Total Eclipse of the Son

Little details in familiar stories can make a big difference. Consider the story of Paul’s conversion.

Caravaggio stays undefeated.

I’ve read or heard the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-19) many, many times, but noticed something new this time that I’ve been thinking about.

The voice of Jesus tells Saul, “But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul, now blind, goes to the city and waits. And waits. And waits. “For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

I’ve never had a Damascus Road experience, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would expect things to start happening pretty quickly. I would not expect to wait three days in the dark.

But God waits three days before giving Ananias his vision to go find Saul at a house on Straight Street. That’s assuming, of course, that Ananias went right there. I have this somewhat irreverent habit of turning Bible stories into dark comedies, so I imagine Ananias waking up three days later like “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” or spending multiple days wandering around Damascus saying “Straight Street? They’re ALL straight!” But let’s assume Ananias is both punctual and well-oriented. So it wasn’t his “fault” for the time lapse. It was God’s. It would have been no thing at all for God to arrange for Ananias to meet Saul right as he entered the city.

(While this is the first time I’ve noticed this detail, I have noticed Straight Street, and it has always bothered me. It sounds like what a ten-year-old does when they’re trying to write a fantasy novel and they have to make up a name for a street. I say this as a former novel-attempting ten-year-old.)

So why did God make Saul wait? It was so agonizing for Saul that he neither ate nor drank, and I wonder if he found himself questioning whether or not he had really heard a voice at all. Imagine being newly-blind, unsure if the voice you heard was the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and unsure if you would hear that voice again.

There is one potential answer in the text: God tells Ananias, after Ananias objects to God in a pantheon “I’m going to tell God how to do God’s job” moment, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Perhaps Paul’s three days of no food or drink (which would have, by the way, almost killed him) was the beginning of this school of hard knocks. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Paul lists his hardships in 2 Corinthians 11, where it’s clear that this suffering was a lifelong deal. I think God would’ve gotten the point across without the three days of blindness. It’s a little reckless of me to parse the language, not knowing Biblical Greek (maybe my brother can help me out), but I wonder, too, if Luke would’ve recorded God’s words as “I myself am showing him how much he must suffer,” rather than the future tense, “I myself will.”

So if we don’t know what the point of making Saul wait was, I’ll suggest three things we can learn from this.

It was part of the conversion process. Our shorthand reference to Saul’s conversion is The Damascus Road, but the conversion is hardly done en route to Damascus. When Ananias finds Saul, Ananias lays his hands on Saul, filling him with the Holy Spirit and triggering the major WTF “something like scales fell from his eyes.” Saul’s sight is restored, and he declares his faith through the sacrament of baptism. Conversion for Saul wasn’t, it seems, done in an instant.

We often imagine and recount our lives as series of life-changing moments, perhaps nowhere more so than religion, faith, and spirituality. But the Bible, full as it is of holy shit moments, reminds readers again and again that God is in the still small voice, the gleanings of grain, the holding of hands. Perhaps we will, at some point in our lives, have a Big Moment, or receive a Sign, or witness a Miracle, but those things are means – not ends.

Saul’s humanity acts within God’s sovereignty. There’s a little detail, a little clue, at the end of this story that helps illustrate my point here. “Then [Saul] got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Saul regained his strength after taking some food, which happened after he was baptized, which happened after the scale things, which happened after he was filled with the Holy Spirit. So, what, does the packaging for powered Holy Spirit have a disclaimer “Does not restore strength”? He was filled with the Holy Spirit, which is, mind you, literally God, and he was still hungry?? Apparently. Maybe this is Luke being a skeptical physician and making sure to include this detail because surely the Holy Spirit is low-cal and low-carb, and, well, he’d be right. We don’t live on bread alone…but we still need bread. This is not to say God can’t grant humans superhuman abilities at times – there’s that Samson fella, and Jesus fasted for 40 days and still beat Satan in a rap battle – but it appears that God works in humans through our humanity. We see this in Saul’s physical need for food, but I think also in his spiritual metamorphosis.

