Monday, February 28, 2005

When Hercules Staggers

Defeat has some unforeseen consequences—what would look to be a devastating loss, debilitating hardship, is never merely that. There is, I think, something paradoxical in disaster.

Every hero story known to man includes some kind of awful setback. Our tendency is to think, “That’s tragic. Why’d he have to go through that? …Well, I guess it added some needed pathos. Dramatic tension, climactic conflict, whatever.”

What we often miss is the fact that the hero wouldn’t be a hero without the catastrophe. Disaster in some form is essential to heroism.

When I consider the various periods of adversity and upheaval in my life I conclude…biting my lip slightly…bottom line, I come out in the black. Black isn’t always pleasant, since there’s often a lot of blue associated with it, but it beats the uncontrolled bleeding of red.

Some events that seemed presently cataclysmic are now merely comedy. Other blows still sting. But 40 years from now, and to a limited extent, today, when I examine my life I won’t conclude that I really became me in “that one six month window of pure bliss.”

Tragedy and pain have a defining effect. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to take a swing, knock the sucker—some sucker, any sucker—down. But there it is.

For some reason, I repeatedly think about Hercules in this context. Strangely, in varying stories, he represents both sides of the “tragedy” equation, the oppressor and oppressee.

Take Hercules and Anteus, the so-called “son of Earth.” The Greek Wonder traveled cross-continent to fight Anteus, not expecting much of a challenge. When the opening bell sounded he grabbed Anteus and threw him—multiple times. The giant would have soon succumbed to death by body-slamming, except for his symbiotic relationship with “Mother” dirt. Every time he got thrown, he gained strength from the soil, and got up buffer. Kept on reviving his career, reinventing himself, like a mythic MJ. Finally, Hercules raised him off the ground and held him ‘til he stopped squirming.

I find myself relating more to Anteus here. It wasn’t the knockdowns that did him in. Hercules rubbed his face in it, and this just furthered the contest. The pain of defeat was the impulse to victory. Nitty gritty reality (dirt) kept him going. It was the final, devastating separation from reality that signaled curtains. If only he’d found a way to keep his feet on the ground.

Put me in Anteus’ corner on this one. Discount the “giant” status, and he’s me, he’s you, he’s the Chumba Wumba in all of us. The key thing is to absorb the impact, readjust your vertebrae, and get up. A conclusive divorce from dusty reality—fatalism, defeatist or escapist thinking—would be the real death knell.

My second Hercules reference puts the hero in Anteus’ prior position, and in our shoes. As Shakespeare wrote:

"Let Hercules himself do what he may. The cat will mew. The dog will have his day."

Exactly. Suddenly the tables are turned, and now I’m feeling for Hercules. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, despicability has its moments of triumph. You may do everything right. You may be the kind and sensitive type with a heart for the public welfare and a friendly twinkle in your eye—you’ll still take the hits. No one, it turns out, is invincible.

As Peter, the disciple of Jesus, wrote to the first-century Christ-followers, “My friends, don’t be surprised at the burning pain of trials, as if something strange were happening…the suffering is to strengthen you, make you ready for impending glory” (1 Peter 4:12-13, The Bible – my paraphrase). As history has proven, that “church” took Peter’s exhortation to heart. In the beginning, Christ’s people were a race of heroes. They learned something Jesus himself had proven.

Heroes suffer like everyone else. Unlike everyone else, they let tragedy, or what appears to be tragedy, do its work. Then they stagger back to their feet, wipe something from their eyes, and stride into the horizon.

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Deceptive Preferences

I’ve talked myself into a corner on this one. I have a somewhat shaky hierarchy of upcoming posts in my mind, and it was just sharply jostled—ironically, by me. Topics of crucial importance like KU’s shot at the Final Four and my successful transition back into coffee will just have to wait. All because of a hasty decision on Friday.

Trying to slap up a quick post (below) in the path of the onrushing weekend, I said, among other things…

“don’t tell me that I’m getting old…

don’t tell me the sun sets every day…
don’t tell me the truth, tell me a lie
‘cause I’d prefer to never have to die.”

Taken in itself, these lines have all the makings of an appallingly sentimental, pitifully delusional post—in short, exactly the kind of post you come to this blog hoping not to find. Of course, you all noticed these words appeared in poetic form, implying they didn’t necessarily express the thoughts of the author.

At least, I hope you noticed.

So then, to the point. Don’t you think that truth has a bit of a kick to it?

Often I hear someone say something to the effect of “I just don’t believe that” or “You don’t think that’s actually possible, do you?” or “No! He didn’t mean it!” or “You can’t be serious” when in fact they should, I do, he did, I was.

And, because that sentence was self-involved enough to baffle Comp professors, I’ll clarify: Don’t you think one reason so many people have an aversion to truth in so many forms is because it’s potentially so painful?

