Thursday, December 17, 2009

Perfect Pitch, Anne Lamott, and the Meaning of Life

Here's a piece that ran a few years ago in New Wineskins. If you've never seen this e-zine, you should check it out: www.wineskins.org (also see the link at right, below). Before anybody carries on about the mention of a "cassette player," remember: this was a few years ago.

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Today I'm thinking about perfect pitch and Anne LaMott.

Maybe I should explain.


Recently, a friend of mine discovered her seven-year-old son has perfect pitch. Somebody told him to turn his face to the wall, then played a note on the piano. The kid turned around, went to the keyboard, and played the same note. They repeated the process with a different note, and before the boy got to the piano, he asked, "Was that a black note?" Nobody answered, but it was. The kid nailed it. Perfect pitch: spontaneous recognition of a musical tone.



I heard another guy talking about this. He's a music critic for a major newspaper and is blessed—or cursed—with perfect pitch. His wife bought him this great new car stereo system, but the cassette player ran just a little too fast. That meant the music he heard was reproduced anywhere from a quarter to a half step too high. In other words, instead of hearing a Mozart piano concerto in g minor, he was hearing it in something between g and g-sharp minor.

So, what's the problem? you ask. The instruments in the recording are all affected the same way, so it should sound fine, right? Right—for people like you and me. But for this guy, whose nervous system was pre-set to hear g minor as g minor, not as something else, everything sounded weird, off-track—as if your best friend's voice suddenly started to resemble Alvin the Chipmunk's. His perfect pitch rendered his imperfect car stereo almost useless.



And that got me thinking about Anne LaMott. In Traveling Mercies, she describes the religious environment of her childhood: "...my father despised Christianity. ...no one in our family believed in God... I went to church with my grandparents sometimes... But I pretended to think it was foolish, because that pleased my father…. None of the adults in our circle believed." She talks about her own nagging sense of God's existence, and her repression of that sense for fear of her parents' disapproval. For various reasons, her life became a pretty big mess. Eventually, she got desperate enough to let God into her world. Today, Anne LaMott describes herself as "a bad born-again Christian." That fits me, most days.



Maybe we all have something inside that works like perfect pitch. Don't we all get the sense, some days, that some stuff just ought to be different than it is? Don't we sometimes feel, like singer David Crosby, that "…there's something goin' on around here / that surely won't stand the light of day"? Aren't we all sometimes desperate for something—some fix, some cure, some sort of fulfillment—that we can't even describe?


Maybe there's something to it. Could it be, as St. Augustine said a few centuries back, that our souls are restless until they rest in God? Could it be we're all really homesick for a native land we've never seen?


I'll bet the cassette players in heaven run at the correct speed.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"If Fame Comes at All"

I work at a large university, and my Internet home page at the office is a screen that has, among other things, a box listing interesting campus events: lectures, sports activities, performances, and so forth. I usually give it at least a cursory glance at various points during the day… Okay, I look at it more than I should, probably.

A listing from the other day caught my eye, and I haven’t quite been able to turn loose of it since. It was a single sentence, mentioning an upcoming presentation by a visiting professor of biblical literature. The title of his lecture was “Meneptah: The Pharaoh Who Mentioned Israel.” I regret to say that I neither attended the lecture nor actually read the referenced press release in its entirety.

But the headline got me to thinking and wondering about Pharaoh Meneptah—or Merenptah, or Merneptah, as he is variously known. Turns out that this pharaoh is the only one who actually mentions the land of Israel in the carvings and monuments created during his reign. Rather a minor mention at that, the inscription is on one of the four large commemorative stelae the pharaoh had erected to memorialize his decisive victory over an army of invaders composed of an alliance between Libyans and “Sea People”—possibly Minoans or proto-Philistines. The twelfth son of the long-lived Rameses II, Meneptah was already retirement age when he ascended the throne, but the aging monarch rallied the deteriorating Egyptian military machine sufficiently to prevent the invaders’ encroachment on Memphis. Perhaps this victory accounts for his name, which means “beloved of Ptah:” Ptah was the god of Memphis.

Apparently, Meneptah was not only successful at repelling the military threat from the west, but also in putting down a revolt in the Palestinian cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yenoam. He also engaged in various feats of diplomacy.

What struck me was that of all the accomplishments for which Meneptah may have expected to be remembered by posterity, it turns out that he is perhaps most famous for mentioning a relatively minor military exploit in a territory on the periphery of his kingdom. I seriously doubt whether the pharaoh, as he was ordering the carving and erection of his commemorative stelae, would have imagined in his wildest dreams that three millennia later, scholars in a land completely unknown during his day would be referring to him as “The Pharaoh Who Mentioned Israel.” In fact, I can almost imagine the good pharaoh pausing in his voyage through the afterlife to look back and say, “After all the really important things I did… this is how they remember me?”

That causes me to wonder what unsuspected thing—if any—I might be remembered for. What minor act—by my own reckoning—have I performed that will turn out to be the most important thing I ever did?

Maybe Alexander Pope was onto something when he wrote, “Nor Fame I slight, nor for her favours call; She comes unlooked for if she comes at all.” That seems about right, doesn’t it? Perhaps Ecclesiastes 11:6 gives us another angle on the same idea: “Sow your seed in the morning, / and at evening let not your hands be idle, / for you do not know which will succeed, / whether this or that, / or whether both will do equally well.” St. Paul might have said it this way: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…”

One thing seems certain: fame is a fickle mistress, and her sense of humor seems ironic, at best. Better to focus one’s allegiance elsewhere.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Writing Advice

Every once in a while, I get a query from someone who wants to know about how to get started in writing. Here's one from about thirteen years ago. I think the advice I gave her still holds up... see what you think. (I've withheld my correspondent's name to respect her privacy).

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Dear Mr. Lemmons,
I am 30 years old with a wonderful husband and 3 children. I have been praying about becoming a novelist. I was hoping you could give me some advice since I heard so many good things about your writing.

I want to write Christian romance novels that are inspirational and not too frivolous. I want to leave my reader inspired and encouraged to walk with God as I guess every Christian author does. Can you give me some advice based on your own experiences? How do I begin and how do I hold on to my inspiration to keep writing for the Lord as my main purpose?



I'm looking forward to writing and already have so many ideas for story plots in my head. I dont want my stories to be frivolous but serious and heartwarming. How can I start and what do I need to look out for? But most of all what will writing require of me? Anything you can share with me will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you
(name withheld)


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Dear (correspondent),

Thanks for your note. I'm honored to be of service. I must say at the outset that I can't help too much with specific advice about writing romances, since that's not really my preferred genre.



By way of background, I would say that the most important thing for you to do is focus less on any message you want to send your readers, and focus most of all on telling a good story. I think it was William Faulkner who said something to the effect of "Trust the tale, not the teller." What I think he meant is that a story is something to be handled with care, for its own sake. If you are a Christian, that cannot help but come through in your work. Don't worry so much about leaving your readers "inspired and encouraged to walk with God" as about giving them an honest view of reality as conceived within your heart and consciousness. If you can do that best by writing romances, fine. It really doesn't matter what sort of fiction you write, as long as you bring your passion and your honesty to it. Good fiction is good fiction, whether it's Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or pagan. God isn't well served by bad fiction, even if it's written in His name.



