Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A personal note

"And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above;and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.  But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase...But go your way till the end.  And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.”

When most people think of the book of Daniel, they remember the lion's den or think of the hand writing on the wall or perhaps his prophetic visions or Nebuchadnezzar's dream, indeed, that is usually what comes to mind for me, but the above blurb from the last chapter caught my eye the other day.  Daniel has just finished seeing all these odd things, some involving his own scattered and exiled nation, and he's rather curious about what it all means and how it will all turn out.  But he isn't given the exciting details, save the puzzling prophetic visions he's already recorded, rather he's told how the whole grand tale ends, not the details concerning Israel's exile, moreover, it ends on a personal note, which is rather astonishing, and reassuring, coming from a book addressed to all nations, tribes, and tongues, written for all people in all times.  This particular part of the grand and epic story of the universe and our reality ends on a personal note!

I was overlooked as a kid, forgotten on more than one occasion, neglected or ignored when I wasn't being criticized or publicly humiliated, thus I have a very hard time understanding that I can be loved, that I am lovable, that I have value and worth and that I matter.  So when I am personally remembered, when someone does something specifically for me, it touches me deeply.  And here, after all these grand visions of things yet to come, a sweeping saga touching empires and vast stretches of time, a simple man is remembered, he is asking about the future and well-being of a whole nation, but it is he himself that is remembered and reassured.  He is not to know all those things pertaining specifically to his nation's fate, of which he is vastly curious, but of his own he is assured.

And that is the promise of this great book, for each and every human soul.  We can have an 'allotted place at the end of days.'  We can shine like the stars in their courses above!  Or we can run to and fro after knowledge, vain and ever increasing (were they envisioning google with that prediction?) and go down into darkness and infamy evermore.  As grand and epic as this tale is, it is also a very personal tale.  That's why the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; he had friends and enemies, joy and sorrow, a name and a face.  We each desire to be known and loved individually, and that is the very promise of this marvelous book, though it deals with happenings throughout all of time and history and that yet to come.  I love that I can still discover little gems like this, tucked away in various places though I've read and reread it time and again.  Written to all peoples, but also to me. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Life is war

Do you ever feel like your life is pointless, that you are weak and useless, that your existence in general is a string of dull and tedious nothings?  Sometimes it is good to remember we're in a war, and that while things seem quiet and peaceful, the Enemy may come at any moment and surprise us, hoping to ambush us or break through the defenses.  Not that war is all that exciting at every moment,  I think I once read somewhere that it is, 'long stretches of tedium interrupted by periods of sheer terror.'  Whether languishing in the trenches of the first World War or slogging through the endless swamps of Vietnam or sweltering in a desert somewhere, soldiers of every age have never had an easy time of it, but the next time you think about being 'bored,' just remember what you're fighting against:

"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, and his angels were thrown down with him...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!”

Not that we wrestle against such things physically or even on a level we are much aware.  For there are mightier warriors than we mere mortals of flesh and blood, and they fight on a level we cannot comprehend, as hinted at in this passage from Daniel:

"And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling.  Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.  The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”

This mighty angelic warrior was delayed in delivering his message to Daniel because of this dreadful Prince of Persia, whom he could not counter without the help of one of the greatest angels known to mankind.  If such great and mighty beings cannot overcome such evil, what hope have we, fickle and fallible creatures of flesh and blood that we are?  Paul gives us some idea of this struggle in his letter to the Ephesians:

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

Wow!  But how do we fight against THAT?  He continues:

  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.  In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.  To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints."

It isn't with swords or bows, guns or knives, bombs or even our fists with which we are called to fight, a strange thought to our violence obsessed culture.  Rather prayer, God's word, and a virtuous life are our only weapons and protection, for the fight is not ours, but the Lord's.  We who have no power or strength or virtue in ourselves, can be competent and valiant soldiers in this war from beyond the reach of time that has spilled over into our own reality.  So the next time you are tempted to be bored silly with your dull and tedious existence, remember, you're at war, a soldier manning the walls of some remote outpost, with the enemy snarling and hissing beneath you, looking for a breach in the defenses, a weak point by which to invade.  We don't need a video game to feel like we live in a war zone, it's in our own backyard, our living rooms and cubicles, but do we ignore it and pretend it isn't there and hope it just goes away, do we allow ourselves to be conquered and live as prisoners and slaves of that grim dragon, or do we stay at our posts and fight the fight set before us with all faith and confidence in the One who has thrown down the dragon and waits only until the time is right to vanquish it forever?    

