Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The parable of the Sheep and the Sheep...?

We went to Yellowstone last week (yes, it snowed!) and I really wanted to see a Bighorn Sheep, a species I have never yet beheld in the wild.  Wolves, black bears, moose, and bison have all been checked off my bucket list, but the bighorn continued to elude me.  Finally, we stopped for one of the requisite 'bear jams,' either a bunch of people gawking at some wild thing or a herd of bison is loitering on the road.  Some lady had parked her car right in the middle of the road and was out photographing what ever it was, but she got her photos and drove off leaving us to guess at what the critter was.  It was grazing with its head down and its rump towards us making it difficult to identify.  It was rather small and light colored and certainly moth-eaten and after several guesses of a sickly elk or a rangy deer, it finally revealed itself to be a rather scruffy Bighorn ewe:  


I was excited and disappointed.  Yes, I had my Bighorn, but it was far from the majestic, stunning denizen of wild mountain cliffs seen on postcards and wildlife calendars.  Yes, all the wildlife was thin and molting at the tail end of winter, but I had hoped for something a little more, well, grand!  But I was content, I had my sheep and could check it off my list.  Then we drove around the corner and came upon a major traffic snarl but as I pulled over briefly (and happily had my atrociously huge lens handy) I managed to snap this picture:



There they were, seven rather impressive (and lazy) Bighorn rams dozing in the sage brush, ignorant that their very presence was causing a bit of a frenzy in the traffic department.  I was willing to settle for my moth-eaten ewe, little thinking there was something so much better just around the corner, if I would only be patient and wait.  How often does that apply to life?  I know I've snatched at things I knew weren't the best or what was meant for me, yet I grasped at them desperately, content with the crumbs when I could have the whole cake, if I would but wait and trust.  A love interest, a job, a place to live, selecting a college or career, a prospective adoption...I've done it all, so afraid I would be forgotten or miss out that I chased dreams that were never meant for me, and I knew it, somehow, and after some angst and trouble, I'd be back to waiting for the right thing, the good thing, though I so wanted to be doing something, anything, to assure my own destiny, bring about my own future.  But I needed to learn to wait, and to trust, and to learn that it wasn't of my own doing that the important things in life were accomplished, but rather they were a gift and a blessing, that I wasn't forgotten, but rather it was not the proper place or time.  How many tears of frustration and how much wasted effort have I vainly spent on such futile strivings?  When all I really needed to do was wait until the appropriate time (this is not to say that all one needs to do is sit tight with open hands and whatever you want will happen, rather, this assumes you have taken the necessary steps to place yourself in the position to wait for the adoption to happen or the job offer to be made, laziness and being ill-prepared will not yield the hoped for results).

Maybe one of these days I'll quit settling for the rangy ewe, I'll be able to walk past it without batting an eye or looking back or wondering 'what might happen,' and rather walk on boldly round the corner and find the good intended for me, long hoped and prepared for, but not ready when and as I wanted it, but rather as it was meant to be.  All the closed windows and locked door, dead ends and walking in circles and endless waiting will not be in vain, but I must be patient in the interim.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The lost narrative

Ever wonder why life is so messy, ugly, and confusing at times?  Why as a society and culture we seem to be either circling the drain or milling about dazedly like cattle in a strange pen?  I think we've lost our narrative.  How can that be possible in a world 'where anything can happen child, anything can be!'?  Think about it for a minute: the very essence of art or story or music is the frame, the boundary, the border; a creative work is as defined by what it excludes as by what it includes.  Art died when all the rules were thrown out in favor of the modern 'freedoms,' the same happened to poetry and literature and if you've listened to the radio lately, music is also on the endangered species list.  In a land of infinite choice, where all choices are equally good, what is the point of choosing?  We are paralyzed by fear of choosing wrongly, of missing out on something, or too overwhelmed to do anything but point at random.  Instead of winning a trip to Norway, we get to go anywhere in the world and do anything, and all we can do is stare at the map with glazing eyes and gaping mouth, unable to decide what and where and how.

