The Goodbye

Pursuant to last week’s post, I must inform you – it finally happened. 

I got a call earlier this week, informing me that the structural damage to the frame was too severe overall, and that my insurance company was totalling my vehicle. My immediate thoughts were of the logistical difficulties – getting myself over to the body shop so that I could grab a few books and other odds and ends. It was my day off, so I decided to walk – it was a pleasant stroll, though rather windy, and I spent much of it listening to Night Vale and just walking.

I rolled into the body shop, and they brought around my car…and that’s when the world shifted for me.

Seeing the Subaru for what I suddenly realized was going to be the very last time, I was overwhelmed by memories – of triumphs and tragedies with and in that car, of drives and naps taken, of people…so many people. most of my thoughts were of friends whom I no longer see or hear from, who borrowed the car or loaded it up with their stuff.

I remembered driving through Jersey in the heart of superstorm Sandy, seeing the bright lights of the freeway silenced, and the brilliant flashes of mercury flares. 

I remembered driving over and over again to Boston to rescue my sister as super babysitter brother.

I remembered spinning out on a snowy night on a freeway in NY, terrified and then safe.

I remembered laughter and tears and relationships and the ends of relationships in that car.

All this swept through my memory as I dislodged bags of chips and snagged books from under seats. I thought to myself – “this is grief.” For that’s what grief truly is, a facing and an acknowledgement of that which is lost, be it a relationship or a family member or a beloved pet…or a car. What we do and what we love define our lives, define who we are, and that Subaru, as both a thing beloved and a place, a locus of so much love and fear and life.

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The car on first purchase, January 2012

Much that remained in the car was thrown away – what was left I packed into my shoulder bag. I rested a hand on the ski rack, feeling keenly for a moment. Then I shouldered the bag and turned around for the long walk home, leaving my faithful, much-beloved car behind me. 

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The Tale

So, on Saturday I was driving on US 6 (for my NY readers, that is, indeed, the same US 6 that follows the Quickway and crosses on the Bear Mountain Bridge – it runs all the way to CA and shoots straight through Denver – it’s a major arterial). I managed to rather cleverly hit a pothole. Turns out, when I take it in to get the flat replaced, that I have also managed to crack the frame on the blasted thing, and she’s about to fall apart.

I will admit that, at this time, I was in pretty desperate straights. I have great affection for my car, and the possibility of all of the requisite changes and life alterations was daunting. I was frightened of a pretty substantial financial outlay, and of the stress and work that were upcoming. I was confused and alarmed and anxious, and I went to a source of strength for me, my father.

My dad is awesome. I remember when I was a child, the time that he opened up his computer and I saw all the bits and bobs. I was fascinated. He’s curious and smart, deeply experienced and a careful steward of resources of all kinds. He’s a great guy, and exactly the guy you want to call if your car is falling apart and you need to know what to do.

My problem was that I knew what to do, by and large. Or, rather, I knew what I had done and what I could do at that time, and didn’t have resources or ability to check off the other dozen things my father suggested. He had very specific actions for me to take, which would have been helpful in another context. But at that time, that wasn’t what I needed.

Eventually, over the course of a stressful day, I figured out what I needed. I share this here because I think it’s possibly what many people need in crisis – and what I was glad that I had the tools to ask for.

A Listening Ear

I just needed someone to listen to me tell the story of what had happened. I am an external processor, and unless I tell somebody about it, it hasn’t happened. I also make astonishing discoveries by talking out loud.

“I’m sorry. That really sucks.” 

Language should be context-appropriate, of course, but on the second phone call that day, my dad finally said, “I’m really sorry that this is happening.” That helped enormously. Our culturally appropriate reaction is “It’s not your fault,” but I think we could stand to break that habit. “I’m so sorry,” can much more correctly just be an expression of sympathy, and very comforting as such.

And, after that’s all done,

“I remember this one time…”

When I talked to both parents that night, I really wanted to hear the stories of our family cars. I wanted to hear again the tales of the Bananmobile, the Ruby Yacht, the Sprint, and the Metro, all the vehicles of my childhood, and their various tragic mechanical ends. I wanted to put my own vehicular struggles in context, and to be reminded that my family had survived with many automobiles in varying states of decay and disrepair.

