Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Only Thing Worse.

"The only thing worse than having a family, I discovered, is not having a family." 
- Theodore Dalrymple

Family is a messy thing.

They're the ones who know all of your deepest secrets; your darkest fears; your grimmest days; your most shameful sins. And you know every one of theirs. And still. You're supposed to love each other more than anyone else in the whole world.

How could that even work?

Why should that even work?

It's heart-rending to have a family. It's overwhelming and draining, and sometimes you'll wonder how it could ever possibly be worth it. "The supreme adventure," said Chesterton, "is being born." You're born into the middle of somebody's life, and then you're married into the middle of somebody's life. And so, for always and always, you're bound to people, through thick and thin, for better or worse. You always will be. And sometimes things are going to get too hard, too personal, too stressful.

We have to embrace that. Not accept it. Embrace it. No matter how tempting it might be, we can't hide. Your siblings will annoy you. Your parents will disappoint you. Your children will break your heart. You'll have to sacrifice and work and cry.

And then you will look back and realize that you wouldn't change it for all the world, and everything else besides. From the moment you slip the ring onto somebody's finger and say that you "do", you've given up yourself. You've accepted a "duel of honor to the death" (Chesterton), and it's then that the end truly begins.

We don't have to fear that end.  Paradox: "The only way to find your life is to lay your own life down," (Andrew Peterson.)  And when you take a moment and look around you at the life you've found, you'll realize that the "dying" was a small price.

C.S. Lewis once said, "The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal." I'm happily realizing how right he was.

Family is messy, yes. Messy, raw, embarrassing. And so very beautiful.


Chesterton (At His Best).

Why should we reck of hours that rend
While we two ride together?
The heavens rent from end to end
Would be but windy weather,
The strong stars shaken down in spate
Would be a shower of spring,
And we should list the trump of fate
And hear a linnet sing.

We break the line with stroke and luck,
The arrows run like rain,
If you be struck, or I be struck,
There’s one to strike again.
If you befriend, or I befriend,
The strength is in us twain,
And good things end and bad things end,
And you and I remain.

Why should we reck of ill or well
While we two ride together?
The fires that over Sodom fell
Would be but sultry weather.
Beyond all ends to all men given
Our race is far and fell,
We shall but wash our feet in heaven,
And warm our hands in hell.

Battles unborn and vast shall view
Our faltered standards stream,
New friends shall come and frenzies new.
New troubles toil and teem;
New friends shall pass and still renew
One truth that does not seem,
That I am I, and you are you,
And Death a morning dream.

Why should we reck of scorn or praise
While we two ride together?
The icy air of godless days
Shall be but wintry weather.
If hell were highest, if the heaven
Were blue with devils blue,
I should have guessed that all was even,
If I had dreamed of you.

Little I reck of empty prides,
Of creeds more cold than clay;
To nobler ends and longer rides,
My lady rides to-day.
To swing our swords and take our sides
In that all-ending fray
When stars fall down and darkness hides,
When God shall turn to bay.

Why should we reck of grin and groan
While we two ride together?
The triple thunders of the throne
Would be but stormy weather.
For us the last great fight shall roar,
Upon the ultimate plains,
And we shall turn and tell once more
Our love in English lanes.

- G.K. Chesterton, A Marriage Song

Thursday, January 23, 2014

For Righteousness' Sake.

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter 135.) The interesting, and somewhat odd, comparison has often been made between Melville’s Captain Ahab and Jesus Christ. Ahab spends his life pursuing the whale, against all odds, over and around every obstacle. And Christ spends his life “pursuing” His Father, in the same way. Two men. Two ambitious, radical men. Are they so similar, after all? Might be. But I don’t think so.


“If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Ahab had a somewhat similar philosophy. His men, once they became his men, were expected to remain his men, no matter what the cost. They would be led through what seemed to be hell, itself, and they were expected to follow. Everything else had to be put away. The only thing that mattered now was that they follow, wherever that might happen to lead. Both men were radical men. They told people things that hadn’t been heard before. They told people things that seemed impossible. They required an almost immeasurable price: suffering and the very possible threat of death. There was no guarantee of safety, from either; only the guarantee of trouble.


But with Christ there is something that Ahab could not offer. There is comfort. It didn’t matter what the trials might be, because they would come. It didn’t matter how long, or how horrifying, the journey, because it would be worse than they could imagine. It didn’t matter if you died, even. There would always still be this inexpressibly wonderful reward. And it was a far more beautiful thing than the pathetic piece of money that Ahab used to bribe his crew. Jesus threw the tables, but Ahab threw away joy. Ahab’s quest was a quest of self-fulfillment, while Jesus was led by something outside of His own passions. The disciples weren’t following a man obsessed with revenge, rather they followed a good Prince who died to redeem His kingdom from the one who had tainted beauty and truth. This Man was, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “not safe”. But He was good. Ahab died because he was too proud to ever stop defying. Jesus died because He was humble enough to not defy at all. Ahab did not have the ability to focus on the needs of his men. He was too busy clutching at what he thought he needed. But Jesus bids us come to Him when we are weary. He knows how to give us rest. Ahab has no way to promise us anything enduring, but Christ promises everlasting peace. Jesus was not a tame man. He was wild and he was sometimes frightening. He spoke harshly to the air, the sky, the sea, and even they listened. Ahab thought he could control the sea, but he could not. And it was ultimately the sea that killed him.


