Stony Soil; of Love and Listlessness

4 02 2012

Alda is the nicest little old lady I know, and, honestly, I have trouble even calling her a little old lady, even though she is little, and she is, technically, old.  She’s got the liveliness of someone years younger.  One day, while we were in the kitchen chatting, she told my wife and I that though she had loved her late husband for many years, she never was really in love with him.  They treated each other lovingly, but the emotional appeal wasn’t really there.  She told us that she wanted to remarry, to have a chance to be deeply in love with someone.  She said she wanted a marriage like ours.  Now, my wife and I have been married for years; we are definitely not newlyweds, but I would certainly say that we are still very much in love.  It’s really just a matter of emotion.

Some couples are just married and some are just married.  Either they’re just married, as in recently married, or they’re just married, as in not living life to the fullest, content with just being married.  It’s a rotten stereotype, and it’s not always true.  While I’ll grant that the happiest married couples are generally the ones who still have rice in their hair, marriage really does get an unfair treatment.

First comes the infatuation, then the disillusionment, and then comes the “mature” love, which essentially boils down to treating each other fairly and raising kids together, without all of that emotional impetus that got them together in the first place.  In other words, marriage has a nasty habit of turning into something more like a business agreement.  It’s a convenient way to have a warm body in bed, and it’s a stable arrangement for rearing children.  It would seem that romance was nothing but a bait-and-switch trick of the hippocampus.  Does marriage always follow this course?

You see, I have to ask, because the relationship of the church to Christ is that of a bride.  The nature of a marriage parallels our relationship with our savior.  Consequently, Christians often go through the same stages in their pursuit of the faith that many couples endure over their years as spouses.  Jesus likened faith to a farmer casting seed around his land.  Some of the seed landed on the path and never took root.  Some landed on the stony soil and sprouted quickly but never took deep enough root to survive.  Some seed grew among thorns and got choked out by the weeds.  Then, there was the successful seed.  In the application to marriage, the seed that lands on the path is the unrequited love.  You courted her, but she was not interested.  You flirted with him, and he moved on to greener pastures.  Likewise, God courts some of us, and he is shunned outright.  The love is never reciprocated.

Then, there is the seed that lands among the thorns.  You fell in love.  You married and raised a family.  Then, the effort of raising kids, maintaining two incomes, maintaining outside relationships, maintaining the house, etc. all worked toward alienating you from the one you married.  The weeds, the distractions, grew between you, and you found yourself married to a stranger.  Similarly, the act of being a Christian and doing Christian things, coupled with all of the other distractions of life can add up to finding yourself a stranger to God.  You find that you’re still going through the motions, but that romance, the initial emotion that drew you into a relationship to begin with, is gone.

And then…there are the stony marriages.  The infatuation is there.  The feeling is intense, but it goes no deeper than a feeling.  After the initial thrill wears off, there’s no substance to hold the marriage together.  It withers and dies.  This is, really, the three-step marriage cycle most commonly described by the psychologists.  Just because you found a way to get along and keep the marriage going, doesn’t make it a success.  The romance is dead.  You love, but you’re no longer in love.  The common belief is that this is truly mature love.  This is correct.  It is mature love, but that doesn’t make it ideal love.  The common parallel to spiritual life can be found among charismatics.  The charismatic church is, by far, the best at evangelizing, at bringing unbelievers into the fold.  The non-charismatic or even anti-charismatic church seems more largely composed of those who either grew up in that kind of church or switched over from a more charismatic church after becoming disillusioned.  Their view of the charismatic faith is that such faith is shallow, lacking in substance, development, commitment and wisdom.  Very often, they’re absolutely correct.  Charismatic faith is saturated with feeling and emotion, and it is very often not backed up by anything more substantive.  The seed fell on the stony soil and sprouted rapidly, but it never found any depth.  They fall in love, and then they get bored or fall out of love.  Then, very often, they leave.

Contrary to the anti-charismatic opinion, though, the emotional appeal of charisma is not a weakness.  That’s actually the strength of it.  The weakness is the lack of depth.  The seed was not faulty because it sprouted quickly.  The seed was faulty because it never gained any depth.  Charismatics are not to be faulted for their emotional drive.  The lack of emotion is the weakness of the other side.  We ought not to curse the stem for the lack of roots, when the stem is the only thing going right.  Similarly, disappointed and cynical failures at romance ought not to criticize the young lovers for being  infatuated.  The young lovers are the ones who really have a good thing going.  There’s really no reason to aim for unfeeling marriage.  The real fault of young love is that it often does not have the depth to remain in the beautiful and glorious state that it’s already in.  Emotional love is the goal, the thing to be aimed for.  It is not the error of the immature.  Falling out of that state is the error of the immature.

The real aim of a successful marriage is to sprout that romance and grow it, keeping it alive and well by developing the depth necessary to weather good and bad days, the ups and the downs in life, and yet never cease to be in love, not just loving.  The aim is to be permanently infatuated.  After all, some seed does fall on the fertile soil.  It sprouts up like the seed among thorns and the seed among stones, but the difference is that it stays that way.  The other two don’t.  The former charismatic looks back on the emotional thrill ride of that former life as an empty shell.  He thinks he is wiser, and he’s right.  He is wiser, but he lost the romance in the process.  His marriage to the faith is still loving, but he is no longer in love.  He went through all of the stages of marriage, from infatuation, through disillusionment, to “maturity.”  But he is now a cynic.  Those three stages are the phases of the stony soil faith.  He won’t pray for healing.  Why?  Because he no longer believes.  He won’t seek out prophecy, because he no longer believes.  It’s in the Bible, quite clearly, but he still rejects it, and he rejects it on the basis of being a Bible-only believer, ironically.

The former charismatic says she was not saved because of the charismatic church, but in spite of it.  That’s like saying she didn’t get married because she fell in love, but in spite of it.  This is patently false.  She could blame the charismatic church for not giving her the tools to become strong in the faith, but she could never claim that the passion and excitement of faith, of real mountain-moving faith, repelled her from that faith.  We all come to Christ by falling in love.

