Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: hope

To Temia and Frances

My niece and my grandmother both died very recently.  The youngest and oldest members of the Cook family.

When a baby dies, the pain is harsh and visceral and immediate.  There is an unnatural flavour to it.  We are not wired to easily accept death in the generation below us.

When a grandmother dies, the loss is more spread out.  The end of an era.  It’s like having the house you’ve lived in all your life torn down over your head.

Things touch me in strange ways.  The way the funeral home is now a familiar place.  The way my niece’s death struck me when I noticed the shoes her body wore in the tiny coffin.  The way my grandmother’s voice floated to me while the congregation sang old hymns I grew up with.  The shifting, uncertain way I approached the pulpit to give my words at both funerals.  The scent of flowers, beautiful and arranged with love, giving a sense of life and renewal, even though they also were cut and would not live long.  The carrying of my grandmother’s coffin up and down the same stairs we used to carry her up and down when she went to church, laughing with her as we went and joked about how heavy her wheelchair was.

Memories of my grandmother.  How she gave us all Swiss Army Knives one Christmas, and we went home bleeding and grinning.  How her little white house on Spruceside Crescent as a sort of second home—a safe and warm place full of people and food and a kind of freedom that only grandparents can give.  The message she whispered as I laid her coffin down atop that deep, deep grave: “I lived well.  I loved freely.  I laughed loudly.  I made my home an open place, devoted to the making of peace and pies.  I trusted my grandchildren enough to give them knives for Christmas and I didn’t freak out when they cut themselves on them.  Remember my whole life, not just the last years since my stroke.  It’s not the last words or acts that matter.  It’s the whole thing.

The spark of light buried deep in the shock of my niece’s death.  The vibrant life that shone in her for six months, no less full for the quickness in which they were spent.  The focused and determined play my daughter had with her during the short time I was blessed to visit with her.  The serious depth that struck my son when he heard of it, took her photo off the fridge and cried as he held it—overcome with emotion at the age of seven.  The message that she whispered to me as I stood in the funeral home and stared at her shoes: “I lived well.  I never learned to waste life on things that gave me no joy.  I never learned to give up on my dreams.  I never learned cynicism or how to be judgmental.  I spent my short and beautiful life clinging to the people who loved me and letting them cling back to me.  I left the world undefeated by it—something very few people can say.

I have a deep and uncompromising contempt for death.  It is legitimate and true, I suppose, to view death as a doorway to the next grand adventure.  But that does not overcome the deep, visceral view that lives in each of us—death is a tragic and evil thing.  Death is the first and universal enemy of mankind.  And even if I look at death as a portal to another, better world, it is still my enemy.  It is still something that I will not enter willingly.  I will still rage, rage against the dying of the light.  And I will lose.  Death will take me, though not quietly.

But my grandmother Frances and my niece Temia remind me that the best way to spit in the face of death is not to fight it when it comes near, but to live while I’m alive.  Like they did.

I miss you, Grandma.  My memories of you bleed together, making my stories a sort of collage that only I can fully understand.  You were a pillar and a foundation.  My life is missing something without you in it.

I miss you, Temia.  The light in your eyes and the authentic smile on your lips.  The way you look either curious or excited in nearly every photo I look at.  You are an inspiration and I long to have some of that light and curiosity and excitement.

You both touched me in a deep place.  I’m sad you’re gone.  Thank you both for being awesome.

