclinations–so it is also certain that in the inmost recesses of every human being’s heart there is a confidant that is just as scrupulously present everywhere: the conscience. A person can perhaps succeed in hiding his sins from the world; he can perhaps foolishly rejoice in his success, or yet, a little more truthfully, admit that it is a sorry weakness and cowardice that he does not have courage to become open–but a person cannot hide from himself.

“… whoever you are, even if you are, humanly speaking, almost pure and innocent–when this privy preacher preaches to you in your inner being, then you too feel what others perhaps feel more dismayingly, you feel a need to hide yourself; and even if you were told thousands of times and thousands of times again that it is impossible to find this hiding place, you still feel the need. Oh that I knew how to flee to a deserted island where no human being ever came or comes; oh that there were a place of refuge where I could flee, far away from myself; that there were a hiding place where I am so hidden that not even the consciousness of my sin can find me; that there were a boundary, even if ever so narrow, if it still makes a separation between my sin and me; that on the other side of a yawning abyss there were even a spot, even if ever so small, where I could stand while the consciousness of my sin must remain on the yonder side; that there were a forgiveness, a forgiveness that does not make the sense of guilt be increased but truly takes the guilt from me, also the consciousness of it; that were an oblivion!

“But now it is indeed so; for love (Christ’s love) hides a multitude of sins. See, everything has become new! What in paganism was sought and sought in vain, what under dominion of the law was and is a fruitless endeavor, the Gospel made possible. At the altar the Savior spreads His arms and precisely for the fugitive who wants to flee from what is even worse than being pursued, flee from what rankles. He opens His arms and says, ‘come here to Me’; and that He opens His arms already says ‘come here’; and that He opening His arms says ‘come here’ also says: ‘Love hides a multitude of sins.’

“He covers your sin quite literally, precisely because He hides it with His death… If justice were then to fly into a rage, what more does it want than the death penalty; but it has indeed been paid, His death is your hiding place. What infinite love!… He gives you Himself as a hiding place. Oh secure hiding place for the sinner… especially after first having learned what it means when the conscience accuses, and the law judges, and justice punitively prosecutes, then, exhausted to the point of despair, to find rest in the only hiding place that is to be found!

“Oh believe Him! Could you think the One who opens His redeeming arms to you, could you think Him guilty of wordplay, think Him guilty of using a meaningless phrase, think Him capable of using a meaningless phrase, think Him capable of deceiving you, and just at that moment–that He could say ‘come here,’and at the moment you then came here and He held you in His embrace, that it would then be as if you were taken prisoner; for here, precisely here there would be no oblivion, here with the Holy One! No, this you could not believe; and if you did believe it, you would certainly not come here–but blessed is the one who quite literally believes that love (Christ’s love) hides a multitide of sins. For a loving person, yes, even if it were the most loving, can lovingly judge with leniency, lovingly shut his eyes to your sins–oh but he cannot shut your eyes to them. By loving speech and sympathy he can try to mitigate your guilt also in your own eyes and to that extent, as it were, hide it from you, or to a certain degree more or less hide it from you–oh, but actually to hide it from you, so that it is hidden like what is hidden at the bottom of the sea and that what was red like blood becomes whiter than snow… and you yourself dare to believe yourself justified and pure–that only He can do, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose love hides a multitude of sins. A human being has no authority, cannot command you to believe, and just by commanding with authority help you to believe. But if authority is required even to teach, what authority, if possible greater than the One that commands the rough sea to be calm, what authority is required for commanding the despairing person, the one who in the agony of repentance cannot and dare not forget, the contrite person who cannot and dare not stop staring at his guilt, what authority is required for commanding him to shut his eyes, and what authority for then commanding him to open the eyes of faith so that he may see purity where he saw sin and guilt! The divine authority He alone has, Jesus Christ, whose love hides a multitude of sins.”

“Therefore my Lord and Savior, You whose love hides a multitude of sins, when I am quite sensible of my own sin and the multitude of my sins, when before justice and heaven there is only wrath over me and over my life, when on earth there is only person I hate and detest, one person I would flee, even if it were to the ends of the earth, in order to avoid myself–then I will not begin the futile attempt that surely only leads either deeper into despair or to madness, but I will flee at once to You, and You will not deny me the hiding place you have lovingly offered to all; You will screen me from the eyes of justice, rescue me from this person and from the recollection with which he tortures me; and You will help me dare… to remain in my hiding place… [for] it is not some grounds of consolation [You give], not a doctrine [You communicate], no [You give Yourself.]”

Kiekegaard, Soren, Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 1974.

The Things They Carried: A Book Review

“Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that, but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane.”

