Wednesday, July 28, 2004

That One Place


The obligatory shot.



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You Know It


Actually a pretty pleasant place in the daytime.



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Duel, Anyone?


An explanation of the picture below.



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The Dueling Oak


It's not every day you walk on ground that's soaked with century-old blood. City Park, New Orleans.



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New Orleans Public Cemetery # 1


Due to low water levels, above-ground crypts are the norm. Family burials aren't unusual... A fitting end to the New Orleans travelogue.



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Monday, July 26, 2004

Atlas Mugged

Ayn Rand, Someone Who Got Part of the Picture

So I finally finished Atlas Shrugged. It took two months, lots of coffee, and numerous notes scribbled in the margins, but at last I’ve completed Ayn Rand’s epic. As you may know, the book was number one on the “Top 100” list compiled by Modern Library’s readers in 1998. (Atlas did not make the “official” list compiled by Modern Library’s board, but you can’t have it all.)




Perfectly adapted to their environment,
Modern Library Classics are nearly invisible to the casual viewer.

A quick aside: I personally love the classics editions Modern Library publishes. The cover designs and the prefaces by living authors have won me over, and we have quite a few copper-colored books on our shelves. So many, in fact, that it’s helpful for camouflage purposes; when I acquire a new M.L. classic, Lindsay doesn’t notice for weeks, if at all. But back to Ayn Rand.


In the past, Atlas Shrugged came up frequently enough in conversations for me to consider reading it, even though the book weighs in at 1069 pages in my small paperback edition and will never appear on a “beach reads” list. But I always like to know what the opposition has to say.

I finished the book yesterday, sitting in the Houston terminal on my way home from New Orleans, and now I’m a little uncertain how to articulate my response. Partly because my feelings are mixed. Suffice to say this won’t be a book review. (And if you're not familiar with the book, this may leave you a little lost...)

Was it bittersweet? I certainly found the book bittersweet, which is to say I found glimpses of glory, clues to reality as Christ intends it. “Wyatt’s Torch,” Hank Rearden’s self-defeating struggle for joy, Eddie Willers’ helpless aloneness—such elements convey a sense of what it means to be a created human, struggling for happiness amidst earth’s ruins. However, most lessons were negative, as in “that’s not quite the way things are,” since the biggest piece of the puzzle was missing. But the resemblance to reality was near enough to shed light on life. As in…

Paradise on earth? For me, the “Gult’s Gulch” segment reflected the unadulterated, super-reality of heaven. (No doubt Rand was making implications about “heaven,” but I didn’t take them as she intended.) Dagny Taggert plummets through the clouds in her plane and “awakes” to discover her perfect lover, fulfilling labor, brilliant company, perfectly-suited dwellings, unfading rewards, and joy in every detail of existence, even grocery shopping. This sounds a lot like the heaven I anticipate, the pictures evoked obliquely by Christ. But Rand was an atheist.

As John Piper writes:


Ayn Rand equated [duty-driven morality] with Christianity and rejected the whole thing out of hand. But this is not Christianity! It was tragic for her and it is tragic for the church that this notion pervades the air of Christendom—the notion that the pursuit of joy is submoral if not immoral. (Desiring God, Multnomah Publishers, © 1986)


Rand’s philosophy, or “theosophy,” since she clearly sought a God-substitute, would indeed be fitting in a world where God was a controlling tyrant, an impersonal essence or nonexistent (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism). But alas. Hoping for a Godward impulse in Rand was as vain as hoping to find one in…

Her characters. Atlas’ protagonists are fiercely idealistic and stronger than anyone in the real world. When Hank Rearden gives up his one true love, tears came to my eyes, but not to his. Nonetheless, Rand uses her industrial heroes so adeptly that they are a testimony to the breadth of her vision rather than her lack of common touch. Rand didn’t know it, but the archetypes for her protagonists, the death defying “prime movers” peopling her novel, can be traced back to the likes of Abraham, Moses, Noah, Elijah, all the way to Christ. These “men of whom the world was not worthy” defied societies and nations to stand the earth on its head. But apparently she missed that connection.

And ultimately, that’s the final word on Atlas Shrugged: connections missed. Rand got one crucial thing right—our pursuit of pleasure and joy, the best we can find, should be unabashed. But the book is bittersweet because she clearly didn’t get it all. Her hedonism took the form of dynamic sexuality and fulfilling work, but the gifts stumbled her up, and she never saw clear to the Giver. As her characters repeatedly say, “There are no contradictions; check your premises.” When it came to the existence of God, and the nature of pleasure, one wishes she had.


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Sunday, July 25, 2004

The Terms of Bittersweetness


Mountains are bittersweet. © 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

An Explananation for the Confused and Curious

When I say the word “bittersweet,” clouds of associations come to mind. But I’ve thought about life in these terms for awhile, and since vague ambiguity isn’t the tone I’m after (no, really), I see a need for definition. BitterSweetness. Let’s consider it in terms of denotation and connotation. First, the denotation, or “literal” definition: Bittersweetness is mingled joy and longing, pain shot with pleasure, earthbound wistfulness fueled by heaven—an elusive, paradoxical feeling.

Now for the connotative side, our “free associations.” For me, “bittersweetness” conjures up pictures—aspen leaves, sunsets (and their connotations), places—Long’s Peak, Colorado, a path through the woods I used to run on, concepts—“inconsolable longings,” tearful joy, and even moments—an interlude with a book and coffee, praying alone outside… Almost anything that gives me happiness while charging my soul with a desire for more, something greater, higher, beyond what I am enjoying. This feeling of joy just barely tasted, of a vision just brushed at, is the heart of bittersweetness.

To clarify, consider the ubiquitous word “cool.” (The most widely used word in our language?) Denotatively, we might say it means “frigid” or “hip” (or, like, whatever). But connotatively, we can’t begin to catalogue all the contexts in which the word is applied. The trip was cool. The surgery was scary, but all cool. We finally broke up, but we’re both cool with it. You missed a jump shot? Don’t worry about it, you’re cool. You’ll make the party? Cool. You can’t come? That’s cool. Hey, cool shirt. Cool sauna.

Likewise, in many ways, bittersweetness is in the eye of the beholder. It varies according to the viewer’s maturity and powers of perception. But however wide the personal associations, bittersweetness always has explicit denotations. So when I say, “Mountains are bittersweet,” I’m saying, “Mountains are thrilling because they’re in some ways as close to heaven as we can now climb…” My point being, “bittersweet” is a specific adjective. Don’t equate it with “cool.”

Life experience reveals there are some things which are invariably not bittersweet. They provoke no Christward longing, give no hint of heaven’s joy, no clue that we have souls. Regarded in their true light, these are the things which Christians should tend to despise. If something (I don’t say “someone”) offers us no trace of heaven or Christ, of authentic joy, however hidden, fallen or forgotten, it is evil indeed.



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Saturday, July 10, 2004

Lindsay Makes An Appearance


She puts the sweet in "bittersweet."


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Grand Canyon Fixation?


© 2004 Arielinds Photography

In the third week of May ‘04, we took a group of college-age friends to the Grand Canyon. Our stated goal was to build friendships in a setting where Christ’s glory made regular appearances, so striking you could hardly miss it. We wanted to catch a vision for Jesus’ glory, and we did. But the greater challenge was to take that vision home, and keep pursuing it in our Kansas City, MO locale. We had to swap the clifftop experience for muddy lowland and still find wonder. Glory in the grind.

Below you’ll find a short photo documentary of that trip, mostly posted for fun, and with no real explanations—other than rather juvenile titles and captions that may be mildly amusing if you weren’t there. But there is something BitterSweet about all this. And while bittersweetness is better shown (grasped intuitively at first) than told (“figured out” mentally), and I try to keep categorical statements to a minimum, some explanation is called for. But, as usual, it will be truth told “slant.”

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise.


Sociopath though she was, Emily Dickinson was on to something here. So here’s a slim line on Grand Canyon bittersweetness:


Beyond the Canyon
May 25, 2004

I survey the Grand Canyon,
out and over and in,
the earth rolled back,
the earth pushed aside.
I see it all clearly,
what I’ve never seen before.

An undying longing wells inside me,
and I enter the Canyon,
descend through its layers,
soak in sun and wind and water,
all the eye can see,
and I walk back up.

But I still haven’t found
the source of my bittersweet pangs,
the well of hope in my heart.
The Canyon makes it spring up and run out,
but it’s not in the Canyon.
So where does it spring from?

What did I hope to see?
What did I hope to find?
How will I be satisfied?


Job: “Behold, these are but the fringes of His ways…how faint a word we hear of Him.”



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We Built This


We interrupt normal programming to post a few Grand Canyon Vision Trip shots...



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Distracted Sunset


While the girls spoke with their special friends, the more mature drank in a spectacular sunset.



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The Secret of Santa Maria Spring


We hiked 8 miles for THIS?



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A Cruel Joke


People who've been here must laugh whenever they hear about this hike. Let's not tell anyone else, ok?



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Trail Guide


The lizard's experience and caustic wit made him an invaluable ally.



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The Oracle


They had navigated the catacombs and now at last stood before the ancient book of mystery. Reverently, they opened it. The book said, "Look up."



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Windcharms


"Does my hair look -- Oh! -- Cheese!"



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Steep Trail Ahead


Yo could only look on as his friend hurtled over the embankment.



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The Edge


He wasn't sure why, but Paul had a strange sense that he was being watched.



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Down With That


The young man on the left is a pretty cool guy.



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It's MY Sandwich


At times, stress boiled over into violence.



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Costly Reflection


Yo gazed across the canyon, unaware that the lives of his friends hung in the balance.



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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Bittersweet Life Unpackaged




The BitterSweet Life is a phenomenon that discerning people have been remarking on for centuries. In recent history, it’s been dealt with by the likes of John Piper, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (a first-rate theologian, by the way, presenting “theology” the same way Christ did, through story). However, life’s bittersweetness doesn’t always garner a lot of discussion on the popular level, which is unfortunate, because a “bittersweet” approach helps us discover a coherent worldview and realistic life expectations. And these are both nice assets. But the most prized riches of the bittersweet life are mysterious spiritual tuggings—labeled, often superficially, as joy, longing, hope, love—and in the end, CHRIST himself.

For me, bittersweetness materialized one day as I was trying to get an understanding of how my life could be so screwed up—and still there were these sudden moments of joy, lodged in my soul like glowing splinters. Why did they coexist? The conditions of my life have been somewhat adverse (all lives are this way), but Beauty inexorably asserted itself, even when conditions seemed darkest. Why? In my mind and heart, the reality of bittersweetness began to coalesce. I realized that life is nuanced, and we ignore the nuances at our peril.

The truth about life on earth, most of us would acknowledge, is something like this: the world will never be a utopia, as expressed with considerable pathos by U2’s Bono:

Jesus, in this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on Earth


But neither is life the nihilistic hell or unrelenting Golgotha that some make it out to be. We all catch glimpses of truth and beauty, enough to keep us going. The problem is that whatever we know, in practice we tend to perform a shaky balancing act between two extremes: ecstasy and discouragement—as if life has to be one OR the other.

Increasingly, our cultural expectation is one of dysfunction: Love lets you down, relationships fail, everyone has hidden wounds and addiction is the answer for everything. In a sad parallel, many Christians live out a kind of dogged stoicism, as if sin is a lifelong nemesis they can never escape. I keep stumbling across people—Christian artists (i.e. Pedro the Lion), my own friends, and occasionally myself (gasp)—who seem to have imposed the old Blues impulse onto our faith: Life is dark, the edges jagged. (The church has failed, community is nonexistent, sin always gets the last laugh…) So let’s take a good long look at this mess. (Oh, too long, too long. Quick, drink up!) If life’s as bad as all that, why not go Buddhist and enter some state of comatose detachment?

On the other hand, life is not as blissful as most praise and worship songs would lead us to believe. Dogged positivism can be almost as harmful as dogged stoicism. The casualties of “positive thinking” and the prosperity gospel are still staggering around our churches. What went wrong? Did I not think hard enough? Did I not pray hard enough? Why am I not being blessed? In essence, such naiveté is plain old pagan existentialism on Prozac. (Existence precedes essence; so I am what I do; so if I think positive thoughts, believe God for good stuff, my life will be rosy.) Where exactly in the gospels did Jesus say that his disciples would get the sexiest girls and the sleekest rides? (This is what I was taught by one learned preacher, I kid you not.)

The crux of all this is that life is filled with both joy and pain. Obvious, right? “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” as put by one pioneer of bittersweetness. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. But the joy and pain come rarely in isolation—they’re intermingled, crushed together, like a seed decaying to grow, like myrrh broken for fragrance, like the cross. And it’s here that we get hung up.

We all have moments where our hearts seem razed to the ground, left a smouldering ruin. And we’re each given moments of beauty and elation, when God's in his heaven, all’s right with the world. Funny thing about being human, we gravitate to these two extremes. What about the other times…the stuff in the middle, the bittersweet times? They get lost in the shuffle, usually lumped in with all the days that were born to be forgotten. But we tend to paint with too broad a brush, and life is neither as dark as we imagine it in our moments of tragedy or as perfect as we conceive it in our moments of ecstasy. Both pain and joy, “good” and “evil,” as Job would say, are from God. But they run together.

