Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hidden Glacier Travelogue

For days now, you've been waiting for this latest photo-travelogue. Your questions have been penetrating and insistent: How was the drive? What happened in Montana? And most of all, Does Glacier Park live up to the hype? Is it really as gorgeous as everyone says? What does it LOOK like??

I thank you for your patience. My friends, before you lies a fascinating journey toward the heart of these mysteries. Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the

As the journey began, a long drive lay ahead. Fortunately, we were ready for adventure.

On the way we saw the Badlands...

And Mount Rushmore...

And Yellowstone...

Did I mention it was a long drive?

Finally, we arrived. Immediately, aggressive wildlife had to be subdued.

Eventually, we met relatives. They were cool.

With their help, we ruled the v-ball court (since hoops is unheard of in Montana).

And yes, I hear your unspoken questions. Indeed, we hiked. Did we ever.

We hiked all the way to Grinnell Glacier - 11.4 miles, baby.

The mountains were beautiful. (We couldn't stop smiling.)

Therapeutic too.

And absolutely incredible views. Stunning.

Everyone kept pointing. "Did you see that?" "No way, did you see THAT?!"

The scenery was really beyond belief. We couldn't stop snapping pictures.

In fact, the Montana “national pastime” should be photography. Bet you'd like to know why, huh?

Maybe next time.

Thanks for joining me on this journey.

You've just been duped by the HIDDEN GLACIER TRAVELOGUE.*

Call upon your imagination, and I'm sure you'll be able to picture the beautiful hidden glaciers. (And incidentally, tomorrow I'll be signing copies of my new e-book...) Enjoy!

* Yeah, yeah, I know - that was childish. But I'll be posting some real photos soon....

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Good Redundancy

Well, I’m home.

I’ve been debating how exactly to reenter normal life. But while the ideas are many, the necessities are, uh, one. The thing about going back to work is that at least it gives you a convenient reentry point. Today I “celebrated” the return from Montana with some weed-whacking and mowing.

The projected temperature was in the 90s, but God was good enough to cut the heat with a cool drizzle that lasted hours. I was thinking that “redundancy” is not always draining—today’s rain was repetitive, but definitely refreshing. Why shouldn’t more repetitive things be that way?

That thought might be worth a full post, seeing as how redundancy makes up a large part of life. Good redundancy. G.K. Chesterton wrote about God’s “delight in the monotonous”—ordering the sun to rise again and again and again, ad nauseum.

I’ve got lots of writing to catch up on, and a bunch of photos to post, but it’s getting late. I’m going to go soak up some good redundancy in another area, and try to make it back here tomorrow.

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Picture Imperfect

En Route to Glacier Park

The science of stat-tracking has brought to light a strange new era in the life of this blog. Site traffic has increased recently, but most of the new visitors have not been intrepid seekers of truth—that is, Readers—they’ve been iconoclastic image-grabbers.

The various world-class photos on BitterSweetLife attract dozens of hits a day, changing Google’s “image search” into a personalized client server. Photo-searchers flock here like bees to honey. The favorites tend to be this picture, this one and this one—all courtesy of Google.

While I appreciate Google’s good taste, I’m still deciding whether to send a thank you note.

Obviously, the extra site traffic is nice. But in terms of potential readership, what am I actually gaining? On the practical side, several action steps suggest themselves.

  1. Place photos inside text posts. That way image-searchers will at least be “exposed” to some text. How’s that for ironic?
  2. Emphasize the proverbial © Ariel...
  3. Shoot more world-class photos.

On the pragmatic third item: Most of my images are generated on vacation, since I apparently don’t have time to take pictures at home (although I do snap an occasional keeper). So the obvious thing to do is take more vacations to take more great pics to drive more blog traffic.

That’s while I’ll be leaving Sunday for Glacier Park in Montana. The frenzied desire for still more site traffic (of any kind!) is forcing me to take an extended photo-vacation.


Well, not really. Not exactly. Actually, we are leaving, but that’s not why.

The mountains are calling. The mountains and a bunch of relatives on my dad’s side we have yet to meet. We’re packing the camera, the coffee, the books, the basketball, the hiking shoes and the hoops kicks—and heading to Montana. It’s family reunion time, wilderness escape thrown in.

The idea is to come back jivin’ in body and refreshed in mind, recharged by new ideas, new people and new scenery. We especially want to see God’s creative work on display in Glacier Park.

