I bought a pair of new boots yesterday, and I'll tell you why. I'm among those few in our country blessed to live within walking distance of my job. My commute is ten minutes at best, a short walk made especially treacherous as of late by snow that hasn't stopped falling in three or four days. But I admit to the infirmities of the flesh too: my balance isn't what it was when I was playing ball. I can barely put on pants without having to sit down. Walking on frozen snow requires a dance nowhere near ballet.
It's a miracle that I haven't fallen. I should thank my lucky stars.
(That's two cliches right there. I'm adept at dropping them. I should be more sincere.)
Anyway, the soles of the boots I have been wearing are fashioned from banana peels. Another pair (I confess to obscene opulence) holds the road better, but make me look like I've strapped on surfboards. I could wear tennis shoes (I have hosts of those), but they make me look like a joke when the weather is -15. I know, I know--I'm rationalizing. I bought new boots--they're called "survivors."
If I tell my pious mother that I'm lucky to have made it back and forth to school this past week without going down at least once, she'd scold me. She'd tell me I should thank the Lord for not letting me fall. And maybe I should. After all, I'm sure he's sovereign and knows my goings to school and comings back home. But her far less pious son?--he just buys new boots. Does that make me a secularist?
Piety, I've always thought, is a nest of hooks. After all, if I thank the good Lord for keeping me topside on my way to school, who do I blame for my neighbor's going down? Just two days ago, I saw his legs go from under him when he turned a corner behind that blower. He went down like a stick-man. He's 80+ years old, I think, deaf as stone. I was a half block away, but he went down in a way a man whose 80+ shouldn't. It's a wonder he isn't in a nursing home right now.
Maybe God blessed him, keeping him from injury, right? That's what my mother would tell me. But why on earth did God let him go down in the first place? And if today--two days after--he's incredibly sore, which I'd guess he is, why must the old gent suffer? Did the Devil trip him up? Did Satan inspire a species of arrogance in him to make him go out there and clean his own blasted sidewalks when he should have been prudent and just hired some college kid? Did God deck him for pride?
And why did he go down and not me? If all our wanderings are determined by a sovereign God, if we're really Pinocchios on divine strings, then why did a Geppetto God pull his legs from under him?
I'm wary of pious language, I guess, just plain wary. What's seems a blessing to me may well be a sharp stick in the eye to someone down the block.
I tell my beginning writing students that they really can't harm a research paper by putting in too many references to researched sources--they can make it tedious, but at least they're doing what they should. On the other hand, they can flunk if they don't reference enough. That's plagiarism. That's a crime.
I'm thinking maybe that's true of God talk too.
Is it my own pride that keeps me from footnoting God in every last conversation I write? Is it my arrogance that invests faith instead in a new pair of boots? Am I less a passionate Christian if I don't use Jesus footnotes? Geesh, what a nest of hooks.
I've lived in Christian communities my whole life. Even when we lived in cities, we were part of a strong church community that demanded so much of my time my non-churchgoing friends were slack-jawed. "Are you in a cult?" they used to say.
But nothing has been as exhausting as having to live up to the standards of what others feel is the Good Book's own code of ethics with respect to everything from keeping your yard clean to footnoting the Lord in ordinary conversation. In all my sixty years, I've never lost my faith in God, but when it comes to his people, I'm right there behind Doubting Thomas.
And then there's this. Twenty years ago, early in the morning, on an icy freeway just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I did a 360, right in the heart of city traffic, but hit nothing--no one, no car, nothing. It was choreographed, almost. I ended up facing oncoming traffic, but no one touched me either.
Immediately thereafter, I shook, literally, all the way to the university. It was early in the morning, still dark, as I remember, when I got to my office. Soon enough, as he was want to do, the janitor showed up, a character right out of Flannery O'Connor, a hook on the end of a plastic, flesh-covered prosthesis he left completely exposed in a cut-off sweat shirt.
He liked me. I liked him. He took one look at my ashen face. "Whoa!" he said, "What the hell happened to you?" He swore more than my Calvinist brothers and sisters.
So I told him. I went through that morning's freeway dance, a pirouette right in the middle of all that traffic without a slip.
"You better get down on your knees right now, young man," he said--I was young then, "and you better thank St. Christopher."
I didn't. But I did hear the voice of the Lord from a one-armed janitor given to profanity.
Time to strap on those new boots, for which, by the way, I'm thankful this morning.