Prayer Is a Physical Experience That Requires Physical Choices

Sometimes, I prune this blog. I cut away old posts I come across which, upon my later reading, no longer seem to me to be worth sharing. Deletion is the writer’s tool and prerogative. Yet one post I deleted continued to make an impression long after the piece had been removed from this site.

It had to do with prayer. In a conversation with a reader of this blog (a subscriber, no less), that reader brought up a detail from a long-ago post that remained with her still, a detail from a post I had been glad to remove. The detail she mentioned was the fact that I frequently sit cross-cross applesauce on the floor in order to pray.

What an embarrassing disclosure to have made so publicly, I later came to think. What an unnecessarily personal admission, and what vanity to think anyone would care to know this. I do not recall what point the blog post made to which this detail was germane. Whatever the point, I apparently judged later that either the point itself was not worth making or my piece did not make it very well. Either way, no doubt I was helped in coming to this view by the growing feeling that what I had let out about my own habit of prayer was frivolous.

Now, upon reflection that has advanced still farther, I have again changed my view. I have come to see why a detail like this is perhaps not frivolous, and why it made a lasting impression on at least one reader.

We are physical creatures, after all.

And prayer is a physical experience.

The aim of prayer is spiritual communion. Yet the act of praying is physical, requiring physical choices. In order to pray, one first makes decisions about the physical body’s participation and disposition. Are hands folded? Is the head bowed? Are eyes closed or are they open and gazing? Is the voice silent or lifted?

Even the decision to change nothing about the physical state, on the theory that prayer needs no physical act to be heard, is itself a choice. And it is hard for me to imagine anyone committed to prayer as a pursuit following such a theory. We are physical creatures, and more fully we are beings of body, soul, and spirit. All three enter in if the self is to pray, and the body is arguably the beginning.

To pray, the body relinquishes attention. Stating the matter one final time: We are physical creatures—perhaps despite our hope not to be. The body generally distracts or commands the soul. Our will pays heed to our physical being’s interplay with the physical world. Prayer thus begins with the body bidding the soul to let go. One places the body in a reverent or unusual pose, or in a simple motion, not only so the soul can turn away, but also so the soul is chastened and instructed to turn away. That is, so the soul turns from the body toward the harder work of looking into the expanse that only the spirit can touch.

“The clothes make the man,” we say, and while this is not literally true, it conveys a truth. In a similar sense and to a similar extent, we might also say, “The body makes the prayer.” Therefore, of course we want instruction in this aspect of prayer, or at least an example to think about.

Teach us to pray, says an unnamed disciple in Luke 11:1. He speaks for us all. It is natural to wonder whether we are praying correctly, whether our prayers are accomplishing their effect, whatever the effect ought to be. In this light, I can see how a disclosure about the physical detail of someone else’s prayer might not be frivolous, because it provides a reference point. It offers an inference about the chastening and instruction another soul requires, along with the demeanor and posture another follower finds appropriate for his or her own turn to the expanse.

So, here is a further detail. Here is an update about the disclosure I have now re-disclosed: Lately, I have not been sitting criss-cross applesauce so much.

The photo picks up the spot in my study where that praying generally took place. I would sit on the floor before the table in the background. But that table is gone now. A padded chair has come into the room that fits very well in this corner. As a result, it now feels absurd to me to go to the floor in that spot, because a chair is sitting right there, available and waiting. Accordingly, I quietly sit in the chair now, praying. Through repetition of this habit, the chair is becoming sanctified in my mind to this purpose, and I am exploring whether comfort—the comfort of a nice chair—is any obstacle to my soul being chastened and instructed.

Barriers

[Today, three brief excerpts on the theme of the teachings of Jesus, all from my latest book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You. Below is the third of the passages and here are the first and second. Here is how to obtain the book.]

What are we to do with the teaching of Jesus? This is another way of asking what are we to do with the Bible, which contains the teaching he said and did along with the teaching he validated. He told us what we are to do with it. We are to keep his teaching. We are to obey.

Consider what we do instead. We enshrine. Apart from the Bible’s personal teaching, we stake out its descriptive details and defend these. We posit that the observations of science can make no claim against the picture these details happened to paint within scriptures conveying this personal teaching to a different people in a different time.

What are we to do with the teaching of Jesus? He told us. We are to obey.

Consider what we do instead. We idolize. We touch the Bible with our hands to swear oaths as though we believe the divine resides in an object. The divine resides in us.

What are we to do with the teaching of Jesus? He told us. We are to explore it, dwell on it, question it—because the knowledge and understanding that come of all this will equip us to obey.

Walls around the Bible will separate us from its contents, including walls made out of reverence.

Finished

[Today, three brief excerpts on the theme of the teachings of Jesus, all from my latest book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You. Below is the second of the passages and here are the first and third. Here is how to obtain the book.]

John’s gospel describes Jesus at the end of his mortal life saying, “It is finished.” Jesus hung on the cross knowing his heavenly work was being accomplished through his death. He hung on the cross also knowing his earthly mission had been entrusted to those he had chosen. Perhaps only the account by John, the longest surviving of these chosen successors and the one who completed this earthly work, could include Jesus saying these words.

Taken together, in English, the four biblical gospel texts sum to about 65,000 words. Paperback novels are longer than that. John said Jesus did far more than what is included in these brief texts (John 21:25), meaning the apostle was aware how much he had left out.

He wrote what he had been led to write. Apparently, the last living apostle was given not only an inspired recall of what Jesus had told him (John 14:26), but also an inspired understanding of how little needed to be recorded in order for Jesus’ teaching to be conveyed.

