Exploring where life and story meet!

Friday, November 22, 2013

The land that Tolkien saw?

I am moving to Middle Earth, to the province of Rohan to be precise, or at least to a land of similar vistas. My natural environment until now was more like the Shire: a lovely mix of meadows and trees, tended fields and little woodlands, with here and there a winding brook or small pond. But this new landscape can only be described as epic. I now understand the term, ‘big sky.’ Though trees are few, I do not miss them much for the land itself has much character and speaks volumes that my own small country could never imagine; much like the babbling of children compared to the works of Shakespeare. The landscape is the same, but each whim of sun, cloud, rain, mist, and snow gives it an ever-changing though still seemingly eternal presence. I do not know if certain races are genetically predisposed to prefer one sort of landscape over another, but something seems to tingle in my bones, that this stark beauty is truly home, something left over from ancestors who eked a living in the Scottish Highlands or trod the Connemara region of Ireland: places of rocky heights, rugged vegetation, extreme and erratic weather, and a sky that seems more real than the lands beneath it. It is a place where an adventure might happen, a place Tolkien spent eight pages describing and only scratched the surface. I do not think I could survive in the unending and unvarying cornlands of Illinois and Iowa, but this place has character, a beauty you can feel, a beauty sometimes grim and harsh, but so are all mortal tales.

I wonder at the emotions this stark beauty inspires. It is a place where one dares not be an atheist. For the world is so large and one is so small, that it is here one truly realizes their insignificance in the universe and how utterly pointless is everything without a greater Purpose. For the unchanging hills have seen many a mortal sorrow in their day and never do they care what passes upon their ancient sod, but the One who wrought the hills cares about even the sparrows that flit among the grasses and this brings much comfort to a quivering heart, overwrought with all the horrible wonder about it. But a heart without such hope must soon be overcome and perhaps driven to madness by all the vast and rugged country in which they find themselves. Perhaps one can glimpse eternity in such a place, for the hills have stood since the beginning of time and so has the ever-changing sky looked down upon them and so shall it remain as long as time persists. But in all the smallness and sorrow that has passed upon the face of the world, one can still look up ‘unto the hills from whence comest my strength,’ and be at peace that there is One who has, ‘overcome the world.’ Here there is sorrow, roughness, and harshness, but so too is there beauty and wonder, hope and joy, at least for those who know where to look, or rather to Whom. Some would call it a ‘howling wilderness,’ but even there, one cannot escape the Presence of Him who made all, rather you can feel it more intensely where the hustle and bustle of civilization is not and all that is was wrought by hands not mortal.

Obscure hymns and reflections on Love

‘In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But his mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what can I give him: give my heart.’
"In the Bleak Midwinter"

Winter has arrived, which of course in my sentimental mind summons lyrics such as this for Christmas will soon be upon us, but there is another force at work right now that also recalls these now obscure lyrics. I am learning day by day, often a slow and poor student, that man was made for one purpose and that to love and be loved. The whole of modern culture, at least in the West, seems to say that this is not so, that love of self and self alone is the ultimate Good, yet we strive towards this goal with all our being and come away cold and empty. I have often wondered at the antipathy towards Christmas by some in American culture when there is very little such angst over Easter (the more important Christian holiday) or any other day of celebration or reflection. Could it be, that of all the holidays, this one that invokes the spirit of generosity, blessing, and togetherness (that is, love) even in the most unbelieving of hearts, inspires even with its least reminder unspeakable bitterness and anger in certain souls afflicted with either great hurt or that think themselves so far above such frivolousness yet in their deepest hearts truly yearn for such peace and hate the very thought of such perceived weakness that they rebel against it with all their being? I do not know, but I think it similar to the hurt a childless woman, who desperately wanting children, feels upon hearing that a friend or relative is expecting or upon sight of a happy new mother. It is a time for rejoicing yet she feels such pain at her own loss that her feelings are sometimes quite the opposite of what they should be. But this is not the subject of these ramblings (if subject there be), but rather just one example of a possible symptom of this strange epidemic that afflicts every beating heart.

Since nearly the beginning, man has been rebellious and seeking after his own affairs, rather than the purpose for which he was made. It was this self-love that got him kicked out of paradise and it has only been downhill from there. We hear much of the ‘self-made man’ and the ‘independent woman,’ and other such nonsense in the modern West, but none of us are an island and we all are very much dependent on one another and if we are willing to admit it, the Providence of God, for there is not a breath we take that is not of His bidding. What I love about this little hymn is that it expresses God’s love to erring humanity, even in the depths of our darkest and bitterest night, which a dismal night in winter portrays beautifully. He steps out of Heaven into our miserable world of suffering and death and bids us enter His glorious Kingdom. Here is the King of Heaven, a babe in a cattle stall adored by the poorest of peasant girls! And who says the fairy tales are not true? This is God’s gift of eternal love which many reject, yet there are mortal loves as well which we would also deny for many perceive love of almost every sort as sheer weakness.

