Lost at Sea

He saw the night sky crack like a violin

When he first began to drown.

It cut across the string of stars, every single pearl,

Dropping them, one by one, into the cold Atlantic.

 

Beneath the black waves, he gasped for all the ice in the wind,

Baring his teeth into the howling wolves of winter

As they shook his brain awake, his eyes reddened

And wounded by their torches, the faint fire of salt water

Biting at his dreams.

 

The ship behind him raised her nose into the darkness

As she flaked the splintered beams from her hull,

Littering the wild water with the bones of war,

Aching at her empty sides.

 

And still he wheezed, his ribs barbed with thin air,

Filling the tin cup of his heart with gunpowder and rain

As copper blood pumped into his mouth,

Dried and cracking, lined with pewter, rusting as fast as memories.

 

He struggled like a rag doll against the pitch and pull,

His eyes flickered their spotlights into the iron dark of space,

Motionless and far, a moon quietly pinning it all together

 

Until every shattered star on the sable swells drifted into view,

Pooling into a dazzling form, a woman

He knew from another world,

One where the fire is low and warm,

The sugar bowl is full,

And her hands are made of sky.

 

She shimmered in the shine of starlight

And beckoned his wincing eyes to stay awake

Just one hour more

Till all her lovely words could sing him to the shoreline.

“Come Forth, Ye Drunkards”: Pity and Grace in Crime and Punishment

raskolnikov 3I am working my way through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and was struck by one of its early scenes depicting a drunkard in a St. Petersburg tavern bemoaning his vices, as well as the costs they have accumulated, to the novel’s protagonist Rodya Raskolnikov.

To set the scene, Marmeladov is a sickly alcoholic who has drowned himself beyond the breaking point in his sins. With each vain attempt at repentance, Marmeladov, like a dog to his vomit, returns again and again to his excesses, much to the despair and fury of his long-suffering wife and children.  In fact, Marmeladov mumbles to Raskolnikov that his drinking has even pushed his daughter Sonya into prostitution to keep the family above water while he lurches night after night down the old steps into the dingy bar.

In his extensive monologue, Marmeladov admits his depravity and the egregious consequences it is creating, yet he feels compelled to linger in his darkness, a tension that pits sin and redemption on opposite ends of the same locked door of the heart, thus foreshadowing Raskolnikov’s own division as he crouches behind the door of the old pawnbroker moments before her murder.

By the end of his rambling speech, however, Marmeladov rises to a momentous occasion in which he declares he “ought to be crucified” and judged rightly for his wickedness. He even tells the bartender: “Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and I have found it, and I have tasted it.”  Here, Marmeladov has reached the nadir of his troubles and has realized his inability to see joy, redemption, or hope in his bottomless search; neither in beer nor the tears it draws can salvation be found.

At the climax of his speech, Marmeladov looks forward to the final judgment of Christ in which all will be exposed and all will be made right. Read the beauty of his plea:

“And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once…Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much’ […] And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ […] And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.'”

Few moments in literature parallel with this piercing declaration of hope in the face of hollow living. Marmeladov, for all his sinfulness and despair, preaches the gospel in a dim-lit corner of a Russian pub. He has vainly sought peace in his drink and in his darkness, yet he discovers that it is in such darkness that illumination may rise. The voice of Christ beckoning all who are weary, all who are broken, all who are drunken to rise, like Lazarus, and come forth into the light is one of the most beautiful pictures Dostoevsky imagines, and he seats it right in the opening of a harrowing novel full of shadow and fear. It is perhaps no wonder his original title for the book was The Drunkards, for that is what every character, in his soul, is. And since Hamlet was right in declaring all art to “hold a mirror up to nature” and expose our own innermost realities, we as readers instantly recognize our own spiritual drunkenness, our own Marmeladovian depravity. Therefore, as Raskolnikov begins his own plummeting spiral over the rest of the novel, we too are caught in the plunge, equally complicit in the powers of darkness that await the resurrecting call of Christ.  We too are drunkards, and our only salvation will come from the belief that we are unworthy of it.