Life as Temple Run or Minecraft

     Have you ever felt like life is kinda like Temple Run?
     The game only just came out for Android. It barely runs on my phone, but I can’t stop playing it. You take on the role of Guy Dangerous, an explorer with a ridiculously impressive cardiovascular system. You start the game being chased by skull-faced monkeys through an unending temple maze filled with traps and stumps and fire-breathing statues. You run until you die.
     How do you win? You don’t. The maze goes on forever. No matter how skilled you are or how many hours you devote to the game, you always die.
     Is life like that? Is it just a Temple Run where I try to get the farthest I can before the skull monkeys eat me? Is it all just a game of ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’?
     I’ve been on a long, interesting spiritual journey since high school. I’ve gone from atheism to Christian fundamentalism to something else altogether. But one of the things that I’ve never been able to shake off is a deep and resentful contempt for death.
     As an atheist, death was a thing to be avoided at all costs because it was the end of everything. It was the bitter reality that threatened to swallow me whenever I gave it attention.
     As a fundamentalist, death was the gateway to hell for nearly everyone I knew (and, I thought, perhaps for me, as I feared sometimes my theologies would be too incorrect to get forgiveness). The final, unforgiving act of God.
     But now, what is it? Is it really the end?
     I feel like life is a little bit more like Minecraft. Some critics look at the game and scoff saying “It’s pointless!” And they refuse to play. But for others, there’s something special in it. There’s something special about building grand structures in an infinite world. About walking through gateways and slaying evil monsters. About reaching The End and destroying the vile Ender Dragon.
     And what happens when the monsters are all slain and the mighty works are all built? What then?
     I’m not totally sure, really. I can only think of two possibilities.
     Either the old, atheist Matt was right, and there is nothing beyond the grave. Not even darkness.
     Or, as I think these days, the Great Teacher was right when he spoke of another Kingdom that was not of this world. Of a place where Love gives life. Where life comes abundantly and where mankind is reconciled with the source of Love and Life. Where my acts of love and creation live on and rejoice with the other works of love and creation that we have made together with God.
     So I run, mostly confident that I’m not in a game that can only end in death. If I’m right, all my joy today is building toward an endless joy that will one day witness the death of death. If I’m wrong … I’ll never know.
     Keep creating.

The State-Sponsored Murder of Love

     Jesus was killed.

     My tradition has always looked at his execution from an abstract, theological point of view. We talk about God getting stuck in a sort of cosmic loop-hole where his previous promise to kill sinners works against his desire to let them live, so he works out a deal with his son in which killing his son makes it so he can let sinners who understand this theological concept off the hook.

     But I find myself looking at it from a different point of view this year.

     Jesus was a different sort of fellow. He refused to accept the conventions of who was ‘us’ and who was ‘them’. He would befriend hookers and foreigners and heretics. He undermined the religious and civil establishment by commanding people to call no one father or teacher or master. He starting knocking the legs out under the power of the empire by telling people to love their enemies and to never repay evil for evil. He upset the commercial establishment by clearing the businessmen from the temple and by telling folks to share everything they had until there were no poor people left. He told people that the Utopian Kingdom of God was within their grasp.

     They had to kill him, of course.

     Not only that, they had to break his message.

     So now, instead of a Jesus who was willing to die before kill, we have a Jesus who blesses our soldiers and weapons manufacturers while condemning bartenders. It’s an easy thing to do. Watch.

     First, we take the premise from Romans 13 that the government is established by God. Then we remember that, while Jesus made it abundantly clear that our only attitude and actions toward our enemies should be love and kindness, God is allowed killing anyone he wants. So when the government tells us to kill, it’s okay! So long as you do it without hating the people in ‘your heart’, as Luther says, “Soldiers, as Christians, should indeed love those enemies – not hate them, hold malice against them, or mistreat captives or civilians – but they have an authorization to do what soldiers have to do.”

     And all the other things that led Jesus to the cross, we steer away from. Instead of eating with hookers and heretics, we rail against them. Instead of turning over the tables of unjust businessmen who use religion as a means of profit and oppress their workers, we support Walmart and Wall Street while condemning the people trying to change the system. Instead of forgiveness, we call for punishment. Instead of rehabilitation, we call for death. Instead of freedom, we set certain men as higher than ourselves, call them ‘government’ and put on fancy clothes and ribbons while we go off killing their enemies.

     That sort of Jesus never would have gone to a cross. He would have started a profitable career in politics.

     But the real love of Jesus threatens everything. It threatens our wealth and safety. It’s risky. It’s full of uncertainties. It’ll kill half the people who sign up for it. But it’s also the only way to life. Jesus proved it.

Maybe I Can’t

     Maybe I never will.

     Maybe my dreams will be stillborn. Maybe I’ll be a wage-slave for the rest of my life.

     Maybe all the shiny, happy things that dance in my head will stay in my head and never come out. Maybe all the naysayers are right. Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I’m not smart enough.

     But I’ll be damned if I don’t try.

     It’s hard. But I refuse to utter that God-damned word – can’t.

     Because can’t, like death, is so final. But life, like try is so full of possibilites. So full of hope.

     So there, naysayers. So there, thou fel voices in my head. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’ll point your fingers at me in twenty years and laugh and say ‘Told you so! Told you so!’

     But when you do, I’ll smile back and say ‘I’m still alive, silly. Point your fingers at me once I am dead, because I’ve not given up yet!’

The Life You Always Wanted

     You’ve screwed up. So have I, I guess. That’s the way it goes, sometimes. What are you going to do about it?

     Usually we re-live it. We put our minds there and run through the screw-up again and again. So instead of screwing up once, we screw up everyday. The same screw-up. It sucks.

     Keep it up and you’ll die full of regrets.

     Ever wondered what it would be like to know you were going to die? People talk about the choices they’d make if they found out they had a terminal illness. People say they’d call up old friends and right old wrongs and tell off enemies and live life the way they’d always dreamed of living it. I don’t really get that.

     Because I am dying. And so are you. We’ve all been diagnosed with a terminal illness – mortality. No one beats it. 100% casualty rate.

     You know what I’d change in my life if I found out I had terminal cancer? Not much. To be honest, I’m already living the way I want to.

     I have a family that gives me nothing but joy. I am slowly but surely working toward my creative dreams. I am just about the happiest person I know.

     Because I know I’m dying.

     So I don’t pay much attention to the mistakes I’ve made. I don’t re-live them. I don’t whine about not having enough time to follow my dreams. Because I don’e have time to whine. I’m dying. And there’s nothing like living like you were dying.

Subway Evangelists

     A Muslim evangelist approached me while I was waiting for my subway today. He handed me a book and tried to get me interested in his religion. I told him I had lived in Pakistan and he thought that was pretty cool. He told me that Pakistan, in his opinion, was not a good example of a Muslim country.
     “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “They have great family values there, unlike here in Canada.”
     “But the problem is all the Hindus.”
     “Oh. Wait, what?”
     “And Afghanistan used to be a good Muslim country, until the Americans removed the Taliban.”
     “Now only Saudi Arabia is any good.”

     My train came and I made my getaway. I flipped through the book he gave me. It was about how capital punishment is merciful and condoms deny women the honour of motherhood.

     I threw it out at the next stop.

     Getting on the bus, I started reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants. She talked about a high school health teacher she once had who spent a day educating the class on how to recognize and avoid homosexuals. Because they are ruining the world, of course.

It’s the Hindus’ fault.
It’s the gays’ fault.
Blah blah blah.

     I remember giving myself a tour of my son’s elementary school. I saw a poster on the ground, obviously torn off the wall and defaced. It had named the school a safe zone for people of all races, religions and sexual orientations. I guess some people don’t like the idea of making the world safe for people who walk different paths.

     It’s all so silly, though, isn’t it?

     Every group claims they want to see peace on earth and goodwill toward men. But only on their terms. Peace, so long as you become us instead of them. Peace, so long as you stop being so gorram different.

     I used to think that the only way to peace was if everyone in the world stopped being whatever they were, and became more like me. My religion. My sexuality. My philosophies of government and economy. It was straight, Christian, conservative, capitalism or bust. And I spent many, many hours trying to get people to switch sides.

     But what if we put these labels aside and recognized each other as fellow humans, first? Instead of blaming the Hindus or homosexuals for whatever problems we see, what if we just shut up and gave peace a chance? What if we all just got along?

     Cliche? Simplistic? Maybe. But I heard a clever guy once say that we should, so far as it depends on us, be at peace with everyone. So I’m not going to blame out social ills on this religion or that lifestyle. Instead, I figure I’m going to be the change I want to see, open my arms in fellowship to everyone, and be at peace with all people.

     Blaming other groups is easy and cathartic. But it does little more than generate more hate and animosity. And we have enough of that in the world, already.

