Mud & Poetry Sample Chapter

I, too, saw God through mud—

The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.

Chapter 1

Mud & Poetry

We must not rank ourselves too low;

and with still greater care we must see that we do not

think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.

—Saint Bernard of Clairvaux


Some people think of Christianity as the color white, like pure snow or vanilla ice cream. This might be why the occasional Christian takes all that is sexual and earthbound—with all of life’s dirt and difficulty—and whitewashes it. Everything’s bleached clean and bone-white and acceptable. But to me bleached Christianity offers a bloodless substitute for real life. I like to think of Christianity as a beautiful brown, like the color of Guinness or dark coffee. The kind of brown you find in the upholstery of seedy dive bars or of those working-class, brick-and-mortar haunts; brown like after-the-rain mud puddles kids love to jump in.

I think this because, as far as I can tell, at its heart Christianity isn’t classy, and it isn’t for prudes. Though it may well have inspired a lot of high-art and highbrow thought, it’s also guilty of highballs and high heels. Christianity is true-to-life, which makes it chaste, yes, and holy; but it’s equally sexually exciting and intoxicating.

For Christians, everything is compelling and sacred—everything except corruptions and inversions of real things. And this book explores what a single, Christian person like me finds compelling and sacred about sex, love, God, and everything in between. They’re all related in the plainest yet most momentous ways. God builds his community here on earth, using ordinary, unsophisticated, soil-like mediums to give it shape—relevant to this little book’s theme, the plain marriages of everyday men and women. It’s unpretentious. It’s sexual. It’s lowborn and muddy. But it’s alluringly holy.

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And so I begin with dirt. If ever I marry, I would like to marry in a graveyard. In my daydreams, the ceremony takes place in the morning. The spring grass is wet with dew. Branches hang heavy with apple blossoms. My bride and I have two plots beneath a tombstone with our names and our Battle Cry chiseled above blank epitaphs. A string quartet plays at a distance while family and friends gather around our freshly dug graves. The priest reads from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. There is no altar. There are no stained-glass windows. Over this austere monument and over these two yawning holes, we exchange vows (while a wedding reception is to be a drunk, merry thing, the wedding ceremony itself is to be a grave thing).

I am told the whole idea is morbid: to me, it’s a beautiful and severe affirmation of the wedding vow—Till death do us part. In some degree, to marry is to say, “You and I will someday die.” We cannot be together forever. Even if we died at exactly the same moment, we, like all lovers, would be torn apart, severed, “alone into the unknown.” God shapes Adam from the dust of the earth, and to the dust Adam returns. Marriage is a beginning pointed toward an end. For Christians, that end is God. One flesh. For a twinkling of an eye. And then, a six-by-three-foot flower bed.

This may be a morose way to start talking about sex and romance and marriage. But A Great Love is a serious thing. And only when we are serious—rightly serious about the right things—can we truly laugh and play. We begin with death so that we might live, and live well. You can’t have poetry without mud. Christianity knows this. This is why, for all its Sistine Chapels and Dantes and Bachs, it remains the faith of messy ordinary people living messy ordinary lives.

But before I can tell you my story or talk about sex and love directly, I must start with mud and poetry. This first chapter describes and defines mud and poetry. It’s tough to write about love and death without generalizations, and it’s difficult to make generalizations without sounding glib. I am in many ways beyond my territory. I’m not married. I’m not a therapist. I’m just a house-painter bachelor with convictions and ideas. When it comes to marrying and making love and dying, I can only write as one comparing notes.

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You can’t talk about love without eventually talking about everything, because what love means depends on what the whole world means. Our idea of love hinges on our idea of life. The nature of love reaches back to the very first things, to our premises and presuppositions. I wasn’t able to put words to love until I realized that what love is depends on what the human person is. And the human person is mud and poetry.

I cannot give you any definitive explanation as to why this is so: I can only stare openmouthed and point. For example, I am completely enchanted with the myth of Adam and Eve. Who wouldn’t be? It is a story about a naked man and a naked woman; a story that takes place in a garden with apples and a snake and the possibility of immortality and doom, a myth of endless application and imagination. I do not mean myth in the abraded present-day meaning of “falsehood.” To me human history is not only a sequence of empirical facts. Fact is essential, yes; but I’m also after the deeper wisdom and meaning of human experience; that is, the myth. Fact without myth is half the truth. But myth without fact is also half the truth. And so you will notice in this book that I often refer back to the mythic-factual story of Adam and Eve. It is a myth, but a myth is not (necessarily) less than a fact. I read about Adam and Eve, I read other books, I live a little, and I have this germinating hunch that humanity is made up of mud and poetry.