It’s not common, especially these days, to find an old married couple, still holding hands and casting adoring sidelong glances at each other after half a century of marriage.  It’s not common, but it happens.  I wish it would happen to us all.

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To Them Who Did Not Turn the Other Cheek (everyone)

1 07 2011

Jesus was a peculiar individual, to say the least.  We thought that merely abstaining from sex with another man’s wife was sufficient for a sinless life, but he told us that we could not even give her a hidden, much enjoyed, sideways glance.  We could understand that much if we really strained ourselves.  Not leering at a woman was something of an extreme measure along the lines of avoiding sex with her.  Yes, but, when he said that we would be better off plucking out our eyes than let them cause us to sin, well, we thought that was just hyperbole.  What part of your body causes you to sin?  Get your knife.  Yeah, I didn’t think so.  A Christian is one who follows the teachings of Christ…but not that close.

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, an act that will lose its sting much like the sinking of the Lusitania, Christians from both sides of the aisle took opposing views on how to respond.  On the left, we had people saying that we should practice the teachings of Christ and turn the other cheek, meaning that we should be passive and do nothing.  Those on the right said that Christ’s teachings in this were meant on a personal level, not a national one, and that if we did nothing, then we were just inviting more attacks.  Neither side really applied Christ’s message to the situation.  More importantly, though, the leftist response underscores a serious problem in modern Christian understanding of this passage, and the conservative response and their failure to hit this misunderstanding head-on seems to indicate that they don’t generally understand it much, either.

According to Christ, when someone hits your cheek, you ought to offer him the other cheek to hit, also.  When someone steals your coat, you give him the shirt off your back (ladies, don’t do this, exactly).  Turning the other cheek is not passive.  He didn’t say to hug your knees and cry.  What he said is, essentially, that you should invite the other person to do it again.  Now, we’ll work with the understanding that Ezekiel told us that we are responsible, at least to some extent, for the sins of our neighbors.  We can say it would, in this case, refer to fellow members of the family of God, but there is, at least, the expectation that we should warn another person of their sin, if we see it.  Christ’s view of sin is simply that we should do everything in our power to prevent even the tiniest, most subtly discernible sin.  By inviting a second strike, or a second theft, the initial impression is that we’re encouraging a second act of sin from the other person.  This is not the case.  The fact is, simply, that a man cannot steal what has been freely given to him.  If you invite the other person to slap you hard in the face, then you have not been wronged, really, when the other person takes you up on your offer.  Fundamentally, when you make the offer that the other person offend you again, you actually absolve them of that sin.  It’s the evasion of sin taken to an extreme.  Not only do we need to do everything in our power to avoid committing sin ourselves, but we ought to do what we can for others, also.

I have only seen this sort of thing happen once.  My parents caught an illegal immigrant in their storage room, stealing clothing.  What was their response?  They helped her steal more.  I’m sure she was baffled.  The moment she realized that she was welcomed to take it, her conscience was cleared.  The guilt was gone and over with.  If they had pretended not to notice, then she would have walked away a thief.  She would have thought herself a thief, and, for all practical purposes, she would have been right.  She could not take up an offer that was never made.  It’s not a gift until someone actually gives it.  Until then, it’s just another theft.  Turning the other cheek can not ever be a passive act.  It never will be.

In the matter of a literal strike to the face, or anywhere else, the Christian will likely either find himself fighting back, or, simply, keeling over in tears.  The offender will then walk away satisfied, or continue offending.  Either response by the Christian is an unchristian response, unfortunately.  To take Christ’s teaching to heart means that when I finish crying my eyes out, I’ve actually got to find that jerk and ask him if he would like to hit me some more.  He needs to know that he took nothing from me that I didn’t willingly give.

Ouch.  You’re welcome.

It reminds one of a time when Jesus told his followers that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have everlasting life.  Oh, it’s such a cliché, now, but then it sounded like pure craziness.  Naturally, people turned away in droves, shaking their heads and mumbling about the crazy rabbi.  It sounded crazy for a person to cut off his own hand to prevent sin.  It sounded like unproductive madness to give someone permission to strike back.

Hit me, please.  No, really, if it makes you feel better, then do it again.

Passivity is much easier, but it doesn’t really accomplish the purpose of preventing sin, aggressively and fanatically.  Doing nothing about it not only is unpleasant, but it doesn’t really even earn you any points in Heaven.  You get to suffer, and it doesn’t even count for anything.  Now when it comes to the matter of one who goes about killing others, the underlying principle is still the same: prevent sin fanatically.  Stop that killer from killing again.  The other man’s cheek is not yours to offer.  Stop that sin.  Make the beating stop.

Nothing in the Christian doctrine is so well-versed, frequently said, and, amazingly, so rarely followed.  We could even go so far as to say that if you won’t turn the other cheek, and if that aversion causes you to sin, then perhaps we should get out the knife and eliminate that part of the body.  Indeed, Christ promised his followers quite a bit of suffering.

No, we don’t mean it, really.  When we fail, repeatedly, to turn the other cheek, we aren’t really going to cut our cheeks off.  When we get hit, we aren’t going to find the person on the following day and offer our faces as punching bags for a second round, in order to make a point that the first round was also our gift to him.  No, what we’re going to do is hug our knees and cry like a baby…or, we could seek him out and beat him to a pulp, which feels much better and actually does something toward preventing recurrence.  We’re going to hold our neighbor to his sins and hope he burns forever for it.  Then, at the end of it all, we’re going to hope to God that he doesn’t do the same to us, because he’s already said that he will forgive us as we forgive others.

When it comes to the teachings of Christ, we generally accept as much as we can, rationalize the rest, and then fail even to perform what little we can accept of it.  We can only hope that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, because if he wasn’t then we jest when we call ourselves Christians.  This hope isn’t going to get us very far, considering that he demonstrated his meaning by giving up his life to people who wanted to kill him.  Even his earliest followers did the same.