This last is important, and a gift I think Millenials can request of our elders. When we’re through dealing with our immediate emotions, it’s deeply useful for us to hear you “oldsters” (a congregant’s word, not mine), tell about similar triumphs and tragedies – to connect our experiences to those that have gone before. We love a good yarn, and such tales help us to reconcile our experiences with our hopes and histories. (This, also, incidentally, is a useful trick of the scriptures – connecting our narratives with our history).

So, next time your granddaughter gets a flat tire, be sure to listen, express sympathy, and, when she’s calmed down a bit, tell her about the time you had to change a tire on the Studebaker in the rain outside Chicago. In that order.

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Our Lady of Good Voyage

revmmlj:

My brilliant sister. Strong work, yo.

Originally posted on My Truant Pen:

Between me and the sea

I work in Boston’s “Innovation District” – an area once known for cheap parking and crime that is now sprouting office buildings like a rotted log after a rainy spell. I was drawn off my (hip, brick-lined) street today by a mobile blood drive across from the Courthouse. For the first day in forever (months at least) it was warm today. The receding glaciers left moraines of gravel across parking lots, revealing spaces long since lost to history along with cigarette butts, lost mittens and Dunkin’ cups. With the gleaming high-rises of the financial district to my left and the persistent pounding of construction cranes to my right, I crossed to the Courthouse.

When I got to the blood-van, however, a sign on the door indicated that they’d taken lunch early and they’d be back later. The breeze felt warm instead of wicked. I took…

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The Bricks

On Sunday night, I attempted to drag the youth (and anyone else who I could sucker) into going out to see the Lego Movie. I had seen it on one prior occasion, but there was something that tickled me on a first viewing that I thought needed another investigation. Some concept that merited more attention.

ImageSPOILER ALERT – I am going to spill all the core plot points (but not the jokes) from this EXTREMELY silly movie.

The unabashedly Lord of the Rings style intro is closed out by a self-reflectively ridiculous prophecy about a particular minifig – a Special, who will come and be the most talented and interesting and creative person in the universe, incidentally saving everyone from stasis and an excess of order along the way. (Basically, the whole first 90% of the movie is the Matrix, backwards, with Legos. And Liam Neeson being hilarious). 

In the film’s first fifteen minutes, a very ordinary construction worker discovers the maguffin, a small shard of plastic called the Piece of Resistance. This is the Prophecy – he must be the Special, and is to lead the diverse Master Builders against the villain, Lord Business. 

The whole thing is heavy-handed, obvious, derivative, and silly. It’s also incredibly fun, well-written, referential, and self-aware, with some fabulous casting, effects, and music. And it makes what I submit is a fabulous set of theological points.

Everything Is Awesome

The theme song for the film is a ridiculously catchy pop tune called “Everything Is Awesome,” performed by Tegan and Sara and featuring the Lonely Island for the rap interludes. The song by itself deserves a full study, but the chorus will suffice for this medium.

Everything is awesome! 
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!
Everything is awesome
When you’re living on a dream!

Walking out of the theater both times, I was really, really struck by the communitarian, very Millenial attitude of the chorus. Everything is cool when you’re part of a team. This thread runs through the whole film, and resonates deeply with my personal experiences. This is one of the reasons that I love church – because everything is cool when you’re part of a team, when we’re working together for the ministry of the Gospel in community. 

“I Only Work in Black and Sometimes Very, Very Dark Grey.”

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I especially like the anterior ScubaCat.

As Emmett and the Master Builders endeavor to escape from an attack by President Business’ robot army, they come to the conclusion that they must build a submarine to elude their flying adversaries. Together, using found blocks, they assemble the sub, pictured at right – a unicorn kitten princess, Batman, a Spaceman, a “free-spirited” teenager, a hippie wizard, and Emmett, our construction worker. As you can see, the submarine is a random hodgepodge of their individual styles, and very quickly falls apart once the group is underwater. 

