Monday, January 30, 2006

That Which Survives

There is a pain that words cannot express,
    a fear that cannot be stilled,
    a loneliness beyond feeling,
    a sorrow with no end.
There is a longing that cannot be filled,
There are tears that never run out.
There is a love that has borne them all,
And there is a hope that endures.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Muse

[A small café. There is a table center stage, with a small table cloth and a vase with a single flower in it. Lying flat on the table are a paint brush and pallet. As the lights come on, signaling the start of the drama, CALLIOPE and NEIL enter the stage together and sit. As he sits, Neil nonchalantly folds his hands together.]

Calliope: I'm so glad you could make it today. It seems like we don't get together much anymore.

Neil: Tell me about it. I keep meaning to see you, but it's like there's always something else popping up. They've got me working on this big project at the agency for the American Ketchup Association, where I'm supposed to come up with an image for the slogan "Nothing says love like a bottle of ketchup." Call me crazy, but I just don't know what management was thinking when they approved that slogan.

Calliope: Wow. That's bad. How are you tackling it?

Neil: (disgusted) Well, you really can't do much with a bottle of ketchup that screams romance, can you? It's not like people get engaged over hot dogs and french fries, or like you offer your girlfriend a bottle of Heinz 57 when you do want to propose. I suggested something that would suggest warmth and congeniality, like a family cookout, and I was told that would make people think of Pepsi commercials from the 1980s. (shakes head despondently) I don't know what I was thinking when I joined this place.

Calliope: (after a pause) You know, I'm going to take a wild guess here, and say that you're really not that wild about your job.

Neil: Oh, yeah, "Mr. Ketchup" is on top of the world. (pause) You know, when I started at the agency, I was doing a good job. You saw how driven I was back then. I was pouring myself into the job, working extra hours to make sure I gave the best art for our campaigns that I could.

Calliope: So what happened?

Neil: I don't know. I guess I just gave up when I realized all the agency cares about is that we get the job done, and not that we do a good job at it. There was one guy who nearly cost us a major contract —

Calliope: Even bigger than the American Ketchup Association?

Neil: (smirks) Slightly. He threw together a lousy proposal, got their corporate logo wrong, and left it riddled with errors. Three of us had to stay late the next four days fixing it up so we didn't lose the contract, and no one up top said boo about it. In fact, they let Theresa go three weeks later because she earned too much and it was cutting into their profit margin.

Calliope: Ouch.

Neil: I feel like most of what I do is crap, mass-produced crap like only Andy Warhol could do. I'm making enough to feed my family, but that's it. I've got wings, but I feel like I've forgotten to fly. I haven't been able to paint even here, in my art studio, for months. I just stare at the canvas like an idiot while the dust gathers on my model.

Calliope says nothing. She just listens intently. As Neil speaks this next part, he raises his hands together, still joined, to the front of his face. It is almost as though he is praying.

You have always been my muse. You're the most beautiful, most frightening and most wonderful person I have ever known. Every picture I have made has been by your inspiration.

Remember the Thanksgiving picture I made a few years ago? It had the well-to-do, well-fed family gathered around a table loaded with food, and every one of them except the little boy was oblivious to the starving people just beyond the light around the table. My wife said that one was almost as disturbing as the one of the Mexican woman begging with the lifeless child in her arms. Those weren't pleasant paintings, but I thought they were important because they captured the anguish of need and the brutality of human indifference. It was your compassion that inspired me, because I know how deeply you feel you feel their hunger and their pain.

Calliope: Thank you. I always liked those paintings myself.

Neil: Remember "Mad Kermit"?

Calliope: (laughs) How could I forget? That was so warped. A giant Kermit the Frog smashing through downtown Newark, knocking over buildings and catching planes with that giant tongue.

Neil: That was you too. (She laughs) No, I'm serious. There's this wild and reckless joy you have that delights in the most absurd things. It's like you just have all this laughter bottled up inside you, and sometimes it comes out in these absurd ways, like something out of "Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail."