Author Tim O’Brien was young when he went to war; “twenty-one years old, an ordinary kid with all the ordinary dreams and ambitions;” a self-avowed lover of “baseball and hamburgers and cherry Cokes” with a degree in one hand and a draft notice in the other. So he packed up his fears alongside his politics and O’Brien went to war. But when a bullet cut short his tour of duty, hand grenades gave way to graduate work at Harvard. Eventually, O’Brien settled into life and love and the field of journalism, though the war was never far from mind.

“In ordinary conversation I never spoke much about the war, certainly not in detail, and yet ever since my return I had been talking about it virtually nonstop through my [my stories]… Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me…”

To O’Brien, the story is the thing; the conduit of the deeper meaning. For him, stories offered a way to save or to resurrect, or maybe just protect something vital that was ebbing away. It’s certainly not a new thought. Nathan used an allegory to un-deceive a king; Hamlet used a play to un-deceive a court. Jesus Himself was a master storyteller. O’Brien? He preferred war stories; it was what he knew.

20120727-040502.jpg But human stories are slippery things at times; a strange configuration of fact and layers of emotion; war stories all the more so. “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles are skewed… the pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. … In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond the telling.”

Stories explain what words never can; they convey thoughts and images that might otherwise fall as so many more listless facts. But stories make us care. They engage the heart and mind and woo the emotions. Stories chase us out of ourselves and (Lord willing) into the arms of grace. And isn’t that one great errand of an author?

“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

“Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

“Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

“What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

“I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.”

The title of the book leaned heavily on the process of metaphor. “The things they carried” became the imagery of the burdens borne by soldiers and veterans alike. But O’Brien eased into his subject, beginning first with the tangible and working toward the abstract.

“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity”; partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.” “What they carried varied by mission” and “unweighed fear.” “The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good luck pebble. Dave Jenson carried a rabbit’s foot.”

And then there were the ghosts; “they all carried ghosts.”

“They carried the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place,the soil… They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.”

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.”

“… and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.”

O’Brien’s characters were alive. Alive with pain and pathos and all the repugnance of men at their worst. But here too, the reader is made to feel the weight of the things soldiers carry; as if the author reached out through the pages, pointing pen and paper and that terrible, accusing truth, “So you think you would have been so different?”

Describing the first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross, O’Brien said, “he carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.” But the lieutenant carried something else he never really cared to discuss: the dead weight of unrequited love.

“… Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline, precisely where the land touched water at high tide, where things came together but also separated. It was this separate-but-together quality, she wrote, that had inspired her to pick up the pebble and to carry it in her breast pocket for several days, where it seemed weightless, and then to send it through the mail, by air, as a token of her truest feelings for him. Lieutenant Cross found this romantic. But he wondered what her truest feelings were, exactly,and what she meant by separate-but-together… Martha was a poet, with the poet’s sensibilities… and though it was painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon. He imagined a pair of shadows moving along the strip of sand where things came together but also separated. It was phantom jealousy, he knew, but he couldn’t help himself. He loved her so much. On the march through the hot days of early April, he carried the pebble in his mouth, turning it with his tongue, tasting sea salt and moisture. His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war. On occasion he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing.”

But the weight of the love that Jimmy carried had cost a man his life, and though he buried the pebble and her picture and his own heart too, the sadness was a thing Jimmy carried all his days.

Stylistically, the author is a master. Intensely introspective and pulsing with the instinct that makes writing come alive. O’Brien is a master of juxtaposition and startling collocation, whose writing style is full of “elastic silence” and the feel of the “tongue against the truth.” “… when you [listen] to one of his stories, [you] find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.”

See what I mean? Masterful.

Do not be deceived: this is a book about war. If, according to O’Brien’s summation, “… you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil,” “The Things They Left Behind” fairly skirted both. Yet for every instance of harshness or vulgarity, O’Brien returned a softer voice — “a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness”. It was a softness that made me strain to listen — really listen — with my whole heart. “He wished he could’ve explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be. The distinction was important.”

From the vantage point of retrospect and an over-stuffed armchair, it’s easy to decide for truth. For justice. For the American way. But on the battlefield things are different because, “for the common soldier, at least, war has the feel — the spiritual texture — of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity… and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.”

And ambiguity is a camping place the author rather liked. O’Brien shied away from absolutes, it is true, but truth can be gleaned nonetheless. The truth that courage is not the culmination of a lifetime, but distilled in the moments that make up a lifetime (Ephesians 6:13; Proverbs 24:16). That subjective truth is really no truth at all; that propaganda inflames emotion but truth invites the mind (Proverbs 8-9).

To be sure, Tim O’Brien never once claimed to be a Christian. The book is simply not written that way. It is gritty, intense, and downright disturbing, and so it is not for everyone. I closed the pages with an almost reverent air, as if I had been trusted to gaze at the soul of a terrible grief. Even now, days later, the stories persist; one does not fall into the rhythms of life without remembering, without lingering at the edge of something profound. I suppose that’s what O’Brien meant when he said, “in a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.'”