Thursday, October 22, 2015

Best Costume Award: A Halloween Poem

Best Costume Award.
The time has come to mask yourself.
Disguised as goblin, gnome or elf,
Patrol the streets and ask for treats.
Expect a fright and make a sight
That chills the feet and leaves heartbeats
To race in spite of lighted night.
But, for a cloak that won’t be seen,
Dress up as me for Halloween.

Though I’m not famed like Superman -
Both myth and wealth have yet to pan -
Tell I to you of all that’s true:
My front’s the best to stop a guess.
My gaze can fool and hands pull wool
O’er eyes - I dress to hide the mess
Inside the man – oh you’d be keen
To dress as me for Halloween.

Won’t find my hide inside a shop -
You’ll have to rush, I mean, don’t stop
To find a place that sells a face
That screens a soul of pain and strife
As joy. I’ll praise without a trace
Of true belief that comes from life.
What lurks beneath this look, this sheen?
Go out as me for Halloween.

Let’s look for ways to shed these scales
To stop this show, to drop these veils.
Refuse to come as white-washed tombs.
Instead we’ll find our cups and minds
Are clean as rooms that knew no dooms
Placed down by signs of sin and binds.
I’ll not pretend, here’s what I mean -
I won’t dress as me for Halloween.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Five Reasons Christians Should Read Khaled Hosseini

I've just finished reading "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Afghan-American author, Khaled Hosseini. This is the last of his three novels I've read, and I've been impressed with him as an author, a theologian and a person. I want to take this opportunity to share with you five reasons to give his books a try, specifically if you are a follower of Jesus:

1. His books preach tolerance, compassion and empathy without being preachy. The number one rule of writing is "show, don't tell" and Hosseini is an expert at letting his character's actions speak the words of life for which our world is in desperate need. It can get a little exhausting to read of abuse after abuse perpetrated against Afghanistan's women and marginalized, but there's little doubt of the accuracy of Hosseini's portrayals.

2. Reading a Hosseini novel shows the beauty as well as the darkness in Islam. I am frustrated by Christians who believe that Islam is an entirely evil religion. Islam is a false religion, of course, because it does not proclaim the word of God whose name is love in Jesus. But, it does not mean that it doesn't also contain truth and beauty at many points. As they say, a broken clock is still right twice a day. Hosseini's books provide great connection points for Christians trying to find common ground and understanding with Muslims - and if you're not trying for that, you SHOULD be.

3. Hosseini's books are not anti-American in any form. He shows the tragedies committed in Afghanistan without passing judgment on the political entities involved. With that said, certainly the U.S. DOES need called to account for its actions in Afghanistan at certain points, and you could glean some insight into the problems we've caused there in his books.

4. The books are a good mix of drama, introspection and fantasy. My favorite is his latest, "And the Mountains Echoed," which has become one of my most beloved books. However, his earliest and best-known book, "Kite Runner," is certainly just as worthy of a read.

5. Hosseini is writing today, he's writing well, and he's writing in a way that will expand your mind and open your heart. That is what all good art, especially fiction, can do. Give him a shot!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Reading Dostoyevsky: Thoughts on his novel "Demons" translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky

As I read and reread Dostoyevsky, I finished reading his novel called "Demons" also sometimes titled "The Possessed." The book is an especially fascinating read in light of later works such as Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, First Circle and Cancer Ward, as well as Orwell's classics Animal Farm and 1984, as it's clear that Dostoyevsky saw the fatal flaws at the core of the socialist movement beginning in Russia in the late nineteenth century. However, Dostoyevsky's treatment of the movement stands the test of time as it speaks in relevant and powerful tones regarding modern political movements from both the right and the left that subscribe to societal programming, communal initiatives and social revolution to bring meaning and order to life. Dostoyevsky argues that in these movements lurk demons which destroy movements and societies by ordering their desires and efforts toward self, thereby disordering their aims toward debauchery and licentious behavior. Instead, Dostoyevsky believes that Jesus must cast the demons out of humanity and free them to live into the wholeness God has created within them.

Though it is long, the novel is well worth the read, full of humor, intrigue, intellect, and even some horror. I can't help but wonder how different Russia might have looked had they taken the warnings Dostoyevsky penned to heart, and I also wonder how his words might be applied to our various political fads of today.

