Saturday, April 29, 2006

Tolkien & C.S. Lewis - Colin Duriez (Book Review)

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship - Colin Duriez, A-

My enjoyment of this book may have been a foregone conclusion, given my literary loyalties. But Colin Duriez pens a highly enlightening co-biography of the two giants of mythopoeic literature. Predictably, Duriez was at his best when melding the two lives; the most enlightening anecdotes had to do with the relations of Lewis and Tolkien to each other, in the quirks and modulations of their friendship. What most people probably don't realize (I didn't) is that the intimacy the two authors shared, while formative, was bittersweet.

The two pillars of Christian story influenced each other intensely, even as they differed widely regarding the place of the author in Christian thought. Tolkien resented Lewis’ “amateur dabbling” in theology. Lewis regarded Tolkien as somewhat dilatory and eccentric, though clever.

Nevertheless, Tolkien sold Lewis on the essential place of the "mythic" in life and literature, an understanding that would color much of his writing thereafter. (Lewis would later characterize the Christ story as a true myth.) And Lewis, via conversations and, eventually, book reviews, pushed Tolkien to write, and shared with him the appreciation of sehnsucht longing, the piercing northerness, that would so suffuse the Lord of the Rings.

Intriguingly, Lewis and Tolkien's friendship had an academic, sitting-room air to it, washed with tobacco, beer and tea, but seldom exposed to the rigors of non-collegiate life; Edith, Tolkien’s wife, and Lewis were mutually uncomfortable until Lewis’ late marriage. Being a literary genius is apparently no guarantee of social success.

Memorable is a conversation on page 100, where Lewis and Tolkien discuss the kind of books they like: “‘You know, Tollers,’ Lewis says decisively, pipe in hand. ‘I’m afraid we’ll have to write them ourselves.’”

Could there be a lesson there?

::

Listed on The Master Book List



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Del.icio.us & Organized



Taking a hint from scrupulously organized people like Andrew Simone, I went through BitterSweetLife’s dedicated del.icio.us page and organized all my tags in “bundles.”

For those of you who use del.icio.us (and you should) the new functionality is immediately obvious: BitterSweetLife’s “index” is now arranged, as it were, under larger umbrella terms. Before there was a motley cloud of tags splashed in disarray across the page. Now there is unity, order, style.

This is useful if you ever want to find a BitterSweetLife post on a specific topic.

For example, someone interested in the concept of “bittersweetness,” the central premise of this blog, would find a collection of relevant posts “bundled” together under, what else, “Bittersweetness.” The tags collected in this bundle include, “Joy,” “Pain,” “Clues,” “Edges,” etc.—a balanced fusion sure to lead a reader toward the sought-after knowledge. (Then of course there are the “Bittersweetness” tags in the “Bittersweetness” bundle for those who want to cut to the chase.)

Tech update complete.



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Friday, April 28, 2006

Meaning of Today, Purpose of Life

Spiritual Purpose

The sky this morning looked like packed snow, with wind-driven ridges and blue-gray whorls, like winter in the Upper Peninsula or Alaska. Clouds were piled in layers, a massive, sliding ice floe. Then, as I had feared it would, the glacial sky began to melt and rain poured down.

I didn’t mow twenty-some lawns with my brother as we’d planned. Instead, we went out for coffee, which is a poor man’s worker’s comp. We sipped and talked in luxurious bewilderment. There was the problem of the day to think about. These miniscule puzzles, only 24 hours in duration, often trouble me.

Today I had planned to assume a visor and headphones and cut grass in the sun until the turf war ended in a blaze of green. Instead it was raining. So what now could be said to be the purpose of the day? And how would I know? I often think that waiting until the day is over and then looking over my shoulder to discover its “purpose” seems a backwards approach to life’s meaning.

It would be nice to know one’s objectives going in, but this only seems to work in drug raids and the movies.

If mere days must be diagnosed retrospectively, the chances of discovering a life’s trajectory seems slim to none. These are the things I think about when plans are suddenly changed. I remember that my purposes and reasons, like my schedule, are often mere constructs. I have my rationale for living and God has his, but God takes mine and uses it as paint in his watercolor.

In some ways this is disconcerting. Ultimately, though, I am relieved.

After coffee I drove over to Johnson County Community College, the local education-on-demand megaplex, to visit Greg Harrell, my old Journalism professor. When I ran the campus paper at JCCC for a year, GH levered me into the job and then used his considerable patience and savvy to keep me in it.

But GH wasn’t in his office, so I wasn’t able to acquire the considerable purpose that might have been added to my day by catching up with him. I stepped into the office next door to ask for some notepaper, and two chatty professors assumed I was a student and incorporated me into their world with snide efficiency.

Me: “Hey, could I get a piece of paper to write GH a note?”
Prof 1: “Sure, here you go.”
Prof 2: “I suppose you’d be wanting a pen to go with that paper.”
Me: “Yeah, it would be good if I borrowed a pen as well.”
Prof 1: “Look out, next he’ll want some tape to stick the note to the door!”
Prof 2: “And who knows what after that!”
Prof 1: “Hey, this would make a great book idea.”
Prof 2: “I think the book is called, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…

It’s really remarkable how, across the board, English majors are so charming and witty. I scrawled my note, slipped in under GH’s door, and headed back into the thunderstorm outside.

