Monday, November 25, 2013

Under the Family Tree

I often walk by this tree on the George Fox campus on the way to my office. Some mornings, when I'm thinking about what discussion questions to ask in my Intro to Literature class, I walk right past it, as if this magnificent tree didn't even exist. Other mornings, I notice the tree, taking the time to admire its striking size and symmetry, taking the time to pray, as Mary Oliver says, by paying attention.

Recently I was struck again by the breadth of the tree, the way its lower branches seem to have stretched ridiculously far in an attempt to cover as much space as possible.

The space underneath the tree's spreading branches looks inviting. There's just enough room for a person to stand under the tree--lots of people, in fact. It looks like it would be cozy under there, and perhaps on rainy Oregon mornings, it would be dry.

One morning last week as I approached the tree I had something like a vision. I saw my son under the tree. Well, I didn't literally see Jackson, but I imagined him. Right there. Standing under that tree.

But he wasn't alone. Standing next to him were people he, and I, know well. Some were family members; some were not related to us by blood. Some we had seen a week earlier at his wedding. Some we haven't seen in years. The people under the tree were various ages: some in their thirties, some in their fifties and sixties and eighties. Some of them are no longer living on this earth.

Jackson's grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles were there. His youth minister and a former pastor were there and couples from churches we attended when Jackson was growing up. His teachers were there as were his basketball and soccer coaches. Several of his college professors were under the tree. Two special couples who had boys close in age to Jackson and who helped us raise him were there.

I saw gathered under the tree all the people who have taken an interest in my son's life over the years. There they were, standing next to someone they loved and cared about. None of these people had to care and invest in Jackson's life and well being. But they did. I hope they know what a difference they've made. I hope they know that he would not be the person he is and we would not be the family we are today without their love.

In an essay I have my writing classes read, a mother with an adopted daughter says, "family is defined by bonds much deeper than birth, or skin color, or genetics. Like anyone lucky enough to experience 'found' love, I believe that family is defined only by the heart." Or to misquote Donne, no family is an island, entire of itself. Looking at those gathered under the tree, I knew what every parent knows eventually: you are not in this alone.

I'm grateful for the family tree--that its branches stretch wide and offer shelter to a diverse group. I'm thankful for the people underneath the tree. 

They all looked happy under there--cozy, solid, secure, sheltered, connected, loved. They seemed comfortable, next to my son, under the tree, standing there like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

What I Owe to Jack

November 22, 2013, was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jr. You may know that C. S. Lewis, the British literary scholar, popular apologist, and writer of fantasy fiction died on the same day, as did Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World. The day was also significant for followers of Lewis because the author was honored with a memorial in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner, his marker now sharing the space with those of writers like Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens, and Austen.

This honor is a welcome one, not just because Lewis deserves it based on the quantity and quality of his writing, but also because it provides validation for what a number of Lewis scholars have been saying and writing for years: Lewis was not simply a "popularizer" of the Christian faith; he was a writer of the first rank who made a significant contribution to modern letters in a variety of genres.

All this has caused me to reflect on and be grateful for the role that Jack, as he was called by his friends, has played in my own life, not only academically but personally. Specifically, three areas come to mind for which I'm particularly grateful.

His Christian Intellectualism

Lewis was the first Christian author I encountered who did not make me feel I needed to check my intellect at the church door. I grew up in a church environment that often felt decidedly anti-intellectual. Certain books and ideas were off-limits, or at least considered dangerous. Occasionally someone would question why we even needed to read books other than the Bible--maybe some commentaries, as long as they were written by members of our group, but that should be sufficient.

In Lewis, I found someone unafraid to tackle any concept or idea, whether it was the validity of religions other than Christianity or the efficacy of petitionary prayer. His willingness to examine and analyze ideas fearlessly convinced me that Christian faith and the life of the mind were not mutually exclusive categories.

His Belief in the Primacy of the Imagination

The first book of Lewis's I ever read was Mere Christianity, and it was life changing, giving me a new and more inclusive vision of spirituality and the church than I had yet encountered. Lewis's apologetic books were so influential for me that when it came time to select a dissertation subject, I chose to focus on his nonfiction works including Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves rather than on his fictional works like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Screwtape Letters.

But if you ask me today which Lewis books I treasure most, I'll likely mention his fictional works, especially Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces.

