Sunday, February 7, 2016

Law and Mayberry

I grew up with The Andy Griffith Show, a 60's sitcom set in the sleepy town of Mayberry, North Carolina. We watched every Monday night on our family’s black and white tv as Andy and his son Opie walk down to the fishing hole while Earl Hagen whistles the catchy theme song. But back then, the theology of Mayberry went right over my head.

Re-watching it now, I find it to be deeply theological. It's all about law and grace.

Sheriff Taylor’s deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts)—whose catchphrase is “Nip it, nip it in the bud”--represents the letter of the law. Barney wants to play by the book and keep every jot and tittle of every nit-picky city ordinance. One day, while Andy was out of town, Barney locked up just about every citizen of Mayberry, including the Mayor and Aunt Bee.

But easy-breezy, pickin'-and-grinnin' Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) is willing to cut people some slack—good guys and bad guys alike. He represents grace and mercy.

In one episode, a state inspector is outraged to find that Andy’s jail is furnished with handmade doilies and fresh flowers and that the deputy is forbidden to keep a bullet in his gun. Why doesn't this bumpkin sheriff take the law seriously? The inspector goes ballistic when he finds out the officers are throwing a birthday party for their prisoner—Otis, the town drunk.

But when Andy’s relaxed police procedure is put to the test, he always gets his man, and the snooty-patooty nay-sayers are always put in their place.

Because in the town of Mayberry, pride goes before destruction (or at least before a good come-uppance). Conflicts are solved with forgiveness. Neighbors help each other, and Good Samaritans abound. Musicians gather on the front porch to make a joyful noise. And many times, a little child leads them. It’s all very biblical. This show hearkens back to a simpler time with timeless values.


Mayberry makes us homesick for a day when social interaction happened not with memes on screens but in living rooms and soda shops and porch swings and barber shops, on creek banks and at choir practice  and county fairs. It makes us yearn for a place where quirky characters are cherished, where freckle-faced children say "please" and "thank you," where prodigals are welcomed home, and the supper table is spread with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and hot, buttered biscuits. Pies are cooling on the window sill, and nobody ever heard of cholesterol or body mass index.

Come to think of it, the Bible does describe such a place. It's called Heaven! A place, incidentally, that we law-breakers enter only by grace.

In one of the most popular episodes, Barney arranges for a Russian-American summit meeting to take place at Andy's house. (Willing suspension of disbelief here.) The politicos are at a standstill until they all wind up in the kitchen late at night, raiding the icebox. While feasting on Aunt Bee's delicious goodies, they manage to achieve world peace--or at least share some pickles and a few laughs.

In an episode called "The Christmas Story," Andy lets all the prisoners go home for Christmas. But the curmudgeonly Ben Weaver insists that Andy arrest Sam Muggins for making moonshine. In a brilliant counter-move, Andy brings Christmas to the jailhouse. Andy arrests Sam's family and puts them in the cell with Sam. Then Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea and Ellie celebrate the holiday at the jailhouse too. Now Ben is jealous, since he obviously has no Christmas waiting at home. While Andy and Ellie sing "Away In a Manger," Ben looks through the window and sadly sings along.

Sam, Ben, and the moonshine

Ben then tries repeatedly to get arrested so that he can join the party, but his plans are continually thwarted--until Andy gets the message that Ben is lonely. Then Andy arrests Ben, allowing him to stop by his department store to pick up presents for everybody.

We the viewers start out being mad at Ben, but then we feel pity for him and are happy when his Christmas wish comes true. It reminds me of how God brings Christmas to our imprisoned souls.

And if that isn't grace, what is?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Hezekiah and the Low Priest

Well. . .what are you staring at?

I'm a harmless old man now--a brown, curled leaf that clung to the twig all winter, only to fall away in the first sigh of spring.  I'm the dried husk of a locust or the skin shed by a snake, bearing the shape but not the substance of a man. I'm an outcast from the fine houses of my friends, from the holy house of God, and even from my own house, the palace. For yes, I'm also the king of all Judah--except when I'm taking a nap or am otherwise indisposed.

Hear ye, Far Isles, and tremble!  The great King Uzziah roars--like a house cat--and raises, with a stump that used to be a hand, a trowel for a scepter.  

They kicked me out of the castle seven years ago when I lost my health and set me up here in the gardener's shed.  My son Jotham rules as prince regent in my stead.  I'm still the brains of the operation, you understand.  But I'm scarcely in a state to entertain foreign dignitaries.  

