Imagine That

Koot Two 336

I’ve never been a fan of movies like Avatar. They just feel lazy. Why do we marvel at ridiculous, blue creatures who are the product of fancy while we sit in a theatre with a bunch of ridiculous, pink creatures who we can converse with if we choose? This isn’t imagination, but the lack of it.

It’s not that media and cinema is a bad thing; I love going to the movies. I enjoy the occasional video game. But the willingness we have for allowing other folks to direct our creative spirit runs the risk of sacrificing our imagination in exchange for stimulation. It’s easy to look at another planet with a green sky and two moons and be impressed; but how much more remarkable is the fact that we have one moon that can shine like a second sun on dark nights? A unicorn is a quaint idea; a narwhal is a magnificent reality. If we don’t see foaming horses rushing at the shore on the backs of waves, it’s not because they aren’t there; it’s because we don’t have eyes to see them.

As Wordsworth said, the world is too much with us–much too much with us. Apathy and boredom resulting from overstimulation is the gift our culture has given our spirits in exchange for our imagination. I propose that we take this terrible present and dispose of it as if it were poison–for it is just that. What type of man is no longer enthralled with wonders of life, except one who have ceased living? A corpse takes no pleasure from mountains and grass and song. A corpse can’t feel sunlight as the breath of God, or see a cactus as a quiet sentry watching over the desert–only a man can have the eyes to see.

Am I being fanciful? I would hope so! As the poet writes: I would rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; so might I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses of things that would make me less forlorn. Our world is an imagined one; our lives are the product of infinite creativity. Why look at a movie to see strange, new creatures? Look instead to a deer–that ridiculous miniature horse with bounding steps and bones growing out of its head. Be repulsed at that alien insect, that wriggling horror with tearing claws–the earwig. Don’t look to movies and books, look around you.

Every mountain can be a temple or a fortress; every person you meet is a hero or a villain in their own way. The off-key strumming of a guitar in the park is the next Bob Dylan in his early stages. The man who directs movies is a story-teller; pay him when you want to hear one. But would it not be better to tell your own stories? We aren’t living in a movie; there isn’t a director in the world who can encompass the human experience adequately. Any good media–whether it be music, television, or cinema–is merely a snapshot of life; only a fool would look at a picture album and think that it was comparable to going on a road trip.

Every experience is the backdrop for a film. Every interaction writes the chords for a song. Every drink from the waters of life builds the foundation for a novel. And if the song is never written, or the movie never filmed, or the book never put to pages–then the world will not know it. But you will know it, and you will have lived in that moment, burning with life.

We imagine rivers of whiskey and are wonderfully delighted at the novelty of it. But a child sees a river of water and is enthralled because it is water running along the earth. In the same way, a green sky seems novel, but an infant in its mother’s arms stares slacked jawed at the sky–because, of all colors it might be, it is blue! And then in the evening, it becomes streaked with blood and wine, as if by magic. Have we lost our child-like wonder? I certainly have, but I suggest we reclaim it forcibly.

Let’s work together; I know I am weak–maybe you can offer a hand? Next time I complain that I’m bored, slap me. How can we be bored? We’re alive! If we can’t find anything interesting, we’re not looking hard enough. Be distraught, be ecstatic, be devastated or broken or amused, but be not bored.

For God’s sake, be not bored with life.

Unintelligible

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THEY dragged the woman in by her hair. It was early in the afternoon. The sun was just crawling over the marble colonnades and beginning to peek into the temple courtyard. There was a small crowd gathered inside, listening to a traveling preacher. The dirt returned the last traces of the cool night to the air, and the breeze twisted lightly around ankles and eyebrows. It was a tranquil scene.

The woman’s desperate, choked shrieking cut through the calm. Those inside first heard her cries faintly–if at all–but they soon reverberated around the columns of the temple as she was brought through the gate. Everybody stopped to stare. A firm man, whose hard face was hidden behind a thick beard, had the woman by her hair and walked along purposefully, his priestly garments trailing behind him. The woman half-fell, half-dragged behind him, both hands to her head, clutching desperately at the strong fingers that held her fast. Her feet struggled to get footing, slipped in the dust, and fell away. And in this way, she came to the temple of God.

Surrounding the man was a whole crowd of people; curious onlookers, temple guards, the religious devout–and priests. There was a host of priests. They fanned out behind the woman and her captor in a huge semi-circle. They marched directly over to the traveling preacher, who regarded the mob with contemplative indifference. If the woman could have met his eyes at that moment, she might have found a glint of compassion, but as she was being pulled forcibly, the only thing she could see was glimpses of the sky and the temple between pressing faces–sneering or curious.