I would advise you to read widely. Read those writers whom you respect, and would like to emulate. Don't be afraid to imitate at first: that's how babies learn to talk. Not that you're a literary infant; it's a valid principle that I still employ. I read authors whom I respect, and try to figure out how they do what they do.

As to what writing will require of you--I think the answer depends on what you want writing to do for you. Writing can demand everything you have. Not necessarily all your time; spending all day writing is a luxury few of us can afford. What I mean is that writing can cause you to face things within yourself that you'd rather not face. Writing (for me, at least) is not a release; it's more of an expense. It's hard to write well, and it demands a sort of uncomfortable honesty about myself and what I'm trying to do.



I hope my rambling has helped you somewhat. Good luck, and God bless. If I can be of future assistance, let me know.

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As I reread the above exchange, I can't help wondering how my correspondent is getting along. Lord willing, she's in her early forties now and still has a wonderful husband and three children (some of whom are probably adults by this time). I hope that she was able to write and that the experience was a good one for her. I hope that trying to make the words say exactly what she means and feels has enriched and challenged her, as it has me. If she has been fortunate enough to be published, I hope that someone, somewhere, was touched by her words and changed for the better. And I hope that they let her know.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Flood and Drought

Here's a piece that ran a few years ago in Wineskins and on Heartlight.org...
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If you live in west Texas long enough, you have to come to terms with drought. We were in the middle of one a few years ago. We could only water our yards once every two weeks, after dark and before the heat of the day. The bottoms of our lakes looked like vacant lots, overgrown with shoulder-high weeds. Everything turned brown. Trees died⎯big ones.



People everywhere were praying for rain. You could see it on the marquees in front of many church buildings. Back in the spring, a town west of ours had its prayers answered; a line of thunderstorms dumped seven inches of rain squarely on the watershed for the town lake, which quickly became just about brim full—one of the few towns in the area with more water than they strictly needed. There was a flash flood; the creeks feeding the lake went out of their banks, making some of the roads around the town impassable for several hours.



The newspaper reported that Suzanne Clements was trying to make it home during the storm. She had her kids in the car with her⎯six-year-old Carson and his 19-month-old sister, Kenyon. In retrospect, it’s easy to see she shouldn’t have tried to drive across the flooded place in the road. Who knows? Maybe the baby was scared of the storm, wailing in that unnerving way only babies possess. Maybe the kids were hungry. Maybe Kenyon was wearing a soiled diaper that also happened to be the last one in the diaper bag. Whatever the reason, Suzanne decided it made more sense to drive through the reddish-brown water flowing across the road than to turn around in the middle of the highway and go somewhere else to wait for the runoff to subside. That water was between her and home. She decided to try to get home.

But the water was deeper and swifter than Suzanne realized. Within seconds of entering the crossing, she realized she was in trouble. The car wouldn’t respond to her attempts to steer. It slid sideways across the flooded crossing and then, to her horror, swept over the side and into the flooded channel of Mustang Draw.

What went through Suzanne’s mind as the water began to gush into the car? What did she hear, think, and feel as she pivoted frantically in the driver’s seat, trying to get her door open, trying to free her seat-belted children, trying to get herself and her kids out of the sinking car?



Searchers found Kenyon’s body about twelve hours later. Twelve days later⎯five days after the funeral service⎯they found her brother’s body.

I wonder what Suzanne thought about in the days that followed. Aside from the numbing shock and self-damning guilt any parent would feel in a similar situation, did she find herself emotionally at odds with the rest of the community? On the way to her childrens’ funeral, did she pass a church marquee that said, “Praise God for the rain”? I wonder if it occurred to her that, though the town’s drought had ended, hers was just beginning. I wonder if anyone tried to comfort her with that venerable clunker, “It was the will of God.”

What was the will of God? The rain? Maybe. There’s plenty of biblical precedent for the notion. And lots of sincere people had been praying for this very occurrence. In all honesty, I wouldn’t want a single one of those who gratefully received the rain to think for an instant that the refilled lake wasn’t a direct result of their simple, trusting entreaties of the Divine. After all, in parched West Texas and everywhere else, water is life.

But I can’t rid my mind of the picture of a young mother with two dead children, children sucked away from her by the waters of a flash flood. How is she supposed to make sense of the will of God as she wanders the wasteland of bereavement, guilt, and confusion? How long will it be before she can hear thunder without remembering the panicked screams of her trapped children? How long before she can abide—never mind enjoy—the sound of rain on the roof? Will she ever again be able to bring herself to pray for rain?



Sometimes I think paradox is the underlying principle of the universe. It must surely seem so to Suzanne Clements. That which brought relief and renewal to a thirsting community brought her devastation and loss. It’s almost proverbial in West Texas that you don’t complain about moisture, whatever form it takes. I wonder how Suzanne feels about that.

Thinking about Suzanne Clements reminds me of the words of another mourner. “If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas... What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient? Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh bronze?” The man who spoke these words had just lost his fortune, his children, and his health. He had nothing left except his faith, and even that was being mocked and questioned by those closest to him. Even his name⎯Job⎯means “one who is hated.”

I wonder if Suzanne ever got the feeling that the universe had turned against her. If so, she’s in pretty good company. When everything that’s most precious to you is violently yanked away, I guess you can start to wonder. I guess, like Job, such all-encompassing grief can even make you question God’s fairness. Like the psalmist, you can start to think God is hiding from you at best, mangling you at worst. Like Jeremiah, you can start to view God as a patron of the wicked and a deceiver of the innocent. “He has walled me in so I cannot escape,” the writer of Lamentations says of God. “He drew his bow and made me the target... He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver....” If he’s absolutely in charge and he’s absolutely good, how can things like this happen? you ask.



Good question⎯one God chooses not to answer, by the way. When, at the end of Job’s story, God does appear, it’s not to respond to Job’s complaints and accusations. Instead, it’s to say, in effect, “Job, hush up and listen. I’m God, and you’re not.” To Jeremiah’s lament, God responds, “You think it’s tough now? Just wait!” Even the psalmist, when he finishes up his catalog of undeserved miseries, pleads for God’s intervention, knowing there’s no hope left if God remains silent.
If God remains silent... Maybe that’s what we’re most afraid of. What if there is no answer for my pain? What if my loss turns out to have no meaning, to be the aimless act of a random universe? What if God’s not absolutely in charge? Or, maybe even worse... what if God is there, but my hurt just doesn’t matter to him? What if he’s absolutely in charge, but he’s not absolutely good?

Seems like we’ve traveled a long way from a flooded road crossing in West Texas, doesn’t it? Grief and loss can do that. They can send you on a journey you never wanted, a journey that takes you far from home, far from everything that used to seem so safe and secure. What’s the destination of this trip? Where will we end up?