In light of all this, whatever happens with the “image search” thing is gratis (or just annoying) as far as I’m concerned. That was all just a front to gently break the news that we’ll be gone for about a week. As always, I know this is hard. But hang in there.

Scan the archives. Savor bittersweetness. Be strong.

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

BitterSweetLife Earns Its Keep

It’s been a “classic” week. After living in the Greco-Roman world eight hours a day, my mind’s been swimming every night, drenched in the possibilities posed by gladiatorial metaphors, Greek inscriptions and temple architecture.

My brain has foundered in the first-century ocean several times, only to be pushed further under. Marketplace thugs and vicious Cave Canem guard dogs have haunted my dreams, only to be displaced in the morning by limb-severing chariot races and life-long servitude. In terms of blog posts, such inundation is a recipe for few to none.

However, I just experienced a new “first” that begs to be documented. Not even my intellectual duress can keep this under wraps.

BitterSweetLife has been a rewarding experience, and I’ve never (seriously) contested that, but the material returns have been slim to none. If I had to catalog my “profits,” I’d sum them up as:

1 mysterious new age book (with excellent resale value)
1 poppy original CD

However, the list has just changed. You could say it’s been imploded. The new addition overshadows all that have gone before.

BitterSweetLife has just snared me some coffee.

To be precise, 500 grams of Kaleya coffee from Zambia. I’m not sure if it’s shade-grown, organic, or what, but the coarse burlap bag and minimalist tag (no internet reorder link, not even an address!) suggests a primal authenticity. As all coffee aficionados know, Zambian coffee contains the lowest caffeine ratio of any variety, and is thus highly sought after by health nuts and people who prefer not to have red eyes. Excellent stuff. And now I have about two pounds of it to play with.

How did your blog pull this off? you wonder. Well, very craftily. The coffee was given to me by some of Lindsay’s relatives who have been working in various missions projects in Africa for the past year and a half. Last night, when they passed out gifts, Lindsay’s aunt remarked, “We know how much you love coffee!” Aha.

This may seem unremarkable to you, but in context the genius of the blog becomes apparent. At Christmas, these same relatives had sent us presents—sweet African craftsmanship, in fact—but no coffee. And after Christmas they’d been referred to this blog… Now, six months later, a new gift allotment includes the crucial element.

The connection is obvious.

By disseminating vital information about my life—giving it to people in a position to act on it, no less—BitterSweetLife has gone far toward earning its keep in the coming year. I always knew this blog had hidden depths.

When I eventually brew up some Zambian, raise a mug to this blog and begin typing, I’m hoping for auspicious results.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Life in the Dotlight

We all long for significance, impact, bang-up effect. But when life seems to consist mostly of doing numerous small things, our felt worth can shrivel to the size of a pinhead.

In most lives, there seems to be no brilliant Aha! performance, just numerous connected instances of effort. We want to do important things, amass glorious achievements or at least earn a little notoriety, but at the end of the day the quest for limelight easily goes sour.

Our dreams of the spotlight yield a life in the dotlight, a closely-related but little-loved relative: The spotlight covers the stage; the dotlight covers today’s deadlines. The spotlight adds celebrity gloss; the dotlight reveals the cracks in the ceiling. The spotlight is the life you’ve always dreamed of; the dotlight involves vacuuming and taking out the trash.

I was recently thinking about this apparent downer, my relative contentment hijacked by an unlikely source: The kingdom of God. Strange, isn’t faith in the unseen God supposed to create peace in this visible world? Absolutely, but Christ’s approach, and the certainty of a final life-appraisal, undeniably ups the ante for living. The question goes from “How can I be content?”—which is difficult enough to answer—to “How can I not waste my life?” Suddenly the stakes are higher. A problem of mere self-absorption becomes a crisis of divine necessity. How can I please God?

I considered the fact that I haven’t done anything really scream-out-loud notable. I’ve lived a mildly interesting life. Done some search and rescue work. Read a lot of books, been fairly industrious. But by and large, my life so far has consisted of doing numerous small things fairly well. And at the two-and-a-half decade mark, I have to start contemplating the fact that this trajectory may continue.

Initially, I comforted myself by remembering that billions of people, including thousands if not millions of Christians, have lived completely unexceptional lives by any external standard. So the set in which I find myself is huge. It’s the world’s largest demographic, bigger than the “poor” or even the “proud,” since it incorporates both those groups. But is it good company? I’m not sure this is exactly strength in numbers. So what makes a life well-lived?