Commands

[Today, three brief excerpts on the theme of the teachings of Jesus, all from my latest book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You. Below is the first of the passages and here are the second and third. Here is how to obtain the book.]

What if there was an anti-gospel in which the commands of the devil were spelled out in quotable verses?

The commands of this anti-gospel might include:

“Watch for infractions against you and nurture hostility toward those who commit them.”

“Evaluate people in terms of status. Undermine those with equal or higher status than you and fight to keep down those whose status is lower.”

“Compare yourself unfavorably to other people. Pine for what they have and hate them for having it.”

“Minimize the specialness of your life. Discard the special opportunities it presents to you and discredit its special calling.”

When we learn that Jesus said, “Obey my commands,” we place the stress on “commands” and we hear this injunction as a burden. We ought to place the stress on “my” and hear this for what it is: a liberation. Before Jesus gave us his way, we were already obeying a set of commands.

My Other Blog: Art and Story

I have opened up another space online, another place where I am posting writing. My new blog, Art and Story, is for fiction. My aim there (you’ll see what I mean when you visit) is to dwell on works of art by finding stories within them. The word “dwell” is deliberately chosen. As I explain in the blog’s About page, part of my purpose with the site is to enact and exercise Philippians 4:8, something I want and need to do.

I was writing fiction up until about a dozen years ago. When I experienced a call to faith, to Christian belief, my personal writing was given over to this: to exploring just what it was I was called to, what it is I believe. My latest book is the furthest progress I have made with this exploration, and of my books so far it is the one that feels the most personally true. It is not the final word, but it feels as though it might be the final book for a time. Going forward, I expect my personal writing will be blogging for a while, with no more projects the scope of a full-length book until I feel again a call to begin one. The fact that the interest I feel now includes a return to fiction seems fitting and natural, a blessing. We submit to God and he sets us free. We give ourselves to him—generally in pieces—and as part of what he shares with us, he gives us those pieces right back, redeemed and clarified.

Visit Art and Story

What Does It Mean That God Is Jealous?

“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god,” says God himself in Exodus 20:5. What could this possibly mean? We associate jealousy with pettiness, not divinity. But apparently, one of the darker emotions we humans are subject to gives us insight into the feelings of God.

First, God has feelings. Start there. This in itself is profound. The creator of all there is and all we know wants something, and is moving his universe toward something. My latest book explores this.

But second, and more to the point of this post, he has feelings for us. The jealousy statement speaks to this. He makes this statement within the Ten Commandments, by way of explaining his commands not to have other gods and not to worship idols. In short, he is explaining his desire for our attention, our devotion. Therefore, this is jealousy in the most potent and personal sense of the word. We sometimes say “jealousy” to mean mere envy, but that’s not what this is in the case of God’s statement. He is disclosing that he feels jealousy in the sense of wanting to have another’s heart and not wanting that heart to go elsewhere. If you have ever felt this, then you have a sense of how God feels about his chosen, about you.

Yet when we humans have this feeling, it is darkness. “Jealousy” entails the feeling of bliss when the other person’s thoughts and attention are with us, but the experience of pain when the other person’s thoughts and attention seem to leave. The feeling is a sickness because it is not our place nor within our power to direct where the thoughts and attention of another willingly go. What a person does or does not feel, what animates his thoughts and what wins her attention, is a matter solely for that person’s private soul—a matter between that person and God.

But God is the maker of my soul. God is the maker of me, the maker of the space in which I experience selfhood. Jealousy is therefore light and not dark only where he is concerned. God is fully justified in jealousy because God is the maker of my heart.

He is the beginning and the end of all there is. He is the beginning and the end of all that you or I experience or know. It is the sign of how wounded we are that our hearts turn from the love of the One who made those hearts. It is the measure of how broken we are that our thoughts and attention can be so fully drawn elsewhere, our own aims taking no regard of his aims, or him.

The solution to this woundedness is healing. The answer for this brokenness is restoration. What does it mean that God is jealous? It means he is driven not just to act, not just to act on our behalf, but to act upon us. The maker of hearts is also the re-maker of hearts. He turns our attention, renews our minds, and transforms us as a way of transforming the world so his jealous love will bear fruit in joy rather than pain.

“I am a jealous god,” he says. Our creator was revealing something not just profound but also personal, the ache at the heart of the cosmos—his cosmos—that he himself would resolve. He describes the reason for the depth of the pain he feels that we were taken from him, and why he was willing to suffer to have us back. He accounts for the length to which he would go to win us again, to the extent of redeeming us and remaking us. A loving god could love distantly, but that is not the love of our god. Only the God of jealous love would run to us, take hold of us, and turn us back toward loving him by making our hearts new.

*   *   *

(And this tiny PS: I see another meaning, one related to the works to which I have given my own attention and thought. The first book I published is about the Ten Commandments. The latest book I published is about how God transforms us by renewing our minds. The jealous love of God, I now see, is the cord and the current connecting these books together.)

(PPS added later: Here is another cord connecting these two books.)

My Fair Lady (1964)—Class Divisions and Our Response

This is the latest post in my 20th Century Film Project. I am watching 100 films, and reporting on what they seem to say about their moment and ours. I have been dispassionate so far in my treatments of the films I have watched. Let me step outside that dispassion just long enough for a simple confession: I loved My Fair Lady, which I saw for the first time as part of this project.