In the land of infinite freedom, many would give their right hand for a map.  I saw an article some years back examining the American infatuation with Tolkien and his world and it concluded that lacking a certain, known history, Americans grasped at Tolkien and his Middle Earth as a sort of substitute mythology, making it part of their own story and thereby giving themselves standing in a chaotic and shifting world.  It was an interesting theory, probably only good for a Ph.D. dissertation, but I think it hinted at a very important truth: human beings are creatures of story.  We need a beginning, a middle, and an end.  We need plot and characters and setting, otherwise we are adrift at sea with no knowledge of sailing.  In a world where everything is insane and open ended, story is the one enduring theme.  Need proof?  Look at the movies (not the quality but the quantity).  Almost every major release in recent history is a remake, a sequel, or a prequel of some beloved tale, why?  Because, no matter how insipid or badly done, producers know people will come simply because of the story or character or series upon which it is based.  We are drawn irresistibly to stories.

But how do stories fit in this post-modern world where nothing is true yet everything is?  Is it as certain literary theorists suppose that the tale means what you want it to?  That idea will ruin stories as much as modernism destroyed art.  The last thing we want (or need) is another idea catering to and shaping itself around our wants, needs, opinions, and desires.  We thirst for something outside ourselves, a True North by which to calibrate our overwrought compasses of meaning and purpose and origin and destination; above all else we desire a direction and a purpose in the going.  We want a quest, an adventure, we want to set out like Frodo or Luke Skywalker, upon some needful and meaningful quest.  We are tired of 'just do it' and 'have it your way;' the universe is a dreadfully small place if I (and my enjoyment thereof) is the be all and end all of reality.  We've come to the end of hedonism and found it as empty and vain as every other worldview and lifestyle ever tried.  A really good story is the only thing that yet has the power to transport us out of the mire of nihilistic abandon.

Think of the popularity of books, movies, TV shows, video games, and whatever other medium you desire, they all tell a story and we eagerly escape into them.  Stories promise meaning and direction and purpose, a thing most lacking in modern life, and for a while we can walk the wilds with Strider or flit between the stars aboard the Millennium Falcon.  They also give us a common understanding with our fellow mortals, we can't peaceably discuss politics or even eating styles but we can dress up like Chewbacca and dream up plot lines for Star Wars Episode LXVIII.  We have lost community along with Truth.  And we are social creatures as much as we are creatures of story.  We are all hurting and lonely and confused, we blame X or Y or Z for it, hating individuals, worldviews, causes, organizations, political bodies, or whatever, blaming everything and everyone for our hurt and pain, when we all suffer from the same disease, even though our ideas are extreme opposites.  We've made our ideas, opinions, tastes, and preferences the meaning and reason for life, we define ourselves and base our worth on our likes and dislikes, becoming as broad and shallow (and important) as an internet message board.

But you will outlast the internet.  Countries and Kingdoms, stars and oceans will vanish.  Sports teams and corporations will not endure.  Lifestyle choices will disappear.  And what will be left?  An old story tells us, 'no eye has seen nor ear has heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man.'  We cannot even begin to imagine it, for its wonder will boggle a mortal mind.  That's our quest, our adventure, our common purpose, our shared narrative and the basis for our community: to find that Kingdom, and not to come as refugees, saved at the last, empty handed and in rags, but rather as citizens, children of the very King, coming Home at last into our inheritance.  You can 'have it all' here, but inherit only wind, for it is nothing but a passing dream, a vapor of fog, gone in the morning. Or you can have your adventure, you can find Truth, and you won't go alone.  You are called, as much as Frodo or any other storybook hero or figure out of legend to tread this path, to accept the quest, though it won't be easy, nothing worthwhile ever is.  Will you find the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Leave room for fairies

We've all heard the trite saying, 'bloom where you're planted,' which is a nice little ditty and often true, but sometimes I wonder how anything grows out here (yes, it is that time of year again, this is my annual gardening pointers for life article).  I've tried all sorts of things, but no matter what I grow or try, it seems like all my grand experiments are doomed to failure.  My vegetables get run over by a hay-bine.  Nothing will eat or kill a shrub rose but a deer can sit on it.  A pheasant uprooted all my periwinkle, twice!  My carefully nurtured Columbine seeds die but the neglected or wild ones go crazy (not a bad thing!).  I'm not saying I don't have nice plants and fun in the yard, but my plans never seem to work out, rather it is the unexpected and unanticipated that makes it so worthwhile (just like life!).

A yellow warbler nest, a white crowned sparrow not three feet away, my first sight of an orchard oriole, scads of cabbage butterflies when I thought I was growing nasturtiums, daisies everywhere, the ethereal blue of a flax flower...sunsets and stars and sparkle on the snow...well worth all the weeding and drought and wildlife and soil fit only for making pots (clay, lots of clay!).  My plans go far awry, and my dear grandmothers would likely die of apoplexy to see the disordered riot that passes for my flower beds when theirs were laid out with particular order and care and precision, but they never had fairies.  The same goes for life.  If our plans are all that matter, if there isn't room for detours or backtracking or a completely different course, we are doomed to disappointment, or we can embrace the adventure and see where the journey takes us.

Proverbs puts it this way: "The heart of a man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps (16:9)."

G.K. Chesterton puts it like this: "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered; an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."

We make our plans, and then life happens, we can either stand at the crossroads, staring blankly at our map and scratching our heads, or we can set off into the sunset, whistling as we go, eager to meet the adventure at hand.  I control so very little, be it in life or the garden, and thinking I can control everything (or should) will only lead to discontent and disaster, such things are better left in wiser hands than mine, my only duty is to walk (or dig) that which is set before me.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

When hobbits venture forth

"I hope there are not many more hobbits that have become like this.  It would be a worse trouble than all the damage the Men have done." Frodo, J.R.R. Tolkien, 'Return of the King'

“The little things of life, sweet and excellent in their place, must not be the things lived for; the highest must be sought and followed; the life of heaven must be begun here on earth.”  Anne, L.M. Montgomery, 'Anne of the Island'

"Consider, first, the mere quantity.  The quality may be wretched; but we never had souls (of a sort) in more abundance." Screwtape, C.S. Lewis, 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast'

Whoever thought Frodo Baggins, Anne Shirley, and Screwtape could ever have anything in common?  A hobbit, a spunky redhead, and a fictional demon!  But they all agree that the Western world is suffering from a crisis of character.  Even a hundred years ago it was a noticeably downward trend, perhaps even before that, but I wonder what they would think of our tempestuous modern world, could they see it now?  Modernism was the threat then, but we have sunk even past post-modernism.  No longer is it 'who you are (as an individual)' but rather 'what you have (including fame)' that is important.  Being an anonymous saint is far worse (culturally speaking) than being wicked and famous.  Our individuality is expressed in our 'likes' and 'dislikes' on social media, the causes, food, clothes, celebrities, and activities we reject or embrace.  We are a list of loves and hates, vehemently defending to the verbal death those things we love or opposing that which we abhor; hating any that do not agree with us.  No wonder I prefer the company of relatively ancient fictional characters to the insipid ranting and infighting of this uncivil age.

I've been rereading some old favorites lately: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Jane Eyre, various Jane Austen books, Lord of the Rings, Narnia.  Every single one is most of all a study in character, especially "Lord of the Rings."  It is a journey of character building, from small minded and frivolous Hobbits to individuals suited to be leaders in their homeland and ride amongst the great of their own or any age.  And we each have that chance, every day, every moment with every thought, word, and action, we ingrain in ourselves more and more character either for good or for ill.  Will we grow and become great, though the world knows not our name, or will we 'fall into darkness, with all that is left of our kin?'  That is our choice and we don't need a 'Ring of Power' to do it.  We all want to be individuals, we all want the freedom to choose, and this is the greatest freedom of all: the choice of molding ourselves into some likeness, be it good or evil, strong or flabby.  We won't become unique following the clueless herd; we won't grow without conscious effort and yes, some discomfort and pain.  But do we want to be a flavorless nonentity like everybody else, devoid of personality and character, just another shade of beige merely defined by our likes, dislikes, opinions, and preferences?  Consider life the 'gym' of character, will you sit back and watch others work out or will you jump in and get a little sweaty yourself?


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The World's Slowest Film Critic Strikes Again

Yes, indeed, I am probably the world's slowest film critic, not because I spend months formulating my review and analyzing a movie but rather I live at the back end of forever and our little theater takes awhile to get the new releases, but it is worth the wait and even if you are already watching 'Beauty and the Beast' on DVD, I've finally seen it in the theater and am no worse for waiting a few months.  First off, the original release is my favorite animated movie and one of my favorite movies of all time.  Second, I've read a few reviews and analyses of the film out of curiosity and went in not expecting much, as it seemed no one had truly enjoyed the film as much as their memories told them they liked the original.  Third, most of those reviews were written by men; I have nothing against men, they are lovely creatures, except when it comes to things like Jane Austen and movies like this (I am equally hopeless when it comes to action and war movies by the way!).  My husband (and my friends' husbands) absolutely refused to go, which was fine since it meant they could have a 'playdate' and watch the kids while we went and had an afternoon out, overall I think everyone was happy!  But I think there should be a law that guys aren't allowed to review romantic movies and girls can't review war flicks, but that's a whole other blog post.

I was ready for a wooden Belle (I haven't seen Emma Watson in anything since the second 'Potter' movie!), household objects so unbelievable and stiff that I would never get lost in the story, and basically a film that never should have been made as the original was quite sufficient (thanks guys!).  I loved it.  I really did, this from the person who can't make it through a second sitting of the 'Hobbit' but is a diehard LoTR fan and hasn't decided if she likes Star Wars VII yet (also a huge Star Wars enthusiast).  And taking a non-random poll of my companions (three thirty-something gals and one ten year old) it was unanimous, at least the ten year old didn't fall asleep like she did during Rogue One, though her slurping on her soda drew me momentarily out of the movie's spell for a trice, but as that is my biggest complaint about the movie (and has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie itself) I think that's good news.

It was fun, it was pretty, it was charming, it was enchanting, and there was enough of a difference from the animated version that I'm very glad they did it.  Think of it like the Titanic movie (shudder) or Pride and Prejudice (which has been done what, 50 times?): we all know the plot inside out but there is always something more to discover, some angle we have not yet explored.  For one, Belle actually had personality!  The 2005 Pride and Prejudice is hard for me, Keira Knightly is just too snarky to play the gentle, considerate but witty Elizabeth and I was afraid the same fate would befall my beloved 'Beast.'  But Belle needed a little snark, I remember one scene in the cartoon where she's kneeling on the floor grinning like an idiot (think of your 8 month old Golden Retriever after you've patted him or called him a good boy), it doesn't matter she's a prisoner and the whole village thinks she's nuts and she'll never see her father again and the beast just might eat her for dinner, but those singing tea cups sure make life great again.  As far as Disney Princesses go, Belle's one of the better ones, but there are moments when she reminds you who owns the copyright!  Miss Watson holds her own and did so phenomenally, she was Belle, but she wasn't the two dimensional (literally) character from the original, and I thought it a nice change.

My biggest beef about the Hobbit was the phenomenal cast that never got to act.  The guy who plays Gaston finally got a chance to do something other than slay a dragon during the opening credits.  He was actually very good, managing an initially less repulsive but much dimmer version of the villain before becoming shockingly nasty at the necessary moment; you almost thought twice about loathing the fellow.  The rest of the actors were very good, and I even got past hearing Gandalf whenever the clock spoke, though now I'm afraid I'll see/hear the bumbling head of household now whenever I rewatch Lord of the Rings; Cogsworth vs the Balrog, hmmm?  My only major complaint was that the candelabra's bad French accent was a little annoying.  The new music was beautiful and unlike Les Mis, actually added something to the magic of the film.  The added backstory was nice and fleshed out the tale (perhaps not necessary in a cartoon, but nice in a feature length film).  And boy could people sing!  The ladies in Les Mis were amazing but the guys really left me flat, not so in this film!  They did leave out or change some of the words to those well known songs, which they have every right to do, but when you are trying to sing along, it makes it tough, but eventually I'll watch this one enough to have it memorized too.

Their attention to detail was fabulous, and watching it for the sets and costumes alone would have been enough.  My one bit of consternation was on the equine front, but that was a problem in the original as well, namely the 'where's Timmy?, Lassie go find Timmy' meme, but it is a fairy tale so I guess I should just accept it as part of the magic.  I don't get Felipe (now played by a wonderful Andalusion, because every poor villager owns a cart horse on par with Shadowfax!).  One minute he's afraid of the beast or the wolves.  And at other points he's okay with the beast and comes to rescue Belle's dad from said wolves.  A minor point, but annoying, but in a movie where the silverware talks, I guess I shouldn't expect a horse to act like, well, a horse!  This is a Disney movie after all, the on screen presence has very little to do with the reality of the actual model, at least not since films like 'Old Yeller' have gone the way of the dodo.  I just wish people would remember that deer don't actually talk the next time they visit a National Park and try to get a selfie with a buffalo!  They did have a gypsy vanner in the movie, which was fun, I'm not sure I've ever seen that breed in an actual movie, they had one in 'All Creatures Great and Small' a time or two, but this is the first recent movie I've seen with one in it.

Overall, I was very impressed and will likely even buy the DVD.  But as I am the last person on the planet to watch it, this poor little review will likely not be of interest to anyone, but then, is anything I have to say?  You can at least enjoy the movie, at least all those of the female persuasion!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Doh!

Have you ever been watching a movie or reading a book and the protagonist makes some silly (or dreadful) decision and you find yourself yelling at the unwitting character (while anyone else in the room gives you a really strange look) not to do it?  As a parent I find myself the most frustrated when my child does not live up to his potential or makes a decision contrary to his best interests.  I catch myself wondering at the choices of friends and family likewise, only to find myself in a certain situation making decisions just as addlebrained.  Why do we do it?  Even the great Apostle Paul seemed to struggle with it, 'For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,' even Jesus commented upon this perplexing tendency that dreadful night in the garden to His groggy disciples, 'the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.'  Why do we make such stupid decisions?  And not just once, but time and again!  It is the root of all the fairytales: someone does something foolish or silly and suddenly they or another are thrust into some strange quest that must be accomplished to rectify the matter.

As G.K. Chesterton observed in 'Orthodoxy:' "the true citizen of fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone."

Why, oh why, do we eat the apple again and again, world without end?  And like the fairytale, our unfortunate decisions come at a cost, one we cannot pay.  But also like the fairytale, there is a hero, one willing to pay the price, to rescue us from our own foolishness.  With that bitter bite, the 'hope of God' fled, but our Hero ventured boldly forth to bring hope back to the world of men.  That's what Easter is all about!  After all, happily ever after isn't just for the fairytales.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

As men of old have sung

"Where is your god amid the suffering?"
"If there were truly an all powerful, caring god, why does he not intervene?"
"Why do bad things happen if god is so good?"

Good and relevant questions, asked by every single person at some point in their life, but a very poor argument against the Christian God, but asked continually down through the ages by determined atheists, clueless about theology.  The modern atheist is far from the first person ever to scoff over the promises of God:

“He saved others; he cannot save himself.  Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

In the above scene from Mark's Gospel, we see the civic and religious leaders of the day, along with the criminals dying alongside Him, asking the very same thing.  "Where is your God now?"  Even Jesus Himself, with His dying breath, asks it, "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

As the old hymn goes, 'Isaiah 'twas foretold it,' but not only the mysterious birth to which the carol refers but also the reason He came and the death He would die:


"He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors." 
~Isaiah 53 (ESV)~


Why do bad things happen? Why is evil rampant in the world?  How can a good God let it happen? The short answer is: we broke the world and are suffering the consequences. The long answer? I am certainly not wise enough to answer that question, even Job didn't dare ask any more questions upon that topic, admitting truthfully that we mere mortals are but dust, what can we know about the universe and its functioning, let alone the particulars of a certain life or event?

But the better and more practical question is: Where is God in the sorrow, the suffering, the shame, the despair? And the answer to that is easy: right smack dab in the middle of it! He is the 'man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.' Instead of brushing our broken world under the rug, He stepped right down into the middle of our wretchedness, took on flesh and lived as a man and more astoundingly died as one, taking upon Himself the sins of the whole world, bearing the penalty for our wrongs that we might share in His joy.  That's what Easter is all about: the answer to all the grief, pain, evil, and suffering in the world.  Yes, things are still a mess and will continue to go wrong, but we're not alone or without hope, and someday we will have our happily ever after!