The relative pettiness of my life’s decisions had me hung up for awhile. I long for big choices—the one-and-done decision, act or resolution that could seal my cosmic significance. A Gettysburg speech. A new Confessions. A sacrificial rescue, an epic fight, a dangerous task, Mission Impossible meets Ben-Hur. Something I’d feel good about doing when Christ enters the room.

It didn’t take long to see I had to give this up. No one spends their life engaged in completely noble activity; and if they did, they would do some part of it ignobly. No, eternal value doesn’t rise from Oxford lectureships or purple hearts or great theological writing.

It struck me that Christ’s life, with the exception of three world-shaking, epoch-making years, was largely unremarkable. Long hours spent in the sun, cutting wood, wiping sweat from his eyes, laboring to learn Hebrew in his free moments. Three decades of strenuous living led to three years of brilliant teaching and a horrific death. The answer, however, is there.

Christ did what he was told and never claimed to do more. He followed his father’s directives and was content. God instructed Christ through thirty obscure years, through three spotlight years, through death and back to unmatched glory. One day Jesus was a nobody, the next he was a revolutionary, a few days more, the victim of the mob. But the motive force for Christ’s contentment did not change:

Jesus said, "The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started.” (John 4:34).

Not glamorous, maybe, but this source of meaning is immovable. Bling-bling makes room for Untouchable. This is significance, to be doing what God wants me to be doing. And that's where I'll let it rest.

The paper-writing student and the Pulitzer winner have one thing in common. Likewise the lawn-mowing youngster and the multi-platinum rock star. They’re both wasting their lives if God didn’t lead them to do it.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Joe Saves the Day

My recent silence is the result of a phenomenon known as The Summer Class. The first two days of my immersion in first-century archeology have been more fascinating than I could have hoped. In fact, the daily eight hours flash by, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the week.

Yesterday, I wasn't quite so cheerful. Ironically, this was caused by an initial optimism on my part that caused me to somehow believe I would be fine without coffee, despite extenuating circumstances (i.e. being exhausted, then staying up past midnight). Today I threw caution to the wind, imbibing plenty of life-giving Joe, and this return to the normal academic routine made all the difference.

Later, I may even feel up to writing a bona fide post.

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Orthodoxy - G.K. Chesterton, A+

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
Flash Review: A Fusion of Theology and Frivolity

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton, A+

Orthodoxy should perhaps be known as the masterpiece with a title that has deterred readers ever since publication. But any concern over the book's forbidding tonality melts away somewhere after the third paragraph. G.K. Chesterton is not so much concerned in weaving a dense wall of theology as in vividly illustrating the startling way that faith overshadows every dimension of life.

"Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realize that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health. It is only afterwards that we realize that this danger is the root of all drama and romance."

I finally dipped into Gilbert Keith's classic after a period of anticipation (or possibly nervousness) spanning several years. I’d read The Man Who Was Thursday, but was still unprepared for Orthodoxy's ingenuity. If the mind is a think-tank, then some authors merely ruffle the surface. Chesterton thrashes up the depths. He’s an original thinker, mixing doses of hilarity with measures of sheer brilliance. He leaps from theme to theme and metaphor to metaphor with such speed and exuberance it’s sometimes hard to keep up.
"Life (according to the faith) is very like a serial story in a magazine: life ends with the promise (or menace) “to be continued in our next.” Also, with a noble vulgarity, life imitates the serial and leaves off at the exciting moment. For death is distinctly an exciting moment."

I did my best to trach with Chesterton, however, I think this book will be formative. G.K.'s visions of God’s mirth, of the earth as salvaged from a wreck, of the imaginative soul, of the dead endings of mere systems of thought—and the high-spirited mode in which he expresses them—are unique to him. The closest I can come is C.S. Lewis, who readily admitted the influence of Chesterton in his own philosophy. This is a book to be read, then read again, mined for insight, pencil in hand. Needless to say, a Book a' da Year bid is already pending.

Looking for a final word? All right: Buy this book immediately; when the package arrives, cancel your engagements for the evening, set a large British-looking tankard at your elbow, and immerse yourself in G.K. Chesterton's wildly imaginative mind. You won't regret it.

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One Candle on the Blog

The precise origins of this blog, kind of like the source of Shakespeare’s genius and the birth of the world, are shrouded in mystery.