Like Jean Valjean’s defining moment of forgiveness from the bishop in Les Miserables, Marmeladov faces the depths of his own sin in the light of Christ’s glory and grace. It is not in the rack of guilt or the metallic strictness of the law that such men hear God but in the beautiful touch of pity and grace. Like Valjean, Marmeladov sees, though ethereally, the mercy of God extended even to him, and struck to the bone, he seeks the light of redemption. Like Valjean, he is brought to a full understanding of his wickedness, and there, only there, may he see the extended hand of God lifting him up. And so in reading such masterpieces, may we also be brought to the pits of our own sin, may we also see our offenses for what they are, so that we may be forgiven, shown grace, and restored to our full humanity. May we drunkards hear the call to quit the shadows and ascend from the grave into the marvelous light of God.

Jean Valjean and the Face of God

tn-500_14.01_mir_les_mis_colm3949At the end of Les Misérables, as Jean Valjean lies dying before his beloved daughter Cosette and her husband-to-be Marius, the musical swells to a beautiful arrangement of different musical themes sung by Valjean, a vision of Fantine, and reprising his earlier role, the Bishop of Digne. In this stirring scene, Valjean commends Marius and Cosette to marry and reveals his long-held secret that he, in fact, is prisoner #24601, tired from a life of running from the law. As Valjean sings his last confession, Fantine appears to welcome him into heaven, accompanying his reflection on the grace he has been shown and his attempt to live a life worthy of it. At last, Valjean sees the Bishop, the noble priest who initiated the entirety of Valjean’s redemption by welcoming him to his home, forgiving his crime, and graciously setting him free, transforming him into a new man whose soul has been “bought for God”. Notice the kindness and sacrificial love of the priest as he gives Valjean the candlesticks at the beginning of the musical:

“But my friend you left so early / Surely something slipped your mind / You forgot I gave these also / Would you leave the best behind?”

Here, in Valjean’s final hour, he experiences an almost beatific vision of the priest, surrounded gloriously in candlelight in the 2012 film adaptation, as they sing one of the show’s most gorgeous lines:

“To love another person is to see the face of God”

maxresdefaultNo statement better captures the spiritual center of the story as Valjean fully takes the measure of how strong grace truly is. One simple act of kindness, unmerited yet fully proffered, has the power to transform a filthy sinner into a forgiven saint. Even in his humble and lowly position, the priest became a vessel for Valjean and, by extension, the audience to see the very face of God through his indefinable love for an embittered thief.

For such wild forgiveness and abundant grace effuses from our Father, the Almighty God who turns slaves into sons and frees us all from the burdens of our many years in prison. Like the Bishop, God offers rest for the weary, comfort for the resentful, love for the unloving and unlovely. Like the Bishop, God transforms the nameless prisoner (24601) into a new man, restored to life, saved not by good works but to them, called to let the grace with which he’s been filled spill over to another. When Valjean is forgiven, he is free to shed his old life and commit himself to a life of service, redeeming little Cosette from her equally dismal life.

In I John 3:16, the apostle describes this love of the Father: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” This selflessness characterizes love and, as God is love, draws us closer to His nature. Since we are called to imitate God (Eph. 5:1), learning to love others as He is love is the way forward.

In Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Incidentally, this truth explains Javert’s ultimate self-destruction. No man so bound to the duties of the law can function, for the law is fulfilled in love; the only way Christ could fulfill the law is in his final breath dying for His friends. As Javert’s inability to cope with such love and grace becomes his undoing, Valjean’s embrace of it in giving his life to Cosette, Marius, and the dozens of young boys at the barricades becomes his way to salvation.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling . As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (I Peter 4:8-10).

The Ameri-Con Man: How Harold Hill and Jay Gatsby define America

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“Remember, my friends, listen to me because I pass this way but once.”

From Meredith Wilson’s Tony-winning musical The Music Man and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s perennially high-school required read The Great Gatsby spring two of the cleverest and most dapper American heroes to feature in our star-spangled tradition. Yet, the word “hero” is clearly a troubled one in these works, for both Hill and Gatsby (if we may even refer to them as such since both monikers are pseudonyms) complicate the water of conventional heroics. Undoubtedly, they enthrall their audiences, luring us all in with their smoke-and-mirrors masquerade. They are truly dazzling figures, quick-witted charlatans with magnetic appeal and magical, theatrical aplomb. Their uncanny ability to wink-and-nod through life, to deflect the truth with a carefully-timed joke, to blur unpleasant realities with enough lights and music (indeed with seventy-six trombones) to encourage the fantasy of the American dream – even if the supports have been lamed decades ago – stuns us, leaving us with just enough patriotic paralysis to miss the haunting possibility that behind the American camouflage lies a hollow and corroded void.