It's not just laughter, though. It's something I can't understand. Even when life is so rough that I don't want to talk to you, I can't bear the thought of living without you. It's like, even though there are times that I don't believe you're real, I can't stop talking to you.

Calliope: That was the idea.

Neil: I know.

There is a long, long pause.

Calliope: So what do you want from me, Neil?

Neil: Well, I'd like to find a new job. (pause) But I want to paint again, Lord, the way I used to, instead of just staring at the canvas. Art was always how I worshiped you best, and can't do that any more. It's killing me inside. I feel like I've forgotten how to tune in to you and hold a conversation anymore.

Calliope: (she smiles ironically) You appear to be tuned in just fine right now.

As she hands him his brush from off the table, the lights fade out.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Rag Doll God

I learned something new about God this week. He has red hair, blue eyes, leather chaps and a bright red cowgirl hat that tilts back just so.

I never thought the Almighty would bear even a passing resemblance to Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, but there was no mistaking him this afternoon when I took my younger daughter to preschool. He wasn't the graceful hippie I'm used to, or the old guy with the flowing white beard I recognize, but that's not surprising. He wasn't surrounded by stained glass from my parents' church when I connected with him 17 years ago, either.

God is very real to my daughter. She likes to have him close at hand when she goes to sleep, she takes him with her when we go to the supermarket or to pick up her older sister from school, and she likes to have him on hand when we eat. If God can't be on the table, then she at least wants him sitting on her chair, next to her. She can't get enough of him.

When she's lonely or bored, and her father is off doing important daddy things on the computer, my daughter starts playing with God. Before long they're having a great time together, and I can hear her laughing and singing from the other room.

And when she has a pain in her heart that she can't tell her parents about, I have no doubt whom she will tell.

I watch my daughter playing with God, sharing the secrets of her heart with him, and enjoying his presence so much that she can't bear to be parted from him, and I feel ashamed. All that I know about God pales in comparison to her understanding.

I would very much like to see God with my daughter's eyes.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Log in my Eye

Four days ago, Pat Robertson opened his mouth on national TV and something ridiculous came out.

Robertson has a history of saying ridiculous things, so I doubt it really surprised many people on Thursday when he declared that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent debilitating stroke was the righteous judgment of God. In an effort to make peace, Sharon gave Gaza to the Palestinians, you see. God, Robertson says, has judged Sharon for dividing the Promised Land and he has found him wanting.

There's so much wrong with a statement like that, I don't know where to begin.

Robertson's remarks prompted the usual litany of criticism from the usual people. The president of People for the American Way Foundation, Ralph G. Neas, declared himself speechless by Robertson's insensitivity. The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State reprimanded him for trying to score political points while Sharon was fighting for his life.

Robertson, everyone agrees, is a dork.

I like to think of Pat Robertson as the Uncle Buck of American Christianity. A lot of times, we wish he'd just go away and stop embarrassing us with this crap and let us pretend he isn't related to us. We'd all be happier without his moralizing, especially when it comes coupled to business deals with world-class thugs like Charles Taylor, the former dictator of Liberia who had ties to al Qaeda, or when Robertson defends things like China's one-child policy.

I'd like to forget that he told the people of Dover, Pa., that they were courting God's wrath by removing from office the school board members who approved teaching Intelligent Design in the district's high school biology classes.

I'd like to forget his fatwa against Venezuelan President Victor Chavez, and his subsequent attempts to claim he was misrepresented, that when he said we should assassinate Chavez, he really meant we should take him out to dinner at a nice sushi bar.

I'd like to forget that he suggested detonating a nuclear warhead at Foggy Bottom to destroy the U.S. State Department.

I'd like to forget that he and Jerry Falwell blamed 9-11 on abortionists, on feminists, on gays and lesbians, and on the American Civil Liberties Union.

I'd like to forget Robertson, but I'm afraid if I do, that I'll forget myself next. Every time Robertson says something embarrassing, he gives me a new burst of clarity. My sins are laid bare, and in that light I see how alike we are.