The story takes place in Britain at the beginning of the 1900s. The plot is founded on one character’s exploration of an idea. To demonstrate and validate his assertion that language provides access to class, Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) takes in the Cockney-accented working-class flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and works with her through long days and late nights of instruction to retrain her enunciation and her dialect. His aim is to prove his point to his houseguest, another expert in linguistics, Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who serves as witness to Higgins’ efforts.

Illogically, Higgins has devoted his life to the study of something he despises. His signature song, “Why Can’t the English,” flaunts his prejudiced view that the dialect of his own class is superior. The lyrics of the song highlight the tiny differences that mark us as being in or out of the privileged state that class provides. As Higgins sings at the beginning of the song:

Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter
Condemned by every syllable she ever uttered.

In real life and in contemporary times, the writer J.D. Vance spoke of something similar in his book Hillbilly Elegy. Small choices related to our appearance and actions also speak a language, and this language too can be heavily accented. Vance, whose book is about modern class, about his experience of having grown up poor, describes the impediments to finding a place and thriving within a world governed by social connection and subtle social expectations. He prevailed past this, making it to law school, but he offers this list of the things he still did not know even by the time he got there:

That you needed to wear a suit to a job interview.
That wearing a suit large enough to fit a silverback gorilla was inappropriate.
That a butter knife wasn’t just decorative (after all, anything that requires a butter knife can be done better with a spoon or an index finger).
That pleather and leather were different substances.
That your shoes and belt should match.
That certain cities and states had better job prospects.
That going to a nicer college brought benefits outside of bragging rights.
That finance was an industry that people worked in.

The real-life Vance and the fictional Doolittle have something else in common as well. They both had parents so lost in their own personal challenges that they provided little help to their children. Vance writes sympathetically about his mother’s challenges and the practically life-saving fact for him that his grandparents were available to care for him for at least some of his childhood. In My Fair Lady, the song of Eliza’s father Alfie, “With a Little Bit,” though in some places it is hailed as the comic anthem of a free spirit, is in fact ugly and tragic. It is the anthem of a man repudiating all he is called to, including being a father.

I am making this connection between a seemingly lighthearted movie and the real social ills of today because the movie’s premise is no longer as lighthearted now as it was then. The humor in this movie draws for comedic effect upon the differences and distortions that come of people occupying different classes. When it was released, viewers in the U.S. could afford to laugh at these differences. Our nation, though struggling with the cruelties of other lines of division, was at the high water mark of having overcome class. The post-World-War-Two industrial economy had lifted everyone, professionals and laborers both. But in the more static and slower-growth economy we have had in recent decades, we have rebuilt our class distinctions.

We haven’t realized we were doing so. For the most part, we don’t realize this is what we have done. A piece I recommend from The Atlantic describes the state we have come to: Roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population now inhabits a world of possibility they remain in without realizing how different their experience has become from the rest of the country, nor how difficult it is for the rest of the country to obtain access to it.

How did this come about? As it happens, My Fair Lady provides a clue. As a contrast to Eliza’s father, we also meet Higgins’ mother. Higgins is awkward in the social set of his wealthy parents, yet a member of their class nevertheless, and this is crucial. Their wealth and standing, and the platform these things provided, goes a long way toward explaining why he was able to establish a life founded on academic pursuit and live out a life devoted to ideas.

The same phenomenon is in effect today. Children born within a higher realm of economic access and possibility—that is, children born to economically thriving parents—receive instruction from those parents (quite naturally) in how to continue to thrive, how to remain within this realm and this class. Those children get an education equipping them to pursue a lucrative career, they benefit from guidance and introductions relevant to that career, and they will likely marry someone for whom all of this has also been true, further anchoring themselves into that realm of possibility by essentially doubling their income and connections.

Nothing is wrong with any of this as it applies to those fortunate children, but again, we once had the tailwind of a rapidly growing economy to lift many people who came of age without these things. Now, after a couple of generations with this wind no longer blowing strong enough to churn the economic strata, the divisions between classes have become self-reinforcing.

J.D. Vance says he found his way in part because of the Marine Corps. The military is an institution that, by its nature, has to disregard class distinctions and even break down the divisions. The resultant mixing brings economically isolated individuals into contact with potential guides and mentors who possess economic and social skills as well as personal life skills. The Marine Corps in particular is devoted to ensuring these skills are taught, proceeding by assuming “maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks,” Vance says. The Marines taught him how to fight, but they also taught him how to handle a savings account, how to see a doctor when sick, and how to shop for a car.

Thus, the remedy for class pursued by Higgins in My Fair Lady, as pompously as it is presented in the character of this professor, is essentially the right one. That is, we ought to reach across class lines. We ought to recognize class differences for what they are: accidental effects over which neither party had control. Higgins saw this. His mother and her set did not; they wished to continue in the delusion of regarding their privilege as a consequence of their superior caliber, talent, and value as special human beings.

Higgins’ aims were selfish. He wished to elevate Doolittle just to prove a point, and he was near to discarding her once his point was made. Only the discovery of how much he had come to value her and how tenderly he regarded her stopped him from this. I said I came to love this film. The movie’s final scene is part of the reason why: It offers relief but no closure. Our imagination is recruited into the speculation of what comes next for these two people, and there is a platonic course that is just as believable and just as lovely as the hope they might be married. So this movie is, of course, romantic—but now let’s pull away that layer of the story to find the message that is gilded by this layer, the point this lighthearted film makes that also happens to resonate with the point of Vance’s serious work. That point is, in part, that little things can keep people from what they want. Little areas of ignorance that ought to be insignificant can keep people from what they need. What if Higgins hadn’t begun from selfishness? What if he could have begun with the high regard for another he found only in the end? And what if each of us who knows something about how to thrive, how to get along in this world, could show that same high regard? This knowledge we possess is actually a gift, and one we would do well to share.

