Writers Never Throw Anything Away 2: A Knight’s Tale

In the Fall of 1999, I wrote my first novel “The Kingdom Ever-After”.   The elation from completing this beast- as far as my joys as a writer- could never be matched.

I finished it in a resort in Tijuana, Mexico.   I hitched a ride with some Point Loma University students getting ready for a mission trip.   While they were discussing VBS and mission strategies, I was in the back room on my “Apple 1020” slaying dragons and winding up a novel.

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This beast of a thing- about 600 pages worth- has never seen the light of day.  Only me and my wife has ever seen this story.  It’s a bit rough and no longer fits a lot of how I write, so I have given up trying to get it published.

But a writer never throws anything away.

Here’s a fragment.  The set-up is an origin story of Sir Bennet, a fiercely loyal knight who was assigned an impossible task of defeating an unbeatable foe.   He lives in a land of magic and has a silver right arm.  This is how he lost his arm, which would be replaced by a magic one (a story for another time).

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Enjoy!

          One moment, Sir Bennet was smiling, standing, and enjoying life without injury.  The next moment, within a hiccup of time, a foul shriek split through the roar of the waterfall and bid all senses to bathe in it’s presence.   

             A gnarled, black-yellowed Gryphon tore through the dappled green canopy of the woods.  It’s eyes, soaked in it’s own blood, scanned the basin and set it’s focus on Sir Bennet.   It’s black muscles, rippling with yellow veins and fluttering tissue, swung taught as it flapped it’s wings in it’s descent.  Within a swoop and a roar, it landed on a rock clawing it’s way out of the water.  

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            Sir Bennet charged to the beach and sand closest to the demon bird.   It stood erect, about fourteen feet tall.  It’s head was tilted, like that of a drunken man.   It’s teeth a drooled orange foam.

             “So, what parts do you come from, demon?”, Sir Bennet called out, drawing his sword.

            “From the ruins of Maldor.   Yourself?”, the Gryphon answered.

            “From the Vald, the center of the 12 Kingdoms.”

            “Why do you journey so far north?”

            “We come in peace to bring allegiance in the northeastern territories.  The Yellow Kingdom would wish all of us as slaves and our lands free for their plunder.”

            “I know nothing about kingdoms or territories.  My philosophies seem crooked to most men, for I live beyond the thinking of mere, mortal men.   Yet we agree in one thing: the murder for the sake of one’s own survival.   I live by this and this alone.  I am cursed with speech and bound by oath to engage in dialogue with all of my victims before I attack.  It is my honor.”

            This was true.  Gryphon were bound, just as they were bound to both breadth and sleep, to engage in a philosophical discourse before they attacked an oppenant.  To them, it was a way to accumulate honor and gain power. If the creature denied a philosophical discourse, the Gryphon just attacked, regretfully, and defeated it’s opponent without honor. 

            “Well, you’ll find there is no honor greater than those who defend the Green Queen’s glory.”

            “Good.   So, what will we discuss before we wrestle in death’s embrace?”

            “Are you given much to ethics?”

            “Afraid not.   It’s not my particular field of study.”

            “What is?”

            “Epistemology”, declared the Gryphon, “The study of knowing.”

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            “Oh, then let’s discourse.   Shall we take the classic debate?”

            “How do we know we’re dreaming and that what we think is real just a series of self-created stimulus or is there such a thing a objective reality?”

            “Yes.”

            “Right.   I’ll take the grounds that are a little more existential.   I’m all in favor of assuming that life is a dream and that our views of reality are self-generated.”

            “I disagree.  Within every human or inhuman soul, I believe, is a desire for narscicisum.”

            “A love of oneself?   I suppose you believe that is wrong.”

            “Oh, it is.   A self-love obscures one’s devotion to the authorities and powers above yourself. The Queen needs a subservient knight and a warrior who’ll carry out her wishes without question.   Her views, dreams, and plans I may not know about nor agree with, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I obey and my obedience empowers those above me and, through that empowerment, they become wiser and richer and better.   Self-love, caring only for oneself and basing all decisions upon this love, is, frightfully, within all of us.”

            “I agree.   We all want ourselves to survive for our own self-preservation because our own loss will be felt, by us, the most.”

            “Exactly.  So if life was a dream, generated by myself, it would not include altruism as the chief goal of every man.”

            “Why not?”

            “It smacks in the face of my love for me.   If I was creating my own reality, I would be the hero and the God, able to accomplish anything and all of the rules, laws, and ethics would be based around me being able to have and do and say anything.   However, life is not like that.   Instead, I’m on a beach talking to a Gryphon who I must fight and lay down my life in order to protect my men.   The correct and moral thing to do, in this cosmos that is what I call reality, is the most altruistic.   If I was creating my own world, I wouldn’t have the rules to work like that.”

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            “Granted, life is full of undesirable outcomes and possibilities representing an equally undesirable moral cosmos.   However, there is a flaw in your argument.  You have made the unqualified assumption that altruism is a qualified virtue-it is not.   Rather, it is a value only by the value you’ve ascribed to it.”

            “Meaning?”

            “You laying down your life is honorable only because you have ascribed value to this action.   Whereas if I was dialoguing with a Son of Fenrest, he would see the option of his self-sacrifice as absurd.”

            “But that doesn’t work.  A Son of Fenrest is not part of a hierarchy, an order that demands obedience from it’s members and the lives of it’s warriors.   It’s a band of cut-throats.  That’s like a man born blind demanding that there is no such thing as color because he’s never experienced it.”

            “Yet, for his case, he has never seen color and, therefore, it doesn’t exist for him.”

            “Perception and interpretation is not the final authority on whether or not something exists or not.”

            “Why not?   That’s the whole crux of my argument.   Based upon my argument, I make the assumption that my perception of dreams and reality are one and the same.  Therefore, I perceive reality as a dream and a dream as a reality.   I ascribe a set of values to one and another set of values to the other.   As a result, my view of reality is based upon my set of values.”

            There was a silence.   Sir Bent’s men started to swim towards the perched Gryphon exchanging ideas with their general.   “I see we are at an impass.”

            “A noble goal for a good dialogue.”

            “For some dialogues, yes.”   Sir Bennet drew his sword.   “I quite enjoyed our chat.  It’s rare to find such intellectual stimulation out on the field.”

            “I quite agree.   You are well informed, soldier.  A bit orthodox, but informed.”

            “Thank-you.  That means a lot, coming from a learned for like yourself.”

            They both straightened themselves out and got into their battle stance.  Sir Bennent’s men began to swim closer. 

             The Gryphon shrieked with a blare that vibrated the trees, rocks, and bones of everything in the basin.   Sir Bennet gave a pronounced yawp and leaped onto the Gryphon.

            He landed on it’s belly, pulling himself up to it’s neck by grasping at it’s thick, weed like feathers.  He threw himself back and then lunged his sword into the base of its neck.  

            The Gryphon recoiled in pain.   It screamed with a gargling of it’s blood.   Sir Bennet yanked out the sword and began to hack at it like he would hack at a tree trunk.  The Gryphon snapped back into battle, lunging it’s beak at Sir Bennet.   As quick as a snake’s strike, the Gryphon had plucked off Sir Bent’s right arm.  

            His men, at first, thought that the Gryphon had grabbed a river log or a tree branch.   But the blood soon spit out of his wounds.   Sir Bent’s side became a second waterfall, not of river water but of human blood.   He quickly secured himself with his left hand and pulled himself up to the creature’s neck.   He has lost his sword in his right arm, so he was without a weapon.   However, instinct took over and he began to gnaw with his own teeth at the Gryphon’s neck.

            The Gryphon howled.   Sir Bennet tore deeper with his teeth.   More blood and gore rumbled out of the wounds.   The Gryphon began to slow down in its fury.   Sir Bennet began to chew as if he was in a pastry eating contest.  Within a few more moments, the Gryphon fell backwards in defeat and death.     Sir Bennet fell in the water with the beast.

            His men were silent.  Markham stood with his mouth wide enough to catch horse flies.   Silence.

            Sir Bennet emerged from the water, thundering from the depths like a Kracken.  His face was pale, his eyes burned, his body bloody, and arm missing.   He inhaled life.   Opened his eyes.   Silence froze the men.

            His voice charged, “Gentlemen, rest time is over!   Send a surgeon to sew up my arm!   We pack up in a half an hour!”

            Pressure was applied, he was bathed in cold water, and the bleeding stopped after enough herbs and medication was treated.   His arm was not found, Sir Bennet deemed, “That foul demon swallowed it just to get the best of me!”    After about a half an hour, the hole where his arm once had been was sewn up and Sir Bennet was put on his horse.   Dried blood was still caked on his face and his shirt was in ribbons.

            But they continued their journey.  

            Markham tried to urge Sir Bennet to turn back, “Look, your in no position to ride. You’re hurt and you’ve lost blood.  The Queen will understand, I think, if we had to go back….”

            “Look”, Sir Bennet barked, wincing from his pain, “I’m in every position to ride.  I am the Queen’s hands, eyes, and sword. It is my place, despite my present discomforts, to carry out Her will.”

            “You just had your arm gnawed off!”

            “What if I lost my ear?   Or an eye?  Would I be shirking my responsibilities then?   A toe? What if I lost a toe on the trip?  I’d be a coward, a self-interested goat to give up on the Queen’s errand.   Well, as luck would have it, I lost my whole right arm.   And the errand still remains.   Look, orders are only as good as when they are followed.   I must follow the Queen’s wishes.”

            “To the death?”

            “Oh, that’s where her orders begin.”   His eyes rattled in his fire.

            They continued on their journey.

 

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Blog 100! My Wendell Berry Trees

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Wendell Berry says in the beginning of his book “The Art of Loading Brush” that his strongest knack as a writer is in repeating himself. I can laugh at this until I consider this is my 100thpost and, reading my previous posts, I have re-mentioned a few things.  Or a few things, many times.

Berry goes over ideas he has repeated throughout his career in writing:

“I offer the following definition or characterization of agrarianism as I understand it:

1) An elated, loving interest in the use and care of the land, and in all the details of the good husbandry of plants and animals.

2) An informed and conscientious submission to nature, or to Nature, and her laws of conservation, frugality, fullness or completeness and diversity.

3) The wish, the felt need, to have and to belong to a place of one’s own as the only secure source of sustenance and independence….

4) From that to a persuasion in favor of economic democracy, a preference for enough over too much.

5) Fear and contempt of waste of every kind and its ultimate consequence in land exhaustion. Waste is understood as human folly, an insult to nature, a sin against the given world and its life.

6) From that to a preference for saving rather than spending as the basis of the economy of a household or a government.

7) An assumption of the need for a subsistence or household economy, so as to live so far as possible from one’s place.

8) An acknowledged need for neighbors and a willingness to be a neighbor.This comes from proof by experience that no person or family or place  can live alone.

9) A living sense of the need for continuity of family and community life in place, which is to say the need for the survival of local culture and thus of the safekeeping of local memory and local nature.

10) Respect for work and (as self-respect) for good work. This implies an understanding of one’s life’s work as a vocation and a privilege, as opposed to a “job”.

11) A lively suspicion of anything new.This contradicts the ethos of consumerism and the cult of celebrity. It is not inherently cranky or unreasonable.”[1]

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This is Berry’s list.  I have my own; I have faith you have yours as well.

It’s a fantastic exercise. In Berry’s list, I can see people like Jayber and Hattie, characters in his novels, along with memories of his past essays and poems. When a young person does this kind of list, it’s a Declaration of War; when an older writer submits this list to their audience, it’s a cheat sheet.  A glorious cheat sheet, mind you.

And it reminds you why reading and writing and sharing ideas through words is so human, so important, and such a blessed communion. I saw my apple trees in reflected in #3 of Berry’s list.  My apple trees remind me of the power of setting, the context of truth, and the reality of “place”, as Berry spent a lifetime showing us.

Essentially, I have Wendell Berry apple trees.

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I grew up in Northern California.  My dad grew up on farms (and on ships and apartments and parsonages and apartments — he was an Army brat), but little of the farm rubbed off on him.  I grew up with almost no agrarian tendencies.

When I became a home owner, we had a backyard. My wife was the landscaper, so she did a great job designing our backyard.  But to turn it into food, into supporting oneself, and to even use it to bless a neighborhood…it was the farthest thing from my imagination.

Wendell Berry, like so many agrarians, argue that a suburban back yard can be converted into a mini-farm that could feed them throughout the year with enough fruits and vegetables.  Hearing this, I was humbled: I could never do that!  What defined my backyard was an agrarian lack of confidence.

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I wasn’t alone in this.  Most of my neighbours and friends and elders in my churches did not practice good husbandry of plants and animals.  Most had lawns and bushes, cared for by hired migrant laborers who came in while everyone was at work, mowing and pruning and caring for the slim plots of land only to flee the moment the home owners returned[2].

I moved to Canada and gone were the day labourers. Instead, I had friends that were farmers.  Often there would be a table in the back of the church or board room filled with dirty raw fruits and vegetables. These agrarians were kind and forceful, often bringing extra bags of their produce to everyone and anyone.  If they didn’t bring these dirty bags, the food would just get wasted and that was a fate worse than death.

In this Canadian farm town, I can remember coming home from a community meeting with a large garbage bag that smelled of dirt. “Honey,” I said to my wife.  “We have 8 pounds of beetroot.”

“Why?” she asked.

“There was an agrarian that wouldn’t allow me to leave unless I took a bag.  Somewhere in his truck, he had a hunting rifle.  I think he was armed.  I did what he told me to do.”

In 2014, my family to the city and inherited 6 apple trees.  The former owner of my home had loved her garden.  She, along with three neighbours, had grown food together, canned together, and sought to feed their neighbourhood.  By the time we arrived, only one of these agrarians remained — and she died in our first fall with the hope of having “one last harvest”.

My first year, I just mowed over the apples. The trees were in my way, yielding a crop worth nothing.  I mean, if I wanted an apple, why not just buy one from a multi-national, multi-chain supermarket?

Plus, the apples were puny and small.  They weren’t the standard, systematically grown things I was used to in my grocery bag.  Some had scars and there might have been a disease on them.

Talking to my farmer friends and a tree specialist, the solution to my apples was made clear: pick them before they fall to the ground and do something with them.  That will break the chain of disease and scars.

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So, I made applesauce.  Soon, my kids became applesauce snobs: they couldn’t bear to eat the stuff in disposable containers bought from the stores.  Only the “real stuff”.   Making applesauce trained me to see the value of my apples and that caused me to give them away to friends, neighbours, co-workers, and, eventually, complete strangers.

The taste of fresh applesauce changed how I saw food, mainly because I could taste only “fresh” when it came to things from my backyard.  A friend of mine who ran a small farm outside of town invited my girls to pick peas from their hobby garden.  My youngest described the food as “fresh like applesauce”.

Getting to know my food and those who grew the food was the journey my apples took me upon.

“You’ve become one of those people.  Apple people.  People who force unsuspecting friends to take large bags of produce away that smell of dirt,” my wife warned me.  She was right: I was becoming an agrarian.

I gave a bag of my really small apples to a friend of mine and who looked at them.  “You can make bigger apples, you just have to prune your trees,” she said.

“What’s this ‘pruning’ you talk about?” I asked in my southern Californian accent.

I then learned about pruning.

It’s spring now, but I’m eyeing my apple trees that remind me everything about Wendell Berry’s list.  Soon, I’ll no longer just have Wendell Berry apples but a Wendell Berry backyard.  That backyard might make a Wendell Berry neighborhood.  That Wendell Berry neighborhood make eventually make a Wendell Berry church, informing people how to make their neighborhoods into Wendell Berry neighborhoods.

I first got into Wendell Berry because he introduced me to the notion of a harmonious church: if a church ran like a good farm, then it would be a blessing to the land around it.   As this is my 100thblog, I’ve looked back to see his writings throughout my musings about art, faith, church, and culture. Harmony is something lost right now in the 21stcentury, specifically as people think about faith and goodness and health.  This is why, more than ever, I think Wendell Berry’s farm is a powerful calling no matter where our place might be.

Being good neighborhoods.  Being kind to the land and animals.   Hating waste.  Growing health that overpowers exploitation and ruin.  Doing what is right over what is just new.  Having what you need and needing what you have.

I can’t live like this right now for it’s so new, so foreign to me.  But bit by bit, inch by inch, square yard by square yard…it’s happening.

Wendell Berry has given me a dream to love my place; for you to love your place; and for us, together, to love each other’s places as we share from each other’s prospective places.  By the way, this is more than just fruits and vegetables and farming. Farming is the practical and active metaphor (yet it MUST be a practical one, we cannot quarantine to just the abstract).

This is a dream we grow towards as we grow our place.