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sweet and salty

The place where I used to work sold a product boldly proclaiming: 'orphan no more!'  I think they have since rebranded themselves but the idea is the same: a powder you sprinkle on a motherless calf to help bond it to another cow.  Cows are strange creatures sometimes, some wanting to kill or abandon their own calves and others so desperate to mother that they'd steal another cow's calf before their own was born.  Most happily fall somewhere in-between.  But life happens and some calves lose their mothers and some cows lose their calves, so if you could match up the orphaned calf with a calf-less cow it is a wonderful thing, but as I said cows can be a little weird about that sort of thing.  Perhaps you've read the stories or seen the movie where the orphaned lamb, foal, or calf is clad in the skin of the stillborn and placed under the bereaved mother's nose in hopes of her adopting the stranger that smells like her dead offspring.  This wondrous powder is supposed to do the same thing but without the grisly effort: just sprinkle it on and voila!  The farmers raved about it, so it must work, so one day, curious, I looked for the magic ingredient.  Molasses and salt.  That's it (and maybe some anti-caking something or other).  Sweet and salty!  They knew the miracles of salted caramel before it was trendy.  But it isn't so easy with people.

"I will not leave you comfortless," was one translation but my version read, "I will not leave you as orphans." Wow, I'd read it a hundred times but never before had it sunk in, never before had I understood those simple words.  In the modern West we don't struggle with orphans in the same way they did in a backwater realm in the first century where the poor kids were pretty much on their own.  If there are no parents or family to step in, the government sees that the physical needs of such children are met, but our society struggles just as desperately with a different sort of orphan: the spiritual, the emotional, the social orphan.  It is very possible to have two actually living parents and still grow up an orphan; I did.  I never lacked for clothes and food, but I never had love, acceptance, encouragement, direction, attachment, understanding, or belonging; I was never wanted.  We all just lived in the same house with no more emotional or social connection than indifferent roommates thrown together by chance.  I never understood why the idea of 'family' was so important to some people; I just didn't get it.  They did their best but they couldn't give what they never had; emotional neglect and abuse runs back at least three generations in my family and probably even further back than that.  How many have grown up in homes where this is 'normal?'  It leaves you empty, awkward, and sad, wondering what's wrong with you and why nobody likes you, but even if you had an ideal childhood and great parents, each and every man, woman, and child is an orphan, in a spiritual sense.  We all thirst for something: that meaning, that purpose, that direction, that belonging.  But something isn't right, we're all empty and lost and wandering aimlessly about, seeking that 'something more.'

Social media exists because so many are hollow and empty inside, desperate to be filled.  We form 'tribes' with those of like circumstance, interest, or cause hoping to find community and meaning.  We lose ourselves to addictions or even suicide when the world grows too dark.  We try to lose ourselves in and live through our pets, our children, or some hobby or cause.  We're all orphans to some degree, no matter our family origin or lack thereof, we've all run away and lived selfishly and wonder if there is such a thing as Home.  But there is, Dad's waiting on the porch, and He'll joyously come running the moment He glimpses that wandering child coming dejectedly up the road.  It's a promise from the same Source that said we wouldn't be orphans.  I never knew what home was, what the big deal about family was, I didn't understand.  Now that I do, I so desperately want it, and it is mine, and can be yours, for all we need do is come Home.  He won't leave us as orphans, but first we need to admit that we are and then we get to start counting the days until the biggest and most fabulous Family Reunion in history, where we'll be welcome guests and people will know our names and be happy to see us, rather than being merely tolerated due to social obligation.  We'll finally be home!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Through a glass, darkly

I was reading C.S. Lewis's 'The Great Divorce' the other day and found his portrayal of Hell quite unique.  Most people imagine cloven-hooved and bearded tormenters (a sad caricature he addressed admirably in 'The Screwtape Letters') frolicking amidst the flames while secretly hoping to meet some notorious and interesting sinner of yore or to at least 'hang out' with the set they preferred during their earthly tenure, a strangely fascinating contrast to the dull and tedious vision of Heaven so common to modern sensibilities: overweight middle aged folk dressed in shapeless gowns, sitting upon clouds, harp in hand.  Lewis imagined Hell as a seedy town of immense and ever expanding dimension trapped beneath a perpetual drizzle amid an autumnal twilight whose residents can't stand to live within two streets of one another, where you can imagine up anything and everything you can desire yet the most exquisite roof won't keep out the rain and all the great sinners live so far away and are so absorbed in their own vital concerns that they haven't a thought for anything or anyone else.  His vision of Hell isn't that dissimilar to many people's idea of Heaven (if you can shake off the 'Far Side' inspired caricatures previously mentioned): an idealized earth like experience.  His Hell is a seedy town, to many, Heaven is merely the ultimate gated community where you never have to mow your own lawn.