This Christianity stuff is really intense if you’re serious about it.  This is no joke.  I’m not laughing.  I’m wringing my hands and hoping I read it wrong.





Rattlesnake Mountain

18 04 2011

We were all there in the open field at recess watching James’ dad get blown to bits.  James was even there with us.  Of course, we had no idea what we were looking at.  It was one of two plane crashes I remember seeing from that same playground during my time in elementary school.  The small aircraft hit close to the peak, igniting a fire that spread and rose until it engulfed the top.  What is fire to a little kid?  What is tragedy?

A few years ago, I noticed my goldfish staring in awe at a candle I had placed near the fishbowl.  Where, in nature, do fish confront fire?  All of the beasts in the forest know it well.  At the first scent of smoke, the bees start packing up the honey.  The deer flee for their lives.  Even the snakes head for the water.  All of the animals of the forest know what fire is, and they fear it dreadfully.  The fish don’t have a clue.

There we were, like a pond full of goldfish, staring at a fire, and somewhere in that fire was our classmate’s father.  We didn’t have a clue.  I remember when he was called out of the classroom.  I remember the next day, staring up at Rattlesnake Mountain, with its ashen gray cap, and freckle-faced Brent exclaiming, “Dude!  That was James’ father!”  He kept saying it until it finally hit home with us.  The teacher may have told us all at the same time, but I don’t remember.  It was a hard thing to grasp.

James was rare for being a black kid in a nearly all-white school.  He was one of only about three non-whites I think I saw in the seven years I was there, five non-whites, if you count the faculty.  He was extremely quiet and well-mannered.  So much more dramatic the change when he began biting and kicking his fellow students for no reason at all (I thought).  We were only second-graders.  I had no idea what it was like to lose my father.  All I knew was that my classmate was behaving like a rabid animal.  Shortly after that, James moved away, and we never saw him again.

And then I had my own Rattlesnake Mountain, that same year.

Christmas came, and I got my very own Starscream Transformer robot toy.  I remember it well, and I remember how it came with two left hands and a missile that broke as I was detaching it from the forms.  I recall the evening when I sat on my father’s lap, and he helped me put the decals on the toy.  He had the sticker for the shiny gold eyes grasped in a pair of tweezers.  He hesitated, he breathed deeply, and then he gave me the tweezers and set me down on the couch and wandered off.  I had no idea that I was witnessing my forty-two-year-old father have a heart attack.  Once I finished the decals myself, I wandered about, looking for my parents, when my older siblings informed me that they had gone to the hospital.  My mom came home late and alone.

The next day was business as usual.  I thought my dad was going to die, and there I was in school, doing what I did every day, helpless in my circumstances.  I don’t remember why, but I found myself biting and kicking my classmates like some rabid animal.  Yes, now I could relate to James.  I was horrified at my own actions, watching myself transform like a young Jekyll and Hyde story.  The teacher knew something was wrong at home.  She pinned a note to my clothes and admonished me to leave it there until my mom took it off.  I don’t know why, but I wore the note all the way home, without trying to read it.

The next day, my mother kept me home from school and took me to visit my father in the hospital, instead.  That was all it took to make me a happy well-mannered kid again, seeing him alive and in good spirits.  My first day back at school, the teacher pinned another note to my clothes, thanking my mother for whatever it was that she had done.  “Now, don’t take this one off,” she said, “This is a good note.”

In second grade, my parents were enormous giants to me.  The prospect of my dad dying was like the prospect of God dying.  This one who should have been too big to fall, this all-providing source of survival was at death’s door.  I can well imagine how Christ’s disciples might have panicked at the death of their rabbi, a surrogate father, but more, something like Father God in the flesh, too big to fall, dying like a mortal.  One can see Peter’s fight/flight response, cutting off a servant’s ear one moment, and denying Christ the next, having witnessed the death and destruction of the man who always had all of the answers, the one who could not be touched.  There he was, the apparent source of life and health, bleeding on a cross.  Christ’s mountain was called the Skull, but it was the place where the snake had bitten him on the heel, symbolically.  It was his Rattlesnake Mountain.

It recalls to mind the various faces of the September 11 attacks, all of those close shots of people hanging out of windows to escape the fire.  Those must have been someone’s fathers and mothers.  I can only imagine the horror of having watched it happen to a loved one.  Much worse, to have seen the face of one clearly, on a newspaper or on television.  When I watched the tsunami roll across Japan, it was like the plane crash at Rattlesnake mountain, like a goldfish staring at a flame.  It was mesmerizing, but it was nothing personal to me.  I feel like I should sympathize more.  I know I would feel much different if that tragedy came to me.

Deep in the recesses of my mind, I wonder if we’re all destined to feel the pain of those victims.  We’ll feel their pain, or we’ll feel that pain.  I pray to God that the pain is only sympathetic.  If that’s all I pray, then I probably am not sympathetic.  And, if I am cold, then perhaps the hour has come for God to break me, that I may bleed, and, having bled, I may learn to feel again.





The Day After, and the Day After That

25 12 2010

A man lived in a modest home on a very expensive little square of land.  The home was reasonably large, but nothing in character to make it particularly attractive.  At night, he could be seen in his living room watching television, while all of the other windows in his home were dark.  One day, he decided to tear down this house and build a much bigger home with more rooms.  He designed it with an old Spanish architecture, built by a renowned company.  Out in front of this home, he put a plaque detailing the history of the site, though one might wonder what significance could exist in a home built only a few years ago.  Whatever had existed there before was long gone.  Only the dirt was historic, for what it’s worth.  The home was lovely, furnished with brand new furniture and all of the latest technology.