I guess that’s up to each of us who makes the journey. Fortunately, some of the others who’ve made the trip ahead of us have left some markings along the trail. For the psalmist, remember, it was the decision⎯perhaps from sheer desperation⎯to continue trusting in God’s eventual deliverance, even in the midst of ongoing pain. For Jeremiah, the picture was a little less clear; though he continued to testify to God’s presence and comfort, the prophet died in Egypt, a refugee from a land devastated by the very disasters he foretold. But my personal favorite, the dog-eared, creased fragment of map I return to most often, is the statement from Lamentations, just after the writer has accused God of lying in ambush.



I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them, and my soul
is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love, we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

Somehow, the writer remembers the old stories of God’s longsuffering love. He catches the faint echo of hope and he follows the sound through the ashes of burned out dreams, past the ruined foundations of comfort and security, through the dry wasteland of harsh reality. And there, in the desert, he peers around the blasted landscape and decides to hang on. He decides, in the face of all the visible evidence to the contrary, that God can be trusted. This drought won’t last forever, he thinks. Rain will come again, someday.



I don’t know if Suzanne Clements has heard that faint echo. For all I know, her faith may be so strong that even at her childrens’ gravesides she could still hear the song of hope. Or, she may be sitting among the ashes, wondering why God sent everybody else a flood, but left her high and dry. I don’t know.

I don’t know where you are, either. Maybe you’re one of those fortunate souls who have never experienced gut-wrenching sorrow. Or maybe you’re one of those blessed ones whose faith remains unwithered even during the most desperate dry spell. If so, I kneel before you in admiration and humility.

But for me, it’s important to remember⎯another paradox?⎯that doubt and faith aren’t necessarily opposites. That it’s okay to beat on God’s chest and wail; he’s big enough to take it. That no matter how deep my grief, my suffering, my loss, I can’t go somewhere no one’s ever gone. Others have been there before me, others will go there after me: into the dry country, into the depths of the drought-stricken land.




And some of them, at least, found water.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What a Pimp, a Murderer, and a Pregnant Teenager Taught Me about Christian Writing

This piece started life a few years ago as a keynote speech at a Christian writers' conference...

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Sometimes you learn things in unlikely places. A friend once told me about an old man who was employed as a janitor in her college. This sweet, unassuming, grandfatherly man had a practice of whistling—loudly, constantly, and, as far as anyone can remember, tunelessly—when he was working in the women’s residence halls. It was his way of continuously announcing his presence to the women in the dorm. My friend relates that a girl a few doors down—one of those studious, driven types—was annoyed by the whistling of the old janitor—we’ll call him Mr. Jones. To her, it seemed he’d inevitably clean the hall at the precise moment when her concentration was most crucial. And, of course, Mr. Jones’ whistling was very effective, which had negative implications for her ability to focus. One day, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She stormed out into the hall where Mr. Jones was working. “Can you pulllllease stop that whistling? I’m trying to study, and your whistling is driving me crazy!” Or words to that effect. Well, what was poor Mr. Jones to do? He surely didn’t want to stand in the way of academic progress. So he stopped whistling.

Not too many days later, this same girl was exiting the showers, in what the Victorians would term a “state of nature.” Stepped into the hall and found herself face to face with Mr. Jones, who had been working very quietly, having learned that this was a hall where quiet was appreciated. There was a long, rather embarrassed pause. Then Mr. Jones, in a very meek voice, asked her, “You want I should whistle now?”



Sometimes we learn important things from the most unlikely people, don’t we? I just recently participated in a community theater production of Big River, the musical adaptation of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I was reminded again of the way the lowly runaway slave, Jim, teaches Huck, ragamuffin and scoundrel that he is, about friendship, loyalty, and trust. Or, to take an example currently looming large even in popular culture, Samwise Gamgee, the faithful manservant of Frodo Baggins, hobbit and reluctant Ring-bearer. Poor, simple Samwise knows no better than to stick by his master through the most grueling trials and harrowing dangers, even, for a brief time, carrying the dreaded One Ring when Frodo becomes incapacitated. And, in the end, Sam takes his place among the great in Middle-earth, because of his simple-minded loyalty and courage. Funny, isn’t it, how often in great literature it’s the weak who show the most strength, and the simple who show the most wisdom. I somehow think the apostle Paul wouldn’t be too surprised.

In fact, I know he wouldn’t, because Saul of Tarsus, student of Gamaliel, was the heir of a tradition chock-full of unlikely heroes. Including a few who weren’t too heroic, some of the time. Sometimes I wonder why God’s editor didn’t do a better job. I mean, after all, for a holy book, the Bible contains some pretty raunchy stuff. And I’m not just talking about the abundance of sexuality, sanctioned and otherwise; you’ve got violence, you’ve got madness, you’ve got lying, cheating, and stealing of just about every kind. You’ve got a father who sacrifices his own daughter to fulfill a vow to God, and a king whose son tries to kill him, after having sexual intercourse with each woman in the father’s harem. Sometimes, I think the Bible makes Greek mythology look tame. Maybe it’s because there are fewer special effects to distract you from the lewd, gruesome, and barbarous goings-on.

Take Abraham, for example. When we’re children, we learn of Abraham’s great faith, his willingness to liquidate his properties in Ur and take off for parts unknown, with his wife, livestock, and baggage, all on the say-so of a God whose name he doesn’t even know at the time. And that’s a good lesson to learn. After all, they don’t call him the father of the faithful for nothing. But then, a few years later, you learn about that disturbing business with Sarah down in Egypt, in Genesis 12, the same chapter where we’re told about God’s calling of him. You remember it: he knows Sarah’s looks are likely to attract Pharaoh’s roving eye, and he tells her to go along. “Tell him you’re my sister,” he says. And it works like a charm. Abram even gets rich off the deal. It works so well, in fact, that Abraham (this is after his name change, remember), pulls the same gambit in Canaan, with Abimelech. Lucky for Abimelech, God appears to him in a dream and tells him the score. Then we get the disquieting scenario of God’s chosen one being called on the carpet by a pagan king. Abimelech actually lectures Abraham on sexual ethics! Right before giving him sheep and goats and female slaves and a thousand shekels of silver. Oh, and Abraham prays for Abimelech so that the women of his court can be cured of the sterility God has inflicted upon them because of Abimelech’s unwittingly sinful intentions upon Sarah. If I’m Abraham, by this time, the wages of sin aren’t looking so bad. It’s starting to read like the screenplay for Indecent Proposal. Only without Woody Harrelson’s remorse.



So, I’m looking at all this, and I’m thinking: why is it that God has called this guy, who, from several angles, looks pretty much like an opportunistic rascal? I mean, I’ve heard of religious publishers getting complaint letters over books that had maybe one or two mild Anglo-Saxonisms in them. But this wife-swapping stuff is in the Bible, for crying out loud. And it’s not the bad guy who’s doing it; it’s the hero. And then it hits me: God chose Abraham as the protagonist of this story, not because Abraham was above reproach, but because God is. God is so holy, in fact, that even in his own book, he refuses to allow anything to be made to look better than it is. Humans—even the ones God has chosen for his favorites—are portrayed exactly as they are. Not, I hasten to add, as God would have them be, nor as he calls them to be, but as they are.