It all began last May. I think. For a reason that is now opaque, I was fooling around with Blogger’s timestamp function back then, and now my earliest archives date to June ‘04. We may never know exactly when I responded to some primal urge and started blogging.

However, I’ve noticed that various other people generate some hoopla over their One-Year Anniversaries, so I’m not about to waste my opportunity. The chances are excellent that BitterSweetLife’s OYA has already passed, so it’s time to get on it.

Let’s see. You should know that when this blog began, it was simply whim. There’s that giddy period when the novelty of “publishing” provokes you into posting all sorts of half-cooked stuff (i.e. vacation pictures with silly captions) with the idea that you’ll eventually take over the world. Later you realize you’ll be lucky if your own family members read your blog. But those of us who survive that euphoric honeymoon period eventually realize we’ve stumbled onto a good thing. The luckier ones find some sort of vital topic or quest to stabilize their output, and that’s me in a nutshell. I realized I had this concept of “bittersweetness” as a grid for life and it seemed as good a central theme as any.

At the formative moment, I had just read Joseph Epstein’s Snobbery, was fairly impressed by the spiffy blog of a rediscovered friend, and was probably drinking coffee. Don’t ask me what Epstein has to do with blogging, because I’m not entirely sure, but somehow it helped the writing progress. I dashed off my first post, threw in some rag poetry, and haven’t ever really looked back. Apparently my impulse toward bittersweetness was good, because I’m still writing about it. As my brother pointed out the other day, most people do not see “bittersweet” (i.e. sad movies and dark chocolate) as a very profound statement. In contrast, I’ve come as close as I can to developing bittersweetness into a philosophy.

Incidentally, I still think it’s helpful; I still think it works. The question of good and evil, joy and pain—how it enters our lives broken up and mixed together, “the sadness in the sweet, the sweetness in the sad” *—weighs upon us all. As a phenomenon it demands an answer. I think Jesus Christ is the best conceivable explanation.

I could link you up to a bunch of “crucial posts,” but the arguable top three are already in the sidebar, and frankly, who wants to read more than three profoundly insightful, scathingly humorous, surprisingly true posts at one time? If you want more overtly “bittersweet” musings, a simple keyword search will take you far. Bittersweetness tends to be implicit in most of what I write, of course.

Well, enough said, I think. The one-year anniversary has been observed with all the pomp and ceremony appropriate…to a one-year anniversary.

* From “Daisy,” by Francis Thompson.

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Divine Comedy

God's Hidden Smile

© 2005 Ariel Vanderhorst

G.K. Chesterton suggests that the full extent of God’s mirth is carefully hidden—for our benefit. God is hugely happy. His joy is seismic; and if we got a head-on look we would be terrified and cry like a baby when she overhears a party in the next room.

I suspect that the mystery of God’s laughter might be deepened by a perspective problem. Incidents here may hint at why this is: We watch two people carrying a sled up a snowy hill, wince as they fail to notice the toboggan-train hurtling toward them, and are flattened. Then we laugh, safely upwind. Or we’re talking to a friend at the sports complex when someone kicks a soccer ball from 50 yards downfield; the ball describes a high, picturesque arc, then descends miraculously to bounce off the friend's head. In both cases, we try to stifle an irrational impulse to laugh out loud.

More awful examples are imaginable, but you can conjure them yourself. The point is, these absurd accidents provoke our amusement. Then, conflicted, we turn away to hide our smirks because we really do want to comfort the unfortunate. Moreover, we really do feel sorry for him. It’s not that his mishap isn’t painful or embarrassing, it’s just that it’s so…funny.

Our instinctive amusement arrives courtesy of an inflexible difference in perspective. We enjoy front row seats when the comedy of the absurd unfolds, and choke down our laughter. From the arena, the comedy is not so funny. I'm only speculating, but I wonder if there is a clue here to Christ’s perspective, his hidden mirth. When we are deeply offended at a perceived disaster, God hides his laughter and comforts us. His is the benefit of perspective.

I’m not for a moment implying that God’s amusement carries an aspect of guilt. On the contrary, God is the one being alive who has never known a moment of shame over poorly-timed laughter. And if we dare ascribe this pattern of "inappropriate" mirth to God, we should remember one more thing: When casual misfortune befalls a stranger, we may or may not smile; it is when someone we know and care about trips awkwardly on the sidewalk that it’s really funny. We laugh most readily at those we love.