In the evenings, he could be seen sitting in his living room watching a bigger television, and all of the other windows in his home remained dark.  Now, there were more dark windows, to dark rooms with no one in them and no life housed.  In truth, he either needed fewer rooms or more family living with him.  Actually, he seemed only to need one room.  As it was, one room held all of the life, while the others were vacant catacombs.

In our mansion, we have three-hundred-sixty-five rooms.  One of them is well lit and full of life.  Its light spills out the door and down the hall.  You can see the light before you see the room.  You can stand in the glow before you’re in the room.  One room is full of life and festivity.  One room holds the family.  One or two others occasionally get a visit, but this room is where the action is.  The other three-hundred-sixty-four rooms are about as lifeless as a grave.  We walk briskly through the room, then exit back into another dark hallway.  The glow gently recedes as we head away from the door.  Then we find ourselves in darkness.

The day after Christmas, known as Boxing Day for reasons unknown to most people, is usually a day for breaking toys, returning unwanted presents, and spending what’s left of the family budget on things, things and more things, to fill the vacancy left by the light of Christmas.  The purchases on Boxing Day are a match lit to find one’s way down the dark hall, in absence of the waning light of Christmas.  The world has forgotten Christmas already.  Yet, the world never knew it.  On Christmas morning, the sun rose at its usual time; the wild animals followed their usual routine; all of nature was ignorant of the event.  The whole physical world saw Christmas as just another day.  On the day that Christ was born, the whole world saw the life of just another day.  Few people were aware that anything significant had happened, because the significance was purely in the minds of those who saw it.  Christ was the great secret.  He was only a baby, and he was doing nothing extraordinary.  For all practical purposes, the first Christmas really was just another day.

The only difference between Christmas and all of the other days in the year is what we do with it.  In one sense, it’s all in our minds.  We could say that it’s nothing special.  Nothing happens on that day that could not just as easily happen on the day after, or the day after that.  On Christmas, we wake up with the feeling that this is a special day, like no other.  The day after Christmas, we wake up depressed, looking for a suitable drug.  The only difference between the two days is what we put into them.  The Christmas room is full of life, full of loved ones and full of charm.  The room next to it is dark and cold, uninhabited and neglected.  Christmas is expensive and laden with work.  The other days are cheap and easy.  Christmas is religious and meaningful, while the others are mostly secular and routine.  Christmas is a time for building relationships, but the others are a time for growing stale and unfamiliar.  The only difference between the two is what we do with them.  Otherwise, one day is just like any other.

One room is like any other.  The only difference is what you fill it with.  God has a house with many rooms, and he intends to fill it with loved ones.  Every room will be filled with light and life.

Some houses on the street are brightly lit.  Others remain as festive as a tomb.  The Puritan rejects Christmas for its pagan origins, while the atheist rejects it for the Christian thing it has become.  For some, it is secular, a party to celebrate nothing.  For some, it is the birthday of someone very special.  It is a symbol.  It is whatever it means to you.  It amounts to whatever you invest into it.  It is not that Christmas is an ordinary day trumped up to pretend itself important.  It is that every other day is neglected and unappreciated for what it is.  Every other day needs a little Christmas, and every other person needs Christ.  The world is full of empty souls, with scarce few that know what it means to be filled with Christ, to be Christmas among the empty days of the calendar.

Emmanuel, God is with us, still.  Christ came and struck us in awe.  Then he left.  The day after that, after he was gone, when the miracles had ceased, and the Holy Spirit had not yet come, the world was held in suspense, like Boxing Day, not knowing what was left to hope for, but only guessing and waiting, remembering what had been, and feeling the vacancy.  Christ was really gone this time.  He wasn’t coming back in three days, this time.  It was over, or had it just begun?  No, it had not even begun, yet.  At the moment, it was just over, and it was not anything else, yet.  It was the day after, and its only significance was that it was no longer the previous day.

It was the dark room, next to the living one, close enough to hear the activity and catch a glimpse of the light, but still in darkness.  But the day after Christmas is the first day of waiting for its return.





Lawless One; a permanent nightmare

18 10 2010

[fiction]

Our star, Larry Lawson, had a rousing morning slapping his girlfriend to her senses.  She was still moaning over that fetus he pushed her to abort.  Zooming down the parkway, he considered that he might stop by the bar after work and see if he could pick up a new hottie, maybe a Latino chic.  That would suit him nicely.  Who knows, he might get lucky, today.  A light turned red, and he breezed through it unscathed, only to be stopped dead by a stale red with heavy cross-traffic a hundred yards later.  A black kid with an iPod stuck in his ears strutted in front of him, earning a honk and a few nasty words.  Larry thought to teach him a lesson for prolonging his red light with a crosswalk signal.  The kid would probably think of this day whenever he considered white people, in general.  He probably hated white men, already.  Larry had the vague recollection of having honked at this kid before.  Across the intersection stood a billboard photo of some guy in a white cowboy hat holding a telephone, with the words, “In trouble with the law?  Call Jesse!”  He chuckled to himself and made a mental note of the number.  The traffic going straight got a green, but Larry couldn’t waste time for the red left arrow, so he pulled an illegal U-turn and slid into the underground parking lot of his glass-walled high-rise office building.  He did a quick glance into the rearview mirror for cops and mumbled, “Sorry Jesse, maybe next time.”

Out of the car, he hopped into the elevator and waited for it to take him to the top floor, where a coffeepot and a corner desk had his name on them.  Some sappy song played over the speaker while he waited; it may have been called Shooting Stars.

“Like shooting stars we shine and then fade,
Breaking the promises we made, what about the promises?
What about the promises we made?  What about our plans for forever?”

Without thinking about it, he hummed along and counted the floors on the display above the door.  He couldn’t get out fast enough.  He put on his best attitude, taking the long way to the coffee maker, past the desk of that hot new intern.  He tried not to huff when she wasn’t there.  At his desk, he barely had the computer fired up when the guy in the cubicle next to him rolled around the cubicle partition and asked him, “Yo, Larry, you forgot to get a chain of custody receipt for yesterday’s Picasso delivery.”