Higgins is condescending, singing, “Why can’t the English teach their children to speak?” But he’s not wrong. One could rightly make an aspirational challenge out of the same line. Why can’t the Americans teach their children to prosper? Why can’t the blessed teach men and women to thrive?

The Writer’s Best Friend is the Trashcan

[I’ve recently come to realize that I have just 10 or so simple mottos for writing that I often bring to mind. I came to see this in the course of thinking about the coming retirement of a friend who planted one of the mottos. As a way of sharing what I know about writing, little though that might be, I plan to add occasional posts to this blog that explore these mottos that have served me.]

“The writer’s best friend is the trashcan,” said the novelist I would never knowingly encounter again.

I heard him speak this line when I was 20 or so. I showed up the way the rest of the small audience had shown up. A collection of young people adequately interested in writing to offer part of an afternoon had come to pepper the seats in an unnecessarily large auditorium in order to hear a published novelist speak. He was no one I knew; his work was unfamiliar. I immediately forgot his name and I am not sure I even heard the title(s) of his book(s). But I should have remembered, because this one line—which he said matter-of-factly, simply in response to an audience member’s question—has remained with me and has been a touchstone of mine ever since. I owe that novelist my gratitude. His offhand comment about the writer’s craft still comes to mind and still serves me nearly 30 years later.

There are two broad ways for a writer to be immature: writing too little and writing too much. The former stage is a big stage; it includes the elementary-school writer who adds “very, very, very” to adjectives to try to pad out the length of her assignment. This same stage also includes the adult who makes an assertion within a professional report that, unbeknownst to him, puzzles every reader of the report except the people very close to him who already know what he means. This stage of immaturity as a writer includes just about everyone who doesn’t want to be a writer, whose gifts are found elsewhere, but who nevertheless has to write from time to time.

The second stage of immaturity is also big. A working, professional writer can function within it and might spend much of a career here. This stage of immaturity sees the writer routinely standing in her own way by giving too much of the energy of her attention to the sentences and paragraphs she has composed rather than the meaning she aims to convey. The meaning is obviously the point of writing, and if that meaning can be delivered with a short piece as well as it can be with a long one, then shorter is better—we all know this much. But in the trenches, it can be very difficult to see which of the passages you yourself have written is not essential to the task at hand.

I became aware I was leaving that second era of immaturity once I found myself cutting complete paragraphs or series of paragraphs from my own writing and doing so with glee. Reading a draft of my work in hard copy, I would see a passage I suddenly realized was an unnecessary side road, and I would draw a great X through that span of text as a mark of victory. Hurray, I had done a favor for the reader! I had saved the reader the effort and distraction of reading that part. When we write a draft, this is necessarily an exploratory exercise. We proceed by feel to find the way to the message. But since the reader does not need to see our entire exploration, not everything in the draft should survive. Writing well involves judgment about what to leave out every bit as much as it involves judgment about what to leave in.

What do I leave out? I leave out anything that can clear the way for the main point of the piece to shine more clearly. Anything that requires the reader to give thought to something other than the main point. I leave out any obstacle such as this that I can see. Passages I cut include elaborate defenses against quibbles the reader is unlikely to raise. They include elaborate descriptions of implications that could be addressed with just one line instead. A passage I might see to cut also includes (here is the big one) the discourse that feels necessary only because it scratches an itch I want to scratch, including asserting a point of view I want to champion or sharing something else I learned in the course of researching the piece, even though the intended point of the piece can do just fine and would even do better without this digression.

How do I leave this stuff out? How do I cut it from my drafts? The answer gets to the weirdest part: I do so by means of a split personality. To grow as a writer is to get better and better at being one’s own reader. And getting better in this way specifically means becoming more effective at shutting off the memory of having written the words in order to receive the work as a stranger would receive it. The capacity is nothing less than dualism—being a writer first, then shifting into a different frame of perception in order to be the reader who can aid this writer.

I don’t know the way to obtain this dualism except with practice. Let yourself see yourself cutting your self’s own work. Let it keep on seeing this. The dualism will develop.

One of the most telling indicators of what to cut is this: the passage in which the “reader” part of my dualism is getting bored. Even with the split personality, I am the reader who is the most invested in my work as a writer. If I myself am not interested in what I have written, no one else will be.

Sometimes the writer part of me will protest the reader’s cuts, so there are tactics. I use the “Save As” command rather than “Save.” I will make my cuts within version 2 of a document while preserving the earlier draft in version 1. This leaves me an out in case I later decide the cuts were a dreadful mistake. (I never decide this.) For large passages I cut, I paste the removed passage in its entirety into a separate document so I can keep that glorious passage and return to make use of it later. (I never return to make use of it later.)

In writing for a print publication, sometimes I have to cut to match the precise space available in the layout. Here, it is not the split-personality reader urging my cuts. Here, the writing has already met the split-personality reader’s approval, and I am cutting it still further. The cutting in this case might produce a work that is less effective and less clear than the slightly longer original. The out I have in this case is the “online version”; I can allow the online version of the piece to use the better, longer version of the text. However, as the print version comes to sit with me, I discover something strange: If I did manage to make my point successfully within the 490 words allowable rather than the 517 words of the previously finished piece, then the 490-word version dawns on me as being the better version, even if I wasn’t able to see this at first.