Perhaps Saul needed the three days to do some soul-searching, find himself, and whatever other somewhat useful cliché applies. He needed three days to think of the people he had arrested, to remember Stephen’s face as he was stoned to death, to reexamine all his vast knowledge of the scriptures to see if he had missed the point. I imagine these sorts of things are all he really thought about – I don’t get the impression he was into sports or sex or fine dining. Maybe tents. He might’ve thought about tents. Whatever it was, he had plenty of time to think and to feel without hearing the Voice. Perhaps in Saul’s own human agony, his ruminations, his meditations, his heart was being prepared to accept Jesus as Lord.

I am not getting into a free will debate today, but I do think that we might be, at times, a little too rigid in our notions of God’s irresistibility. God might not zap people into belief without their consent so much as set up events around them to make sure they get to God, kinda like how Bart-Eye engineered Harry Potter’s victory in the Triwizard Tournament, yah know? Maybe God doesn’t just go around shooting people with Cupid arrows to make them fall in love with God. Maybe God at work in the world and in our hearts looks surprisingly human sometimes.

Saul had to search for God in God’s absence. After his supernatural encounter with the voice of Jesus, Saul would have suddenly felt God’s absence in those three dark days. By day three, he might’ve wondered how long he was going to have to wait before hearing or feeling God so acutely again. Based on his letters, it’s clear that for much of his life he felt a very strong connection to God, and probably received divine revelation more often than just about anyone in the history of the Church, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he writes that after a divine encounter, he received a “thorn…in the flesh,” and while debate abounds about what this was, it’s clear that, for a time, he was held at arm’s length from God, suddenly unable to access visions and revelations from the Lord. Though he appealed to the Lord three times to have this thorn taken away from him, God would not. I would guess that, during his three days of blindness, Saul repeatedly reached out to the God of his people – the Jewish people – and to the voice that identified itself as Jesus, begging for revelation.

Feeling God’s absence – though God is never really absent – is part of faith. Examples abound in the Bible and in Christian history, the most famous example probably being Teresa of Calcutta. God made Saul go three days in the dark, and if that could happen to Saul, it could happen to us. And that’s okay. We should continue to seek God, even in the grief – the agony – that can come when not feeling God like we once did. It’s the lesson of Holy Saturday, and while the hope of Easter Sunday should, ultimately, be the rock on which we stand, life is maybe more often than not more like that Saturday of uncertainty. It is often a dream deferred, a birth overdue, a sleepless night. One day, if our eschatology is true, we’ll be totally satisfied by God every moment of every day. We’re not there yet. We can’t be.

I came to the above conclusions because I thought a little more about a verse I’ve read a dozen times but hadn’t – until now – really thought about. So my final thought here is that rereading is a good thing to do, and not just with the Bible (but, of course, especially with the Bible). Works of great complexity (which are sometimes also works of great length) reward rereading as readers find something new each time through – sometimes because a text can resonate differently depending when in life we read it. I reread The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion about once a year for just such reasons – I will not ever cease to find new things. I’ve read every book of the Bible at least once, and there are some passages that are so familiar that sometimes I roll my eyes at reading or hearing them again. But there’s always something more, and experiences like I just had reading Acts 9 remind me of this. Those scales continue to fall from my eyes and I’m drawn towards the Lord who sometimes seems so distant.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Doxology | Benediction

Being a writer sometimes means staying in on New Year’s Eve with your cat, pouring an imperial stout, writing a few hundred words, then going to bed before The Ball drops.

When you and the squad like to praise God but also day drinking

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

W.S. Merwin, “To the New Year”

This is not the end of year post I had intended to write.

My first choice would have been a review of my favorite films of the year, like I did last year. Unfortunately, I am well behind on the year’s cinema, which is causing me undue anxiety and envy of everyone with HBO Max. My second choice would have been a look back on the only day that really mattered in America’s 2021, which was, of course, January 6, a day that so perfectly captured America in 2021 in all of its absurdity, its violence, its delusion.