Larry gave an over-the-shoulder smirk at him and said, “I didn’t forget.”

“Then where is it?” the pest insisted.

“I’ll get it to you.  I’ll get it to you.  Just wait a minute.  I just got here,” Larry snapped,  “Don’t rush me.” As soon as the neighbor wheeled back out of sight, he brought up a blank form on the computer and hit the “print” button.  Strolling as casually as possible to the printer, he snatched the document and slipped into a nearby vacant cubicle.  A few forged signatures and falsified dates written in, and he was on his way back to his desk via the aisle next to the file cabinets.  He learned long ago not to make the falsifications at his desk.  The new guy was too sharp; he’d see Larry strolling back from the printer with a fresh document and pause in his own cubicle for a moment, only to appear with the requested document, which was only too obvious.  Justifying the action was easy.  The delivery had been made, and that’s what really mattered.  This was just a lot of red tape, and besides it was a mistake, after all.  Granted, everyone would like to do things right the first time, but that’s no reason to take heat for a stupid piece of paper, or so Larry figured.  So long as the customer never complained of non-delivery, the document was never scrutinized.

All this was so much fuss over dry paint.  Larry figured Picasso to have created almost nineteen hundred paintings in his lifetime.  Of those, he had personally sold over twenty-five hundred, courtesy of a man on Thirteenth Street, named Joe Guiles.  Old Joe was one of those artists who sold art by the pound.  Larry loved his abstract works.  The need to follow reality set rules that made realistic artwork difficult to forge.  Bad art was bad, whether it looked like the original or not.  Abstract art was the sort of thing that could never be bad art, because it never actually had to look like something real.  It was essentially lawless.  The consumer eye couldn’t tell a Guiles from a Picasso, but it could certainly tell it from a Rembrandt.  No Picasso fan could look at one of his works and identify it as a forgery by its poor quality.  That’s because it was all bad.  Without having the real thing to hold up next to it, no one could notice the difference.  With the advance of the Giclee printer, a downloaded work could be printed on canvass to look like a genuine double of the original.  Granted, there were certain risks.  He had to be careful not to sell any of the showcased works, or anything too famous.  The best bet was always something that Picasso never attempted, yet should have.  These were the “lesser-known works.”  That’s where Joe’s talent really shined.

Well, it wasn’t too hard to rationalize, really.  A painting was as good as the owner’s enjoyment of it.  It didn’t really matter who made it or how it was made, so long as it had the certain visual appeal that the consumer was looking for.  I mean, it’s either worth hanging on a wall, or it isn’t.  In the end, it’s just an image.  If the consumer wanted that image, then that’s what the consumer got.  In return, Larry only asked for mass-produced artwork of dead presidents on rag paper.  That should be fair enough.

The phone on his desk rang.  It was Joe.  He answered it, “Larry Lawson, superstar.”

Joe replied that one of his works was ready, and then he disconnected.

Larry stood, passed the bad document over the shoulder of his coworker and disappeared around a corner.  He had been in the office less than twenty minutes, and already he was headed for the elevator and freedom.  Stopping by the receptionist’s desk, he asked the lady to tell his boss that he was on his way to do a pick-up.  She replied that the boss was not coming in today.  This had “good day” written all over it.  He counted the steps to the elevator, waited for the doors to shut, and then he did his best rendition of a football goal line victory dance.  That stop at the bar would be coming earlier than he had planned.  The elevator car dropped a level and opened to a pretty little clerk that he had gotten to know a month earlier.  As soon as she saw him, she made an awkward nod of the head, mumbled, “Sorry, mistake,” and hurried away.  He made a mental note to study that case.  Clearly, something went wrong with that one.  Maybe he had pursued her a little to aggressively.

The doors closed and the elevator car continued on its way.  “Shooting Stars,” played softly over the speaker.  “Come on, people, we just played that one,” he muttered.  Two lines later, he realized that the words were different.  This one wasn’t about shooting stars, like the kind one might watch on a hot August night.  This one was about shooting stars, as in celebrities and with a gun.  He shifted uncomfortably.  “Odd, that one,” he said to the wall.  His cell phone rang.  It was the jerk from the cubicle next to his.

“Larry,” whined the jerk, “This receipt is a complete forgery!  What the heck are you doing, trying to pawn this junk off on me?”

“Just file it,” Larry answered, “you know no one’s going to look at it, anyway.”

“Larry, I looked at it!  Now we’re both involved.  This isn’t just your butt that’s going to get fried.  I never asked for this.  It’s illegal, you know!” the twiggy coworker cried.

“Laws were made to be broken,” Larry returned, “Get a grip.  You’re not going to get arrested for possession of a fake receipt.”  He snapped his phone shut and continued waiting.  This was taking too long.  He looked at the display above the door, and it showed that he was ascending, instead of descending.  “Drat!” he shouted.  Actually, that wasn’t quite the word he used.  The numbers kept going up.  Then, he was back to his own level, which was on the highest floor.  Then he was on the floor above it.  The numbers rearranged themselves into a little face, just a line for a mouth and two dots for eyes.  “What the…?!”

“So, you don’t like laws, do you?” the little face said, and he heard it through the speakers in place of the music.  The face screwed itself up into various Chinese characters.  Then the display went blank and the doors opened, revealing the roof and all of the workings one might find on top of a high-rise office building.

“This is nuts,” he said with a shiver, “Elevators don’t go clear to the roof.  This can’t be happening.”  But the unnaturally dark and smoky sky drew him outside and toward the parapet.  Looking down, he saw that the whole city was on fire, making him think for a split second that it had caused his elevator to rise to the top, but that would still be impossible.  The elevator still doesn’t reach the roof, even if it malfunctions.  A huge billow of smoke rose in the distance, forming what vaguely looked like an angry face, which turned and dissipated a second later.  A moment after that, the roiling smoke formed another face, which rotated and obliterated.  It was only the sort of thing one sees in clouds, when one looks up and makes believe that the thing is shaped like something familiar, even when it clearly looks dissimilar.  Yet, face after face arose and disappeared.  “What is going on, here?” he wondered aloud.