My amusements are few.  Listening to birds.  Smelling the earth after rain.  I used to have a small flower garden, but I had to give it up.  It's too dangerous for me to use the tools because I can't tell when I've been cut.  And then there are the visits from the priest.  He's usually good for a laugh, though I doubt he would return the compliment.

I met Isaiah--the Low Priest I call him, just to aggravate him. He'd like to be high priest when he grows up, but he'll never make it.  He has other fish to fry, if I'm any judge.  Anyway, I was saying, I met the low priest because I sent for a priest, and he was apparently the one they could most easily spare. He wasn't happy to come, because every time he left me, he had to go through a tedious purification ritual, and there was a waiting period before he could work in the Temple again. 

But even if I am a leper and a doddering old fool besides, I am the king.  And he came.  You bet your sister's sweet virtue he came.

Old Testament lepers

I sent for a priest because I wanted to tell my story, to have it set down for all who come after me.  A man's story should not die with the man.  And more than that, my story is the story of a nation.

"Write down," I told him, "that when I was sixteen, my father Amaziah was assassinated, and I ascended to the throne. By popular demand as well as by right of succession.  I may be a dry leaf now, but once I was a fig in full bloom.  Consider my accomplishments, I said to the fire-haired young priest.
"I pushed back the borders of Judah almost to where they were in Solomon's time.  I opened new trade routes.  I flattened the filthy Philistines into flapjacks and raised cities of Judah from their rubble. The chicken-hearted Ammonites gladly paid tribute just to keep me at a safe distance. My fame spread clear down to Egypt.

"Set down, Priest," I told him, "that I Uzziah built the fortified towers, dug the cisterns, dressed the vineyards, tilled the fields. For me the Promised Land finally kept its promise. I turned the barren Negeb into a garden, and now I can't be trusted with a spade. Write that too," I commanded,"and there's more to tell."

Isaiah, by Raphael

"I was afraid of that," he said, his hair falling in his eyes. 

"Write that I surrounded Jerusalem with spandangled machines of war that could shoot arrows and sling boulders. And that my foreign policies brought peace." 

"Peace?" he interrupted.

"Peace and prosperity. During my reign, coins clinked in the coffers, silks rustled in the markets, and wine ran like the Red Sea over Pharoah's army. I once knew a nobleman who had a solid gold statue of a goddess--stark naked!"

He shook his head in disaproval.

"But, the problem was," I continued, "the problem was that the serfs who worked his land were naked too. And hungry. The system isn't perfect, I'll admit, but times have been pretty good."

"For whom?" asked the cheeky young prophet, his face still red about the goddess.

"For most people," I bellowed.

That was the end of our session. Nothing wearies a man so much as the recounting of his own glory.

Old Testament battle

One day, Isaiah came and found me confined to bed, where I've been ever since. "The time grows short," I told him. "Write down the story of my pride and my fall."

He tried to make me more comfortable, but seeing that was impossible, he just wrote what I told him. How that one day seven years ago, when I was at the pinnacle of my power--and probably drunk as well--I decided to make an offering to the Lord.  "All by myself," said I, "bypassing the priests and Temple turkeys. I put on the vestments of a priest and stormed through the gates of the Temple, right on into the altar of incense. I took hold of the golden censor."

Isaiah look mortified, but I continued.

Isaiah, by Michelangelo

"Azariah the high priest and a clucking, cackling brood of low priests, maybe eighty of them, came charging in to oppose me. There's always been a power struggle between the priesthood and the monarchy, and they were hot for a confrontation. 

"'Leave the sanctuary,' they cried. 'You have broken faith. You are cut off from the glory of God!'

"Well, that did it. I figured the only thing I had broken was their pride. I've always thought they were a bunch of pompous, prune-faced fools, and I opened my mouth to tell them so. 

"But somehow the words thickened in my throat, cutting off my air. The earth stopped in its track and everything seemed to be happening underwater or in a dream. I felt a sting on my forehead like the strike of a serpent. I watched the look on their faces change from anger to fear, and to a man they backed away. 

"Then the earth shook and fell open like a great wound. The heavens thundered. Some said later that God spoke, but I doubt it. There wasn't much left to say.

"I put my hand to my head and felt the scab of a leper. 'Unclean!' shouted the high priest.