Back home I would do some more reading on C.S. Lewis’s view of the atonement and hang out with Aidan, who has made “wakefulness” into an art form that he devotes considerable time and energy to each day. (“Aidan, what’s going on in here? What are you doing?” “Oh calm down, Dad! I’m just ‘being wakeful.’”)

The purpose of the day conundrum will have to wait, though. At least until this evening. Maybe at that point I’ll look back and conclude that the objective behind today’s slap-dash construction was lunch with Lindsay or extra research time or a nap—or even this post. (Deceptively small pegs can bear the weight of a day.) Then again, maybe I’ll forego the whole question and add April 28 to the stack of unanswered days that I’m deferring till kingdom come.

I’d rather know now, of course. But thoughtful non-concern requires a childlike trust and so, in the end, it may be the best and most effortless technique for explaining a dayand thus a life.



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Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Baby Stands on Principle

Aidan Takes a Stand

When my parents visited last night, Aidan began to generate a low decibel stream of sound. He kept it up for the duration of their visit, with interludes now and then which he used to showcase his thoughtful artistic temperament.

My mom: “Look how much bigger you are, Aidan! You’ve grown so much in just a week!”
Aidan: “Grruuhrr.”

My dad: “Hi Aidan, do you recognize your grandpa’s voice?”

Aidan: “Mmmraahr.”

My mom: “Oh, look at him now, he’s
smiiiiling!”

Aidan kept this up sporadically for almost an hour. Eventually, my parents made their goodbyes and headed toward the door.
My mom and dad: “Thanks for letting us come over.”
Me and Lindsay: “Of course, thanks for coming.”
Aidan: “Ehrah, ehrah.”
My mom and dad: “Goodnight!”
Me and Lindsay: “Goodnight, guys!”
Aidan: “Girraah.”
My dad: “Now Aidan, you need to sleep at least five hours in a row tonight, so your parents can rest.”
Aidan: “GRRAAAAARAAH!”

We all almost jumped back. Me especially, who was holding Aidan when he stuck his chin out and delivered the ultimatum. The kid is just six weeks old, but he doesn’t take flack from anybody. There are certain fixtures in his life that he just won’t discuss.



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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Subversive Sorrow, Shortsighted Grace, Superb Repentance

Shortsighted Grace

I hate pain and sorrow as much as the next guy, but when possible, I’m eager to turn it to subversive purposes. The obvious function of pain? To kick you in the teeth until you scream. Of sorrow? To make you wish that everything, or at least you, were different.

But suppose there was a redemptive option. I like to think that there is a lot of fine print attached to pain, if we would read carefully. A lengthy catch-22. Sorrow’s apparent trajectory may be misleading. We feel it curve down, but miss the ascending arc on the other side. A lot of us miss half the ride—the part of pain that swings back up.

HA! I’ll consider that idea after I’ve developed bluish bags under my eyes, nursed a bottomless cup of woe and riddled the wall with impressions of my clenched fists. What’s this you say about pain being redemptive? Go on and tell me so I can confirm the fact that you’re a sucker!

Right. But God has a way of redefining a lot of “undeserved, pointless suffering.” He implies, pointedly, that often there is a very real purpose for it: “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11). That’s right, if you’re going through hard times, it may be because God wants to get your attention. He may want you to change something in your life.**

It’s at this point that the picture becomes strange, and the sorrow becomes subversive. If I was writing the script, I would pen in a gritty “heroic resolve” part here, something like, “-so suck it up, and get your act together, and then maybe things won’t be so bad.” God takes things in a different direction entirely.

He states that the training sorrow provides leads to something essential—repentance—which leads in turn to something beautiful—reunion. When pain prompts us to turn away from some personal evil, ditch our designer addictions, and turn back to God, our Father and Maker, God’s “discipline” has served its purpose. Peace arrives and grace sets in.

The grace is shortsighted and calls us to live in the moment—fervently running through these hard phases of divine discipline without dwelling on the fact that we have done this before and will undoubtedly (unless we are on our deathbeds) do it again. Every instance of repentance happens as though we are falling in love: there are no two instances the same, and the sweetness of repentance embraced retains the refreshing aura of “the first time”—but always, we are returning to the same God.

We repent, and we are following a pattern that is paradoxically formulaic, falling into a rhythm that is, like falling in love, “predictable”—but at the same time beyond our control.

It would be natural to feel a sense of heaviness and failed obligation because, if we are lucky, we have repented so many times before. We think that we should be past this, done bothering God by now. But if we take on this burden, we are forgetting the nature of repentance. If you had a perfect lover, you wouldn’t swear and get angry because you had to return to that person one more time. You would be relieved, beyond all measure, to have the opportunity to come back.

Only a few things in natural experience fall into this category: things which we experience repeatedly, but always with a kind of childlike joy. Spring, a favorite food, an enduring romance; basketball, books, coffee. Repentance had better be placed where it rightfully belongs—in this category of joys with staying power.

What if you could kick off Spring or March Madness or a decidedly romantic evening, merely by a “change of mind,” a voluntary self-humbling, a fit of bracing honesty? Isn’t this what repentance does?

But such a magical change of scenery, the rediscovery of a missing person (you), and the return to your own homeland (God)—has been so “worked over” that we flinch from even talking about it. When it comes to repentance, we assume that we’ve already been there. We forget what repentance really is, and immerse ourselves instead in the angry disappointment that is meant to lead us to it. We forget that when God walks in, everything changes—even the original sorrow.

Often, the most-feared joys are the best.