I sometimes fear that the church is just such a chimaera – an assemblage of bits and bobs, with no unity of hope or purpose or mission – in the words of the scriptures, “In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right,” (Judges 17:6). It’s astonishing that the submarine was able to work at all, and no surprise that it fell apart – for each one was doing what they thought to be the right way to go about it. Tom, who went to see the movie with us, nailed it, I think, when he referred to 1 Corinthians 11:12 – “Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.” Emmett steps in, the totally human Christ minifig, having no particular qualifications or skills except a heretofore undiscovered knack for leadership. He creates a plan and instructions, according to the challenges the group faces, and leads them into a successful mission. Together, the Master Builders, and, indeed, all of the citizens of the Lego Universe, are able to face down Lord Business and his MicroManagers, and to help Emmett to confront the villain with the Piece of Resistance. 

And Then Wait What Now? 

And then Emmett offers a hand in friendship. Emmett claims the mantle of the Special…and offers the same title to Lord Business. And to everyone in the Lego Universe. 

You don’t have to be the bad guy. You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things. Because you are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us. Right now, it’s about you. And you… still… can change everything.

The tension of much of the movie is the tension of the old debate in Lego building – am I building by the instructions, or am I going creatively nuts? But the real heart of the thing for me is the redemptive moment. In both the Lego Universe and the human meta-universe, briefly seen at the end of the film, there is true power in the redemptive moment. There is strength in the declaration that everyone is Special – that, in Christian parlance, we are all created in God’s image, that we are all worth trying to save. In the case of the Lego movie (because it has to), it works, and Will Farrell/Lord Business is in every sense redeemed. 

Now What?

I had a blast seeing this movie with my compatriots, and I am still sitting with some of it. There’s a deep layer consumerist layer of meaning that is, again, pretty self-aware. I love the redemptive moment though, and the community/leadership aspect. Overall, it was a solidly philosophical film, one I’m happy to encourage folks to go and see. Plus, it’s really funny and fun. 

PS, I’d like points for avoiding the obvious John 1 in Greek joke. En arché ên legós…

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The Discipline

As a Classics major in college, it’s difficult for me not to disassemble words when I stumble across them. We’ve taken a lot of Greek and Latin words and done some peculiar things with them – discipline is a good example. A cursory (okay, I scrolled down several pages) look at Google Image Search indicates to me that discipline is understood as A) correcting the behavior of children, B) REDACTED – I’M NOT EVEN GOING TO TRY HERE and C) controlling your own behavior to your long-term benefit. C) is understood the internal tool for achieving goals, the “difference between want you want and what you want now.” This is discipline as our society understands it – the mechanism that will help you quit drinking, quit over-eating, go to the gym, and help you achieve your personal goals.

For me, Lent is the season of discipline – it’s the time of year when I focus on what it means to be disciplined as a Christian. And the answer for me is not laying aside the can of soda or the bag of sugar. I’m trying to do that anyway, just for my health, but that’s not what Lent is about for me. For me, starting on Ash Wednesday, I have a goal of being disciplined – the root word of which is Latin, and it means “to teach.”

I want to learn, this Lent. I want to listen and be educated. Like the disciples (same root!) of Christ, I hope to sit at the feet and hear the Word. I hope to grow and change, to become more the person that Christ wants me to be. For many people, this is a time of giving up on the things that separate them from Christ, and that’s a wonderful habit to take on. For me, this season, it’s a time to take things on. I will seek to spend these forty days praying, listening, and learning more about the God who summons me to do justly, love mercy, and walk in humility. 

What does your Lent look like? What will you take on? What will you give up? 

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The Slayer

A lighter post this week – a few reflections on the TV show that I just wrapped up, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.Image

This deliciously campy, character-driven, ensemble-cast show from producer Joss Whedon (Firefly, The Avengers) explored a huge number of themes of social importance at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. As with any really good science-fiction/fantasy/horror story, Buffy (and its spin-off series, Angel) struggle with the nature of good and evil, anxiety around technology and the prevalence of cruelty and violence in the world, and the frailties and difficulties of human relationships. I’ve mentioned a few of my particular topics in other places, but in my growing series of Cleric Enjoys Media notes, this is just a few things I found remarkable in Buffy. 

1. Where are all the priests? 

If it were my story of people confronting the occult and the mysterious, you can bet your bottom dollar that I would include at least one deeply religious character. I’ll admit my bias – I’d want to be that character. But when Buffy talks directly about “God” as such (and she’s the only one who does, show-wide), it’s basically in a sort of apathetic agnosticism. God’s existence or not has no bearing on her responsibility or her destiny. 

