Friday, December 31, 2010

Stand Up!

Kazantzakis, in Report to El Greco, speaks of God as a great Cry. As a metaphor, it is, of course, limited in describing the nature of God. But, as an operating principle, it makes sense. Here's how Kazantzakis puts it:
"Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath - a great Cry - which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but CRY leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: "Away, let go of earth, walk!" Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, :I don't want to. What are you urging me to do? You are demanding the impossible!" But the CRY, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, "Away, let go of earth, walk!"
"It shouted in this way for thousand of eons; and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.,
Animals appeared - worms - making themselves at home in water and mud. "We're just fine here", they said. "We have peace and security; we're not budging."
But the terrible CRY hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. "Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!"
"We don't want to! We can't"
You can't, but I can, Stand up!"
"And lo, after thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.
"The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by this merciless CRY. He has been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his animalistic scabbard. He is also fighting - this is his new struggle - to draw himself out of his human scabbard. Man calls in despair, "Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss.
And the CRY answers, "I am beyond. Stand Up!"

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wobbles the Clown

Sisyphus Speaks

[The reporter arrives in the underworld shortly before Sisyphus begins pushing his rock up the hill.]
S: I wondered if I was going to see you again.
R: I brought some biscuits straight from the oven. They're from my mother's recipe and I cooked up some country ham. Thought they would make the day go a little better. And I stopped by McDonald's and got you some coffee.
S: I'm afraid I don't have time for the biscuits and ham, maybe on the way back down. I will take a slug of the coffee. If it's too hot, can I sue?
R: Cute. Cold biscuits and ham it will be.
S: Oh well. Here goes, one more time. [starts pushing the rock up the hill]
R: [He walks along side of Sisyphus. He can talk to the old man but cannot help him in anyway.] You'll never believe the trouble I've had, getting permission to continue these interviews. At first, my editor thought I was delusional. She didn't believe my story about falling and finding myself in the underworld and she really didn't believe that I had arranged to interview you. In order to convince her to let me stay with the story, I had to write a proposal and have it approved by the editorial board.
S: [grunts] How'd that go?
R: I'm going to call the series, “Thank God It's Monday.” Here, I'll read you what I submitted:
“In our 24/7 culture, one's work week doesn't necessarily begin on Monday and end on Friday but we all understand and are impacted by the Monday-Friday work routine and respond to a time of rest. We all know the refrain, “TGIF.”
Here's a word for the people of faith who are fortunate enough to have a job. If God is truly the Lord of all Creation, we should give thanks for Mondays as well as Fridays. Monday, whenever it happens, calls us to productive work. The hungry are fed, the sick restored to health, the homeless housed, the despondent encouraged in the Monday world. Love and justice, grace and peace, joy and fulfillment are translated into reality in the Monday world.
Your work may not seem to make all that much of a difference. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. But if we look for grace notes in what we are doing, we may find that even the boring and mundane can be redeemed. Sabbath is a time of reflection, celebration, healing, and preparation. Sunday is a time of renewal of vision and strength. A forgiven and rested people can be a forgiving people. The Gospel is validated by how we do business and make love. Monday is the chance to do our job and to put love and justice into action. I am aware of the pain and suffering that happens when folks have no job. But whether we are employed or not, Monday gives us all the chance to reflect of the Grace of our loving God.”
[The Reporter had more to say, of course, but this is the gist of it. He waited until Sisyphus tried once more to push the rock over and when he failed they started to walk back down the hill.]
S: I'll take a ham biscuit now. You said this is your mother's recipe?
R: My mother made the best biscuits. My Dad was a man of few words and he rarely complimented my mother or anyone else. But I heard him say, more that once, as mother was taking the biscuits out of the oven, “Son, take your elbows off the table, cause when your mother puts her biscuits on the table, if you bump it, the biscuits will float up and you'll have to catch them.” Mother wouldn't say anything but I could always tell how pleased she was. On occasion I would say, “Mother, your biscuits are absolutely perfect.”
S: What did your mother say to that?
R: She would always say, “Thank you, but you need to understand that there's no such thing as a perfect biscuit. Don't waste your time looking for perfection.
S: I think she's right. But I have to tell you, these biscuits are good.
R: So, what do you think about “Thank God, It's Monday?”
S: I have to admit, it makes a lot of sense to this old pagan. I predated Christianity and I'm not sure my character would make me much of a disciple anyway. I tried everything I could, not to get into this predicament. But the reason Camus calls me an absurd hero is that I will not let Zeus win. If I have to push the rock, I'll not only push the rock, I'll embrace it. And I simply will not become a grumpy old man. I control my disposition.
R: And on that note, we're at the bottom of the hill and I'll have to leave you. Thanks for the day. [The reporter leaves with more to think about.]