Often when someone says “I don’t believe that!”—in any number of areas: relationships, business ethics, journalistic integrity, sportsmanship, and yes, of course, spirituality and faith—I think, Of course you don’t believe that. If you did, you would have to radically change your life.

What I’m getting at, I think, is this strange new form of fundamentalism. All to easily, we end up tied to a way of thinking, not because it is true, but because it yields the conclusions we want. The new “fundamentalist” is a narcissist, unquestioningly committed—to his own perspective. We should all learn to query not just What we believe, but Why.

Truth, like gravity, may smart on impact, but we live in a world where, Surprise! getting it right is of the essence.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

Lines Out of Time

One wants to write more.

Often though, time does not allow it. To an extent, time ought to be defied. Others days it has to be placated, at least briefly. Today is one of those days.

Therefore, a compromise. Here’s a little rag verse, perhaps foreshadowing an upcoming Post of Substance.

Tell Me

Don’t tell me the truth, tell me a lie;
don’t tell me that it’s cold outside,
don’t tell me that I’m getting old,
those things are hearsay, that I know.
Don’t tell me some things never change,
don’t tell me the sun sets every day,
don't tell me some loves go unclaimed;
don’t tell me the truth, tell me a lie
‘cause I’d prefer to never have to die.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Book Deal Leads to CD Deal

Throughout my lifetime, I’ve carefully examined those statements that pass as “folk” wisdom, testing them for accuracy. Mostly, they aren’t true, with a few exceptions like Murphy’s Law and “When it rains, it pours.”

Recent events, however, have added a new phrase to the stable of time-tested axioms: “Good things come in twos.”

Hard on the heels of my recent book deal came an opportunity I’d never imagined possible, even in my wildest dreams. That’s right.

I’m now the proud possessor of a new CD deal. At this point, the contract is just for one album, but who knows how things could turn out. Now that I have my foot in the door… Squint Entertainment, heads up. Sony & EMI records, look out. Soon you too will be sending me free CDs.

As I said, immediately following the rush of the free book deal, I was contacted by young singer/songwriter Laurel Fisher via email. Noting this blog’s increasing notoriety, Laurel bombarded it with glowing adjectives, complimented my wife’s photogenic-ness, gave me props for an article published on Relevant…and offered me a CD deal.

After 2 seconds of careful deliberation, I was in.

Now, having just completed my “maiden listen”* of Laurel’s debut album, I’m savoring my free CD deal like Ethiopian coffee with lemon bouquet.

I would characterize Start Small, Hope Big as a poppy Contemporary Christian album with undertones of Praise & Worship, Gospel, and a few rock touches—an appreciably eclectic undertaking for a first endeavor. The sound is keyboard-based and smoothly produced. A look at the chorus of the title song-

Start small, hope big
Trusting God to come through again
In spite of the odds and probability
God worked miraculously
Because they dared to believe
Start small…and hope big

-gives one a sense of the album’s flavor. Themes include trust, pain, faith, love, wrapped around some Bible-inspired songs, most notably a couple of Psalm-based tracks. The album’s best shot at the coveted “Bittersweet” adjective appears in “The Shape of You”: “Is this what it feels like to be broken?/Is this what it feels like to be used?/Is this what it feels like to be molded/ Into the shape of You?”

While I’m bound by honesty to admit that CC isn’t my favorite musical genre, Laurel gets props for a solid, God-centered first effort.

What I appreciate most about my free CD deal is not, ironically, its gratis stature. Rather, Laurel is directing a portion of all CD proceeds to Home of Hope, a children’s ministry in Bangladesh. It’s no mark on Laurel’s musical abilities to say that the heart intent here ought to get top billing. Nice work.

Book deals, CD deals. One can only wonder, appreciatively, what will come next?

* I can sense the impending sarcastic remarks. Well, go ahead and launch ‘em. I don’t wear pink or lavender, but I am confident enough in my masculinity to use feminine figures of speech. ;)

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Dark Coffee

And Other Blue Collar Addictions

No doubt you all saw this coming. After all, second to hoops, coffee is the favorite amenity of this blog. Shoot, even the title has subtle java undertones. Which goes to say, I realize this will come as no surprise, but...well... This is surprisingly painful. In fact, maybe I should just—no, that wouldn't be honest. Sigh. Ok, two words.

Coffee addiction.

I can hear the snickers now. Coffee? Please! The three-times-daily prayer to Mecc-I mean-Black & Decker? That's mere subsistence.

Exactly. I've always thought the best indication of addiction must be that ironically revealing phrase, "I'm not addicted!" Replete with wounded dignity, you know. I've tried that one. And while coffee is a fairly mild case, addiction in all its forms must be stymied.

Last week, after I nicked my finger and started bleeding mocha-brown, I realized the coffee levels in my bloodstream were excessively high. Briefly, denial set in. I feel fine. Then I did what I had to.

For me, the sudden death method seemed the way to go. And so it was. I halted my java intake cold, those multiple cups a' joe becoming multiple cups a' H20. The bouquet wasn't the same, but three days out and several low-decibel headaches later, I was free. Wonderful thing about freedom.