I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong. Don't say "You're not like him." That's one of the most dangerous things you can say. I have to remember that I'm just like Pat Robertson, or I'm lost.

It's not that I call for assassinating heads of state whose policies I don't like, nor even that I'm in the habit of claiming people's misfortunes are God way of chastising them for their faults.

The chief flaw that I share with Pat Robertson is that I forget my place so often. It's too easy for me to forget that I'm a flawed, sinful man hanging onto the Cross for the hope of salvation. It's too easy for me to start thinking that there's something special about me, that I "get it" more than other people do, and that my attitudes and priorities are the same as God's.

Once I get the idea that God agrees with everything I say, I become a spiritual menace to people around me. I fail to represent the God I serve, I set the wrong example for people who see me as a role model, and I sow division in the Kingdom of God. I've seen it happen.

I need Pat Robertson. Without the speck in his eye, I might never find the log in my own.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Holiness of Hanukkah

I have an odd sort of confession to make. I enjoyed Hanukkah this year much more than I did Christmas.

My family and I started celebrating Hanukkah in 2004, the same year we started sprucing up our Easter meal to include some of the rich symbolism found in the Passover seder. Both decisions are rooted in the same thinking. Family celebrations of the Christian holy days as we've inherited them lack any real religious significance, and while religious observances at church are nice, our children are more likely to adopt our religious beliefs if we teach them at home.

It's not that Christmas isn't a holy day in our tradition. It is, but it's a loud kind of holy day. The chief sacrament we observe seems to be enjoying time spent with family and sometimes with friends, but even that's kind of hard to do, with all the extra fun stuff that's been added to the day, like Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and loads and loads of presents.

With everything else going on that day, the birth of Christ seems virtually impossible to focus on. That remains true even when you keep Santa out of your celebration and sing a few hymns or play Christmas carols on the stereo. The day is just too focused on the gifts under the tree and the big meal.

Maybe because it's a holiday we've added to our religious tradition, Hanukkah this year had a quieter, deeper sort of holiness than our Christmas celebration did. For their part, the girls loved Hanukkah, and needed few reminders what the holiday was about. They loved eating dinner by the light of the menorah, watching as the candles slowly burned away to nothing. They didn't go much for the traditional latkes and doughnuts, but they loved the chocolate coins and they argued each night over who would get to hold the shamash and light the other candles.

The candles typically lasted more than an hour. Long after we had finished eating, we lingered at the table while the candles glowed and found it was time easily passed together. We sang songs together, told the story of Judah the Maccabee, prayed for peace, and spent time together as a family, in worship and quiet contemplation of God's faithfulness to his people.

Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication, has its origins in the middle of the second century B.C. At the time, Judea was under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Syrian Greek who was determined to thoroughly Hellenize the Jews and eradicate their culture. In 167 B.C., Antiochus banned the Jewish religion and desecrated the Temple by running a herd of swine through the Holy of Holies.

While rabbis kept the religion alive through Torah lessons disguised as dreidel games, Judah the Maccabee led a revolt against Antiochus. At the end of a three-year war, in 164 B.C., the Maccabees succeeded at driving the Syrian Greeks away and established Judea's independence. A portion of the Babylonian Talmud, recorded some six hundred years later, relates the familiar story about the jar of oil that miraculously lasted eight days and allowed the Temple to be rededicated.

Although neither the Jewish nor Christian Scriptures say how to keep the holiday, the New Testament mentions that Jesus himself celebrated Hanukkah, in John 10:22.

The themes of Hanukkah -- such as religious freedom and expression, maintaining our spiritual identity, and the need to preserve these things in a world that often shares neither our values nor our beliefs -- are themes that resonate deeply within the gospel.

Additionally, as Christians, we believe that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, but even we are ever mindful that our sin has polluted that temple. The Feast of Dedication is a good time to recommit ourselves and ask God to miraculously make us clean once more.

I haven't given up hope yet on honoring the deeper meanings of Christmas in our family observances, but Hanukkah is going to remain a tradition in our family. It's too special and too holy a season to neglect.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.