Taking the unusual hint of our awkward laughter, I wonder if God’s amusement over the comic absurdities of our lives extend to bigger things. One finds a glimpse of this in the biblical story of Jonah:

Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at GOD, "GOD! I knew it when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That's why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! "So, GOD, if you won't kill them, kill me! I'm better off dead!" GOD said, "What do you have to be angry about?" (Jonah 4:2-4, the Bible)

I can see God diplomatically listening to Jonah’s death wish. Jonah: “All this time I’ve been looking forward to the fireworks, and now THIS! You have to go and show off your kindness to these wretches! In that case, just go ahead and kill me, all right?” God: takes a moment of silence before he speaks, showing divine restraint. Which is to say he doesn’t laugh out loud.

So then, the really divine impulse may be to snort at absurd misfortunes after all—but as God refrains, so should we, with one exception: We are always at liberty to laugh at ourselves. Ultimately, the really humble person knows that laughter is the best cure for routine adversity—especially the case when the laws that govern coincidence seem to be stacked against us. Most of us never learn this, but a few do.

There is in the best of the saints a fantastic levity that would be alarming were it not accompanied by a lucid calm. The theologian Paul possessed it; headed toward execution in Rome, he affirmed his rationality"With all respect, Festus, Your Honor, I'm not crazy.”—overwhelmed his audience with his passionate arguments—[King] Agrippa did answer: “Keep this up much longer and you'll make a Christian out of me!”—and all with inexplicable joy—Paul, still in chains, said, “That's what I'm praying for, whether now or later, and not only you but everyone listening today, to become like me—except, of course, for this prison jewelry!(From Acts 26, the Bible)

This makes me wonder if God allows us discreet glimpses of his hidden smile as we get older, so that we may learn to laugh with him. As we grow up, God pulls back the veil of the universe inch by inch, and we see that what we mistook for fathomless space and darkness is really filled with tumultuous joy, a laughter that flickers teasingly in the stars—because God sees all ends.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Surprising Orthodoxy


I mentioned this book earlier, but it was the last book in a fairly long line of reviews, and it probably should have been the first. So once again I shove in front of you G.K. Chesterton's infamous book, Orthodoxy, the masterpiece with a title that has probably deterred readers ever since its publication...

I finally dipped into Chesterton proper after a period of anticipation (or possibly nervousness) spanning several years. I’d read The Man Who Was Thursday, but was still unprepared for Orthodoxy's ingenuity. If the mind is a think-tank, then some authors merely ruffle the surface. Chesterton thrashes up the depths. He’s an original thinker, mixing doses of hilarity with measures of sheer brilliance. He leaps from theme to theme and metaphor to metaphor with such speed and exuberance it’s sometimes hard to keep up.

Having done my best, however, I think this book will be formative. Chesterton’s visions of God’s mirth, of the earth as salvaged from a wreck, of the imaginative soul, of the dead endings of mere systems of thought—and the high-spirited mode in which he expresses them—are unique to him. The closest I come is Lewis, who readily admitted the influence of Chesterton in his own philosophy. This is a book to be read, then read again, mined for insight, pencil in hand. Needless to say, a Book a' da Year bid is already pending.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Christ Trap

© 2005 Ariel Vanderhorst

Sometimes I wonder what the dagger-sharp Greek philosophers made of Jesus. After all, Plato and Aristotle would have been old hat to them; stoicism and asceticism and hedonism were in full swing, usually pitted against each other. The Greek debaters excelled at erecting and razing arguments, and probably did so for fun in their spare time. For most of them, new ideas were a momentary diversion—toys to be unwrapped and played with and discarded. What would Christ and “The Way” have had to offer these philosophical voyeurs?

The Bible indicates that the arguments of Paul the theologian in Athens—Athens, the intellectual watering hole of the ancient world—was met with grudging approval (Acts 17:32). One wonders why, exactly. What would a handful of seasoned (probably jaded) cerebrals find intriguing in Christ’s story?

I have at least one idea.

Recently I was thinking about 1 Thessalonians 4:14 in the Bible:

Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus. (my emphasis)

What struck me was the line of causality on display. Paul, who authored this letter, used a simple but devastating argument. “IF,” he says in effect, “Jesus really rose from the dead, THEN OF COURSE new life awaits us as well. Jesus says so.”