Or, as Wendell Berry writes:

“The order of loving care is of human making. It varies as it must from place to place, time to time, worker to worker, never definitive or final.   It is measurable by the health, the happiness too, of the association of land and people.  It is partly an ideal (remembering divine or natural order) partly a quest, always and inescapably a practice.[3]

 

 

[1]Berry, Wendell.  “The Art of Loading Brush”. Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2017.  Pg. 5, 6.

[2]An irony lost on many of my Republican, churchgoing friends was that they would have day laborers take care of their backyards, but in the evenings they would attend rallies to build walls around their country to keep these agrarians out of their neighborhoods.

[3]Ibid, Pg. 18

Writers Should Never Throw Away Anything. Ever.

In University, I enrolled in a class about writing.  The professor gave me the single, greatest piece of advice: “Never throw away anything.  Keep it.  You will use everything you got if you write for a lifetime, so nothing is wasted.  Save everything.”

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She was not encouraging hoarding, but ideas.  Store them.  File them.  Read them later.  Repurpose, re-use, and recycle them for later.  It’s only waste if you stop writing and creating.

And who would ever want to do that?

I repeated this advice years later to a friend who was just beginning to work on her doctorial thesis: “Write your dream thesis.  Make it perfect.  Then make another copy, submitting that to the academics and doctors and everyone else.  They will make changes, make it sound smart, add words, and reformat it.  Defend that 2nd document.  Get your degree.  And then go back to your original one and re-read it.  Never lose it.  Love it, for that one belongs to you.”

Never throw anything away.

Sadly, after hearing this advice, I haven’t kept everything.  As my writing got transferred from computer to computer, technology wasn’t kind to me.

I’ve lost the first novel I wrote after University due to a faulty disk.  It was a black humor, post-modern thing about doom and destruction of a river resort town off the Colorado River.  Characters are lost to me along with one of the greatest first paragraphs to a chapter I ever came up with:

 

Barbar says I’m indifferent.  Maybe I am? 

 

A simple joke, it introduce the read to the character, the problem, and the existential angst in 7 words.  As a young writer, I had an economy with words that future readers of my work no longer enjoy.  With age comes lots and lots of words…

I lost an essay, years later, I sent out as an e-mail years before I discovered the concept of blogging.  It journaled my adventures in the 2005 San Diego Comicon.  It’s lost to me in cyberspace.  I stood in line for hours to meet Bruce Campbell and Ray Bradbury.  It was also my swansong to America, for a week after the event I immigrated to Canada.  I ended the essay with Ray Bradbury’s words to me:

 

“Thank you, young man!  Thank you!  And farewell!” 

 

Can’t find that one, titled, “Escape from LA.”   Or some other title.  I don’t know, it’s lost.

But most I’ve backed up.   My dad, who lived a mostly Spartan existence, encouraged me as a boy to have a junk drawer: a place to put broken things, toys, or other items that do not have a place yet to be stored.

A storyteller gains more and more power the greater, the bigger his/her mental junk drawer is maintained.

In my junk drawer is a 360-page manuscript that is unfinished called “Saturday Morning Goddess”.    This was to be a novel of a small film study that cranked out live action children’s shows in the late 1970’s.  So much of the production stories were borrowed from Sid and Marty Krofft, along with 1970’s Geek culture that it turned more into an atlas of a “How to” make a show before video taping and the internet.  Of course, there was a monster and a supernatural villain and some horror- my brain, at the time, couldn’t just write a normal story.

Looking in the rough draft, there was a bit of almost ancient scribbling that caught my heart.  There are mistakes and it needs editing and all of that- but I keep it untouched, mostly, as a time capsule to my writing.

The then Eric was describing the show’s producer and benefactor, a larger than life character who lived in a location close to my then La Mirada home:

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            The castle was a lone mansion atop of a hill overlooking my parent’s city in La Habra, atop the Whittier hills.  Surrounded by acres and a tall, stone fence, it reminded us of the Hammer Horror movies we snuck into see when we were kids, complete with a mad scientist and monsters.   Once, when I was a young teen, my friends and I tried to bicycle up the hills and patrol the gate, to see if there was a break in the fence so we could sneak in.  We hardly made it up half the hill, before we had to turn around and exhausted. 

            Everyone, including adults and teachers, called the mansion “Frankenstien’s Castle” and used it as a point of reference.  No one knew who presently owned it, but my film editor professor told me, once he heard I lived in La Habra, that the mansion had been built by a silent movie star in Germany, known for filming horror movies leaning towards expressionist tendencies.  The actor was call Fritz Deholtz, a kind of Lon Chaney mixed with Lange.  He retired the year Germany went to “talkies”, took his fortune, and moved to California.   My professor believed Deholtz died the day World War 2 was officially over. 

            So for a week prior to my appointment, my parents and friends were eager to find out what Frankenstien’s castle looked like up close.  My father told me the story that two young college students, English Majors from a nearby Christian University, wanted to climb over the fence, but was chased away by packs of wild animals.  For revenge, they hung a sign on the wall, “Warning: do not break Xanadu’s Defenses”.   My father told me this story for three reasons:

  • He loved any story where Christians were chased by wild animals.
  • He thought it was a sign of over-education that they, in order to insult the owner, they used an allusion to Coleridge and expected the world to get the “joke”.
  • This was the closest anyone he knew got to seeing the inside of the mansion.

 

I love this because there were about three houses I knew that fit this description.  It’s also a fantastic way to introduce someone via a great, big, haunted house.

The novel never was finished, mainly because I couldn’t come up with a satifysing ending.  It was written before I outlined my novels so I had the sense of some big, supernatural confrontation at the Republican National Convention of the 1980 Presidency, but I couldn’t make it work.  Plus, why would costumed superheroines and monsters want to vote for Ronald Regan?

So, it’s there, unfinished.  Along with this passage from another Kubla Kahn:

 

  The Boar inhaled his first breath, feeling the surge of life crackle throughout his new body.   For his first moment, he shook with the electricity of being alive.  He felt nothing, least of all cold.  Later, he would have plenty of opportunity to be cold.  

            The Boar looked around the metal hallway.  Below his five paws grew patches of grass and moss.  Above his head hummed the gentle wind of the air conditioning and heat.   Down the hall, he could make out a small orb of light.  

            The creature looked around at his first sights, the world to that had created him.  Another power surge buzzed behind his ear, completing some of the last of his network.  Even though he could stand and think and feel, his development was far from complete.  He could feel the cool air from an overhead vent blow through some holes in his core.  Soon, though, his body would be solid and able to do such things as digest, restore lost cells, and regenerate. 

            That was later.  Now, the only thing the Boar could do was stand…and hunt.

            Hunt?, a single thought twitched inside of his new mind.  The teeth, the hunger, the chemicals in his saliva, his instincts, and his movement all pointed to one thing: to kill in a hunt. 

            Hunt.  After the recognition of consciousness came purpose to the Boar.   Hunt.  Kill.  Maim.  Wound.   Yes, it agreed.  This is what my life shall be.  I am, therefore I hunt.

            He lifted his snout.  Smelled the air.  Dank, metallic.   He lowered his snout to the ground.  Grass, with some mildew.  He turned around to smell.  Flesh.  Human flesh.  The flesh of a young woman.   No clothes, wet, and alone.  50 meters away. 

His programming told him of these smells; this was the first time he could experience them.  Such things as, “clothes”, “human”, and “measurement” came naturally to him, as if it was a part of his need to hunt.  This vocabulary stood as facts, nothing more, without meaning or interpretation.  They stood with only one practical application: to hunt. 

 

This is from a completed novel called “Eons to You”.   I wanted to call it “Candians in Space”, but it was too much of a leap for me to consider a future where Canada had a monopoly on space travel.  However, the heroes/heroines of the story were on a space ship and they thought mostly like Canadians; they landed on a colony that lived their lives like Americans from one of the Red States.  The conflict then occurred.

I loved the novel but could never find a market for it, so I left it in my Junk Drawer. Years ago, I workshopped it any my user group agreed on the following assumptions: 1) Great Beginning.  2) None of the characters acted like astronauts.

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I had cast Ben Folds as one of the astronauts along with Richard Pryor and a friend of mine, who was doing youth ministry at the time.  This is great about being a writer: you can put your friends with celebrities divided by 40 years of pop culture.  Perhaps if I called it “Ben Folds and Richard Pryor: IN SPACE” it would have sold better.

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Ideas don’t die, they don’t go away.  Someday, I might have a use for them: Richard Pryor in Frankenstein’s castle.  Or not.  Keep them, re-use them.  Someday, we might have a future where these settings and characters save the world.

Is Regeneration a Resurrection? Doctor Who, Easter, and April Fools Day

It’s Easter.  It’s April Fool’s Day.  And it’s the space in time between Doctor Who series.

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I’ve never been a fan of April Fool’s Day or pranks or practical jokes.  There’s a lying, truth/betrayal thing that happens that I could never get my head around.  I never could put my finger on it until TV host John Oliver described my sentiment[1].

Sure, I’ve been pranked and your job is just to smile, nod, and give the prankster enough celebration so he/she feels like they’ve got their money’s worth.  But it’s a service, an act of kindness for the other person and nothing I would ever enjoy.

April Fool’s Day isn’t terribly great, but Easter is fantastic.  Rebirth, renewal, do-overs, 2nd chances, change…all of the things fans of Doctor Who love and are used to.

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There is a cycle that happens with fans of the show.  They first watch it, connecting with the Doctor (their first Doctor) and then he/she dies.  It’s tragic and horrible and gut wrenching, but then they glow with light and change.  New Doctor, in every sense.  Now they’re stuck with the question most vividly experienced Clara with the Capaldi’s Doctor: “Who is this Doctor?  This is not my Doctor?  Is this Doctor a good man?”

Gallifreyians (the race of the Time Lords and the Doctor) has this way of cheating death.  They live a full- if not prolonged- life until they die, only to be reborn into a new person.  This new life retains the core of the original and has memory and maturity gained from the past lives.  But quirks and traits and attitudes can be different in the new regeneration.

Sometimes, this process is smooth (Patrick Troughton), sometimes the Doctor gets an incredible cold (David Tennet, Peter Davison), and sometimes the Doctor goes a bit wonky (Colin Baker, Peter Capaldi).   However, the one constant is that the person of the Doctor changes.   New personality, new face.

This is best described in Matt Smith’s regeneration as he learns what his new self’s taste buds might be:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oo2RKAHu-kI

Who am I?  Is my core good?  Can I be trusted?  What am I now?

These are the questions the asks himself/herself every time regeneration takes place.  Who am I now? How am I different and how am I the same?

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This is the journey of the Time Lord through regeneration.  It’s a big a adventure, for it asks what is the core someone and what is just window dressing to one’s personality.

Kind of exciting, isn’t it?

 

 

 

I have been a youth pastor for 13 years in California.  When I left teaching teenagers and entered into speaking to a small, rural parish in Canada, my wife previewed all of my sermons.  We both were working on making the best sermons I could give, yet I had the habit of adding sound effects to my messages.  It was a really, really hard habit to break.  I also used funny voices to act out different characters in the Gospel readings.  I had to stop that too.

During my first 9 years as a Baptist pastor, the youth pastor me would show up.  Sometimes as a welcomed guest; a lot of times, not so much.

After 20 years of being an Evangelical minister, I have entered into Anglicanism.  I am interning in a rural parish, full of folks who have been incredibly kind and supportive and patient.  They allow me to do the homily (which is different than a sermon) in the liturgical service.

And, once in a while, Baptist Eric pops up.  He’s like the newly emerging Anglican Eric, but also different.  It’s best if Baptist Eric can arrive with a warning, but that doesn’t always happen.  A congregant once remarked that the Baptist pastor came, every now and again, but she was happy when the Anglican Eric returned.

Who is Eric?  A youth pastor?  A Baptist?  And Anglican?

We, like Time Lords, have our past selves that show up, interrupt, and then vanish.  Who am I?, is often a key question.  What is my core?  Is my core good?  Am I good person?

These are important, appropriate questions as we journey from one of life’s thresholds and into the next season.  For those who recently become parents, this question- am I good mother/father- is constantly asked.  At a new job, arriving in a new country, or entering a new season is about the questions, the embrace of change.

We change; the Doctor changes.

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As we look forward to Jodie Whitaker’s change, we will be asking, “Is she a good woman?”   We don’t know, do we?   New showrunner, new musical score, now costume, new actress, new gender, new…everything.  Will the core remain?  We don’t know.

Kind of exciting, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

Is the Resurrection of Easter another way to regenerate?

Certainly, the writers of the show are aware of the similarities.  There are moments when the Doctor has been a Savior-type.  The Doctor has saved the cosmos, laid down his life for his friends, corrected injustices, defended the exploited, offered forgiveness, and spoke truth.

But is the change of the regeneration a Resurrection?

When the Doctor regenerates, he/she changes; when Christ resurrected, reality changed.

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When Christ died, was buried, and rose again- the laws of science concerning death now became mere suggestions to the will of God.  God did not find a hidden science another law or a loophole in the system for Christ to rise from the dead: no, science was science- just put on hold for Easter.

There are many theologians who disagree over what the Easter body of Christ was like.  Some argue that He was all spirit, never leaving a footprint in the sand (this is supported by the account that Jesus walked through locked doors, John 20:19-20), argued against by other theologians (Jesus inviting Thomas to put his fingers in his mortally wounded side, John 20:24-29).   I’m not entering into a discussion on these details, rather maintaining the point that Jesus was Jesus and the same Jesus the Disciples knew before the cross.  The past Jesus didn’t have to call the future, re-assuring the Disciples it’s still Him (Like Matt Smith’s Doctor to Clara).  No, everything changed around Him but Christ was still Christ.

For those whose beliefs are different than the claims of Christianity, I am seeking not to change you by bringing this up.  Rather, though, let us look at history: Christianity became something altogether new the moment of the eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection.

From the moment of the empty tomb, the followers of Jesus now can see death as something negotiable.  If a follower of Jesus does die, it is not the end (“But the end of the beginning”, as C.S. Lewis describes).   The resurrection shapes how a follower or emulator or copier of Jesus sees the world: it is now with new eyes.  There is little unrest that Jesus is a different person, rather it is an active pursuit to start seeing how much Jesus has changed the world.

In the early church, this shaped how they saw martyrdom and persecution: what’s the worst Rome can do to us?  Kill us?  They tried that once with our leader and didn’t stick.

Concerning funerals, the service is seen not as lamenting the theft of life but rather a celebration, a release from this world to the next.

And concerning biology- the study of our meat and bones- the resurrection changes the reality that there’s more to us than just our bodies.  Something inside of us moves on.   The core of who we are remains, but our reality changes around us.

Easter is not about the change of Jesus, but how Jesus changed reality.

Kind of exciting, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

[1] Here’s the link.  (Warning: he uses offensive language):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXYXuXX48m8

 

Welcome to Lent! Now Pick Something Not to Have

I am not a character in this story.  This story is borrowed from a friend of mine who wishes his identity to be hidden.

 

A pastor close to retirement was studying his Bible one morning when a random thought came to his mind: Lent is starting in a few days.

He had been recently studying the oversees exploitation of coffee growers and how “cheap coffee” takes advantage of people groups, ecologies, and economies in developing nations.  Wanting to do his part, he wondered: “What if I give up cheap coffee for Lent?”

His brother traded in coffee and was a pioneer for the “Fair Trade” market, so he called him up to score some beans.  He figured he would collect, roast, grind, and make his own coffee.  It would be a return to a simpler life, a life no longer dependent upon big business or machines or factories.

His brother, on Shrove Tuesday, brought him a burlap sack full of beans grown in the mountains of Viet Nam harvested by a displaced, aboriginal tribe.  He then asked the pastor, “So, how are you going to roast them?  The beans are raw.”   With some bartering, his brother left him two industrial sized roasters.  Just to be extra helpful, his brother also loaned him also some secondhand grinders and an industrial coffee brewing machine (a clover press).  When he his brother departed, the kitchen was so full of hardware it resembled a barista’s workplace with room only for a toaster oven and a cutting board.

The pastor’s wife came home that night after dinner and headed straight to bed.  The pastor read more about the history of Lent, the economy of charitable coffee growing, and watched for the hockey scores before he went to bed.

The next morning it was Lent and he was on fire with excitement.

He snuck into the kitchen clad only in his underwear, wanting to be quiet for his wife and because of his sheer joy of doing this new thing of home coffee roasting.

He took a scoop of raw beans and placed them on the conveyer belt for the roaster.  His eagerness made him clumsy, so a good portion of beans fell directly onto the burners.   A small explosion burst into the kitchen and a spark landed on the burlap sack of raw beans.   The bags caught on fire.

Standing in his underwear, the pastor shot to the fire extinguisher to which he misfired, dousing himself with foam.  Another spark flew, landing in the garbage can.  He was now in charge of putting out three fires.   In the midst of the heat, smoke, and fury, the smoke alarm went off.