"'Unclean, unclean!' shouted the low priests. I fled from the Temple as one stricken by God. And stricken I have remained."

Isaiah silently cried as he wrote the story he knew so well but had never heard from me.

I never sent for him again, but in a few months he returned. In these seven years, it is the only time anyone has come without a direct command. He happened to find me at home, rather than out leading a military campaign or building a tower. 

His hair was still in his eyes, but he looked taller. He had come to tell me a vision, a vision that is the end of my story and the beginning of his, if I'm any judge. But that is of no importance.

The angel cleanses Isaiah's lips
Seems he was serving in the Temple not long ago, alongside the half-deaf Josiah and the half-wit Amos. Josiah was offering prayers--rattling on and on like he does--and he never saw a thing. But Isaiah saw the Lord God sitting on a High Throne, his skirts trailing through the Temple. And smoke, smoke everywhere--and the doorposts knocking like the young priest's knees. Great winged angels cried, "Holy, holy, holy" to the One who sits shining on the throne. Wonder was the lad didn't faint at the sight.

Then a dragon took a coal from the altar with tongs and touched it to Isaiah's mouth. And God told the low priest to go and prophesy to this people, "DESOLATION!"

"How long, Lord?" cried the low priest.

"Till cities lie desolate, till the earth is wasted."

"How long till what?" shouted Josiah. And the vision vanished.

Oh, my cities!  My strong towers and vineyards! My people! We had come full circle, he and I. It was Isaiah's turn to tell the tale and mine to weep.

And what of this One, I asked him, this One who sits on the High Throne surrounded by dragons? Is this the sweet shepherd our father David sang about? Is this the tender vinedresser? Is this the one we placate with tithes and offerings and burnt rams? What if we don't know Him so well as we think? Before this High King, the kings of the earth are but insects. What if Yahweh Seboath turn against us in wrath? Will we shoot arrows at the heavens or sling stones at the stars?

But if I tell Judah to repent, they won't listen. He is a curled leaf, they will say. He is the skin shed by a snake. See, on his deathbed the old geezer hallucinates. You must go, Low Priest. You must turn their hearts. Tell them your vision. Tell them of the High Throne, the dragons, the tongs. 

Tell them that in the year poor old Uzziah died, you saw the Lord.

Photo Credits:
    Snakeskin, (C)opyright / PlazacCameraman
    Hezekiah, by Rembrandt
    Old Testament lepers, by Roger McLassus
    Isaiah, by Raphael
    Old Testament battle, by the art Bible, Princeton Theological Seminary
    Isaiah, by Michelangelo
    angel with live coal, Greek Catholic icon
    dried leaves (sawtooth oak), by Ram-Man
    Judgement--stained glass, detail, at Eichstätt

Monday, January 25, 2016

Balder the Beautiful

         I heard a voice that cried,
       Balder the beautiful
       Is dead, dead.  

One day in childhood, C. S. Lewis was searching through his father's extensive library, and he stumbled across these words in a poem by Longfellow.

Although young Jack had no idea who this Balder might be, the words stirred something in him--"an extraordinary feeling, a notion of great cold expanses of northern sky"--according to The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter.

Balder (or Baldr), in Norse mythology, is the second son of Odin and brother of Thor and Vali. He had a twin brother named Hoor, who was blind. 

Balder is always described in "glowing" terms:

The second son of Odin is Baldur, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him.    
                     -- from the Prose Edda

Balder had a dream of his own death, and the dream frightened him. To make matters worse, his mother Frigg had the same dream. In an effort to protect her son, Frigg made every object in the realm swear never to harm Balder. Every object save one made this promise.

Stones promised. Trees promised. Daggers and weapons of every sort promised. Everything promised except for just one thing--the mistletoe. Did Frigg overlook this humble branch with pointed leaves, thinking it too small? Or was the mistletoe too young to swear an oath?

When the gods heard that everything had promised never to harm Balder, they made a new sport. They would toss things at Balder--both harmless and dangerous things--just to watch them all miss or fall away without hurting him.

But Loki, the mischief maker, heard about the dream and the promise Frigg had asked every object to make. He also heard about the mistletoe.

Loki was tired of everyone always singing the praises of Balder, and so he devised an evil plan. He fashioned a spear out of mistletoe and handed it to Balder's blind twin Hoor to toss at Balder. Some say that when the spear left Hoor's hand, Loki guided its path.

