the humility of Jesus

Yesterday morning, I wasn’t planning to go to church; I was going to donate platelets instead.  (My prioritization of church, or lack thereof, is a topic for another post.)  But my hemoglobin was a little too low to donate, so I ended up walking into the 11:00 church service about 15 minutes in, toward the end of the singing.  Normally I carry a big, black leather-bound ESV study Bible to church, as well as a hardcover journal for taking notes.  (Never mind that I take notes mostly in order to stay awake in my church’s soft-seated, dimly-lit sanctuary and rarely go back and look at my notes.  Having the journal makes me look serious.)  But yesterday, because I didn’t think I was going to church, I didn’t have my Bible and journal.  So I walked in late, with no Bible (in a church where most people still carry bound Bibles) and with a new short, somewhat asymmetrical haircut that could, I suppose, be interpreted as countercultural.  And, because I don’t know the words very well yet, I didn’t sing most of the song that had just started when I walked in.  Taking together all of these factors, I was worried that the people next to me were going to assume I was a visitor, probably an “unchurched” one.

When my pastor began preaching on Matthew 12:15-21 (at least I had the YouVersion Bible app on my phone and could follow along), I quickly realized how silly my worries were–even if the people next to me were actually thinking about me, which is unlikely.  In that passage, Jesus heals a lot of people and then forbids them to tell anyone.  My pastor pointed to this action as a demonstration of Jesus’ humility: Jesus’ goal on earth was to do his Father’s will, not to “make his own name famous” (a phrase that is popular today in some church circles but is inconsistent with Jesus’ whole way of operating).  It’s not that Jesus didn’t want people hearing his message; he just didn’t want fame, which is shallow and temporary.  We as Christians, my pastor said, spend too much time doing image control, worrying about whether we’re giving a good impression of Christianity.  Even when we say that we don’t care what people think, we’re showing that we care what people think.  My pastor said that all we are called to do is to live in obedience (which sometimes means proclaiming a message verbally–that’s not what is being forbidden here); it is not our job to control how we’re perceived.

It made me think of Shusaku Endo’s Silence (okay, I haven’t read the book, but the movie absolutely wrecked me), which is about a man who has an intensely personal faith in God of which he cannot speak, but which, we understand in retrospect, has driven his actions all through his life.  This character doesn’t have the luxury of branding himself as a Christian, as so many of us do in America today, but all that matters to him is that he knows that God knows of his faithfulness.

I ended up putting away my phone and just listening to the sermon.  My church follows the current trend of putting the words of Scripture on the screens at the front, so I didn’t really need to follow along in my app anyway (unless I wanted to look at the context, which using the screens can’t really replace).  I tried to think of myself not as an individual sticking out like a sore thumb, but as another member of Christ’s body, just like the people next to me.  It helped.  I listened.  I worshiped.  And, wonderfully, I didn’t fall asleep!

 

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motif or obsession

This past weekend, I attended the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, and during a session on monologue-writing, which ended up being more generally about principles of characterization, we were asked to write short descriptions of the people represented by faces that the presenter showed on the screen.  Then we had to pick our favorite, sketch a picture of them, and write a monologue using beginning, middle, and ending lines given to us by the presenter.

I drew this guy:

I said he has one Hispanic parent and one white parent, he is approaching 30, and he is passively annoyed that everyone considers him a harmless teddy bear.  His name is Manny, but as I was writing his monologue, in which he gets defensive about the fact that he illustrates comic books for a living and hardly ever leaves his apartment, I realized that he was basically a biracial version, with a somewhat different childhood trauma, of the character I’m always writing about–usually named Sam.

When I started writing about this character, I was in high school, and so was he.  He was called Sparky Melloy back then, but his real name was Samuel.  Then, as now, he was blond-haired, chubby, quiet, self-effacing, and sometimes funny.  Back then, he was obsessed with Dr. Pepper and often wore baseball caps backward.  Now, he prefers Coke (his tastes have matured) and only occasionally wears a baseball cap, forward.

There was a period a few years ago during which I departed a bit from this general profile.  The guy I wrote about during this time shared many of Sparky/Sam’s features, but he was a musician with dark curly hair–he was Jewish, sometimes–who was both older (because I was older too) and angrier than his previous manifestations.  Sometimes he had a fraternal twin brother.  This guy was different enough from Sparky Melloy that I gave him a different name, Adrian.  But the basic character was still there.

At some point, I got rid of the fraternal twin brother, who was a jerk anyway, but I gave Sam (for that is now his permanent name) a best friend, a curly-haired, easily annoyed musician named Adrian.  But this Adrian is a skinny redhead, and I totally jettisoned the Jewish part, mainly because I have no idea how to write from a Jewish perspective.

Here’s what I know about Sam: He writes and illustrates comic books for a living and is quite successful.  He’s single and thinks he probably always will be, mainly because he doesn’t think any woman will ever be attracted to a “fat mental patient” like him.  (He spent one night in a psych ward, 10 years ago, after he attempted suicide and Adrian saved his life.)  He grew up with a severely depressed mother, a father who couldn’t talk about emotions, and no siblings.  Sam himself is on medication for depression, but he’s not a depressing person to be around.  He’s creative, kind, sometimes surprisingly witty, and usually a calming influence on people around him.  Life is hard for him, but he doesn’t want to die anymore.  And, in the story I’m writing right now, he’s surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Generally, when we see a character, theme, or symbol recurring again and again in an author’s writing, we call it a motif.  I think Sam may be an obsession.  I don’t know if he represents me, the person I want to be, or the person I don’t want to be–maybe all of the above.  I kind of have a crush on him.  I know, it’s weird.  But those of you who are writers–or who at least make up stories in your head–do you know what I mean?  Please share.

the greatest showmen

In the week leading up to Christmas, I used my MoviePass (a small investment that pays off hugely even if you don’t go to the movies as often as I do) to see three films: The Man Who Invented ChristmasStar Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Greatest Showman.  I am a casual Star Wars fan at most, so I am both unqualified and a little frightened at the prospect of jumping into the debates surrounding the latest installment, so I won’t.  I’ll simply say that I found the story satisfying and the visual experience awesome (especially in IMAX) and that I am MAD SHIPPING Rey and Kylo Ren (as are the filmmakers, I think, in a subtle way that I really like).