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His wife-woken from a brilliant dream- shuffled down the staircase in slow motion until she saw the fire, the hardware, the sack of raw beans, and her husband in his underwear, covered in foam.

She didn’t ask the obvious: “What is going on here?”   Instead, she belted out an existential, “Why?”

He froze in the middle of the kitchen, like a dog caught eating leftovers from the table.  He turned to face her.

There’s a device pastors use called “the minister’s voice”.  It’s soft, gentle, and very spiritual sounding.  It comes across when you are trying to sound empathetic and sincere, yet in touch with the Divine leading of the Holy Spirit.

Standing in a kitchen with multiple fires, covered in foam, and unable to suppress a mad-eyed expression, he decided to use his minister’s voice, “Dear, I’m trying to make things simpler for Lent.”

 

 

 

 

Lent is inherited from the early, early church.  Athanasius, at Council of Nicea, insisted that the “Festival of Lent” be kept as a regular practice as the church became central, catholic, and global.  This insistence suggests that the early church was practicing Lent the first 3 hundred years of the church.

This, for me, is a startling fact.  If the original intent of Lent- to go without a specific luxury in order to get back to the heart of the Gospel- was with the early church, then what luxury did they have?  What distraction were they struggling against?

I mean, the early church was facing intense persecution.  They were fed to lions for sport, being set on fire by Nero and turned into lanterns, being sold as slaves…all because they identified with the Christian faith.  How did the early church ever have time to get distracted from the Gospel?

I don’t think, in any time while they were waiting to be fed to the lions, did a member of the early church say aloud, “You know what, I eat too much chocolate.  It’s really messed with my priorities.”

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I can’t imagine the early church dealing with a diet or a horde purge or becoming too busy with “life” not to remember the heart of their faith.

They were too busy running for their lives.

And yet, from these extraordinary first Christians, we learn the power of doing without in order to be on mission with God.

It does not exist for people to do without what they shouldn’t be having or doing; it isn’t a purge from bad things; and simply, it is not a way to correct bad habits.

A teenaged daughter of a friend of mine in the Catholic church gave up Gossip.   Her parents stated, “Honey, that isn’t a fast; that is a repentance.”

She didn’t understand and then her dad stepped in: “When it’s Easter, are you going to go back to gossiping and spend the next three days catching up on lost time?”

Fasting is when you leave alone something that is a good thing; repentance is renouncing something that is bad.  This is confusing because many people give up sweets for Lent with the desire of losing weight.  Are sweets a bad thing?  Not by themselves, unless we eat too many.   Then Lent becomes a fast from eating too many sweets, which is missing the point because you’re departing from something already bad.

Lent, in Catholic villages and neighbourhoods, became a communal event: the whole community decided not to do something together.  They fasted until Easter.  The day before Lent was to get out the last bit of crazies (IE. Mardis Gras, Shrove Tuesday, etc.). To see an excessive, out of control version of this dynamic, the movie “Chocolat” is a great example.   This is a departure from the simplicity this event fosters; it’s, in other words, a man running around, putting out fires in the kitchen without attending to the coming of Easter.

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But Lent, at its heart, is between a believer and his/her God.  If a community has a Septuagint experience of everyone in the town are called to do without the same thing…great!  However, that is a miraculous exception.  It is not entirely individualistic either: everyone is seeking to go without a luxury to them.   Lent is that quiet balance of community and personal calling, where one works with people for varied purposes.

Also, the idea of Lent is to do without something and keep it a secret.   Jesus seems to really like when we keep our good deeds secret (Matthew 6:1-16).   Letting people know for accountability is a good practice, but I would limit those who know of your Lenten fast.

If you’ve never participated in Lent, start small.  A friend of mine did without hard candy.  Another friend chose not to listen to music while in the car.  I once gave up using elevators.  The purpose of a Lenten fast is not to do something great or big and seek to outdo yourself from the previous year.  Rather, the purpose is to give yourself something daily to miss.  Once you miss that, you embrace that longing and waiting until Easter.  This leads to the million-dollar question: “What am I looking forward to in Easter?  Why is Easter such a good thing?”

Embracing “without” and longing and anticipation in, a consumer-based culture, one of the most revolutionary acts you can do.  When you teach your heart to say no to the good things offered to you is the moment you see that we can no longer be ever defined by what you buy or consume.

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In a world where product names and designer labels and signs adorn our world, Lent shapes the heart to say, “I am waiting.  Waiting for something bigger and bolder and greater.  I march on towards Easter.”

Happy Lent!

 

 

 

How to Care for Your Christian Trump Supporting Friends

 

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In these trying and uncertain times, it’s happened to you.  You have a friend who identifies with the Christian faith, affirm the ideas of “love one another” and that their god, Jesus, equally loves everyone.

And then (and this happens mostly in the US, I think), you discover they support Donald Trump.   In the kindest way possible, you ask, “But I thought you were a Christian.  I mean, don’t you try to follow the Bible and do good and all that?  How do you reconcile the Christian faith with your politics?”

These are the questions that open Pandora’s Box.  You hear about how horrible Democrats are or how bad liberals have ruined their country.  Soon, there is a magnanimous list of villains in the world, ruining everything.  You might even be on that list.  Their anger grows and grows.  Possibly, you can change the subject (“So, do you think Jodie Whitaker will make a good Doctor Who?”).  Sometimes, though, the conversation serves the litany.

You leave the conversation, hearing what’s wrong with everyone else and you still don’t know how to make sense of how someone can be so in love with the God of the Bible and also so in love with POTUS.

In Canada, many of my friends have friends south of the border (the US).  We also have maintained a long friendship with our friends, many of them deeply religious, throughout the years until recently.   Now it seems like our feeds are filled with negativity towards Obama, Oprah, Clinton, any Democratcs, or Ellen Degeneres.  Why now?, you wonder.  And why all of a sudden?   Shouldn’t Christians be better behaved?  Where is the love or faith or self- control their Bible talks about?

Our American, Christian, Trump supporting friends may need our help in finding their way and seeing how the rest of the world sees them.   Here are three ideas…

 

“Mulligans”

There have been many allegations against Donald Trump that would be career enders for any pastor or Christian celebrity (IE. Sexual assault, adultery against his wife with a porn star, Russian prostitution, etc.).  However, these allegations have been dismissed by several Christian, American Evangelicals and have been seen as minor issues, character quirks.

Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, describes this “pass” on moral failure as a “mulligan”.  If you’re like me, you don’t know golf and this is a golfing term: it’s allowance to forgive a bad swing and not count it against the overall score.  Yes, it’s forgiveness for those not in the church and spend their Sunday mornings golfing.

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Here are a group of Christian women describing this attitude better than I can:

https://www.themaven.net/beingliberal/room2/evangelical-women-porn-star-affair-okay-because-god-ordained-trump-3ZUYmxWj1E2FMZYfQXT84g

This may seem contradictory because Christians, historically, have seemed to really care about people’s personal ethics and codes of conducts.  I mean, in the past (I mean, a couple months before Donald Trump became POTUS) a Christian celebrity or pastor could lose their job for committing these sins only once; Trump has a string of allegations.

And yet, Christianity is a religion that has forgiveness as a cornerstone.

The question you might be tempted to ask would be: “Doesn’t this seem unfair?”   This might get them angry and defensive.  So please, don’t go there.

Instead, ask this: “How many mulligans do you have?”

Forgiveness is not a virtue exclusive to Christianity.  The Truth and Reconciliation Projects in South Africa sought that victims would forgive their victimizers.   Martin Luther King Jr. argued that justice cannot happen unless forgiveness is at the heart.  Yes: correction and reconstruction will only take place when forgiveness is given.  If you do not forgive, you will be tempted to become a monster to fight the monster.

Mulligans can be good.

Asking, “How many mulligans do you have?”, brings forth the bigger issue.  Does your Trump supporting friend have mulligans for their youth pastor?  You know, the guy who played the electric guitar for the Missionary Women’s Spring Tea event?  Does your friend have a mulligan for their kid’s science teacher who spent an entire week teaching about climate change?   Do they have a mulligan for you, the person who scratches their head every time Trump is mentioned?

Did they have a mulligan for Bill Clinton, when he had an affair against his wife?  When he almost lost his presidency, his marriage, and had to publicly deal with the fall-out of his sin?  Do they have a mulligan for former President Obama?  Or are they still posting about his presumed exploits on their Facebook page?

How many mulligans do they have?

For Christianity to be Christianity, forgiveness has to be for everyone.  It can’t be just for people within your party or your political beliefs.  It can’t be for some and not others.  And it also can’t just end with forgiveness.  Yes, Christ forgives all who call upon His name; but He also lovingly changes people, calling them to something better.

One way to initiate dialogue with your Trump supporting friend is to admit that you have a hard time forgiving Trump.   Be honest: talk about the hurt you have experienced or your outrage.  Before they turn defensive or angry, ask, “Could you please give me a mulligan on this issue?”

 

“I-Know-You-Are-But-What-Am-I?” 

It’s happened to me; maybe to you.

POTUS says something horrible or makes a policy that really hurts specific people in your life.  You then meet with your Trump supporting friend.  Rather than listening to you, they start ranting in defense for their party.  Soon, the conversation is about Hillary’s e-mails or Barrack Obama not saluting a marine while getting into a helicopter or something about Oprah or anything else.  Soon, it’s a spiraling lecture about how horrible everyone else has been.

You then tune out.  Inside your heard, David Byrne is dancing around against a white screen.  He’s singing: “Well, how did I get here?  My God, what have I done?!?”

It’s back to grade school.  A classmate kicks your backpack and you say, “Don’t do that.”  They respond: “I know you are but what am !?”

What does that even mean?, you wonder.

Keep in mind they’re story.  For decades, they have perceived a loss of power.  Christianity/culture/identity seemed to be in their favor, but it is slowly being lost (which is different than never having any power, as many would attest is their American experience).  Then a party comes along, promising they’ll fix everything so things will be back to normal.  Make America great again, remember?

And now they are seeing their beloved POTUS being attacked by all sides.  Anything- disagreement, protest, criticism, and ridicule-can all be lumped together as one big blob of persecution.  You may not mean any persecution or martyrdom in your words, but it can sound like it as it’s married to everything else they have heard.

You see, many wanted POTUS to be the cool guy, the powerful guy.  And he isn’t right now in America.  They’re mad.

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What do you do when you aren’t winning?  Find an enemy to blame.

It becomes a Pokemon Card Game of infractions: “I’ll play my Bill Clinton card with an intern card and a lightening bolt of indignation and a tax cut card.”   But the problem is you’re not playing Pokemon.   You just wanted to ask a question or bring up an inconsistency.

It’s the “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I” game.

In fact, there might be some of my friends who are Trump supporters and read my first section.  The first instinct might be: “It goes both ways!  The other side isn’t that innocent.”

True.  But we’re not talking about the other side.  We’re talking about their side.  You kicked the backpack.  You elected POTUS.  You are defending him, while attending your church services.  This is a problem amongst the many other problems out there in the world.

Some may have voted for him because they hated the other side so much that “it was a lesser of two evils.”  There still is a choice.  A friend of mine voted for a third party and felt he won.  “Why?” another friend asked him.  “You didn’t pick the winning President.”

“I chose who I thought was best.  I can live with that.  That’s how I won.”

Picking “the lesser of two evils” is still deferring blame to someone else.  It’s just an expansion pack of the same card game.

What do you do?

First of all, don’t be mean.  If talking about Trump, stick to his policies and his beliefs.   Leave his kids or his wife or his golf courses out of it.

If it helps, imagine him as a nice man who sings in his church choir and is a marvelous scout leader for his son.  Treat the problem as the problem.  Trump’s problems, more than likely, are not his exclusively.  If he leaves, there might be another Trump-lite or Trump XL that will come in his place.  Keep things with issues.  Also bear in mind, your Trump friends aren’t the problems either: they’re your friends.

Secondly, stay on target.   If the topic is about Trump’s foreign policies, then why mention Obama?  If the topic is about the FBI investigating Trump, then let’s not mention Hillary or J. Edgar Hoover or the 2nd gunman.  By removing the enemy card, it keeps the game on solutions rather than blame giving.

Lastly, you may just want to end the conversation.  Change the subject.  Or suggest that talking about someone poorly because you hate them is not matching their Christian faith.

 

A Republican Party

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Our Trump friends are victims of the same things we all are: tribalism.

Here’s a link on this social issue in North America:

https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/11/a-nation-of-tribes-and-members-of-the-tribe/544907/

In a tribe, you’ll forgive anything and you’ll do anything for your tribe, including ignoring your own sense of ethics.  However, if you step out of your tribe and rub shoulders with other tribes, when you re-enter you begin to start questioning things that were once norms before.

This last suggestion is perhaps the greatest threat to their devotion Trump because it’s not an argument, it’s not a win/loss, and it’s not a blog.

Simply, you are the greatest threat to their trust in Trump.   Simply you believing something different than they do and befriend them is the greatest thing you can do for them.  Simply, be their friend.

If you have other friends who are not Trump supporters, get them around your Trump friend.  This seems counter-intuitive.  I mean, if you bring your Trump friend to a group of non-Trump people, what will happen?  What crazy things will be said?  How much apologies are you going to have to make when they start spouting out all of their “America 1st” rhetoric?

But this is how democracy works in Canada and some parts of the US: mingling with people different than us.

Host a Republican Party.

Invite someone who loves the Republican Party and that is a deep, religious Christian.   Have some of your friends come who don’t tick these boxes.  And then talk, listen to each other.

By giving them a chance to be something other than an angry blogger, a locomotive breadth out to take a part all liberals might be a welcomed change.  Give them the space to be a friend, to relax into their humanity once again.

If you can, bring a Bible with you.  In a loving, gentle way ask them to reconcile the Republican Party’s stance on these issues with the corresponding Biblical texts:

  • Having a variety of cultures and perspectives on an issue (Proverbs 15:22)
  • Refugees and immigrants and Dreamers (Leviticus 19:33-34, Duet. 10:18-19, Matthew 25:25-36).
  • Socialized medicine and medi-care (Duet. 15: 7-11, James 5 :13-15, Matthew 10:8-11)
  • Peace and reconciliation (Col. 3:15, 1 Peter 3:11, James 3:18)
  • The environment’s care (Psalms 65: 9-13)

 

This is just the starter pack; there’s more.

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Your friend will undoubtedly site the abortion issue as their single issue, the thing that

makes/breaks a Christian witness of a politician.  Try hard not to be defensive on this one, but ask some leading questions like: “Why is that important for you?” or “What are some strategies beside outlawing abortion that can give women choices for life?” or “If you had an unwanted pregnancy, what would you need?” or “How does a truly just and merciful society help out women?”

By asking these questions, there might be the possibility of your friends seeing the value of social programming and socialized medicine[1].  Or not.

Bear in mind, these are not “gang up” sessions or group beat downs.   The moment you start over-sharing, your friend might get defensive.  Bear in mind, most of their culture has been fueling a persecution perspective on the rest of the world and you want to keep this a party, not a point to change them.  These parts from their Bible are used only to stimulate, not to fix.

What you are doing with their Bible is not confrontational or oppositional.  Rather, it gives them a chance to maybe have them see how they come across.  In most people’s minds, we view ourselves as easy going, reasonable people who only get angry when horrible, irrational people force their hand.

However, this isn’t how you see your Trump friend, is it?  Or their friends?  The image of the angry Christian, focussed on what’s good only for them and their tribe’s interests is a hard thing to shake from one’s gut.  By using their Bible to come to terms with the difference between who they are and who they think they are could be a huge act of kindness.  This isn’t political, but it’s highly relational.

This leads to an encouragement concerning all three of these ideas.  Henri J. M. Nouwen is a writer many Christians read.  He argued that hospitality is not for the purpose of changing people, but to give room for people to change[2].  This is what your Trump friend will need most.   They are undoubtedly terrified of a room full of liberals questioning their mulligans, not allowing them to shift blame onto their enemies, or even allowing them to match their politics against the Bible.

Plus, the “Overcrowd” approach doesn’t work because, at the end of the day, you cannot change them or fix them or make them better/worst.  Simply, they will change when they see things differently and there is a whole host of issues they may be in their perception filter (IE. Beliefs, family dynamics, past choices, trauma, or/and education).

The idea to tie this all together is that you cannot change your Trump friends; only be their friends, allowing your friendship with them be an act of revolution.   When our world shouts for winning and losing, borrow something from their Christian faith of inclusion, understanding, and empathy.

This may mean listening, allowing them to share, working alongside them, and have them team up with a bunch of liberals.  That’s okay: for it seems to be the missing ingredient in our trying times of political discourse.