The only exception is a sort of romantic love which our society has idealized and worships, yet never achieves for it cannot be in our fallen world, worse this ideal shipwrecks many relationships when we realize the beloved is not perfect and the answer to all our happiness. I speak rather of the Love that Paul immortalized with, "love is patient, love is kind…" That is, love that seeks the best for the beloved rather than that which is easy, painless, efficient, or self-serving. This is the love we must have for each and every person, which is an impossible thought to comprehend, but it is the Love of Christ and how He bids us to live and which can only be accomplished through Him. Yet even in our closest relationships we have much difficulty practicing this precept. Our entire culture is against us. Such was the home I grew up in. Feelings of any kind were considered a weakness. There were no words of encouragement, only criticism for nothing was ever good enough. Pain and fear must be overcome by sheer strength of will, and it can be done if one is strong enough. The result was an abyss of incredible pain, self-doubt and hatred, and difficulty attaching emotionally to others, all covered over with a shiny and thin veneer of seeming happiness and emotional stability. I was a mess and did not know it. My family did not go to church, but saw that I was deposited at the door every Sunday, mostly to get me out of the way for a time as well as to feel that they had done their social duty of giving me a religious education.

It was a small church, did not grow much during my time there, had no fancy programs or world class preaching, but they had something I did not understand, something I wanted, thus did I continue to go even after my family ceased to see it as necessary. Looking back, some of these people were not the most intelligent people of my acquaintance, but they were the most sincere. They loved me, a nameless child amongst many. They accepted and encouraged me, they did not overlook me in the busyness of life. They introduced me to the God who inspires such countercultural behavior. That was my first taste and I wanted more, but had no idea of how to go about it. Thankfully God is not idle in such matters and provided what was needed to feed a starving soul. The years passed and it took a very long time to chip away at the emotional armor warding the deep parts of my heart, but eventually a breech was made, but the invasion did not begin until this completely unlooked for and undesired man walked into my life. I was still cold towards others and the world in general, thinking I had to look out for myself, trusting no one for it could only mean more pain. I did not have time for worthless guys who would only take advantage of me nor did I think myself good enough for a real relationship; I was incapable of being loved. I was content with my small vision of God but thankfully He was not content therein. In waltzed a man who turned my entire view of life on its head and began my reeducation in the affairs of God and men and the ways of the heart.

I was going to be a career woman and that would be enough, though I had watched others pursue this track and come away empty and bitter after years of hard work and dedication; it was not enough though they had given everything they possessed to their careers. Okay, fine, I can maybe handle a husband and still be a career woman, or so I thought. A few years passed and God continued to gnaw away at my emotional baggage until I felt pretty well healed and quite wise in the ways of the world. Then He had to throw motherhood into the mix, which woke other dragons that now had to be wrestled into submission. Finally, I am perfect and fully wise! A paragon of modern womanhood: a precisely balanced mix of work and family…but not so fast! What do you mean I have no job and am moving halfway across the country!?! I am now to be trapped at home with a small child while my husband earns a living? What is the he 1950’s? But with submission comes contentment, joy, and peace. I never dreamed of having anything but a career, never thought of finding love and acceptance and purpose from my fellow humans, but thankfully I continue to be very wrong! Thus continues my education in the ways and means of love. What it is to give and also to receive it. I must let go of my preconceptions, of the things I think I want and desire and need, and rather take that which I truly need and therein find peace.

This is a weird adventure, one I never thought to have, but whatever comes of my strange wanderings, they can never compare to those of that Heavenly Adventurer who strayed into mortal lands and rescued a perishing people. I will never save the world from itself, but perhaps there is one small, quivering soul, lonely and rejected that I can touch in some small way, like those quirky church ladies of my own youth. Why is it our hearts fight against that which we need most? Why do we demand, like sleep deprived toddlers, that our way is the only way? But thankfully God is patient and kind above all else, and leads us like the clueless sheep we are, deeper into His love and grace, as much as we are willing. Each person’s journey is different, but His purpose for each life is the same: to teach us to Love Him and one another. We can, like Paul, kick against the goads, or we can, also like Paul, submit to the call that is ever there and go submissively but boldly in the direction that is wisest and best, though certainly not the easiest or the most approved by those about us. My family thought I was nuts to marry the man I did, to become a mother even with a promising career, and now to leave my career behind to pursue God’s calling on my husband’s life (and my own). But the world thought the same of Noah and of Christ, what would have come of us all if they had said, ‘no?’ I do not understand it, I cannot see very far ahead, but I have learned that it is wisest and the least painful to willingly go whither I am led. I still do not know much about love, but that is the whole point of this journey called life and I will follow its strange and twisting path where so ever it winds, knowing that an even better story begins at its end. Finally admitting that I am but a clueless sheep and fully dependent for life and well-being upon an all-wise Shepherd.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The poetry of real life

I wrote recently on the loss of important things in our lives, now I must write on the advent of things unexpected and the Providence of God.  The longer I live and the more experience I have, the more I see and understand that life is not a random floundering about between conception and death, but rather a vivid story with an Author who knows the details of his tale down to the number of hairs on each character's head and can track the movements of every subatomic particle in creation.  I cannot imagine reading such a tome, I have a hard enough time with Tolkien's profuse description of scenery, but I am happy to live my part of it day by day and see what new adventure awaits therein.  The universe and our individual lives are not some cosmic accident wending their way towards oblivion, but are a finely wrought, dynamic work of art with plan and purpose, direction and meaning.  Just as we cannot see the end of the story in the third sentence or judge the full concerto in the overture, so we cannot always know what comes next in our lives or even our world, but we can trust Him who takes the pains to make each snowflake unique and apply a name to every star.  Sorrow, fear, and grief are all too common and to be expected in this fallen world of ours, but there is an end to the story, the true Happily Ever After, and sense in the chaos of daily life.  Just because we cannot see it Today does not mean it is not there, we are simply in the middle of a chapter or at the beginning of the song.

I wrote of my own career coming to an abrupt end, but now I find that it means a new beginning, a different adventure for our family.  One chapter closes, another begins.  What feels a grievous loss, an ending without meaning, is simply the next step in whatever plot is unfolding in our lives.  There is a sunrise beyond the nightfall, a spring after winter, meanwhile we have a 'song in the night' until 'joy comes with the morning."

The book of Psalms always puzzled me as a child, why were all these complaints and cries of sorrow and anger written and preserved in scripture?  As an adult who has survived a few 'trials and tribulations' of my own now, I understand and love this book that once bored and confused me as a child.  This book is perhaps the most human of all the books found in scripture.  Angry with God or circumstance?  Happy beyond belief?  Sorrowful and repentant?  Miserable and despairing?  Hopeless and lost?  Thoughtful and quiet?  Grateful?  Have I got a psalm for you!  No other book so perfectly captures the full range of human experience and emotion and our relation to God therein.  Whether you want praise or complaints or comfort, it is there.  Even Christ sought solace from the cross in its words, the very words that foretold His fate.  Man may not understand God, but God certainly understands man, in fact walked in his very shoes and filled an ancient book of poetry with the deepest cries of his soul.

Friday, November 8, 2013

concerning lesser gods

Idolatry is dead, that line in the Ten Commandments does not apply to modern life, who bows down to images of wood and stone?  That form of idolatry is certainly dead in the modern world, but the heart of man must worship something so the ancient prohibitions are as needed today as when Moses carried them down the mountain.

No other gods?  That should be easy!  What has come of Molech and Zeus after all?  But gods need bear no formal name nor have any priest but one fanatic heart.  What are your gods?  Money, chocolate, football, your kids, social media, the TV?  Anything that takes our time and interest and zeal away from God has the potential to be a modern idol.  All of these things can be very good, but we must be cautious that they do not become our Ultimate Good, the reason we live and breath and have our being,  God has given us many wonderful things to enjoy and do whilst we abide on this mortal earth, but our utmost devotion belongs to Him alone.

Sometimes it takes losing something to realize how important we have made it.  I wonder if this is not a reason fasting is considered an important, though oft overlooked, Christian discipline.  It is not just food, but almost anything that we enjoy (perhaps too much) or that takes up too much of our time from which we might abstain for a time that we might thereby grow closer to God.  This was undoubtedly easier before smart phones.  We have not had TV in the house for many years and I do not miss it.  It is amazing how much more time there is for conversation, reading, and games and yet we seem to miss nothing by not having the TV on.  What started as an economical decision (highly spiritual!), has become a way of life, but this is not what inspired these somber reflections.

I have known for a time that my job was on shaky ground and now it is gone.  I little realized how much time, effort, and importance I had put into my career until my permanent vacation!  I felt as if someone had died, there was a huge hole in my life...idols...hmmm...interesting.  It is strange how we cannot see clearly until we have come through something and look back from a distance and only then do we understand.  I suppose that is why God is so persistent in his demands that we look to and trust Him alone for strength and guidance, for He is the only One that knows all ends.  I knew where my career was going, or thought I did, but now I have no idea what comes next, but He does.  It was not an intentional or even a welcome 'fast' but it was probably needed.  Where to next?  I had better ask the One who knows the way!  At least now I can catch up on my soap operas.

Friday, November 1, 2013


Here's another good article on the importance of stories to life.  It sure is easy blogging when someone else keeps writing the articles!