Paul hooks the central fact of Christ’s life—his resurrection—to the death concerns of the disciples in Thessalonica and says that for all practical purposes they are one and the same. One assertion about Jesus drags in all the rest. One truth implies the many. One strand holds the whole tapestry together. Deny one claim, you dash them all. Believe one fact, and if you value your honesty, you must take on the rest. Paradoxically, the swarm of staggering claims about Jesus are indivisible. You can’t divide and conquer. It’s the way Christ is.

Take any one part of him and it implies the whole. His character creates a glowing chain of causality that must be broken early or not at all. Consider: Grant his “great teacherhood” and you cannot deny his honesty. Grant his honesty, and you cannot deny his sanity. Grant his sanity and you cannot deny his theology. Grant his theology and you cannot deny his divinity. Case closed.

Every strand of Jesus pulls in all the rest. Therefore, to avoid affirming the eye-popping truth of the resurrection—and thereby endorsing the certainty of everything Christ said about himself—you must firmly, decisively contradict the very root of his being.

Prove that he never existed. Demonstrate that he was actually a compulsive liar, or a surprisingly coherent madman, or kept a harem of village women on the side. Do something, anything, to discredit him, because otherwise… Otherwise you pay him one complement and his Godhood is implied.

I wonder if Paul made this point to the scholars loitering around the Areopagus. It would have turned some heads. And in fact, the only sane reactions bright minds could make to such a dilemma is what the Bible documents in Athens: Some sauntered off laughing derisively and some said “Tell us more.”

You either take Christ as he is or you joke the whole thing away. Piecemeal approaches don’t work, as the Athenians clearly saw. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, you either demonize Jesus as a fiend or you fall on your face, realizing you have wandered into an encounter from which there is no escape.

Once a person stumbles over Christ, he either stays down or hurriedly gets to his feet and runs off. These are the only credible avenues. So when the well-oiled Athenian minds heard about The Way, they recognized a philosophy which exacted a heavy price: Everything.

Everything, or nothing. All the devotion the heart can muster or absolute cold indifference. An entire life or never a thought at all.

Christ must smile as person after person runs into his providential trap. He must smile all the wider when a few of them stand, scratching their heads, then lurch awkwardly toward him, having concluded that ultimate reality, the priorlife, is really the only sane alternative after all.

Lured into eternal life by a master trick.

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Monday, June 06, 2005

The truth is R-rated

I rarely just post links, but hit up this post from Oneway about true soldiers and throw-away urban culture. Nicely mixed, and definitely not your average music review. Keep after it, man.

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Prophetic Summer

Summer seeps in

like Athenian oil.
It enters the skin
and smoothes out our toil.

Summer is rare
like ambrosial dew.
It freshens the air,
says all things will be new.

There's a sense in which every season seems to be a happy accident which may not happen again. The sky could be burnt orange instead of blue, and the breeze, shifting a cumulous horizon, could be hot instead of cool. I'd elaborate on the feeling, but working in this perfect weather has worn me out.

"...says all things will be new"
—there is definitely a bittersweet aspect to it.

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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Fluid Brain

Recently I was trying to quantify the impact that various books have had on me, seeing as how I’m coming off a bibliophilic spree, and the picture I got was aquatic.

Weird, huh.

I had the thought that some books, some authors, stir up the mental waters (G.K. Chesterton thrashed them, C.S. Lewis created a wave pool) while some merely bounce off the surface like skipping stones (Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet are convenient examples).

Then, having started thinking about the mind in liquid terms, I concluded that my mind was never a chalkboard. The tabula rasa model never worked. Being a created thing, my brain had leanings and inclinations from the very beginning—like a tide pool with waves lapping at the edges. There were currents and eddies from the get-go.

That’s why the whole books-as-water-bombs concept works (sort of, anyway). The mind always remains somewhat fluid, relatively elastic, surface tension maintained; it may or may not be affected by what comes in. Therefore, the intellectual impact of each intruding author depends on his intrinsic “mass.” Thus, while Tolkien created a strong new current, McLaren was lucky to provoke a few amused bubbles—and the newly gelled mind prepared itself for the next influence to approach the pool where McLaren and Tolkien had respectively dripped and waded. Ultimately, the brain is never flat and dry unless its dead or jaded.

Some implications of this are useful: the mind likes a good case, but is not ultimately linear. We need fresh air and mysteries as much as syllogisms. Our mental currents do not redirect themselves due to logic alone. (As Chesterton says, reason is all the madman has left.) Our true selves want to be like Christ: a consummate “mystic,” retreating into the hills for hours of solitude with the Father, and an unabashed lover of reason, squelching fallacious arguments at will.