But why do we have such a hard time envisioning Heaven?  So much so that many say they almost find the theory of Hell more tenable, or at least more fun.  It is the one subject that is never explicitly described in the Bible.  We know a few things that won't be there (marriage for example), but we have no idea what it will be like.  Everyone who has ever had a glimpse of it can only paint in metaphors or is forbidden from speaking of it (John, Paul, Ezekiel) while Hell seems a much more approachable subject and seems the more comfortable or even preferable just from sheer familiarity.  What gives?  Perhaps it is because Hell is that more approachable, understandable, and familiar to mortal minds, being a conception of reality a mere step below our current predicament: we are far closer to Hell than to Heaven in our current state.  I can understand and am far more comfortable with the people and culture in the next town over than I am with those on the opposite side of the globe.  Fallen creation is far nearer Hell than Heaven, it is merely more habitable and joyous because Heaven has not utterly forsaken it.  We can catch little glimpses of Heaven here, like sunbeams through a dirty window, that make life in this dusty cellar livable but we are far more familiar with its dank and dark corners than we are with the surface of the sun from whence comes the light.

Heaven isn't the province of Men, rather it is the domain of God, whither He invites all who would come, but it is His Kingdom, not ours, and we must accept it on His terms: vast, grand, wonderful, terrifying to mortal minds.  Meanwhile, we dwell uneasily in our earthly fiefdom and happily He graces our unhappy land with the least of His smiles from time to time, aside from that rather memorable visit of state some two millennia ago.  Hell however, is our very own domain, whither we can escape His irksome Presence, be that our wish, but it would be to draw the blinds on that dirty window and plunge our cellar into absolute and utter night.  We would never think of breaking down the door and escaping into that unknown and dreadful Dawn, we'd rather dwell in our 'safe' and familiar prison.  But He has broken the door!  Will we willfully sit in the dark, pretending the outer world is but a lie or will we peek around the corner and look upon things too great for mortal words?


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Slow as dial-up it comes

"Out of the cold Caribbean,
into the desert Libyan,
there crawled a strange amphibian."
~Shel Silverstein~

That's the feeling I got, standing on a bridge overlooking a cold, rushing stream, wistfully gazing over the water as something emerged quite unexpectedly from the frigid flow right beneath me.  It was a bird, not a duck or even a sandpiper but something that looked like a drab just fledged robin.  But it wasn't half-drowned as one might expect, rather it hopped about on the stones and branches, pecking at unseen insects in the vegetation, occasionally plunging back into the flow and swimming about as if it had every right to be there.  And it did.  I had been looking for one for years.  I sought them in such exotic places as Alaska and Yellowstone but nary a glimpse did I see.  And here, right under my nose, flaunting itself for my camera and everlasting amusement, was a young American Dipper, and in a place no more fascinating or exciting than the heart of the Midwest!  I've been looking and searching and waiting, probably quite impatiently, for years and years, and there it was, with no heroic effort or sly maneuverings on my part.  All that was required was a little patience (that and being in the right sort of place on occasion), but I had despaired of ever seeing one.

I remember life before the internet, yes I am that old, and I remember with what impatience we used to wait for the dial-up to connect, and now, in the age of blink and it's there technology and connectedness, I wonder if we are not even more impatient.  Perhaps that is why I love old books: they remind me that life is a journey, a long one, sometimes a tedious one.  If you think the 5 hour 'Pride and Prejudice' is slow, try reading 'Emma' or 'Les Miserables' or any other book of the time.  I'm reading through a copy of 'Les Mis' I picked up somewhere and absolutely hate it.  Before you stone me for hypocrisy, realize this is the very abridged version that came out with the last (non-musical) movie and it is so choppy and pieced-together that unless you know and love the story (in all its incarnations) you'll come away confused and annoyed, wondering what all the fuss is about.  I love the not-so-abridged version (I've never been brave enough to read the whole thing!), the musical, and the movies; it is one of my favorite stories, but they slaughtered it in this version.  They've destroyed the characters, have only an outline of the plot, and in general it makes very little sense unless you already know what is going on.  Yet another symptom of our impatient culture: we can't stand to relish and digest and enjoy a story, we need the cliff note version, asap, and then we are on to the next 'classic,' having merely checked the novel off our 'bucket list' rather than having enjoyed, experienced, or learned aught from it.

I was rather delighted to come across this article written by a native Brit on her favorite, but little known, Costume Dramas from the UK.  Not only am I eager to watch her recommendations, but I'm excited to try a few of the books themselves (not 'Bleak House').  And as you can find many of them free on project Gutenberg, I've no excuse not to.  What can we learn from such classic works?  Patience, certainly.  Try reading 'Persuasion' and imagine yourself waiting ten years for that romance to work out the next time you get a little agitated when 'he' won't text you back within five minutes!  It is a nice reminder that just because 'it' doesn't happen immediately, that 'it' never will. Just like my bird, if I persevere and do what I must, 'it' may just work out eventually and at a time I least expected, and if 'it' doesn't, well, there's probably something different, and probably better that was meant to be instead.  So instead of wasting so much time with our social media 'friends,' we might do well to spend a little of it with and learning from all those intriguing characters from the forgotten books of yore, or at least watching a good movie adaptation.  Happy reading (or viewing)!

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?