:: Related post: Contra Mundum Vision - Cultivating a tendency to turn the world on its head ::

** Wait a minute, AJ. Are you flat-out saying that if I am suffering, it’s because I screwed up somewhere? No, I’m not saying that. It’s certainly possible to suffer incidental harm or even to be hung out to dry for doing good. Seriously, though—the odds are against it. At least in my experience. That’s why I feel comfortable writing as if many, even most, of the pain in our lives is self-inflicted—and is intended as a flare to get us on back the trail toward Christ.



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Dragging DeVine Through De Mud

Dr. DeVine

Today in Theology my professor, Doctor DeVine, was agitated in the exaggerated, dramatic manner people assume when they actually are bothered by something but don’t want to make a “big deal” about it.

The problem was that people had been making “mean, anonymous comments” about him on “blogs out there.” This had so dispirited my professor that he had taken to “eating foods high in cholesterol, even those puffy Cheetos”—an outcome that no humane person would wish on anyone. My professor suggested that we, the loyal students, sally out into the blogosphere and post spirited comments in his defense. It sounded like fun.

We asked him where the comments were posted, but he was evasive, implying that he, a forty-something professor, was helpless in these matters of the internet, while we connected young twenty-somethings would stumble upon the ugly comments right away.

I assumed, of course, that the “anonymous” trash-talker was either present or would hear about the in-class mention later, and so my prof couldn’t mention him directly. Hey, fair enough.

After class I conducted a few quick blog searches, looking for potentially libelous material. Nothing much appeared, with the exception of the excerpt below, which, while potentially disastrous for a Southern Baptist professor, turned out to be a red herring.

...Their wine buyer, Mark Devine was formally wine adviser to The Four Seasons Hotelin Dublin. Mr. Devine is compiling an eclectic collection of American and NewWorld wines, including small, boutique wineries...

This was disappointing. There’s nothing like looking forward to a good firefight and then being let down. So if anyone comes across any blogs trashing “Dr. DeVine” or “Mark DeVine” be sure and let me know.

I rarely get the opportunity to talk trash with the full endorsement of a salaried Theology professor, and a good one at that. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.



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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Garden of Eden Redux

Garden of Eden redux

When we begin, we’re all living in a garden overgrown with weeds and littered with broken glass. We are weak because our roots are only centimeters long. Our stems are pale and spindly and grafting is essential. We need it to survive.

Psychologically, this can be seen in the fact that we are all bent toward addiction. We lean toward it like sunflowers. We are weak plants with addictive tendencies. We peer around the garden, looking for a root system that seems like it could feed an extra stem.

We’re Venus Fly Traps and we keep our eyes open.

At the same time, we display emotional sophistication that few plants possess. We find various ways to cope with the fact that we will never develop root systems of our own. For some, this involves pretending that they are plants-with-roots. I’m fine! I’m fully hydrated, self-contained and self-sustaining. For others, it means acting like Who cares, no one needs roots anyway. Our grafted-ness stays hidden because our culture promotes it. We hide our missing roots because no one should be this needy.

But all the time, we are making psychological grafts onto root systems that look promising. Maybe it’s a controlling hunger for intimacy, for approval, for recognition. Or the more overt addictions: drugs, alcoholism, sex. Usually a designer combination. We think these things can fuel us.

Even in apparently well-cultivated lives, addictions spring up. We need a driving purpose for living like stems need water. Roots give direction, and our addictions keep us grounded. The problem is, the addictions are also cannibalistic. Clinging to them is the status quo, but we fail to realize they are feeding off of us.

Fortunately, there is a theological side to the grafting metaphor as well: We are weak plants with a need for total dependence which gives life. But there is only one root system that offers such a drink. Only one source inverts the normal process of addiction, and lets us feed off him.

He does it because there is no danger of him running out. In fact, when we absorb his water and nutrients, they outlast the stems through which they flow. This taproot, paradoxically, transcends the stems it serves. When consumed, it subsumes. It stirs soul after soul to life, and remains consummately alive.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” says Jesus. “The one who dwells in me will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Christ is the supreme inverter of a fallen garden. He is a healing addiction. He feeds us without leeching. He turns things upside down.

Some stems discover they possess not only instincts, but spirits, and welcome a graft to Jesus with no-longer-wandering eyes. The old loyalties may not change overnight. Other roots still wait in the shadows, but slowly something new is happening. Maybe new branches are emerging skyward; maybe there is a gathering of strength; maybe our old addictions slowly become mere foliage—still present, no longer dominant. At the very least, there is a new resiliency. The old cultural propensity to disguise our hunger is fading and we are growing honest.

Christ calls all this “abiding.” Fruit may be slow to come, but we don’t strain after it. We are not about to start tying cornucopias to our branches. We are learning that it is simply good to grow in Christ’s life, no longer concealing our design. We have no roots—OK. We’re grafted and we don’t deny it. We have better things to do.

For example, we are learning to take long drinks. Slowly, small pieces of Christ’s kingdom are being infused into our veins. These are the shining nutrients, tiny and unspeakably heavy, that will transform our lives. If we could only see them, winding through woody passages, we would be astonished to see them glowing with a heavenly fire—they are one, and they are alive.

We come to see that we will never have roots ourselves, but that we will emerge eventually into a cool, bright garden. There will be dappled light and cloudbursts, and sighing breezes that make leaves dance. Then at last we will be unthinkably dependent and unimaginably alive.