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Best Story My Dad Never Told Me

More of Sisyphus

Our imaginary reporter has only had three interviews with our antihero but one can sense that this is turning into a symbiotic relationship. At some point, we may find the reporter's life experience more real, so to speak, than that of Sisyphus. That remains to be seen. In the meantime, our as of yet unnamed journalist, probes the life and thought of the man with the rock. Let's listen.
Reporter: Morning!
S: [as he stretches and loosens up for the day] Oh! Hi. You're bright and early. Tell the truth, I wasn't sure you'd be back. But it's time to get the show on the road, so to speak. [He dislodges the rock and begins to push.]
R: I've been digging into your exploits and I'm beginning to understand why Zeus came down on you so hard.
S: Never said I was perfect. Learn anything interesting?
R: I want to know more about how you captured death. That's quite a story.
S: Not my finest hour. I'll tell you about it when I get this rock to the top of the hill.
R: About that. What would happen if, by chance, you ever did get the rock over the hill?
S: You'd never see me again, that's for sure. But fat chance of that ever happening.
[Sure enough, Sisyphus gives it all he's got and he does get the rock to the summit, but he is not able to get over and it rolls down. As the two start back down the hill, the conversation continues.]
R: About your little encounter with death.
S: Nothing little about it. I had gotten by all my life by cunning and deception so I figured that when Zeus condemned me to death no big deal, I could beat the rap. As it turned out, this was one situation I couldn't weasel my way out of. But I gave it a good try. Here's how it played out. The death god Thanatos came to take me to Hades. I knew it would do no good to try to run from him so I invited him in and prepared a meal for him. I offered him this one chair that I had rigged so that when he sat it in, these iron clamps would snap over his arms and legs. It worked, or so I thought.. I had him right where I wanted him. What I hadn't counted on was what happens no one could die. It wasn't all that bad 'cause folks quit fighting battles—there was no point since nobody could die. But you can just imagine the chaos it created. It was not a pretty picture.
R: What happened?
S: Well, Ares, the god of war, took personal offense and took it on himself to release death.
R: So that put you right back in the soup. Then what happened?
S: You're right. Looks like I'm headed for death and the underworld. Then I thought, you know, our culture puts a lot of stock in proper burials. So I convinced my wife that when I died to just throw my naked corpse out into the public square which she did. When I got to Hell, I looked up Persephone, the wife of Hades, I convinced her that since my wife had disrespected my body, I deserved the right to go back to scold my wife and have her give me a proper burial. She sneaked me out and I made it home.
R: Then what?
S: Well, when I got back to Corinth, I figured I had it made so I just picked up where I had left off before all this started. I was reinstated as King and life was good.
R: Until?
S: Zeus was furious! That was the final straw. He sent Hermes to drag me back to the underworld and that's when he condemned me to push this rock. And so, here we are.
R: So Zeus won!
S: Not exactly. No one escapes death, of course. The mortality rate among humans has always been and still is 100%. The only reason I am an exception is that Zeus thought futile labor was worse than death itself.
R: So, as I said, Zeus won.
S: Not really. If you haven't already, you need to read Viktor Frankl's “Man's Search for Meaning.” Frankl survived four or five concentration camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. He lost everyone and everything he held dear. When he was liberated he literally had nothing but his naked body. Frankl says that to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. His question to people who are about to give up on life is, “Why do you not commit suicide?” which is to suggest that one should look for those things, however small, that give one meaning. Each one must find purpose, often in the midst of senseless suffering, and accept whatever responsibility is required.
R: And the rock. Is it your judgment or your purpose?
S: Both. And it's why Zeus hasn't won. I have no power to remove the rock or the freedom to stop pushing it, but I can decide how I'm going to feel about it.
R: That's why Camus calls you the absurd hero. I'll have to think about that.
S: I thought you would. See you next week.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sisyphus: The Second Installment