The other two films I saw are about larger-than-life nineteenth century entertainers: Charles Dickens (in The Man Who Invented Christmas) and P.T. Barnum (in The Greatest Showman).  Yes, I called Dickens an entertainer, because that’s how he saw himself (he always wanted to be an actor, and he found his headiest enjoyment in the dramatic and comic public readings he gave toward the end of his life), and I don’t think calling him that diminishes the literary merit of his work at all.  Barnum, of course, can’t really be called anything but an entertainer.  In the remainder of my post, I’ll say a few words about each movie and then explain the similarities I see between these two wild, frustrating, delightful, troubled (and troubling) men.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story of Dickens’ composition of A Christmas Carol.  While indulging in some magical realism, it remains remarkably faithful to the biographical facts and psychological truths of Dickens’ life.  As a Dickens fan and scholar, I found virtually nothing to quibble about; it was emotionally and intellectually on point.  The performances were excellent, especially Dan Stevens’ portrayal of the young, dandyish, and rather pretty Dickens.  (Okay, he was kind of gorgeous–I mean both Stevens and the real Dickens.)  I wish this movie had received wider release.

The Greatest Showman has received wider release and much more hype.  I suppose one would call it a bio-musical.  The music is effective, inspiring, and catchy.  The message is simple: Love yourself; follow your dreams.  But this message is, of course, complicated by the historical facts: P.T. Barnum built his business on deception, and–regardless of how well he may have treated his employees–he was still charging money for them to be viewed as curiosities–that is, freaks.  The musical format makes it easy to forget that people weren’t going to Barnum’s circus to see talented singers and dancers.  They weren’t going to see a fantastic female singer who happened to have a beard.  They were going to see a bearded lady, period.

For me, the most interesting thing about The Greatest Showman was the similarities I saw between Barnum (at least the way he was portrayed in this movie–I haven’t done any research on him) and Dickens.  Both grew up as working, lower-class boys who then spent their entire adult lives trying to get respect from the wealthy who would never see them as anything but vulgar entertainers.  Both were amazingly creative and audacious, if not always prudent.  Even Barnum’s weird obsession with promoting the renowned singer Jenny Lind (who didn’t really need a promoter) reminded me of the series of bad decisions Dickens made during his mid-life crisis.  It’s also interesting to note that Dickens had a lifelong enjoyment of the circus.  I wonder if he ever got to see Barnum’s show on one of his visits to America.  I’d have to check and see if the dates line up.

I may pursue this theme later, but I’ll close for now by recommended all of the films I’ve just mentioned.  Even the troubling Greatest Showman is enjoyable, well-executed, and deserving of any honors it may receive during this award season.

 

your New Year’s inspiration

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas (although, as we learned in my last post, we are still in the Christmas season and will be until next Saturday, which is Epiphany) and didn’t miss me too much during my unannounced hiatus last week.  Today, I have a story to inspire you toward whatever goals you may be pursuing in the new year.

Last week, we were staying in a hotel while visiting family in Ohio.  One morning, I was in the fitness center doing a walking incline workout on the treadmill, when a little old lady–I use the term quite literally, with no disrespect intended–came into the room and hoisted herself up onto the elliptical.  My initial reaction was “Bless her heart,” but as the minutes went by, I could see in my peripheral vision that she was holding her own pretty well.

When I got off the treadmill, she was still going at it, and she wished me a good day, a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.  (At least I think she did–I had my music up loud.)  I thanked her and asked if she wanted the TV remote, which had been sitting unused on my machine, but she couldn’t hear me very well either (she didn’t have her hearing aids in, as she told me a few minutes later), so she got off her elliptical to find out what I was talking about.  I felt bad that she had to interrupt her workout, but it quickly became apparent that she wanted to talk.  We had one of those polite little strangers-in-public exchanges, but this wouldn’t be an interesting story at all (sorry about the long set-up) if not for what she asked me while I was on my way out the door.

“Have you ever run a marathon?” she asked.  I popped out one of my earbuds and answered, “No, I’ve run a half-marathon, but not a full marathon.”

“Oh, you have to run a marathon,” she said.  “I’m training for my 13th marathon.  I didn’t run my first one until I was 61.”

[From here on, I’m not going to continue with this dialogue thing–just imagine me saying variations of “Wow, amazing!”]

She began speaking as if me signing up for a marathon were a done deal.  “Just have fun,” she said.  “You can alternate between walking and running, at least on your first two marathons.”  (Now she was assuming I was going to run two.)  “Don’t worry about keeping up with the Kenyans.”  Here I laughed knowingly; my heart always sinks when the first Kenyan runner passes by on the return leg of the Virginia Ten-Miler when I’ve barely gotten started.

The conversation was short, and it ended with an exchange of first names (hers: Connie) and with Connie telling me she would pray for me and my family (this is not really a surprise in Central Ohio, Bible Belt North).  I walked away from the fitness center with a lot to think about, most of which can be summed up in various cliches such as “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “It’s never too late to try something new.”  So I won’t belabor the point.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, and I hope Connie’s example won’t discourage you (“I’m not her, so I won’t try”) but inspire you.  Your thing may not be running marathons (though apparently mine is), but you do have a thing–go do it.