Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What is that to you?

'What is that to you?  You follow me!'

I just ran across this interesting statement the other day, I've read it a hundred times, but each time it strikes me as rather significant, and even counter cultural.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is speaking to Peter, who after a revelation of his own fate, asks what will come of their companion and his fellow disciple, whereat, he is basically told to mind his own business and focus on his own responsibilities, regardless of what is happening to others.  In an age where we are each of us 'competing' for attention, significance, and renown be it Facebook, in the workplace, or on the athletic field or local politics, we are each so concerned with what everybody else is doing that we often forget what we ourselves are about.

It is that way in the stories too, there can only be one Prince, one Princess, or one legendary warrior, but there is a whole host of supporting characters and subplots, which if absent, would make the whole story rather moot and certainly dull, if it even happened at all.  And in our lives as well, who knows what pivotal, though unsung, roll you might be playing at this very moment?  If we are too busy worrying about what so and so is doing about such and such, we can't do our own work well, if we even manage to accomplish it.  The parable of the talents also sums this up well: each man is not judged based on the work of another, but rather upon his ability to do his best with what he was given; the guy with ten talents isn't used to demean or critique the guy with five, but both are called 'good and faithful servants,' only the dude who buried his because he was too afraid to use what he had been given is chastised, if he had earnestly tried like the other guys, even with his little, he too would have been praised.

There are many things I wonder at right now: why was my childhood so lousy, why don't I have any extended family, do I really need all this education in my current role, why do abusive or negligent parents have more kids than they can handle and we struggle to have even one, why is my physical health so temperamental…and a million other things, compared to 'normal' or what I think it should be. It doesn't matter, there might be a reason, but I'm not to know, this is the story I've been placed in and herein I need to do the best I can with what I have, not worry about what I don't.  I heard about some friends of ours, missionary wanna-bes, and finally we know where they want to go.  My jaw dropped, I couldn't imagine going There, but it seems that is where they feel called to go, all of a sudden I felt rather small and dirty and insignificant, they'll have quite the ministry while we'll toil away here at the back end of forever…then it hit me again: 'what is that to you?'  I haven't been called to go There, I know we've been placed Here for the foreseeable future, just because their ministry is theoretically cooler doesn't mean a single thing in relation to our own.  'You follow Me!'

Has your own story turned out far differently than you thought it should?  Are you feeling discouraged, forgotten, insignificant, useless when compared to others?  There is certainly a little rebuke in the statement, but there is far more comfort: we need not worry about everyone else, solely our own selves, and there is a plan and a purpose uniquely made for each of us, if we are willing to take our eyes off of everyone else and follow patiently and faithfully, we will eventually find it.  'Don't worry about anything else, just follow Me.'  But will we?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Of gods and dragons

I saw a ridiculous meme on pinterest the other day, a comic strip presentation of John Lenon’s song ‘imagine’ going on about there being neither a Heaven nor a Hell, wherein a person went down to Hell and pulled the demon from the pit and then ascended to Heaven and brought down the angel, who gladly cast her halo aside.  I get tired of the hippy pipe dream that if we all just pretend to be nice to each other the world will be a happy and peaceful place and life will be great.  What really annoys me about this presentation is that we are not so much abolishing Heaven and Hell, rather we are merely doing away with Heaven and pretending we can build our own here on earth, which 6000 years of recorded history at trying just that has proved again and again is vain.  It is a lie as old as Eden: ‘ye can be gods!’  And what capricious gods we be!  We’d much rather be miserable our own way than happy His way.  It is the same as my four year old telling me he hates ice cream because he’s in a bad mood because I told him ‘no’ about something and he didn’t get his own way: he’s determined to be miserable rather than admit that maybe mommy knows what she is talking about and enjoying his dessert.