Ahab, in the end, was a bitter man. He’d “strike the sun if it insulted [him],”(Chapter 36). He was bitter because he had not lived for anything outside of his own desires. “For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,” he screamed at the whale. For hate’s sake. That was all he had lived and suffered for. Hatred. And at the last, that sounds so terribly meaningless. “Blessed are those,” said Jesus, “Who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10). When we live and suffer for righteousness, instead, the kingdom of heaven is ours. That’s the promise. That’s the difference. Ahab fought for hate and he failed. But Jesus fought for righteousness. And that makes the biggest, most wonderful difference in the world. Take heart. He has overcome.



Monday, January 20, 2014

Called Home.

This essay was for Omnibus. "Compare Huckleberry Finn with The Odyssey", it said... An unusual topic, and I was intrigued. ;) 

“Here is the beautiful place - who could mistake it?
Here is Odysseus’ hall: no hall like this!”
(-Homer, The Odyssey, book 17, line 340-1)

Home. We all want to go back. We want to go back whether we think so, or not. Even if our own house was full of strife and hatred and things we try to forget. We want home, because we know. 
somewhere in the deepest part of us that home is something entirely different from house. And we know that that difference makes all the world. Odysseus wanted his home. He longed for Ithaka. And in this he was, as Chesterton said, a true soldier: He fought, not because he hated what was in front of him, but because he loved what was behind him. Love is strongest; stronger than hate. “Beside love, even wrath whispers.” (N.D. Wilson.) That love was what gave him the dedication to go on fighting his way back for over twenty years. That beautiful love is what makes us more sympathetic to Odysseus’s story, than to, say, Huckleberry Finn’s story. Both are adventures. But only one tugs at our heart. Only one rouses that familiar longing for home.

Obviously, Odysseus had his share of shortcomings. In fact, he and Huck shared a good many weaknesses in common. Both struggled with - or maybe delighted in - trickery. Neither saw a problem with warping the truth a bit when it benefited them in a notable way. “Please take it,” [said Huck] (Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 11), “and don’t ask me nothing - then I won’t have to tell no lies.” That is to say, if you do ask me questions that I don’t see fit to answer, then I’ll tell you a lie straight off. Huck also dressed himself up on several occasions; once as a girl. And Odysseus disguised himself as a beggar. “Come, weave us a scheme so I can pay them back!” says Odysseus, ready for some sort of sly revenge. (Homer, The Odyssey, book 13.43). This theme of deceit is rather pervasive in both stories. Both heroes are also deceived by somebody else, at least once in the course of the tales. And they were both avid adventurers. Neither paid any heed to caution. Neither knew what it meant to be ‘timid’. They each threw themselves whole-heartedly into the life they were living at the moment. That involved dead men, and deranged witches, and runaway slaves, and long, dark nights alone.

The key difference we have here is purpose. Huck is running away from home. Odysseus is running toward home. That’s why we can sympathize more with the burly soldier, than with the pitiful orphan child. We know what it feels like to want to be back where we belong. Oh, we can laugh at Huck’s antics, we may even cry at bits, but all the while, we have this odd sort of unsettlement about the whole thing. Huck is trying to get away from where he’s supposed to be. That’s the point of the story and we can’t feel quite right about that. Odysseus on the other hand has a purer longing. He wants back. He wants back to where his wife and son are waiting - faithfully, he hopes. Early on in the story, he is warned and tempted by the alluring Calypso: “I wish you well, however you do it, but if you only knew in your own heart how many hardships you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country, you would stay here with me and be lord of this household and be an immortal...” (Book 5, lines 205-210) But Odysseus resists, he flees from temptation, and he keeps on his steady way home. He’d rather see his home again and die, than to live forever in a strange land. We see this unbelievable loyalty and our hearts ache for Odysseus. We know that his longing is good, and true, and noble.

“My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.” (Isaiah 32:18) Wanting to be at home, and at peace, is a holy desire. And it doesn’t matter how long you travel, or how much you suffer, if you’re headed in the wrong direction. Journey’s end makes all the difference. If you struggle all your life, but headed down instead of up, what good will that do you? If you wrestle against the way things ought to be, then your wrestling is all in vain. That is Huck. He is living, fighting, lying, in vain. He doesn’t know that the unrest he feels inside comes from the desire tohave home, not to escape home. We want him to come back, to come and be at peace, but he never does. He can only keep on and keep on and keep on, with no fulfillment. But that’s not Odysseus. In the end, his struggles are all made beautiful. The moment he steps ashore Ithaka, the wretchedness all goes away. Because, well, he’s back. He’s back to “live in felicity/ and make this palace lovely for [his] children.” (Book 13, lines 75-76). This is home. There’s nowhere like this.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

They Were Alive.

"Children collected butterflies, coins, stamps, arrowheads, feathers, rocks, and insects. They bought magazines and traded them with one another. They traded baseball cards. They played rummy, poker, pinochle, and cribbage. They mapped the woods. They learned bird calls. They foraged for nuts, and mushrooms, and berries. They jumped off bridges into streams. They rode freight trains. They needed no committees. They were alive."

"It has been many years since I have seen a child, of any age, lying on a grassy field and staring up at the sky."

(-Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.)

Instead we have this:

Children can't be bothered to look up there at the sky anymore. Our culture has has spoiled their wonder. They are not alive. They only exist. There's no beauty in just breathing but not living. And there's no beauty in just living, but not living well. "Spend your life," says N.D. Wilson. "And if time is a river, may you leave a wake." 

And may our children have the courage to do the "brave nothing of beholding the sky"(Esolen).