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“They’re such beautiful shirts […] It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before.”

They are American con-men, perhaps the only American identity left for us to believe in, for whether it’s the conductor’s plumed hat or the crisp New York tuxedo, our national heroes may simply be costumes and stage-names, props and scripts. Perhaps they are only, as Daisy painfully sobs, “such beautiful shirts.”

In this post, then, I’d like to introduce a comparison of both Hill and Gatsby as quintessential American figures, earnest and romantic heroes pursuing illusory and counterfeit means of achieving their dreams. They are pied pipers, whistling and parading the nation in an endless and indefinite march toward ever-receding hopes. Yet, they are not cruel, for they are equally caught up in the cavalcade, spirited themselves by the glittering exuberance of the red, white, and blue. In short, they represent the modern American in desperate need of spiritual redemption and salvation from the treadmill of the American dream.

  1. Empty Yesterdays

Much of what motivates both Harold Hill and Jay Gatsby in their construction of false identities and flashy theatrics is a settled fear of the wasted life, a molded leaf-pile of regrets and missed opportunities.

As Hill requests to meet Marian Paroo, the reticent, independent town librarian, at the footbridge for a romantic rendezvous, Marian hesitates, asking to postpone the meeting. Hill’s response reveals his fear of losing time: “Oh, my dear little librarian. You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make today worth remembering.” Though this romantic gesture may arguably be just an extension of Hill’s crafted persona, I believe this statement embodies Hill’s genuine sentiment, for it arrives at the point in the film where Hill is becoming most vulnerable and most transparent in his affections for Marian. Indeed, he sacrifices his entire industry in falling for her, a choice (or not?) equally true of Gatsby and Daisy.

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“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

For Gatsby, this fear of a lost past is summed up powerfully in one of his most famous lines spoken to the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway. In his attempt to regain Daisy Buchanan, the love of his life, from her husband Tom, Gatsby seeks to go back in time, to undo all of the damage done to their relationship over the last five years. Yet, Nick attempts to halt Gatsby’s efforts, claiming the rationale that one simply cannot repeat the past, to which Gatsby retorts, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Perhaps nowhere else in American letters is the tormented desire to redeem lost time put more conclusively, for Gatsby’s dream is not Daisy, but an echo of Daisy, a vision of Daisy as she once was, and as she fades further away in time with every passing hour, so must Gatsby’s outstretched hand remain suspended in the air. Hers is the green light always at the other end of the bay, and time, it seems, is the sea upon which we “beat on, boats against the current,” yet are always “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

2. Promising Tomorrows

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“I always think there’s a band, kid.”

The charm and the enduring glory of these characters must arise from their eternal optimism, the genuine hopefulness that lies at the core of their flair and self-confidence. For Harold Hill this attitude is most poignant in his interactions with young Winthrop, Marian’s withdrawn little brother. At one moment, Winthrop, distressed with the revelation that Hill is a fake, asks him if there’s no band either. Hill’s response encapsulates the American notion of tomorrow, that the dreams we believe in are pure even if the steps taken to reach them are faulty. Hill lovingly says, “I always think there’s a band, kid.” This is the distillation of Hill’s entire aim: there is always a noble calling to reach for, some beautiful dream to strive after.

For Gatsby this beautiful dream and his constant expectation of it is described as a gift. Nick says, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life […] it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Both Hill and Gatsby epitomize this “heightened sensitivity”; they are cognizant of the greatness and grandeur of life even if they are simultaneously beleaguered by the flawed approaches they take toward realizing it. In this way, they reveal the depths of the American experience, twisted by the corruptness of sin yet, as Loki declares, “burdened with glorious purpose.”

All is not lost, however. The so-called gorgeousness of these characters does bear a mark of truth and hopefulness, for the hollowness at the root of these heroes may be restored. While Gatsby is drowned by the overwhelming impossibility of his dream, we must remember that Hill is redeemed by the truth; exposed as the sinful man he is, Hill ends the musical disgraced, yet redeemed. As he tells Marian, he cannot go on as a con man since, for the first time in his life, he “got his foot caught in the door.”

May all our American performances, our daily struggle to maintain the sparkling masks of success, self-reliance, and selfishness, likewise get caught in the door so we may learn to accept our failures and live sacrificially, loving one another in truth.

May all our veils be abandoned that we may finally be human again.

 

The Past Tense in Our Present Time

cross-shadow-kerepesiAs an English teacher, I often instruct my students to discuss the characters and actions in whatever work we are studying by using the present tense. For instance, Hamlet contemplates death as he faces Yorick’s empty skull, Beowulf aspires toward a sense of eternal glory as he wrenches Grendel’s arm off, and Gatsby stretches ever farther for that ephemeral green light on Daisy’s dock. I remind them that the literary present tense preserves the immediacy and continuous action of the narrative upon each individual reading; these characters, in a sense, are always contemplating, aspiring, stretching every time we open the book.

By extension, we often consider ourselves to be winding our way through an eternal present; even now, I am typing, and you are reading. We seem to be quite smitten by the present tense. As American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day

We seem to believe that our present action is the fulcrum on which our entire life is balanced, and, in a way, this is true; our choices have consequences, and our actions have reactions.

Yet, perhaps even more true is the asphalt-solid reality of the past tense. What if we must look to the past for that fulcrum? What if our most important reality is behind us?

Throughout the New Testament, God calls us to live a life of calm assurance and steady footing based not on our present circumstances or the sheer potency of our daily choices but on the power of a work He has already accomplished. In II Corinthians, Paul discusses the transformative power of salvation, concluding:

All this is from God, who through Christ has reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation […] We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:18, 20-21).

Notice the verbs. Christ “has reconciled” (past tense) us to himself, and, on that basis, we must “be reconciled” (present tense) to God. What God has done allows us to be what we must be. He made (past) him to be sin, so that in him we might become (present) the righteousness of God.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul makes a similar case:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:21-22).

The reconciliation necessary to make us worthy of welcome into God’s family has already happened. “Take heart,” Jesus says, “for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He is the LORD, and He has done it. For all your anguish, your waiting, your grieving, your anxiety, your frustration, your tedious repetition, your feelings of insignificance, your worry, and your regret, God has assured you that He has made all things new. He has reconciled us to Him; He has fought the good fight; He has defeated death and all of his friends.

There is no more glorious truth than the triumphant whisper on our Savior’s lips: “It is finished.”

Therefore, be reconciled to Him. Align your heart to the truth that has already been accomplished. He has reconciled the world to himself, so be reconciled! Trust the King; He is good! Be done with your nail-biting, your heavy shoulders, your saddened eyes. Sin is unraveling, and the glory of the LORD is filling every pore of this universe. Everything sad is coming untrue.

Rejoice evermore.

Stumbling into Symphonies

Symphony-piano-4639669-2560-1896In a conversation there are rules, and we all know them. Sometimes these rules are accidentally bent, supposing two people begin talking at the same time or no one knows just how to end it and walk away. Sometimes air lingers between the two people, causing an uncomfortable pause. Or maybe all the words blend into a unified sound of excitement as the two reunite in a frenzy of gushing phrases, tripping and spilling over each other’s hearts as they speak.

Often in these moments, something spiritual happens, like music. One gives and the other takes. One begins where the other ends. The excitement of one melts into the disappointment of another. When we speak, we work together, borrowing pieces of each other and weaving them into ourselves like toddlers rolling Play-Doh into multi-colored globes. In music, artists begin with a riff, a hook that seems compelling, and they play it over and over. Perhaps another will bring in a complementing piano line, and the drummer joins the jazz. Over time a conversation begins, a game of give-and-take that grows into a single song, each piece adding his share. As they work together, they sustain one another, each one holding the other to form a unified voice of music. As they play, they roll their unique colors and hues into a single shape, pulling together to the very center.