One more thing: The great news about this BitterSweet Life perspective is that the “bitter” is temporary, while the “sweet” wins out. The bitter is transient, the sweet, final. As Jesus said,

“I have told you these things so that you’ll have peace. In the world you will have suffering, but I have overcome the world.” - John 16:33.

And Paul:

We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! – 1 Corinthians 13:12 (The Message)

Welcome to the BitterSweet Life. There’s plenty to explore.




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After the Fall


After the immediate shock wore off, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, glad that they hadn't been the one to slip.



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So...What's the Big Deal?


What we saw exceeded our expectations, but not all were impressed.



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An Aerial View of the Rearguard


"How did you get up there so fast?"



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Communication Problems


"You talkin' to me?"



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I Can Do This


Looking for a quicker route, Rachael struck out on her own...



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Optimism Meets Disbelief


"Really, we're almost there!" "Ok, if you say so."



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Only One Casualty Today


"Let's all try and look happy for this one, ok?"



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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Grand Therapy


The canyon air put everyone in a good frame of mind.



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Backs To the Wall


A well-adjusted group of hikers.



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If You Look Closely...


No, the canyon is over that way.



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Don't Feed the Boys


We came across this little hobo on the trail to Horseshoe Mesa.



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Boys, Interrupted


Oh, did you say something?



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Into the Unknown


A classic shot, but not for the faint of heart.



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Keeping It Real


Lindsay, Amy and Amy, a bunch of posers.



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Bittersweet Wife?




Lindsay Speaks Up

This is Lindsay’s first page appearance, but this poem she wrote some time ago clearly justifies space in the chronicles of BitterSweetness. Christ has taught us both a lot about joy and trial in the context of our marriage...and Lindsay’s still giving me hints on how to tip the scales in the favor of sweetness. (Thanks, Babe!)


Christ-Home

Oh God, this life is hard,
I cannot grin and bear the pain.
But in the bitter is where I find the sweet.
In the loss, I discover gain.

‘Cause I cannot find love
in the dust of this earth,
I cannot squeeze blood
from a stone.

But in Christ I’ve found
my true husband,
I’m flesh of His flesh
and bone of His bone.

As I walk thru the land of my fallen expectations
with its scattered, earth-shaken dreams,
I find that my loves were all graven imitations
of the One who can set my heart free.




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A Quick Photo Essay


Deep focus. Clover, I think.


Same length of chain, shallow focus.



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Sunset Seat, Grand Canyon, AZ


Ever watched the sun go down from a canyon wall? Try it. © 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst



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Spontaneously Sweet, Grand Canyon, AZ


When you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time and watch the sun send the darkness down through the geological layers of time, you do not say, “Now to what end shall I feel awe and wonder before this beauty?” – John Piper, Desiring God Picture © 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst



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You Can't Always Be Superman*




(One for Clark Kent)*
*Words to a bittersweet song, © 2004, Ariel Vanderhorst

Superman's starring on the radio,
but not a word about Clark Kent.
Clark’s in the office working late tonight,
over a spreadsheet he is bent
by the weight of things that he can’t see,
the kind of things you just can’t fight.
He gets up and he closes the door
and his head falls in his hands.
He’s discovered what we all ignore:
You can’t always be Superman.

You can’t always be Superman,
you can’t always win,
when you’re just a man.
We always see you flying to the rescue
but once in awhile it’s no sin
to let somebody rescue you.

Now Clark’s at Hy-Vee buying groceries,
grabs macaroni and some greens,
drives home and throws them in the microwave,
but when they’re done he just can’t eat.
He thinks about the boy he used to be
and all the things that’ve changed since then.
He never thought that he’d still feel alone,
still like a child with no friends.

You can’t always be Superman,
you can’t always win,
when you’re just a man.
We always see you flying to the rescue
but once in awhile it’s no sin
to let somebody rescue you.

You can’t always just fly away,
sometimes you have to stay
and step outside the cape,
and step out of the sky.
So try and have a dream,
a dream where you can’t fly.
You can build yourself a better life, you know you can,
because you can’t always be Superman.

Clark Kent lay down, picked up the phone,
and then he dialed Lois out of town.
When she picked up, he said,
“Honey, can you talk to me?
Tonight I’m feeling kind of down.”



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"The powers of a man's mind are directly proportional to the quantity of coffee he drinks." - Sir James MacKintosh (1765-1862) How did he know?



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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife