I recently finished my first Agatha Christie novel, after hearing my whole life about how good her mysteries are. Yes, it was good. At one point or another I thought almost every character was the murderer. The plot kept twisting through the pages in such unexpected ways that I had no choice but to check out of reality for the rest of the day in order to find out what happened. Good thing it was my day off.
One of the wonderfully frustrating things that I love and hate about books is that they take a long time to get through. A movie is fast—the action carries me along to a conclusion in a matter of hours. A book is slow (compounded for me by my slow reading pace), leaving me in suspense for ages while I wade through details and conversations and descriptions to find the next big revelation. In that sense, a book is a little more like real life, where the action doesn’t happen in a quick succession that always ties up neatly just before the credits. Real life is full of pauses—evenings and mornings and dirty dishes. A book that takes multiple days to read allows me to live inside the story longer, to enter further into the feelings of the characters who are living through the unknown. For a few days, I’m living there with them. And while a movie is always viewed from a third-person perspective, in a book I can think the characters’ thoughts with them. I can see the plot twists unfold through their eyes. Which feels familiar, because it’s how I see the plot twists unfold in my own life.
When we moved to Ireland, we were cold all the time. Our bodies were used to heat, and for all the truly wonderful things Ireland has to offer, it simply doesn’t come with that feature. There’s a reason the Romans called this island “Hibernia”, the “land of winter”. But unlike the Romans, we stuck around. At first, we got funny looks from our neighbours because we wore coats even when they were breaking out their shorts. Over time, though, we acclimatised. Now we say “It’s roasting”, and mean it, on days we used to describe as chilly. Our temperature scale really is different. Once, when we visited America, one of our young children asked me, greatly concerned: “Dad—I’m getting wet? On my forehead..?” He didn’t know about sweat yet. He didn’t know that I grew up in sweat. When he walks out the door into an Irish summer, he doesn’t hit a wall of heat and humidity, and neither do I anymore. We’re Hibernians now.
A few weeks ago, I posted a poem about an oak tree. In the poem, and in my mind, oak trees are big, spreading trees with thick trunks and impressive reach. They are a picture of solid stability, untouched by passing storms. Which sounds nice, doesn’t it? With Ireland now entering another full lockdown for at least the next six weeks, the ability of oak trees to stand unshaken in a turbulent world is enviable. Right now things look awfully unsteady, from where I’m sitting.
A man said to his two sons, “I need you to do a job for me”. One son said “no”, the other son said “yes”—but that’s not how it happened. In fact, the son who said “no” changed his mind and did the job, while the son who said “yes” got involved in something else and never followed through.
It’s a simple story, told by Jesus in Matthew 21, and the point is clear: making the right noises is good, but doing the right thing is better. It’s a point our human hearts need reminding of, and often. Our world is obsessed with words, impressed by words, drowning in words. As someone who enjoys writing, I take great delight in finding the right phrase and spinning it around until I find just the right way to turn it. But no matter how hard I work at this, I have to admit: it’s always easier to find words for ideas than it is to act on them. It’s easier to write a love song than it is to genuinely give yourself for the good of another person. It’s easier to rail against the proud and greedy than it is to stop being those things myself. It’s easier to say “consistency is key in raising children” than it is to be consistent while raising actual children. In almost every area of life, it’s easier to say the right thing than it is to do the right thing.
I’ve always loved poetry as a medium, always felt that somehow the structure and rhythm of it helps me feel the impact of the meaning of the words more deeply. Maybe that’s why there is so much poetry in the Bible. This year I’ve enjoyed trying out the added layer of doing poetry as spoken word. It’s obviously homemade, but here’s my attempt at capturing a few thoughts about legacy:
Birthday cakes are hard work. First there’s the planning, the choosing of flavours and decorations to match the one being celebrated. Then the time comes and there’s the baking, decorating, lighting, singing, and finally eating. Hopefully someone remembered to snap a photo, because once the knife goes in, the culinary work of art is quickly dispersed to paper plates and plastic forks that were created to be used just once, before going to fill the rubbish bin.
I didn’t wash many dishes in our first years of marriage, but I felt quite proud of every one of them. I could scrub one pot in a week and bask in the glory of my goodness. For some reason, my wife didn’t feel the same awe at my occasional fits of kindness. For some reason, I didn’t understand why.
These days, I do dishes. I don’t keep track of how many, and I no longer feel the same way about them. They need to be done—it’s only fair. Even though I’m doing more, I feel less proud of it. This summer, I read a story by George MacDonald that helped me understand why:
When I was five or six, my family joined a small group who were looking to start a new church on the south side of town. I don’t remember much about the earliest stages but I do remember the years we spent meeting in a shopping centre. First it was the gym, and we had to cover the wall of mirrors with paper and I remember my Sunday school teacher telling us not to play on the weight benches. Sometimes the children got to decorate the paper, which was fun. Later, one of the buildings in the centre became available and we leased it for ourselves. Inside, we had a grand piano. I don’t remember how we got it, but we were proud of it, and proud of the lady who played it so well. We did love to sing.