So, as a writer, I guess I want to try to be as honest with my characters as God is with his. I want to give them the freedom to be human: to mess up, to doubt, to cheat, to lust, to get scared, to be selfish, to say something stupid or even to hurt somebody. Because that’s what imperfect, fallen, well-intentioned-but-weak-willed people do. Those are the kind of people God redeems. A story—and I’m not just talking to novelists, here; this applies to writers of non-fiction and speakers also, because we’re all story-tellers, one way or another—a story does not honor God by failing to tell the truth about the human condition. In fact, I think such stories often obscure God. If there’s one thing nobody can stand, either people in the church or people outside it, it’s a phony. And when we start thinking our job as Christian writers and speakers is to put some kind of evangelically-correct spin on the uncomfortable truth about human nature, we perpetuate falsehood.

And, by the way… doesn’t it give you hope to see Abraham as something besides a superstar of faith? I mean, if God can take a guy who’s willing to swap his wife’s virtue for his own wellbeing, and make of him, not only a great nation that endures to this very day, but also the fount from which springs salvation for all humankind, then maybe—just maybe—he’s got something he can do with me.

Then there’s David. The Slayer of Goliath. The Sweet Singer of Israel. The Man after God’s Own Heart. What a head case. Sure, he started off extremely well. After killing Goliath and avoiding Saul’s depressive fits of violence, he rises swiftly in the estimation of the people and, most importantly, Michal, the daughter of Saul. And surely the story of the love between David and Jonathan is one of the most touching in the Bible; even the hatred of his father cannot induce Jonathan to abandon his friend. And even after that, as David, the Lord’s anointed, is dodging around the badlands of Judah like Robin Hood playing hide-and-seek with the Sheriff of Nottingham, David shows immense class by refusing to lift his hand against the king.

But, as so often happens, prosperity proves more dangerous than adversity. The man who was faithful in the face of Goliath the trained killer, faithful even in the desert while running for his life from the king he served, betrays his fatal flaw once he is at ease in the royal court of Jerusalem. He’s taking the night air on the roof of the palace, and he looks down the hill, into the back yard where Uriah keeps his hot tub, and he sees Bathsheba. And you know what happens next.



Of course, it’s not the first time David has gained a wife by the death of another man. Remember Nabal, back in 1 Samuel 25? That’s during the time when David was simultaneously the Lord’s anointed and Saul’s Public Enemy Number One, while David was running a little freelance protection operation in the country around Carmel. Nabal figures he’s doing pretty well by himself, thank you very much, and declines the invoice David presents at sheep-shearing time. David and his men strap on their hardware, but Abigail, Nabal’s wife—who happens to be very beautiful and very intelligent—intercepts David and successfully pleads for her husband’s life. In fact, this is maybe the first place where we find out about David’s eye for the ladies. Ten days later, Nabal is dead from supernatural causes and Abigail is David’s wife.

And then there’s the bride price David pays for Michal, Saul’s younger daughter: two hundred Philistine foreskins. He was only required to obtain a hundred, you know. One shudders to think.



So, here’s this beautiful woman, bathing in the moonlight, and there’s just one problem. David sends a servant to find out about her. “Umm, your Majesty? She’s Uriah’s wife. You remember Uriah…one of your mighty men, one of the inner circle?” Doesn’t matter. The youngest son of Jesse the sheep rancher wants what he wants, when he wants it, and tonight he wants Bathsheba. And eventually, Uriah’s murder begins to look like a better alternative than either giving up Bathsheba or facing the music.

Enter Nathan the prophet. And, you know, I somehow envision Nathan’s visit not looking much like a pastoral call from the fellowship committee. I’m guessing Nathan, like most of the prophets, presented a fairly colorful and not necessarily polite silhouette. I mean, can you imagine Jeremiah as an after-dinner speaker at the Rotary Club? And, as a novelist, I love what Nathan does. He has several options open to him, it seems to me. He can flail David with citations from the Decalogue. He can denounce David’s sin at the top of his voice, he can go out onto the parapet of the palace and shout “Adultery! Murder!” until everybody in Jerusalem knows what’s happened. Or he can perform one of those dramatic object lessons the prophets were so fond of—shatter jars, or go around town with an animal’s yoke on his shoulders, or dip his beard in pitch, or something like that. But he doesn’t do any of those. Instead, he tells David a story. A story about a poor man, a beloved lamb, and a greedy neighbor. And David was held fast by his own imagination. Indeed, by the time Nathan finishes his narrative, David is red-faced with indignation at the gross injustice done to the poor man by the selfish neighbor. "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!" Nathan then delivers the coup-de-grĂ¢ce: "You are the man." And God's white-hot blade plunges cleanly through the armor of David's self-importance to the core of his guilty heart. Nathan already knew what Shakespeare's Hamlet would verbalize two-and-a-half millennia later. To paraphrase: "The story's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."


And that makes me think that maybe, sometimes, the most important thing you can do for somebody is to tell a really good, really challenging, really true story. A story that’s maybe a little too hot to handle. You want somebody to change, tell them a story. You want to speak a word for justice? Tell a story. You want to expose sin in all its ugliness? Tell a story. Now, remember, I’m not just talking to novelists, here. It doesn’t matter what you write, or if maybe you’re speaking at a retreat—at some level, you’re telling a story. And I believe we’ve all got to think very seriously about how we handle the stories God entrusts to us. Stories are sacred. Stories are more basic to humanity than fire. Stories tell us who we are, and maybe more important, they tell us who we ought to be. Perhaps part of the reason for the power of story is that when we listen, our capacity to hear is changed. We are pulled outside ourselves and our petty concerns and our carefully constructed defenses and compelled to interact directly with the heart-changing truth of the tale. We suspend judgment except as it applies to the justness of the story. We are instructed without realizing it. And at the end of the story, what happens? A guilty king sobs his repentance for adultery and base treachery to a loyal servant. Paltry things such as thrones and armies can never hope to prevail against the potent authority of a story that is well and truly told. Why do you think, in countries being taken over by despots or fanatics, that the writers are the first ones to be banished or executed? The fanatics and despots know what David learned: nothing—not even tanks or tear gas—is more powerful than a good story.



One of the most striking things about the story of David and Bathsheba is the way it gets enshrined in one of the most unexpected of all places: the genealogy of Christ. I ask you, where was God’s editor when Matthew wrote his gospel? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit say to Matthew, “Ix-nay on the Athsheba-bay.” Surely you’ve all noticed that little peculiarity in Matthew’s list, right? Though it’s dominated by the fathers, a handful of women are mentioned, and there’s a common thread connecting them. It starts in Matthew 1:3, with these words: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar…” Sound familiar? The story of Judah and Tamar? Oh, yeah… isn’t she the one who was married to Judah’s son, and her husband died and left her childless, and Judah deprived her of the levirate duties of his other sons, so she dressed up like a hooker and seduced her father-in-law? Yeah, that’s the one, I think. What in the world is she doing in the lineage of Jesus? And why in the world would Matthew be at such pains to point it out to us? But he doesn’t stop there, does he? Who’s the next mother who’s mentioned? Yeah, verse 5: “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.” Rahab…where have we heard that name before? The Madam of Jericho, right? Or, as my preacher’s son used to call her, “Rahab the Harlot Lady.” And then in the same verse, we read about Obed, the son of Boaz and Ruth, the Moabite woman. Who, it turns out, was the great-grandmother of King David. So, a little non-Israelite blood running in the veins of the royal house of Judah, right? And, of course, it says in verse six, “…David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.” Doesn’t even say her name! Why are you reminding us of this, Matthew? Then, everything is back to the male side of the house until we get all the way down to verse 16, where it says, “…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