With a sweeping motion of his arm, the man with the hard face swung the woman in front of him and let go of her hair. Her momentum carried her into the circle that was quickly forming around the priest and the preacher. She fell into the dust and lay there, half supported on her elbows, gasping for breath between choked sobs. If she could have the summoned the courage to raise her head, it would have shown a face streaked with tears and dirt. But as it was, her hair was a tangled veil for her head as her body heaved from terror.

The preacher, who had been sitting on the edge of a stone, kept his seat. The hard-faced priest glared at him with the haughty gaze of one who knows he is about to exert himself over a weaker person–the same expression a lion has before striking at a lamb.

The preacher, to his credit, he didn’t flinch under this piercing stare. Instead, he picked up a stick that was lying at his feet and began breaking it into little pieces, tossing the remains to the side. The priest stepped forward into the circle of faces and reached down to the heaving woman. He grabbed her by the arm roughly and jerked her to her feet as she gave a small, terrified yelp. The preacher’s eyes flashed with anger, but he remained seated.

The woman stood in the crowd, looking small and defeated. Her dress was dirty and disheveled–the result of being hastily thrown on the moment before her door was kicked open. Her eyes twitched nervously from the faces around her to the ground in front of her, and back again. Her body trembled with the fear that lay in her heart. Her sentence had already been passed by the mob, and she knew it. Those in the crowd who were not so harsh did not have the power–or desire–to stop it. They were there for the show, or out of morbid curiosity. If the woman had been taller, she could have seen the men in the back of the mob tossing stones up in the air. Toss, catch. Toss, catch. Toss, catch.

“So, preacher,” the priest spat into the anxious air between them, “we caught this whore in the very act of adultery.” He paused, waiting for a reaction. The crowd murmured in agreement–they had heard. Some had even helped drag her out of bed. Now, all eyes were rooted on the woman and the preacher. The woman stood, shame almost overpowering her terror. The preacher kept breaking his stick into little pieces; his gaze met the priest’s eyes and held. He snapped another piece in two.

“Moses said that we should stone a whore like this,” the priest continued, putting emphasis on his title for the woman. “The word of our Lord says that she deserves death.”  He paused again. The snap of wood could be heard in the silence.

“What do you think?”

The crowd tensed; this was the question they had been expecting. All eyes were fixed on the preacher, sitting on his stone, the last of his twig in his hands.

The preacher looked around at the faces surrounding him. His hands flexed on the thin wood, tensed it into a tight curve, and then relaxed. He dropped it beside him. His eyes never left the crowd. He leaned over to the cool dust, and reached down with a calloused finger. In this position, he almost seemed to be bowing to the woman, who shook like a twig in the middle of a storm–feet rooted with fear, eyes darting about frantically. His finger pressed a crater in the dirt, and he began to write. People craned their eyes to see. Some shoved their way forward, trying to get a glimpse of what was being written on this earthen floor of the temple courtyard.

The priest’s eyes grew hard with anger. “I asked you a question, preacher. What do you say that we should do with her?” The preacher didn’t move, but continued to write on the ground. Every time he would finish a word, (and they were clearly that–words) he would glance at a different person. Those close enough to read the words began to grow uneasy and edge away from the man sitting on the rock.

The voice of the priest began to quiver–the lack of control that comes with fury–and he almost screamed. “Preacher…” and took a step towards his prey, the frightened woman.

The preacher’s eyes flashed up from his bent position and again met the gaze of the priest, and rooted him midstride. A hush fell over the human circle. The preacher straightened up to a sitting position, his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging loose, the air around him thick. Those in the back stopped tossing their stones. All leaned forward to watch and witness.

The preacher’s eyes swept away from the priest and around the faces leaning forward anxiously, finally coming to rest on the woman in the middle of the circle. His eyes met hers, and she could see the spirit in them–the eye of a hurricane–peacefully raging. As he held her gaze, he said firmly “Anybody here who has no sin–they can stone her.” He glanced briefly back at the frozen priest. Then he went back down to writing in the dirt.

The reaction wasn’t immediate. Those closest to the preacher, in the innermost part of the human circle–the ones who could read his words in the dirt–began to push their way out of the crowd. Upon seeing this, others began to trickle out. Many members in the back had already begun to slip away, hoping they hadn’t been noticed by their neighbors and family. Some merely came as they had went–following the crowd. The priest looked around in silent fury.