Well, it's Monday morning again. Symbolically, at least, this is the day that we start our jobs all over again. I under TGIF because there are a couple of days ahead of us, so to speak. But I think a case can be made for TGIM for that is the time when we get to/have to start work again. I'm sure there are a lot of unemployed folks who see Monday that way. My mother and father worked hard at jobs that were never done. They both looked forward to the Sabbath but I never heard a complaint when, on Monday morning, they had to start all over again. Nor will we hear Sisyphus complain.
Speaking of our the old man, it's time to see what's happening as our intrepid reporter interviews our antihero. By the way, I haven't decided on a name for our reporter. Perhaps you could suggest one. And since the story is about Sisyphus, I've said very little about the reporter himself. However, I can see a symbiotic relationship developing between the two so we will learn more about the reporter himself. All we know, at the moment, is that he is a runner, is middle-aged and has some personal as well as professional issues to deal with.
This morning, he once again sneaks by the guard dog and arrives at the scene just as Sisyphus is getting ready to start the ascent. Sisyphus has wrapped his arms around the rock in a kind of love-hate hold as the reporter approaches.
R: Morning.
S: Morning. Sorry I can't wait. Got to get going. I can't talk while I'm pushing this thing up the hill. But if I don't get it over and have to let it roll back down, even the gods can't control me while I walk back down. We can talk then.
R: It's a deal.
[Sisyphus, plants his feet, grunts, rocks the stone to get it moving and the daily task begin. After a long and arduous climb, they reach the summit. Sisyphus takes a deep breath, mutters something to himself and pushes with all his might. Once again, the rock totters, almost goes over but finally starts falling back. Sisyphus and the reporter jump out of the way and they start walking back down the hill.
R: What were you muttering about?
S: I was saying that this might be the time. As they say, “Hope springs eternal.”
R: For a moment, I thought you might make it too. You know, you're in pretty good shape for someone who has been pushing that thing for all these years. How much does that thing weigh?
S: Zeus made the rock the same size as he is—his perverted sense of humor—and he's a big guy. As for my physical condition, you'd be in good shape too, if you worked as hard as I do. By the way, you look as if you could shed a few pounds. Too bad, the gods won't let you help me. Might do you some good.
R: Yeah, well. How do you feel about being wrongly judged and drawing such an unjust sentence? Most folks would just give up.
S: Don't go making me a paragon of virtue. Sure, I did what I did because, as King of Corinth, I knew we needed water and I saw my chance to cut a deal with the water god when I saw Zeus abducting his daughter. Worked too. Corinth now has an eternal spring. I know it was good for the city but the truth of the matter is, I've never backed down from the gods. They would be happy if we mortals just went along with whatever they said without making waves. But I question everything. So I challenged Zeus, got caught and here I am.
R: And Zeus consigned to endless labor—life without meaning.
S: Endless labor, yes. But without meaning, even the gods can't control that.
R: What do you mean?
S: I think it's always legitimate to wonder if life has meaning and even though I'm confined to the underworld, I still look for meaning, even here. You must remember that Camus wrote “The Myth of Sisyphus” during the dark days after WWII when France and all Europe was in deep despair. If there was ever a time when the world needed to find meaning, it was then. I'm always searching.
R: You are one more unique person.
S: Unique because of my situation, perhaps. However, almost everyone has to deal with, at one time or another, work that seems to have no inherent meaning. And life is often chaotic—for everyone. Look at Max's video today. Even, perhaps especially, little children need meaning in their lives. I'm not a religious person, but I think Max has the right idea about the role of religion. And frankly, the only reason I agreed to these interviews is because I hope that whoever reads them might find some questions or ideas that will help in their search.
R: So the rock is no big problem?
S: I didn't say that. It's just that I refuse to let the rock win.
R: We've got to keep this going, if you're willing. I want to know more about these other people.
S: I'll be here.

Mama tell me a story

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Precious Gift

A Precious Gift
[This started out as a Sufi story.]