Ah, yes. Those hints of scandal in the lineage of Christ, culminating in perhaps the greatest scandal of all: a young Jewish girl turns up pregnant well before wedlock. If it sounds shocking when phrased that way, it’s only because we know the other end of the story. But can you imagine being in Mary’s shoes, and trying to explain the situation to, say, your father? Not to mention that hurt and confused carpenter to whom you’re betrothed. “There was an angel, Daddy, and he said this baby was from God…” Right now, I’m thinking of two teenaged girls I love more than any other teenaged girls presently on the planet, and I’m trying to imagine how I’d react if either of them brought me such news. I’d be in agony, wanting to believe them, and at the same time unable to dare to allow myself to believe them.



Viewed from such an angle, this is hardly a respectable story, is it? What an irony, that the most magnificent story of all time, the story on whose outcome hangs the destiny of every human being who ever lived or ever will live, should have such an embarrassing, not to say scandalous, beginning. And that makes me wonder if God has the same view of scandal and respectability that I do. I want to be respectable. But when I read God’s story, I often think respectability is the last thing on his mind. Even the way he entered our world contained a hint of shame, a complete lack of majesty. An unwed mother? A stable? Shepherds in the recovery room? No, I’m afraid, if I’m honest with myself, that I have to admit that God’s story isn’t too respectable. And I remember hearing somebody say something about “a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Greeks,” and I wonder why it is, at least in God’s story, that things are so seldom the way they seem at first glance.




And so, I guess I’m back where we started, learning things in the unlikeliest of places, from the most unlikely people. You have to let characters be who they are. You have to tell the story, even if it’s one nobody wants to hear. And you have to expect the unexpected, because things are so often different than they seem. And I say, praise God for that.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Limping Along in the Lord's Army: An Elegy for Megan Cope

Last Sunday, I listened to my friend Mike Cope preach the first of his last seven sermons at Highland Church in Abilene. His text was 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul talks about being a "jar of clay" containing the treasure of the Gospel. He told one of the "Megan Stories," and I found myself thinking of this piece I wrote in her honor a number of years ago, for a fundraiser to help The House that Kerry Built, a daycare center for medically fragile children. Here it is again...

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Megan Diane Cope was born on August 26, 1984 and she died on November 21, 1994. Those are the bare facts. But they are not the truth: not all of it, at least; not by a long shot. Megan was so much more, even to those who didn't know her and will never know her, than anything that could be bracketed in the brief span of time she spent in this phase of her life.

Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, later wrote a novel, not so well known, called Shardik, named for a god of the imaginary world Adams constructed, a god who took the form of a bear. In the tale, a fisherman of a remote, backward island people--and not even a well-respected fisherman, by the way--catches a glimpse of a monstrous bear which, he thinks, can only be the incarnation of Shardik. Once he has seen the bear, this poor, solitary fisherman's life is never the same. He follows the bear and becomes, in turn, its tracker, its captor, its missionary, and its high priest. His life and the lives he touches are altered--sometimes in horrible ways--by their service to the bear, who seems brutishly and steadfastly ignorant of his role as a god and goes on his own beastly way, drawing after him in a disastrous, epic, tragic, heroic tangle all the humans whose lives have, for various reasons, been caught up by his presence among them.

And despite all the misplaced adoration, at the end, good results. Shardik dies, but his death imbues his life with a meaning it would never have had otherwise. And those who had followed in his wake are forever changed.



The Hindus have a term for the earthly manifestation of a god: "avatar". But an avatar can also refer to "a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity:" something which exists now in one form, now in another, yet somehow retains its elemental identity and function. In that sense, Megan Cope was among us as an avatar. We no longer see her as she was when she was with us here, shifting our world about and modifying our perceptions and expectations. Still, she continues. And those of us who have in various ways and to various degrees been pulled into her wake have been transformed. Like Shardik, Megan was largely unaware of the way she drew us along behind her on her brief, higgledy-piggledy pilgrimage through this vale of laughter and tears. She caromed through life like a billiard ball, seeking no conscious path but instigating and participating in endless actions and reactions whose repercussions have not yet ceased, may not cease for generations. Megan was an unwitting catalyst, an involuntary agent of change. In her helplessness and her utter dependence, she was an avatar of the holy, and in our efforts to minister to her while she was with us, we received ministry.

In fact, one of our friends once characterized Megan as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and, the more I reflect on that description, the more apt it becomes. Megan was a living proclamation; not, like her father, by means of artful words and powerful phrases nor, like her mother, in visions and a spirit of discernment and prayer. Rather, Megan proclaimed her message in her life. She was a walking icon of Christ's admonition to take no thought for tomorrow, but simply, in faith, to let each day unfold on its own. I doubt it ever ocurred to Megan to make long-range plans or to fear what the next five minutes might bring. Megan, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, trusted in the Creator, through his human agents, to supply whatever requirements she might have. She knew no other way to live. And in that respect, she sits in judgment on us all, and leads us toward a more primitive and perfect trust.



Megan was a flesh-and-blood display of the topsy-turvy economy of the kingdom of heaven. She was one of the least of us, yet she occupied the apex of our care, absorbing all the loving service we could offer, and able to absorb still more. Without any "thank you," without any false reticence, without even seeming to notice, she took all that we could give her, and still we were left with the sense that it was not enough. And yet, to anyone who held her down for a breathing treatment, or marched with her through the church parking lot, singing "I'm in the Lord's Ar-my, Yes, Sir!", or changed her soiled undergarments, or tried in vain to rescue some semi-edible artifact from her unbelievably quick hands, or held her as she gasped for breath--to anyone who ever poured a minute's worth of love down the bottomless pit that was Megan, the blessing which followed beggared any other reward. Megan taught us all the difference in value between receiving and giving. We only wished we could have done more: there was no question of doing less. And all the while, we were the ones being made over by her innocent carelessness and her shattering need into a closer imitation of the one who poured out his life as a ransom for many.



And here, by way of explaining more fully, I must pause and tell my personal "Megan story." Cheryl and I were privileged to spend a Sunday morning with Megan while her mom went to church, about two or three weeks before she died. At this point, the trick was to keep Megan within a short enough radius of her oxygen tank to permit the tubes to stay in her nostrils and simultaneously remain connected to the hose. She was also prone to seizures then, but I didn't know that. At one point, I remember having her in my lap on the floor of the living room, and I may have even been singing to her. For a few moments, the ceaseless thrashing stopped, the grasping fingers were still, and she stared up into my face with what appeared to me as a beatific half-smile. Then, after a minute or two, we resumed the Greco-Roman wrestling match. "What a wonderful, peaceful, very brief interlude," I thought, as I put her oxygen tubes back in place for the 5,357th time, "no doubt, made possible by my instinctive gentleness and boundless patience. Surely, even Megan is not immune to my gifts."

