The Next-to-Last Supper


When my father was growing up, he knew a fellow called Deafy (pronounced “Deefy”). They called him this because he was deaf. When Deafy wanted to get somewhere, he walked right down the middle of the road. When the occasional car chuggered up behind him, he swerved nary an inch. When the driver honked his horn, he never startled. When the driver cussed him, Deafy never heard that either. The practice of nicknaming people by their infirmities seems to be on the wane. I get the impression that there used to be more Deafys and Stumpys and Shortys than there are now.

Jesus’  last supper before the Last Supper was hosted by a man known as Simon the Leper. As insensitive nicknames go, Simon the Leper has Deafy and Stumpy beat all to flinders. But there Jesus sat, eating in the home of a man whose very name was his shame. Simon the Leper. Simon the Unclean. Simon the Outcast. To the very end, Jesus was pouring his life into misfits and losers, refusing to leverage the influence of the powerful and well-connected but insisting on doing things his way–a perfectly backwards way, by the world’s lights. This was the Savior from Nazareth, after all. The village wasn’t just podunk, but so mean that one of the disciples asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” When Jesus came home for a visit, the locals tried to throw him off a cliff. I picture Nazareth as a place with more than its share of three-legged dogs. Whatever was the first-century equivalent of a speed-trap, I suspect Nazareth had one. And a Deafy and a Gimpy and a Shorty. Jesus, no doubt, felt right at home at the house of Simon the Leper.

And Jesus, of course, was readier than anybody else for the spectacle that would interrupt his next-to-last supper. A woman with an alabaster flask of perfumed oil busted the thing and poured the oil all over Jesus’ head and feet. In so many ways, it was an act of beautiful extravagance. The oil was worth a year’s wages, yet down it dripped, running and pooling all over the floor. The fragrance filled the room like a kind of grace, a beauty that nobody besides Jesus had earned. Yet there were those in the room who made themselves impervious to that beauty, who chose to judge and criticize and quantify the woman’s act rather than let themselves smell the sweet savor of what she had done.

“She could have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor,” they said (and Judas–not just a traitor but a moneygrubber and a thief–was one of them). But Jesus smelled the perfume, and he knew the hearts of the critics. He defended the woman’s act of prodigality. “Why do you trouble the woman?” he asked. “For she has done a good work for me. For you have the poor with you always,” (though, he might have added, you’ve never seemed too worried about them before), “but me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on my body, she did it for my burial.”

I’ve been trying to picture the scene, and if I’m being honest, I’m pretty sure I would have come down on Judas’s side and suffered the rebuke of Jesus. Like Judas, I might have put my objection in practical terms, but I’m afraid that for me the real issue would have been the fact that the woman was creating a most uncomfortable scene. She showed no reserve whatsoever–no self-respect. John describes her as wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. With her hair! I don’t suppose I’ve ever heard anybody say this before, but there was something tacky about the whole scene. I don’t mean any irreverence here. I mean only to say that according to the world’s ideas of what is acceptable and tasteful and what is tacky, the spectacle at Simon the Leper’s house comes down on the tacky side of the ledger.

And yet Jesus was very clear: we should honor this woman’s devotion.  To an upside-down world, Jesus came with upside-down solutions. The lame shall enter first, he said. And the deaf and the leprous and the tacky and the not-quite respectable–those, like Deafy and Simon, who are the butt of the joke rather than those who are making the joke at their expense. As Frederich Buechner wrote,

Blessed are those who see that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, [Jesus] is who he says he is and does what he says he does if they will only, at admittedly great cost to their pride, their common sense, their sad vision of what is and is not possible in the stormy world, let him do it. Blessed is he, in other words, who gets the joke.

On Ash Wednesday


Recycling from a couple of years ago…
It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”

I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”

I love the prayer in the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

I used to associate Ash Wednesday–when I considered it at all–with self-flagellation. But, as the apostle Paul said, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance–the confidence that God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.

For all my ambivalence about T.S. Eliot, there are passages in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that I just love. The lines I love the most in that poem, the lines that most perfectly capture the spirit of the day, are these:

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

“I’m not worthy.” True enough. But not the truest thing. The Lord speaks truer things into being every day.