C.S. Lewis’s book ‘The Great Divorce,’ is a beautiful (and interesting) vision of just that, with a busload of tourists from Hell taking a weekend holiday in Heaven (an interesting theological exercise to say the least), most are appalled and prefer to return to the miserable and intangible slums of Hell than to accept Heaven as it is rather than as they think it should be.  Most of us have the spiritual maturity of a four year old, at least here in the West where everything is ‘my way.’  Culture cannot fathom why the orthodox church is so stodgy and won’t applaud the currently fashionable sin (each age and generation has its own), insisting that humanity has always been ‘this way’ or should be and therefore their doctrine is obviously wrong and should change, forgetting that the church is far older than most cultures, has survived the rise and fall of countless nations and empires, peoples and tongues, and that whatever is trendy and ‘vital’ today will be utterly forgotten or overlooked two decades hence when a new ideal is boasted abroad as ‘the thing.’  The fads of the Romans are forgotten as are the trendy lifestyle choices of the 1920’s or the 1730’s, but the church remains, and even older than that is the Word, which though it once wore flesh, has neither beginning nor end, neither is it mutable.

This is how our own fairytale begins: “and the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth...therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!  But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”  Now that ancient serpent cannot ascend again into Heaven, but he has taught us that we might bring Heaven down, or ascend thence ourselves, or build it here on earth, but he is ‘a liar, and the father of lies,’ and have learned nothing since Eden fell.  We stand here, clueless as Eve or culpable as Adam, thinking that our own tale will somehow be different.  But we cannot reach nor make Heaven on our own, rather Heaven has come down to us, that ancient serpent is not unopposed, but he is no less crafty.  The fairytales have it right: do it (whatever strange or bizarre task is set you) exactly as instructed or prepare to be turned into a donkey or lost forever in the wilderness or to have the mountain vanish away in a puff of smoke, ne’er more to be seen.  But we don’t believe in fairies anymore, much less understanding the meaning of our oldest tales.

I’ve lived in that ‘happy family,’ that pretended everything was great and wonderful and perfect, and it wasn’t Heaven, it was certainly Hell.  But I didn’t know it, not in the midst of it, but now that we’re broken and imperfect and messy, I can catch glimpses of that far off country, like snatches of music heard faintly in a dark land.  That comic wasn’t wrong in bringing the demon up to earth, they are quite at home here, but it was all wrong in thinking the angel happily laid aside his halo and joined hands with all creation in bland and meaningless song, he did come down, but rather he took up his sword.  It is only we foolish mortals that think we are not in a war; what sillies we must look, thinking to join hands and sing inane songs in the midst of a war zone and call it Heaven!

Our vision is too small.  C.S. Lewis once compared the idea to a child of the slums, content in making his mud pies in the streets, who refused a holiday at the seashore because he could not fathom anything better than the reality he knew.  We can easily imagine Hell, but we cannot fathom Heaven, any more than that indigent child the sea.  We wish to avoid the former without wishing to attain the latter, no wonder we are discontent.  But if we are of a bold and adventurous spirit, we can set out in quest for that strange, fey Kingdom, though the path be narrow and the gate small, for even in the tall tales, it is but few that go in search of adventure or risk everything for a needful cause, who despise the 'broad path,' and those upon it, content in their own seeming wisdom.  But we all long for an adventure, just look at the stories that even today captivate our hearts and minds.  Everyone hopes the fairytales are true, and they are, but we balk at the idea that we are actually living in one and must accept the responsibility of stepping out the door and hastening off in search of the hidden Kingdom.  We'd much rather lie comfortably abed and listen to the tale, rather than to go out and make our own.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Words, words, words, can there ever be too many?

'Words, words, words!' rings Hamlet's timeless answer to the insipid question, 'what are you reading.'  But in this day and age, perhaps the better question is 'what are you writing?'  In the age of blogs, social  media, and the ebook (letting anyone easily publish a book), we are truly drowning in a sea of things to read.  This was an interesting read, and I agree with the author to a point, in that your writing may in fact be dehumanizing you, if you are doing it solely to gain followers or make money or otherwise profit by it or if it is taking over your life and soul and identity, it is certainly a problem.  But writing can also be a cathartic, a way of knowing yourself and your reactions more, which is probably why journaling is so highly recommended to suffers of all sorts of mental, emotional, or spiritual malaises, but it is when you take that journal and make it public, living and dying by the responses thereto, that it becomes problematic.