I remember reading about a study that compared orphans in institutions to children being raised in prison. While the living conditions of the imprisoned children were hygienically inadequate, if not downright abysmal, the living conditions of the orphans were hygienically immaculate. Interestingly enough, the children raised in prison were far less susceptible to neuroses, illness, and even mortality than the orphaned children. The difference was that the orphans were raised by professional nurses while the imprisoned children were raised by their own (albeit imprisoned) biological mothers. Nurses, however well trained, perform their duties in a routine, institutionalized manner. Their primary concern is with physical need, with mud. Biological mothers, however, give natural affection, milk, and care. They are concerned not only with the physical health of the child, but with his heart and soul, with her name; that is, with poetry.

The story of Adam and Eve has become a symbol for me. The way I see it, mud comprises the raw materials of life: water, shelter, food, sex, emotional need. Mud is, in part, needy biology. The “muddiness” of humanity is not a bad thing. We cannot escape it; we’re not supposed to want to escape it. Mud is good. God formed Adam from the mud of the earth, stepped back, and said: “This is good—very good!” —Good, that is, mud and all. Mud is the God-given, natural search for happiness and fulfillment in life. Mud is the stuff of which we’re made: the hungry, dependent, mortal, finite goodness of being an emotional-spiritual-embodied creation.

The orphans had nutritious, clean mud. Yet they were more prone to neurosis, illness, and even death, than the children raised with their imprisoned mothers in bleak conditions. This is because the mud in humanity—the emotional, sexual, communal, neediness of humanity—can’t be met with mud alone. Bald existence cannot sustain a happy, healthy, fully human life. What the orphans were lacking was poetry.

An upset baby reaches for his mother because a receptive and aware parent can soothe him;it cannot soothe itself. Mud cries out for poetry. A child cries out for caresses and milk and a name. And this need never goes away. Adults cry out for knowing and being known, for relationship, for affirmation, for connectedness and affirmation of that name. In the face of muddy death, the lover in grief cries out for immortality (the poetry in us defies death). We are inextricably both mud and poetry.

It’s beautiful, really. God formed Adam from the mud of the earth and then lifted him up, rejoiced over him, and said: “It is good—very good!” And out of that joy and out of that approval he bent down and kissed Adam, breathed life into him—breathed poetry into him. That kiss confirms our place as creature in relationship to our Creator. In some unknowable yet obvious way, we bear God’s image, his likeness. This breath, this kiss, this pulsing, restless image-bearing, is the mud and poetry of us. We are more than a body. We are auras. God knit our spirits to our bodies seamlessly. We are emotional-spiritual-physical people of passion, fertility, heartache, bad cholesterol, bad ovaries, great art, and great relationships. The depths intermix with the heights. This is the joy and burden of being human. We are mud and we are poetry.

I think of poetry as what affirms and articulates our creativity, our scientific inquiry, our reaching outward and upward, our resemblance to God (and, thus, our amazing capacity to say to one another, even to God himself, “It is good—very good!”). Poetry is a soldier going to war for his county. It’s a mother making breakfast for her thankless children. It’s Rothko and Cézanne and Kavanagh and Milton. It’s children playing on a playground. It’s what happens when a man stammers to ask a pretty girl out bowling or to the movies. It’s making love. It’s taking Communion on Sunday morning. Poetry is when we call each other by name (and say, in so many words: “It is good that you exist!”).

Christianity is God-lit and shining, but it’s also a beautiful brown. And this is because real life is not only God-lit but also soil-like and messy. Mud and poetry are not so much binary as they are a spectrum. A person isn’t acting out of only either (a) pure poetry or (b) pure mud. Mud and poetry overlap and intermingle, sometimes so as to be indistinguishable, the wide spectrum of existence we call life. We cannot separate spiritual from physical, life from death, and (consequently) joy from pain, and even need from gift. But still, generally speaking, there are distinct differences between the two. While mud is the emotional-spiritual-physical neediness and ache of being human, poetry is “the sweetness of life”—the relational, celebratory, art-making, procreating, happiness of existence. Poetry too is emotional and physical and spiritual. But it is so in a way different than mud. Mud moans, and then it sighs. It takes: it eats, digests, takes comfort in. Poetry sings, and then it laughs. It offers: it affirms, celebrates, pushes, stretches out. In short, mud needs and receives; poetry gives and creates.