So happy Ash Wednesday, you old sinner. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. And God loves you anyway.

The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club

Remember me? It has been a while, but summer is here and my first year back teaching is complete, so I thought it would be fun to host some summer reading discussions at My biography of Flannery O’Connor–The Terrible Speed of Mercy–will be released later this summer, so why don’t we read through some of her stories? Each Monday from now through the end of August I will post an article about one of O’Connor’s stories (see the schedule below). I hope to post follow-up articles each week as well, but my blogging muscles are atrophied after so long, so I’d better not commit to more than the Monday article each week. I hope you’ll be moved to lively discussion about these stories, which can be quite controversial.
We’ll start Monday, June 4, with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story that you have likely read already. It is also the only story that you can hear read by the author; click here for scratchy but amazing audio of O’Connor reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” at Vanderbilt).

Here is the schedule for the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club:

Week of June 4: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Week of June 11: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”
Week of June 18: “The River”
Week of June 25: “The Displaced Person”
Week of July 2: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”
Week of July 9: “The Artificial Nigger”
Week of July 16: “Good Country People”
Week of July 23: “Greenleaf”
Week of July 30: “A View of the Woods”
Week of August 6: “The Enduring Chill”
Week of August 13: “Everything that Rises Must Converge”
Week of August 20: “Revelation”
Week of August 27: “Parker’s Back”

All of these stories appear in The Complete Stories. I hope you’ll be able to join in the conversation.

Peter the Wild Boy

Look for–including Audience Participation Friday–to come off its summer holiday in the next week or so. Meanwhile, I thought you might be interested in this article I ran across in History Today about a feechiefied fellow known as Peter the Wild Boy who, in 1725, was found living wild in a German forest and ultimately brought to the court of King George in London. Not surprisingly, the meal he shared with the sovereign didn’t go so well:

Seated at table with the king, dressed in a suit of clothes with a napkin at his neck, he repelled his host with his complete lack of manners. He refused bread, but gorged himself on vegetables, fruit and rare meat, greedily grasping at the dishes and eating noisily from his hands, until he was ordered to be taken away.

Peter the Wild Boy became an instant celebrity and the subject of a number of philosophical essays. But the fickle public soon lost interest; Peter the Wild Boy never got the hang of living among civilizers, though he lived into his seventies. You can read his sad story at History Today.

Bonus Wild Child reading recommendation: The narrator of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place is a Bronte-esque young governess who finds herself in charge of three children who, having been raised by wolves, are now in the care of a wealthy landowner. It is extremely smart and hilarious.

St Augustine, Ricky Schroder, and Tear-Jerking Drama

Author’s Note: I hope you’ll forgive my absence the last week or two. I’ve been getting ready to teach in the fall, for the first time in many years, and the preparation–along with a few other commitments–has pushed the blog in the direction of the back burner. But I’ve missed you. It’s good to be back.
This morning I was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. I must not have been ready for Augustine last time I read him, because I don’t remember him having a huge impact on me. But his insights, his understanding of the gospel as it played out in his own life, is just astonishing. I didn’t realize how much he has influenced the way I think about the world–mostly indirectly, I suppose. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, once boasted, “The things I was doing twenty years ago, other people be doing today.” I thought of James Brown as I read Augustine. The things Augustine was saying 1500 years ago, other people be saying today.

I was a little surprised, however, to see how little Augustine valued drama. He considered it mostly to be a waste of time. He was especially down on the tragedies that he loved in his youth:

I was much attracted by the theatre, because the plays reflected my own unhappy plight and were tinder to my fire. Why is it that men enjoy feeling sad at the sight of tragedy and suffering on the stage, although they would be most unhappy if they had to endure the same fate themselves? Yet they watch the plays because they hope to be made to feel sad, and the feeling of sorrow is what they enjoy. What miserable delirium this is! The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet when he suffers himself, we call it misery: when he suffers out of sympaty with others, we call it pity. But what sort of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage ?The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author.