Which is why you should write for a blog with no followers, it is just like private journaling, right?  Probably not, but I think it is a actually a good thing to have a variety of reading material and viewpoints available, if only we know how to winnow the wheat from the chaff.  For all the dross out there, every so often you stumble across something precious that might not otherwise have seen the light of day in a former era when only a limited number of editors and publishing houses and news outlets controlled our literary fare.  Obviously, it requires a bit more discernment and taste, and we must browse through endless gibberish to find it, but if you are a writer, now, more than ever, your work is accessible to others; each and every reader is now an editor, personally selecting what they will consume.  May each of us do our best to produce nourishing and tasty fare, whatever our genre or platform!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Secret

Do you ever wonder how spiderman feels?  He has these awesome powers but can't share it with anyone and his social life is a disaster because super villains keep popping up and threatening those he loves.  I sometimes feel like that, except I don't have awesome super powers to make the awkward silence a little more interesting.  I hate it when people ask, 'how are you?' I have to lie and smile and say, 'great!' because they can't handle the truth.  Worse, you feel like you're trapped in one of those stories where the villagers think their mysterious benefactor is actually the villain, while the true villain sits back and laughs maliciously at his handiwork while plotting their destruction.  It isn't even some horrid mistake from my past; I had no choice in the matter at all.  How many times have I heard people delivered from drugs and violence and sexual transgressions 'boasting' of their freedom and redemption far and wide but I can say nothing without angering the villagers thereabouts.

As a child of abuse, I never had a happy Christmas but I've always been drawn to the Christmas hymns and loved the season anyway, and in finally starting to learn the guitar and piano, I now understand why.  They are full of minor chords.  One of my virtual instructors said a major chord sounds bright and happy whereas a minor chord sounds sad.  But it isn't sad, it is deep and mysterious, yes tinged with sorrow, but hinting at something beneath it, something greater, something wonderful, beyond the comprehension of men.  The shadow of the cross looms over the manger as the Fall mars creation, but beyond them both is something incomprehensible, something deep and mysterious and holy, well worth our most reverent awe and fear.  Something deep in a world gone shallow.

There was another man with a secret; He was God.  They called Him a drunk, a bastard, a lunatic, a heretic, a foreigner, and thought Him possessed.  And now with the Christmas season looming and the annual scandal about to break forth of whether Santa is PC or a nativity display is unconstitutional while the mall speakers ball out 'Santa Baby' and inane songs about snow and chestnuts, we need not be surprised, it is just the latest generation of those who think Him mad.  But they are right to fear it, it is dangerous, this secret, the old songs whisper it, their haunting, mysterious chords echo within our souls, 'deep crying out to deep,' as it were.

When my own soul aches, when my own secret seems too much to bear, I can turn to One who has a secret of His own, for which the world reviled Him, but which brought forth something so wondrous the world cannot comprehend.  I'll take comfort in the old songs, the banned songs, the dangerous songs…'nail, spear to pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you, hail, hail, the Word made Flesh, the babe the son, of Mary!'

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Of jam and sermonating

I think I've been a minister's wife too long, either that or I'm ready for the Women's Conference speaking circuit.  I made peach jam the other day and all I can think is how nice of a sermon illustration it is!  I've never made jam before, but I couldn't resist the beautiful peaches on sale at the grocery store, so I brought them home, dreaming of crisps and cobblers and jam.  I had no pectin, but happily found a recipe online calling for simply sugar and lemon juice and peaches, even better I could use the whole peach: no waste or peeling!  My frugal, simple heart was in heaven.  I cut up the fruit, pureed it, added the sugar and lemon, and began stirring over a very hot burner.  It was a hot, sticky mess, something like a churning cauldron of lava, but after covering my kitchen in sticky ooze and burning myself a few times, I figured it would be well worth it.  I tried my hard won, beautiful jam…all I could taste was the lemon!  My beautiful perfect peaches had absolutely no flavor and what could I do with two quarts of lemon jam?