[1] Also, bring up some statistics that abortions actually become much lower during a “liberal” Presidency.  Clinton and Obama boast of lower abortions.  https://qz.com/857273/the-sharpest-drops-in-abortion-rates-in-america-have-been-under-democratic-presidents/ Why?  Although they maintained a pre-choice friendly stance, they invested in social programs that reduced the perceived need of abortions.  This is not a parry/riposte.  Rather, it is to share the idea that Democrats and Republicans, if the issue is re-imagined, may want the same things.

[2] Found in his book: “Reaching Out”.

Of How Tom Maven Became Jewish Born

This is an excerpt from a unpublished novel.  It’s a story where 3 young adults mysteriously jump from the year 1666 to 1920, in an alternative version of our Earth.   Disorientated, they try to figure out a way out Germany and to America.  This is a set-up for this family’s involvement with espionage against Nazi Germany and the darker, alien forces behind the Third Reich.   This section is about Tom’s conversion to Judaism which sets the path for him (and his son) to defend the “People of the Promise” against forces seeking to destroy them.   

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I was married to the “Sex Mother” in my neighborhood, when my boy was entering his teen years.   Not that she has sex anyone but me- for Brenda is the most honorable and chaste woman I had ever met- but that she is, by far, the most attractive woman on our block, let alone in the entire city of Whittier, California.

The term “Sex Mother” is then not a means to describe an over-active proclivity, rather it embodies the dreams, aspirations, and longings of all of the boys in our then neighborhood, if not the entire city of Whittier.

And Brenda Maven, my Brenda Maven, was a “Sex Mother”.

I learned of this one day, many years ago, when I was picking up our teenage son from baseball.  He was fifteen and was going, in a last ditch effort, to try his hand at sports.  Soon, his plate would become filled with comic books, fencing, and learning dead languages to put aside such attempts.  This was the Spring of that innocence, before he put away all such childish nonsense such as baseball, apple pie, making lots of money, and blending in with the American dream.

Before he plunged completely and without abandon into a dreamer and a duelist in the 20th Century, he was on a baseball team and my job, with our family’s Woody, was to pick up his friends and drive them from a game and drop them off at their homes.

The car was sweaty and ripe with moisture.  Panting like basset hounds, this troupe of boys spit out half-sentences and partial stories dressed up as a real conversation.  The thesis, I gathered, of their chatter was girls and what would happen to all of the pretty girls they knew in, say, five years time (a measurement that was the furthest they could plan at fifteen year olds).

Most of the pretty girls were to be underwear models or movie stars, no exception.  Some they figured would turn fat and, for the purpose of their conversation, deemed useless.  Some, or rather a few, would become mothers.  Yes, mothers.  And what kind of mothers would they be?  Just normal, apron women.  Unlike that “Sex Mother” who lived on Greenleaf.

“The ‘Sex Mother’?” Peter, my boy asked.

“Yeah,” their ring leader said and then described, quite vividly, Peter’s mom and my wife.  He had my wife down to her dress measurements (although, truth be told, he inflated her bust size).

I was then struck by two minor details and one major one.  First, the minors: in five years time, they expected their fifteen year old sweethearts to turn into my 40 year old wife and secondly, how did this pervert guess my wife’s waist to the inch?

These minor points of interest soon faded into the most important realization of the day, if not year: I’m married to the “Sex Mom”!

That night, I told my wife before I blew in several scattered, anxious pieces.  Fully expecting my declaration of her being the “Sex Mom” to end in, well, sex, I was confused to find her quite mad.  Mad, not just at me, her husband, who should have defended her honor, but at the entire gender of men.  “Why should I defend your honor?  Those boys were paying you the highest compliment they could come up with?”

“Wanting to sleep with me?” she asked in a shrill bark.

“The boys aren’t Jesuit Missionaries,” I said and then I added a phrase which did little from my rescue on having a night on our couch but did everything to describe the world of 1666 I came from.  “Plus, not every mom is as attractive as you are, Brenda!”

I was, from that moment, cast to the pit, the doghouse, the river of Styyx for crimes worthy of being a pervert, a coward, a bad egg, a…well, a man.

Brenda didn’t know how heartfelt that admission was for me to state that not all mother’s were as attractive as Brenda.  Especially, in my boyhood home of the 17th Century!

My own mother was a hag.  She wasn’t the town hag, but all of her peers and friends were hags and they accepted her application for membership based upon her cronish looks, the warts on her face, the missing teeth, her disdain for education, and the fact that she never spoke but shouted throughout her life.

My mother smelled of carrots and horse dung, wearing the same dress and woolen cap she wore probably on her wedding day.  Pear shaped in body, bulbous in the face: long arms, fat with lard and fearful of movement so she marched through the town like a primate.  She stared at you the way a wall studies your face as opposed to you studying the wall.   Blank, hollow, and angry: this is how my mother lived her days in our little village, a small suburb of the mighty Frankfurt back in the days before city’s had suburbs.  She was constantly angry or scared or tired, rarely happy or pleasant or, for that matter, asleep.  She rose before the Angels and was probably the one yelling at God to go bed at night.  I never saw her sleep: she was always prattling around our one room apartment, yelling at me father or at the neighbors or, more often than not, the poor pedestrians passing by our clock shop.

I’m not sure why mother was so discontent, other than it most have been in vogue for the German women of the mid-17th Century.

Brenda certainly is not an angry woman.  She got angry, but it was always like a train passing: a quick roll in order to clear the tracks for other activity.   And Brenda with her tight fitting sweaters, her incredibly blue eyes, fiery red hair, and curves was nothing close to haggish.

As a boy, I wondered how my father survived my mother.  Years later, I figured out his two secrets: he had me and he had the excuse of taking extended trips away from the house with me.  After I escaped in time, I learned he died five years afterwards and my mother survived him by forty years, although she never could seem to re-marry.

He had me.  All of my childhood, he had me in his clockmaker,s shop, having me working on gears and cranks and repairs.  The only time he ever stood up to my mother was when she beamed with pride, saying, “He’ll run the shop someday and will make us lots of money.”  My father simply told her he was to be other things and that his time in the shop was for other purposes.

My father was quiet, kind, and never sat still to have a conversation.  Certainly, he talked to people…but always fiddling with something or making something or simply writing.  He listened and he tinkered, with often times the thing he tinkered was worked into what he was talking about.

My quiet, kind father travelled quite a bit, which I think saved him from the row of hags that populated our tiny village.  He never went far, but far enough to be gone several weeks and he always took me with him.  My mother never knew truly what he did other than business, for he brought back bags of coins that was five times our gross income of the clock shop.  He told me, when I was young to track his mind on the subject, never to speak of our travels to my mom or to anyone in the town.  The hags need not know, he essentially said in his kind, quiet way.

Our travels took us to see the Jews.

Georgica Curiosa 1682 - Noble Land + Country Life a

Way back then, usury was seen as an evil and a corrupter and an immoral thing.  And yet, without a loan or lend, no one could buy anything.  The Jews, whom had the money and would be willing to kindly finance most ideas, were hated so much for having money and loaning it to people, they were forced to live in ghettos and small communities outside of the protection and safety of the great city states.  Plus, if anyone went there to make money, they would be labeled a friend of the Jews and be forever cast off.

My dad was definitely a friend of the Jews and the ones who told me how horrible were these people were from the row of hags and old crones that populated my village.  So who would you listen to: your dad or the hags?

The Jews weren’t evil.  They were kind, full of laughter and music.  We would spend a week in their segregated communities with a sign that almost hung “Sack us first before the city”.  They drank, oh did they drink.  Never drunk, mind you, but they drank as if they intended to get drunk, amassing more wine than one ingests water.  They sang, strange Yiddish tunes that had built in dance moves.

All of the women were beautiful, I must say.  And they all wanted to dance with me, the young little Goyam brought by his papa.   The old women fed me eight square meals a day, wondering I survived being so skinny.   The girls would run over to me, sneak a kiss, and hide for the rest of our visits, forever giggling.  They brought us into their prayers, their readings, and their ceremonies.  I didn’t understand a lick of it, but respected every second of it (a skill I currently apply to abstract art).

These were communities of magic.  At night, the old men would tell the children stories about wandering Golems who drink the blood of kids who sass their parents and don’t memorize their Hebrew verses.  The whole communities would turn silent on Saturdays, warding off the demons of hard work, anxiety, busyness, and commerce.  And in these communities, God’s name was greatly loved and revered and never spoken.

During one of these when were returning back home, I asked my dad as he fiddled with the whip to the horse that pulled our wagon.  “How do I become a Jew, dad?”  I was quite young and believed anything was possible.  To dash my dreams, he said that I would have to be born a Jew.

I then endeavored to make it my life’s aim to be born a Jew.

So when I left for University and was spit across time, laying naked and scared in a field that existed centuries from my previous and real time, the first things out of my mouth was not a string of profanity, as in Williams’ case.  Or the cry for our girlfriend, Isodore, as was Jan’s case.

No.  My first utterance was simple.  “I wonder if there are any Jews around?”

 

Ever wake up 260 years in the future?  Of course not.   That’s a leading question.

I awoke on a field, a mile out from Heidelberg’s town limits.  The great “A-Ha!” moment for me was when a truck, a BMW no doubt, came rolling in front of us.  We stood up and I waved to this big, metal beast.  Why?  What else was I going to do?  I was now in a new world and how do I know I might need that BMW truck as an ally further on down the timeline?

The truck honked at me, reassuring that this new world wasn’t entirely unfriendly.  Then I heard William cuss again and I realized what bothered our Scottish brother so much: the three of us were stark naked.

Okay, this is what the new world is like: trucks, on their own and without coaxing from their authorities, feel free to honk a hello at naked men by the side of the road.

Not a bad, new world.

We got ourselves up and found a young couple, drinking beer on the grassy glades overlooking the city of Heidelberg.  They were cuddling and quite drunk.  The girl stammered something in words that reminded me of our village idiot: the grammar was a mess and the syntax was mad with the fever.

Which reminds me.  I now educate young people and everyone of my co-workers moans and bitches and cries and whines about our young people’s murder of the English language.  I then keep my secret: my mother tongue is 260ish years old and far superior to the bastardization of the language we call common today.

Nonetheless, the drunken couple tried to make sense out of us-three naked guys- and we tried to make sense out of them-people dressed and acting like they were from the 1920s.   Suffice to say, there were social barriers.

The drunken couple didn’t mind so much.  The lady asked William to sit down next to her, whereas Jan and myself enjoyed the company of the young man.

We could speak German, certainly, and the High German we knew wasn’t altogether alien to the German in the 20th Century.  It helped that my father did teach me English and French, so I had a common use for those languages that was remarkably close to the dialects I’d be running into that nearer future.  My dark secret while in University was that I couldn’t read German, only English, and couldn’t speak Latin or Greek.  Luckily, the 20th Century didn’t demand that young people, while drunk in the meadow, had to converse exclusively in a dead language.

The young man sold radios out of his truck and, seeing our nudity, felt sorry for us and decided to give us one, along with his hat.  I carried the radio, Jan wore the hat since he insisted he was the most bashful out of the three of us.  We left the couple after an hour, with William getting a long and extended hug from the woman.

As we walked away, William complained about her dress and how immodest she was: wearing pants that showed the shape of her legs and hips!  Didn’t she have parents?  Wouldn’t people talk?  He had forgotten, mostly by shock, that we were three naked men from out of time, carrying a radio and nowhere to plug it in.

We decided not to go into town, feeling that we would stand out on every cosmic level.  So we remained naked: it fit our mood, our helplessness.

That night, we broke into a nearby barn and slept in the hay.  About midnight, a bachelor farmer came into check in on a noise we made.  Without assumption or judgment, he told us to get into his house and get some of his clothes on.

The farmer was sent from heaven.  I still think he had a screw loose or was suffering from Alzheimer’s because he never once smarted over the fact that we were naked, spoke in an old tongue, or didn’t understand basic things like electricity, coffee, or canned foods.

The next morning, he fed us a breakfast of pork and beans.  He said we should stay and work on his farm with his son.  For the three weeks we worked, we never saw his son.  He warned us that the horses were mean tempered.  He had no horses.  He also warned us that trolls stole your boots while you sleep at night.  Looking back, my heart believes only that piece of advice.

I hate farms.  My father hated farms.  Now that I teach at California State University in Whittier, I am surrounded by farms and Quakers.  The Quakers I don’t mind so much, but the smell of cows and their crap and the hay reminds me of that crazy man’s farm.

My mom, the hag, lived on a farm and resented that my father built and fixed clocks.  She would have been aghast by our trips to the Jewish ghettos, yet she didn’t mind all of the money we brought back.

My father’s purpose was simple in these trips.  Everyone hated the Jews and didn’t want to be seen around them, but they needed their money.  So my father would come with half a dozen requests and broker the deals.  He’d be paid a cut of the financing and bring back the loan.

Looking back, I was always surprised that we weren’t attacked by masked highwaymen or taken advantage of by any of the Jewish bankers.  Never happened.

It helped that my father was a very big man.  I would mention that he was a volunteer constable as means to describe his imposing stature, but in truth every male was a volunteer constable.

Simply the job meant that if you saw something illegal happen right in front of you, you said, “Hey, knock it off!”  If the assailant disagreed, all of the men around you came over and gave the crook a good licking until he stopped.  This form of law enforcement has stuck with me, making more sense than the 20th Century idea of Policemen who roam the streets, allowing the common citizens the freedom to ignore crimes happening in front of them.

He was a big man, but he trusted the universe and it seemed the universe felt obligated to catch up with his optimism.  The Jews, for all of their bad press, never took advantage of them.  Why would they?  For some villages, he brought with him money for half a year’s wages.  He was Father Christmas!  And they treated me like one of his elves.

None of them farmed, but they all had farms and did their cooking in community.  I loved that and one of the things I missed most from the ancient world were those lavish meals.   But I was able to escape the farm when I was in the 17 Century, but not in the 20th Century.

We wore the son’s clothing-with the warning that the imaginary boy might want them back at any moment- and worked with the old man’s pigs.  By day, we talked with the old man and learned his German.  By night, we listened to our radio and picked up everything we can about this New World.

Only once did we let ourselves become overwhelmed by our situation.  It was on the sixth day of our new situation, after a long and horrible day of rain and work.  Jan started us all off, his anxiety becoming a contagion.

“What are we doing here?” he cried out a question we all couldn’t answer.  “This world has flying machines.  Steam power boats the size of my papa’s farm.  Factories that make bread.  And Germany is it’s own country.  By the way, what is a country?”

“Something has happed,” William said coolly.  “That has dramatically changed our lives.  Something unexplained and without warning.  We live, presently, in a situation outside of our control.  And the things that led us to this situation could happen again, changing everything without our say or without warning.  We don’t understand even 1/10 of this world.  We may never leave this farm.  And we are all but alive.”  William then slowly took a long drag of his cigarette, a recent habit he had picked up.

“And all of this is supposed to make me feel better?” Jan cried.

“No,” William said in a paternal tone.  “I am panicking along with you.”  Suddenly, I saw inside of the Scotsman.  He smoked, he mused silently and now he gave us all a guided tour of his terror.

“I have no skills, no trades, no guild memberships, and no family,” Jan continued.  “How am I going to have a life here?  How are you two going to make it?  We might as well be thieves.  Steal one of those machine guns and rob slow moving trucks on this Autobahn we hear about.”

“We might as well,” William said with a relaxed shrug.  “This world is too chaotic.”

“Everything is in chaos.  I hate this world.  Where is Isodore?”  There were tears now in Jan’s eyes.  “Why didn’t she come with us?  Grimmelhausen, the crazy man, died, so his body is probably still back in the cellar.  But where is Isodore?  Where is she?”

“She is lost to us in this darkened world of ours.  She is lost.  And so are we.  We are doomed.”

I was in my own world at that moment, a fabulous place I spend most of my time.  I was reading a book the farmer had, one of these pulp novels from America he stumbled by and decided to give it to me.  It was about a man, John Carter, who woke up on without explanation on Mars and fell in love with a naked, Martian princess.

By magic, he traveled.  “We live in a land of magic,” I said in the midst of their tears and crying.  “And I think it’s great!  My papa told me to go to school to see the world, he wouldn’t have planned for any of this.  This is great.”

I then looked up from my little dime store novel and there was a such a palpable rage the next moment, I fear, could be my last.  William looked as if he were to pick up an axe and strike me dead with it; Jan was going to cry me to death.

“Oh, fiddlesticks,” I said as I dog-eared the book, a skill I learned from our crazy host.  “I know what this is all about.  Jan is a sensible, clear-headed fellow and, because of that, he just figured out that we haven’t been falling a part as much as we should be.  Yes, we’ve experienced a miracle by jumping several centuries in the future.  And we’ve been all quiet calm about it.  So if it helps, scream and cry and say we’re all doomed.  For me, I love every second of this world.  And we haven’t seen it.  I mean, this farm is like the farms back in the old world.  Other than a radio and going to the market, we don’t know how scary this place might be.  So let’s have our ‘case of nerves’ and crisis of doubt tonight, tomorrow let’s get out into the world.”