“At the moment, you’re hallucinating, but that could all change in a few minutes,” said a voice behind him.

He turned toward the speaker and saw a man in a leather jacket, leather pants and leather boots.  In fact, it would appear that every thing he wore required the shedding of blood.  “What’s going on?  What’s happening,” Larry asked.

“This day has been waiting for you for thousands of years, and you have only just now stepped into it,” replied the stranger, “But I wanted to give you a moment longer before you met your destiny.  The world burns like incense to appease the nostrils of a holy God, but one can burn swine meat forever without ever producing a pleasing aroma.  Really,  I don’t think we need more of that.  I like to think that there’s a chance to reconcile you with the law you hate.”

Larry tried to give him a look that said, “You’ve got to be kidding,” that looked more like a terrified, “Man, I sure hope this is just a joke.”  He looked back at the rising smoke, which seemed to look back at him.  “So what are you saying?”

“You need Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for your breaking of the law,” the man in leather said.

“Yeah, whatever.  Jesus overthrew the law,” Larry replied.

“No, you overthrew the law.  Jesus fulfilled it.  He loved the law enough to die, rather than break it.  He loved you enough to die, rather than break you.  Something had to break.  It was you against the law, and….”

“That’s nice,” Larry interrupted, “but I’ve got an elevator to catch,” and he headed back to the entrance.

“Are you really in such a hurry to go down there?” asked the stranger.

Larry stepped inside the elevator, turned, and gave the button for the parking garage a resolute push.  There’s something about insanity that makes people compensate by attempting to be extra sane.  They stand a little taller.  They walk stiffly and talk about anything normal, if they can.  They find themselves looking for any symbol of normalcy to which they can cling, even striding with ineffective slowness from an onrush of doom.  For Larry, this meant resetting himself to the last moment before things went haywire, which meant standing in an elevator and pushing the button for the parking garage with the determination of one who actually expected it to go there.  When the doors closed and his stomach rose into his throat from the descent of the car, he hoped life was as normal as it now looked, but four seconds later, when he became weightless and floated about the interior, he realized with horror that he was better-off on the roof, with the freak, where at least he was free and not trapped in a box.  The display above the door showed the little face again, and he heard its voice through the speakers.

“You know, Larry, I know you think of yourself as a minor outlaw, but I happen to know that you love laws,” said the voice in a synthetic sort of way.  Larry was too busy floating about the cabin to venture a response, so it continued, “Take the law of gravity, for instance.  You love that law.  You like being able to use those little stilts you call legs to pry yourself away from the ground and move from place to place across the surface of a dirt ball.  You love knowing that every day, God happens to follow that law faithfully.  Or, take the laws of time and space, even.  You like, or better yet, are tremendously excited to know that your elevator will get to where it’s going in a timely manner.  You like to be able to cross a room in a matter of seconds, rather than decades.  In fact, it would kill you to know that you might not even get there in your lifetime.”

“Oh, dear God,” Larry mumbled, not reverently.

“Yes, both dear and God, in fact,” said the voice.  “Aren’t you glad God obeys his laws?  Don’t you wish you had obeyed yours?  Oh, but then there’s the Master Law, and this one you love the best.  It’s the law that makes all other laws possible.  It’s the law of consistency.  It’s so universal and so important that most people don’t even know it exists.  You wake up every morning, go to work, come home and go to bed.”

“I do not love that law,” Larry groaned.

“Oh, but you do,” argued the voice.  “You don’t like not knowing if, perhaps, you might wake up one day and find that you are a chicken, strapped to the back of a flying purple pig, singing We Are The World a hundred times really fast.  For instance, you don’t like floating about, trapped inside an elevator that talks nonsense to you.”

Larry resisted the urge to puke, and said, cautiously, “You’re right.  I definitely do not like this.”

“Ah, but fortunately for you God is very good at following his laws,” the thing said.

“Then why isn’t he?!” Larry roared.

“Ah, but he is!” the elevator cheered, “You may think that you are floating, but it only seems like that because your entire world is falling with you.  Your coworkers are falling with you.  Your elevator car is falling with you…and it still only takes four and a half seconds to hit the ground!  Even the laws of time and space are obeyed.  Did you know, Larry, that the terrified mind of a human fires signals so fast that he perceives that time comes to a standstill?”

“That’s great!  That’s just fantastic, you stupid, little, whatever you are!  What about consistency?  What about your freaking Master Law?!” Larry screamed.

“It’s about to be taken from you,” said the elevator, flatly.  “The Master is about to be taken from you, and there’s really no way to have the Master Law without the Master, now is there?  I mean, that wouldn’t make any sense, now would it?

“You mean, I’m going to be stuck in this nightmare?!” Larry panicked.

The elevator was silent for a moment.  Then it replied, “Yes, but this is all taking too long.  We are nearly out of time.”

All at once, the elevator groaned softly, and Larry was flung at the floor, where he stopped, mid-air, spread-eagle, with his nose an inch from the ground, hovering.  He brought his arms and legs down, and he carefully stood to his feet.  The moment the doors opened, he rushed outside, into the parking garage, and for a moment life seemed to have returned to normal.  A short distance away was a small one-person restroom, used mostly by the security guards and the incontinent.  Into this he rushed, either to vomit or to splash water on his face, whichever he could manage best.  It was one of those cold, ugly places, with a steel mirror and a steel toilet and a push-button washbasin.  He got one splash of water to his face before he began to doubt his own reflection.  It didn’t look right.  He worried that the nightmare might be returning.  It was his face, alright, and it even imitated his movements, but somehow it felt like the image of someone else.  The man in the mirror looked like the sort of jackass a person loves to hate, bearing a sneer best removed with a tightly-clenched fist.  Then, he could contain himself no longer.  He fell to his knees before the toilet and spilled his breakfast, which appeared to be a diet of worms.  In between retches he could still feel them wriggling in his throat, which made him retch all the more.  Gripping the bowl with both hands, he felt himself surrender to the panic.  There was no end to the worms within.  That’s when he noticed his hands.  They were covered in worms, too.  In fact, they were so covered that he could not see his hands.  He swiped at them vigorously, knocking them in large clumps into the toilet, taking off whole fingers and then an arm, into the bowl.  That’s when he realized that the worms were not on his arms.  The worms were his arms.  He pushed himself to his feet and examined his body, a seething mass of worms in the general shape of a man.  His right arm flopped detached over the edge of the bowl, spreading in an array of nematodes, until it no longer resembled an arm.