Think of a cup. We either come at each other empty, thirsty, and looking to be filled (mud); or we are full, full to overflowing (poetry). We are at one moment needy and dependent and at another bursting with love and creativity. Our life is rooted in mud. We reach up to the sun: we drink the rain. We flower. We sing and we work, we make love and we build houses and we raise children. We die. We are but mud and poetry. And, because I don’t want to draw pictures of make-believe, fantastical conceptions of the world, poetry and mud have to be pointed toward death.

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This next section is about death, and its relationship to mud and poetry. In the same way that you cannot write a book about love without writing about everything, you cannot write a book about love without writing a book about death. We live to die. This is not to say that death is our life’s purpose, but that we are all, even now, heading toward our deaths. Every evening before you pull the curtains shut, you look upon the horizon line of your death. And every evening that horizon line shines brighter, closer. By the time you finish reading this chapter, you will be nearer to your death than you were before you started. The view has no comfort, no vocation, no raison d’être. Death does not fulfill life: it puts an ax to it. Death is a catastrophe.

In one sense, however, I think death is natural. In our present fallen state, death is often a welcome thing. The body tires, the will ebbs. We wear.


They tell me I am going to die.

Why don’t I seem to care?

My cup is full. Let it spill.


But in another sense, there is nothing natural about death. I don’t think we were meant to die. Mortality was not an original part of mud or poetry. Death is the consequence of sin. In the beginning we were without sin: thus, we were without death. But because of our sin, mortality has infected poetry and mud like a disease. We have fallen from our original state. We have fallen far from the glory, we have sinned, and we must therefore die.

Sin and mortality infect mud and poetry in different ways. Mud dies with the separation of the soul from the body. But poetry dies with the separation of the soul from God.

Mud’s relationship to death is more passive than active. Sin broke the harmony between the mud of our bodies and the mud of the earth. Creation became hostile to humanity. Humanity became alien to creation. Because of sin, the mud of the earth is now constrained to “bondage to decay.” Mud is passive: because of sin, our bodies now get sick, bend and droop over time, whether we like it or not. We can’t do anything about it. But sin does not make the mud in us inherently evil. We will always be muddy. Even in heaven we will be muddy. But we will not always be mortal.

It was not out of muddy need that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Eden offered all the mud—and satisfaction of mud—that mud could possibly need. It was poetry that took and ate the apple. For poetry transcends mere need. Poetry is desire, and desire and need are not the same thing. More accurately, the poetry in us is will. And will is the creative power to decide on and initiate, to affirm and negate, to make. It was a poetic gesture to eat the forbidden fruit. It was an act of sheer will and desire. And in the eating, Adam and Eve acquired the knowledge of good and evil—a knowledge so profound God cast them out of the Garden lest they eat from the tree of eternal life and become “like one of us.” And this, I think, is why poetry is the more godlike: it seeks to know and to create and to will. And since the Fall, poetry now knows both good and evil. Poetry of this capacity is no small gift. It is no small thing to be able to will against death, or to embrace it, or to even have a word for it—“death.” It is an enormous poetic power to be able to procreate, to paint a painting, to commit suicide, to murder. The poetry in us is what we choose to make of it. We can choose good or evil. We can affirm or we can deny. We can love or we can hate. And we can give a damn or we can choose to not give a damn. That is poetry.

Looked at from another angle, the poetic gesture of sin is also just mud turned on its head. Mud is concerned with the needs of the me, myself. Deformed and unruly mud separates the needy self from its natural connection to others and to poetry. It becomes autonomous and greedy. Corrupted mud is a corrupted love of the self. And its fruit is the poetic decision to decide what is good and evil for ourselves rather than trusting God’s definition of good and evil.

Why does mud tend to invert and turn in on itself? Why has every Christian cried out with Paul, “Why do I do that which I do not want to do?” This incessant tendency of mud to become a cancerous obsession with self, to choose sin, comes close to the idea of humans having a sinful nature. Regardless of whether original sin is actually a part of our true nature (our nature being what God made us to be when he first created us: his own image-bearers) or not, it must be said that in a post-Adamic world no human except Jesus has been without sin, that every human has indeed sinned, and that, therefore, despite all our advances in medicine, the mortality rate is still 100 percent.