“There’s a rather good reason why I am having my case of nerves,” Jan said and then let out a litany of everything that was wrong, often times repeating himself two or three times.

And then I realized my mistake.  I was speaking facts and logic into a moment incarnate with emotion and raw fear.  I do this too much with Brenda, who decides to come home and panic over the color of our family’s toast; I speak and then become the worst husband on the planet…exclusively only for three hours.  Being reasonable can be it’s own death sentence while the rest of the world needs to go insane for a few minutes.

I didn’t know much about people being uncontrollably frightened and choosing to hate everything, so I continued to read while William and Jan had a dandy old time expecting a personal apocalypse to happen any second.  After finishing the book, I went to sleep with the sounds of Jan sobbing and crying.

The next morning, Jan woke me up ready to work a hard day’s labor feeding pigs.  And as soon as I woke up, he agreed to my plan: leave the farm and get out into the world.

There was just one problem.   William was missing.

For two solid days we stuck with the farm, expecting William to return.  He never did.  The farmer’s cookie jar packed with his wife’s jewels had been emptied, along with a handwritten note simply reading, “Please forgive me.”  And to that end, William had disappeared.  Had he gone back in time?  Was he with Isodore?  It would take us years to learn his side of the story.

 

Brenda’s eyes were the first things I noticed.  Almost green, but would still be registered as blue.  Deep blue.  They shone, I kid you not.  Shone and radiated and lit up a dark room.  Then I noticed her nose: slender, perfect, and slightly regal.  Her hair, deep red.  Then her body, the same curves and lines that inflamed the young people of Whittier was in full force in the twenty year old version of herself wearing sopping wet wool of her grey tweed.

She stood atop our library’s rolling ladder, reaching up for a book of Jewish Poems and Fables.  She called down to me, “Excuse me, but is this all you have for mythology of the Jewish people?”

I couldn’t talk.  The very sight of this young goddess induced me to a siren stupor, slowly turning to stone in the presence of her fragrance.

Was it love?  How does one measure love, really?  Lust is pretty easy: your body gives you signs, your heart feels hollow and hungry, and you turn mad for a few seconds.  And lust, certainly, can exist in the same room as love.  I love my wife now, certainly, and I can find myself lusting after her when I catching bending over into the kitchen’s sink or catch a flash of her freckled beasts as she gardens.

Did I go mad with lust and exclusively lust when I was at the base of our library’s ladder, looking up at her sculpted calves and high heels?

To be honest, I wasn’t making such distinctions at that moment.  I didn’t care.  I couldn’t think, breathe, or move.  Brenda and everything of Brenda commanded all of my space and time.

“Sure we do,” Jan said from the counter, obviously not cluing in that Brenda had just come into our library.  “Don’t you have a horde of Jewish myth books at your desk, Tom?”

She scampered down and seemed quite eager.  “You have a horde?”

“Mee-yak-tiller-deee!  Yakety-yakety!  Bubble soda!  Bubble soda,” I said to her immediately and confidently.  No, wait.  I didn’t say any of those things: I only thought them.

Instead, I said something quite supernatural and beyond my human strength.  “It’s a bit of a hobby of mine, Jewish Mythology.  I had some very fond and wonderful childhood memories of some Jewish communities and, well, they came alive to me when I read about Jewish myths.”

“Interesting,” she said with an invitational smirk.  “I also had many childhood memories pertaining to Jewish communities that come alive, presently, by reading myth.  I am a Jew and currently live in an Orthodox community.”

A Jew?  Bubble-soda, bubble soda…

My exterior, however, was cool and calm.  Whenever this takes place, I found it was always important to act like Robert Mitchum, even though I wouldn’t know who he was until years later.  Shrug lots, shift my weight slowly from one side to another, an act slightly bored.  Meanwhile, inside, bubble-soda…

“Here,” I said as slow as possible.  “Let me take you to my horde.”

“No,” she said as she smoothed out her skirt with her index fingers.  “Give me one book.  I’ll read it and come back for another.  If you would like and it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you, maybe you could share a few words on the subject.  And now, what is the best and greatest book of your horde?”

I gave her a book named simple “The Golem”, written by an unknown Rabbi on the year my mother was born.  It was the darkest and most peculiar of all the books.  Don’t ask me why I picked the hardest book to drink down, other than it was my favorite and I, so desperately, wanted it to be her favorite too.

And it turned out to be and when I found out, a week later, I was thinking gibberish for the months following.  At that moment though, she mechanically checked it out and seemed not to notice my eyes seeing her curves to the door.

When Brenda left, I shouted to only other employee of the New York City Public Library Annex #11, “Jan, I am in love!”
“Of course you are in love,” Jan said, sorting through the dewey decimal cards.  “That’s why we got this gig.”

Oh wait, I jumped ahead again, didn’t I?

Everything is connected and the meeting of Brenda is connected to the disappearance of William that is connected to the German farms, which was our first 20th Century home.

How so?  Working in a New York City public library was not a farm and the farthest thing from a farm Jan and I could decide.  We had heard about New York City on the radio and it sounded like it was the center of everything, like our world’s Paris or Rome.  We figured we needed to get over there, believing William was out of our grasp.

How?

First we thanked the farmer for letting us live with him for a few weeks.  Later, I sought to wire him some money as a means of saying thanks but he had passed away soon after our departure.  For this old guy, welcoming three naked men was his last, great act of charity and looking at humanity, he did more than most with that act of compassion.

Next, we made our way to Frankfurt.  We hitched a ride on a train and then traveled with a truck and, finally, made our way to the big city.

The place was overwhelming, I must admit.  Jan and I were rendered mute for two days as we walked the streets, seeing how people were dressed and talked and spoke.  And the noise!  The modern age has brought a static so loud, so great that it drives people across the asphalt, across the sidewalks.

We made it and, the first night we arrived there, we joined the circus.

The German circus was in a pinch: they were getting ready to go New York to perform and an elephant crushed to death, hours before we arrived, two of their workers.  They needed two bodies fast and they pulled us off the streets.  Say, they asked us, how would you like to go to New York?  New York?, sure.

That was the great miracle that got us across the Atlantic.  I assumed the identity of the first worker, keeping my given name and taking his last name, Maven.  Jan became Til Morgenstein, but kept his name the moment we got through the very clumsy, very disorganized port authorities.

A few months later, we were in New York with the Great German Circus.  We worked for six months, learning New Yorker English and saving all of our money.  We lived underneath the bleachers of the big top and, during the days, let them work us like dogs.  Hard work seemed to really invigorate Jan; it tired me out, getting me to dream.

We wanted to be University students; let’s go back to school, get real jobs.

Jan didn’t want to move: scooping up Elephant crap and peanuts was steady, reliable work.  Plus, they were going to shove off to Iowa soon.  Didn’t I want to see Iowa?

No, not really.  You see, years later I saw a film that described New York’s impression to me.  It was the German film “Metropolis”.  I saw it first run in the theaters and then, every other time I’ve seen the film it felt like it was always missing parts from that first release.  Regardless, the movie shows a grand, exuberant view of the future with flying cars, beautiful women, machines in the shape of temples, sprawling walkways, and brilliants robots.  That film was for the 20th Century folks of what the future might be; for me, New York was this futuristic city unfolding before my eyes in present tense.   I didn’t need to dream of the future, I was in the future.

And I never believed that Iowa could somehow be in the world’s future: too much like the 17th Century.

So, no Jan, we’re not going to Iowa.  We’re getting smart and getting jobs.  We can do it.  We’ve been classically trained, by the hardest schools in the history of time.  Let’s now become educated.

So I got us jobs in the library, so we could be surrounded by books to read and figure out life as we were saving for school.  Jan learned the art of forgery, so we doctored up our High School Diplomas and our transcripts.  Jan de Willier and Tom Maven were from Texas and we soon were to be enrolled at Princeton.  We had the marks!  We had the papers!  And, at that sad time in America’s relationship to the first World War, they were short young people.

The plan was set in motion and was running full steam until Brenda walked into our library.

“Did you see her?” I asked Jan as I hit him hard.

“Yes,” he said, still thumbing through the cards.  “And the moment I heard she was Jewish, I knew she was off limits to me.”
“How kind for you to think that way of the future Mrs. Maven,” I said brightly.

Jan laughed, the kind of quiet chuckle that said heaps of things like “you’re crazy”, “I can’t believe I have to suffer with this idiot”, and, “take me now, Jesus”.  I sprang up on his desk, planting my knees in a solid kneel.  The desk, his desk, could support the weight of only 140 pounds and, luckily, I was only 131.

“Jan,” I shouted with my hands wild in the air.  “I am in love.  There will be no other girl than this dame!”

We were trying, throughout that first year of our new lives, to work in as many idioms as possible.  The 20th Century was a land of jingles, idioms, and slogans: 200 hundred percent more than our little Baroque world.  For that night, Brenda was a Dame and it was a title of honor.

“Tom,” he said quietly.  “It’s impossible.  She’s impossible.  Marrying her is impossible.  Stop it, let’s focus on what is possible.  Girls that are possible.”

“How dare you speak to me of what is impossible?  We were born 200 something years ago!”
Jan looked genuinely annoyed with me as he stopped counting his white cards.  He pursed his lips as he asked, “When are you going to stop using our accidental flight through time and space as a justification for any hair-braned, illogical scheme of yours?”

“Our time expedition isn’t something one easily gets over,” I said back to him, without a pause or hiccup.  “Why, my friend, is it impossible?”

“She’s Jewish!”
“So what?”

“There are rules,” Jan barked back to me.

“Rules can be bent.”

“Jewish rules.”

“A rich and valuable tradition!”

“Jewish rules forbidding Jews to marry non-Jews.”

“Oh, says you!”

“And the Torah!  Look, I didn’t make this up.  Look at the Holy Book.  They marry their own kind.  It’s a rule, a law.  And if she’s Orthodox, that kind of means she takes those Laws a lot more serious than those who dabble and trickle and flirt with the religion.”

“Perhaps she backsliden, you know?  She’s spinning in a crisis of faith?  You know, all that ‘Fear and whatever’ from Kierkegaard?”

“And would you respect a woman who wavers in her faith?  Would you love a backslider?”

“I love her now!  Respect has nothing to do with it!”

“Ah, forget about it!”

We lived in a Jewish part of New York and believed all Americans, at this point, talked like how we were carrying on.  We’d see Rabbis and fruit salesman and women, all shouting at the tops of their voices, throwing their hands up in the air.  We certainly didn’t want to fight with each other, but we thought that loud, public arguments was the American way of life.

Much later, when Jan came to live in Canada, he adopted a slow-speaking Albertan accent, a drawl matching more of his character.  Funny, at that time, we were trying so desperately to fit in, to blend in with anyone and everyone with the base of absolute ignorance.  I half-expected, any moment, a member of the time police to march in and accuse of cosmic interloping and send us back to the farms of the 17th century.  Please, not the farms…

“It’s a dead cause,” Jan said.  “Stick to studying.  We’ve got to pay for our classes in two weeks.  Keep your mind on the plow.”

The plow was the library and it was rare for Jan to call me back to work.  Simply, I got the feeling that if I wasn’t lighting a million and one fires allover his world, he wouldn’t even attend a class.  But he did.  The boy graduated not only with a BA in Religious Studies, but a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Old Testament Literature…all in five years time.

How?, you ask.

Well, the studying was easy for us.  Remember, we were Renaissance Men so our brains were trained to hold massive amounts of information, all at once, and be able to apply it quickly.  We found school in the 20th Century easy because we could study in English, take in a study group, and call up most of our instructors for help: try to do that in the 17th century!

Secondly, most of what we were tested on we already knew.  For Jan, he was classically trained in religion; for me, I got a PHD in Jewish Myth and Folklore with a MA in Baroque History and a BA in World History.  I didn’t study these things, I had come from this field.

Thirdly, the War to End all Wars (followed by the final war of the world) had wiped out most of the men who would attend these classes.  The whole school, it seemed, had quota to make of a certain number of graduates, so they lowered their standards for all of us.  It was already easy, but a cake-walk for us two.

Lastly, tuition was free for us.  Let me explain that marvel.  The week after I met the love of my life, Brenda, we went into the registrar’s office at Princeton.  We had enough for the down payment of one semester for one of us.  We left it to chance for the first one of us the registrar would look at, ask, “May I help you?”, would go to school for that semester and then we’d take turns.

So we marched there and she asked Jan for his name.  Crestfallen and happy for Jan, I watched as he gave her his name and she went in the back in her records room.  She came back with my folder to and asked both of us for our class list.

“Excuse me?” I asked.  “Only Jan is going to school.”

“Why?” she asked through her cats’ eye, wire rimmed glasses.  “Both semesters are paid for.  In fact, everything here in Princeton is paid for.  There’s been a very large treasury given to the school with the understanding that you can get everything you need.  And whatever money is left over shall be given to the library.”

“Who gave this money?”

Who knew we were here?  Who was pulling the strings?  Tobias died, Isodore vanished, William ran away, and the rest of our new friends were all broke.  My mind turned over and turned over every possible lead for our mysterious benefactor.  If anything, we were absolute nobodies.  And yet, someone gave money to the school for our studies.  I couldn’t move, my brain spinning the rolodex of names and nothing came up.

Luckily, Jan took the lead.  “How many classes can we take?  What’s the limit?”

“We recommend that first semester students take about 16 units,” she said in a rehearsed near song.

“But can take more, can’t we?  30 units?  40?”

“You can take up to 24 units.”

“Deal,” I said.  “Fill us up.”

Only years later, did we find out who was our mystery benefactor but it did not come to me that day, as we registering for classes and I was caught in a stupor of wonder.  In fact, we took as many classes as we could, fearing that the money might somehow run out or be withdrawn.  Not a chance, for I heard only after I got my P.H.D. that they were building a small wing in the literature department with the remaining funds.

If I wasn’t walking on clouds after registry already, my fate was sealed to find Brenda, the woman Jan declared impossible for my own protection, was waiting for me back at work.  She was even more radiant dry then soaked with rainwater.  Her skin pink and without blemish, she glowed in the darkness of our dismal annex.  She sat with my loaned book opened, waiting for me to have a quiet, gentle discussion.

We visited for a polite twenty minutes and she set up another reading date.  And then another.  And another.

“What kind of woman sets the appointments with men?” I asked in a cry to Jan after Brenda left.  “She is the one who invites me back, she is the one who visits me.  Women don’t didn’t do this in my farm town and I don’t think they do this today!”

“And Orthodox Jews don’t do that, Tom,” Jan said.

I couldn’t explain it, other than I really, really liked it.

Brenda was polite, but never shy.  She told stories as often as we read them, drawing in a point or a question.  When she got excited about a particular point or idea, she would gesture wildly in the air, allowing flash reveals of the skin under her blouse or skirt.

Love or lust?  I was never sure.  She was achingly beautiful, that’s all I knew, and she spoke about goblins, Jewish maidens, magical mid-wives, and golems with a greater knowledge than most of my professors.  The University was where I got the credit for my degree; Brenda was my real teacher.

I, at first, didn’t know how to deal with this angel.  Should I be the one teaching her, taking the higher vantage in our visits?  No, I couldn’t.  I harbored such an unbelievable secret that made me a babe in the woods that would make me slip the moment I put myself on any pedestal.  Should I silent?  No, she didn’t let me do that.  Her Jewish world had perfected Brenda’s skill of opening new worlds with a simple question or gentle challenge.  She could make the simple multi-dimensional and the seemingly complex be shrunk to a simple statement followed by a question mark.

How then, I wondered, do I talk to her?  I didn’t have an answer.  Instead, I just talked and wondered if I had scared her away by being simply Tom.  And then, the next few days, she would return for her next scheduled appointment.

For nine months we met without breaks.  One night, however, our meeting came to a head.  Brenda came late, her hair tangled and it looked like she had spent hours outside in the cold, crying.  After a few moments she shared that she had, in reality, spent several hours outside in the cold and the wind and she had been crying.  Without any mastery of reading into the secret, hidden ways of women, I asked, “But why?”

“My father is a Rabbi, a teacher of the law for our community.  We are a strict group of families whom holds the Torah is high regard.  We are a Jews’ Jew, an example to the rest of the people of Israel in our regard to G-d’s laws.  I have embraced my community’s beliefs, never bending or yielding to them.  My world is one of Sabbaths, of special foods, of ritual, of waiting for the M-ssiah, and for communing only with my own kind.”

“Sure, sure,” I said, patting her knee.  “I get all of that!  I have never stopped to consider that you jumped off the train or let loose your faith in G-d or H-s people.  What, then, is the problem?  What’s wrong?”

