The Reunion

I was at the airport the other day to pick up my grandma. Like most people, I love watching people at airports.

That night, there was a really pretty girl waiting at the end of the concourse. She was beautiful in an understated and undramatic way. She wore her clothes with a comfortable easy grace, and her hair was done in that style that looks like she didn’t do anything to it, but probably really involved lots of time ― a studied informality.

She was hanging around with us where people come out from their flight, but unlike the rest of us she wasn’t staring expectantly down the concourse. In fact, she seemed so distracted, so disinterested, that I began to wonder if she was waiting for someone or killing time before she went through security.

Then her cell phone rang.

To say that someone’s face “lights up” is something of a tired metaphor, but in this case it seems to apply. Her face lit up as she had her brief conversation, and after she hung up her entire attention was focused down the hallway of offloading passengers. She seemed to be willing the face she was looking for to come into view.

And then she saw him.

He was a tall, gangly, funny-looking guy who, except for those characteristics, looked nothing like me. He wore tired, casual clothes and carried a big hiking backpack with a lot of miles on it. I’m pretty sure he had a Nalgene bottle hanging off somewhere. He also had a flower wrapped in cellophane in his hand, which he held out to her with a funny little smile as she dashed into his arms.

They kissed each other, not in that desperate-passionate-get-a-room sort of way, but in the I’m-so-happy-to-see-you-I-want-to-be-as-close-as-I-can-to-you sort of way. They were still smiling as they let go. She tried to take his bag, but all he wanted was another hug. Her flower kept getting in the way, but they didn’t care.

He was at least 6’6” and she couldn’t have been taller than 5’4”. But somehow they fit together.

He didn’t have any checked luggage, so they walked out of the airport hand-in-hand, still hugging each other.

I imagined his impatience as he sat, diligently following the airport rules not to use his cell phone until the door had opened. I imagined his walk up the concourse, wondering where she would be waiting for him.

I saw her joy when she got the call, and saw her impatience as she waited for him to come into view.

I’m not really sure why I felt compelled to write this, but that moment seemed like something that deserved to be remembered.

Coffee-in-hand: None. But I was leaning against the Boston Stoker kiosk as I watched the scene unfold.

“The Century War”

Over the weekend, my friend Denny (read his blog here) sent me this story from the website of author Dan Simmons. I don’t think it’s saying too much to say that you have to read this story. On its face, it’s a tight, well-written short story, the kind of stuff that (if other things about it weren’t true) would give it a place in short story collections and creative writing textbooks for years to come.

At the very least, almost the entire story is a conversation that takes place over a couple of glasses of single-malt scotch. That, in itself, makes the story worth reading, imho.

[Spoiler Warning: the rest of this post assumes that the you have read and enjoyed (or at least been challenged by) the story at hand, and will therefore discuss and disclose plot elements without regard for your “right to be surprised” or your “right to have an opinion even though you don’t know what the hell is going on.” So read the story already. Then come back.]

Perhaps now you see why I’m not so sure this story, as technically good as it is, will ever find a place among “regular” short stories in an anthology. There are at least two reasons for that, one good and one horribly and inexplicably awful: either he’s wrong (that’s the good one) and Mr. Simmons’ story will fade quietly into history along with Y2K, “the world will end on dd/mm/yyyy”, and so many other almost-but-not-quite catastrophes. Or else he’s right (this is the bad one) and people will read his story a decade from now with that uncomfortable feeling you get at the end of Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor (that’s the one where the guy flies a passenger plane into the Capitol Building during a State of the Union address). A third possibility exists, of course: that in ten years no one will read it because no one will be allowed to. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

The main theme of this piece is: we have no idea what we’re up against. A “Category Error” he calls it; a mistake of epic proportions so catastrophic that we’re doomed to failure from the start. We’re so far off base we don’t even understand what game we’re playing. We’ve mis-defined (perhaps under-defined) the problem so badly that we have no hope of ever solving it. It’s like watching a flooded river rise closer and closer to our house and being worried that our sump pump won’t be able to keep the basement dry. Like being buried alive a thousand feet underground in the pitch-black bowels of the earth and feeling upset because the debris from the cave-in scratched our reading glasses.