Some notable quotes from the novel follow (note that these are quotes from the perspective of characters in the novel, and do not necessarily reflect Dostoyevsky's views or main points):
"You may be sure that all those who cease to understand their people and lose their connection with them, at once, in the same measure, also lose the faith of their fathers, and become either atheists or indifferent." - p. 38

"The more socialist a man is, the further he goes, the more he loves property. ...Why is that?" - p. 77

"God is the pain of the fear of death. He who overcomes pain and fear will himself become God. ...He who only kills himself to kill fear will at once become God." - p. 115-116

"They must find out that they're good, then they'll all become good at once, all, to a man." - p. 238

"Nations are formed and move by another ruling and dominating force, whose origin is unknown and inexplicable. This force is the force of the unquenchable desire to get to the end, while at the same time denying the end. It is the force of a ceaseless and tireless confirmation of its own being and a denial of death." - p. 250

"Acquire God by labor. The whole essence is there, or else you'll disappear like vile mildew." - p. 255

"Every man is worth an umbrella." - p. 270

"If your God found it necessary to offer a reward for love, it means your God is immoral." - p. 397

"Desire and suffering are for us; for our slaves there will be no desires." - p. 418

"Mankind can live without the Englishman, it can live without Germany, it can live only too well without the Russian man, it can live without science, without bread, and it only cannot live without beauty, for then there would be nothing at all to do in the world!" - p. 486

"It has always seemed to me that you would bring me to some place where there lives a huge, evil spider, as big as a man, and we would spend our whole life there looking at him and being afraid. That's how our mutual love would pass." - p. 525

"Something unusual, altogether unexpected, trembled in his soul. Three years of separation, three years of broken marriage, had dislodged nothing from his heart. And perhaps every day of those three years he had dreamed of her, the dear being who had once said to him: 'I love you.'" - p. 569

"God, when he was creating the world, said at the end of each day of creation: 'Yes, this is true, this is good.' This... this is not tenderheartedness, but simply joy. You don't forgive anything, because there's no longer anything to forgive. You don't really love - oh, what is here is higher than love! What's most frightening is that it's so terribly clear, and there's such joy. If it were longer than five seconds - the soul couldn't endure it, and would vanish. In those five seconds I live my life through, and for them I would give my life, because it's worth it. To endure ten seconds one would have to change physically." - p. 590

On Children: "There were two, and suddenly, there's a third human being, a new spirit, whole, finished, such as doesn't come from human hands; a new thought and a new love, it's even frightening... and there's nothing higher in the world!" - p. 593

"This generation must be re-educated to make it worthy of freedom. There are still many thousands of Shatovs [innocent murder victims] ahead of us." - p. 607

"Without Christ, the whole planet with everything on it is madness only. There has not been one like Him before or since, not ever, even to the point of miracle. This is the miracle, that there has not been and never will be such a one. And if so, if the laws of nature did not pity even This One, did not pity even their own miracle,  but made Him to live amidst a lie and die for a lie, then the whole planet is a lie, and stands upon a lie and a stupid mockery." - p. 618

"For years I have been searching for the attribute of my divinity, and I have found it: the attribute of my divinity is - Self-will! ...I kill myself to show my insubordination and my new fearsome freedom." - p. 619

"God is necessary for me if only because He is the one being who can be loved, eternally..." - p. 663

"Even if you do not attain to reconciliation with yourself and forgiveness of yourself, even then He will forgive you for your intention and for your great suffering... for there are no words or thoughts in human language to express all the ways and reasons of the Lamb 'until his ways are openly revealed to us.' Who can embrace Him who is unembraceable, who can grasp the whole of Him who is infinite?" - p. 711

Monday, August 10, 2015

Reading Dostoyesky: Thoughts and quotes from "Notes from a Dead House" (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

One of Dostoyevsky's earlier novels, "Notes from a Dead House" was recently released in a new translation by a husband and wife couple who have been steadily and heroically working through Dostoyevsky's works for us English-speaking readers. The novel is a fictional reflection on the four years the author himself spent in a Siberian prison camp. As with all Dostoyevsky works, it is brilliant and filled with heart and incredible insight into the human condition and the spiritual depths that flood every moment of our existence. The following are some of my favorite quotes from the novel:

"I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that you can know a person by his laughter, and if from some first encounter you like the laughter of some completely unknown person, you may boldly say that he is a good man." - p. 38

About a Muslim prisoner: "Nurra came up to me and gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder. Then again and again, and so it went on for three days. On his part, I guessed and later learned, this meant that he was sorry for me, that he felt how hard this first acquaintance with prison was for me, that he wanted to show me his friendship, cheer me up, and assure me of his protection. Kind and naive Nurra!" - p. 60