I am hardly qualified to argue with St. Augustine, but I have to say I value tragedy more highly than he does. I have written elsewhere on this blog about the value of sad stories. One of the big benefits of a sad story is its capacity for strengthening the empathy muscles of the reader or audience member. At least as important, is the fact that tragedy is an important means of coming to terms with the situation we find ourselves in apart from the gospel, which itself is bad news before it is good news. I love what Frederick Buechner has to say on in a chapter called “The Gospel as Tragedy” (in a short book entitled The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale):

Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it–meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful–but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery…after the silence that is truth comes the news that is bad before it is good, the word that is tragedy before it is comedy because it strips us bare in order ultimately to clothe us.

Not that preparing us for the gospel is the intent of every writer of sad stories, or even most of them–but as Flannery O’Connor said, the Devil is forever accomplishing ends other than his own.

I was still thinking about St. Augustine’s view of dramatic sadness when I ran across a very interesting article about sad movies. Psychologists looking to study emotions face an ethical dilemma: how do they make people sad (or fearful or angry) without deceiving them or otherwise putting them in emotionally harmful situations? One very helpful way is to show them movies or certain scenes from movies. But even that’s not easy, since most really sad movie scenes also evoke other emotions besides sadness. Researchers looked high and low for the movie scene that would most reliably evoke unalloyed sadness in their subjects. They finally settled on the scene in the mediocre 1979 movie, The Champ, in which nine-year-old Ricky Schroder sees his father die and cries, “Wake up, Champ!” It has become the go-to scene for scientists seeking to study the behavior of people under the influence of sadness. Here’s the Smithsonian article I read, which also includes a list of movies used to evoke other emotions and mental states, from happiness to surprise to disgust. And here’s the academic paper that was the basis of the Smithsonian article.

And here’s a link to that scene from The Champ. (I can’t embed it, so if you follow the link, you’ll be exposed to some less than polite comments at YouTube. You’ve been warned.)


Audience Participation Friday (and probably Monday): Food in Fiction

I know. It’s late in the day. But it’s still Friday–Audience Participation Friday. I got an email today from Charles Atkinson, a regular around here, bringing to my attention a post on his own blog about the importance of feasting in The Lord of the Rings. His post summarizes and highlights an excellent post on a blog called The Other Journal.
And it got me to thinking. Food and feasting aren’t just important in Lord of the Rings. They’re important in all kinds of stories. Dickens loved to describe meals. So did Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes and C.S. Lewis. And then there are the great food movies, like Ratatouille and Babette’s Feast.

What are your favorite meals in fiction, and why? Since I’m getting this up so late on Friday, we’ll let this APF hang around until Monday. Bon apetit!

Audience Participation Friday: Junk

The stuff that used to be in our attic is now on our back driveway, stacked on shelves, covered by tarps. Today we’re going to put prices on the stuff (Priced to move!), and tomorrow we’re hoping strangers will come by and give us money for it (Strangers only, please; I don’t want any friends seeing this junk…also, I have an irrational fear of accidentally selling things that I borrowed from friends and forgot to return). We’re having a yard sale. If you want to dress exactly like I did fifteen years ago, now’s your chance.
A yard sale puts one in a philosophical mood. One wonders, for instance, about the alchemy by which a thing changes from a possession to mere junk to be hauled off or (hopefully) purchased by a stranger. One wonders about the reverse alchemy by which mere junk to be hauled off is transformed again into merchandise. Here is recycling in a pure form. Unless, of course, a person who buys my junk simply adds it to his own junk pile rather than getting any use out of it–something that I suspect happens pretty often.

Today’s Audience Participation Friday topic is junk. Let’s hear your stories and well-thought-out opinions about yard sales, salvage yards, re-gifting, and treasures found among trash. Here’s one: my sons, while playing in a construction dumpster, once found two fifty-dollar bills in two little gold gift boxes. You may ask why my boys were playing in a construction dumpster. If so, you probably don’t have boys.

I will also welcome tips for making more money at a yard sale.

