Vol 3, Num 9 :: 2004.04.23 — 2004.05.06
David bared himself before the Israelites. The whole world was his, because the Ark of the Covenant was his, because the God of the Ark was his. The fixity of things was unfixed and restored, and David bared himself before the world. David was king, and, minus a wife with no need for dancing, the world was good.
One month before this fixture, an envoy approaches the king, timid but trusting, and delivers some unsettling words: the enemy is back. The king bares his brow on the lad, fixes him with a grin, and says, “If there is no enemy, then I am either mad or living in a madhouse.” 1
David and his mighty men, as the lord of Judean hills only, are no worry to the Philistines, but David and his mighty men, as the lord of Mt. Moriah and all lands north and south, are worrisome indeed. In this country, the land makes the man, and the Philistines fear such might. King David is fully aware of the enemy, but enemy cannot displace calling, especially that calling bound in covenant.
As sundown approaches, the Israelites are calling their families together for eating, and the King of Israel is approaching his God. Abiathar hands David the ephod, and David inquires of his God, “Shall I go up against the Philistines? And wilt thou give them into my hand?” Such humility for a slayer of giants. Like filtered thunder, Yahweh answers, “Go up, for I will give them into your hand.” 2
That evening, the uncircumcised Philistines stand behind rocks and in caves, pissing with their left hands and gripping their uncircumcised gods with their right, and they are not afraid. The waters and the taunts spill through their camp the night-long, and they boast about the morning, when they will gather their swords into their sheaves, strap on their grieves, and prepare to desecrate Israel. They will look down on the Valley of Rephaim, and their mouths will water at the spoil that lie before them, and at the valley that their gods will call home. A Philistine officer paces to the east side of the ridge, peers to his right and left, ducks off behind a crag, and drops his garments. Before the water hits the ground, an Israelite sword lops off his foreskin, and the mighty men of Israel spill into the Philistine camp like the rain of seven seasons. David and his men storm into their camp and hack everything that smells of desecration, both men and gods.
That evening, the Israelites consecrate the hill by making a fire of Philistine idols, and the foul wood whips and cracks in the fires, and David worships his God. He yells out to his men, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One, and whoever dares to call Him by any other name is like a man without seed.” The men roar, and David continues, “Yahweh has broken through our enemies like a hand through water, and they will have no children to speak the names of their gods, these gods who now warm our shins and light our faces. How can a god whose image is ashes fight for his people? 3 We shall call this place ‘Baal-perazim’, for Yahweh is the Master of Breaking-Through.” 4 The enemy is a fool, and he seeks to avenge the ashes of his gods. He wants to rise from the ruins, and he expects his gods to rise with him.
One week later, and David’s envoy, less timid but more trusting, approaches the king: news that the Philistines are returning, news that sends laughter through the mouths of the mighty men. News that sends David to the mouth of God. That evening, David inquires again of God, and God says to him, “You shall not go up after them; circle around behind them, and come at them in front of the poplar trees. And it shall be when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the trees, then you shall go out to battle . . . .” 5 At the second watch, David finds a sleeping Joab, having followed his bear-ish grunts. For all his resiliency, Joab has trouble commanding sleep, and David finds this amusing. He jogs Joab’s shoulder, dodges Joab’s reflex, and, having wakened him, calls him aside.
“Joab, I told you before that the Lord our God would have us fight again. Now, he has given me peculiar direction. We are to position ourselves behind their camp, beneath the poplar trees. And?”
“Yes, David, I was thinking the very thing. I have a mind for such things. I’ll get the men read?”
“Joab, wait. We’re to wait beneath the poplars?”
“Yes, David, until the dogs turn their backs, then we?”
“No, Joab. We wait.”
“Fine. We wait. We wait until?”
“We wait until we hear the sound of marching in the treetops. . . . Then we go out to battle.”
Joab stares at David, then past him to the woods; his silence speaks respect more than agreement. He paces through the camp and rouses the men, who all agree that the king should be getting more sleep than he does, but Joab’s voice obligates obedience, and the men position themselves beneath the poplars. Such strange directions, but a silhouette of the king on the hill, eyes turned to the sky, is enough.
The night sky resolves to purple, then crimson, until the night watch is fulfilled, and the air is still, and each man, the king included, stares at silence.
The sound of leather and metal resonates on tree trunks, and the Philistines are advancing on an inefficient Israel, sitting stiffly like trees beneath the leaves. Joab breathes an anxious sigh, and his sigh is trailed by a longer breath, and then the exhale of an entire army, and all of Israel looks at each other, and they spot David, eyes turned to the sky, smiling at the rustling of a host of leaves, flailing like fire, and the leaves are bowing like beneath the weight of marching. A scream breaks on the wind, and the mighty men know it as a Philistine cry. They rise from their stoop, quit the canopy of poplar, and witness the enemy flailing and falling on the left and the right. Blood-stained leaves cover the ground. The host of the Lord is before them, and what it leaves alive, David and his men strike down from Gibeon even as far as Gezer.