The crowd had thinned considerably; the surrounding air had grown less oppressive and stifled. The tinge of dread in the woman’s eyes drained and gave way to gaping astonishment. A few persistent, curious souls ventured forward through the retreating crowd–just far enough to catch a glimpse of the words on the ground and to make brief eye contact with the preacher writing in the dirt. Then, they too left.

The priest was left alone with the woman and the preacher. He glared at the two with vicious eyes gleaming. The preacher looked up from his stone, squinting at the priest through the golden fingers of the newly-risen sun. Their gaze lingered for a moment before the priest turned away and stormed out of the courtyard, his robe sweeping behind him. The woman and the preacher alone remained.

With a finger caulked with a second skin of dirt, the preacher reached down and drew a final word on the ground. As he did, he spoke to the woman without looking up, “Where did everyone go?” The woman stood fixed in place, unable or unwilling to risk a word. The man looked up softly. On the ground, shallow furrows snaked together to form the simple messages the preacher had transcribed to the dirt: murderer, devil, thief, bigot, blasphemer, liar, traitor. In the middle of them, the woman could make out a single word clearly.

Whore.

The preacher stood up. The woman clasped her trembling hands and looked down again at her feet. The preacher’s voice reached the woman’s ears as if from the other side of a canyon, “So, none of them now condemn you?”

In a mouse-like voice she responded, “No one, sir.”

The preacher bent down and scooped up the dirt upon which the word ‘whore’ had been written. He gathered it into his hands and held it next to his heart. He swept his foot over the rest of the ugly words, obliterating them. He stood there, cradling the dirt in his hands. The woman watched anxiously, unable to move.

In a washing motion, he rubbed the dirt between his hands and watched as the breeze plucked at the falling stream, spreading it back across the expanse of the courtyard. He continued until it had all been cast to the wind, and only his palms showed any traces of the dust upon which the word had been written. He moved toward the woman, who seemed to shrink from his presence.

“My daughter, be not afraid,” the preacher spoke gently, “If none are left to damn you, then neither do I. Go and live in the mercy you have been shown.”

With that, he placed his left hand on the woman’s shoulders; with his free hand, brushed her tangled hair away from her brow, and kissed her on the forehead. The woman looked into his eyes for a moment–for an eternity–then departed with a slight bow and cheeks flush and glistening.

The preacher remained until she had disappeared amidst the pillars of the temple. Then he too left.

The sun beat down overhead. The wind carried over the surface of the courtyard, twisting and whipping the cool, brown dirt up into the air joyfully, until it was as smooth as glass, and all that was written was entirely unintelligible.

What’s the Point?

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In 1453, Constantinople was the center of Eastern Roman Empire. It was a powerful city, with thick walls and large markets, with mothers teaching their sons not to chew with their mouths open, and fathers going to work a little early to beat the morning rush. And in 1453, Constantinople was put to siege by the Ottoman Empire in a battle that would end with the subjugation of the city. As people starved and bled, cried and wept in the midst of this, Christian leaders and scholars gathered together. They did not meet to discuss how to interact with the bedraggled populace. They weren’t coming together to discuss the distribution of church resources to the needy and maimed, or even how they would issue last rites to the countless dying citizens and soldiers. They weren’t encouraging each other to be strong and trust in the Lord as they walked the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

They were gathered to debate and argue. And their focus was not on such silly and paltry topics as life and death. No, they could not be bothered with the mundane and trivial. They had important things to focus on–theological things. Things like: what color were the Virgin Mary’s eyes? If a fly falls into holy water, is the fly sanctified or the holy water defiled?

And so it goes today.

As the world bucks and heaves under our feet, we debate and argue amongst ourselves. After all, those Orthodox don’t have church services with instruments; haven’t they ever read that David worshiped with the harp and lyre? And those Catholics with their icons! How could they? Don’t even get me started on Protestants–who do they think they are?

We argue about teams and miss the point. We spend so much time on rules, that sometimes we forget to play the game; and if we do, it’s just so we can beat the other team. We forget–or neglect–that everybody can win. And it’s all about winning.

We are running a hard race–the type that many don’t finish. Lactic acid and fatigue causes muscles to seize and cramp; narrow, winding desert roads are littered with broken bones and shattered corpses; water is rare and rest even rarer. Why do we try to make it harder for each other?

Should we really use our precious breath screaming about how John Calvin’s worldview is the only one that could possibly work? Are you really going to stop running so you can condemn some pastor in a foreign city who wears a fancy robe and hat, and prays to the same Christ you do?