If it can be cut, it should be cut. Our development as writers involves getting better at seeing what can be shed, what can be left out, what didn’t have to be picked up in the first place. The great writer is one who, among other things, recognizes the great scope and extent of all that need not be written.

And

We have work to do.

That is one of the points I aim to convey with my new book.

As I make plain in the book’s introduction, the work we are called to do in this world is “a work of joy as well as effort, a heavenly work rather than an earthly one.” But we have work to do nevertheless.

Christian gatherings can advance the notion of “faith not works” so zealously as to imply that there is nothing for the Christian to do. We are saved and then we float in salvation for the rest of our time in this life.

To be sure, we are saved by grace and not our own efforts—much of my book explores and advances this very point. But the book then goes on to explore and advance the next point after this, which is that we have been saved and kept here for a reason. The reason relates to this very world in which we still remain.

For God so loved the world..., said Jesus in John 3:16. (I didn’t intend to do so, but I ended up giving a lot of attention in the book to John 3:16. Perhaps we live in an epoch of the church when it is hard to avoid that verse.) And as James the earthly brother of Jesus in his letter later argued, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

This point about our having work to do is so important that Jesus himself raised the point three times in rapid succession. We read about this in Luke chapter 8.

A large crowd had gathered before Jesus, people coming to hear him. As soon as they gathered, however, Jesus told a story, the Parable of the Sower, that revealed the true nature of crowds. Different people hear the “word of God” in different ways, he said. Only a portion consists of those able to hear this word and be lastingly transformed by it. And even for them, even once these believers have heard and been transformed, the benefits of the transformed life—the “crop” in Jesus’ parable—require their commitment and their effort. Depending on the translation, Jesus said it requires them to “endure” or “persevere” (Luke 8:15).

Then, immediately after explaining this point to his disciples (there is no pause in the text), Jesus went on to explain that God does not light a lamp just to keep it hidden (8:16). He expects the lamp to shine. He expects you to shine! This is the reason he made you a believer, so to try to demur from that effort, that calling, is futile to say the least. Returning to the previous analogy, the crop wants to grow. To be a believer and not come out with this by living the life and walking the walk placed before you as a believer is simply the way of fruitlessness rather than bearing an abundant crop.

Finally, after this (Luke’s gospel again shows very little pause), Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are waiting to see him. His response: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear and do the word of God.” (8:21).

Notice the “and” in the latter part of that statement.

The “and” here is vital. The “and” joins the two components of our lives of having been chosen for faith.

There are two components, not one. We are saved, yet that is but one part of it. We then find our way into—or find ourselves already within—the work or the place to which we can give ourselves ... the work or the place of our shining and our persevering.

[PS. I now also see something else about my book that I did not plan or intend: The contents are almost evenly split between the two sides of the “and.” Chapters 1-11 discuss the “hearing”—how one is given belief and remade. And chapters 12-21 cover the “doing”—what we are to do with the transformed life. If the book interests you and you might like a copy, let me send you one.]

Butler

I just completed my reading of the works of the science fiction writer Octavia Butler. I fell in love with her writing a couple years ago when I read her best-known novel, Kindred. Her writing is gripping and harrowing because she writes about heroes who are out of options. Rather than the plucky science fiction hero able to seize on an opportunity to escape the clutches of a fantastic peril, her stories tend to focus on heroes in the grip of a peril that is vast because it is so fantastic, heroes who simply must survive their predicament because the problems that have engulfed them are too enormous for something as pathetic as mere pluckiness to overcome. Thus, Butler’s fiction, even though it variously involves time travel, extraterrestrial aliens, and dystopian futures, feels touchingly and frighteningly closer at its heart to the predicaments of our own lives than even most of the realistic novels I have read.

As I say, I just finished making my way through her stuff. She passed away before I ever found her. Her final book was in 2005 and she died in 2006. After Kindred, I committed to a course of reading all her other works in order of publication, and doing so slowly. Rather than binge-reading, I wanted to let each book sit with me for a while, returning to Butler only when I was ready again.

But here is the thing: Not all of her books are good. At least, not in terms of this one reader’s response to them. Her short story collection is excellent. Either that collection or Kindred is probably her best book. The consecutive novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (little related to the Bible stories of these names) are both excellent as well. But she also wrote books in which I found so little interest that I chose to set them aside unfinished. This point is on my mind, because my experience of her came to an end more quickly than I expected. Her final novel also failed to interest me, and also proved to be one I put aside.

No matter. I experienced the fullness of this writer’s gifts and this writer’s heart. I experienced these things through the fruit of her effort to use the former to express the latter. I was changed by Kindred and I am still changed. It does not concern me that other books, other attempts, did not change me the same way. My love for Butler’s genius that was fed by the works that nourished me is not in any way unfed by the works that did not.

A few points from this:

1. Our lives are not straight-line ramps of progressive becoming. Instead, who we are—the best of who we are—rises up and finds it fullness in moments and in seasons when the idea, opportunity, or dilemma offers the right context for this best self to attain its full extent. Rather than a straight-line ramp, our becoming knows many peaks.

2. We need not be driven to fear by the good fortune of our having succeeded. Success in any endeavor is a result of more than just our effort. The effort was there and it deserves praise, but anyone who has done something surprisingly great knows how important it was that this effort also somehow found the right soil and also the right environment and water to germinate into something beyond that effort’s aim. We need to joyfully keep on planting and it is no discredit if the next effort does not germinate the same way.