This new garden will be a little like the very first garden God made. Only better, because there will be no shriveling.

::

Inspired by a lecture by Dr. Paul Carlisle, 4.20.2006.



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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Definition of Cool: This Blog

A cursory check of yesterday’s site stats confirmed what many of you have long suspected. BitterSweetLife lives in an aura of cool.

How do I know this? Well, the recognition has started to appear.

Over at Answers.com, a quick search on the “denotations of cool” reveals that BitterSweetLife is the blog of the moment where verve and hipster cred is concerned. In a nutshell, this blog defines cool.

No doubt other sources will soon recognize this as well.

In the meantime, if you read BitterSweetLife regularly, give yourself a knowing look in the mirror while you style your hair. No doubt the coolness is rubbing off.



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Humility Versus Pride - A Confession About Vision

Baby Aidan

Up until I was twelve years old I located East, West, North and South by situating myself in relation to my house’s family room.

The calculation was not always simple. First, I’d have to consider quickly which wall of the family room represented the looked-for direction (East, for example, was out the window across the backyard; North was toward the kitchen…). Then I would have to transpose my current location (traveling down Interstate-35, for instance) upon the family room. The results were usually good, but the process required some mental gymnastics—especially the transposition part.

In this respect I shared a kind of kinship with people who use rhythm and blues to memorize the multiplication table and mnemonic devices to remember phone numbers. My family room was a circular, wandering excuse for really getting to know the points of the compass.

More interesting to me, now, is the way I continue to do something very similar.

Today I have a better handle on my compass points, but not much else has changed. I seem to think the locus of meaning for most everything can be found right here within my own life. I believe it instinctively.

Little Aidan’s aggressive egocentricity keyed me in on this. The kid thinks the meaning of life is milk and wet diapers. When he’s hungry, the world is put on red alert. Good is a full stomach. Evil is a five-minute wait.

I guess I took this epistemological approach and ran with it. I’ve tweaked a few things in the last couple decades, but my reflexive way of knowing is fundamentally the same as Aidan’s. I go looking for a dictionary and find myself flipping my own pages.

I think that God spends most of our lives weaning us off this way of looking at things. In our pride we are so infantile. We look at everything through a skewed grid, through a cracked lens—us. We forget that truth is handed down to us immaculate, his name and credentials fully intact.



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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Due Provocation: Fighting the Devil

Yesterday in the teachers’ lounge I was talking to a woman who dreamed that she had stood toe-to-toe with the Devil and beat him down.

To be more precise, she strangled him. The Devil threatened her, I guess, and being one to take the fiend by the horns, she grabbed him by the throat and squeezed. Lucifer got smaller and smaller, shrinking to a mere wisp, until he evaporated. This lady, we’ll call her Becky, saw the encounter with Satan, “horns and tail and everything,” as a good sign. Proof that serendipity is real. Good but unexpected.

She and her husband had been going through some hard times. Frivolous litigation, she told me. She hadn’t known that she had needed it, but the dream was a sign that she could “keep on going.” She woke up feeling good, really good.

What do you make of all this?

I told Becky that I was convinced that God governed coincidences. And that I might blog about her dream. She said that was cool, that I could pass on any helpful comments or ideas I came up with.

So here we are.

When you dream that you throttle Satan, it would seem like God has some big plans in store for you. Either that or the Devil.

Filed in:



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The Chocolate Easter Eggs Are Safe

For Easter, among other things, Lindsay gave me a couple handfuls of chocolate eggs. Later I found the rest of the bag, in its entirety, sitting on the bathroom counter - which was not very hygienic and could also become a distraction during tooth brushing.

I did the obvious thing: Moved the chocolate eggs to a safe place.

Later that day, Lindsay asked me where I moved them. She's continued to ask me every day since then.

I may tell her. Or I may not. I have to think about it. You just can't rush these things.



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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

C.S. Lewis Spurs Research Excitement

C.S. Lewis

It's been awhile since I actually looked forward to writing a research paper.

I can't remember the last time, in fact. This could be because there is no last time. For years now I have believed that research papers are clearly an acquired taste. And people who acquire this taste are strangely academically inclined - librarians, research assistants, tenured professors all.

But now my stereotypes have been shattered. I'm looking forward to writing a research paper for my Theology 2 class. It's unheard of.

The reason is obvious, though. I convinced my professor to let me do a paper on C.S. Lewis. Since my prof is currently writing a book on Lewis, he was open to the extra research assistance. (But this does not classify me as a "research assistant." Let's keep this clear.) I told him I would happily allow him to incorporate the contents of my paper in his book, so long as I got a mention on the acknowledgments page and a 30% cut of the royalties.

I guess I overshot myself. The acknowledgements page may be my sole reward. I'll really be kicking myself if the book turns out to be a blockbuster. Oh well.

My working title right now is C.S. Lewis & the Atonement: Penal or Magical, Final or Gradual?

And come to think of it, a paper this exciting does very little to dispel my preconceptions about people who love research too much. Anyone would be pumped about a paper like this. I guess I'll harbor my comfortable stereotype a little longer: if you typically get excited about research papers, you're strange. (I find it easier to go through life believing this.)

Any thoughts or source recommendations re: Lewis's Atonement theology would be welcome, though.