Nevertheless, while mud bears death more passively, poetry wrestles, embraces or fights against death actively. Mud is now resigned to our mortal condition. But poetry is in a constant tug-of-war with that condition. Sin sentences both mud and poetry to death: though the mud in us has little to say or do about it (our bodies die), the poetical has much to say about it. The poetry in us stretches out into eternity: by its very nature, it defies death. Our bodies get sick, bend and droop and wrinkle over time whether we like it or not. But our spirits, our poetry, can continue to flower, form, and reform, unto death. While our bodies eventually fall apart, our spirits do not have to wrinkle and tire. The poetry in us is what we make of it. And for poetry to be formed around the good, the true, and the beautiful, it must be harnessed to those shining virtues faith, hope, and love—which is to say, the person of Jesus Christ.

Where Christ is, life is. Life comes from God. Sin is turning away from God and, consequently, from life. Death, then, is a separation from life and from God. This does not mean God is separated from us,14 but that we have separated ourselves from God.

The Christian hope is that, in Christ, death is not the final word, that after we die God will breathe new life into our mud and our poetry, and it will then be raised up without the sin-mortality it now bears. We will be perfected to glory—the Bible says the very glory of God.

Christ died that we might live.

Yet we die.

Death is not natural, and yet, at the same time, it is the most undeniable prospect in life. While death is said to be defeated by the cross of Christ, and its sting removed by his resurrection, death is still immanent. Even as the apostle Paul looks forward to everlasting life with Christ, he anticipates his own death. He knew the old verse: “The soul that sins shall die.”

But always there is God, the God who is over and above and around everything we are. God can be trusted. And because God can be trusted, his revelation can be trusted. And because his revelation can be trusted, so too can our reasoning and experience be trusted. And if our reasoning and experience can be trusted, so too can our deep poetical longings and desires be trusted. And what does the human person—poetry, mud, and all—long for most? I wonder if it’s not the fulfillment of our mud and poetry, in God and in each other.

Because there is God, there is not death and only death, but also the possibility of hope, reconciliation, and grace. For the Christian, death goes hand in hand with resurrection, union, full relationship, immortality, endless creating and re-creating, deep meaning, joy, and unfathomable glory.


Yet Lord, instruct us so to die,

That all these dyings may be life in death.


Mud Love and Poetry Love

Although love is not easy to define, it has an inherent architecture, an order that can be excavated from the essential qualities of what it means to be human. As I have said, humanity is mud and poetry. This is a crude reduction, admittedly: but sometimes it helps to unnaturally dissect and define in order to see the natural whole. This is, at least, I think, the case with love. If humanity is mud and poetry, it follows that in its simplest forms there are two kinds of love: Mud Love and Poetry Love.

Mud Love is a beautiful brown, earthy love. It’s a love for pillows and blankets, a love for pizza and beer. Mud Love is love for our own sake. No one loves beer for its own sake; that is, no one wishes it the best, or the good. We love beer for our sake. If we were to wish it anything at all, it would be that it would be in our pint glasses so that we could enjoy it. Mud Love is a needy kind of love. It loves friends and family and the next-door neighbor because of fear of loneliness. It loves because it is lonely, hungry, and cold. Mud Love fulfills our impulse for completion, satiation, and fulfillment.

The premise of Mud Love is that our whole existence depends on being wanted and being loved. We usually think that a good love is void of self-interest, that to love out of a need that we might be loved in return is to have an ulterior motive. A good love, we think, has no ulterior motive. But, as C. S. Lewis has observed: “We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves. . . . Our whole being by its very nature is one vast need.” Only God can fully love without being dependent on being loved in return. As humbling as it is to admit, our loves always grow out of poverty. It is a rare occurrence indeed—at times, maybe even a divine gift—to love without any thought to self. (for even in acts of charity, as we use the word today, we are delightfully conscious of our momentarily benevolent selves: how many “selfless” acts of love are really hidden forms of self-love? How many masquerades of charity have really turned out to be mere stubbornness or bravado?). Indeed, only when we know we are loved are we able to love without any thought to ourselves. This is okay. In the beginning God designed us as needy mud. And he immediately met this need in his affirmation, “It is good—very good!”—an affirmation he has repeated throughout all of history in the tireless pursuit of humankind. It is okay that we cannot—could never possibly—love God as intensely as he loves us. It’s also okay that we need each other, could never possibly come at each other without some thought to ourselves. God made us that way.