At that moment, she planted the greatest and most passionately kiss I have ever received.  Perhaps no had ever gotten one like that, full of hunger and pain and passion and love and need and lust.  So hot, I felt my clothes come undone without any human hands.  I could feel her throbbing heart beat in my mouth.

Wet and full of fire, she left me to run away, full of sobs.

She was gone and out of my life, from that point on, for a solid week.  I believed, almost, that the kiss was the last I had ever seen.

My son, Peter, had received a kiss like that once.  He was thirteen and in love with a girl at a summer camp.  They never spoke a word to each other during the whole week and, on the Saturday she was to leave, she ran over to him and gave him a hungry kiss, to say hello and good-bye all within the same second.  The boy, who stood before me in with a knapsack under his arm, looked back at me.  Dumbfounded but also with the power of knowing the potential drama of every moment, looked over to me and croaked, “Yeah, dad, camp was good this week.”

Young people kiss like that; young people, as well, also run away and never return like I expected Brenda to do.

A week passed and one morning, I had a visitor.  The man was Brenda’s father, a Rabbi with a beard full, hair curled in ringlets, and a stony ash coat and matching hat.  His eyes burned bright blue, if possible, and there was something so angry, so full of rage by his presence that one immediately wanted to sink to one’s knees, confess every sin- real or imagined-, and beg for someone to give them mercy.  His eyes straight and certain, he never looked at anything or anyone else in the library but me, bearing deep in my soul.

He looked at me and I knew what he could see: someone who wasn’t a Jew.

He sat at the other end of my big, metal desk and I still felt vulnerable for any attack from this man.  “Can I help you?” I asked.

“You are not human,” the Rabbi said in a slow, steady whisper.  “You are a beast of the field, a creature spawned from Cain, complete with his mark.  You are a Steppenwolf, dressed up as a man.  Indeed, you look like you belong in normal, human civilization but the very blood of you is animal.  You are a monster, a wild animal good only for work and meat, nothing more.”

At that moment, I didn’t know how to take what he was saying to me.  I still don’t, other than I have never felt more hate, more feelings of absolute condemnation than that moment.  Think of singing at a wedding with your fly down and magnify that by infinity: that shame was being emitting by the Rabbi’s line of sight.

“Brenda, my only daughter, shall marry a human being.  She shall have human children, free from the stink of animals and monsters she must otherwise associate with in this fallen, dark world.  As we count the minutes the M-ssiah will come to clean up this mess of spiritual infidelity, we humans must keep ourselves pure.  Marry your fellow monsters, breed like rabbits and mice, for all I care.  Keep on making this world of our Creator one, big, stinking chicken coop.  Your skin is coated with excrement and your line will continue to touch and soil creation.  Fine.  But stick to your own kind, leave the human race alone.

“Do we understand each other?”

I said nothing, shaking and quivering like the wild animal I believed myself to be at that moment.

The Rabbi nodded, rose, and walked out of the library, seeking to be rid of such dirty places as our library.  He seemed neither angry or sad, just full of hate as if that was the sum total of his nature.

I had believed in the Jewish G-d ever since my dad took me to the ghettos.  Their G-d was one who loved midnight parties, dancing, and stories.  They did not see the rest of the world as monsters, but as strangers.  And what do you do with strangers: give them soup, invite them in, and give them a bed.  That was the G-d I believed in, yet I now suffered a crisis of doubt from meeting that Rabbi.  Had J-hova changed from the 17th Century to the 20th?   Certainly, his people had: the former lived outside of civilization, cast out while this community sought to exclude the outside civilization from their community.

No, the L-rd does not change; H-s people, in America, were different than the mad, dancing, pastry eating children I loved so much in Germany.

I decided, after collecting myself, that I would begin to pray to the 17th Century Jewish G-d that I knew, loved, and would serve all of my days.  If H- would take me, I would offer H-m everything I had and knew.  And whatever demon commanded that Rabbi, so be it!  I had nothing to do with a god too weak to invite like the J-hova I was beginning to know and love.

This was little comfort to me in the wake of the certainty that Brenda was lost to me forever.

Jan quit, the moment my appointment with the Rabbi, his posture of “I told you so”.  Instead, his posture was bent, broken, and hurt.  I don’t know if he was matching my own sorrow, I don’t know for I have no idea how I came across during those weeks.  All I know is that every time I was around Jan, I had the feeling that the Rabbi had broken him in two just like he had done to me.

Jan, after work and on the nights we weren’t stockpiling classes, would get a paint can full of booze from a speakeasy that shared our library’s building.  Later, I heard the liquor was free because he said he was “fetching a pale for a good man with a bad heart”.

We would drink in silence those nights, my mind recalling her long eye-lashes or the freckles on Brenda’s wrists.

I tried to pray, using my broken Hebrew and made up things that sounded like they might have, in some strange pocket, of the Torah.  I sought to memorize the Genesis and Exodus.  I stopped eating pigs or fish or animals with cloven hooves.  I was still a bit shaken by the whole “you are a non-Jew and an animal” speech, so I didn’t dare go to a Synagogue.

And I tried my best not to think of Brenda.  Tried, really hard.

Then one night, five minutes before closing the library, Brenda charged into the library.  She was dressed as a man, with slacks and shirt and coat and her long hair tucked into a fedora.

Again, she looked like she had been outside for hours, crying.

“Do you love me?” she asked in a husky, wild whisper.

“I love G-d and His precepts.  Apart from that, I love you more than life itself.  I would willingly be killed in order to be near you.  I could never think of another woman other than you.  I’ve never known love until I got to know you,” I said and I believed every word of that declaration.  Weird, love and lust weren’t mixed up in that statement I said to her.

“Then follow me,” she said and ran out of the library.

Brenda is a small woman and she cut through the night like a blade, running faster than I could catch up.  I bounded over trash piles, leaves, and sleeping men in that dark, frightening neighborhood.

She rounded the corner and I chased her, dodging chestnut vendors and crowds waiting for the city’s train.  Finally, after she waited for me to catch up, we got to the corner and she grabbed my hand.

“Everything that is within you, keep up,” she commanded and charged into the night.

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I have never run a marathon, but I believed I came close to 42k that night.  I would have been weak, may have thrown up, or would have felt sick if I hadn’t held onto Brenda’s hand.  We ran through parks, residential streets, markets, and skyscraper rows.  We ran over sawdust of shanty towns and around ancient, stone apartment.  Through New York City we traversed, never slowing down long enough to see any one place for every long.

Hours or years later, I couldn’t tell that night, we came upon a slender apartment building in between a closed department store and an orphanage.  Brenda took me in as we climbed a dizzying spiral of stairs lit by an unnatural, yellow light.

In the distance, I heard the sound of either a goat crying or a man laughing: it sounded the same.  Every once in a while, I’d catch a random number written in blue chalk on the walls or on a step.

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We entered the only apartment that did not have a room number.  She knocked seven times and the door, it appeared, opened by itself.

In the apartment, there was a woman surrounded by young children, playing and laughing and still up at midnight.  I never got a look at any of their faces, assuming they were in fact children.  They sounded like children or, at least, made that indiscriminant sound of children playing.  All of them had numbers sown onto their shirts or jackets or dresses.

Another door opened by itself, leading to an orange-lit bedroom.   Brenda turned to me, as if time was running out.  “Will you marry me?” she asked with a dark light in her eyes.

“But I don’t think…”  I began to stammer as I caught my breadth.

“If it was possible, would you marry me?  Answer quickly, for your first response is the most important.”

My soul spoke for me, ignoring my feelings and common sense and anything else that my rattling around in my head.

“I would marry you and be your husband forever,” I said without hesitation.

She looked like she was going to cry, but the bursting of tears was interrupted by a voice.  “Come,” the croak of an androgynous septuagenarian bid us to the bedroom.  We came.

Entering the hot, orange light of the bedroom, I was overwhelmed by the amount of Hebrew and numbers that appeared on the wall.  Incense burned, filling the room with a thousand and one scents.  About a dozen cats sat, staring at us under the obedient pleasure of their mistress.  The carpet crunched of used, rolled cigarettes.  Several skeletal heads of goats joined in the cat audience of our arrival.

Around every piece of furniture was a thin silhouette of chalk or ceremonial, white powder- I’m not sure.  The ceiling hung low unnaturally, containing feint shadows of woodland creatures.  Upon every surface were opened books, all handwritten in dark red.

Coming from the bathroom was a tiny, round woman draped a thick, woolen shawl.  She wore a turban and smoked a slender cigarette on the end of a classic holder.  A hundred and two wrinkles twisted her face and jowls, making it appear that she spent half of her life walking on her own face.  In her other hand was an opened tin of sardines she would, without warning, pass around to her cats.

“So you want to be Jewish?” she asked slowly.

“More than life itself.  I want to be Jewish and I want to marry Brenda, keeping G-d’s commands for our future family.”

“More than life itself?” she asked, arching her right eyebrow ever so slightly to this prospect.  “Then the cast is set.  Do you believe in the G-d of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, and of Moses?”  Somehow, Daniel was missing from that particular list.

“Yes,” I said, my hands shaking.

“Hopefully that will be enough faith for you to survive tonight.”

“Excuse me?” I asked and that was the last thing out of my mouth.

Suddenly, her whole eyes went black and she charged at me with unnatural strength.

Before I could flinch, the old woman held a dagger and was driving it into my chest.  She screamed in Hebrew as she stabbed me, again and again.  I remember every blow, a pain that was so intense that I still have nothing to compare it to.  She kept striking at me.  I closed my eyes.  Brenda was weeping.  The cats were purring.  Somewhere, I heard a lamb without blemish scream.

I fell to the ground, feeling my heart stop and my last breadth of life leave my body.

 

“Bagel?” was the first human thing I heard while I woke from a deep, dreamless sleep.

I opened my eyes to find Brenda sitting by my bedside, eating a bagel containing cream cheese and locks.  The smell of fish and onion filled the air.  I was hungry.  Later, they told me, I had been asleep for six days and awoke on the 7th.

I lifted my head to find myself shirtless and without any wounding.  I looked around the bedroom.   It was daytime, so the weird orange lighting was gone and was replaced by the new dawn’s light.  Gone also were the cats and the Hebrew writing and the strange numbers.

“Would you like a bagel?” the old woman asked.  I said I would love one.  “Good,” she said.  “Welcome to the Jewish race.”  I felt her oval shaped hand a top my head.  “Running in your veins is the blood of Abraham, of Jacob, and of Moses.  You are a child of God.”

“You took me to see a sorceress?” I asked Brenda, still half asleep.

“No sorcery,” the old woman rebuked.  “This is a Holy place.  A very Holy place, with the Shema above the door of this apartment.  G-d is honored in this house.”  I then saw her smile, her delight in the next pronouncement.  “However, I do work in secret ways and one of them is way to turn an outsider into a Person of the Promise.  A eruv, in some respects.  Just some.  I had to kill you, boy, before your blood became of Israel.  You are a Holy person, a man of the covenant.  You, through our secret rite, a Jew.”

“But how?” I asked, still groggy.

“A secret rite, led by me, and a hefty price paid.  A ransom was met by your bride, Brenda.”

I looked over to Brenda, half-expecting her to give a money sum so great and awesome that made me quiver at that thought.  Nothing like that was said.  Simply, she explained.  “I became dead to my family.  Not figuratively, but literally.  My dad, if he came into this room, wouldn’t recognize me.  There’s now a veil over his eyes and my face is hidden from him.  I am now a literal and cosmic orphan, through magic.  I have become a secret kept from him.  I now belong only to G-d.”

“And me,” I said.

“The way my secret magic is that I had to kill you,” the old woman said with a heavy regret to her words.  “You must have died.  And in order to come back to life, like the widow’s son from our histories, you must have had faith and you must come back Jewish.  There must be a price paid, there is always a price that must be paid: that is the nature of the sacrifice.  For your bride, she had to become dead to her family.

“And now, every letter written to their family will have her name missing.  Every memory her parents have will be childless.  Today, the sacrifice rendered was that they have lost their first born.”  A small, sharp sneer formed on her face.  “I hope his love is worth it.  I hope he spends his entire life paying back the ransom paid.”

Thinking about this, now as a parent, my world would come to an end if I ever lost Peter.  Even if he was wiped clean from my memory, I know there would be a loss, a weight made only perfect by magic not allowing me to give the departure a name.  I should think most parents would be like this and being a childless couple would be hard, especially if there was some part of your memory that contained at least the shadow of a child.

Brenda’s parents were the exception.  They lost Brenda that day and their time line seemed to be straighter, more on cue than when they were parents.  Little affected her father’s role as Rabbi and her mother seemed every bit as angry, sour, and bitter than when they had Brenda.

Only Brenda’s aunt, the woman who truly raised her, seemed to hold a loss.  Unmarried and having no children, she poured her love into Brenda.  With this change, her aunt was driven to go to school and become a teacher in a boarding school.

Years later, Brenda reconnected with her over coffee.  Brenda decided to keep the magical ritual a sacrifice and asked, this now stranger, to meet her at a café.  As soon as the aunt saw Brenda, she wept.  The first words out of her mouth were, “I remember, I remember.”

“How?” Brenda asked.

“There are things, my dear niece, stronger than magic.  Secrets shall be obedient to such powers.”

The woman, I guess, waited for Brenda to work up the courage to reconnect.  She was a happy woman, a life full and now was willing to share it with Brenda.  For six strong years, they continued in their friendship until cancer ended the aunt’s life.

But at that moment, Brenda’s family was dead to her and there was only us, a union before G-d.  Which reminded me…

“Does G-d know about my change?” I asked.  “I mean, sure, I have a new set of genetics.  But ultimately, H-…”

“Follow H-s laws and statutes, make perfect this change by belief and H-s character, as revealed by the Torah, shall accept the exception.  I have seen man, by this rite, become full with H-s spirit, prophesying and making miracles.  G-d only gives that special anointing to H-s children.  You are H-s, Tom Maven.”

“And you are mine,” Brenda said, kissing my hand.

When Our Merlins Leave: The Passing of Ursula K. le Guin

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On Monday, Ursula K. le Guin passed away.

I never met her, never had a book signed by her, and I’ve never been in her Oregon town where she called home.

But I know her.  When I write, I hear her voice when I’m in a rough patch of dialogue I need to get through or there’s an exposition that needs to be done properly.  I’ve read her books and, even better, I’ve given her books away to friends in the guise of a loan.

Reading her books makes me feel like I’m not reading at all.  Instead, I’ve been invited to her house for an evening.  I bring my wife and kids, giving them the warning that this is a very special evening.

The house is surrounded by the great, shadowy trees that protect the Pacific Northwest.  She brings us in and the house is redemptive in its disorganization towards it’s guests.  Art is every and so are lots of cats (she has to be a cat person, she cannot walk the Earth and not have cats).  You get about half of her paintings; the other half are absolute mysteries.

The kindly host sits down in a well-used, well-loved easy chair.  The adults drink a beer of a seemingly other-world brand; the children are given drinks much too sugary to keep them sane.

You mention one of the paintings as pretty and she politely suggests there is a particular story to the picture.  You give her permission and she launches into an epic story.  Your children want to interrupt and they are eagerly awaiting for “their turn” to talk.  You whisper that the hostess has the floor, she may have it for the entire evening, and it is a wonderful thing.

There are parts of her story you don’t get; or won’t get that evening, but need about a few days to figure it out; and some parts will always be a mystery.  Quickly, you realize her story is one from science fiction: but it never feels alien, fantastic, or asking you to break any rules you know to be true.

The evening ends with you feeling you’ve travelled through space and visited a thousand planets, only to wind up back in Oregon.   You thank you her for a lovely evening.  And on the car ride home, everyone is silent as they try to unpack what was said to them.

That is what it is like reading a novel from Ursula K. le Guin.  She, for that imagined night, was my Merlin.

 

 

 

Recently, a mentor of mine died suddenly at the close of 2017.  Jim Leverette was on the regional ministers for the North American Baptist Association here in Alberta.  When I was a Baptist, his help and guidance was invaluable.

Jim didn’t show me how to be more of me, but was my exact opposite.  As a minister, I love being with people, telling stories, and inventing new ideas for church; his expertise was in writing constitutions and by-laws, organizing churches, and thinking in terms of efficiency.   Life brought us together as an odd pairing and it was a delight in working with him.

Whenever I am now stuck writing a policy for my church or I have to write a strategic action plan, Jim’s voice takes over my brain: I can hear him picking my words and editing phrases.

At his funeral, I looked across the church of several hundred people.  I didn’t know most of them, but I recognized the same look in their eyes for it matched my own.  The expression was summed up by a single question: what are we going to do now that Jim is gone?

Planet Earth, I think, is asking the same question concerning Ursula K. le Guin.