Larry had one thread of sanity left, and with it he barged out of the restroom, up the ramp and out onto the street.  He was going to wake up or die trying.  The street outside was packed with pedestrians, marching routinely to work.  He pushed through them rudely, not knowing where he was going, or why.  He overheard their conversations with each other, normal and unrelated to him, but his mind picked out one word from one person and one word from another, fitting it nicely together into a sentence that was never spoken by a single individual.

“Hurry…call…on…Christ!…now,” said no one and everyone.

Larry stopped at the street corner and looked each way.  It was an alley, crossing with the main boulevard.  The alley had nothing but two old trash cans, a cat, and a homeless bum, who was striding purposefully toward him.  Everyone else was walking or driving along the boulevard.  In the moment that he recognized the bum as the man from the roof, he looked up at the street sign and saw that he was at the crossing of Hell Avenue and Heaven Alley.  “Oh, very funny!  Oh, yeah, this is all just one big hilarious joke, isn’t it?!” he yelled at the stranger.  The people on the street stopped in their tracks and stared.  Even the cars slowed to watch the madman.  Everyone was waiting to see what he would do next.  He was about to say something more, when he heard the whistle of a train.  It was the Seven-Ten, and for once it was right on time.  He knew what he had to do.  He turned up the boulevard and ran madly for the tracks.  The stranger broke into a dead run after him, trying to stop him.  Up ahead, he saw the tracks.  To his left, he saw the coming of the Los Angeles Westbound.  Larry was determined to meet the LAW head-on.  Someone or something was going to break.  With his legs spread, he stood and faced the oncoming diesel engine.  To his left, the stranger kept coming, with a look of horror on his face and his hand upraised in warning.

“Larry!” yelled the man in leather, “You can’t wake up from this kind of nightmare!”  But Larry turned toward the engine and ignored him.  The stranger slowed to a stop when the futility of his effort became evident.  The words barely squeaked from his throat, “Not again.  Oh, for pity’s sake, not again.”

The impact was so thunderous that everybody thought a bomb had gone off.  The doors and large pieces of the elevator car blew out into the cars parked opposite, rebounding with a clatter, a tremendous racket and a billow of dust.  A dozen car alarms sounded, honking in protest like frightened donkeys.  The entire office building came alive with workers buzzing about, trying desperately to know what was going on.

The event was summed up in a news article the next day, that the elevator in a downtown office building had become detached from its pulley mechanism and fallen all the way from the top floor to its resounding demise far below, killing one person in the process.

A clerk from the top floor minus one considered that she barely missed getting on that elevator seconds before the disaster.  Strangely, she was saved by her disdain of the victim, which, incidentally, made the victim harder to disdain.  Had he not been on that elevator, she felt that the victim would have been her, instead.  Somewhere on the top floor, the victim’s coworker made a callous remark that he probably hit the ground and kept going, straight to Hell.  Both were wrong in their own way.  The reason she did not die was simply because it was not her time to die.  He did not go straight to Hell, exactly.  Somewhere along the way life took an unexpected detour, before continuing on into the permanent nightmare.

But it is not for others to know the full story of a man.  His interaction with God is known only to him and God.  He can’t tell, and God won’t.

[/fiction]

Some say that the genre of Christian horror is a self-contradictory and impossible concept.  In truth, those who see the world falling headlong into a permanent nightmare are audience of the ultimate horror story.





Everyone a Pastor

13 10 2010

Following a man has always been easier than following God.  Even so, he is still only a man.  If we closely emulate his strengths, then we may closely emulate his faults.  But, choose whom we will to follow, our leader never goes to Hell on our behalf.  He goes there for himself, and we go to our own fate.

Following a man has always been so much easier than taking responsibility for our own faith, that we have an innate tendency to venerate our spiritual leaders, as though they were anything better than just another lost soul.  He is but one man among peers.  We sent him off to get his education.  He returned to impart his wisdom to us.  If he taught us for an hour every Sunday, then we sat through fifty-two hours of sermons per year and five-hundred-twenty hours each decade.  By our early thirties, we would have listened to 15,600 solid hours of preaching.  If there were anything left for him to teach us that he had not already discussed, then we ought to dismiss him for his negligence.  We ought, by all rights, to have learned enough to be our own preachers.

Can you say “amen” to that?

To borrow the cliché, our man of the cloth is all too often more cloth than man.  He looks good in the pulpit, but his character tends to be shallow.  It is his fault for expecting to be the shepherd of his flock.  Only Christ is the shepherd.  It is our fault for putting him on a pedestal, as though the platform were raised for his honor, and not merely so that we could see him better.  We should call no man “father” except our Father in Heaven.  A pastor is a peer among equals.

When a layman commits adultery against his wife, we condemn him, but we are not shaken.  When a pastor does such a thing, our church splits, some leave that church, and some leave all church, entirely.  When a pastor falls, we are shaken.  Yet, a pastor is just a theologically educated member of the congregation.  But, so are we.