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Monday, April 17, 2006

Donald Miller Answers My Question - Sort Of


A couple months ago I sauntered over to donmillerfans.net, the place where Donald Miller hangs out online. It felt weird, sort of, to enter the e-bachelor pad of a pseudo-celebrity. I wasn’t sure how to carry myself.

Not merely another adoring fan, though, I was there with a reason. So I walked purposefully. After a provocative initial read of Donald Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz, I'd come to ask a question. I typed up my query, checked it for spelling, and slapped it up.

Don had stated in the site description that he would read every question posted, and I wasn't one to doubt his sincerity. But after two months or so I was wondering whether he would get around to responding to my question. No guarantees.

That's why I was pleasantly surprised Saturday when I got a congratulatory email from Andy, informing me that Don had answered my question. At last. BitterSweetLife's Donald Miller Show was back on the road.

Here is my original question followed by Don's reply:

Hey Don,

A friend gave me a copy of your Blue Like Jazz last semester and I ended up reading it in a matter of hours. I enjoyed the book a lot because it provoked me to think freshly about my faith and because it gave me a reason to sit around drinking coffee when I should have been studying for my final exams. Afterwards I talked about the book on my blog a lot.

I’m curious what your take is on “discipline” in the Christian life. Jazz didn’t strike me as being against spiritual discipline (as in 1 Corinthians 9), but with the anti-“fundamentalist” chapter, the jazz motif (“never resolves”), the hippy perspective, and the good emphasis on authenticity, it seems like the book tends toward a more relaxed, off-the-cuff approach to knowing God.

My question is, what’s the place of discipline, i.e. strenuous obedience to God, in Christian spirituality?

Also, if you wouldn’t mind, would you elaborate on your NCAA hoops loyalties? That will help me decide how high you place on the scale of cool.

::

ariel, i tend to avoid ritual because it tempts me to replace “action” with devotion. the two can go hand in hand, but they are more comfortable separated. while disciplines help us love God, they are also the ego’s favorite food. instead, i try to ask myself fairly often how i feel about God, and if the answer is a negative, i do some praying and soul searching. i’m no expert, i assure you, but thanks for trusting me with the question.

don

p.s. ncaa hoops: oregon, gonzaga, north carolina.

It was pretty cool to get a reply from the big man. As I've said before, I like Donald Miller's stripped down writing style, and his take on the Christian life is fresh and thought-provoking. I wouldn't give Don as much face-time on the blog as I do if I didn't think his voice is worth listening to.

That being said, I'm not convinced that he really answered my question. And this is a surprise.

Not to put on a rhetorical show. (I'm so SHOCKED that he didn't SAY what I THOUGHT he would...) But once I realized that Donald Miller had opted to answer my question, I did expect him to say a little more.

To be honest (really!), when I read Blue Like Jazz, and took in Don's fairly soft approach to concerted exertion, "strenuous obedience to God" (discipline) in the Christian life, I thought it was an intentional down-playing of an aspect of spirituality that just doesn't sell very well. In a book with a largely apologetic flavor, I thought I understood what Miller was up to.

Now I'm not so sure.

I'm extremely reluctant to classify spiritual discipline as ritual. Not only does "ritual" convey a host of stale connotations, the Bible definitely doesn't portray prayer, reading, meditation, etc., in this light. Quite the opposite. When we open the Bible, we're confronted with the paradoxical idea that to forcibly obey God, and throw your full weight into the effort, is to discover what freedom really means. I can hardly think of anything further from "ritual."

So, my visceral reaction to Donald Miller's take on spiritual disciplines: What? Was something lost in translation here?

I'll side with Don in his assessment of the dangers of discipline. Self-control in the hands of an egoist is an ugly thing. Just look at the Pharisees (legalism). Just look at almost anyone who can do something really well and knows it (arrogance). But I think it's misleading to say that "discipline is the ego's favorite food." Since when does discipline hold a monopoly on ego?

Possibly, I don't have enough discipline in my own life to assess the situation accurately. But it seems like if discipline is really that dangerous, then throughout the Bible we'll discover some pretty subversive stuff. What is Paul thinking when he talks about "beating his body into submission" and "working harder than anyone?" Didn't he know he was supposed to lean back
and let the current take him in order to avoid arrogance?

And what was Jesus thinking? All these early morning prayer sessions with the Father, fasting for 40 days (an ego trip in the desert), and subjecting his will forcibly to God's plan ("sweating drops of blood")? Talk about wrong-headed.

I guess I should turn down the volume on my riff at this point. I appreciated the intuitive, relational approach to God that Donald Miller alluded to: "i try to ask myself fairly often how i feel about God, and if the answer is a negative, i do some praying and soul searching." Although I'm not sure what Miller means in his first sentence - "replacing 'action' with devotion" - I think the soul searching he describes is essential to a life of good devotion to Christ.
But I don't even see how these times of soul searching can happen without discipline. Since when do quiet moments occur spontaneously? Life doesn't just happen to slow down when I need time with Jesus. In parallel, what about writing? Maybe authentic, unhurried prose is what you're looking for. But you don't write this stuff in the five minutes before you catch the bus. If you want the appearance of spontaneous health (or syntax) you will have to work at it. And you may as well be up front about the fact, or you will confuse your readers.

Whatever you decide to call it, it's just hard to keep discipline out of the Christian life. It seems like Donald Miller had created a false dichotomy here, probably with the goal of combating legalism. What he fails to realize, I think, is that it's about as easy to be a prideful slob as a prideful perfectionist. Both approaches have their selling points.