Later, over lunch, I was relating to the Copes and Cheryl my moment of epiphany with Megan, there on the living room floor. Diane got a slightly embarrassed look as I described the scene. Cheryl leaned over to me and whispered, "Thom, she wasn't listening to you sing; she was having a seizure."

Classic Megan: if ever your sense of "Christian duty" became self-congratulatory or the least bit inflated by a sense of its own worth, Megan would simply leave you holding the punctured bag, and allow you to deal with your own deflated ego. Megan, how could we ever repay all that you taught us?

It's a strange regiment, this "Lord's Ar-my" of which she loved to sing. Its recruits, rank upon rank, are, every one of them, hurt and defective in some way. It's an army of the walking wounded, commanded by a general with punctured hands and feet and a gash in his side; a general who leads his host not to attack, but to surrender. And with this, we may be coming close to the center of Megan's meaning for us: her infirmity, her heroic, dogged struggle and her eventual defeat reminded us, her comrades-in-arms, of our own concealed injuries. As we watched her die, as we gathered around her grave, we all peered into ourselves and saw our own mortality, knowing ours was far more well-deserved. Having given her into the hands of the angels, we turned again to the fray, more acutely conscious of our own liabilities for the cause, our own poor choices, our own inherited blemishes, our own private defeats. In some way, I think we all thought, "It should have been me, not Megan." Perhaps her death, so obviously undeserved, brought us hard up against another reluctant admission that this is not, in fact, the most perfect of all worlds; perhaps it forced us to see again the dreadful damage sustained by each of us in this battle zone where we live. Perhaps this evident tragedy stirred the cauldron of our emotions, bringing up from the hidden, murky bottom some of those secrets we all carry; secrets we would prefer to keep safely out of sight. But for whatever reason, her death has caused many of us to become more familiar with ourselves than we wanted to be. And even for that, we must confess that we owe her a debt of gratitude, for only by knowing the self can we learn to transcend it; to leave the shadows and come into the true light of day; to move from semblance toward reality.

Of course, as the velveteen rabbit learned, becoming real always hurts. Only the artificial is painless, and that is why it is by far the preferred option for most of us. Few are brave enough or faithful enough to voluntarily begin the journey toward realness. Megan's life and death somehow impelled many of us--even those of us who kicked frantically against the goads--down the road to Damascus. It's a pilgrimage our culture teaches us to avoid, because once we are trapped in that awful illumination, we can no longer ignore the darkness, either in ourselves or in our world. You can no longer pretend that such things as pain, injustice, and undeserved suffering don't exist. Once you've been down that road, even part way, you can never again view the world with benign indifference. Once you begin to become real, you are vulnerable to all sorts of injuries. You are susceptible to being despised and rejected; a person of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. You begin to realize that the only joy which survives is that joy which, rather than fleeing pain, embraces it, drinks it to the dregs, and transforms it. It dawns on you that there can be no resurrection until there is a crucifixion. And, most fearful of all, you come to know that somewhere out there is a cross with your name on it.



There was a time when children like Megan were kept out of sight and, to the degree possible, out of mind. But tonight, I'd like to ask each of you to fix a face clearly in your mind; Megan's face, perhaps, if you knew her. Or maybe Drew's face; or Steffany's. . . or Crockett's. . . or Emily's. . . or Coleman's. . . or Garrett's. What are these young, infirm heroes teaching us? What can we learn from these fragile avatars of innocence and anguish? For we must never forget that there is a kind of wisdom which arises only out of suffering, just as surely as deep joy only blooms from the ash heap of loss. Perhaps this is what Ecclesiasticus means when he says, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting. . . Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. . . The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure." It seems that to be truly aware and alive in this fallen world is to recognize the reality of pain. And, somehow, this very pain becomes the key to our enlightenment, becomes our admission ticket to the only joy that will abide.

Think again of the faces. What can these little ones show us? Might we learn from them what it means to become real? Could even the least of these guide us toward the path to authentic living? Perhaps that is the best monument we can erect to their honor: that through participation in their suffering and permitting ourselves access to their affliction, we were perfected and became more truly human.

Megan Diane Cope was born on August 26, 1984 and she died on November 21, 1994. But there is so much more we should remember. There is so much that we dare not forget.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ghostwriting, Publishing, and the Monastic Tradition

I have a friend who's a university professor who just doesn't get the concept of ghostwriting. Every time I tell him about a book I'm working on as a ghostwriter, he shakes his head and mumbles something about intellectual prostitution. I think what sticks in his craw is the notion that someone else is getting credit (albeit, paying for the privilege) for something I'm writing. As a prof who came up the hard way in the academic trenches, scratching and clawing for every publication credit and scrupulously updating his curriculum vitae each time another journal published his work, my friend can't get his mind around the idea that I would gladly exchange payment for public recognition of work I've done.

It's a fair criticism. Frankly, there are other writers in my circle--especially novelists--who aren't too keen on the whole ghostwriting thing. Their notion runs something like, "Why should some big-name evangelist get to have the cover credit for 'his' novel all to himself, when all he did was maybe toss out a couple of plot points and write a check?"

I have a different view of what I do. I don't know if it's the right one for everybody, but I think it works for me. When I'm working on a book or article that's going to be published under someone else's name, I conceive of my task as similar to something a medieval monk might have done, meticulously crafting an illuminated manuscript. He wasn't going to sign his work; within a hundred years, it's unlikely that anyone would even remember his contribution to the book on which he spent so many hours. He would labor in faithful obscurity, for no other reason than that he had the necessary skill to perform the work that would make the book take on an extra measure of life and beauty.

When I'm creating a story, whether it's a novel, a memoir, or even something as mundane as a financial self-help book, I like to think that I'm kind of like that monk: I'm employing a skill that has been entrusted to me mostly as a gift, and I'm using it to do the best work I can on an artifact that has the potential to help someone else. I hope I'm getting paid a little better than the monk, since I don't think my wife and kids would much favor moving into a monastery. But the principle of focusing more on the work to be done and less on the public credit to be had is kind of the same... in my mind, at least.

In fact, every book contains elements of this principle. Unlike movies--where everyone who carried a cable, catered a meal, or cued up a soundtrack gets his or her name listed in the credits--books don't identify anywhere near all the people involved in their creation. Oh, sure, the author will usually acknowledge his or her agent, probably the editor at the publisher who bought the book, and maybe a few family members and friends who offered (or sometimes withheld) critiques. Academic books come a little closer, since scholarly authors (especially early in their careers) try to be pretty careful about acknowledging everyone--from their graduate research assistants to the chairs of their dissertation committees--who aided or abetted the publication effort. But nowhere in any book will you find a word of thanks for the typesetter, or the pressman who ran the signatures through the offset printer, or the imaging proofer who color-matched the illustrations, or the administrative assistant who mailed the publishing contract, or... All of these people, from the copyeditor to the warehouse guy who packs the book for shipping to the bookstore, had a hand in the author's success, but very few of them ever get thanked... or even noticed. But each of them--at least, the ones worth their salt--is proud of the contribution made, whether anyone remembers who did it or not.