And the fame of David, and of his Lord, went out into all the nations. 6
I am a perfectionist. But the Spirit has been hounding me and dragging me back into reality. I look at that sentence (“I am a perfectionist”) and recognize that it?s too black-and-white. Rather, I have perfectionist tendencies, and by this realization, I know that He is sanctifying me. Christ is perfect, but He is no perfectionist, and by virtue of my union with Him, He is healing me.
In the meantime, I struggle with this old perfectionist man. Most distressing to me, apart from trying to perfectly breath the air of this already-not yet existence, is that God is calling me to write, and of all vocations, I cannot imagine one less compatible with perfectionism.
There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him . . . . Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. . . . But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear him, he is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, his word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling. 7
Buechner and a host of other writers have convinced me, over the last few years, that writers own the unique privilege of observing grace, “common” or otherwise, in every thing and every person, and using these emblems, to communicate that grace to those who don’t recognize it. This is what God is calling me to do, and its insane. I “amen” Buechner’s words heartily, until I reach the conclusion, where I am reminded that I am called to communicate truths that are “precious beyond telling.” Beyond telling. The very nature of this task is impossible to perfectly fulfill, and I don’t like it. I sit at my computer and stare at the screen and think how nice my bookshelves would be if I color-coordinate them again, only because I can’t think of a way to perfectly say what I need to say. The computer screen grows increasing shades of white as the light from my window wanes, and, because of my fear of imperfection, I cannot begin to fulfill my vocation.
“There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.” 8 It’s maddening. As image-bearer of a God who speaks creation into being by His word of truth, I am called to creatively speak truth into the being of the lives around me. But I am not God, and my attempt to speak encouragement often ends up looking like patronizing; my attempt to speak construction looks like criticism. Truly, God gave humans the honor of naming the animals, but I look at a slimy, green, hoppy amphibian and call it a “grof.” I sin still and non-stop, yet I am called to speak restoration into the lives of a broken world. We are all broken, and we are all tired. And I am trying to convince people, through the act of writing, that there is a reason to keep reading.
But I can’t do it. I quit my computer and open my Bible. I turn my eyes back to the Word, and I remember that the Word is fully aware of my inability, and he bestows on me the grace of inability.
Rather than the divine task of speaking restoration into being, I am called only to the very human task of convincing people of their need of restoration, and, most blessedly, to speak to them the cost 9: Immanuel ripped and arching on a wooden stake.
There is so much about this world of grace and eternity that I can’t understand, but if I remember and seek to redeem these limitations, I know that my calling is not to figure everything out and perfectly communicate it. I remember never to “question the truth of what [I] fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders.” 10 This is the core of my calling: to revel in mystery rather than recoil from it, and, by all of the grace in me, to communicate, in writing, mystery to people who would either dismiss it or miss it. Everyone is on the verge of crying out “My Lord and my God!” but the cry is drowned out by doubts or defiance, muffled by the dull ache of their routines, masked by their cozy accommodations with mediocrity. . . . [I] must do only what [I am] there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger. . . . 11
That is my calling and my privilege, to pronounce the name, and in participating in such a great commission, to spread the fame of the Lord to the nations.
When I arrived at seminary six years ago, I was a visionary, and my initial vision was of a black-gowned Reverend Huggins returning with acclaim to a very spiritual church in Mississippi, endearing old ladies and covenant children to myself with my preaching and compassion and cobbler recipes. Six years later, and all I have to offer is a recipe for brokenness. Through a process too lengthy to recount here, but including a deep spiritual crisis, being burned by the church, and falling in love with a non-southerner, my visions of southern Presbyterianism have unmasked themselves as the desire to be needed, liked, and respected.
One of the key turning points was this realization: non-Christians are not sinners who need the Gospel; rather, they are people made in the image of God who deserve my respect. 12 Such a simple statement, but so revolutionary for me. God has planted in my soul the desire to live in an urban setting, surrounded by non-Christians, a well-trained layman serving as a liaison between the churched and the un-churched, attempting to de-religionize the Gospel for those who have misunderstood and/or been disillusioned as I was, and, to many degrees, still am.
In terms of the calling to write, my task is to write to dying people, and what can I say that would not “enrage them by its triviality?” 13 The Church, at least the Church that is accessible to non-Christians, is starving for beauty and creativity. Fear, tribalization, propaganda, slogans: we are emaciating our image of a wild, mighty, creative, incarnational Jesus, and we seem to be trying to change the world one bumper sticker at a time.
As we draw distinctions between sacred and secular, as we castigate art and literature as worldly entertainments, we draw a curtain between ourselves and the world that we are called to attract with our righteousness. Instead, we fill the racks of Christian bookstores with bubble-gum fiction that speaks no truth to the reality of the world that we are called to transform.
So with my writing, I have the privilege of dignifying people by treating them with respect, by eschewing Christian jargon and refusing to lob slogan-grenades from behind some unbiblical wall of separation. With my writing, I have been given the privilege and responsibility of seeing people honestly, seeing them as they might be while I see them as they are.
But even a short apprenticeship in words and/or the Word—trying to write words honestly, trying to address people reverently—is qualification for appreciating the rapture. 14
I’m not sure what all of this means, and I am afraid. I graduated seminary over a year ago, I’m now finishing my first year of an MFA program, and I still don’t know what to do with this maniacal privilege of writing. During one of those white-screened moments, my thoughts turn to my future, and I envision myself sitting at a subway stop, writing with my left hand, playing harmonica with my right, and thanking the lady who just dropped a dime in my up-turned hat. I will have plunged past conviction into cynicism, accusing the church of hating beauty and honesty rather than beautifying the church with this calling. And I call out to the Lord, “Who will deliver me from this pencil of death!” 15
Much of my fear, I admit, is monetary. Who can make a living as a writer without being left behind? I picture a man standing before the church, seeking to raise money for his ministry, and when he mentions in passing that he’s a writer, old ladies fall from their pews and someone in the back shouts “Heresy!” and the children’s eyes and ears are blanketed by holy hands. I’m not cynical yet, just scared.
Writing, juxtaposed with all co-missionary activities, is inefficient. Creativity is inefficient. We have homeless to feed and nurseries to staff and youth groups to nurture. Who does this man think he is spending eight hours writing two good lines of poetry, one of which he will inevitably throw away?
Creativity is not neat. It is not orderly. When we are being creative we don’t know what is going to happen next. When we are being creative a great deal of what we do is wrong. When we are being creative we are not efficient. 16
I still have remnants of the visionary syndrome, which is mostly euphemism for “If God would just assure me that everything will work out fine, then I’ll get on with this writing thing.” I am twenty-nine years old, and I don’t yet know the specifics of what I’m doing with my life. I try to tell myself that even Jesus didn’t begin his “career” until he was thirty, but then I remember that He built bassinets and armoires in the meantime, and people needed those things. Who needs an M.Div. with an MFA and a cache of sharpened pencils? And before I pity myself anymore, I remember these words: “”font-size: 10px;“>Learning to weep, learning to keep vigil, learning to wait for the dawn. Perhaps this is what it means to be human. . . . Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.” 17
Then I remember the story of a man called by God to sit beneath some poplar trees and wait for the rustling of leaves. So I recite this story to myself, maybe put pencil to paper, and wait . . .
Jeremy grabbed his pencil to bare himself before the world. The whole world was his, because the God of creativity was his. The fixity of things was unfixed and restored, and Jeremy sought to reveal this restoration before the world. Jeremy was called to write, and, minus a community with little need for writing, the world was good.
One year before his fourth graduation, a thought approaches the writer and delivers some unsettling words: the Enemy is back. The writer raises his eyebrow and retorts, “If there is no Enemy, then I am either mad or living in a madhouse.” He knows this Enemy well—it prowls around his heart, and its name sounds like Accusation.
Jeremy and his pencil, as occasional paper writer, is no worry to the Enemy, but Jeremy and his pencil, as image-bearer beginning to trust his calling, is worrisome indeed. Jeremy is fully aware of the Enemy, but Enemy cannot displace calling, especially that calling bound in covenant.
As his MFA graduation approaches, churches have long since called the seminary graduates to their congregations, and Jeremy is approaching his God: “Shall I go out from this place? And will you keep this pencil in my hand?” Yahweh smiles patiently and answers, “Go out, for I will put words in your hands. Yet you shall not go out with wallets full of money and critical acclaim. Rather, circle around behind those things, sitting silently and patiently at your desk, and don?t forget your thesaurus. It shall be when you hear the sound of rustling leaves, then you shall write . . . .”
That evening, he tells those who have waited patiently for him through eleven years of school what he is to do. Their silence speaks grace more than agreement. They all agree that Jeremy should be getting more sleep than he does—such strange directions.
The semester will resolve to summer break, then to final exams, until the MFA is fulfilled, and the air will be still, and Jeremy and his pencil will walk into the silence.
The sound of doubt and fear strikes deep like lead, and the Enemy is advancing on an inefficient Jeremy, sitting stiffly like a hardback at his desk. His loved ones breathe an anxious sigh, and that sigh is trailed by a sigh of concern, and everyone looks at that blank manuscript, and then they see Jeremy, eyes turned to the sky, smiling at the rustling of a thesaurus, flailing like fire, and the pages are rustling like beneath the weight of a mighty wind. A scream breaks on the wind, and Jeremy recognizes it as the frustration of the Enemy.
The night sky resolves to purple, then crimson, the Word having been composed two-thousand years before. Such strange goings-on, but a silhouette of the King on a hill, eyes turned to the sky, is enough.
Jeremy Huggins, 29, holds two degrees from Mississippi State University, an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, and is halfway through an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Eastern Washington University, which translates into “no job.” Meanwhile, he writes for and with his friends on his blog. Give him a visit; make him feel alright about all those years of education.