I guess I should stop here. But I can't. I have to go on and make one more comment, and this one may be the most scathing of all.
p.s. ncaa hoops: oregon, gonzaga, north carolina.
Now this just strains the limits of credulity.
Don, can you be serious? If Miller takes my hint, he'll rethink his loyalties before Bill Self's Jayhawks whack Roy's Boys in next year's Final Four. Please, Don, do it for the sake of your readers.

Peace, I'm out. I've got to leave before I start talking about discipline and basketball.



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Blogger Recent Comments - RSS Feed is the Trick

Building on a Blogger Comments Feed

Blogger Subscribe to Comments

Once again, the level of technological sophistication on this blog has been upped. Mere days ago I was able to figure out how to generate an RSS feed for comments so that readers could track their favorite conversations.

However, I didn’t like the way that feed was coming through (no line breaks), so I upgraded, using a masterful hack from Singpolyma to generate a new comments (RSS) feed.

After that, it was simply a matter of tinkering to get a “recent comments” feature in the sidebar.

Few things are more satisfying than a tough h
ack, honorably conquered. If you're looking for a similar outcome...

1. First, you’ll need to first generate an RSS feed for your comments. I recommend Singpolyma’s comments-to-RSS hack because the paragraphs come through nicely formatted. (Implementing Singpolyma's method will involve a quick template edit.)

2. Once you’ve created your comments feed, an optional step is to run it through Feedburner in order to add enhanced features and make it look good. Not essential, but I do it for the extra cool factor.

3. Next, you’ll need to get your “recent comments” feed to display in your sidebar. To do this, I recommend Feed Digest. Essentially, Feed Digest takes an RSS feed and converts it to a piece of JavaScript you can customize and stick in your template.

4. Now, take the JavaScript that you created using Feed Digest and put it in the appropriate location in your sidebar. Obviously, some editing of your template will be required here - but that's nothing new, right?

And there you have it. You can shoot questions my way if you like, but seeing as how I barely managed to figure this out myself, looking for specific help along the way might be a better bet. As an arts & letters type, I do promise you that any answers I provide will be scripted in flowing, technological prose. ;)



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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Jesus is Risen and He is not the Gardener

Mary in the garden

When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on Easter morning, she was frantically looking around for a dead man. Mary was carrying a sorrow that has left its mark on most of us—the pain that locks in at the loss of a loved one, a life prematurely taken. She was thinking of things that could have been said or done that could now never be said or done.


A great love can end in great despair, and Mary was left with only memories.

Jesus standing on a hillside, speaking to a small ring of men. Jesus, walking through a crowd of thousands with the same familiarity and confidence. Jesus, glancing over his shoulder with a grin, checking to see if the women were keeping up on the dusty Galilean road. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

When memories are all you have to live on, they do not fill you. They hardly nourish. But when you love someone this much, you are willing to sift through memories like cold gray ashes, looking for something solid. Nothing much appears.

Mary went to the tomb the first time shortly after Jesus had died cruelly at the hands of the Roman executioners, with the Jewish big shots mixing it up in the crowd, rock stars in a mosh pit, gesturing affectedly, leading the catcalls. Leaving the mob scene, following Jesus’ corpse, Mary had looked at the tomb, hewn from cold stone, and gone home. His body had looked so little like himself.

She came back Easter morning. That was when she discovered that the tomb had been broken into by grave robbers. She broke down. She could hardly see the path for tears, but ran back to Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ other friends.

After a few of the disciples came to examine the crime scene themselves, Mary came back too. She wandered back alone, walking slowly. She wanted to spend some time alone by the grave and cry. Maybe if she went there, to the garden, alone, she could cry until the tears would stop coming.

But when she got there she was horrified to see angels. They shone, they exuded muscle without lifting a finger—they must have been young angels; do angels age?—and then one spoke. He asked her why she was crying.

The answer was obvious, and Mary gasped it out. Then the angels disappeared. They had played their part. There was someone standing behind Mary, and she turned to see who it was: the gardener.

Everyone conceivable was showing up at the tomb but Jesus. Angels and a gardener were up early in the morning, visiting an isolated tomb, and a corpse had vanished.
Why was it that this morning everything was working backwards?

“Why are you crying?” asked the gardener. “Who are you looking for?”

Mary did not have much dignity left after the angels. “If you have taken his body,” she said, “just tell me where you have dragged it and I’ll take care of it. I’ll take it away.” She would have been willing to patch up the rents in the grave clothes. She would have been happy to do it.

She glanced back to the tomb, and the angels were still gone, and then someone said, Mary.

Mary turned back around to face the gardener and then reality came flooding in.

::

Later, Mary thought it was strange and funny that she had been looking for a dead Jesus while the live one stood behind her. She laughed about it until the tears came; it seemed like she just couldn’t stop crying that day.

::

How come we run to Jesus with such low expectations? Because we forget what Mary forgot. Christ had told all his friends that he would be back, that the grave would not be able to keep him down. But Mary had forgotten two important facts about Jesus: He can do anything. And he always does what he says he will.

Everything could be taken away from Mary—everything but Jesus. He trumps loss, beats death, turns sorrow into light. As Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Christ has turned all our sunsets into dawns.”

::

To be fair to Mary, Jesus appeared young again when he stood in the garden—younger than she had ever seen him—strong and healthy, with not a sign of care left on him. There was even a lightness in his bearing, a flowing alacrity in his movements, that had not been present before, that made him look like a new man. Although if Mary had looked carefully, she might have seen the rough holes in his hands and feet, so out of place. The dark gaps punctuated Jesus’ healthy flesh sharply. But Mary did not notice this at first.

::

I know that Jesus waits beside the tomb today, in the moment of great heartache. We might turn and see him. We might even find a more fitting use for the grave that Christ vacated centuries ago. Something else could be buried there, something dark and clinging that was defeated. Death, Jesus says, has been torn to shreds. When Jesus appears, pain and sadness will have to go running for their lives. They end up in Jesus’ old grave, and Jesus, though he’s just one man, is strong enough to roll the stone back in place. He provides this service with a smile.

::

Jesus stands so close by you might mistake him for someone else. Often we do, because our expectations for Christ are far too low. We come to the tomb, hoping for a few moments of solace or some quiet prayer. We forget that Jesus has left the grave and has far bigger plans in mind.

When we stand before God at the end of time, we will say joyously, like Thomas, “MY LORD and MY GOD!” I wonder if Christ will reply, Yes. Then with a smile: And once I was your gardener.

Will this be slightly embarrassing?

::

This post was inspired by a message by John Vanderhorst: "What Mary Didn't Know," April 16, 2006.



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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Shadowy Dreams of Earth

Concrete heaven, shadowy earth

There is no question that Aidan has dreams. He’ll be laying in his cradle or snoozing in his bouncer, and all of a sudden he’ll jerk or squeak or gurgle—like some of us do when we’re having a particularly vivid dream that contains a jump-scene.


The question that fascinates me is What could Aidan be dreaming about? How can there be any variety in his dreams? They would all be warm and dark. It seems like the only diversity could be from the various postures that Aidan tried out in the womb—but I’m told that a baby’s spatial sense is not especially well-developed.

At this point in his life, Aidan thinks that he is part of everything around him. There is the cradle, and there is the wall, and there is the fuzzy basketball that rattles, but Aidan doesn’t differentiate. Hey, it’s all here. He doesn’t distinguish clearly between objects and persons. Basically, all babies are born pantheists.

So what is this kid dreaming about?

The unfortunate thing is that I’ll never know. Not even Aidan will know. When I tell him about how he used to dream when he was a few weeks old, he’ll look at me with a puzzled expression. The subject matter of Aidan’s baby dreams will remain a mystery.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a parallel on a different level, though. The Bible compares the “travail” of this life to childbirth—painful while it lasts, but soon forgotten when the baby arrives. In the scheme of an 80-year life, the time a woman devotes to childbirth does not remain a focal point. Therefore, it would seem the Bible is implying that the towering significance and urgency that we attribute to our struggles down here may be exaggerated.

In light of eternity, when we are born into a timeless world, the “birth canal” that brought us there will not be the all-consuming focus that it once was. Our current lives on earth will seem like birthing pains before real life began.

If my understanding of all this is correct, Aidan’s dreams take on an intriguing new significance.

His sleep is temporarily disturbed by “events” from before his birth. When I reach heaven, will I experience similar moments of reverie? Will Aidan’s shadowy baby dreams be like my immortal “dreams” of earth?




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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Inconsolable Longings, Fear of Disappointment

Spiritual Expectation


In an earlier post I suggested that it is often more rewarding to look forward to something than to actually get it. Now, building on that, I’m thinking that anticipation, or keen expectation, may have value in its own right—never mind that it often fails to pan out.

For example, there may be a joy that comes from looking forward to a game of 3-on-3, even when the actual game doesn’t transpire as planned. And it might be a good idea to savor the expectation for all it’s worth, even if it “dead ends.”

Why? Because our best desires, even (or especially) when they fail to be realized, can create a bittersweet thread of longing that leads us heavenward. As C.S. Lewis recognized, it was the piercing inadequacy of his greatest desires that led him to discover a Sehnsucht longing for heaven—achingly sweet, but better than all manner of blasé, sure-fire pleasures.

I definitely agree with Lewis here. But I’m almost afraid to apply this discovery to my life.

Where my hopes are concerned, I am sometimes reluctant to indulge in anticipation with abandon because of the fear of what may really happen. I’ve been burned too many times to get pumped up over something as unreliable as ________, I think. Fill in the blank. Be it a jumpshot, a significant other, a vacation, a book, even a first-rate college hoops team, they’ll all let you down.

Nothing material can consistently bear the weight of expectation, but some of us have found a way to defray the all-too-predictable disappointment: Lower your expectations to a manageable level.

  • Tomorrow when I play basketball, I may sprain my ankle—or it might rain. But hey, it’s all good.
  • I’ve heard this author is excellent. Once I get past his unoriginal plot and stock character, there will probably be a few good paragraphs.
  • It’s good to be back in school. Of course, this isn’t Oxford, so I won’t be holding my breath, waiting for Ravi Zacharias to walk up to the white board.
However, if C.S. Lewis is right, my strategy is self-defeating. The tenuous threads of my expectation have a value that transcends their immediate success. Every failed joy on earth points to joy's ultimate fulfillment elsewhere.
But wait, my experienced self says. Look how I was so happy, thought I had the world at my fingertips, and then I took another step and everything fell apart. It hurt.

True, my hopeful self says. There’s no denying the spectacular nature of that disaster. But maybe the disappointment was the point. And the longing you felt to be extremely happy was good, even though it wasn’t realized.

Well, maybe.

My longing was a thread that led somewhere. I lost sight of its destination when disillusionment hid it from view. “Inconsolable longings,” says Lewis, are tied to something invisible but very real.

So where expectations are concerned, maybe I should climb in for the thrill ride, never mind that the experience itself may fall short. One day, the desires that my present life reflect dimly will materialize, fully formed. For now, these keen desires for approaching good will remind me that there’s a heaven and that I haven't reached it yet.

::

Related post: Nagging Happiness - The Inadequacy of Ordinary Looking-Forward-To



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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Grace Like Coffee & Sleep

Strong espresso

I became enthused when it occurred to me that God’s grace could, in a shallow sense, be compared to coffee in its effects. Grace, the inexplicable lightening of my spirit, lifting of mental cares, soothing of anger or confusion, sudden arrival of peace—it’s a little bit like the happy aura that follows a mug of well-brewed coffee, preferably dark, preferably from somewhere on the African continent.

The grace which God gives can act like a quick upper, a shot in the arm (or a surge in the blood veins via the throat), when we discover that Christ has made us capable of doing something or loving someone that we simply couldn’t have a moment before.

Of course, I quickly realized that the Coffee Perspective on the grace of God, while admittedly frivolous, also fails to cover all the bases.

For example: Once we come to know Jesus, we can’t go a minute without grace. In reality, the fact that we met Christ at all was dependent on grace. Grace began the relationship, and grace maintains it—every friendship between man and God is powered purely by grace. For the analogy to work, then, I would have to do more than have a couple cups of joe a day. I would have to swim in it.

And not only that. I would have to be drinking it from the cradle to the grave, and this just doesn’t happen. Not even Aidan started drinking coffee until, I think, week three.

Another caveat would have to do with the potential for substance abuse. When your blood type is predominantly coffee, you have overdone it. With grace, on the other hand, there can be no
wrong chronic dependence, debilitating no over-use. The more the better.

I am on my way to total addiction, I hope.

As the shortcomings of the Coffee Perspective became evident, I realized that I could correct many of the problems by making the grace metaphor two-fold. What if I said, Grace is like coffee…and sleep. Ha!

By affirming two essentials that seemed diametrically opposed to most people, I had found a way out of my dilemma. (This has, incidentally, been a favorite method in theology throughout history, and one that we cannot dispense with, as people who have met this God-man.)

Grace is like sleep. As I thought about it, I realized that the Coffee Perspective was almost screaming for a complementing metaphor, and this was it. When it comes to God’s enabling, healing grace, some people need an upper and others (like me) need to learn to rest.

Grace teaches us how to rest. God gives a mysterious comfort, a non-anxiety, an attitude of spiritual relaxation to his people. As C.S. Lewis says, “They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from.” Some of us, of course, spend this time rushing around wondering what trivial thing we should be accomplishing next, which is why we need not more coffee, but real rest.

Adoption by the Father, acceptance in his kingdom, security in Christ, the approval of a heavenly audience—the love of God—these things create a spiritual rest that will sink deep hooks in us if we will let it. Of course, this sounds like we are admitting we are tired.

I've observed that “I'm tired but getting by, you know” seems to be the stylish thing to say these days—but the admission of a need for this grace-sleep would be more like acknowledging that your chronic driven-ness had pushed you near the point of death. And this is hardly stylish. The medical instructions for swallowing grace state that a large glass of humility should be at your elbow.

My cursory search for grace metaphors has revealed something about myself that I suspect is true of a lot of people. We’d rather drink more coffee than learn to rest. Our culture likes caffeine much more than sleep. We'd prefer not to think too deeply about or look too closely at our ourselves.

Therefore it follows that we’d prefer to think of grace as empowering us to run races, win battles, accomplish great things, instead of in its primary capacity: to make us see that we are children who have been, and always will be, brought near to Christ through a child-like trust and not by our spiritual savvy.

We need both slumber and bravado. Grace is like coffee and sleep. I just suspect that in my life, the rest needs more emphasis. My pulse needs to slow, not accelerate. To rest in Christ is to go against the grain of almost everything that I have taught me.

But sleep I will. Addiction to grace demands it.

::

This post was catalyzed, with the help of strong coffee, by a message by John Vanderhorst, "Grace - God's Provision for Every Need" (April 9, 2006).



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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Magic of the Unknown Code

Magic of Unknown

A couple days ago, I was “talking” with my friend Steve, who thought it was funny that I, a theology student, am fascinated with the idea of adding “weird hacks” to my blog, while he, a webmaster, never gets around to hacking.


I was quick to point out that strange new JavaScript can act as a kind of escape for me, because when I finally get the code to work, it seems like magic. Obviously, this escape is not available to a master programmer, who could glance at the code I am puzzling over and install it seamlessly in ten minutes. There would be very little “magic” in the equation, just a little added functionality.

I’ve always been up front about the way I handle code for my blog, using only my thumbs. This way of doing things is precarious, but it makes for an exciting moment now and then. When you cross your fingers and click “save template changes,” the potential for thrills is fairly high.

Some of my techier friends would have to regress, unlearn some things, and become more technically child-like, to enjoy the wonder that new code can inspire. I’m like the kid who wanders through a forest, picking out good climbing trees, while dedicated techies roar through with the heavy machinery and convert the woods to useable lumber.

I like to think this makes me a true lover of coding.

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