In this shared moment lies a spiritual truth, a beautiful truth of Christ that works like music. Like a conversation, our relationship with Jesus hinges on this back-and-forth, this dance. Yet, by no means is this relationship equal. As Jesus reaches out to us, we are drawn to His righteousness and perfect holiness. And as we understand our sinfulness, we call out to Him who saves. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Silver Chair through the mouth of the lion Aslan, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.” Jesus calls, and we are drawn; his calling gives us the power to call back. We, the prodigal sons and daughters, limp home, burdened, lonely, and beyond hope, simply to be met by our Father racing to meet us and hold us close, tears upon tears of highest joy. Our homecoming becomes a conversation, a living conversation in which the broken is repaired, the sad are filled with joy, and the end of our selfishness is the beginning of His grace. The Father calls to us, and we are welcomed home. We enter into a most gloriously unequal dialogue with the LORD, a vibrant relationship in which “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). A relationship with the Father “who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). A Father “who gives us all things richly to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17).

Like music, our salvation becomes our symphony. We offer our instruments, broken and tattered though they may be, and the LORD makes music. We give Him our fears and worries in prayer, and He provides peace and joy in return. In this conversation we learn to give ourselves wholly to Him, forever grateful that He gave Himself wholly to us.

The Scarlet Letter and Moral Relativity

Alienated and embittered in the woods of Puritan Boston, Hester Prynne, the adulteress of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, stands alongside her pastor and lover Arthur Dimmesdale, begging him to take her away to the Old World. As readers of the classic know, such a quest would pose a possible relief to the social humiliation and turmoil that has plagued Hester in the city since her opening scene on the scaffold for public shaming.

Yet, as Hester and Dimmesdale find solace in each other’s arms from the raging frenzy of the Puritan mob (a raging frenzy that is actually, according to C.S. Lewis, atypical of the broader Puritan community), Hester lets slip the verbal equivalent of a sledgehammer assault on the Christian framework of morality.

And Hawthorne even has her whisper it:

“‘Never! Never!’ whispered she. ‘What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other!'”

This murmur from Hester follows their discussion of the encounter that brought them to this point, namely the affair which resulted in her condemnation, his guilt, and the lovely “airy sprite” Pearl.

We must pause, however, at this statement to reflect on the depth and severity of Hester’s excuse. Her attempt to assuage Dimmesdale’s suffering and affirm her own sin-stained impudence relies firmly on her insistence that their sin “had a consecration of its own.” She claims their affair was its own sort of holy. In other words, it was, in its own way, right. For her evidence, she claims its “holiness” or “rightness” rises from both their feelings and their verbal declarations of “love” (“We felt it so” … “We said so”).

This line of thinking has become quite popular as the increase of social tolerance and religious pluralism sweeps our secular culture. Everybody is entitled to their own truth and their own moral code, right? We must be tolerant of everyone’s understanding of truth (except those darn Christians. We don’t have to tolerate their views, so if you happen to spot one of them, fire at will). If I could modernize Hester’s statement, it may sound something like, “It felt right, we love each other, and we aren’t hurting anybody. Those old geezers with the buckle shoes need to relax.”

Ok, maybe not that last bit.

However, a quick look to the Scripture sheds light precisely into the dark thickness of those woods. In Isaiah 5:20, the prophet declares, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” This encompasses any perversion or corruption of God’s good design and calling it right or pure. In a society becoming increasingly talented at this type of renaming and redefining (“marriage equality,” “pro-choice,” “misgendering”), God’s Word is clear on the distinction between good and evil. Hobbits and orcs will always be separate and distinguishable.

How many legs would a dog have if we called the tail a leg?

Four. A tail is a tail no matter what you call it.

In Romans 1:32, Paul reminds his readers of man’s tendency to call evil good: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things [sin] deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Hester’s attempt to justify her sin by claiming it had its own rightness falls directly in this category. Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). Even Jesus knew of the insufficiency of the heart to justify behavior: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Jesus hears the whispers of the Hester Prynnes of the world, trying to pardon their own sinful actions not through repentance but through redefinition. In her mind, she doesn’t have to feel bad if she can convince herself she isn’t bad.

Yet, the gospel is powerful enough to withstand such attempts to dissemble, to misconstrue, to disfigure. Drawing a mustache and spectacles on the Lincoln memorial does not tarnish or redefine the great president; in fact, it only illuminates the folly of the offender. Neither does “calling it in the air” determine which side of the coin will appear on the field. God saves sinners from their hearts, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they may think it is.

So, it would seem the framework of Christian belief is not so easily penetrable by the brazen rephrasing of sinners, particularly when they swing with hammers made of foam.