So, I take a craftsman's pride in what I do. Sometimes, I'd like to think it approaches art. But even when it doesn't, I still feel good about putting the best words possible out there, in between the covers of books, for people to find in their time of need. I try not to worry so much about who gets the credit for it. In my best moments, like the monk in his, I believe that doing your best at what you do is reason enough.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lazarus on Easter

Here's a piece I wrote a number of years ago. In this Easter season, it seems appropriate to offer it for your consideration...

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The physicians say I haven't long to live. What matter is that to me? I, of all men, should not fear death, for I have met its Master.

The first time I saw him, Mary came dragging him in by the hand, demanding that Martha get him something to eat. I assumed he was the latest of her infatuations; she was forever falling in love with men who had the smell of exotic places in their clothing. It soon became apparent he did not fit that mold—his speech betrayed his Galilean upbringing, his hands bore the hard calluses of a tradesman.

I was drawn to him as a calf is drawn to its mother's side. I asked him where his home was, and he smiled wistfully—or was it painfully?—and said he had none to speak of. Despite his apparent poverty, I had an obscure sense I was in the presence of a great teacher, perhaps even a prophet. How little I knew.



He seemed to enjoy that visit with us, so I invited him to come again to Bethany. He came often, the next year or two. We all were eager for his return visits, but I think Mary was most so. She seemed to need his words, to long for conversation with him and his blessing. I saw my wayward sister transformed by this man. I had despaired of ever curing her of her profligate ways, and nearly resigned myself to seeing her die one day in the stone pit.
When she came to know Jesus of Nazareth, she became reflective. She learned to seek more than gratification of the flesh, to thirst for a higher good than earthly happiness. She loved much because she had been forgiven much. For this, if for no other reason, he won my appreciation.

But there was more. He was a man of wholeness, within and without. He is the only man I ever knew whose words and actions were the same. Indeed, the one gave strength and meaning to the other.

After I met the Nazarene I began to notice things about myself—a peevishness when my generosity went unnoticed; a resentment for the lack of appreciation I felt was due from my sisters. When he would come into the house, hot and dusty and blinking from the sunlight, I might offer him a cool drink of a special wine I had saved for the occasion.
His smile would be quick and honest, his face grateful as he quenched his road-thirst. I would wait, hoping to receive a
compliment on the wine, an inquiry on its origin, some praise for my thoughtfulness. But no—just a smile of thanks, and the uncomplicated enjoyment of slaking his thirst. And sometimes a tiny flicker of a smile from the corner of his eye—as though he knew, understood, forgave, and dismissed my petulance—while never diminishing his enjoyment of the cup.
He made me a friend… and I loved him.

When I became ill that time, my sisters wanted to send for him immediately. I told them not to worry—it was not the first time I had gotten sick and recovered. Perhaps they sensed what I did not. They told me later that I languished in a delirium for three days. Each day, one of them waited by the road, anxiously hoping for his appearance in the distance. But he never came.

All I can tell of the time between time is that I slept. A darkness beyond darkness enfolded me, and I slept. And then a voice was calling to me, a call I could not refuse. A fire kindled in my chest, slowly grew in intensity, spread to my fingers and toes, quickening my limbs and banishing the tentacles of cold that bound me. I saw a bright light and a familiar form silhouetted in its glow. The voice pierced the clinging mist about my head, penetrated my brain, infused my body with imperative strength.


I awoke in a hole in the side of a hill. A foul stench besmirched the air. I realized later that I must have been smelling my own death. I tottered out of the tomb, staggering under the weight of the bandages and the spices. As I limped blinking into the sunlight, a great shout went up. It seemed a thousand people stood on the hillside. But I heard only one voice—his voice, the voice that awakened me from the cold sleep. With tears still wet on his cheeks, he smiled, held out his hands to me, and began to unwrap the grave clothes.

He fell out of favor with the priests in Jerusalem. Perhaps he never was in favor with them, I do not know. Later, I heard they were seeking my life, along with his. After all, I was a walking endorsement of his power! I wonder if they intended to slay everyone who had been in Bethany that day, and had seen what happened. Perhaps so.

When they crucified him, my sisters wept bitterly, but I heard the echo of his voice, calling to my entombed soul, and I kept my own counsel. How could they think death would contain him? Yet, I had no power to lift aside the heavy sorrow that draped them. I suppose I was afraid of their grief—they seemed so certain. But on the third day, when Mary rushed in with her news, I was the only one in the room who did not doubt her sanity.

I have followed the Way all these years since. How could I do anything else? How could I, to whom He had once given life, refuse Him? I am His, despite anything Caiaphas, Pilate, Caesar, or Satan himself might do. Soon I shall be reunited with Him. Again I'll hear the call that awakened me and shall awaken all mankind.
Let death come. I do not fear it. I've known death before—and I have met its Master.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

In Memoriam: Ricardo Montalban, 1920-2009

A few weeks ago, with little fanfare to mark his passing, Ricardo Montalban died in his home at the age of 88. He was born the same year as my father. When I read the news article about his death, I felt a sense of regret, and I think a small sigh escaped me. I admired Montalban, in a rather quiet way, for many years.

I distinctly remember the moment when I first became a fan of this elegant, Mexico-born actor: it was in the early 1970s at my grandmother's house in Florida. I was on vacation there with my family, and in the middle of a summer afternoon I was watching the Merv Griffin Show. Montalban was a guest on the show, and in the course of the interview he related how an injury, sustained earlier in his acting career, caused him constant pain in one leg. In fact, he walked with a limp at all times--except when he was on camera or on stage. When he was working, he masked the limp and the pain that caused it. I deeply admired the courage required to pull this off.


Later in that interview, Montalban related a story from earlier in the year, when he had been working summer stock theater. He told about performing the same show, over and over again, for weeks at a time. And suddenly, he said, in the middle of a particular performance, his lines simply went out of his head. He "went up," as actors say.

I loved hearing this consummate professional make such an admission. It meant even more to me years later, when I got involved as an amateur actor in community theater. From time to time, I worried about forgetting my lines, despite assurances by more experienced actors that it probably would happen to me at some point, and I shouldn't worry about it. I remember thinking, "If Ricardo Montalban can forget his lines during a show he's performed a zillion times, then go back out the next night and do the show again, maybe I shouldn't worry so much." In a retrospective way, I found his candor comforting.


Those who were quoted in the piece written announcing his death lauded Ricardo Montalban's unassuming, gentlemanly nature, his genuinely gracious personality. They also noted his efforts on behalf of obtaining fair treatment for Hispanic actors and breaking down the movie stereotypes that chained them to limited and limiting roles. After all, when Montalban and his brother left Mexico in the 1940s, they encountered signs in Texas establishments stating that "No Dogs or Mexicans" were allowed inside. Montalban did his part to make Hollywood a more just and equitable place.

Toward the end of his life, the pain from his 1951 injury (caused by a fall from a horse during the filming of Across the Wide Missouri with Clark Gable) had worsened to the point that he was confined to a wheelchair. Still, when he was filming Spy Kids 2 and Spy Kids 3, he was capable of creating magic. Though he was visibly in pain while waiting for his scenes to start, director Robert Rodriguez noticed that whenever he said "Action" and the cameras started rolling, Montalban performed flawlessly, as though the pain were nonexistent. When asked about it, Montalban replied, "It is impossible for my mind to do two things at once."