A whole love cannot emerge ex vacuo: it grows out of the dynamic muddiness of being human. Mud Love is the soil of the soul, the only ground from which any other kind of love can take root and flower. This does not reduce all human loves to self-love. We are capable of loving, of adoring and beholding, without thought to self. But self-love is the starting point, an inescapable and good reference point.

Jesus, the only man to ever be equated with Love Itself, first meets the muddy needs of a person and then loves them with a poetic love, a love that looks upon those in need and says, “The kingdom of God is at hand!” (or in other words, “I still find you good—very good! I still love you. I still rejoice over your existence!”). Jesus first touches warm mud to the blind man’s face; then he tells him of his generous, overflowing love. If Jesus had merely healed the man of his blindness it would have been a half-healing. This is because (God knows it) we need more than mud. Mud Love cannot satisfy the desires it arouses. We need to be loved in muddy ways and in poetical ways.

Poetry Love is a love that inspires people to write poetry. Poetry Love is a vision, a beholding. It is contemplative. It is more roving than grounded Mud Love. For example, Mud Love is a sexual love. Sex is often bound up in Poetry Love, but sexuality is not the same thing as Poetry Love. Sex is muddy. Mud Love understands that a man wakes up in the morning thirsty for water and sex. A man in Mud Love (at least, Mud Love in its most rudimentary form) wants to have sex with a woman because of his own physical need. But a man in Poetry Love (at least, Poetry Love in its most rudimentary form) wants to write a poem about the woman, to sit under some tree and to think about her in a general state of woolgathering and delight. Later, perhaps, it may desire union with the beloved, but it will come at sex in an entirely different way than Mud Love. Poetry Love is enamored with a person. It desires union out of adoration and celebration, not out of muddy need.

Not that muddiness is bad. It’s just different. Mud wants to possess and be possessed, to have your clothes ripped off or to be clung to on a cold and lonely night. Mud wants orgasm. Poetry wants to gather and behold. It wants to draw a picture of the beloved naked. It wants to cherish and connect, to become a part of her in some way. Poetry wants ecstasy.

Poetry Love refines and cultivates our most primitive Mud Loving. Mud Love loves beer solely because it’s good for us. But with Poetry Love it is possible to respect or admire something, to simply rejoice over the fact that something exists at all. When someone says, “I love Rachmaninoff’s Vespers,” it means something entirely different than, “I love beer.” Saying that one loves the Vespers is not just saying that one loves to listen to the music. What it’s saying is that Rachmaninoff accomplished something inherently good and masterful, something truly great and beautiful apart from the listener, something that deserves to be enjoyed. It’s pure affirmation. It’s Poetry Love. Poetry Love is an appreciative love. It creates, honors, marks, lifts up, rejoices over, makes merry, memorializes. It is a love that does not love something or someone solely because of what they do for us, but because they are in themselves worth loving.

Poetry Love is a reflection of the Creator’s creative love because it says of the beloved, “It is good—very good that you exist!” The premise of Poetry Love is that, being made in the image of God, we can love with not only a fully human but also a godlike love. It has the power to turn our gaze away from self and upon another. Poetry Love can turn our love into something self-giving. Self-giving, it must be said, but not self-less. Love is never self-less. If we can love with a godlike love, it isn’t that God loves through us (although he certainly can). We ourselves are the lovers. It is true that without Jesus we are incapable of loving with the best kind of love possible. Compared to God’s abundant love for us, our love is scant. In his On Loving God, Saint Bernard goes so far as to say: “Our love is not a gift but a debt.” John writes, “We love because he first loved us.” But this is not to say we are merely conduits or channels of God’s love. When we love, we—not Someone or Something else—do the loving. God made us as human beings, individual selves. This is the enormous gift God breathed into us: we ourselves are actually capable of loving, and loving well.

When I say there are two kinds of love I’m speaking in shorthand. There are no such things as actual “Mud Love” or actual “Poetry Love”: there are, rather, mud and poetry dimensions (angles, nuances, wellsprings) to the experience of love. Like the mud and poetry of humanity, the idea of Mud Love and Poetry Love is not so much binary as it is a spectrum. On the far left we have sheer need and on the far right pure adoration. On one side we have sexual desire (perhaps something like desiderium, appetitus, passio, or sexus), and what Lewis has called “Need-love”; on the other side we have self-giving, godlike “Gift-love” (something like caritas, agape). In between we have the whole range of subtle affections and loves (eros, storge, amor, affectio, philia, philadelphia, amicitia).