You know what happens when you stop running in the middle of a long race?–your body starts fighting even harder against you. Muscles and ligaments cool down and become like hard taffy, and that lactic acid that was burning your legs starts to pool up. I’m already hauling 200-some pounds of unwilling flesh and blood through life; I’m not looking to make it any harder on myself.

That doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to be prudent and efficient. If someone is lugging around a sack full of cement, or gold, or fancy books, slowing down to encourage them to drop their burden isn’t wrong–it’s loving your family well. But when we pounce on other runners and try to tear their clothes off–because, well, they’re just foolish and wrong and they should wear the same shoes and shirt and socks that I do, and then they can run just like me–we are crippling them; more tragically, we are crippling ourselves.

Instead of dogma and rhetoric, maybe we should just look at what other runners did well. Mother Theresa wore sandals signed with the blood of Christ’s love; maybe I should try to get a pair of those. Saint Francis knew you have to dress light for a long race, so he threw off everything encumbering him so he could be faster.

And then there are those rare souls who run and sing–folks like Rich Mullins. In the midst of their own pain and struggle, they sing and praise and exhort those around them. Sometimes they encourage, sometimes they single out things that are slowing other folks down, but they were always running, always pointing their gaze down the road. Maybe I could try to be more like that.

After all, everybody can win.

Why wouldn’t I try to help?

On Climbing Trees

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Nature was made for man. In the brilliant wings of every butterfly, in the rippling muscle of a whale, in the surface of the shimmering jewel known as the ocean, there is a sense of egotism that is hard to escape–those things were made for us. The world was made for man, not man for the world. There is a huge theatre stretched out before us, and have been given wonderful seats. This is how I justify climbing trees.

Climbing trees is an oft-neglected activity amongst “adults”. After a certain age, our minds begin to solidify like pudding left on the counter, and we view this timeless art as something foolish and asinine. We forget that tree-climbing is both salvific and sanctifying–one of the lesser sacraments, but no less significant because of it. Zaccheaus was saved when he ascended a tree to see God; why do we not more often do the same?

“Become like little children,” Jesus said. Well, I can think of one thing that all children do. They climb trees. They swing from branches like monkeys, the build houses and forts amongst limbs, the shimmy up and down rough trunks. They twist and dance and fall and scrape and delight in life. Instead of merely watching the show, they become a part of it, and dance and act amongst the props laid out for them.

All Creation is God-breathed; God spoke and it was so. There is no Martha’s amongst those children climbing trees –worrying about dinner and feeding guests and making sure everything is cut and square and proper. There is only Mary, sitting at the feet of her Savior and breathing. We cannot help but to scold Mary as Martha did if we choose to neglect climbing trees (for those  blessed to be able-bodied, of course). For there will come a time when we cannot seek Christ amidst high boughs and a rooftop view; it will not always be with us. But for those with whom it is–enjoy it! Enjoy it as if you were in the company of Christ himself; that is exactly where you are when you perched out in space.

The last time I worshipped as such was after Christmas. It was a Thursday, and it was cold. The temperature hovered around 15 degrees. Snow covered the earth in a quiet, contented blanket. I put on thick gloves and a thick coat. I pulled a ski mask over my face to protect from curious branches. And then I started my brief pilgrimage.

It took me about 30 minutes to climb the 60-so foot pine I picked out. The Christian walk is never easy, but I am quite out of shape, and by the time I wrapped myself around the uppermost branches of this particular tree, I was panting and my breath came in short little cloudy puffs that drifted away amidst clean smelling needles.

One of the great things about climbing trees–tall ones especially–is that once you’re up, you really have nowhere to go. Situated amidst the branches, I felt like a bird of prey surveying the world. Then I looked at the stars thrown across the dark blanket of the night sky and I felt like I was being watched by a thousand hawks, and if it wasn’t for the branches that surrounded me, they would swoop down in unison carry me off. The eyes of the angels were on me and I had nowhere to go.

I had two choices. I could climb down–a task that was not appealing seeing as I had just climbed up–or I could reconcile with them. So I prayed. In the quiet above the ground, in my little wooden temple, I just prayed into the silence–the tip of an arrow pointing to Heaven. And when I was done I enjoyed existence. All 200+ pounds of me sat perched on a branch about the size of my forearm. Worry, insecurity, and doubt were all channeled into that single springy bough; meanwhile, I was free to be alive.

But even Zacchaeus was called down after he talked with Christ. So like Zacchaues, I shimmied down from the holy height, and returned to the crowd below. And as I hopped to the ground, my boots throwing up puffs of crystal white snow, I felt great. For a brief moment, I had been right where I should be–and been on cue. I hadn’t needed to do anything but show up. And I felt great.