3. “What have you done for me lately” is not the relationship between artist and audience. If you are fortunate enough and talented enough to be able to express something out of your heart that can move and inspire other hearts, then this work will always be there. The manifested love will always be there, and nothing will change what love was able to express through your effort and choices. Recall that God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is timeless (John 8:58). Therefore, to be with him and even to be like him, pursue the way of love, and do not worry what pattern your work might happen to make in the course of your life in linear time.

If You Are Faithful, Your Life Gets Harder

In the Parable of the 10 Minas (the parable from Luke that may or may not be the same story as the better-known Parable of the Talents from Matthew), a ruler who was hated left money with his servants before he went away. Upon his return, he checked their books. Two servants had been faithful putting his money to use, one of them earning a factor-10 return on the money and the other earning a return of five times.

A striking detail is how these servants are rewarded.

Luke’s gospel conveys this:

The first came forward and said, “Master, your mina has earned 10 more minas.”

“Well done, good slave!” he told him. “Because you have been faithful in a very small matter, have authority over 10 towns.”

The second came and said, “Master, your mina has made five minas.”

So he said to him, “You will be over five towns.” (Luke 19:16-19)

Notice what is not said? The ruler does NOT say, “Come feast with me and let us rejoice in this success!” The ruler does NOT say, “Divide this bounty with me and enjoy a share of my riches!”

Rather, the ruler entrusts these faithful servants with the care of even more of his precious holdings. Indeed, he gives them a more difficult charge, because managing people is harder than managing money.

In this parable, the reward the ruler gives to his faithful servants is responsibility.

Do you feel that the scope or significance of what you have been given to care for has been enlarged? Do you feel that the importance and/or difficulty of what you are called to do has gotten greater?

According to the pattern described by this parable, that greater duty upon you might be a sign of the Lord’s pleasure. You shoulder much, care for many, or guard a precious and precarious charge because you have shown through faithfulness that you measure up to this important mission.

5 Clues to Finding Your Calling (and 5 Things Your Calling is Not)

As I discuss in my book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You (mostly in chapters 16 and 20), one of the most fundamental ways God speaks to you or to me is in the fact of the way he made each of us. The reason we are born “again” is because we were also born the first time. Each of us was uniquely made, and that uniqueness is realized partly in each role, place, or purpose we might find to follow in within this world—the ways specifically opened to us by God. In a very real sense, we “converse” with God by following the way he leads, making it more than fitting that we refer to each of these ways as a “calling.”

But how do we identify the callings in our lives?

That is, how do we identify the purposes in our lives for which it is worth saying yes at the cost of saying no to many other things? How do we know the people to whom to say yes at the cost of saying no to many others?

I have some thoughts....

First, what I mean by “calling”: I mean a work, role, or place that God has given you to fill, carry out, persevere in, and even enjoy within this vast plan of his and within this great project of advancing the kingdom of which we are all a part. I mean the purpose so personally meaningful that committing to it—in spite of the difficulty, in spite of the oddness of going a different way—is the way for your best self to live. Many who speak of a “calling” mean simply their vocation or career. I might mean this. I also mean something larger. Your calling might be found within the labor you do each day. Your calling might also be something intimately known between God and you that is mostly unrelated to this daily work. And since you likely have more than one calling (see below), there is room for both statements to be true.

Whatever the case, “hearing” your calling is only the first challenge, and you might be hearing it already. The next challenge is to respond by choosing to go that way.

All of what I have to say here addresses just the first part. Here are five clues to hearing your calling, along five things your calling is not.

CLUES TO YOUR CALLING

What is the calling that calls to you? You might find it in any of the following:

1. The thing only you can do

Or, slightly different: The thing before you that only you can do in the special way you seem to be doing it.

It should be no surprise that your gifts and your nature might have already drawn you near to the thing to which it is worth giving yourself more fully. That is, while such is not certain to be the case, it should be no surprise that your calling might be found in something you are already doing and doing well. (See next point.)

2. The thing to which your choices seem to have brought you, even if you didn’t know what you were choosing

Stop faulting or congratulating yourself over the choices you made that seem to have gone poorly or well. First, since you don’t know the ultimate plan for your life, you are no qualified judge of poorly or well. Second, many of our major choices in life are made in ignorance, often when we are too young or inexperienced to know ourselves or know the implications of what we are choosing. We can choose well or poorly by luck.

And yet, there is more than luck going on, of course. A current guides your life; a will directs your path. God knew where he would have you, and likely you have unknowingly submitted to that current in cases when the best way was unclear to you. I am saying your ignorant choices had an unseen direction to them and even an unseen wisdom. Where have they brought you?

3. The thing that brings you peace

What we mean by “calling” is a role, place, or endeavor that appeals to the best part of you, giving that part freedom and putting that part to use. The experience of the self fully breathing and fully moving in this way is peaceful. The very fruit of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22). In what context do you know peace?

To highlight this clue more narrowly: What do you do that gives you the experience of your worries falling quiet?

4. The thing that makes you happy while making someone else happy

Relationships with other people are lopsided more often than we care to admit. We routinely do work out of obligation or concession to someone else. There is nothing wrong with this. But pay attention to those special cases in which the thing someone appreciates you doing or even needs you to do is the very thing to which you are deeply happy to give your energies and your time.

5. The thing that causes your suffering to relent

For those who carry pain—physical, emotional, spiritual—that pain is often a negative guide. Nearly everything might seem too difficult or pointless to pursue, except for that thing able to overcome the ache, anger, remorse, or sorrow by allowing this pain to recede. The thing able to overcome pain for a time might be unrelated to the pain. Or, it might be directly related, something that gives the pain purpose or meaning, something that reveals this pain to be part of the call.