Like the mud and poetry of being human, Mud Love and Poetry Love overlap and intertwine. You could have muddy poetry or poetical mud. This is seen, for example, in the joy between a lover and his beloved. The mud in the beloved wants to—needs to—be loved (the joy of being loved). At the same time the poetry in the lover turns his gaze onto the beloved in delighted, self-forgetting affirmation (the joy of loving). He cannot help but love her, and in doing so, fulfills her muddy need to be loved and wanted. Yet, in doing so, the lover finds, perhaps startlingly, that he likes to be needed in this way; indeed, he might find that he needs to be needed this way (the joy of being needed). Something about Poetry Love, he finds, is actually muddy. To add to the mix, the beloved might notice that her lover finds muddy fulfillment in her needing him, and out of her own muddiness voice, almost poetically (that is, for his sake, and not for hers), her neediness for his love, which he so badly wants her to have (the joy of someone else’s need). And this can go both ways, lover to beloved, beloved to lover. We love to want and to be wanted. We love to love and to be loved. We cannot help but need and want to be needed.

Love is something we do and something that happens to us. Love desires to possess and enjoy and to set free and surrender. How Mud Love and Poetry Love seem to contradict one another, and yet at the same time complement one another, will always remain a mystery. This is because love is a mystery. We are poetical mud and muddy poetry. And so are our loves.

It cannot be said enough that to love out of only Mud Love is to love immoderately. Mud Love without Poetry Love is self-seeking, self-indulging, self-gratifying, self-love. It’s a mask, a romantic affectation, a means of getting what you want. If Mud Love does not flower into Poetry Love, it can be quickly emptied of its inherent goodness. Mud Love is not inherently utilitarian, but without Poetry Love it can quickly become utilitarian, even dehumanizing. If you know only how to Mud Love, you will never see the world through the prophetic, loving eye of the poetic lover. A person in Poetry Love can hate no one. The whole world has been baptized, made hale and new. I cannot help but think of the old bearded poet yawping from the rooftops. He’s not just booming about the goodness of a particular woman, but about the goodness of the whole wide world. Poetry Love, at its highest, is a godlike love, and God’s love is an affirmation, “It is good—very good!”

To love is fundamentally to affirm. It always overflows from the specific object of love to the whole of things. Poetry Love makes the whole world lovable. This breakthrough, this discovery of something new, can be something like the joy of participating in what physicists call an experience of “elegance.” Everything around you becomes unexpectedly arresting, simple, rich, eternally complex: it takes on a certain form, an inner consistency. All of a sudden you find beauty in tomatoes, alleyways, and grocery store aisles. It was always there. It just took an affirmation to see it.

Love makes us who we are and who we will become. As creatures created by God, we need both the mud and the poetry in love in order to become what we were intended to be. This question is the premise behind all different motives of love: What is the human person meant to be?


My Award-Winning Chili Recipe

The Ran Ham is a booze-stocked hole-in-the-wall bowling alley in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s entirely discreet, entirely underground, and entirely outworn. Every year for the last thirty, my aunt and uncle have filled the Ran Ham with friends and beer for their annual Charles Chili Fest. Old friends and family spend weeks preparing secret homemade chili recipes to battle it out over blues, corn bread, and rotgut. There are as many awards as there are varieties of chilies: Most Like Your Mother’s, Most Like Hormel, Candy Ass, Peppy, Most Curious Chili.

One year I concocted a white chili so full of cilantro, garlic, and secret ingredients it qualified more as a mystery stew than as chili con carne. I set it on the table next to all the other more beautiful chilies and corn breads and immediately lost any hope of victory. My sense of despair was heightened when I saw that the seasoned members of the Chili Fest had Crock-Pots; my mystery stew sat at room temperature in a modest plastic bowl. But I couldn’t help goggling the shiny trophy with all the previous victors’ names engraved on it. I wanted it.

When the last of the beer is drunk and the last bowling ball hurled down the old Ran Ham lanes, after we have all stuffed our bellies with every possible chili imaginable and after we’ve cast our secret votes, we gather around to learn who won which awards.