The mysterious “elastic” qualities of the mind are a fascinating topic, and there a bunch of books on the topic, several of which I plan to investigate:

The Undiscovered Mind, John Horgan
Meaning, Michael Polanyi
The Mind and the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz
What Makes Us Think? Jean-Pierre Changeux, Paul Ricoeur

Anyway, hopefully I’ll get to indulge my curiosity, and at the very least come up with a creative new way to rank my reading material.

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Friday, June 03, 2005

Posts Of Substance Exposed

I was thinking that some of this blog’s new arrivals are probably still getting oriented to this place’s verve and freshness, and therefore certain crucial phrases are probably lost on them. Hopefully they’ve figured out the specific connotations that “bittersweet” has, but there are other concepts, not so clearly spelled out, which are nonetheless essential to this blog’s identity. Concepts like Posts Of Substance.

Sound vaguely familiar? Brave traveler, read on.

The genesis of the P.O.S. dates back to last winter, when this blog was having a kind of identity crisis as I sat nearby and held its hand. BitterSweetLife was in the middle of growing pains, struggling with the question of whether to “go pop.” Seemed like everyone else was doing it, and I wasn’t convinced that the blogosphere was conducive for overly thoughtful writing. (Actually, I’m still not convinced.) Needless to say, the fate of the blog hung in the balance.

Fortunately, it came down on the side of depth (ideally), true-to-life humor (usually), and sound philosophical principle (at least in theory). In other words, BitterSweetLife would not go pop, it would go thud, aiming for muscle mass over a manicure. The relevance of the Post Of Substance is obvious.

In reaction to a plethora of cotton-candy posts, I determined to defy the cultural trend and write on topics more consequential than new apparel and latest bizarre personality survey. I would advance my anti-fluff cause with intentionally thoughtful entries, and I would call them Posts Of Substance. (Here's the first one documented, with additional bragging here.)

I knew the cost would be high. A lot of people would continue feeding their e-junk-food addictions, consigning BitterSweetLife to the realm of “Hey, sorta cool but too much for me, ya know!?” But so be it.

The die was cast, and it may still be rolling, but you won’t see me shaking it up again. Posts Of Substance, at least on a semi-regular basis, are here to stay.

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Clues To My Identity

Last week I read the book of James in the Bible. Four times. The glory of this accomplishment is reduced, however, by the fact that James is only 5 chapters long—3 pages in my tiny ESV TruGrip edition. However, when you read a book four times, you do start to pick up on key ideas, one of which caught my attention:

If anyone is a hearer of the Word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:23-24)

Strange. Images of weird amnesia and psychotic second-guessing came to mind (mostly supplied by the great depressing film Memento). James was making a striking statement, and something counterintuitive was being implied. The message, as I saw it, was this:

Your core identity is elusive. It's hidden, a secret slipped between the pages of a book. The book is a written mirror, reflecting what ought to be. Look in the Bible, and you may discover who you are. Look elsewhere, and prepare yourself to be conned.

Conversely, James is saying, The face you see in the bathroom mirror is not you, not precisely. It's more like an indirect reflection. The real you is in the book.

This in itself is somewhat shocking. The me I see is not really me? In a flash, some part of me understood it: Of course. The real me would definitely be able to dunk... But just as quickly I realized there were deeper questions at stake. Philip Yancey hints at it in his book, Rumors:

Paul had two pictures of himself. One image he could view in a mirror, and the insomnia, beatings, imprisonments, and deprivations must have left their mark in the gaunt and weary face that stared back at him from the crude Roman glass. The other image he could not see. Nevertheless he could sense his inward self being renewed and made more fit, tempered by hardship.

This also resonates. The inner man is more crucial than the outer. The inner gradually reflects the "priorlife" reality of heaven, and a world that will require strength, speed, and spiritual agility, a body built to withstand the full weight of glory, as C.S. Lewis would say.

James is stating that we find the key to this secret, inner—and, strangely—natural me inside the pages of the Bible. I read this book every day, but I can't say I always come away with a refreshed image of my natural as-intended-by-God self. Apparently James is writing to me.

So if I open the Bible, admire what I read, then shelve it, I'm living a lie. I'm like an athlete who struts with weights for a portrait, then tosses them aside. Or a student who reads his books to acquire a "multiple choice" acquaintance. I'm discarding the very truths which will shape me if I wield them.