WHAT YOUR CALLING IS NOT

Now, some cautions about the false ideas and influences that can keep you from your calling:

1. Not just one thing

With respect to the actor Jack Palance, I depart from the movie City Slickers and the line he delivered in that film. His character Curly offered advice about finding “one thing.” I even used that line approvingly once in a talk I gave in a church service. But I am here now to contradict that speech of mine, because we do not each have just one calling in this world. Our lives are more complex than this. Our lives in Christ are richer than this.

Sometimes one calling will predominate for a time, and sometimes a calling will fall quiet because another calling is in season, but even this is not always the case. Our callings call in unison, and it falls to us to find the harmony. Even Jesus had multiple missions (Matthew 4:23).

2. Not the thing other people tell you to be about

They mean well! But all another person can offer you in terms of choosing a direction is the safe way, the lucrative way, or the way that appeals to them. The calling is yours, including yours to hear. The value of counsel comes after you have heard it. Find a guide or mentor who follows something like the same call as you.

3. Not the thing you ought to do, or keep doing, to fulfill others’ expectations

Saying yes to something potentially means saying no to many other things. Emerson said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” I feel like offering a slight rephrasing: “To be great is to disappoint people.”

4. Not the thing that is easy to give attention to

Your email inbox is not a calling.

5. Not the thing that makes perfect sense

Your rich life will include at least one worthy calling that rings out by joy alone, offering little expectation for where that calling might lead you or what it might mean. At least, I hope for you to have this. As I stated at the start, the very reason we follow these callings is because of the Caller, and what he might show us in the direction of this call. We walk with him along the paths he reveals (Psalm 119:105), experiencing with him the mysteries that are his alone to make plain (Jeremiah 33:3).

You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You: How to Get My New Book

Yesterday I told you about my new book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You. There are three ways you can get the book:

1. The e-book is available for purchase. See the links to various e-book sellers.

2. The printed book is available for purchase. Buy it here.

3. The printed book is available for free. Just ask, and I will send you a copy. My request in return: If the book is meaningful to you, if you benefit from reading it, then send a donation in the amount of your choosing after the fact. I am making the book available this way because, as I said, the book offers ideas with which some will disagree. If you are not edified, then nothing asked of you. Request a free copy.

My New Book: You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You

Do we choose God or does God choose us? It is a simple question. It’s an important question. What it is not is an unanswered question.

In recent years, I have found clarity about my Christian faith, I have found answers to ambiguity that kept me from freedom and joy in the experience of that faith, by revisiting the basic question of how that faith began. That is, how do you or I, how does anyone, come to believe the strange message of the gospel? And why? I have written my new book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You, to give words to the answers I have found to these questions. More significantly, I’ve written my book to explore the words that have already been given.

The book’s title comes from the words of Jesus in John 15:16. As the book details, various New Testament passages either assume or directly state the point that the believers in Jesus Christ were chosen to believe. We have faith because God has given us faith.

This is an odd idea to many. It is a troubling idea to some. We live in a culture that emphasizes the agency of the individual. Christian groups frequently assume belief in Christ must begin with the individual’s choice to believe. This book specifically argues against that idea. We are broken creatures, unable to bootstrap our belief in this way. We cannot see the divine truly, we cannot choose the divine for what it is, we cannot believe in the lordship of Jesus or the truth of his resurrection, unless the divine first grants us the capacity to do so and enters into us to awaken that capacity.

And all throughout the world, God is doing this.

He is choosing people who are then able to choose him.

He is transforming people by renewing their minds.

And doing so for a reason. I argue that this, too, has been made plain. Our eyes are opened for the sake of a cause—the “how” of our salvation connects to the “why.” Thus, my book presents the case that our faith is chosen by God, but then I move beyond that argument in order to take up an even larger idea. There is more at stake than just defending a doctrine; more at stake than giving credit where it is due. What is at stake in recognizing God as the author of our faith is nothing less than the power, promise, and purpose of that faith.

I have written and published two prior books that deal with scripture or theology. But in many ways, this book feels like it is my first. The other two books advance ideas almost any Christian reader would welcome: namely, the Ten Commandments are a rich text and the existence of God is logically apparent. This book is different from those two. It elevates themes from scripture that others minimize. It offers ideas with which some Christians will disagree. It is also the most personally meaningful of the books I have written, sharing some of the ideas out of scripture that I have come to most deeply treasure.

To more fully appreciate the topics and questions the book explores, see the table of contents. In tomorrow’s post, I will explain how to obtain the book.

Here is the Table of Contents

In the cases of past books, sharing the introduction seemed the best way to provide a meaningful preview. For my new book, I thought this post plus the table of contents offered the best way to summarize the range of ideas the book explores. Here are the book’s chapter headings:

YOU DID NOT CHOOSE ME, BUT I CHOSE YOU
By Peter Zelinski

Table of Contents

Introduction: Your Mind Was Changed

PART I: WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU

Chapter 1: In Defense of Unbelief
One cannot choose to be born.

Chapter 2: It Matters
To misunderstand why we believe is potentially to misunderstand your mission.

Chapter 3: The Synthesis of John
It took nearly the entire first century to understand who had lived among us.

Chapter 4: The Sheep Have Waited for the Shepherd
Nicodemus had high regard for Jesus, but was not a believer in Christ.

Chapter 5: Does God Desire All Men to Be Saved?
He has saved according to his grace, given before time began.