The Solace of the Solstice

     The Night looked upon the world and laughed. For he was winning.

     He descended and walked through the streets of a tiny village, clothed in darkness and a sharp chill. The sun had long been buried beneath the earth and the stars could not shine through the clouds. The moon was hidden and the only lights were the tiny rebellious lamps in windows. And even those stood lonely and weak.

     It is obvious now, the Night thought. The battle is over. I have overrun the Day. She cannot recover from this depth of darkness. It’s only a matter of time before the sun refuses to rise in the morning.

     A noise arose from the centre of town, just as the darkness gathered to its deepest. The Night smiled and walked toward it. He found the townspeople, marching down the market street. They were cheering.

     At the head of the train were men and women on horses, blowing trumpets and carrying banners displaying a blazing sun. Behind them marched drummers, dressed gayly and pounding out a cheerful rhythm. Behind them the entire town marched. Men and women, girls and boys, all dressed in finery and dancing through the streets. Some carried lanterns on long poles. Some shook bells and tambourines. Some carried massive puppets of sprites and woodland creatures, so large that they needed three men to manipulate. Behind it all was carried a massive wooden figure – a hand, thirty feet tall, clutching a heart. The hand was encircled with dancers who swung fire on torches and ropes.

     The Night frowned. He followed the parade in the shadows and scowled at their merriment. The crowd marched through every street in the town, gaining followers as townspeople left their homes and closed their shops.

     They came to the green in the centre of town and placed their giant wooden idol upon the yellowed grass. And they set up shops and booths and put on mummer’s plays and sold warm ale and cider and meat pies. And fools in motley sang ballads about the victory of the Day while bards and minstrels sang songs of like theme.

     And the fire dancers wove a dervish around the idol and all the people gathered to sing and dance and clap and watch. And, in sickening unison, the dancers bowed low to the idol and set it ablaze. And the people rejoiced as it was consumed.

     “No!” the Night called out. The townspeople stopped their merriment and turned to see him step out from the shadows.

     “What is the meaning of this?” the Night demanded. “I have won! Why do you make merry? This is the longest night there has ever been! It is my zenith! The height of my power! How can you find strength to rejoice on this, darkest of nights? Tell me!”

     The crowd stood silent before him, for he was fearsome to behold. A child pushed her way through the crowd and stood before the Night. She curtsied and addressed him.

     “Sir Night,” she said, “We rejoice because this is the darkest night.”

     “Why would you rejoice over that?”

     “Because, sir Night, there are no nights darker than this. Tomorrow will be brighter. And the next day will be brighter yet. This is the night of your greatest strength. And we have lived. So there is nothing but hope for us.”

     “Hope?!” the Night screamed. “You hope? I’ll show you that I have not yet begun to wane! I will blanket this pitiful town with ice and snow and darkness. And you will regret wasting your fuel on this dance and fire!”

     So the Night retreated to his ethereal domains and opened his storehouse. He took his vials of snow and ice and frost and poured them out upon the earth. And the next day the village was buried. The lake froze and all the grass on the green was covered. The townspeople retreated indoors and burnt wood to keep warm.

     But the night was a little shorter.

     The next day the Night poured sleet and icy rain upon the village. Houses were damaged and an old man died of chill.

     But the night was a little shorter.

     Day after day, the Night devised new ways to torment the village with his icy powers. Livestock perished, food ran scarce, and men and women began to die.

     But the nights grew shorter.

     Until one day, the Night went to his stores, and saw that they had all perished. His vials of ice and snow had melted. His jars of sleet and frozen rain had evaporated. He looked down on the village and saw, to his horror, that the power of his rival, the Day, equalled his own. And the people in the town were holding another festival.

     The green was, once again, green. The trees were alive with blossom. Men and women and girls and boys danced outside without coats and gloves.

     And he saw the truth in the words of the little girl. His reign had ended on the night of his greatest triumph.

     In similar manner, on the darkest night, a Boy was born. And then he died. And the world grew cold and raged against the light of his love. And genocides and wars and hatreds abounded. But his birth was the great Solstice – the Solstice of Solace. And his kingdom shall come.