Are we really guilty of such a miscalculation? Of such gross underestimation of the world around us? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Another theme then follows from the first. If we really are guilty of this Category Error and are therefore ignorant of the correct solution to our problem, then what is the answer? The answer, in the words of the Time Traveler, is that we aren’t “ruthless enough.” We are “too timid… too fearful… too decent… to match the ruthlessness of [our] enemies.” In his essay “Fear of Confrontation,” TCS Daily columnist Arnold Kling writes, “Unfortunately, large segments of American society no longer have the ability to confront real evil. People lack the confidence and moral clarity to stand up to intimidation.” We are playing hopscotch and arguing about whether Jimmy stepped on the line. Meanwhile, a 900lb gorilla smashes his way across the playground, scattering the broken bodies of our playmates behind him on his way to tear out our throats. What we need to do is invest in a big enough gun to drop the gorilla in one shot, splatter his brains all over the monkey bars (pun intended) before he does the same to us. And if the big loud gun hurts Jimmy’s ears, so be it ― he was cheating anyway.

Is that sort of ruthlessness really necessary? Do we really have to be so… so brutal? Again, I’ll leave that for you to decide.

A third theme, and then I will end my analysis with an open question. At one point the narrator complains that “the world is a complex place. Morality is a complex thing.” And while he’s right, to an extent, in a matter as clear-cut as the problem in the story, “the world, as it turns out, is not nearly so complex a place as [our] liberal and gentle minds sought to make it.” The narrator (and us, by extension) hides behind an artificial and self-made complexity, falsely blowing things way out of proportion in order to excuse our inaction. A homeless man on an exit ramp asks for a dollar. We drive past. How do we know what he’ll spend that dollar on? Is he really homeless? He should get a job; giving him money only enables his cycle of dependence… The guy needs a dollar. Turns out that’s not as complex as we make it out to be.

Is the world really this black-and-white? Do we just need to educate, to bring those peoples still locked in their constricting, archaic worldviews up-to-speed, catch them up on the moral development of the last century or so? Or is it we who need the education, a sharp slash to cut away the shades of gray to see things again as they really are? Is it time to reduce the complexity and ignore the rhetoric? A question, again, for you to decide.

And finally, at the end, why does the narrator get mad at the Time Traveler? Yes, he’s telling him bad news about his grandchildren. Yes, he’s painting a bleak picture of the next 15-20 years. But why does he get angry enough to draw a gun on the man who interrupted his New Year’s Eve to tell him these things?

And how do we feel at the end? Fearful? Bored? Incredulous? Scandalized? Angry that no one told us these things already? Lazy enough to roll over, flip on the new episode of CSI, and hope it all goes away?

Is there hope for us? I pray there is. I pray that Dan Simmons’ story does its job, sounds its clarion call, and then fades into history as another near-miss. Near the end of the story, the Time Traveler quotes a Greek philosopher who says that all human behavior is guided by three motives: fear, self-interest, and honor. It’s high time, in my opinion, that we start giving due consideration to all three. I pray that God will grant us a healthy and realistic fear, a godly sense of self-interest (for ourselves and those over whom he has given us charge), and a virtuous sense of pious Christian honor. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[Still wondering what the heck I’m babbling about? Amazed I could write this entire post without once actually naming the subject in question? Go back and read the story! Here’s the link again, you lazy slacker.]

Drink-in-hand: Yellow Tail Merlot (all the single malt is at Denny’s)

Dying to Live

I’ve been reading again. Not that I’m not always reading something, it’s just that a book has grabbed my attention in a surprising way. I’m reading Dying to Live: the Power of Forgiveness by Harold L. Senkbeil.

I’m trying to decide if I like the title or not. Well, I like the title, but I’m not sure it fits. It’s a bit about dying, a lot about living. It’s got a ton of stuff on forgiveness (God’s forgiveness of us, rather than our of others). And of course, all that’s really powerful. So the words all fit. But I’m still not sure…

Above all, it’s a great big three-cheers for Word and Sacrament. Rarely has a book so thoroughly explored what it means to be a baptized child of God. Pastor Senkbeil drives home Holy Communion, too, and Absolution (the preached Word) gets its due, but the phrase “drenched in the waters of baptism” certainly describes this wonderful exposition on truly sanctified living focused on and by the truths of Holy Baptism.

Recommended for all the Lutherans who stumble across this post, all those who want to know more about Lutheranism, and all those who wish they were Lutheran but don’t know where to start.

An interesting bit of synchronicity ― the guest pastor on Wednesday night was preaching about the “hiddenness” of God’s important things: you know, stumbling blocks and folly and all. Anyway, he mentioned how the passers-by on Good Friday wouldn’t have noticed anything special going on. Maybe a little more crowded, but still, you’ve seen one crucifixion, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Something he said made me sit up and listen extra closely, and when I got home I checked the chapter I had just finished reading. Sure enough, he had either quoted Senkbeil or channeled him unknowingly.