But, instead, I’m writing about doxology, a word that comes our way from Greek and medieval Latin that basically means to sing praise to God. “Doxology” is also the name of a song that I happened to listen to on my drive today from one side of Wisconsin to the other on that meandering hellscape of uncultured ignorance known as Wisconsin STH 21 (except for you, Wautoma, you blessed oasis of sense and sensibility). It’s not in my nature to dunk on an entire swath of my homeland, but you can only drive by so many pro-hate yard signs before making that trip with a permanently raised middle finger. And maybe this undercuts everything I’m about to write, but I hope taking that risk – if nothing else – underscores how much I hate Wisconsin STH 21.

Anyway. “Doxology.” It’s the name of a song by Portland rap group Beautiful Eulogy. The verses from Braille and Odd Thomas are ensconced in Latifah Alattas’ beautiful rendition of a traditional doxology that they sing every Sunday at Trinity Church in Portland, First Baptist Church of Sturgeon Bay, and many more churches around the nation and the world. It goes like this:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all creatures here below
Praise him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

I’ll get back to the main thread in a sec, but I had to do a quick Google search to double check the name of Beautiful Eulogy’s church, and I’m just now learning that Thomas Terry (Odd Thomas) is now lead pastor because former lead pastor Art Azurdia turned out to be an abuser. Art, the most gesticulative preacher I have ever seen, could really bring it from the pulpit and has been a spiritual inspiration to many. The fact that he, too, has been a wolf in the pasture is, well, really fucked up, and maybe also undercuts what I’m about to write. And if the fact that I just wrote “the f-word” is what really upsets you about that sentence, then I have to ask right quick if your mailing address happens to be on Wisconsin STH 21.

I’ve shared “Doxology” multiple times on Facebook, and I usually get 2 or 3 likes. I know sharing a YouTube song link on Facebook without a lengthy or pithy comment is basically like jettisoning an escape pod into deep space and hoping it crash lands on Tatooine. Then again, in a pretty well-connected galaxy far far away, seems like an awful lot does happen to land on Tatooine. Maybe I’m just too squarely in the target audience for the song, since I grew up singing those words every Sunday and those three men changed my life, but I’m going to keep sharing it (and, tonight, writing about it) because I think it’s a perfect work of art that continues to make me think and feel in the direction of God.

So, here it is again:

But why this song, now, on the Eve of 2022?

Well, because doxology – the act – as described in “Doxology,” is something for each and every occasion, which is why “we” sing it every Sunday (regrettably, we do not sing it at my current church). (Side note: (which is a parenthetical side note instead of a footnote because I’m in a rush and also too buzzed to format the footnotes) “20 Something,” by SZA, just came on while I’m writing this and that song really hits me at this time in my life, and is also kinda on the nose for what I’m writing). Doxology – to sing praise to God – is a beautiful act engendered by hope in the Triune God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The act of singing in praise of anything – your love, your country, your football team (European, mind you (we don’t sing so good in the sports over here)) – requires a certain amount of satisfaction, of joy, of pleasure in that thing. Try singing your favorite football team’s song after they get trounced by their rivals, or a sexy love song after you and your S.O. have just had a fight, and you’ll find it difficult. But God is not like your favorite football team or your S.O. (and thank God for that), and should always be worthy of songs of praise.

The problem is that we don’t always feel satisfied, joyful, or pleased because of God. That’s okay. Really, it is. If you don’t feel like singing joyfully to God, you’re in good company with at least a couple different people who wrote the Bible – EVER HEARD OF IT!? But the sad songs, the anxious songs, the agonized songs, still get sung, and, eventually, they turn back to praise.

A portion of Braille’s verse encapsulates this very nicely:

I exist for your glory, never for mine
I never would shine if it wasn’t for your Spirit inside
You made me alive when I was dead in trespasses
The passion of Christ left my sin in the past tense
Every good and perfect gift comes from your hand
You set me back on course when I run from your plan
No excuse to refuse to lift my voice
Because the gospel is true, there’s always reason to rejoice
And that don’t mean that my sorrow is inconspicuous
But when I grieve, I got a greater joy in the midst of it
The joy of knowing I will see you face to face
And it’s all to the praise of your glorious grace

There will be times we don’t feel at all like praising God. But we should sing anyway for two reasons: first, because there is always something to praise God for, and second, because through the singing, our hearts and minds may be turned from despair to hope, from sorrow to joy.