In the age of Evangelical Fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, and-dare I say his name- Donald Trump- we sure liked have Ursula K. le Guin around.

Right now, we struggle with tendency towards exceptionalism.  Here’s a definition:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exceptionalism

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Ursula caused us to wrestle with this by writing “The Left Hand of Darkness”.

Often times, we can be seduced by the idea that God owes our heart’s desire and our faith is what buys us into a good life.

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Ursula questioned this by writing “The Lathe of Heaven”.

Today, art can be so easily organized by what sells and what doesn’t sell.  Economics can truncate us, cut us off from each other and from our community.   Isolationism seems to be the gravity in this sick view of worth and economics.

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Ursula gave us a way out by “The Telling”.

I could go on, but for those who read her books- who spent an imaginary evening with her- we carry around her voice and now that’s all we have left.  Just like the passing of my friend Jim, we’re left with the question: what do we do now?  What do we do when Merlin leaves?

 

 

Years ago, I had a friend that I called Merlin.  His real, adult name was Dennis, but I couldn’t help by call him Merlin.  He had a salt-pepper beard, had owl-like eyes that scanned any room he entered before speaking, acting, or thinking.  He read the right kind of fantasy novels.  He offered advice but only after listening to you for an incredibly long period of time.  “I don’t want to offer you truth un-tresspassed by experience,” was a phrase of his.

He looked like Merlin and, better yet, he didn’t mind being called Merlin.  If you don’t mind being mistaken for a wizard, you’re that much closer to being one.

He helped me in my first church ministry and sound out a lot of my philosophy for churches.  Merlins in our life are great because they help us catch a vision or see a better way of doing things or have the freedom to see a better way of life.

When I left for Canada, we had heard that he was diagnosed with Cancer.  We weren’t really sure what his new normal would look like, but we had heard-only a few years later- that it was fast acting, leading to medical complications that caused him to pass from this life onto the next.

Being in another country when this happened, I felt helpless.  Merlin was gone.  What do I do now?

Joseph Campbell, expert on all things myth and stories, talks about the need for a Druid, a wise sage that helps the hero along in his/her quest.  Like Sean Connery in “The Untouchables” or Sir Alec Guiness in “Star Wars: A New Hope”, they give a frame for the hero/heroine to figure out the solution and understand the threat.  They drop off a magical item or give some sort of insight/understanding that is used to save their world.

merlin-4, young arthur, nao-org as seen on linenandlavender.net

Teaching is what Merlins do in our lives.  However, they can’t be around forever.   They go to their crystal caves, vanish, and leave right before our final acts.   Why is that such a constant theme in epics.  I mean, enough for Campbell to make a firm point in his mono-myth.

But this is a constant in most of our stories: the hero/heroine is left with the question, “What do I do now?”

This is an important question, not just because it cuts to the heart of our story, but it forces us to look at what has been given to us and move further into our story.

Ursula K. le Guin taught us how to be more human and to see our story as greater, bigger than what we original thought.  Therefore, we live ferociously as humans in an expanded story.

My friend Jim to talk me to take care of the church; so I put that to work.

My friend Dennis talk to listen, to dream, and move forward.

What do we do when our Merlins leave us?  We use what they’ve given us to move forward our stories and we continue their work.

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Hands

This is a story I wrote about 19 years ago.  I found it recently. Kind of like finding a picture of yourself doing something unlike of the now, you say aloud, “I guess that’s me, but is it really?”  I like the young man who wrote this story, but my brain could no longer tell a story like this.  

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Every time I had a lover I’d get close to, she’d demand that I’d give her one of my fingers.

It started when I was a youth.  I would play my guitar on the street, closing my eyes, picture the sun aflame.   I could stop men cold in their tracks with my sienna sounds and marigold music, playing for the world to bleed its poison out through tears.    I played, the music broke forth into flight.   It flew and swirled and twisted beyond my reason conscience.   A scandal!   At the end of each day, I made more gold and silver than the bankers of our village.   Crowds would cry to see me close my guitar case and head home for the night.   Schedules were delayed, work canceled, children missed school, housemothers forgot about home…all from my guitar.

Lillith would come in the evenings, swaying to my music.   Her dark strands would spindle around her slender, white fingers as she ran them through her hair.   Her hands were bold slivers of lights connecting with anything around in her world.   They would open and close to my music in an otherworldly dance.

For weeks, she remained silent and stood five paces away from me.   Then four paces.   Three.   She opened her eyes when she was near me.   She looked at me.   Looked at my eyes.   Into my eyes.   Her eyes shot passed my face and burrowed deep within me, hungry and wild.    She wanted to eat something, to consume it, to own it within her, to say it was hers.   This desire welled up inside of her and set her body on fire.    She called it love.

One night, she went home with me.   The next morning, she stood in my doorway waiting for me to rise.  She called it love.

We chirped over warm cocoa through long nights.  She never left my side.   Always praising, always singing, always clawing her white hands underneath my shirt, always present, always laughing, always sighing, always saying what I demanded to hear and feel.   I burned for her.   I called it love.

Then she asked me for one of my fingers.    The smallest one on my left hand.  I was taken back and asked why.   She closed her eyes and hummed.  “I love you,” she said.  “I love your music.  Your fingers breathe life into those dead strings and that sleeping guitar.  Those fingers touch me in places no created being has ever felt.   In your fingers are woven the warmth of life and the charm of death.   I want to have you with me always, always knowing that I own you and your fingers.   Give me one of your fingers.”

With a slice of an ax and a strip of a vice, I lost my first finger.   Lillith grabbed it immediately and studied it as if it were chocolate.   Her eyes bounced.   She licked her teeth slow and preciously.   Giggled.   And cradled my finger like a newborn babe.    I believed I now had ownership of companionship.

She went home that night and did not return to my doorway for another week.   She walked with me to the street corner and heard me play.   Her eyes looked around the street, she went to get an apple and took a long time to return.   She didn’t dance or sway.   She left me to play to spend time with some of her friends.    This happened more weeks than the weeks she had raptures over my music.   Finally, she left the village for another village with another guitar player and another finger.

The next finger I lost was to a dancer named Iona.   She danced in the taverns, waving her red curls and raising her skirt for all of the men’s lust.   Her green eyes could look at a man and tear him asunder in mere moments.  The green in her eyes weren’t just the green of the forest or of emeralds, but a green you only read about in carnal limericks.   A green boys talk about when they fake being older and tougher, a green that a man thinks about when he lies awake next to his elderly wife, and a green priests have renounced.   A green that turned my guts into embers and simmered so hot I came close to repentance.    I called it love.

One night, while I was walking down the street to a tavern I was going to play at, turned a corner and ran towards me.  Her green eyes burned and glowed with fear.  I asked her what was wrong.  “The man in the white cloak came into the tavern.  He’s seen the Dark Stigmata!”

I had heard of the Dark Stigmata before, although they were only tales followed by a thousand and one disclaimers.  The tales of the Dark Stigmata cast the same shadow: if one was ever alone in a church and saw the crucifix bleed miraculously, they would surely die.

Why?  Is that the Angel of Death’s calling card?  Would the sight of such a thing cause a mortal to die from fear?  Or was it a myth, like so many, that had a hint of truth and a dash of magic never to see the light of day’s reality?

I told Iona that Dark Stigmata’s don’t exist, mostly to soothe the heave of her breasts.  “But the man in the white cloak!  He’s there!  And he’s seen it,” she said.  I patted her on her backside and told her I wouldn’t play tonight so she wouldn’t have to be near him.  A day passed and she was back to her dancing, swaying to the bends of my blue music.

Iona would dance to my music and burn the village down with her skirt.   I was convinced she was not from this Earth but an Earth far from my music.   She decided we should be in love with me.  I agreed because I wanted the green in her eyes.    She wanted one of my fingers.   She figured, Lillith owned one and I should love her more than I had loved Lillith.

I agreed and lost the small finger on my right hand.     The blood spit more from the cut than the last one.   As well, the tendons stuck closer to my bones so it took a longer and harder tear to release from my hand.

She squealed and made love to me on the streets. She called it love.

She hung my finger around her neck, letting everyone know that I belonged to her.  Months later, I came into the tavern and found Iona.   Around her neck was my finger and another finger.   A smaller finger.   Weaker.   It looked like a thin cut from ragweed.   Crusts of blood caked on its nail.   She saw my gaze and leaped in the air.  “He means nothing to me.   I just wanted a collection of male fingers.  He doesn’t even play the guitar professionally.”   I left her.

The third and fourth fingers I lost were to Gia.  She didn’t just want one, like my past loves, but she wanted two fingers so she could carry one and keep one in a wooden box at home.   Gia gave me the idea that I could sing instead of play the guitar since it was going to be hard for me to play now that I only had six fingers.

I sang and the crowds stopped coming.   My music lost color.  I sang about gray death.  The vagabonds, the desolate, the forgotten, the unloved came to hear my music.  I no longer went to the taverns.   I sang on the highways.   I played my guitar only for some songs, but I could only strum with my thumb.   Soon, I stopped playing since the guitar only laughed at me.      I became a cold, dead musician.

Gia left me because she didn’t like standing outside at night or hearing about gray death.    She fell in love with another guitar player who she described as full of life and had all of his fingers.

I lost the rest of my fingers to women whose names evaporated from me and only come back when I am alone at night and I can’t sleep.   They took them all for different reasons.    Some were fascinated by my past and wanted to live inside of it.  Some wanted something from a man to keep the warm at night, to stir their cocoa with, and to smell when they were wandering alone on hot nights.   Some felt sorry for me and thought that it was the best way for me to feel satisfied with my breadth; and some just took a finger because all of the rest had.

When all the words of love became memories and I was alone in the night to sing for money, I had nothing but cold knobs on the ends of my arms.   They would quiver when cold and drip sweat when hot.   I made no money singing.   My night became a dark blue.   I stopped touching people.   When it was day, I wished it was night; when it was night, I wished it was day.   I had no water left in my eyes.   No fingers for magic, nothing to hold on to.

I left my village, carrying my guitar on my back.   I owed rent and owed a payment for food and owed the community a living and owed myself a different set of bricks and mortar to sing beside.   I kept my eyes down, my belly full of wine as I left.   I took my guitar with me to remind me of love.

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I wandered at night so no one would see me.   For several nights I traveled through the world of shadows.    Darkness.  One night, the darkness was disturbed by light.   Tents.   Campfires.  Singing.   Wine.   I came to this interruption and found a camp of gypsies.

I sat by a lone fire and warmed myself.   An old man whose face creased and lined and wrinkled into a thousand and two stories emerged from his tent, cradled a jug of fire water.   “Are you cold, son?” the old man asked.

“Sorry for the use of the fire.   I’m just wandering and-”

He poured to glasses.   Sat down.   Smiled.   “We have no home so we have nothing for a stranger make an intrude upon.   You need warmth and wine.”   We drank and warmed ourselves.   When I made my second sip, he noticed my hands.    “Your fingers.  What happened?    You have such strong hands, but no fingers.”

I smiled and drank.   What did this man know of love?   He rubbed the crevices in his face.

“I bet you want your fingers back, huh?   You want to hold things and toil in the sun like a man and make a fist.    Am I right?   I am.   I know just the warlock who’ll make you right.”   With that, he took me by my hand and led me to a green tent.   The green was like the green of Iona.   Wild, outside of time and space, and mocking.   I entered the tent.

An old blind man with scar-red tattoos all over his forehead and cheeks and eye-lids and arms hunched over a table.   He was bald with a dragon branded on the top of his head.  His eyebrows were husky and curly like puffs of pipe smoke wisping from his eyes.    He told me to sit in a black chair made of canvas and resembling a king’s throne.   He never spoke, only whispered.   His eyes were bloodshot like that of a bear lurching awake from its hibernation.   His jowls moved with the resonance of every consonant.

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“I see a guitar who has no man to play it.   I see a man who has no magic, no soul, no fingers.   I see a man who let grief be like a falling leaf at the closing of the day.   I see hands without gloves.  For a quart of human blood, I can make a curse that will bless you.

“For a quart of human blood, I will lay upon your hands gloves that will form fingers inside of themselves so you have your hands again.   They will be tight gloves, so playing the guitar will be possible.   They will be flexible gloves, so the full movement of the hands will be restored.   They will be leather gloves, so they can be washed in a basin with soap and water.

“They must never come off.   If the gloves ever leave your hands, you will surely die.   Death will take over your body and consume your soul.   You will be devoured.   Eaten up.      And nothing from this Earth will be able to save you, my son.”

I agreed.   I didn’t want to murder anyone, so I bled myself into a jar for the old man.   It took my about four days of rest to get back standing and moving and talking.   Once I rose, I went to the old man for the gloves.

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They were white gloves with creases and folds along the knuckles.   They were for the rich and for the wealthy.   Along the palm side of the wrists was a leather draw-string that had to be in a knot the entire time.   The old warlock tied them tight and told me to close my eyes.

He breathed in a glass full of black wine and spit it on my hands.   He then called out names from the otherworld to aid him.    Baal.   Loki.   Balthazaar.   Lucifer.   I fell asleep when I heard words from other tongues professing the deeds of other gods.

When I awoke, the camp was gone.   I was alone in the woods.   I had my white gloves.   Then I noticed I had fingers.   I could control them, move them, bend them, pop them, twitch them.   I had fingers!   I had magic!   I could play the guitar.

It took me six months to get back into playing the way I had played before love.   I worked in the granary by day and at night I would play.   I’d play scales and chords and melodies and pull-offs and slides and every technique I remembered.   I spoke to no one nor did I listen to any music.   I just played again and again.   I would like to say that passion and love and fury drove me to play, but none of those things lingered between the notes of my music.   I played because I could and I had to.   Practicing took such concentration, such pain, such focus.   I would say I lived inside of my music, but my music did not live inside of me.   I had to consume my music, master it, devour it, eat all of it up.   Every tone, hue, and note was under my strict sovereignty.

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I played for the crowds.   I first played on street corners and under bridges or in courtyards.   People noticed that I was more than a mere musician, so they hired me to come into their taverns.   My music filled in between the spaces of noise where people weren’t laughing or crooning or flirting or fighting.   No one listened to what I was playing, but they wanted something to hear; I fulfilled their desire to create static and noise.   This was all right for me, for I didn’t listen to my music either.   My music was opaque and colorless, like any slow acting poison.

The people were hard to watch.   They would stroke each other, press their hands against their faces, touch the cold of their cider, stroke the thighs of their lovers, crunch peanut shells, feel the satin of the table clothe, touch the warm candles, be burned by the wax on their fingers.   Life bubbled around me and its effervescent energy seemed to crush my music.    I couldn’t compete.    Then I realized why I couldn’t compete: I could touch.

My gloves were great work gloves and I could labor with them, but they were useless in regards to anything else.   It had been ages since I felt the petals of a flower, the cold of a spring, the warmth of cocoa, the bubbles of ail, the soft skin of a lover, the smash of a jaw with my fist, the itch of an allergy, the shake of a hand, the hold of a hand, the love of hands.

At night, I would lay awake remembering what touching things with my hands felt like.   I remembered the candy softness of Lillith.   I’d used to run the palm of my hand along her face and under her chin.   I’d feel her purr.    I remembered the wild curls of Iona.   I’d run my hands through her hair, grabbing and twisting all of its richness.   She’d laugh, tilting her head back exposing her beautiful neck.   I remember touching my father’s arm, feeling a mysterious ooze of strength and stern opposition.    I remember touching my priest and feeling his white, silk robe that was clean and sterile.  And they became black.

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One night, while playing an empty tavern, a stranger came to hear the sounds of my guitar.  At first, I thought nothing of his arrival until I saw his dress, his demeanor.  He was wearing a white cloak.

After my set, he came to my stage.  I swallowed the fearful memory of Iona and let it’s gulp sink to my gut, the heaviness dragging me closer to the Earth.

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The man in the white cloak asked me what happened to my hands.  I shrugged.  “I know evil magic when I see it,” he said.

“Like the Dark Stigmata?” I asked with a grin.

“Nothing evil about that.  Nothing at all, brother.”

“But it kills people.  Everyone who’s seen it dies.”

“And I’m still here, aren’t I?  I still live, don’t I?  Don’t believe everything told to you or you’ll catch a curse and die.”

“Whose behind the Dark Stigmata?  Is it a wandering sorcerer?  A demon?  The same man who gave me these wretched gloves?”

The man in the white cloak shook his head.  He laughed a sharp chuckle born from a sneer.  “The one behind the Dark Stigmata is the same one who’s behind the Crucifixion, brother.”   And that was all he said, leaving me and never returning to the tavern.

I couldn’t sleep.  I’d twist and ache in my bed.   I was created to feel and sense and experience through my hands.   Why this curse?   Why did I bind myself to this death sentence from the underworld?   The mockery of this prison inside these white gloves.   No roses nor thorn pricks!   No cold or heat!   No oil or sand!    Nothing but the function of hands!