What fascinates me about Lewis's fiction is the power and range of his imagination, the way he can create and populate other worlds, bring talking animals to life in a believable way, and illuminate a spiritual concept through a well-crafted metaphor. In fact, what I learned from reading Lewis's fiction I was able to apply to the apologetics. As I realized when studying Mere Christianity years after my first reading of the book, Lewis uses imagination, not only in his fiction, but also in his nonfiction. To give one example, in Mere Christianity, he uses toy soldiers coming to life and a child's dress up game to illustrate theological concepts. As Michael Ward said in a recent article, Lewis believed that imagination precedes reason and that clear thinking is not even possible without the power of imagination.

His Authentic Life

One of the joys of making C. S. Lewis the focus of my modest scholarly agenda over the years has been the opportunity (or the excuse) to read about his life. While Lewis himself described his life as boring, I've always found him to be an engaging human being.

He wasn't perfect, by any means. For example, his attitudes toward women, as Dorothy Sayers noted, were often silly at best and misogynistic at worst. 

But from what I've been able to discern he really tried to lead a life consistent with the principles of the faith as he understood them. He was a generous man, who spent most of the money he made from his books on charity, often on people he knew personally who needed help. He was loyal to his friends. He promised Paddy Moore, his British army buddy, that he would take care of Paddy's mother and sister if anything happened in the war, and he did, caring for Mrs. Moore until the end of her life--often at great sacrifice of his own time and professional responsibilities. He was a loving brother to Warnie, even when he had to make yet another late night trip to the pub to help Warnie home after one of his drinking binges. And in spite of profound differences with Tolkien on how fantasy stories should be written and other issues, the two remained lifelong friends and supporters of each other's writing.

The play and movie Shadowlands have contributed to an overemphasis on the last few years of Jack's life, especially his romance with Joy Davidman Gresham. But I still love the story, and I appreciate that Lewis followed his heart and married the divorced Joy when members of his church and many of his best friends and his brother advised him not to. The romance did Lewis a lot of good including widening his view of women's roles and capabilities and inspiring him to write Till We Have Faces, his personal favorite of all his fiction and one that features a female first person narrator.

Over the years my appreciation for Lewis as an author has not diminished--but it has morphed. The qualities of his thought and writing I value today are different ones than I valued in my twenties. The certainty of his tone and detailed, step-by-step logic are less attractive to me now than his personal tone, his confessions of doubt and spiritual struggle, and his flights of imagination. I've also discovered other authors whose work and thought are more reflective of where I am on my spiritual  journey these days--Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver, to name a few. Yet, having said that, if you think I'm not extremely grateful for the life and works of C. S. Lewis, then you don't know me--and you don't know Jack.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Wedding Toast for My Son

April Scott and Jackson Tandy, November 9, 2013

 To April and Jackson:

As Jackson’s parents, we knew early on that our son was the adventurous sort. He’s always been up for a new experience and a new challenge. There was the time, for example, when he leapt off the porch with a triumphant yell in imitation of his favorite superhero—only to land in the bushes and get pretty scratched up. Whenever we would take Jackson and Garrison to a playground, the other kids would be playing on the slides and monkey bars while our boys climbed on top of the play structure. Then there was the time I walked out of my class at Cascade College, heard a voice above my head, and looked up to find Jackson perched high in a tree by the soccer field.

In addition to adventure, another word I associate with Jackson is wonder. He’s always had a capacity to be influenced by the outdoors and by nature. He doesn’t just look at the creation; he experiences it, soaks it in, and revels in it, not only seeing it but seeing himself as part of it. Often he writes beautifully about those experiences.                                                                                 

The third word I associate with Jackson is community. All his life he’s had the ability to seek out good people and form communities. His first, built in, community was our family of five, and as a parent, I’m so grateful that Julia, Jackson, and Garrison have always been, not only brother and sister, but also good friends. As time went on, Jackson began to collect brothers from other mothers—first, Kyle and Joel, then Landon, then Nick, then Ean, then Michael, and Brad, and Evan, and Chris, and Dylan, and the list goes on. And he also collected new sisters along the way: Danna, and Abby, and Cori, and Saryl, and Deborah, and that list could go on as well. Everywhere Jackson has lived—from Portland to Oklahoma City, to Ketchikan, to Juneau, to Asheville, to Wrightwood—he has been a part of amazing communities with members too numerous to mention. The fact that so many members of those communities have made the trip to Joshua Tree is testimony to the closeness and enduring nature of those bonds.

And I believe in April, Jackson's found someone who shares his love of adventure, wonder, and community (though I'm thinking she has more sense than to dive off the porch headfirst pretending to be wonder woman). So my toast is this: April and Jackson, I wish you a long, happy life together. May you continue to pursue adventure, may you continue to stay close to and be one with this good earth, and may you continue to seek out and form communities of good, caring, and fun people who bring peace and joy to your lives.