I bemoaned my sad fate at church the next day to a friend, and instead of condoling with me, she rather decided to be my fairy godmother, saying she had a bunch of peaches going soft and would happily donate them to me if I'd like, and they were wonderful sweet, juicy things.  I figured they might add a little flavor to my pathetic attempt at jam making, so I accepted.  They were the sorriest bunch of fruit I have ever seen: soft, brown, a few moldy.  But I took out my knife and hacked out the good flesh, discarding the rest, and they were excellent fruit, just past their prime.  I used the same recipe, except there was no churning lava this time, just a vigorous and smooth boil, no burns, no mess, and the loveliest jam!  I thought for a moment to mix the two, but then I would have a gallon of mediocre jam, instead I opted to toss the former on the compost heap and save the latter, in all its pristine tastiness.

Obviously this tale is ripe for exploitation: the salt losing its savor, new wine in new wine skins…feel free to write your own sermon(s) but I shall limit myself to a metaphor of what is truly valuable and good, despite outward appearances.  Those store bought peaches were so lovely, but at heart they had no flavor and thus no value, sadly akin to many of the shiny souls we adore or wish to emulate.  Those ugly, mushy, brown peaches are a perfect analogy for fallen man: past his prime, sad to look upon and think about, but not without worth, if it can be dug out and perfected through sorrow, trial, and perseverance, much as it took the knife and heat to make proper jam, but no matter how sad that fruit, it was not without hope, as are we, but will we submit to the process and allow ourselves to be redeemed or will we rot into mushy uselessness?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Finding Nessie

I have been to Loch Ness, I saw the 'Nessie 2000' exhibit which said she might be a boat wake, an otter, a seal, a log…recently I saw a photo purported to be the legend herself, but whether it is real or not, whether it is Nessie or not, I can't help but feel that a real picture of Nessie or Big Foot or aliens or fairies or ghosts or whatever is something quite undesirable.  I am a very scientific person, but I also believe in fairies, even if I am fairly certain they aren't real, in our world at least.  Come again?  There is just something about Nessie and Big Foot and unicorns, or at least the potential that they might be out there, that adds mystery and wonder and a greater sense of significance to a day cruising Loch Ness or hiking the Pacific Northwest.  A world without fairies is a very dull world indeed!  And if we should happen to get a picture of them, or some other incontrovertible evidence of their existence?  It would just be another species to record in the biology books, ah, a Unicornus unicornus, I've always wanted to see one, maybe I can see a moose next…

But when there might be a mermaid you just missed glimpsing alongside your boat or a fairy dance somewhere in that moonlit wood, it adds a magic and a splendor missing from our hectic, predictable, drab day to day lives.  Perhaps that is why we can't prove God or He doesn't just step out of the closet and say 'hello!'  And why we are told to have hearts like children, who have not yet lost their sense of wonder and can therefore not only enter, but can truly see the Kingdom of Heaven.  That's the magic of faith, the wonder of hope!  If we know everything, see everything, understand everything, what then are we left with?  It is the mystery, the wonder, the revelation, the guessing, the chase that keeps us young and gives us a reason to keep getting out of bed of a morning, no matter how many times we have done it before, for who knows what the day may reveal?

The Israelites saw God, or great manifestations of His power at least, in their dealings with Moses, any scientist among them could not help but being convinced by the data, yet they would not believe!  They grumbled and complained and eventually it destroyed them.  And later we were told, 'blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe!'  It literally turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).  How strange people are!  We don't like facts and figures and graphs or cold, hard data, we want fairy tales and mysteries, something to tickle our fancy and tease our sensibilities.  What is this longing for Nessie, this hope that she might be real?  Nothing but the 'eternity written in our hearts.'  We know this humdrum mortal world isn't our true home, that's why it doesn't satisfy or long make us happy, that's why tales of elves and goblins are as old as humanity; we've always known they are real, but we've become too 'wise' to believe in the any longer, hence our discontent.  But you are never too old to start believing in fairies again.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Getting out of the picture

I spent an afternoon on Loch Ness once, it was beautifully mysterious, the play of light and cloud over deep water; I can see why people believe in Nessie.  What I glimpsed there, I lived for several days on our recent Alaska cruise.  Between the shadowy mountains and the startlingly blue water, the ever present mist and cloud, and the haunting light of dawn and evening, one felt as if you had somehow slipped out of the sphere of this world and found another, mysterious, solemn, joyous, ancient but ever young, untainted by the sorrows and sins of men.  It was wonderful, I spent long hours on deck just watching (and photographing) the play of light on the water, despite drizzling rain, cold, and a vigorous wind.  It was a strange contrast to life onboard the vessel.  I've never been cruising before and felt as if I was trapped in a floating mall/informercial encased in all the gaudy splendor of a carnival where physical health, gourmet food, abstract art, and expensive trinkets were the be all and end all of life.

We were cheap, we booked an inside cabin with no windows and happily we weren't quartered next to any live chickens, but we certainly didn't have access to a private balcony.  I thought I would have to fight the other plebs for a spot on deck to bird watch, sight see, and photograph, but strangely, I had most of the boat to myself, aside for an occasional selfie taker who seemed to think the scene unworthy of memorializing without themselves in the picture.  It seemed a very commentary on our western culture, unable to step away from gazing at itself long enough to bask in the splendor around it.

There was only one time I had to fight for my spot, it was when the entire cruise ship sailed down the Endicott Arm to give us a glimpse of a glacier.  I was out first thing in the morning, but was forced under cover by the constant drizzle (you can't see or record anything with water on your lens), but happily found a spot where I could open a window and still get good pictures.  There were half a dozen hearty souls (out of 3000) doing likewise, but eventually the horde came to pay its respects at the last moment, oohing and aching and snapping photos (selfies mostly) with their smart phones before heading inside for an early lunch while the boat turned around and made its way out of the fjord, missing the best part of the journey through the ghostly light of dawn.

Why does it feel like life (at least modern western life) is perceived as just that: a cruise on which you are a prime passenger and entitled to all these 'ooh' moments but in-between you can just kick back and relax and complain over any little thing, not having to work or grieve or sorrow or toil, but supposedly happy and content the whole time.  I don't even know why most people were on that boat, they missed the very reason to go!  You can buy a watch or a purse or eat snails whenever, but how often do you get a chance to float through the mist with great and shadowy heights on either side with water as blue as a September sky beneath you while every moment the light dances and plays over the water and in the ridges of the hills, in and out of cloud and shadow, mist and rainbow.  It was wonderful!  But the gaudy shallowness of the cruise itself called them away from all that: it is cold, it is wet, maybe when the wind doesn't blow so much they cried.  But I was there, I got a picture with it in the background, check it off my bucket list, what do I go see next?

Is that how we see God?  He's there, glorious, splendid, huge, wonderful, awful, we'll snap a selfie when life gets a little scary, but otherwise He can just stay there, unseen, unheard, unnecessary, just as long as we are as happy and unbothered as we deserve to be, but then something happens, and it is His fault, we'll blame Him, we don't deserve this after all!  I just want to be happy and live my life my way. But it isn't your life, no more than those haunting mountains and eerily blue water are yours.  They are yours to enjoy, but they are not enhanced or benefited by being caught in a snapshot with your face in the fore and pasted on your social media site.  Rather get your silly head out of the picture, be humbled and awed before the vast natural beauty before you, let it remind you of Him who wrought it, the Artist who dreamed it up and gave it birth, the same who made you!