Alas, the enchanted arrow found its mark, and Balder the Beautiful fell dead. The sound of weeping was heard throughout Asgard.

Balder's body was ceremonially burned on his ship, Hringhorni--largest of all ships. As he was carried to the ship, Odin whispered something in his ear, but no-one knows what he said. Then Hyrrokin, a giantess, set the ship sailing on the open sea.

To punish Hoor for slaying Balder, Odin and Frigg conceived another son--a son who grew up in a single day and slayed Hoor.

Hel, keeper of the underworld, promised to release Balder back to earth if everyone dead and alive would weep for him. Everyone did--everyone except one giantess, believed to be Loki in disguise. Thus, Balder was forced to remain in the underworld until the day of Ragnarok, an apocalyptic time foretold when Balder and Hoor would be reunited and would rule the new world together.

As for Loki, after many more malicious, arrogant deeds, he comes to no good end, bound to a rock, beneath a poisonous snake that drips venom down on the prisoner. Loki writhes with such violence that the earth first experiences what we now call earthquakes.

Many comparisons have been made between Balder and Christ. Jesus, the bright and shining Son of God, was betrayed by the fallen angel Lucifer and put to death. And prophets tell of a time when Jesus will rule a new Heaven and a new earth, and Lucifer will be bound for a thousand years. Balder was "a dying god."

But there comparisons must end. For Jesus, unlike Balder, walked out of his tomb, very much alive--"that through death he might destroy him who had the power, that is, the devil."

I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.      Rev. 1:18  KJV

The myth-makers told some great stories, and the story of Balder is one of them. But only one story can rightly claim to be "The Greatest Story Ever Told"--the true story of the Christ, the Risen Redeemer.

Photo Credits:
    "Odin's last words to Baldr," by W. G. Collingwood
     Iceland, by Roger McLassus
    "Each arrow overshot his head," by Elmer Boyd Smith
    Mistletoe berries, by Alexbrn
    Balder killed by Hoor and Loki, from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript
    "Odin's last words to Baldr," detail
    "The Punishment of Loki," by Louis Huard 
    The Empty Tomb, by Mary Kasting

Monday, January 18, 2016

Lessons from Firefly


                                 Burn the land
                                 and boil the sea,
                                 You can't take the sky from me. . . .

Set in the year 2517, after humans have depleted Earth and migrated to a new star system, Firefly follows the lives of nine mates of the Starship (Firefly Class) Serenity. Creator Joss Whedon pitched this show as "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things." 

But though these shipmates may have different dreams and aspirations, the dangers of deep space also unite them in a common goal. Survival.

So, what do the crew members see out there in "the blackness"?

The Captain--Malcolm Reynolds, played by a young Nathan Fillion--sees freedom, a way to avoid the Alliance oppressors and to be his own man. The Resistance army may have lost the war to the Alliance, but on his own ship, Mal is still a free man.

First Mate Zoe Washburne, who fought side by side with Mal in the war, sees the black as a place to be useful to the Resistance and to keep serving her beloved commander.

Loyalty doesn't motivate crewman Jayne Cobb--except loyalty to Jayne. He's a good man in a fight, Jayne--unless, of course, he knifes you in the back to make a profit. With Jayne, you never know.

Then there's the beautiful "Companion" Inara Serra, who rents one of the escape pods of Serenity. In this society, trained prostitutes form an elite class, and Inara lends a bit of ironic respectability to Serenity

Every resident of the Serenity has a story and a dream. I think that the Serenity crew and passengers see the black of space as a symbol of independence from the Alliance, an escape from the past, and a new beginning. Out there in the black, you have no choice but to face your deepest fears and discover your true self.

The cast of Firefly, L to R, Top to Bottom,
Ron Glass (Book)Summer Glau (River)
Alan Tudyk (Wash)Sean Maher (Simon)
Adam Baldwin (Jayne)Jewel Staite (Kaylee)
Morena Baccarin (Inara)
and Nathan Fillion (Mal)
--missing: Zoe (Gina Torres)

Cancelled by the network after only nine of the original 14 episodes had aired, Firefly is the poster child for all promising television series that are cancelled too soon. DVD sales for the defunct show skyrocketed, and the fan base remains to this day loyal, outspoken, and still expanding.

It was a great show and a great story that had just begun to unfold. It's really a shame, but it is what it is. Not only was the show cancelled, but Joss Whedon followed the series with a movie--Serenity--in which he killed a couple of characters, more or less nailing the coffin shut on the story of these nine intrepid travelers in space. 