Here’s the quote:
“They had seen it all before. There was a sordid routine to every execution under Roman rule: first the stripping, then the flogging, finally the nailing. In the end every crucifixion looked much the same.”

It was the word “sordid” that caught my attention. How many of us use that in daily discourse?

Here’s how Senkbeil finishes the section, and where the pastor’s sermon basically ended up, too. May we keep this in the forefront of our minds as we enter this most Holy of weeks.

“The jeering mob thought they had the last laugh: ‘He saved others,’ they shouted, ‘but he can’t save himself.’ But he didn’t come to save himself. He came to save us. This was his determined purpose: to give his life for the life of the world. ‘For the joy set before him,’ the Apostle reminds us, ‘he endured the cross, scorning its shame’ (Hebrews 12). Gladly he laid down his life. Willingly he bore our sin. Joyfully he embraced our shame. And that is the heart of the matter.”

Coffee-in-hand: Kenya AA (hot as a pistol)

Burning Bridges

“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.” ― Tom Stoppard

I found this quote on Google the other day and was arrested by it. I’m not sure exactly why, but it had the ring of truth to it, the ring of other favorite quotes that I’ve ended up absorbing into my vocabulary. So I copied it down, mulled it over, wrote it on my board to see what the kids would have to say, and floated it around a bit. Here are the fruits of a couple of days of rumination.

[Disclosure: I just now discovered that the quote is from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The following is based on not knowing that, and is not intended to be any sort of commentary or interpretation of that work. Any (mis)representations made here are entirely mine.]

It seems to me that this quote can be taken two ways. Optimistically, the mindset described here is a sort of carefree, guilt-free, worry-free existence, almost childlike, the very essence of carpe diem (there’s that phrase again…) “Burning our bridges” is a severing of connections to the past, a sort of “forgive and forget” (remember, we’re being optimistic here). No guilt follows us out of the past, no ghosts can sneak up behind us. Our rear is secure, so to speak. The closets have been purged of skeletons.

Furthermore, still speaking optimistically, we “cross our bridges when we come to them” ― that is, and not before we come to them. No worries. No dread of an unknown future. We are well-fed, clothed, and happy right now, and we’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. What an appealing mindset in a world concerned so much about the next plague, war, recession, CSI episode, or sports upset.

It’s good to be optimistic. Living life free from guilt is one of the greatest blessings of Christianity. “There is now no condemnation,” and all that. Our past sins do not condemn us; “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1). Likewise, living free from worry is a great blessing as well. Our heavenly Father provides all that we need and then some. “Give us this day our daily bread” we pray, not asking for a week’s supply all at once. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount remind us that “each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6). In Christ, we are free from worry over the future (crossing our bridges) and guilt over the past (burning them behind us), and free to live in the “day of salvation.”

I’m not sure this quote is really all that positive, however. I don’t think the chord it struck in me was blind optimism; rather, I’m afraid it was the opposite.

“We cross our bridges when we come to them.” We don’t plan ahead or give any thought to the future, until the future is today. We refuse to make connections between current actions (or inactions) and future repercussions. We live for the moment, eating, drinking, making merry, until the cold winter comes and we, like the grasshopper, are dependent on the goodwill of others. It’s fine to cross your bridges when you come to them, but what if we arrive at the toll booth with no money to make the crossing? There is a line between worry and preparedness; sometimes at the risk of doing the former, we fail to make even the smallest effort at the latter.

“And burn them behind us.” Living free from guilt is one thing. Refusing to learn from (or even admit to) your mistakes is completely another. A person who has burnt all his bridges has nothing to fall back on, no line of retreat, no foundation on which to build except the dangerously shifty subjectivity of his present circumstances. And we therefore “have nothing to show for our progress.”

“Once our eyes watered.” We vaguely remember that our actions caused us discomfort, but as long as that’s only a vague memory, we think we’re good–to–go. How many times must we cry the same tears before we learn our lessons?

Most haunting of all is the imagery built on the sense of smell. “A memory of the smell of smoke.” As we blindly grope our way thorough each day’s problems without the trustworthy wisdom of past lessons learned, a lingering olfactory memory silently suggests to us that our current problems are all our fault.

Are they? I think they are, and I think Tom Stoppard (or Rosencrantz or Guildenstern) are right in their diagnosis of our malady.

What do you think? Log on, post a comment, and join the discussion!