2021, like 2020, was a real shitshow for many. For some people I know, it was the hardest year of their life. It is standard Christian practice to prescribe a double dose of God for times like these. God is the best medicine for a shitty year.

But the same can be said for a year like mine, which was, on the whole, kinda meh.

There’s been plenty of bad, sure. I didn’t get a dream job in Oregon which I thought was in the bag. My step-grandfather died. My paternal grandfather is in poor health. Some of my most meaningful relationships were strained and painful. My cat got ringworm. I just found out while writing this the restaurant with the best French Toast I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot) closed.

And there’s been good! I adopted the above-mentioned cat who is snuggled up against me right now. I got to teach again. I joined a young adult Bible study at my church and have found friendship and community. I did the dating app thing and met my girlfriend who makes me feel like I’ve been struck by lightning, which is what Roy Kent says I deserve.

But there’s also been a lot of meh. I’ve written a little, but not as much as I’d like. I’ve got a novel in the hopper but I don’t know how close any of you are to reading it. I turned down a job offer in Shanghai that would have changed my entire life. It was the right decision, but it doesn’t feel great to turn down one of the few offers I’ve gotten out of myriad applications. I dabbled in freelance copywriting, and while I just sent my first invoice last week, it hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to. By and large, the meh has been a constant. From an outside perspective, all of this might sound like not such a bad year, but it has been, from a mental health point of view, a challenge much of the time. The good is too often canceled out by the bad and/or muted by the meh.

But tonight, at the end of 2021 and on the eve of 2022, I’m thinking that part of my problem has been a lack of doxology, a lack of praise to God. This is not to say that if only I had praised God more I would have had more good things or fewer bad things, because that’s not how God works. What it means is that my outlook on each day, from the worst ones to the most ordinary ones, could have been made better by a more consistent heart of praise. On my worst days, I sometimes resent God for what God puts me or someone I love through. On my meh days, I sometimes forget I’m a Christian for hours at a time. What I should have been doing, on the bad days and meh days (and good days!), was turning my heart and mind back to God.

And, as I contemplate the state of my own heart, mind, and soul, I wonder if maybe Christians need, in this new year, a renewed commitment to the practice of doxology. There are many ways in which our faith can be displayed in public, and many of them are not helpful, not honoring to God. Many of them are pointed with a very specific purpose, or poisoned with ulterior motive. Some are tone-deaf, and some are just noise. Maybe we need, as we move from this year which was so hard for so many, to focus at least a little more on just praising God in private and public ways. Our prayers don’t have to be subtweets. God’s name doesn’t need to be accompanied by “guns and glory” or “family and football” or “America.” You can, of course, continue to tweet incessantly about the connection you see between Christian faith and outlawing abortion, because I’m going to continue to scream and yell about how critical race theory goes hand in hand with a Biblical worldview, as I believe faith must apply intentionally to our specific context, and I believe we must – clearly and repeatedly – articulate this. But maybe we need to be a little less selective, less utilitarian, about our declarations of faith. Maybe we just need to make a habit of praising God for being God and all that entails. Doing so will turn our hearts and minds to God while redirecting the eyes and ears of others from these images of God to God, from creatures to Creator.

Christians are, after all, one of the main reasons so many reject religion. “We” had a chance to do great things during the pandemic, and we kinda fucked it up. Tomorrow is a new beginning. Maybe a renewed focus on praise is the way to start healing our world, starting with our own weary selves.

Anyway, that’s what listening to “Doxology” today made me think about.

Happy New Year

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

Peter

Pastor’s Kid

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1

Sunset baptism, 2014

How many times have you seen your dad cry? One? Ten? One hundred? I’ve got you beat. I’m sure of that.

He cries easily. He married someone who does, too. As kids, we’d look over at Mom during the sappy part of a cheesy movie and see her crying. “Mom!” we’d groan as she sheepishly shrugged. Well what goes around comes around. All three of us turned into criers. My brother choked back tears giving his senior research presentation about fish in a lake, which I assume is uncommon. My sister just let us know she was weeping listening to the heartfelt message from Steve from Blue’s Clues. And I cry every time rewatching certain parts of movies, most reliably Shoplifters, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Shrek 2 (of course).