"Wonderful thing" being the freedom to indulge—in good things, of course, like coffee. The good days, the days of cream and brown have returned—just not to my bloodstream. Joe is back, but not like clockwork.

What I've realized is that addiction stalks us constantly, sometimes shocking in its very triviality. And trivial or not, addiction has a reductionist bottom line. It makes us less than we are—sometimes by making us feel like more than we are. We're left losers nonetheless.

Painkillers. Diet Pepsi.™ Computer games. Even college hoops news. Some of addiction's more insidious forms are good things whose use has come to outweigh their intended purpose. We could say that anything that ceases being used by us, and becomes an unquestioned fixture, begins to work to our reduction. If I can take a fine thing—exercise, books, music—and exploit it freely to my own ends, good and well. But if the equation is up-ended, then an accessory morphs into a crutch, and I'm dependent. I've taught myself to use something I don't really need as if I do.

A rockstar who wears sunglasses 24-7. The student who's speechless without her peer group. The guy who "can't miss" SportsCenter.™ And we all realize these are the innocuous cases...which is exactly my point.

A word on the "accessories" in life: Keep 'em on a short leash. Our pet enjoyments, those sacred cows, must be slaughtered if they ever leave their stalls.

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Monday, February 21, 2005

Tattered Glory

One morning I was watching a sunrise, the sun fighting heroically to break through clouds. The streamers of filtered luminescence were glorious—but they were streamers only—and it struck me: partial knowledge, like clouded light, has a bittersweet tang to it.

Human beings, when entrusted with divine revelation, have so many ways of going wrong. Like a hazy sunrise, the radiant truth of Christ suffers from disruptive intervention. Consider the many stages of distortion:

1) Truth delivered, but not heard—like a letter stuck on the mantle and forgotten.
2) Truth heard, but not comprehended—like a comment taken out of context.
3) Truth comprehended, but not applied—like an practicing sports therapist who’s overweight.
4) Truth applied, but not in balance—like a child slapping Band-Aids on a head wound. And each discontinuity has its nuances… So many ways the message can go wrong.

Like the genesis of a dawn, God’s words invite a shift of focus. But he reveals redemption in a kind of messy way. There’s a raggedness to it, and we tend to focus on the rough edges rather than what’s about to break through. We could, if we tried, peer through the haze, and make out the shining heavenly body. Instead, we comment on the cloud cover—are they cirrus or cumulous, and is it going to rain?

If only we learned to track the scattered fragments of glory, we would learn to see the perfect whole they represent. The splintered pieces are not enough to live on; they only point to the unified, breathtaking totality of GOD. Often, we settle for the fragments. Truth eludes us, and this makes reality, when it’s received, perceived, grasped, and integrated wisely—the most precious commodity one can possess.

On another morning I could be reminded, watching the sun rise imperiously in a clear sky, that the unveiling of glory will not always be so tattered. One day we’ll stand on the other side of a great divide—the current gap between the truth and our perception. (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, The Bible)

But for now, this is how Christ enters a foundering world: He calls us to study streamers of dawn in the eastern sky, a growing brightness. Light swirls through clouds, preeminent, though partially hidden. Our job is to look closely.

These days, hindsight has a way of clarifying what was presently confusing…but thunderheads still churn. We are still readily distracted from the unseen heart of things, struggling daily to see. Our lives have ragged edges.

We struggle to find Christ’s glory revealed in the midst of fragmentation and disorder—Christ in the storm, walking on the water as we, like the disciples, cringe and cry for their lives—divine power “loose” in a vortex of confusion, something perhaps hard to see. But something that shakes us, releases us, when we see it.

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Sin In Road Trip Terms

An Ancient but not Alien Concept


The word makes you feel dirty, irritated, or just confused. What is it, this-


Without asking questions, many dive in. Some people despise it. Some tiptoe around it. Few, however, try to define it. After all, mere synonyms fail.

But consider, if you will, the utterly pathetic, self-defeating seediness of sin, which reduces the participant to a beggar, picking through yesterday’s trash for breakfast.


It’s a little like sleeping in the car, trying to fulfill a legitimate desire—sleep—in the wrong place—the back seat—which leads to a cheap imitation of the real thing. This is seldom refreshing, until we lull ourselves into a bleary stupor, telling ourselves, This is all there is, I’ve got to grab what I can. At this moment, we can hardly imagine the existence of soft-but-firm mattresses and full-length, back-aligning REM sleep. We’ve inoculated ourselves against the real thing to the point that a sweaty, aching, knock-off experience is all we believe can transpire.

But out there, real sleep still exists, despite our circadian rhythms shattering like New Year’s crystal.

Sin, unlike chronic red-eye, carries with it the moral stigma of unnatural existence on the spiritual plane. We sin when we defy the Maker, Author of more than sleep, revoking our created humanity, asserting we know best what it means to be human.

