Art and the Narrow Road

I am a visualizer. I’m not an artist, but I’ll concede the fact that I am a little artsy.  

I wonder if this is why I love the narrative parts of scripture most. I can picture them more easily. Rules and precepts, not so much. This is also why I love the parables (and love Jesus even more deeply for telling them). They are the wine made out of water. The hard, linear lines of law coaxed into a story. A speech transcribed onto an artist’s canvas.

I’m not an artist, but I did love fifth grade art. That’s when I learned about one-point perspective. I drew countless versions of city streets, country lanes, and even our driveway, with two lines of buildings or trees that vanished into a tiny point on the horizon. These pencil drawings felt like, to me, a magical take on the way things looked in real life.

i point pers 5th 005

Perspective reconfigures reality. If I stand on a mossy stepping-stone in the suburbs of Vancouver and look at Mount St. Helens in the distance, the flagstone under my feet appears larger than the mountain in the distance. Way larger. I can make a circle with my thumb and forefinger and fit Mount St. Helens in the circle. Perspective makes the distant small and the near large. And it does it without our permission, like gravity. Thus we never question it.

But maybe there are times when we should. Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, who surely understood perspective, decided to make a point by ignoring it altogether. He drew a picture of the kingdom that defied the way things normally look:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 6:13-14)

The kingdom doesn’t start large and end with a tiny vanishing speck on the horizon. It doesn’t make sense visually. It is inside out. It starts out narrow and wends its way into wideness. If you’re wondering what on earth I’m talking about, I drew it in my journal:

narrow way

I’m not clear yet on what this utter inversion of a visual law means, but I am clear on the fact that Jesus, as maker of all laws, can break them anytime he wants. I don’t know how to draw this inside-out kingdom, but I can rest assured that he knows how.

I do know how to apply this in my writing. I pass ideas and words and visions through a narrow truth-gate. God’s truth. Life truth. My truth. If they don’t fit through, I whittle them till they do, or I smelt them, or I may even discard them. It’s a painful process. It feels all wrong sometimes, because I wrongly believe creativity should have no boundaries. But real creativity has the slenderest of boundaries. Ringing true is a tight fit. Once I subject my creative work to this thin canal, passing it like a ship through a series of locks, it gets to the ocean. It sails. And despite the sweat on my brow, it suddenly feels effortless. 

But Jesus was talking about his kingdom. He, himself, is the gate. That’s what’s narrow about it. And once we pass through him—that slender vanishing point on the horizon that the Father has brought miraculously, incarnationally to the forefront—the road opens up into a wideness and richness called “abundant life.” And that life isn’t narrow in any sense of the word.

Walk Backward Toward Me, Please

I used to worry a little about Noah back in my I-don’t-drink-because-I-might-offend-someone days. What was up with that drunken episode in Genesis 9? I wasn’t comfortable with my favorite Bible character in the tarnished hero role. The first time I noticed Noah’s antediluvian bender on the pages of scripture, it felt like reading in the news that Billy Graham had gotten a DUI.

Well into his retirement centuries, Noah discovered a new hobby. He planted the very first vineyard and grew the very first cultivated grapes.[1] One thing led to another and he ended up discovering fermentation. And so Noah became the first drinker of the first wine. How could he possibly have known his limit?

I imagine that Noah got tipsy enough on his new invention to think, “This is good stuff! I think I’ll drink more.” Sloppy, falling down drunkenness followed, and somewhere in the process there was a wild dance of flinging off robes and wraps and sandals. And then—uncovered—Noah slept it off. It’s a disturbing picture. For the squeamish, it may be helpful to note that, as far as we know, Noah never did that again. But Noah’s intoxication is not the point of the story. In fact, Noah isn’t the main character in this story at all. His sons are.

Noah’s middle son, Ham, entered the scene and immediately became aware that his father was, shall we say, indisposed. Naked as the pair of jaybirds on the ark. The focus of Noah’s shame wasn’t his drunkenness at all. It was his nakedness. This wasn’t Eden, therefore the dress code called for clothes.

Then Ham did something that—on the surface—made sense. He looked at his father. There are no adverbs to describe how he looked; it just says he looked. Whenever I read this passage now, I instinctively avert my eyes. I don’t look. Drunk old man with no clothes on, no thank you. I have a shadowy sense of Noah’s snoring presence inside the dark recesses of his tent, but I have the decency not to look. But Ham did. He looked and then he told. He went to his brothers and told them what he saw. This simple act incurred his father’s wrath. I used to feel sorry for Ham because I was never quite sure why he got in so much trouble. Noah was the one who got drunk and took his clothes off after all. Ham just reported what he saw.

Shem and Japeth, Noah’s two other sons, listened to Ham and took a garment—think folds of heavy fabric or more likely animal skin, almost like a curtain—laid it across their shoulders from behind, walked backwards into the tent, careful not to look, and laid it over their father. When he woke, Noah cursed Ham and he commended Shem and Japeth.

I think this might be how it all went down:

Ham lifts the flap of his father’s tent and enters (door knocking hadn’t been invented yet). He calls out a greeting to Noah and, as his eyes adjust to the dark, he hears a heavy snore. Ham mutters under his breath:

“Sleeping in the middle of the day! All Dad cares about now are those stupid grapes. He leaves all the real work for us. Mainly for me.”

The sour smell of wine nearly knocks him over. Then he takes note of his father’s condition. He doesn’t recognize inebriation—how could he when it had never occurred before?—he just sees Noah sprawling there au naturale. I don’t know if he went so far as to sneer or snicker, but I can guess he didn’t consider giving his father the benefit of the doubt or offering him any assistance. He runs and finds his brothers. He tattles. Rats out his own father.