How could I not?

Noah

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I have often heard people–namely Evangelical Christians– speak of America as a place where miracles no longer occur. Those who have been on mission trips to places such as Africa or other very underdeveloped countries will bring back stories of miraculous healing and those who listen will ponder at why they have never seen a lame man walk. They will attribute this to a whole host of things: lack of faith, faithlessness entirely, moral depravity, or my personal favorite–science. We have developed some measure of science and now God looks down on us in disdain for being so arrogant as to try to figure out the world. After all, science brought us evolutionary theory, clinical abortions, and that unbearable truth that hurricanes are not a result of failing to sacrifice a goat on feast day.

Science also brought us Noah, or rather brought him back.

Noah is a friend of mine, a friend who was in a rather terrible car accident. He was driving his truck without a seatbelt when he lost control, ran off the road, and flipped a number of times. At some point during the rotations, Noah was ejected through the windshield and came to rest a fairly significant distance away from the crash. It’s probably a miracle in-and-of itself that he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt; if he had been, the twisted steel frame of his truck slicing through the driver’s side would have killed him instantly. Or he would have had to have both his legs amputated to remove him from the mess.

But somehow, Noah survived–survived the crash, survived the windshield, survived the subsequent tumble across the grassy earth. He survived long enough for paramedics to reach him and get him to a hospital. He survived while doctors told anxious parents that he wasn’t going to make it–multiple times. And he survived long enough to go to a treatment facility in Colorado that helped him while dealing with some of the extensively traumatic brain and skull damage he had received. He survived long enough to have a conversation with me 7 months later at my little brother’s basketball game.

He showed me the pictures from the crash. He told me about what happened (or what he remembered of it), waking up in the hospital, the medically-induced comas, the excruciating pain, the skill of the people who had treated him. Noah had been an exceptional downhill skier; he told me that all of his previous surgeries and injuries had helped him cope with the physical and mental trauma an accident like the one he had produces. When I asked him what he was planning on doing, he told me that he didn’t know–only that he wanted to do something to support the facility in Colorado that had guided him through his extensive rehabilitation. “It’s an incredible place,” Noah told me, “Miracles happen there every day.”

Miracles happen there every day.

The reason we don’t have miracles in America isn’t that God has left us. It’s not that we have killed divine power with the power of science–as if the two aren’t interwoven. No, we don’t have miracles in America because we don’t have the eyes to see them.

Our gaze has wandered to other lands and we have seen the miracles there and we want them to be recreated here. We want faith healings and the blind seeing and the lame walking. But those things happen; they happen all the time. They happen with greater frequency in America than any other nation. They may not come about through a prayer or a song, but they do occur. And we say, “No, no, that’s not God, that’s science. What I’m looking for is real miracles.” To which I say: ye of little faith.

The paramedics that treated Noah kept him alive long enough to get to the hospital. Their whole training–their whole lives–had prepared them to sustain the breath in this one individual. Then when he got to the hospital, his doctor–despite doubting Noah’s ability to survive–kept a spark of life in him; a holy talent cultivated through decades of experience. This was a man with a family, a life, maybe even an embarrassing tattoo from a weekend in Vegas, and he was there to care for Noah and minister to his very specific physical needs at that moment. The rehab center in Colorado is even more remarkable; years in the making, millions of dollars in support, from perhaps just as many individuals, staffed with some of the best medical professionals in their field. All the money, all the time, all the knowledge and experience that was poured into the place was given to Noah at the exact hour of his need.

If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

Now, you can tell me all about how a miracle is defined as the suspension of natural law by the divine. I agree. I would, however, ask that you broaden your definition of divine, and don’t constrict it to Bible stories or rural Tibetan villages. What happens in those places is certainly miraculous; what happens every day in the hospital down the road from my apartment is perhaps more so. It’s not that God is no longer present and working here; he just doesn’t need to do everything himself. He has servants who he has given the Spirit to, and they act out his will.

They say when the Apostle Paul’s shadow fell on people, they were healed from their ailments; well, I can tell you personally, I have met Paul–and he is a family friend. He works in an emergency room in Anchorage, Alaska. I know another Paul who spends his vacation time performing surgery in the jungles of Burma; he gives sight to the blind and comfort to the sick. Paul was one man, but we have an army of apostles who have trained their whole lives to perform miracles–whether they know it or not.

It’s not that we don’t have miracles anymore, they’ve just become so commonplace, we no longer view them as miraculous.