All right, James. Go on and say Gotcha! You got me. You pack a lot of psychology, a lot of emotional punch, into a couple verses, and I'm biting. Suppose I take you at your word, which is really God's, and begin looking for the natural me, someone both like and unlike the person I sort of know. Just where am I to be found in the pages of the Bible?

The answer that surfaced caught me off guard.

My tendency, I think, is to scan the Bible for abstract spiritual qualities—hope, let's say, or humility—which I try to induce into my life, with Christ's help. And such distilled virtues are helpful reference points, actually essential. But when I'm searching for a picture of my "natural face" something more than a laundry list of values would be nice. An amber glow doesn't quite cut it either. What I would really like to find is something more human, a vision, however beatific, that has a face and flesh and blood—a "me" that looks a little more And that's precisely what I find.

As I mulled it over, my perspective shifted a few degrees, and I was surprised to notice pieces of me littering the pages of this book. I was fragmented, but everywhere. The eagerness I felt to run and pick me up was almost childish.

There was a piece of the natural me in young David: a poetic abandon, economy of motion, a facile grace that was awful or magnetic, depending on where you ran into him. David, the writer of songs and the killer of thousands on the fields of battle.

I found a fragment of the natural me in old Caleb, pleading for permission to storm one last hill and kill giants, never mind that he was 85. Fierce tenacity.

There was a strand of me in Mary, Christ's mother, too, an ennobling submission to the will of God, peace in pain, the bitter not wiping out the sweet.

And there was and there I caught a glimpse of me in Christ himself, the One for whom all adjectives fail.

The "natural man" that James described, the primal, perfect creature God intended, looked out at me through a hundred different pairs of eyes. The glimpses were fleeting, not always on the surface, and always punctuated by unpleasantness. The Christian heroes are not saints; or, perhaps more accurately, the saints are not angels.* Their souls throw off shards of "natural" glory, but it is intermittent. Only Christ portrays it perfectly, and he is so perfectly natural as to be a mystery. Still, there are glances and moments I can capture.

We look in the Bible, this magical mirror of a book, and find flashes of revelation, scraps of God-reality to be taken and swallowed, pieces of a portrait that will finally be of us—if we can only remember what the picture looks like.

"Get it already," James insists: The only way to remember it is to look, take note, and paint it again each day, acknowledging the Painter who guides your hand.

* Even here, a disclaimer must be applied on behalf of the angels, who ought to be understood as wondrously perfect. They are not sagacious, ultimately-boring "spirit guides" or heart-melting charmers in spaghetti straps or weightless little things with a bent for string instruments. Angels fight God's wars and thunder out his messages.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Less Than Red-Letter

Today has been One of Those Days. Highlights have included:

  • Overcast skies and a monotonous, grey drizzle.
  • Two hours spent exploring the ineptitude of our local government.
  • A final grade report that was equal parts sad and irritating—“bittersour,” I think the term is.
  • An unintentional descent into exhausted slumber.
  • Two cups of strong coffee, in response to the former, which has made the world a better place.

Several of these events would benefit from elaboration. However, rather than launch a diatribe against the inane, absurdly tangled bureaucracy we call “local government” in downtown Kansas City—how you’re forced to pay one department to give information to another department (info which is already on file in both offices), in short, paying out to get an erroneous parking ticket rescinded, paying money in order not to pay money, all the while facing additional fines if you hope to park your car within a city block of the courthouse, city hall, police headquarters, or drivers’ bureau, all of which you are compelled to visit thanks to spools of red tape and the advice of ignorant public employees…—Well, rather than give in to that contemptible impulse, I’ve decided to write about something else.

Of course, I could also digress into a rant about academic injustice—how one doesn’t mind questionable professorial judgment calls (Hey, genius is entitled to its little quirks) until they affect one’s GPA (You’re a dictator, not a professor!), at which time they appear criminal, and one feels burned, as if one is not The Captain of One’s Academic Ship—but I will resist this untoward urge as well.

A final aside on the subject of surprise naps, and their doubtful benefit is tempting—Do you really feel refreshed afterwards, or just shocked that you fell asleep? What are their ethical implications; perhaps that you are slighting your own welfare, essentially failing to self-apply the Hippocratic Oath, which is self-neglect?—nonetheless I will move on.

Ah, but to what? This post was intended to be about something deeply profound, but I just looked up and noticed that my daily length requirement has been met. Later on, folks.

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