I was not surprised when I won “Most Curious Chili” (the most comical award); my chili was curious, to say the least. But as the more prestigious prizes were awarded, I was shocked to hear my name called for the first-place Candy Ass prize. I had won! Everyone cheered and whistled and wanted to touch my shiny trophy. Even though I don’t even like trophies, I gobbled it all up. In some silly way, it affirmed me—as a cook, even as a person, a person worth taking notice of, if only for a night. It sounds childish, but I liked being publicly praised. I loved the fame, the glory of it all. I was proud.

It was early December, the season of Advent, a season of expectation, hope, longing, and joy which begins four Sundays before Christmas Day and lasts until Christmas Eve. I remember stepping outside with some friends for a smoke break and thinking about my trophy and my fame and all the waiting and hope of the liturgical season.

Interestingly enough, Christian theology professes that the final stage of salvation is gloria—fame, being publicly praised by God himself. Glory, it is said, is the fulfillment of our existence.

The New Testament is thick with references to Christ in glory. This God who became a Man—the Creator who became creatio; who died and, having died, conquered death and sin and then rose again to life—this Jesus will live on in glory. Christ will be glorified. And through him, all believers will be glorified. The process of salvation and sanctification is a process of self-actualization. The more we become like Christ, the more we become ourselves. Every single person is God’s bold and rich original idea. And God has made every single person to share life in glory with him. The apostle John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” God’s glory is the believer’s hope and final destination. The apostle Paul writes “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” He also says, “This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” Peter as well tells of glory: “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

Created by God and created for God, we must remember, with Bernard of Clairvaux, that “it is not of ourselves that we are what we are. Unless we know this thoroughly, either we shall not glory at all, or our glorying will be in vain.” Mud and poetry cry out for fulfillment in Christ. We don’t want to be homogeneous and boring. We want to stand out, to shine, to be inherently unique persons with our own tastes and skills and perspectives on life. And we want others to acknowledge this. It seems childish but it’s true. This idea of fame—of desiring to be singled out, chosen, acknowledged—is in our blood. And perhaps this is one reason why Christ says we must be like children if we are to enter the kingdom of God. A child seeks recognition not out of pride or vanity, but out of beautiful, sloppy mud.

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What love is depends on what the human person is. Humans are creatively made, affirmed, and loved by the artist Jesus Christ. Our whole existence hinges on this affirmation. The human person is mud and poetry, the very image of God. Sin has buckled and warped that image, tangled the good of mud and poetry with neuroses and vanity and mortality into a confusing knot. And so in our present state we must ask, What is the human person meant to be? I believe that, despite our sin, in Christ the answer remains: we are each a one-of-a-kind creation of deep pathos and unique personality destined for glory and relationship with God. Good love acknowledges and affirms the immutable and eternal in the beloved. And if the question What is the human person meant to be? is the premise behind our reasons for loving and shapes how we love, then the concepts of glory and death, sin and salvation, mud and poetry, are inseparable from the concept of love.

This is why I begin with dirt. This is why I want to get married in a graveyard. Marriage is a celebration of the whole personality—mud, poetry, mortality, and all—of your spouse, his or her creation, and his or her redemption. Good relationships are a union with another personal being. They defeat loneliness through sexual and intellectual and personal connection. But good lovers do not simply gaze into each other’s eyes. Their gaze is on Christ.

The Christian posture toward the world is brown and steeped in muddy real life. In Christian marriage, we usher one another unto death. For the Christian, a good love is a love with a view toward death, toward the beloved’s final resurrection and rest in Jesus, his or her future gloria. In this light, to learn how to love is to learn how to die.

This book is a collection of vignettes about the thoughts that wander through the mind of a sexually charged Christian single; thoughts that swirl and eddy rather than course straight. The chapters aren’t necessarily sequential or logically related. A lot of this book is the outcome of conversations over coffee or lunch with close friends. A lot of it is influenced by the books I discovered at the new and used bookstore just down the street from my apartment. And a lot of it tells my story. I couldn’t possibly describe Christianity from every possible angle. As I can presently write but one book, I can approach Christianity from but one angle: here, mud and poetry, sex and romance, singleness and marriage. This book is not much of an apologia. It is the vague musings, the mental pictures and hyperboles of a waxing mystic.

Love God. Date and have sex and get married. Drink beer and laugh. Pray. But not necessarily in that order. That is the distilled message of this book. God is wooing us, building something beautiful, and we can be a part of his activity on earth.

Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (Fresh Air Books, 2010).

Mud and Poetry

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