Maybe someday Firefly will be revived. and the Browncoats will ride again. Maybe not. But storytellers across the galaxy can still draw on this story for instruction and inspiration.

  • Nothing is too out there or fringe if you have a passion for the story.
  • Every character has his own story. Although he interacts with others, he has his own history, philosophy of life, his own dreams, his own character flaws. Nobody was born into this world to be part of the supporting cast. Everybody lives in his own world.
  • Backstory should never intrude, but it can richly inform the present situation and the characters.

  • Setting can also enrich a story, even serving as a character at times. You could place these characters into a different setting, and it would be a completely different story.
  • Sci-fi and fantasy are still the best places to explore moral issues in story form.
And the greatest lesson we can learn from Firefly?
  • Don't quit too soon. Okay, so technically it was the network that quit on Firefly, a show that many with hindsight think would have gone on to be a huge success. But it's a caution for all writers. Don't quit on your story too soon. And sometimes quitting is simply filing it away in a desk drawer until a better time.
There may never be a better time.

Photo Credits:
    Firefly, Firefly logo
    Nathan Fillion, Flickr user RavenU] |P
    Gina Torres, source--Genevieve
    Adam Baldwin, Flickr upload bot (talk | contribs)
    Morena Baccarin, Flickr user RavenU
    Cast of Firefly, Flickr user RavenU
    Joss Whedon,  photo by Dominick D
    Mal, Zoe & horse, posted under fair use 
    Firefly 4-disc set, product shot

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Theory of Nothing

Most family portraits of the Solar System look something like this:

You can just imagine a photographer rounding up all the planets so that they'll fit in the picture. 

"Mars, a little to the left, please. Hey, Pretty Girl, pull in those rings. Everybody say 'moon cheese.' "

In these pictures, we look like one big happy family--even the little lovechild Pluto. We look like Norman Rockwell hoboes huddled around the trash-can fire of the sun to warm our hands. Picturesque and cozy and quaint.

And wrong. 

Like a lot of family portraits, this one is really misleading. For a more realistic picture, drawn to scale, you can visit a website called "If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel," by Josh Worth.

Josh has created a scale model of the solar system online, with earth's moon scaled to just one pixel. At this resolution, the asteroids don't even appear. Josh's model is conveniently laid out in a straight line, but that's probably the only way to make it work.

You start at the sun and scroll to the right to visit the different planets. You scroll and scroll and scroll, because the planets are such teensy little specks, and the spaces between are so vast.

This journey is mind-blowing and terrifying. Because most of space is just that. Zilch. Nada. Space crickets!

And that's just inside our little neighborhood. The spaces between stars or between galaxies are greater still. Unimaginable. Overwhelming. Pee-your-pants scary.

And when we zip on down to the microcosmic level, we find even more nothing. About  99.9999999999996% of a hydrogen atom is empty space.  Proportionately, there is less something and more nothing within your atoms than out there in Star Trek land.

I guess I'm thinking that what we could really use, instead of a Theory of Everything, is a Theory of Nothing. Why are all the particles and planets so far apart?

Maybe it's just God's feng shui for the universe. God used all this nothing to make the something look better and work better.

I got sick over Christmas, and I'm still taking drugs and breathing treatments to keep recovering. The first couple of weeks of 2016 are a motion blur to me.

So I'm pushing the reset button on the New Year. I woke up this morning to snow. A fresh, uncluttered landscape. A blank page.

And I'm thinking that in my life, maybe there's not enough empty space. Maybe events and commitments and newsbites and postings and chats and tv shows are all crammed a little too close together. 

I'm thinking I need less stuff and more nothing in my office, in my closet, in my filing cabinet, on my dinner plate, on my calendar,  in my mental and spiritual life. More empty space for thinking. Praying. Writing. Napping. For face to face with friends. 

Less time doing. More time being. Less noise. More silence. Less school. More snow days. Less grown-up. More child. Less planning. More possibility.

A little less something and a lot more nothing.

Photo Credits:
    Solar System, by NASA, public domain
    Solar System, author--Omnidoom 999
    NGC 2683 Spiral galaxy, by NASA, public domain
    Rutherford model of atom, by Cburnett
    Snow on twig, (C)opyright / 
    Little girl, (C)opyright nastia19893