He distances himself from his people.  He needs that air of infallibility.  If he related to us as one of us, then we might see his faults.  We hold him in such a critical esteem, that his would be the first faults we found, even before our own.  Yet, he is only a man, and he is only human.  Considering the pressure, considering the lack of moral support, and considering the lack of mentoring, one might conclude that the pastor lives an act.  He must, even if he is sincere.  He lives the best that he can, and he hides the rest, or he loses his job.  Such is the fact of the matter.  In this, there grows a weakness.  Quite possibly the shakiest faith in the church is the one that stands behind the pulpit.  The weakest in the group stands to be the backbone.

The disparity between the pastor and the laity is a two-part problem.  Firstly, the pastor has no pastor.  The second problem is like the first, that the congregation has no congregation.  We do not work on Sunday, but the pastor might only work on Sunday.  We turn to him for guidance, but he has no one.  He does not sit in church every Sunday and listen to anyone’s sermon.  He is alone.  God is his only guidance.  Even so, God should be our guidance, also.  He is called to speak the truth, but so are we.  He is called to reach the lost, but we are, also.  We are pastors to a lost world, but we act like spectators.  Our message is as bad as our worship, being nothing but lip service, and only a lip service within the walls of the church building, at that.

We are the preachers who do not preach.  He is the laity that does not listen.  We have led him through his fear for our approval.  We have failed to follow, because we have not emulated him to the world.  We watch him like a television.  We sing a few songs.  We chat a little, and then we go home.

We are only peers among pastors.  No man is above us.  No one is beneath us.  We are all responsible for working out our own faith, with the fear and trembling of a man tottering above the flames of Hell.  Only one man has paid the price for us, and he isn’t the pastor.  Only I am responsible for finding my salvation.  We are in this together.  We are judged separately.

Every single one of us has some insight that you lack.  Every single one of us needs support that only you can give.  We are all pastors.  We are all laity.  We were all lost.  We are all found.





A Dangerously Weak god

16 09 2010

A coworker named Albert  attempted to explain to me that another coworker named Tuan thought he was far better than anyone else at the lab.  When confronted with what were perceived to be his shortcomings, Tuan reacted by insisting that he was the very best among us.  In fact, he might have had us believe that he was near perfect.

“He doesn’t really think that,” I told my other coworker, “He’s just insecure.”

“No, he’s not insecure,” replied Albert, “He thinks we’re all down here.” He indicated an arbitrary position with his hand, palm-downward, “And he thinks he’s way up here,” he said, raising his hand above his head.  “When I tried to correct him, he got defensive and argued with me.”

“Secure people don’t get defensive,” I replied.

It’s true, though.  Confident people can take harsh criticism in stride.  It may bother them, but they don’t lose confidence in who they are and where they stand.  It is with this in mind that I note how, with a Koran in one hand and a cigarette lighter in the other, I can make the entire Muslim world jump with every flick of my thumb.  With a pencil and a wild imagination I can draw a face and call it “Mohamed,” earning myself a death sentence.  But all of this zealotry runs amok when we put it to the magnifying glass.

I understand that offenses against Muslim icons are an offense against Muslims.  Insults to my mother are offensive to me, and insults against my God are all the more so.  In a sense, everything that I hold dear and close is part of what I call home.  In a beehive, the queen bee is home.  To the mockingbird, the nest is home.  We naturally fight to protect our home.  However, against these physical things, there lies a real threat of harm.  The bees fight for the queen, because she could really be killed.  The bird fights for the nest, because the young might really be devoured.

On the other hand, fighting to protect one’s god is like fighting to rescue a wooden idol from a burning building.  When a person finds himself filling the role of a self-appointed guardian of his own god, then he ought to reconsider what this thing really is.  I might ask, exactly how fragile is this Allah, that he cannot defend his own honor?  Why does any supreme being need mere mortals to run to his rescue?  It’s like the idol-makers at Ephesus fighting to protect their trade from the teachings of Paul and Barnabas.  That Muslims feel any need to fight for their god is all we need to see their insecurity.  No one dies in defense of the invincible.

They have every reason to feel insecure, though.  The whole Muslim world is economically, militarily, socially and technologically weaker than the industrialized Western nations.  If Allah were strong, then he would have lifted them above the infidels in all respects, for this god is not known for its modesty.  All the worse, though, that Allah is immodest, for weakness is never an act of voluntary meekness, as it is with Jesus.

Our God humbled himself and became a human so that he might be mocked, torn apart and murdered.  In light of this, one might threaten the burning of thousands of Bibles and never come close to the desecration that Christianity suffered.  Yet, this desecration was part of our theology.  Humiliation is central to our faith.  No derision proves our God too weak to respond, and no lack of faith or weakness of character would keep us from defending him.  We don’t need to defend him, and he is not weak.  It is through our persecution that we are proven strong.

Allah takes nothing in stride, and neither do his followers.  He proves his might through violence, which, ironically, is all the proof of his weakness.  Those who look to him for deliverance have become his protectors.  It’s the grandest of all role-reversals.  The loyal adherents have become the gods and made their god as weak as a newborn babe.

You can burn my Bible.  It’s just a stack of papers with ink scribbles on them.  Only the ideas contained within are holy.  The book is just a book.  Even the ideas don’t exist within the pages of a book.  Ideas can only exist within a mind.  A book never read is a book without meaning.  In this case, the book was read, and the meaning, which is the only thing holy about it, was stored within the soul of the one who read it.  The only thing holy about the Christian holy book lies hidden within the hearts of the Christians who believe in it.  There, no match can burn, nor any heretic desecrate it.  We have nothing to fear.  The real Bible cannot be burned.  That which can be burned is not the Word of God.

It is the weakness of Allah that causes the infidels to die.  A polytheistic god that was hardly more than a myth was built up to parade in the place of God, himself.  Such a vainglory was but a house of cards, and the effort to protect that house is more than the world can bear.  If Allah were stronger, then his followers would not have to fight so hard to protect him.  So far, though, he has managed to make a solitary prophet snort and gag while uttering proverbs.  His people have done the rest.  We are the victims of a dangerously weak god.