To sin is to be less than human. But we think that less-than-humanness, like skimpy backseat catnaps, are what we want.

And so the soul awakes empty. Dissatisfied. Having eaten but still hungry, having drunk but still dry. Keyed by misused defiance, sin drives to pursue mere shreds of satisfaction, never really satisfied. We relish our supposed indulgences, our growing appetites, little knowing they are constantly growing because they are never filled. Sin is a self-perpetuating cycle, like dozing on an endless bus trip—always thinking the next disjointed nap will be “the ultimate,” when sleep—renewing, cleansing, perspective-restoring—lies outside the ride.

And all the while, we deny the Natural law, the Maker’s design. We depart from our humanity, but it haunts us. We claim that ethics are arbitrary, only to long for them in others. We claim that sleep is unnecessary, only to drift off in a backseat, or one day, at the wheel…

At the moment of crisis, sin becomes visible in all its graphic ugliness. But at that point we’re often too far gone to call it like it is.

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Knocking Death

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Knocking Death

In the tradition of my recent Contra Mundum Vision post, here's a brief (and inadequate) comment on another theme that ought to be aggressively re-envisioned.


They say don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it,
So none of us can knock death.
No one can say it’s a bad thing
To draw your final breath.

But they say there’s always fine print
And it’s hard to prove them wrong
For death is not sky-tinted
If you don’t belong.

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Jumping Through Hoops

Back in my high school days I studied Latin for about two years, and, with scholarly acuity, I still remember one phrase:

“…Mens sana en corpore sano…”

Which, to be fair to the ancient author, is in reality a segment of a larger phrase. However, for the purposes of this post, I’m not particularly interested in quoting Juvenal in context.

The meaning I’m after is encapsulated in those five words, which are translated: A sound (sane) mind in a sound body.

One of the mainstays of this blog are semi-regular posts where I comment upon how my basketball game is slipping, how my jumpshot isn’t in the mid-80% range as usual, how my margin of victory has dropped into single digits, how I can no longer dunk, etc. All because of my studies.

In the name of variety, I thought I’d mix that pattern up. Vary the routine, you know, even though it is NCAA hoops season. So here’s the complaint you knew was coming, but reconstituted:

My basketball game is no longer sliding. Nor is it progressing. It just isn’t. In other words, there’s nothing to evaluate. And that’s what I’m griping about.

You spend all this time pursuing a sound mind, only to realize that the sound body has gone into retirement. Or at least it’s threatening to go on waivers and cancel the current season.

I plan on ending this crisis at the soonest possible opportunity (in the meantime settling for lay-up-enhancing pushups and pick-enhancing sit-ups). But it does bring up a wider question at which I’d like to take a swing.

Why are so many “academic” people…fat?

I can feel the resentment beating down on me as I (nervously) write, poking at one of our culture’s untouchables—the gut. But…what gives?—other than those jelly-roll paunches?

How can we so totally disregard that ancient Roman virtue, which has been argued (at least in theory) ever since—that a fit body is the necessary wheelhouse for a smoothly operating mind? To think otherwise seems counterintuitive, to say the least. Nonetheless, people everywhere are eager to disprove the theory, putting their money where their mouth is.

There now, wasn’t that an atypical basketball gripe?

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Contra Mundum Vision

Cultivating a Tendency to Turn the World on Its Head

There’s a certain delight that comes from using an object for a purpose for which it was not intended—thereby achieving a positive outcome.

For example: Turning off your alarm clock with a baseball bat. Opening the fridge with your toes. Watering flowers with your coffeepot. Pumping "iron" with your dog. There’s something rewarding about such defiant improvisation. We should all spend more time flouting the laws of accepted consumer-usage.

I've realized that I find a similar joy in defying the “laws of usage” that govern much of our lives—the ones that, with subtle subversiveness, effect morality, personality, perspective, in other words, life formation—not just how you hang up pictures. Such an exercise has benefits, believe it or not, that extend beyond self-gratifying freakiness.

Consider, for example,
monotony. The default response is boredom. But a persistent lack of variety can have a tempering effect on your character when you exploit it. Perseverance, not boredom, becomes the surprising result. Kind of like using dirt on your hands to get a good grip.

Likewise, heaven. For many, the obvious "use" would be a dismissive chuckle at the expense of anyone naïve enough to "blindly believe that." To which I reply, Heaven isn’t an afterthought of this life, but a continuation. You’re laying the tracks for “your” eternity as we speak. In light of this, heaven has a variety of atypical uses, not the least of which is death-defying joy.

In a similar way, perfection (natural use: frustration and driven-ness) holds promise. And loneliness. The list could go on.

My tendency to invert common “life-usage,” for want of a better phrase, makes me wonder if there isn’t a redemptive use for the human trait we usually label “difficult” or "stubborn" and repress. Why not channel latent defiance into a really useful pastime: pitting oneself "against the world" (contra mundum) and turning it on its head?

