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Whistling in the Dark

An ABC Theologized

Whistling in the Dark
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Awry and thought-provoking jaunt through the spiritual terrain of our everyday language -- a lexion of uncommon insight to jar the mind and nourish the soul. "I think of faith as a kind of whistling in the dark, because in much the same way," writes Buechner, "it helps to give us courage and to hold the shadows at bay."

HarperCollins; October 2009
144 pages; ISBN 9780061857263
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Excerpt

Chapter One

Abortion

Speaking against abortion, someone has said, "No one should be denied access to the great feast of life," to which the rebuttal, obviously enough, is that life isn't much of a feast for the child born to people who don't want it or can't afford it or are one way or another incapable of taking care of it and will one way or another probably end up abusing or abandoning it.

And yet, and yet. Who knows what treasure life may hold for even such a child as that, or what a treasure even such a child as that may grow up to become? To bear a child even under the best of circumstances, or to abort a child even under the worst -- the risks are hair-raising either, way and the results incalculable.

How would Jesus himself decide, he who is hailed as Lord of Life and yet who says that it is not the ones who, like an abortionist, can kill the body we should fear but the ones who can kill body and soul together the way only the world into which it is born can kill the unloved, unwanted child (Matthew 10:28)?

There is perhaps no better illustration of the truth that in an imperfect world there are no perfect solutions. All we can do, as Luther said, is sin bravely, which is to say (a) know that neither to have the child nor not to have the child is without the possibility of tragic consequences for everybody yet (b) be brave in knowing also that not even that can put us beyond the forgiving love of God.

Adolescence

The ancient Druids are said to have taken a special interest in in-between things like mistletoe, which is neither quite a plant nor quite a tree, and mist, which is neither quite rain nor quite air, and dreams which are neither quite waking nor quite sleep. They believed that in such things as those they were able to glimpse the mystery of two worlds at once.

Adolescents can have the same glimpse by looking in the full-length mirror on back of the bathroom door. The opaque glance and the pimples. The fancy new nakedness they're all dressed up in with no place to go. The eyes full of secrets they have a strong hunch everybody is on to. The shadowed brow. Being not quite a child and not quite a grown-up either is hard work, and they look it. Living in two worlds at once is no picnic.

One of the worlds, of course, is innocence, self-forgetfulness, openness, playing for fun. The other is experience, self-consciousness, guardedness, playing for keeps. Some of us go on straddling them both for years.

The rich young ruler of the Gospels comes to mind (Matthew 19:16-22). It is with all the recklessness of a child that he asks Jesus what he must do to be perfect. And when Jesus tells him to give everything to the poor, it is with all the prudence of a senior vice-president of Morgan Guaranty that he walks sadly away.

We become fully and undividedly human, I suppose, when we discover that the ultimate prudence is a kind of holy recklessness, and our passion for having finds peace in our passion for giving, and playing for keeps is itself the greatest fun. Once this has happened and our adolescence is behind us at last, the delight of the child and the sagacity of the Supreme Court justice are largely indistinguishable.

Advent

The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton.

In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.

You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you've never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart.

The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.

But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.

Aging

When you hit sixty or so, you start having a new feeling about your own generation. Like you they can remember the Trilon and Perisphere, Lum and Abner, ancient Civil War veterans riding in open cars at the rear of Memorial Day parades, the Lindbergh kidnapping, cigarettes in flat fifties which nobody believed then could do any more to you than cut your wind. Like you they know about blackouts, Bond Rallies, A-stickers, Kilroy was Here. They remember where they were when the news came through that FDR was dead of a stroke in Warm Springs, and they could join you in singing "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" and "The Last Time I Saw Paris." They wept at Spencer Tracy with his legs bitten off in Captains Courageous.