And what was the alternative?   Death.   Inside the grave, my soul for keeps.  I could hear the warlock’s laughter, his black wine bubbling at this sick joke which was my life.   Was there a balm?   Death.   What kind of balm is death?

One night, my feigned sleep was unbearable.   I wandered the streets of the new village I was in.   Most of the town were either asleep, drunk, or in adultery.   The blackness of the town smothered my lungs like a bitter smoke fuming from some witch’s cauldron.   The town took on it’s own face, it’s own identity.   The face bore down on me that night, shining it’s sick confidence at my malady.   “Go back to bed.   Every town needs their lepers, their side shows, their freaks, their fools.   We have our fingerless guitar player,” town said, as it  winked a black eye at me.

Within the blackness of that night, I saw a Cathedral.    Stumbling towards it, I saw the lights were on and the doors were open.   It was mammoth, pulsing within the center of the town.  I knew hardly anyone went inside the place anymore and mass was a show smaller than my audiences.   I thundered into the building, wanting to hide from the villages taunting face.

I made a crucifix with my white gloves and bowed.   I sat down on the back pew.   I had to think.   Figure out something.    And I listened.

Just then, from the front of the church underneath the stain glass picture of St. Paul’s conversion, I heard a shriek.   It was a wounded male’s voice.   Like a wounded animal, blind with rage, the shriek came again.   I got up and fumbled to the front of the church.

The statue of Christ was bleeding!   Blood erupted from his head, feet, mouth, side, and wrists.   Bubbling dark red and think, it poured out all over the floor.   His rib cage raised and lowered for his inspirations.   His head swayed back and forth.   Tears came from his eyes.   Sweat came from arms.  Blood!

I was in the presence of the Dark Stigmata!

I looked around, wondering if I was going to get in trouble for being here when this is happening.   No Parsons or Priests.   I looked back at this miracle.   The statue continued to move, bleed, breath, and shriek.

“Lord, what is happening?” I cried out.    “What are you trying to show me?”

The statue bled.   It was about four feet tall and two feet wide and made out of baked clay and painted by the artist.   However at that moment, it moved with fluid strength of a man being crucified.   I could feel I all with my eyes.

I cried out again.   “Lord, what are you trying to show me?”

Take off your gloves.   Place your hands on the statue.   Touch my body.

            I cried out a third time.   “Lord, what are you trying to show me?   Why are you doing this?

Take off your gloves.   Place your hands on the statue.   Touch my body.  

This time I heard the low, still voice and understood the command.   “Lord”, I argued, “If I take off my gloves, I’ll die.  I can’t.”

Take off your gloves.   Place your hands on the statue.   Touch my body.

            I stood in front of the stigmata and exhaled.   I was in His presence, under His will, and He was greater than anything of my world.   I ripped the white gloves off in a fury and slapped my hands upon the statue.  In roiling power and tumult, I knelt in front of the statue of Christ’s death.  Dark Stigmata.

“Alive!    I feel alive!   I am alive!”

 

 

 

 

Cheepnis: Bad Science Fiction Fear

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It was 1980 and the three of Kregel males-my older brother, my old man, and myself- were huddled around the television.  I was pressing each button, traversing through our 13 channels.  Our TV had a button for each station, before the age of digital rendering.

I flipped it into the higher number stations: the no man’s land.  This is where the foreign stations, the UHF, public access, and public television stations resided.  I got to channel 54 and lighting the screen was a fantastic, new world.

The image portrayed a fellow with a 24 foot scarf, mop-like hair, and a wild expression explaining the Cosmos to a group of British actors.  You could tell they were British: Shakespeare training, stiff upper lip, their stance on the set was reserved for stage acting, and they pronounced every vowel for the benefit of the back row of the theatre.  And while this crazy man talked, it was very clear that he was the only who seemed to be more than British than the rest

            We were riveted.

After a few moments, it was clear they were on a spaceship (Keep in mind, this was the 80’s!  Most images from England in the 80’s often times looked like it was from another planet.  We could have been watching “Mystery” or “Masterpiece Theater”!).  The wild man, dressed in kind of a Bohemian style, was talking to space people.  Space people, with Shakespearean backgrounds.

My father told us to leave the TV on the station.  We backed away, being sucked up into the world.  The story followed a group of people stuck on a space station as Earth’s last sampling of humans and beast.  A six foot fly got on board and his larva (A shiny green sleeping bag) was gobbling people up.  The crew people, aiding by the Bohemian with a 24 foot scarf and mutton chops, were trying to figure a way off the ship.  However, the story ended with the more than British fellow being attacked by animated scribbles symbolizing electrical currents.  He was being electrocuted!

And that’s it.  We watched the credits flash against the background of a tunnel made out of chewy caramel and a music that resembled a march indicative of 60’s Sci Fi or Lutheran Hymns.

My brother and I turned to each other in wonder.  What on Earth did we just watch? 

That was the first time I’ve ever seen Dr. Who.

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Dr. Who, for many of you who don’t know, is Britain’s longest run fictional show.  It ran from 1963 to 1989.  It follows the story of a Time Lord, simply called “The Doctor”, who pops around Time and Space in a Police Call box called the TARDIS solving problems.  After 2005, it came back and is still running.

“Dr. Who” has broken all sorts of records.   “Dr. Who” is the longest running Sci Fi Television show in the history of television.   It has employed the most amount of actors than any other BBC production. It is in the Guinness Book of World’s Records for the most written about a fictional character.

The thing that kept me watching this show, well into my early adolescence, was what turned off most people: the bad sets, the cheesy looking monsters, and the limited outdoor locations[1].  Why?  The charm of the show was that you’d have a paper machete villain threaten all of the characters and the Doctor would stand up to them.  The monsters would threaten him, ending each episode in a cliffhanger like finish to be continued next week.   As the Doctor was threatened, he would wink to the camera, smile, and not take his predicament seriously since he, somehow, knew he was being threatened only by bad special effects and he, somehow, was going to survive to beat the baddies.  The calm amidst bad Science Fiction Effects is what made it set apart from all the other North American shows that made you believe something was scary around the corner.  The calm, the delight in the face of his adversaries is what stuck with me.

I mention this because it can be gained by a believer in Christ simply because we, as humans, can fear that which is not a true threat: it’s just bad science fiction.

What is an example of fear that’s just bad science fiction?  I fear crashing in an airplane on take-offs and landings.  Have I ever crashed in an airplane?  No.  Is it probable that I will crash in an airplane?  No.  Do I still fear crashing in an airplane during that key moment the wheels either pull off or hit the ground?  Yes.

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Why?  My fear is a case of being bad science fiction, not grounded in reality and smacks of absurdity when I let someone else know what I feel.  And it sounds like, “What if the plane blows up, all of a sudden?  What if the wheels lack the right tire pressure?  What if…”

At the heart of fear that is bad science fiction is the key words “what if…”.   The speculative, which does not exist, trumps the actual and the justified when we live in this kind of fear.

And it seems that 21st century North America is ruled by this kind of speculative fear.

Watch any news station as an example of the speculative trumping the actual or the justified.  The news report starts where they announced their top stories with just the “leads” or “teases”[2] .  So you wait through all of the other stories that are not threatening your life about other countries, celebrities, or local politics.  Then after the third set of comercials, they bring up the story with a question that strikes terror or threat to your present way of life.  But the threat is not real.  No, rather than telling you about the threat, they interview experts speculating on whether or not this or that is going to happen!  Then they interview people on the street, seeing how they feel about this new threat!  Then the anchor people banter about this threat, pretending like it is immanent…and it’s not!  You have spent 20 minutes watching a news show promising a threat and once they got around to it, all they did was guess if it was a new thing to worry about.

So we are society of fear, believing in the speculative, the “what ifs”, and the things that are just bad science fiction.

And yet, can there be things we fear that are beyond the “what ifs” of bad science fiction.  Yes and I believe this is where phobias an other disorders might fit in.   A phobia is an irrational fear of something common that serves as a symbol for a past issue that has never been fully dealt with/released to the Holy Spirit.  If someone has an irrational fear of doors, milk, or dolphins then something in their past (ex. Abuse, deprivation, trauma, etc.) that has been in close proximity to those objects/setting bear the fear.  Later, we’ll talk about how exploring our past can unearth some of our buried beliefs that feed our fears.[3]

Aside from phobias and our past, it is possible that we can create, from our present condition, things to be afraid of and arrest our steps in marching forward with our faith.  What bad science fiction have we believed to be true, fearing that a certain creature-from our own imagination-might be lurking under our bed or around the corner?

The problem with being human is that we cannot see into the future, only speculate about what could be.  Since we have this limitation, we are stuck knowing that our lives will be altered by the future, know there are consequences out there for our present decisions…but we’re left guessing.  The guesswork of the future helps us to cope for we believe if we can consider all options, we are in control of the future.  Yet that sense of control is an illusion: who really knows what tomorrow will bring?

So we’re stuck guessing, seeing only partially into the very near future based upon assumptions set by logic (ie. I know that if I microwave a bowl full of water for 3 minutes, it will boil; I know if I turn on the shower, water will come; if I kiss a stranger on the street, I will be slapped) and that is it, other than the future revealed by Divine Prophesy (ie. Jesus is coming back!  Wa-hoo!).

This partial view of the future is like headlights on a mountain road at night. We cannot see the whole road that stretches for days in front of us; we can only see just enough to react in our immediate reality, dodging Moose or Deer that might jump in our way.

But other than a sense of the immediate future, we do not know, with certainty, what shall befall us.  And when we imagine what could happen and base our present passions on such beliefs, our fears resemble bad science fiction than a reaction to reality unfolding before our eyes.

As a result, we miss out on what life truly has to give us.

 

Good Fear

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I love to run and used to before I got injured.  During a cold winter afternoon, I went running near the edge of my town.  As I ran along the train tracks, a woman passed me in her car and slowed down to give me warning.  “Sir,” she said, politely. “Be careful.  Up ahead is a moose.”

This is the first time I had ever run into a moose on my run, although I had heard a lot about moose.  From reliable sources, I was told to avoid moose if they made their way into the town.  In the wild, a moose will be seen if they are sick or as they going to specific point, running into you by mistake; in the town, they are out of their element of comfort and may gore you if they see you as a threat.  I have a friend that’s an RCMP officer and the most dreaded calls he’ll receive is that there’s an enraged moose in the town and has to be tranquilized.

I slowed down to a trot and, a few meters in front of me, I spotted the northern beast of the woodlands.  Quickly, the moose lifted his head upon my arrival into his locus.  His dark eyes met mine.   His muscles tightened.  He shifted his weight on the pavement.

I stopped, turned, and trotted in an opposite direction.

This was motivated out of fear.  Imagined fear?   Hardly.  I wasn’t making this moose up, he was alive and well and walking down my town’s streets.   Was he a real or imagined threat?  Although he didn’t try to gore me, I wasn’t about to offer him the opportunity.  I had only a half filled water bottle to defend myself, so I had little hope of making a bold, brilliant stand against this creature.  Now if I was out in the woods, with camo and a rifle, that would be a different story.

So fear caused me to run.  Fear that was based on a very real moose with a very real power to gore his opponents.

Not all fear is an illusion.   This is a popular notion within Christians to fear nothing and to ignore all of our fear, but this is an overcorrection, creating another list of problems.   Especially since there are things in this world we should fear, that require caution, and that the most natural, sensible thing to do, like in the case with my moose, is to turn and run the other direction.

I used to run a class on personality differences in ministry.  One of the exercises was for people to pick from a list their three greatest virtues in ministry.   After selecting three virtues, I’d give them a list of matching vices.  “Our greatest virtues, left unchecked and not mastered by the Holy Spirit, can become our greatest vices,” I explained and used my virtues as an example- my creativity, if left unchecked, could become a lack of realism; my adaptability could become unpredictability; and my open-ended thinking could become relativistic.

As I was teaching this class, a fellow in the back was laughing uncontrollably.  We stopped, waiting for him to gain composure.  With everything settled, he explained his delirium.  “When I took this test, I put down my number one virtue: fearlessness.   I love bow hunting bears, I’m a volunteer fire fighter, and I love going out on the edge.”

“So what made you laugh?” I asked.

“The corresponding vice to fearlessness.  I’m supposedly dangerous.”  He started to laugh again.  “My wife always told me that I was an extremely dangerous to live with.”   For this fellow, his wife was right: he could use a little more fear in his life.

Fear is not sin: we must truly own this, seeing that it is a human emotion given to us for the purpose of navigating our way through this fallen, harmful world.   For many of us, we try to avoid fear and reduce all that is fearful as an illusion.

Yet fear is important, for no other reasons that it keeps from living unduly dangerous lives, running heading first into a moose…amongst other things.

The trick with fear is not reducing it all into an illusion, but to see the difference between was should be feared and what is feared but non-existence.  In other words, what is bad Science Fiction and what is just a moose.

Things to Fear:

* God (“Then you will discover the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God.”  Proverbs 2:5)

* Very, real and immediate threats (Ex. Moose).

* Things that will do harm (ex. Hand on a stove, foot in a bear trap, finger in a light socket).

Things not to fear:

  • Anything preceded by “what if”
  • Something that may not happen to you, but might have happened…to someone else removed.
  • Someone who is defined by prejudices or a past unrelated to them.
  • An object/person wrapped up in a phobia.

 

The Apostle Paul had a lot to be afraid of, real or imagined.  Since he became a Christian, he had been beaten, imprisoned, hated, bullied, chased, blinded, suffered a storm at sea, left for dead, and misunderstood.  Yes, he had very real things in his past that he was afraid would be repeated.  But what about the imagined fears?  He could have, during his nights in jail or traveling from/to his church plans, been haunted by the “what ifs” of his life: What if my church plant was lost to a false teacher and now they want to kill me?  What if I’m captured by the Sanhedrin and they stone me without an appeal to the Roman Empire?  What if this Christian faith dies with me?   What if…

We don’t know if Paul speculated about his future, causing him to freeze up with fear.  It would make sense and I am sure, being human, Paul knew fear.

That is why the vision given to Paul in Acts 27: 23-26 is so comforting.  Basically, an Angel appears to Paul while he is imprisoned on a ship in the middle of a storm.  The Angel tells Paul not to fear and take courage, God wants Paul to bear witness to Ceasar.  And that Paul was going to live to see this message go before the most powerful man in the world.  Oh, and ship will run aground soon.

Angels, one of God’s scariest looking creations, seem to always be sent to us humans, telling us not to be afraid.  Why is that?  We know they must be scary looking, for every time the Bible records them manifesting themselves, people are freaking out.  Angels, as far as I can tell, is the Divine equivalent of the Delta Force or the Navy Seals.

A friend of mine was hiking through National Park, late one night.  Trailblazing, he stumbled upon a long, chain link fence with barbed wire spiralling the top.  He found a small break in the fence made by an animal and decided to enter through the hole, hoping to cross and get back to the trail on the other side.

The moment he entered, he could see a big, cement building without windows off to the distance, unmarked by his map.  He took two steps towards the building and the silence of the night broken by a calm voice.  “Look down at your chest,” it said. Looking down, he saw a red spec from a laser sight of a rifle aimed at his heart.  Unable to locate the voice, he froze.  “Turn around,” it commanded.  “Do not cross the fence again.  We do not give second warnings.”

The next day, he learned that he inadvertently wandered into a military compound operated by the US Special Forces.  And by receiving a laser sighting pointing at his heart, he experienced healthy fear.

Angels are God’s Special Forces and unfathomably more powerful their our human attempts to protect, vanquish, and defend against evil.  Why does God send them to tell people to relax and not fear?  Wouldn’t it make sense for God to send a bunny or a plush toy to comfort someone, giving them the message to relax.   Why send a creation that can wipe out thousands with a single swipe of a sword?

The divine strategy, I believe, is found in the idea that Angels are beyond our imagination, a mass of indescribable holiness and power that to see them would be overwhelming[4].  Standing before those already afraid, God is sending them a subtle message, “Everything you imagine to be scared of is still no match for these creatures, whom I made for the purpose of them serving My Will.”

So Paul was sent a message (“Do not fear”) by a messenger (“I am more scary than anything you can imagine to be scary”) as a way for Paul to gain perspective on his fears.  What ever Paul could fear, real or imagined, was now bested by the following of His plans, protected by the God who is the author of fear.

[1] Lots of rock quarries.

[2] Ex.: “What is your favorite food that might just be killing you?”, “Why is Tom Cruise might be becoming our next President?”, “Why terrorists might be attending your children’s school?”, or “Is our city next to be destroyed by a flood?”

[3] Chapter Four: Spelunking: Locating the Source of our Fears.

[4] It could be worst: God could show up personally, in full and infinite form!