This isn't just against-the-graininess. Rather, this conscious flaunting of appearances reaches toward something better. Not merely different, not merely counter-cultural, but better. True. This isn't rebellion for fashion's sake, but for truth's.

Such a shake-up makes sense in a world where the most obvious use for any given "object" (I use the term loosely) is seldom the right or best one. This is not to say we live on a neutered earth where
everything is actually friendly and cheerful if you crane your neck at the right angle. Rather, it points up some bedrock truths of bittersweetness—that Christ is paramount, even amid suffering, and therefore beauty wracks an ugly world. Even pain has its uses. Evil is evil, but it can be exploited in spite of itself.

In such a context, where Good (God) waits in readiness to throw appearance on its ear, defiance ought to be used constructively. The world as we see it needs to be assertively re-envisioned.

We all have a "mean streak"—whether it's quiet or overt—a core of spiritual metal that, beyond a certain point, will not bend. Abused, it surfaces as ugly hate-all angst, a crisis of misdirected insurgency. What a waste. Channel "defiance" into vision and it's redeemed as contra mundum sight—which could also be known as rebellion with a cause.

Seeing life rightly takes tenacity and knock-down-drag-out perseverance. Devil-may-care verve is also needed, because you are, after all, defying an entire world that lives and dies on common "life usage." Looking past appearances and beyond the edges is a job for rebel-visionaries like Christ, and those who follow in his steps.

What we need is contra mundum vision. In the realm of rebellion, body accessories and bitter rants are child's play. Defiance could be much better employed.

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Monday, February 14, 2005

Church Dichotomy

A puzzling-but-definite parting of the ways.

There is a form of church I love, and there is a form of church I despise.

One is countercultural. The other is culturally obsequious. One is centuries old. The other changes every few decades. One is Christ’s chosen context for changing lives. The other is the chosen climate of the status quo. Both are generally marginalized by the culture at large. One with good reason.

The aforesaid reason often results in an atmosphere that many mistake for the “Christian faith”:

Sipping Starbucks,™
muttered petitions
hit the carpet.
Is this a dull fraternity
or a rusty fire escape?

The form of church I despise makes Christ look like a feature in Consumer Digest, a product worth testing whose features are constantly becoming more convenient. Church-gatherings in such a context may assume the form of uber-hip “performances” or insipid religious bingo clubs, but they share a fundamental triteness. Repetitious chat about Jesus—with all the substance of an Atkins™ diet chip. The resulting conglomerate, sappy and hard to swallow, is what I loathingly call “Churchianity.”

The form of church I love is something more like a base camp in war time. That it has backbone goes without saying. But it mixes polemics and love in a most bewildering way. It doesn’t pull punches or mince words, and would rather die than put Christ in a gift box. This church is willing to die for you, but it stomps enthusiastically on the toes of your pet delusions. It laughs at death, cries over evil and says “to hell with social posturing.” This church looks a little like Christ.

All good and well. Until the moment comes for making distinctions, for applying labels and separating the sheep from the goats. Then one realizes that Churchianity and Christianity are often mixed and mangled together, frequently in the same location. And then what?

Suddenly Christ’s words on the topic make glaring sense. As he told his disciples, who were consumed at the moment with this very problem: This is my concern, not yours. You’re not the sorters, the arbiters of church-that-has-arrived. For now, showing artificiality the door is not your worry; just do your best to serve the church, even knowing it’s a mixed lot. (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 – my paraphrase/interpretation)

Today, this doesn’t mean I sign off on Churchianity, as though it’s some necessary evil, and therefore to be winked at. I realize, sadly, that in some sense, the Churchian “faith” will always be with us, inevitable as death and taxes. But that doesn’t mean I won’t skewer it when given the chance.

Seasoned Christianity, which so few see, takes a lot of hits from this saccharine imitation. All the more reason to critique it when possible, denigrating its triviality—which is, at any rate, readily apparent to anyone who takes a close look.

The goal, I think, is to snub the superficial Churchian subculture—which Jesus would have hated—while continuing to love the church, even those mired in clichéd, self-conscious mutations (Churchianity). As Tolkien wrote, "Not all who wander are lost," and this applies in the realm of true Christian spirituality no less than in the brutal Pelinor fields.

One perseveres in the mixed arena of "church," all the while hoping to find—and to sustain—ever increasing qualities of the real thing: That mysterious faith in Christ which is said to "overcome (not succumb to) the world"—and, surprisingly, with quiet steadiness, does.

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Sunday, February 13, 2005


Adam must have been a broken man
He lived 900 years
If he got up and tried again
I guess I also can.

Ever consider the dogged perseverance of Adam? Life after Eden surely had an aspect of monotony to it. Bitter self-recrimination would have been the path of least resistance. Considering how Adam fingered perfection, only to relinquish it on a whim, only to go on living for centuries, only to hope for a final repossession of what had been lost…prompts me to pursue endurance.

(See prior post for context.)

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Friday, February 11, 2005

The Tedious Life


It’s a commodity that exists in such large quantities that the demand will never catch up. People have the impression that to encounter monotony is to be bored. Therefore no one wants it, and we have all these euphemisms for the same-old, same-old. Just the daily grind, you know, stuck in the waiting room, spinning your wheels. Just waiting for life to start.

Monotony has been the subject of many depressing songs. But it has its uses.

If nothing else, dull uniformity gives us a chance to work out the reality of our lives—our character, our faith—in the squeaky vacuum of unwinding time.

Like a symbols on a chalkboard, the “tedious life” as it appears is seldom overwhelming in its grandeur. It’s mere life-continuation. Squiggly white lines manage to break up the grey-green field, communicate a sketchy message, and not much more. Chalkboards have never been the preferred backdrop for astonishing revelations. However, they’ve often been the medium for rock-hard truths, unglamorous at the time, but irrefutably real.

As Socrates or someone once said, “The un-bromidic* life is not worth living.” Lackluster periods have a desired outcome, and Surprise!— that outcome is not disgruntled boredom. Rather, character is actuated, tested and proven in these down times. For those who know Christ, or claim to, the ante is upped: How real is your faith? How sincere is your pursuit of God? You won’t know till you collide with the massive inertia of sameness.

To utilize it—exploit it by continuing to be who you are—that’s the essential thing. You can’t afford to stand still and wait it out. No one has ever succeeded in “waiting out” monotony and remaining themselves. Strangely enough, continuing to be "who you are" in such a time is to actually become that person.

As Robert Browning wrote,
“I count life just a stuff
To try the soul’s strength on.”

Sameness is meant to sharpen inspiration, prove its reality in a kind of prolonged "clutch-time." Unfortunately, most people don’t make the proper use of their allotted dullness. Each of us is only given so much, and to waste it can be a costly mistake. We’re all destined for some dust. Whether we emerge reduced or deepened depends on one thing…

What kind of a person are you? To the (bored) horror of many, life-formation is the purpose of tedium.

This word appears in association with the Vocabulary Reclamation Project.
* Bromidic (“bro-mid-ick”). For some reason this word reminds me of that ominous phrase from Julius Caesar, “Beware the ides of March!” (Maybe it’s the consonance: that “B” in common—“Beware”/“Bromidic”—combined with the shared “id” syllable…) From this you might conclude, if you were paying attention earlier, that those Ides must have been a very tedious, wearisome, lackluster time. Which no doubt they were, until the moment of the assassination attempt. And there you have it. Not only have you just learned a new word, but you’ve acquired a little Shakespeare knowledge as well.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Year’s Best Book

We’ve all seen those “Book of the Year” lists, or at the very least the NY Time’s Top Ten. At first glance, the idea of compiling lists of books, pitting them against each other, and designating some as “best” seems to be a winner. And for the most part, it is. Even if the “top ten” were, by some freak accident, composed of pulp fiction, vitriolic ravings, and sentimental nonsense, there would arguably still be some value in the discussion such a list would provoke.

However, there are problems with standard “Book of the Year” lists, the most obvious being their chronological bias. I mean, c’mon! You’re telling me that every year, the “best book” just happens to be one that was published that year. Talk about a rush to judgment. Talk about societal self-importance.

We ought to have a level playing field, the only requirement for contestants being that they have been read within the given year. My winner will not be artificially bound by publication date. No chronological snobbery here. Simply the best book. Period.

Some of you may think it’s a little late to be choosing the “best of” from 2004. However, considering that the finest effects of good literature often appear long after consumption, a February ’05 release date makes perfect sense.*

So then. The initial field of contenders was about 40 deep. (For convenience’s sake, textbooks were not included in the initial reckoning.) Some quick weeding reduced the competition to an elite group of ten, listed alphabetically, not by probable level of greatness. (Note that—defiantly—not one of my finalists was actually published in 2004.)

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury, © 1962

Brendan – Frederick Buechner, © 1987

The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis, © 1946

Leap Over a Wall – Eugene Peterson, © 1997

Don’t Waste Your Life – John Piper, © 2003

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand, © 1957

Whole Prayer – Walter Wangerin, © 1998

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde, © 1854

The Jesus I Never Knew – Philip Yancey, © 1995

Recapture the Wonder – Ravi Zacharias, © 2003

As I surveyed my Top Ten, I realized the trap I was setting for myself. If I attempted to narrow the list down, degree by degree, book vs. book, until I had selected the “best” volume, I’d have to somehow outline my criteria, justify the elimination of the other nine, and write a very convincing explanation of why The Book was astonishing and life-changing.

I don’t have that kind of time.

Therefore, here is your winner. In five different categories.

Best Theology/Philosophy-Conveying Story
The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis

Best “Classic” Bittersweet Novel
The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

Best “Modern” Bittersweet Novel
Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury

Best Life-Formation
Recapture the Wonder – Ravi Zacharias

Best Applied Theology
The Jesus I Never Knew – Philip Yancey

Of course, you should just read them all. It goes without saying that each of the “top ten” have bittersweet, truth-inducing undertones to them, when read in the right light. The right light, of course, being Christ. Beyond that, you’ll have to take my word on their bestness, without further least for now.

So get reading.

* Although even this is somewhat rushed. Ideally, choosing 2004’s best book would be an ongoing process. It’s totally feasible that in ’06 I might realize that what I had thought was ‘04’s masterpiece was just a passing fancy…and a previous darkhorse had turned out to have real staying power. And then, Surprise! in 2008 I would examine 2004’s revised winner, and realize… You get the point.

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Self-Subversive Blogging

Sometimes I wonder if I'm starting to sound more like my blog.

Not that everything I say seems brilliant or remarkably funny (maybe that will be a long-term effect), but specifically, I wonder if I'm beginning to work more "useful" words into conversations, speak more directly and to the point. Could blogging affect speech patterns?

It could be just a matter of time until "transpicuous" or "wiggy" crops up in a conversation. Now that's a sobering thought.

Anyway, just something to think about (briefly) before getting back to life's more serious questions. Questions like, Could blogging affect one's coffee consumption?

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A Blogging Hurdle?

In Which I Consider My Chances of Survival

Above is a candid snapshot of this semester’s required texts.* “Required” in the sense of necessary/non-optional, rather than in the sense of “Yeah, right” (also understood by some as the “doorstop/paperweight” sense).

As expert students know, some textbooks are included in the syllabus merely to give below-average students a sense of accomplishment. The expert students realize that a) those particular textbooks merely duplicate the professor’s lectures, or b) those particular textbooks may be intellectually interesting, if you have time for them, but the professor has failed to tie them to the course (i.e. exams) in a really meaningful way.

Either realization generally leads expert students to “save that one for later,” which is another way of saying they will sell it at slashed rate to the first interested party.

For better or worse, my required texts this semester really are required. This could be a godsend or a disaster, depending on one’s perspective. I tend toward the godsend view, but with one caveat: What will this bookish barrage do to my blog-life?

Generally speaking, I’ve found that good (or “necessary”) reading tends to provoke good blogging. Using my vast Physics background, I’ve drawn a simple diagram below to illustrate this relationship.

The tube should be understood to represent the quasi-linear workings of my mind. The “necessary” books are inputted, percolating with other ideas and concepts until they emerge, reconstituted as brilliant blog posts. However, every closed system has elements that figure into an optimum working environment, and that’s where I’m concerned. What might happen if the quantity of necessary books expanded exponentially? Below is another diagram illustrating my darkest fears.

Will my required texts this semester exceed critical mass? If so, how could I compensate? Solutions would involve altered elements in the equation, say, a bigger “tube” (i.e. mind) or a new element…like coffee dosage.

Help me here, I’m reaching.

* Not included are this semester’s “auxiliary” textbooks, the pricey ones which you don’t actually read cover to cover, but have to keep on hand for reference. Kind of like life insurance, I guess. Anyway, were they present, this stack would be another eight inches high. But that would be misrepresentation.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

That Elusive Depth

Talk That Counts

I’ve often wondered what makes verbal communication gripping. How does a serious message, voiced in conversation, become Wow? How does one put truth in such a light that it appears as itself, irresistibly fine?

To go beyond—or rather beneath—mere recital, that’s the point. To subjugate words and truth so that you don’t merely repeat them, but have first claimed them, poured them inside so that they work themselves out with force.

As with a poem. You can read it off the page and lull your audience to sleep, or you can get it by heart and shock them into sight with your passion.

So many communications are like how-to manuals. No doubt they are helpful, probably even true, if one could ever make it past the table of contents. Sadly, they're “useful” and “forgettable” in the same breath—that’s the problem with verbal prescriptivism.

The key would be to first take and digest the contents yourself. Then you wouldn’t be pointing to topic headings like a tour guide, but recounting the gist of things, like a veteran. Spirited testimonials, not helpful references, are the idea.

In the long run, second-hand recitals tend to be forgotten. “Freshness”—which in the case of expressed truth is simply a nearer thrust at reality—comes only through prior ownership, through previous experience, love and taste.

In the case of conveyed truth, “Used” is the essential condition.

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The Agony of Defeat

After announcing this blog’s nomination in Evangelical Underground’s awards competition, it’s only right for me to fill you in on the thrilling outcome.

I lost.

Actually, BitterSweetLife didn’t even make the finalists list. As I see it, my blog was a little too underground for this competition. (Or, as an acquaintance of mine said after he’d been fired from his latest job, “I guess I was just too smooth for ‘em.”)

I can only hope that the humiliation of this Underground rejection will spur me on to greater endeavors.

Endeavors like…writing another real post.

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Bittersweet Trump Card

An Expose of the Upbeat Perspective

"Optimism"...a mere shadow of the good life?

I've been thinking about this for awhile, and I'd like to publish a simple manifesto. In its most stripped down form, my declaration runs as follows:

Screw optimism.*

Now let me clarify. (Before you pause, then thoughtfully bookmark this page in your "amusingly angst-ridden" section.) This may sound like a strikingly depressing start to a dramatically jaded post, but that's not where I'm headed. So what exactly am I saying? That we should smash the rose-colored glasses, kick a hole in the positive think-tank, shatter that half-full coffee mug-I mean-glass? Well…it wouldn't hurt. But my problem with optimism isn't that it's happy but that it's artificial.

I'm all for happiness. In fact, to be happy is a fundamental purpose of life. As C.S. Lewis said, "It is a Christian duty for everyone to be as happy as he can." But what Lewis described was not optimism.

"Optimism," as I understand it, is "seeing the bright side," putting a "positive spin" on things, being “up.” But optimism offers no foundation for chronic upbeatness. It's like giving kids a bike with flat tires and saying "Go ride." Or like giving (MU) fans a team with flat coaches and saying "Go root." All optimists are doomed in the end, because there are some events in life that no amount of mental posturing can "positivize."

It's at these junctures that optimism appears as the dry well it really is. We all know that we ought to be happy, and most of us want to. When we're not, we sense something is wrong, and others look at us nervously and wish we would lighten up. But to say that optimism is an answer for pain is like saying There's got to be a way to spontaneously levitate, if I just think about it long enough. So, having resolved to drop optimism like a Martha Stewart stock tip, what's the alternative?

Looking back at some of my earliest posts, I realize this question—Where is the wellspring, the origin for authentic joy?—is one I continually grapple with. This elusive reality—the fundamental, radical nature of joy—was, in fact, the crucial ingredient in the creation of this blog. In one of my formative posts
I said:

…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?

Why indeed? Not because I had a “positive spirit.” Rather, because the bed-rock foundation of joy runs miles below shallow streams of “mindset,” eclipsing what I might feel at any given moment. Joy must rest on a higher reality than sentiment. Ultimately, we need, not a saccharine soul, but a happy God.

I sometimes wonder what a direct glance at Christ’s face—provided we survived it—would do to our vision of reality. I am not convinced that “one glimpse of his dear face, all sorrows would erase;” what I guess at is even more fantastic: sorrows not obliterated, but incorporated. Not erased, but realigned.

We would see the dance of the cosmos, of this shattered earth as ultimately triumphant, moved by a happiness that confronts tragedy and encompasses it. A joy that sweeps up life’s broken fragments and makes with them a mosaic, a stained-glass window, through which light shines. Perhaps the stains are the sorrows. I don’t know, but I suspect a glance in Christ’s eyes would give me a new read on suffering, an understanding that it somehow counted. That it did not negate happiness, but interlaced it. Like Paul of Tarsus wrote, “We are sorrowful but always rejoicing.”

But this use of sorrow, this recycling of pain, is only one outcome. We need more than a solution for suffering; we need a reason for joy. And we find it, in God himself, when we examine the edges of our lives more closely.

We all spend a number of years discovering that the world is not “a friendly place” after all. Then, if the journey of discovery continues, we find an even more impacting truth: Creation is.

Why? Because the happiest being in the universe is the One calling the shots. Therefore, the dance of time is ultimately joyful. The artistry of eternity is inevitably, finally, celebratory. Elated and worshipful.

We need a happy God like kids need a happy dad—and we have Him. God's joyful heart hems in, defines, the universe. As Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Later, one of his disciples would echo, “I am filled with comfort; I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 7:4).

Christ brings unshakeable joy.

We need, not optimism, but death-defying happiness. Joy comes to us, not through knuckle-whitening resolve to be up, but through infinite satisfaction in an endlessly perfect relationship. And this relationship waits nearby. Christ, who laughed with his disciples in the shadow of the cross, still walks with us today.

To sum up then, Life in Christ is pure joy. Life on earth is pain. Therefore, life is bittersweet.

For now.

* A perceptive reader (i.e. the type who make return visits to this blog) would have noted that “Screw optimism” is actually a completely inadequate and even misleading summary of my Joy “manifesto.” You’re absolutely right; it only conveys the negative, combative side of my statement. But it did get your attention, right?

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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Change of Fortune

Without warning, the sky brightens. Soothing aromas—as of flowers and Tahitian vanilla and strong coffee—breeze through the air. In a million homes and cubicles there is a sudden lessening of tension, as if someone has heaved a gigantic, barometer-dropping sigh.

Something has changed for the better. And up ahead, a figure advances, its silhouette growing more and more distinct. It looks solid, muscular—cut, in fact. The fog lifts briefly, and in a brilliant patch of sunlight, unmistakably—there it is!

Confident and powerful, A Post of Substance approaches. I
t appears to be moving fast.

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