“Sweet Eileen”–A New, Swampier Version

My friend Jonathan Barnes has been reading The Secret of the Swamp King with his kids. Jonathan is a musician, so he did what musicians do: he composed a tune for “Sweet Eileen”–the timber rafters’ song in Chapter 8 of that book–and recorded it. I’ve always sung “Sweet Eileen” as a bluegrass song–to the tune of “Fly Around My Pretty Little Lass,” actually. Jonathan Barnes pulled out his slide guitar and made it into a swampy blues song. Which makes a whole lot of sense. I think it’s great. Here’s a link to Jonathan Barnes playing and singing his swampy version of “Sweet Eileen.” I think you’ll have to have Quicktime installed on your computer to be able to hear it.
Here are the lyrics to “Sweet Eileen”:

My sweet Eileen is the prettiest thing,
The ferry-keeper’s daughter.
My heart’s own queen is sweet Eileen,
She lives beside the water.

I gave Eileen a ruby ring
To be my wife forever,
But she just sung, “Boy, I’m too young!”
And threw it in the river.

So I departed broken-hearted,
Lonesome ever after.
I left the farm and my mother’s arms
To be a timber rafter.

Now every spring I see Eileen
Beside the ferry landing.
I wave and sigh as I float by,
And there I leave her standing.

Bonus Anecdote: Jonathan Barnes, like me, is a native of Middle Georgia. In his honor, here is my favorite anecdote relating to his hometown of Juliette, Georgia. There was a church softball team in Juliette that, for some reason, found it impossible to get along with another church softball team from Macon. Every time they played, a fistfight broke out. It got so bad that the pastors of the two churches agreed that it would be best if the two teams dropped one another from their schedules.

It wasn’t long, however, before the two teams got to missing one another, so somebody came up with the idea that maybe they could have a picnic together and then play softball. The thought was that if the players from the two teams could get to know each other, each would see that the others weren’t such bad guys after all and they wouldn’t be so inclined to fight when they played their game. But the game never happened; a fistfight broke out at the picnic.

On Everyday Beauty

sunlit leaves

sunlit leaves

A week or two ago my wife and I went to see The Tree of Life. It’s a beautiful movie that has gotten mixed reviews. It’s not plotted like a typical movie; it’s more like watching a sonnet sequence–a string of beautiful lyrics that may add up to a story but which also end up covering a lot of ground that isn’t directly related to the story. Which is frustrating to a lot of viewers, including me.
A lot of the movie is devoted to putting everyday life–the water from a sprinkler, the light sifting through the leaves of a spiraling live oak, a baby learning to talk–in a cosmic, even a transcendent context. There are these long, long sequences that look like something from a planetarium movie–supernovas, volcanoes, jellyfish–that are somehow fascinating and stultifying at the same time. Then spang up against it are these scenes of small-town Americana. Eventually you realize that the light of a supernova is the same as the light of a Fourth of July sparkler, and that both are lit with the light inextinguishable.

The Tree of Life is devoted to beauty in ways that I have never seen in a movie. Its purpose seems to be to train the viewer’s eye to see how much beauty there is in the mundane world we live in. It seems to have worked on me. I keep witnessing scenes that I’ve witnessed a thousand times before and seeing the beauty in them as if for the first time. My kids swinging together on the swing set struck me as so marvelous the other day that I just sat in the car and watched them as if they were a couple of deer crossing the road. The people in the neighborhood Kroger were so beautiful, I wondered if I had gone to the wrong grocery store. It was grace at work, I believe.

This romance of the everyday made me think of a passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, with which I will leave you:

[W]e all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales — because they find them romantic.

And a little further down…

The test of all happiness is gratitude…Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?

This is a beautiful world we live in–fallen, yes, but lovely when we only pay attention.

Another Mammal Encounter

Jess, a regular around here, had a mammal encounter that is right up there with the raccoon popping through the cat door: a feechie reading–or attempting to read–on her back porch. Here’s the evidence:

She managed to keep her cool long enough to take a second picture:


Thanks, Jess, for having the foresight (unlike Aaron R) to bring a camera to capture your mammal encounter.

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