I’ve seen my dad cry after someone prays something especially heartfelt, and when his daughter gets married, and when he delivers bad news, and when he hugs me goodbye. There’s a certain way his voice cracks, a way his face tenses, a way his eyes water that I know so well. Sometimes as I hug him I can feel it before I see it. I know what’s inside and forcing its way out.

But, unlike most people – maybe you, for one – I’ve seen my dad cry in public. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of times. I see that same tension in his face, that same way his mouth opens part way in anticipation of the next painful word.

Many years ago, I was in London’s Hyde Park, and there was a street preacher, delivering a fire and brimstone sermon off the top of his head, citing scripture after scripture. All the while he was heckled by two young men, saying “What does it say, Jimmy? What does it say?” But he continued, undaunted. After listening for a little while, my companion and I turned to leave, expressing our admiration for his preaching ability. A stranger, who had been listening nearby, said to us: “But was he speaking the truth in love?” And then he walked away.

My dad is a preacher. No, a pastor. There’s a difference. Maybe what I write here will help you see that.

He cries when he preaches because he is a man of deep faith who feels what he says. He cries when he preaches because his sermons are drawn straight from the holy, sacred scripture, which he believes is the very word of God. He cries when he preaches because his teaching is not just for the edification of curious minds, but for the nourishment of panting souls. He cries when he preaches because he is the first to recognize his own shortcomings and he is always preaching to himself. He cries when he preaches because he knows his very next breath is never guaranteed.

And he cries when he preaches because he knows the people in the pews. And he can never, ever be away from them.

If he was a preacher, then he could, maybe, leave the Church in the church when he goes home. They might not be there when he comes into the office. There might be one or two middle managers between him and the supplicants.

But he’s a pastor, and they are his flock. When he goes home, they follow him. When he comes into the office, they’re waiting for him. And when they bring their supplications, they bring them straight to him. He can never, ever be away from them.

And how could he? He has seen them born and seen them die. Married and divorced. Succeeded and failed. Sinned, and sinned again. Repented, and repented again. Sickness and health. Rich and poor.

A number of us future pastors were in a discussion group, sharing our vision for ministry. One of the others spoke of his great ambitions for his church. In five years his church would be this, in ten years his church would be that. He was very sure of himself. And so I asked him: “What if that’s not what God has planned for you?”

For over 30 years he has been walking into the same small office, pouring coffee in the same kitchen, gashing his hand on the same pulpit. That’s uncommon. His father, a pastor sometimes and a preacher others, moved to a new church at about the rate of a presidential term. Many pastors do the same, for any number of reasons. Some of them are good. My dad has had opportunities to go elsewhere. Somewhere bigger, with more resources, a higher salary, a clean slate. He’s never taken it.

It is not a normal job. The cliché is to say that it’s not a job at all; it’s a calling. And that’s true: the writing was literally on the wall as my dad scraped chalk against blackboard on the first day of his high school teaching job. This is not what I’m supposed to be doing. But let’s call it a job – he goes into an office and sits at a computer and gets a paycheck. That’s a job. But it’s not like other jobs. There is no schedule, no timeclock. Many weeks he will go in seven days a week, and be there from sun-up to sundown. He is a professional with a post-graduate degree, which usually means you’re safe from people dropping by the office for a chat. You wouldn’t go to your dentist, doctor, or lawyer expecting them to set aside their work to have a cup of coffee with you and answer a few questions. But you can do it to a pastor. It’s part of the job. And when he goes home, he’s got a cellphone that is his work phone too, and it is always primed to receive an unexpected question or terrible news.

Maybe some of this burden is of his own making. There’s not any reason he has to be the one to rearrange the chairs in the sanctuary, or shovel the sidewalks in the winter. He could go home at 5 every night. He could have an “emergencies only” policy about his phone. But that is not what the job means to him. It wouldn’t really be the job if he did it that way. The coffee doesn’t drink itself.

“And we’ve decided that, considering our circumstances, it’s really just best for our family if we move on somewhere else. You know what I mean?” “No, frankly, I don’t know what you mean.”

The decades at his small church have gifted him with many friends. Fierce friends. People who would drop everything if he needed it. People who would die for him. People who feel comfortable bringing their pain and sorrow to him, but who will also go to him to celebrate their greatest joy. And it has also brought him face to face and heart to heart with many who have come and gone, and, in doing so, ripped him to shreds.

You can change your doctor, dentist, lawyer. You can leave your country club or sports club or pick a different bar. No hard feelings. Leaving a pastor is different. You’re not just leaving them – you’re leaving their church, their Church. You are leaving brothers and sisters. People do it all the time, and, sometimes, there’s a good reason. And sometimes there isn’t.

I’ve seen my dad carry this, time and again. Tears are not his tell these times. It’s in his sighs and his silence. As kids, we’d badger him to tell us what was going on, to give us the church gossip. But, most of the time, he wouldn’t. Some things are just for the pastor and his wife. And maybe some things are not even for her. Anyone’s dad can bring things home from work, seem a little worn down or broken. But it happens in a peculiar way for a pastor. Often I forget my dad’s experience is unique like that. Often I forget that our experience as his kids was (and is) unique like that.

“I want to be the guy who leads people in the Lord’s Prayer and then says to the others, ‘Let’s roll!’… By God’s grace, when I face the sword, so to speak – or really – I will be preaching Romans 8, and Second Corinthians 4, and Ephesians 2, and John 10, and Psalm 23, and Revelation 22 because I know how it all turns out in the last chapter of the book!”

Perhaps I’ve made it sound like my dad’s life is one long work of misery, years spent in Teresa’s Calcuttan limbo. This is not so. His work brings him great joy and satisfaction. He is a happy man. And God has provided him with stalwarts in the church, with a loving, devoted, sympathetic wife, and, in perhaps his darkest hours, a little black poodle with kind brown eyes. “Garbage and Grace: a lot of both in my line of work,” as he says.

And maybe some will say that I’m biased, that, as his son, I will be sympathetic to him and harsh on those who have caused him pain. This is not so. I am – privately, and sometimes publicly – one of my dad’s harshest critics. I’ve been angered by things he has said and done as a pastor. Forgive me, Dad, but I don’t know – I honestly don’t – if I would go to his church if I wasn’t his son. And if I did, I don’t know if I would be one of the ones who would leave.

My dad has faced trials and tribulations in his work, and while he is in the twilight of his career – even if he goes on as long as his dad did – there are many more ahead. It hurts to know my dad will face that, and I fear for what might happen if the ending is not as graceful, not as dignified, not as satisfactory as he would want. As he, I believe, deserves.

But this is the life he chose. And it is the life, full of profound joy and pain, that all pastors – whether they know it or not – are choosing. It’s not normal.

And neither is being part of a church.

Church participation and membership has become just another part of life that so many of us take for granted, making so many churches indistinguishable from the rest of our culture and giving us the belief that the next church is always better than the last. The uncommon nature of church community has lost its power, and the indwelling, uniting spirit of that community loses too many battles to the petty concerns we are all so ready to wield.

Being a part of a church is weird, and it is messy, and it is difficult. And in every one of those weird, messy, difficult communities stand men and women who have taken up the missive to bear so much of that weirdness, that messiness, that difficulty. You may have one major problem at church. If that’s true for everyone there, what do you think that means for the person who is the common denominator?

Extend them grace. You don’t know how badly they need it.

I love you, Dad. I’m praying for you.

 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17 

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

The Lives of Others

When creeping on your neighbors becomes an existential moment.

In his short life, my kitten, Hei Bai, never showed any interest in looking out the window. Some terrible infection in his infancy had left his retinas scarred and cloudy, and I could never quite tell how much this affected his vision. In retrospect, I think the windows must have been uninteresting to him because he couldn’t see the birds and squirrels in the nearby trees.

My kitten now, Oslo, certainly can see out the windows. It’s one of his favorite things to do. And when a bird or squirrel gets close enough he drops into a crouch and makes a little chirping sound at it, the same one he makes when a bug is in the house and he wants to kill it.

I, like my son, also like to look out the window at birds and squirrels and dogs, but I also like to look at the people. This hardly makes me unique among humans. Last summer a variety of emergency personnel showed up at my parents’ neighbor’s house and my mom and sister spent the entire morning trying to figure out what was going on (someone had died). Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock made an entire movie about a guy who is a big ole creep with binoculars.

My last two residences were hardly panopticons. My apartment in graduate school was on the first floor of a complex populated mostly by undergrads. The front window looked out on the parking lot, where I would make awkward eye contact with the people walking past as I sat at my desk. The back window looked out onto the pool. I’d be lying if I said I never stole a glance at a woman in a swimsuit, but I almost always avoided it. So, front and back, I didn’t have much to look at. I did, however, get a small glimpse into the life of the young people who lived beside me. The young man and woman were both shockingly good-looking and hella fit (for my numerous UK readers, those are not one and the same). They had a cat who would sit in the window and stare at me with wide eyes. The young man and his perfect jawline and bulging arms disappeared for many weeks. I wondered if he was studying abroad or maybe he was a Guardsman and had been called up. Shortly after he reappeared, I saw them standing beside his car talking one afternoon. When he got into the car and drove away, the young woman walked back to the apartment, tears streaming down her face. I never saw him again.

After graduate school I lived in a townhouse with my brother. Most of our windows looked out on the townhouses across from us belonging to retirees. They weren’t outside often. The window looking across the street gave little vantage onto anything save the fronts of other associated homes. Not much to look at. We had to get out of the house to see anything really interesting, like one night when our neighbor was up on the roof shoveling snow. (Hands down the best neighbor I’ve had. Mr. Rodgers and Totoro territory).

Not so in my current residence, an apartment in a part of town that sheltered Wisconsin kids think is the ghetto because there are *gasp* Black people. I’m on the second floor of a dumpy little building converted into a few different units, and since I’m as close to the alley as I am to the street, I have a view into the backyards of a dozen different homes.

This has opened up new possibilities for my voyeurism. I smell a grill and scan the neighborhood to see where it’s coming from. I see with my own eyes the incredibly loud dog that I have considered murdering more than once. I spot an old man retrieving the Sunday paper in his pajamas. I watch the cat go down the alleyway back to the house I know is his. I see the loud neighbor kids playing in the yard and getting older and older. I see the other loud neighbor kids playing with what looks like a very real knife and a very real gun and saying “fuck” a lot for being that age. I see two burly men burning a bunch of stuff in a firepit that is definitely not supposed to be burned in a firepit. I see a fat shirtless man and a skinny clothed man revving up a minibike again and again, for whatever reason not satisfied with the result. I see with my own eyes the other incredibly loud dog that I have also considered murdering more than once (sorry for all the casual murder talk I just watched Thoroughbreds last night).

These are fun little things, obviously. The small talk of being a neighbor, the most harmless form of gossip. But it has also brought something a little more serious.

There’s an aspirational aspect to my voyeurism. I had some twinges of this in my first apartment, living alone with no cat, seeing these two smoking hot people living together with their furry friend. I was jealous, but not in the green eyed monster sort of way. I was jealous in the wistful, wouldn’t that be nice sort of way. What they had seemed great, and I wanted it to work out for them. Maybe it would work out for me. My heart broke just a little bit as that car pulled away and the neighbor woman wept.

There’s one couple in particular in my neighborhood. They’re older than me, but still young. I’ve only ever been so close to them, but they’re attractive and seem pleasant. Their house is well-maintained, their yard is perfectly manicured, they’re growing a variety of things in the garden, and they have a giant schnauzer that is not so loud as to make we want to send it the way of Wellington. On pleasant evenings, they’ll sometimes sit on their porch next to a little fireplace, grilling meats and drinking beer.

