Sunday, November 16, 2008

6 umbrellas . . . .

Six umbrellas in one block. That’s got to be a record. Well at least the wind’s died down, even if the rain hasn’t. Stepping out of the shelter of the building on Nassau Street quickly disabused me of that notion. . . . The wind had merely changed directions momentarily. It was back in force.

I walked past another umbrella corpse, ribs splayed and broken, the fabric hanging limply off to the side like a popped balloon. By the next garbage can, two ruined umbrellas, Burberry plaid knock-offs. A red fold-up umbrella looked like it had wrecked trying to make a crash landing on top of the bin. It hung half in, half out of the trash. And skimming along the puddle that wrapped around the corner of Nassau and Kildare Streets was the perfect top of an umbrella, handle broken off. It looked for all the world like a giant polka dotted jellyfish. . . . I found myself thinking of jellyfish fondly – they don’t show up until the heat of summer has really warmed the water. Ahhhhh for the heat of summer. . . .

I’ve been away from Galway too long. And the west coast of Ireland. I’ve gotten soft from the easy living of not braving gale-force winds and sideways rain on a weekly – if not daily – basis. Clearly, Galwegians are made of sterner stuff. You won’t see wrecked umbrellas littering their streets. They know better than to even carry them. I own one – see picture – but only keep it because I like the roses on it. I certainly wouldn’t expect it to keep rain off me in this country.

What folly to open an umbrella in the teeth of a wind such as that! I feel foolishly fond of the Dubh’s* who’ve idealistically done so. . . . Even as I irritably help beat down the runaway umbrella that is threatening to take out the eyes of the rest of us huddled for shelter and waiting for the eternally non-appearing No. 7 bus. . . . The young woman’s laughter grates on my ears. What was she thinking?! No hat; no gloves; and a ridiculous piece of nylon and cheap aluminum she thinks to hold up between her and lashing wind, rain, and ice so fierce that I can barely stand up straight under the onslaught. A ridiculous contraption that, as it disintegrates, threatens bodily harm all around. Nice enough, though, for a nice soft rain. . . .

We stand at the bus stop not minding that we touch all around. For once, ‘personal space’ is on hold. I feel like a member of a herd of bison hunkered down against a blizzard. We tuck our chins into our coats and pull in close. I am lucky. I have the plexiglass wall of the bus shelter behind me. It is still holding.

It was the polka-dotted umbrella that put things into perspective for me. I wanted to pick it up and take it home with me. I love polka dots! But there was no handle. It would do me no good. I walked by wistfully. I’ll long remember the sight of it gaily skimming across the puddle. The crash-landed shredded red one, however, really showed the damage the elements can do to our meager shelter. To inappropriate shelter! And the damage inappropriate shelter can do to us. Sometimes you’re just going to get wet. . . . And sometimes, that’s a good thing. It forces you to head for real shelter.

I was coming home from the hospital. I’d braved the worst of the storm to get there. My friend Brian was admitted after complaining of double vision. Some days later, they found something in his lung. A ‘shadow’ they said. Then they said cancer. And then other ugly words like ‘chemo’ and non-operable and tumour.

“For double vision?!” I argued.

“I don’t know.” Brian said. “They don’t know! Imagine, the doctor comes in every morning and asks me how I am. I keep telling him he’s supposed to be telling me.”

I wasn’t terribly surprised when they found something in the brain. ‘Just a matter of time’, I’d thought. Not that I said anything. Brian’s double vision has persisted. He got out of the hospital for a couple hours this weekend and we watched a rugby match together at the Pub. “It’s not too bad if I close one eye.” he said. “But other than that, there’s entirely too many men on the field!” I’m to make him a jaunty patch. I’ve already made him a Fez-type tassel cap for when he loses his hair. . . . My own little bits of shelter, I guess.

Radiation is supposed to start today. With ongoing chemo, which started last week. I don’t know the prognosis. Irish doctors aren’t real keen – apparently – about talking turkey to their patients. Brian says he wants to know, but I’m not completely convinced of that, either. There seems to be a sense of ‘what I don’t know, won’t hurt me.’ Everyone just hopes for the best. A frail umbrella in the teeth of a storm. . . .

Francis Schaeffer in his book The God Who Is There talks about a “point of tension” between people’s belief systems and the reality they actually experience. He identifies this point in connection with those who have “non-Christian” presuppositions, but I think we can easily take it one step further, and talk instead about our own incomplete or erroneous worldview – whether Christian or non-Christian. . . . There is always a point where we can see that we are not living out what we say we believe. Or where we discover – by what we are living out – that what we say we believe and what we are actually thinking about God and about our world are not the same.

For example, I say I wish to trust God in everything, but how often am I busily coming up with my own plans, even as I’m praying to Him? By the time I reach “amen”, I have Plans A, B, and C all laid out. “Good show. Thanks God. Off we go.”

Have you ever noticed that God doesn’t normally require Plan B? Let alone Plan C. . . .

Right. It’s usually a dead give-away when you have ‘God’s answer’ by the time you’ve stopped speaking. Not always, mind you. He has been known to interrupt. But my actions often show that I trust myself to answer more than I expect God to. May He forgive me. . . .

And as an example involving a world-view that does not include the Creator-God, what good are the almost involuntary prayers in the worst of situations? “Can’t hurt – might help.” I’ve heard people say. Well, it demonstrates the point of tension.

“Every person has the pull of two consistencies,” Schaeffer says, “the pull towards the real world and the pull towards the logic of his system.” The point of tension is where the man ultimately sets up camp, short of the logical conclusion of his worldview, and – on the other side – short of his actual experience of the world and of himself. The more faithful he is living up to his own presuppositions, Schaeffer says, the further away he is from the ‘real world.’ And the nearer he is to the ‘real world’, the more unfaithful he will be, living up to his presuppositions.

Schaeffer talks of how most people put up a little shelter at the point they seek to camp out: “At the point of tension, the person is not in a place of consistency in his system, and the roof is built as a protection against the blows of the world, both internal and external.” It’s where we can see the inconsistency of what we supposedly believe, and how we actually live.

Ultimately, that roof needs to come off so that we can see the falseness of our supposed protection. . . . And it can’t go back up again. Another form of protection is needed. A fortress, instead of an umbrella!

Brian’s had his umbrella blown off its handle, that’s for sure. What had protected him – or at least diverted him – has been exposed as flimsy and worthless in the face of the storm he’s currently facing. Old age, sickness, and death certainly do have a way of making us ‘attend’ to the realities of life on earth. Suddenly, good manners don’t mean much. Nor does one’s popularity with the lads at the pub. Or with the ladies. Or the year and model of one’s car. . . . the number written in a bank statement. . . the name on a handbag or trousers. . . .

Nothing means much in the face of that ultimate question – that ultimate challenge. “Who are you – if/when you once no longer live on this earth?”

I don’t have any clever wind-up for this one. No marvelous magical polka-dotted umbrella. No immediate answer. . . .

Brian is learning about prayer. The hard way. They say there are no atheists in fox holes. I figure a bed in a cancer ward is no different. Perhaps even more grueling, mentally. No let-up.

The roof is off and the wind is blowing hard.
*people from Dublin – generally with a pretty heavy accent. Just as you will have figured out that Galwegians are those from Galway. . . . With their own heavy accent!

quotes are from pp. 152 & 158, Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL (30th Anniversary Edition) (1st Ed. 1968 L’Abri Fellowship) (2nd Ed. 1982 Francis A. Schaeffer).

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