This is all especially odd because the show is replete with religious symbolism and imagery. Much of the early show hinges on the possession and movement of souls, which are clearly existent and important for human life. Vampires are damaged by crosses and will recoil in their presence, a courtesy granted to no other religious symbols. And a reference is made to a vampire being present at the Crucifiction…which indicates that A) it happened, and B) even to vampires, it was an important moment for some reason. 

In the show as a whole, there are two clergy-persons – the officiant at a funeral, and the officiant at a wedding, neither of whom speak directly to any of the main characters. For a producer and writer so aware of the power of clergy as characters (cf. Shepherd Book in Firefly), the absence of the servants of the church or even of a dedicatedly Christian character seems an odd choice. 

2. What is heaven?

SPOILER ALERT – you might want to stop reading here if you ever plan to watch the show.

ImageProbably the most heartbreaking and beautiful event in the whole of the show for me came at the beginning of the sixth season. Buffy, having died, has been resurrected by her friends using ancient and dangerous magicks. Her little crew has been convinced that she is suffering in some sort of diabolical dimension. Surely, when she returns to earth, she is dazed and clearly out-of-it, much as Angel (also banished to a hell dimension earlier in the show) when he first came back. 

She reveals to Spike, later, though, that while she was very much spiritually in another dimension, it is not a hell at all. As she says to Spike,

Wherever I was, I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form, but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about theology or dimensions, or any of it really. But I think I was in heaven.

I have to admit that this episode stopped me in my tracks in the show. I felt so much for her – so deeply for her plight that it was very difficult for me to re-start the show. Much of the sixth season is grounded in Buffy’s effort to snap out of the resulting depression, a depression she can only escape when she re-commits herself to enjoying and drinking in the joys of life on earth. I have to admit that I resonated. It was not an easy season to watch, and not an easy concept to contemplate, but I think that, aside the mis-clarity about the presence of God in such a place, I have never read nor seen a better description in fiction of what I think heaven will be like. 

3. A Note on the Soul

ImageAngel is introduced at the very beginning of the show as a vampire with a soul – a character who struggles with doing the right thing constantly. This character is one of my favorite tropes – Edward in the Twilight series is another instance of the set, but pretty much anytime you’ve got a guy who’s having a hard time deciding how to be good or do the right thing, I’m interested. 

The history behind Angel’s soul is relatively unimportant, except for this – the soul is presented in the show as the producer of remorse – a creature with a soul is capable of (and, indeed, in Angel’s case, forced into) a reckoning of past wrongs. 

I have a theological problem – a number of them, really – but I have to admit that they were all overborne by the charm of the idea as a soul as a thing that can, under certain mystical circumstances, be given…or taken. As a maguffin and a plot point, Angel’s soul is a fantastic tool. It gives to the character motivation and meaning – it gives to the show tension and drama. 

As with all good media of this type, I submit – the purpose in our myths and stories is to help us reflect on what we believe. I believe in a soul – I also believe that while a soul can be damaged or driven into hiding, it can never be taken, and it can never be destroyed. Even when Angel’s soul is missing, it is still existent – “floating in the aether,” the characters say. Where is your soul? Where does it live? How do you care for it? These are questions I confront sometimes with my brothers and sisters in faith, and questions that I am glad Buffy gave me some time to sit with.

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The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying

Originally posted on The Accidental Missionary:

I was on the phone with a good friend the other day.  After covering important topics, like disparaging each other’s mothers and retelling semi-factual tales from our college days, our conversation turned to the mundane.

“So, how’s work going?” he asked.

For those of you who don’t know, I make money by teaching leadership skills and helping people learn to get along in corporate America.  My wife says it’s all a clever disguise so I can get up in front of large groups and tell stories.

I plead the fifth.

I answered my buddy’s question with,

“Definitely feeling blessed.  Last year was the best year yet for my business.  And it looks like this year will be just as busy.”

The words rolled off my tongue without a second thought.  Like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or placing my usual lunch order at McDonald’s.

But it was a lie.

Now…

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