On paper, that sounds pretty nice to me. I don’t know them, but what I know of them seems desirable. So I’m a little jealous of them, but I also aspire to be at least a little like them. I wouldn’t mind living in a pleasant house in a decent neighborhood with a dog and a yard and the capacity to sip beer and grill burgers in the yard with the person I love.

My life is fine. I’m not going to complain about drinking tea and cooking Sichuanese food and watching arty films with my cat. I’m a tried and true introvert who likes having his space. I don’t want anyone’s pity. But these people definitely have some things I wish I had. I don’t know what they do for work, but they leave in the morning dressed well and come home at reasonable hours and make enough to own a nice enough house. And they have each other. It seems like they’ve figured out some things that I haven’t quite gotten to yet. Without knowing the details of their life, it’s easy for me to look on with longing.

That was until I saw the young woman in the yard sitting and reading and her head was shaved.

Maybe she likes the Furiosa look. Maybe she shaved it in solidarity with someone else going through it. But in American culture, the safest guess when a woman shaves her head is, of course, cancer.

Now I feel when I see the man in the yard or walking the dog that there’s something he’s carrying, some awful burden. There’s something there in his face, or maybe not there, something I never would have picked up on had I still thought he was living my dream.

I’ve been working on trying not to compare myself to other people so much. That’s no way to judge what I’ve done, what I’m doing, or what I hope to do. By extension, I’m learning not to compare other people to each other so much: old friends and new friends, old love and new love, old kittens and new kittens. They can’t be compared. They’re their own thing. My neighbors may be feeling an agony that I have ever known. It’s also possible that, through this, perhaps their life is on the up and up. Maybe they’re headed for their very best times because of this. I can’t know. We’re on our own paths. I don’t believe God has pre-determined every single thing I will ever do, but I do think God has a plan for me and a plan for them. And I pray their plan has a healthy and happy future.

My seemingly harmless voyeurism was also giving space for another habit I’m trying to quit, which is the feeling that my life would be better if I could just have this one thing (or maybe two things). If this one thing about my health was fixed, or I got this one job, or saved this one relationship, then everything would be great.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'”

I can’t, of course, know that things would be better, let alone perfect, if I got what I want. It was wrong to look at my neighbors and think, now, if things could just be a little more like what they have, then I’d be happier.

What I’ve learned – or think I’ve learned – about my neighbors is a bit of a burden. I want to meet them and try to encourage them. I’d like to help them. But what am I supposed to do? Ring the doorbell and say “yes I noticed your head is shaved do you have the cancer?” We don’t know each other. It’s given me a new motivation to actually get to know the people I live around. What good is it seeing the neighbor lady cry if you can’t take her some cookies and ask if she wants to talk about it? Why spy on your neighbor and learn a horrible truth if you can’t offer to drive them to chemo? If you have to introduce yourself right before you say “my condolences,” maybe you’ve already messed up.

Since this is already a light, cheery post, let me close by telling you about my grandpa who has been pretty sick.

A couple months ago, his health looked like it was taking a turn for the worst. I got a FaceTime call one evening from my dad, who was in the hospital with him. He said that grandpa wanted to say hi. But Grandpa didn’t really say hello; instead, he informed me rather plainly that he might be on the way out. He said it like he was telling me where he was going to eat lunch tomorrow. He was perfectly at ease.

The next day, my dad sent an email to the church prayer chain letting them know his dad’s situation. Part of the email read: “There is a strong possibility that he will enter ‘hospice care’ at a nursing facility. He is at peace with the prospect of being very close to the end of his race, by all appearances. He does not have pain, but he is very weak and frail. He does not fear death.”

As it turned out, the doctors were wrong. He recovered and is doing fine for now. But that doesn’t make the way he faced the end any less meaningful to me.

About a year earlier, I got a call from Grandpa out of the blue. I mentioned that I was unsure about why some of the things in my life were going the way they were.

“But God has his reasons, and I’m just waiting to learn what they are,” I said.

“Yes, well,” he said, in his slow way of beginning a sentence that builds momentum for his carefully crafted phrase, “Sometimes we never do.”

Sometimes we never do. Evidently that’s enough for him. I’m trying to make it enough for me.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter