Essay / Art

Yourself and the Air Around You

Charles C. Ryrie has a hundred object lessons for teaching the young. No, really, a hundred. They’re all good for making doctrinal points clear to kids, and Ryrie tells you exactly what object to show the kids in each case: a chair, a comb, a sealed letter, a map, etc. But when he tries to illustrate the grace of God in giving his only son, he decides that the proper object is “yourself and the air around you.” That decision puts his object lesson into some kind of strange, existential mental space. At least it did me. Check it out:

Object: Yourself and the air around you.
Lesson: To present the Lord Jesus Christ as the gift of God

Have you ever stopped to think, boys and girls, that on every side of you is one of the most wonderful things in all of God’s universe? It’s about the only thing that is free today, and it’s something you can’t possibly do without. Do you know what I’m talking about? Surely, the air we breathe. But that is not half so wonderful as another gift God has given us, and that gift is His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whom God gave to the world many years ago.

I’ve just decided something. I simply do not like to take anything from anyone, so I’m not going to take God’s air. If I can’t buy it, I just won’t use it. I’ll stop breathing. (Hold your breath for a while.) Well, maybe I will change my mind after all and take this gift from God. Didn’t I look rather foolish holding my breath? And yet there are probably some of you here today who are still refusing to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior. When God freely offers eternal life, peace, happiness and heaven, isn’t it foolish not to accept them?

Compare that with Annie Dillard’s poem “The Shape of the Air,” from her 1974 book Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. The first section goes like this:

Cut a hole through the roof of your house
leading to your bedroom closet.
Close and caulk.
Stand on the roof,
pour plaster down
into your shoes,
around through your shirts,
pants, bathrobe, hats, …
allow to dry.
Remove with hooks.
Split. Remove the clothes;
This is the shape of part of the air.

There are many differences, of course, between Ryrie the dispensationalist teaching Sunday School teachers how to teach, and Dillard the “spiritually promiscuous” epiphanic ranger. The obvious difference here is that Dillard’s poem is a contemplation about negative space, the visual divots around every solid object on its three-dimensional background. Ryrie is not driven by the same visual imagination, but is interested in the universality of air’s availability to himself and his audience. But they gather together around this elemental appeal, this gesture toward the invisible air as the bearer of a presence.

Perhaps a middle position is in the lyrics of Terry Scott Taylor’s 1987 song, itself derived from Dillard’s poem, entitled “The shape of air:

Pour cement ’round things
Let it dry
Break away things
See the design
Describe the voice from heaven
And paint the grace you’re given

It’s the shape of air
It’s the shape of air
I can sit and stare
‘Till it’s almost clear

Take a moment to consider “yourself and the air around you.”

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