I would love to be remembered for such simple-minded courage.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obama's Inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr., by Anthony Williams

For the first time in its brief history, my little corner of the blogosphere is yielded to another writer: my good friend and hero, Anthony Williams. Anthony was actually a student in my 6th grade Sunday school class at Highland Church of Christ, back in the day. Now, he is the manager of retail operations for Abilene Christian University, and an Abilene city councilman.



Anthony is one of my heroes because, like all great heroes, he faced long odds and still managed to come out on top. Anthony will tell you that in his neighborhood, growing up, there were plenty of chances to allow the downward drag of a disadvantaged minority community to have its way. But for some reason--I'm convinced it has to do with pride in his heritage, coupled with the determination of his mother to keep her son on the straight and narrow--he made different choices than some of his friends. Anthony worked hard to get where he is, and that's just one of the reasons he enjoys the respect of such a wide range of the Abilene community. As a lifelong Democrat, I josh Anthony quite a bit about his move to the GOP, a few years ago. But I never question his dedication to his family, his community, his faith, and his duty as a public servant.

From time to time, Anthony asks me to look over the posts he prepares for the opinion column of the Abilene Reporter-News and other public outlets. Once or twice, I've helped him with a speech he needed to make. I count these opportunities as pleasures, because Anthony is my friend, and I believe in him and what he is trying to accomplish.

Anthony's following reflections on the upcoming inauguration of the Obama presidency strike me as particularly timely. I offer them now for your consideration...

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Every year during the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we take time to reflect on his dream of equality for all citizens of this country. Additionally, many of us take an assessment of the progress made thus far and the challenges that still exist. For members of the African American community, this time of year is always filled with emotions. Some of those are positive feelings like gratitude, as we reflect on the increased opportunities that will be available to our children and grandchildren as a result of the sacrifice and perseverance of those who went before us. Some of the feelings, however, are sadness and regret, as we reflect on our forebears, to whom we owe so much, who never had a chance to see the dawning of a new day, who never enjoyed the gratification of seeing that for which they wished, dreamed, and labored, come to fruition.

Having said that, I want to remind readers of all ethnicities that the principles Dr. King espoused were intended to benefit everyone, not only the African American community. His overriding purpose benefits all of mankind.


In a few days, Barack Obama will be sworn into office as President of the United States, becoming the nation's first person of color to hold its highest office. It is difficult for me to put into words how this truly historic event has rippled through our society. Its ramifications have affected not only the African American community, but all those who, in decades past, considered themselves disenfranchised, left stranded by the receding tides of opportunity and equality. Mr. Obama's refrain during his acceptance speech--"Yes, we can"--has electrified whole segments of American society who, in times as recent as my own youth, scarcely dared to believe at all in their own ability and potential.

For my family, election night was an extremely emotional
evening. The emotions had very little to do with partisanship; in
fact, within our family there are both liberals and conservatives. As a matter of fact, I find myself opposed to some of Mr. Obama’s stated policy goals. But the emotions in my household were about issues larger than policy; they were stimulated by thinking about the hope that was never realized by some of our loved ones, specifically people like my great-grandfather, John Cravens, who was the unchallenged patriarch of our family. This was a man who faced numerous obstacles just to vote--everything from poll taxes to outright intimidation--but who always voted. He passed on to his family the importance of voting and the need to be engaged with the democratic process. I don’t think I would have ever had the will to run for the city council without the inspiration of his courageous example.


I honestly don't believe that the election of Barack Obama, in itself,
makes America a better country. However, it does present a
tangible example of the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream: the hope that all Americans could have an opportunity to be all that God created them to be, that our appraisal by society would not be dependent on our gender, culture, or color, but rather on our character and our determination to succeed.

The racial challenges of our day are not limited to our country; the globe is populated with similar ones, from the fight for equality in South Africa to the more recent struggles of minorities in France. What makes America great is that as history has shown, we lead and the world follows. For all its many flaws, this nation has shown itself, in the final analysis, to be ruled by compassion and the unquenchable thirst for justice.

During this time of New Year’s resolutions and personal evaluations, I think it would be wise, more than ever, to reflect on Dr. King’s dream and identify ways we can continue to approach making it a reality. Barack Obama’s election, as historic as it is, doesn’t signify that everything is fine and we have reached utopia--far from it. It is worth recognizing, however, that we are certainly no longer living in the state that caused Dr. King and other great Americans to stand up against institutionalized oppression and hatred. The reality is that we are somewhere in between the two, and our contribution to our society's improvement--or lack thereof--will determine which direction we will go.

Friday, January 09, 2009

My preacher buddy, Mike Cope, asked me for a couple of brief comments on Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young). Big mistake.

Here's what I said, with only a few edits...




Well...

I'm all over the place on CSN/CSNY. I like it all, the collaborative stuff and the solo stuff, although I like Nash least (odd, considering he wrote "Teach Your Children," "Our House," and several others of their bigger hits).

Young was always kind of the wild card. He brought some great stuff to the group, but he kept a lot of his best stuff for himself.

Yes, Crosby was a major addict, especially in the late 70s-80s. In his defense, he never got over the death of his girlfriend in the late 60s. But he just about killed himself on coke before he finally got sober... and started using again... and got sober... and started using again... I think he's been pretty clean since his liver transplant, except for a little weed. He's scary smart, though, and wrote the most sophisticated music, harmonically, of any of the four.




Stills has always been a bit of a problem for me. I loved him/hated him. I probably admired him most of the four during the 70s, but I'll never forget staying up late one Friday night to watch him with Manassas on ABC's "In Concert" series, and he was coked out of his mind. Couldn't even find the shoulder strap on his guitar. Very disillusioning. The last few years, I've begun thinking he can't write a melody. Most of his songs just kind of go up and down a two or three note scale. Think about it: "For What It's Worth" (when he was with Buffalo Springfield) literally has a three-note range. "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" may have actually been the peak of his songwriting career, and it works only because of the harmony (which, I admit, is a little like saying that Mount Everest only works because it's high). He never wrote anything on the lyrical order of Nash's "Our House" or the unique creativity of Young's "Heart of Gold." Having said all that, I'm itching to do the definitive biography of Stills. He's the only one of the four who ever lived in Texas.



Young: what can you say? The guy is a machine. Probably has written more songs in his lifetime than any four other people you can think of; has released a mere fraction of his actual creative output (until the Archives Project goes public). Doesn't care what anybody thinks, most of the time, including his record company. Especially his record company.




Nash: hands down, the nicest guy of the four; they would've split up even more than they did if it weren't for him. Too bad he's the one I relate to the least, musically. But if you're ever in a mood to indulge your doubts, listen to his "Winchester Cathedral" (no, not the one by the New Vaudeville Band). It draws an elegant tension between wanting/wishing to believe and being unable to because of all the crap in the world.

Probably more than you wanted to know...




You should check out Mike's blog: PreacherMike.com.