Did Shem and Japeth scold their middle brother for being disrespectful? Did they have a conference to determine the best course of action? I don’t know. But they didn’t look and they didn’t tell. They gently, gingerly covered the problem and walked away from it. Ham took it upon himself to observe his father’s fault and commented about that fault to others. Shem and Japeth took great pains to avoid looking at the very same fault. They not only didn’t comment, they did their father the favor of covering his shame. 

Sometimes the stories in the Bible can leave me detached, my imagination hovering somewhere over a Middle Eastern hillside in pre-history. I trivialize the familiar stories, whittling men like Noah down until he is nothing more than a hand-carved wooden doll in a wooden ark, a child’s toy rather than a real man.

But this story disturbs me. It trespasses into scenes from my own life. I know what it’s like to be Noah, to feel the pain of exposure when others are less than gracious with my naked faults. And I know what it’s like to be Ham, to stumble into the tents of people who uncover their humanness and unwittingly offer me a scandalous glimpse. I am privy to the weak moments of my friends, my leaders, and my family. I watch others mess up. I see them fall. Haven’t we all, like voyeurs, peeked at the bare-naked sin of others? I recognize it, of course, because it looks like mine. The nakedness I see may be subtle and socially acceptable, but it is just that: nakedness. Human beings made vulnerable by exposed sin. And what do I do? Do I look and tell like Ham, or, like Shem and Japeth, do I walk backwards with a covering?

I admit I have an insidious tendency to look and to tell. I am Ham. Looking makes me feel superior. Telling makes me feel wise. I hate gossip, but I figure out ways to do it anyway; sharing “prayer requests” or “concerns.” Or I just don’t stop my mouth until my tongue becomes the flamethrower James warns us about. But that’s just the tip of the tent flap. Look inside my life and you’ll see more than this. You’ll see enough unclothed sin to fill a centerfold. It turns out that I, a pathological un-coverer, am in desperate need of a covering myself.

I’m thankful this story is more than a cautionary tale about gossiping. Much more. It tells me the gospel. God doesn’t just cover my sin; he blankets my shame with a thick quilt of grace. He walks backward toward me and lays it over me. Then something really miraculous happens. The grace-cloak becomes a royal robe, and I become downright regal. This covering gives me a flint-like determination to become a Shem or a Japeth, to cease being a Ham. That’s what grace does. It gives substance to our resolves, the very resolves that, in failing them, lead us back to the keen awareness of our need of grace. I want to walk backwards toward others, to carry the covering of God’s grace on my shoulders to them because I have been the recipient of that grace.

I know there will be days when I am once again a Ham, when I forget to be a Shem or a Japeth. But when that happens, I know my Lord will come into my tent and cover me just like Noah’s sons covered him.

And so, I raise a glass—just one—to Noah: “Cheers, my brother. And thank you, thank you so very much.”

[1]Genesis 9:20: “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.” (HCS)

What Does Racial Healing Look Like?

A Georgia State Senator recently filed Senate Resolution 28, a statement of “remorse” over our state’s part in slavery. Detractors argue that it is too little too late, that it lacks heft because it doesn’t use the word “apologize.” Supporters hope Georgia will finally do what other Southern States have done and officially acknowledge the grave errors of our past.

Which has got me to wondering about racial healing. What does it really look like? A legislative action?

I wonder how we heal. Or, in my own experience, how I have healed. How have my relationships and my attitudes healed? How have I evolved from a white, privileged, suburban (I don’t live there now, but I grew up there) woman with a confusing legacy of racial open-mindedness in a world that looked just like Jackson, Mississippi, in The Help into a… well, I’m not sure what I am except that I am not that anymore.

Several years ago Bill and I went to the MLK Center in our city for the first time. And we marveled that we’d never paid any attention to this treasure. The first thing we did, as the compliant museum-goers we are, was watch a short film about Dr. King’s life that left me in tears, even though I knew most of the story and had read most of the quotes that flashed on the screen. As I made my way out of our row, a Black woman about my age stopped in the aisle and looked at me. I glanced back and smiled at her. She took a step toward me and I took a step toward her. We embraced.

Actually, she grabbed me in a bear hug, released me, and said, “The just seemed like the appropriate thing to do.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. We talked and discovered we were, indeed, the same age. She wanted me to know she had never had any rancor toward my race. I told her about bussing in Nashville in the ‘60s. She told me about integration in her hometown. We formed a little friendship right there.

Is that what racial healing looks like? A high school reunion?

Around fifteen years ago Bill pastored a somewhat racially mixed church in a thoroughly racially mixed community. We hosted a “racial reconciliation” group in our home. We read a different book each month, watched a different movie, and had discussions. It was nice.

Is that what racial healing looks like? A seminar?

I’m sure these things—laws passed, embraces, discussions—have helped us to heal. But if I look at my own life, there is one element that has all but erased the scars of the past.

Leadership. I’m not talking about a white man or woman leading the way in racial harmony. I’m talking about a black man or woman leading white men and women. The church has had a lot to say on the race issue. Too little to say and way too late as far as I am concerned. We’ve made statements that sound a lot like the resolutions our lawmakers have passed. We’ve held discussions and we’ve even embraced. But in all of these efforts we are the leaders.

My husband is a former pastor who now follows a majority black leadership. Given our age and our backgrounds, we find this healing. I honestly don’t think our pastors, Dhati, John, or Muche have a clue what this does for us. We don’t follow them because they are black. We didn’t join our church to make a racial statement. We follow them because of who they are and how they lead and where they lead us. But for the first time in our lives, we are not the dominant people in the room. We are not the culture-setters. We are not the value architects. We are not the teachers or the counselors or the leaders. We are not even peers. We are the followers.

Maybe that’s the best kind of healing. You look up one day and discover the wounds are gone.