A monk was walking along a path when he noticed a shiny object by the wayside. He discovered it was a large and obviously precious ruby. He put it in his pack and continued on his way. He stopped and spent the night at an Inn. When he was washing his hands in preparation for breakfast the next morning, a fellow traveler noticed the jewel in the monk's pack and asked for the monk to give it to him. The monk did so and the traveler departed, overjoyed with such a valuable and unexpected gift. It would easily provide him security for years to come. Time passed and one day, by chance, the two met once again. The traveler presented the ruby to the monk and said, “Now, I pray, give me that which enabled you to give the ruby to me in the first place.”
I told this story once to university students in a worship service. I asked the students to finish the story and was met by an unusually long silence. Finally, a young woman began to cry and said, “You're the preacher, you are supposed to give us the answers. We aren't supposed to think.” Later, I cried.
Since that day, I have imagined several possible endings to the story. The monk could have given him lectures on self esteem, how to achieve happiness, ten ways to personal wealth, perhaps a guide to holistic health or philosophies to win by. The monk could have enrolled the pilgrim in a thirteen week comprehensive study of the Holy Scriptures, including an examination of the plants of the Holy Land and a compendium of little known facts. Or, perhaps, the monk could have accepted the pilgrim as a disciple and they could have gone throughout the country doing good and meditating. Now that I have begun the process, maybe you can come up with some endings of your own.
In truth, however, the story stands on its own. The monk said nothing because he knew that what the pilgrim was asking for can neither be given or taken. Instead, he rejoiced because he knew that for the man to ask meant he had begun the search that would save his soul.
Let him/her who hears, rejoice.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Sisyphus Who?

In times past, I would ask someone if they knew who Sisyphus was. Most of the time, the answer was, “No.” Then if I asked if they had ever heard of the man who was condemned to push a rock to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down and to do it for eternity, almost all would not only answer yes but would identify with him. Zeus, so the story goes, understood endless futile labor. So, when Sisyphus ticked him off, he responded with the rock thing.
Albert Camus [The Myth of Sisyphus]claims it backfired and that Sisyphus is actually happy. I'm writing this on Monday, the day of the week we equate with beginning work, happy or not, all over again. So I'm going to let Sisyphus speak to us on Mondays. And he will do so through a reporter I have invented for just that purpose.
Our story begins in Greek mythology. Sisyphus, a mortal, was the king of Corinth. One day he saw Zeus abducting Aegina, the daughter of Aesophus. Aesophus was the god in charge of water. Corinth needed water so Sisyphus struck a deal. If Aesophus would give Corinth an eternal spring, Sisyphus would tell him what happened to his daughter. Aesophus agreed and the story might well have ended there except Zeus found out who ratted him out and he was mad. Sisyphus was not a paragon of virtue but he was cunning and he escaped the wrath of Zeus for awhile by deception. But he was ultimately caught and consigned to the underworld where he was forced into a permanent relationship with the rock, which, ironically, was the same size as Zeus.
Enter, stage left, my made-up reporter. More about him later, but for now it is enough that he finds his way into the presence of Sisyphus and the two of them begin a symbiotic relationship.
I'll need time later to tell more of the story but the short of it is that a middle-aged reporter has hit somewhat of a plateau in both his personal and professional life. One night he goes for a run. He steps onto the shoulder of the road to avoid a car, slips on loose gravel, slides down a steep embankment, hits his head and passes out. When he comes to, he finds himself in the underworld. He eludes Cerberus, the three-legged monster guard dog and sees Sisyphus who, at the moment, is putting his shoulder to the rock to begin his daily task.
Camus tells us that while Sisyphus must focus all his energy on the rock to get it up the hill, his time is his own while he walks back down to the bottom. Our reporter, realizing who he is with, asks Sisyphus if he can walk up the hill with him. Sisyphus agrees so the reporter asks questions as they go up the hill. Once they get to the top and the rock starts its descent, Sisyphus talks on the way down.
What about the interview? What are the questions—the responses? I'll bet you can come up with some on your own. I would like to hear them. But I'll have to continue the story later.
Remember, there are some people who cannot live with a question and there are others who cannot live without a question. Think about it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why Porch?
Down South, where I grew up, the porch was important. It has been said that the South is one big front porch. In the old days, the porch was not only a place to escape from the hot kitchen fires, it was where you visited with neighbors and shared stories. My grandfather had a large house with a full front porch. When the tornado destroyed the house, Papa rebuilt a smaller one but also with a porch. When the chores were done, he would tell stories for the family and whoever else might drop by.
When we first moved to Colorado, we had such a front porch. Then we moved. The house we live in now has no front porch. It does have a large back porch, or a deck, as you might call it. In good weather, I spend a lot of time there, sometimes visiting but more often reading and remembering stories. I can't invite all of you to "come set a spell," but I can share stories through this blog. I hope you'll find something in my ruminations that will be of some value to you. And I hope to hear from you.