"Whenever I came back from work, the first thing I did before going anywhere, was to hurry behind the barracks with Sharik the dog leaping ahead of me and squealing for joy, to hug his head, to kiss it, kiss it, with some sort of sweet and at the same time tormentingly bitter feeling wringing my heart. And I remember it was even pleasant for me to think, as if flaunting my own hurt to myself, that now I had one being left in the world who loved me and was attached to me, my friend, my only friend - my faithful dog Sharik." - p. 94

"Every convict feels that he is not at home, but as if on a visit." - p. 96

"Chekunov twisted it somehow strangely, bared his teeth, and nodding quickly, as if accidentally , towards the dead man, said to the sergeant: "He had a mother, too!" - and walked away. I remember it was as if those words pierced me... and what made him speak them and how did they enter his head?" - p. 180

"To acknowledge one's guilt and ancestral sin is little, very little; it is necessary to break with them completely. And that cannot be done quickly." - p. 197

"He was of an ardent and rapturous character, like all puppies, who from joy at seeing their master would squeal, bark, come to lick his face, and are ready to lose control of all their other feelings in front of you: 'Proprieties mean nothing, if only you see my rapture!'" - p. 243

"Here in prison everyone was a dreamer - and that jumped into your eyes." - p. 250

The book ends with the appendix "The Peasant Marey" in which Dostoyevsky tells the story of being a child and running away from the fear of a wolf in the woods and being comforted by Marey, one of his father's peasant workers, who showed a deep compassion and regard for the comfort and spiritual well-being of a child for whom he very well might have felt resentment. This appendix wraps up the message of the novel nicely - the house may be dead, but, inside, each of us is painfully, inexorably, unalterably alive. Those who live out of an inward source of true compassion and love-filled hope shine out as lights to all of us looking for the day when our visit ends and we find ourselves finally back home.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

To Kill To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch is not a racist.

Let me clarify: The Atticus Finch character in To Kill a Mockingbird is not a racist. Now that Go Set a Watchman has been published, there are revisionist readers going back to discover traces of racism in his behavior.  They say, "Atticus did not want to take Tom Robinson’s case – clearly, he felt black people were inferior." "Atticus asked Scout to consider things from the lynch mob’s point of view – clearly, he was a secret fan of lynch mobs." "Atticus had Jem work for the racist Ms. Dubose – clearly he felt she had a point." (This idea is unintelligible in the context of the novel). "Atticus hired Calpurnia as a cook – clearly, he would have been a slaveholder if he could have been." If you read To Kill a Mockingbird, you cannot think these answers are true. Atticus didn’t want Tom Robinson’s case because he hoped such a case would never come before him, and because he didn’t want his children to go through what they went through – he would have admitted this last was a selfish desire, but can you blame a single father for wanting to protect his children? Atticus was willing to be torn apart by the lynch mob himself – and, guess what? Had he been lynched, he still would have wanted his children to understand things from their point of view – to see how people can be so blinded by prejudice that they are no longer able to do the good they normally do.

There is no instance in the novel where Atticus treats African-Americans as worthy of less respect than whites in his community. He says any white man who cheats or mistreats a black man is trash. He even defends May Ella Ewell for kissing a black man, arguing that it was a natural feeling for her. He demands the jury do its duty in setting Tom Robinson free, calls upon them to do so in the “name of God.”

Is Atticus perfect? No. Could he have done even more for the black community? Yes. Would the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird have admitted this? I believe so with all my heart. I even believe it with a heart that is somewhat broken by the quotes shared from Go Set a Watchman in which Atticus apparently defends segregation, racial inequality and the Ku Klux Klan. That is a DIFFERENT Atticus. That is an entirely different version of the man who was willing to lose his life, his livelihood, and his family to defend the cause of a black man, and do so to the best of his ability, instead of going through the motions to accept the inevitable. He is genuinely distraught when Tom Robinson is killed, because he cares about him.

I love Harper Lee. I am sure that her book is great, and I’m sure had she made the efforts to edit and rewrite it, Atticus would be different. Perhaps he would have wrong attitudes Scout would confront, but he would not and could not be a racist who believed African-Americans were an inferior race and be at all consistent with the character we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee challenges us with the question of how to look at people we love when they disappoint us by choosing the wrong – and that’s a great question to ponder. But, the Atticus who disappoints Scout in Go Set a Watchman cannot be the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.

From the first day I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I have desired to be the same person at home as I am on the public streets, just like Atticus. I’ve desired to stand up for the right and for the oppressed at any cost. And, Jesus is the one who enables me to hold to that stance. I don’t need Atticus Finch or any made-up character to bring that life about in me. But, if I have a choice, I want to hang on to a hero, to keep my Atticus with me. We have so few heroes left. And, I mourn the day that Atticus is no longer sitting in his room reading, getting up in the middle of the night to check on us, and firmly dedicating himself to standing up for the poor and the marginalized at all costs. I mourn the loss of someone who has meant so much to so many, and I can’t help but doubt that Harper Lee really desired this turn of events to take place.

As I read reviews of the novel this week, I was brought back to the ending lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, some of the most beautiful in all of literature. It says, about Atticus, “He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” I was filled with sadness that, now, for the first time, for many people Atticus will not be there when we wake up in the morning. His place will be filled by a dark and strange caricature who seeks to confirm our deepest fears that no one is truly who they seem to be, that each of us are devoured by a dark fear that corrupts even the best of motives. Instead of believing that redemption is possible for all of us when we have the courage to defend the right, we are left to wonder if redemption has ever really reached any of us, or if we are all left alone to struggle ahead and hope for the best.

Harper Lee is a genius, and clearly she loves her fellow human beings and wants nothing less than full equality for all. I agree with all my heart. I disagree, however, that this new/old version of Atticus Finch will help us get there. But, I imagine MY Atticus saying that the choice is up to each of us. Perhaps he would say something like: “You never really needed me, anyway. What you really need is fear of God and love of your neighbor. You need to believe in the best in each one of us, and be aware of the worst. You need to do what I could only do in your dreams in real life. Write the message of justice, compassion and righteousness on the pages of your life, and let them be the living reality that defines your future and that of your children.”

Forgive me for imagining Atticus saying that, and then turning out the light in my room, going into the room next to me, and sitting down to read again. Forgive me for imagining that he’ll still be there all night, and he’ll be there when I get up in the morning. And, in that morning, I pray the world will be a better place. 

Because, you see, for me, Atticus is the true mockingbird. He was made-up, brought into existence out of love, and existed in the pure world of fiction, and his only purpose in life was to sing a song of courageous love that made me wish for more and believe I could be more. Today, I feel like my mockingbird’s been killed, and it feels like a sin. So, I’m going to blindly hold on to him, and hope that, somehow, his song can outlast the night.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Reading Dickens: Highlights of the Old Curiosity Shop

Below you will find quotes and summary thoughts as I finished reading Charles Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop"

On the subject of little children: "It is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us."

"Oh these holidays! Why will they leave us some regret? Why cannot we push them back only a week or two in our memories, so as to put them at once at that convenient distance whence they may be regarded either with a calm indifference or a pleasant effort of recollection? Why will they hang about us like the flavor of yesterday's wine? ...Such is the difference between yesterday and today. We are all going to the play or coming home from it."

A working class man talking about a fire in his furnace: "It's like a book to me, the only book I ever learned to read, and many an old story it tells me. It's music, for I should know its voice among a thousand, and there are other voices in its roar. It has its pictures too. You don't know how many strange faces and features I trace in the red-hot coals. It's my memory, that fire, and shows me all my life."

The soul's feelings on the physical body it leaves at death: "It still felt for it a love like that which captives have been known to bear towards the cell in which they have been long confined, and even at parting hung upon its narrow bounds affectionately."

"There is nothing innocent or good that dies and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith, or none. An infant, a prattling child, dying in its cradle, will live again the better thoughts of those who loved it, and play its part, through them, in the redeeming actions of the world, though its body be burnt to ashes or drowned in the deepest sea. There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven, but does its blessed work on earth in those that love it here. Forgotten! oh, if the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source, how beautifully would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy, and purified affection, would be seem to have their growth in dusty graves."

"You haven't seen a silver pencil case this morning, have you?"
"I didn't meet many in the street," rejoined Mr. Swiveller. "I saw one - a stout pencil-case of respectable appearance - but as he was in company with an elderly penknife and a young toothpick, with whom he was in earnest conversation, I felt a delicacy in speaking to him"

"When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he sets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world and bless it. ...In the Destroyer's steps there springs up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to Heaven." 

The reason that you read a sprawling Dickens' work is to unearth treasures like these. As well as to run into larger than life characters, who in caricature remind you of the people you run into at church, or see shopping at Wal-mart, walking the city streets, or who go to your family reunions. The Old Curiosity Shop is admittedly melodramatic in spots, not the best of Dicken's works, but still classic literature. As a theme, the book seems to emphasize that nothing is wasted. Even in tragedy, seeds of hope are planted that blossom into flowers of redemption that result in continuing fruit of life for years to come. I recommend taking up the challenge of reading it!