Chapter 6: Mixed Feelings About Miracles
Who were the believers to whom Jesus drew near?

Chapter 7: He Chooses
He has done so from the beginning.

Chapter 8: Where Body and Soul are Destroyed
Infinite torment is not real.

Chapter 9: Can I Know That I Am Saved?
You can know this about yourself. You cannot know it about another.

Chapter 10: The Apostles’ Awakening
When the apostles were with Jesus, they had not yet been born again.

Chapter 11: You Were Chosen
The world had you in its spell, so you were taken against your will.

PART II: WHY IT HAPPENED

Chapter 12: Does God Want People in Heaven?
God’s aim, and his aim for his chosen, is presented all throughout scripture.

Chapter 13: The Meaning of “Believe in Him”
The belief of the sheep finds its full explanation in Jesus.

Chapter 14: Futility Falls Away
Look upon death and live.

Chapter 15: Timeless Life
Jesus spoke of life, and not just life after death.

PART III: WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

Chapter 16: The Slender Trail of Joy
The world will be remade through our decision to choose freedom and life.

Chapter 17: Afflicted by God
“If you love me, keep my commands” is not a dare, but the solution to a problem.

Chapter 18: Love Without Distinction
The commands of Christ advance indiscriminate love.

Chapter 19: Make Disciples, Not Converts
Evangelism is not proselytizing. Evangelism is feeding sheep.

Chapter 20: What is Joy?
Make your life not a sacrifice, but a living sacrifice. Jesus gives permission.

Chapter 21: No Longer Asleep
Our focus is on the gift.

The Hell Post

At more than 5,000 words, the longest piece I have written for this blog examines every New Testament reference to hell. I wrote the piece in support of my new book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You. In that book, I make the point that people do not suffer eternal torment in hell. We get that part wrong. Hell is real, I argue, but eternal torment is not. Since my new book is about life in this world much more than it is about the afterlife, it was not the place to offer an extensive review of what the Bible does and does not give us to know about the state or destination the word “hell” describes. Still, I expect my assertion to be controversial. Therefore, as promised in the book, I wrote an extended standalone piece looking at everything the New Testament has to say on the topic.

Here is that long, long article about hell.

Top 10 Posts

I have never shared a list of top posts for this site. I find two problems in offering such a ranking: (A) Older posts have an advantage because they have had more time to get found and get clicked on, and (B) the list becomes self-reinforcing as soon as it is shared, because the list itself will drive more traffic to the “top” posts. However, the fitting response to both of these concerns is: “Dude, it’s a blog. Relax.”

The list below is arranged chronologically, not by the items’ actual order in terms of page views. For what it’s worth, the most-read item from the list below, the one that pulls the most views by a healthy margin, is “Why Doesn’t God Speak to Us Audibly?”

This blog’s top posts:

Quotation Marks

Clues

Enoch

Imprints

Nee’s Circles

Why Doesn’t God Speak to Us Audibly?

Admission

How to Defeat a Stronghold

I Will Give You Some Advice, and God Be With You

Forgiveness is Choosing Life


The Gold Rush (1925)—First We Recognized Love

I am writing about movies of the 20th century. But I feel as though Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent movie The Gold Rush offers a glimpse just as much into the 19th century. People living harder lives much nearer to the start of the 20th century, and nearer to the knowledge or the fear of privation, had senses of humor that do not entirely translate, seemingly because the sense of humor was harder as well. The movie’s setting and context are themselves from the 19th century, the Canadian Yukon gold rush of 1896 to 1899, an event to which many of the viewers of this film would have been contemporaries. And while the comedy in this ostensibly light-hearted movie is heavy with sadness, a Chaplin signature, the comedy also is sometimes harrowing. One of the comedic scenes is founded on starvation.

Chaplin as the Little Prospector and his companion Big Jim (Mack Swain) are snowbound in a remote cabin by a Yukon blizzard. As days pass without food, Chaplin turns to cooking and serving his footwear while Big Jim hallucinates that Chaplin is a chicken. The repetition of these images by cartoons of later decades has turned them into tropes, but consider that this humor, when it debuted, could only work for an audience well-enough acquainted with severe hunger to be able to relate to these strange ideas and laugh at them.

Humor elsewhere in the movie is based in cruel mockery. In multiple scenes, groups encountering the Little Prospector suggest, “Let’s have some fun with him.” The audience is invited to laugh at the taunting and trickery toward the movie’s protagonist.

For Chaplin’s character, there is no besting of his tormentors. Nor is there any show of pain on the part of the hero to draw out sympathy from the audience. The only inner life we are allowed to see is his love for the character Georgia (Georgia Hale), whom he encounters as a dance hall girl. He keeps a photograph of her under his pillow. He accepts her as a party to some of the mockery directed to him in order to have her near.

Georgia intercedes for
the Little Prospector
Victory in this movie does not consist of a defeat of mockers. The Little Prospector and Big Jim become wealthy at the end of the movie with their discovery of gold, but we do not see any of the Chaplin character’s tormentors witness his having become rich. Victory instead is Georgia making clear she at last loves him through a selfless act. Discovering they are traveling on a ship together bound to the United States, she mistakes the Little Prospector for a stowaway and moves to protect him from the ship’s crew, discovering only later he is wealthy, and a luxury passenger.

Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which seeks to discover why violence has declined so dramatically only in recent human history, describes the relatively recent development of a widespread appreciation for the inner lives of others. He credits this in part to the invention and spread of printing, which enabled the spread of literacy, which enabled the spread of essays and novels allowing people to cultivate the habit (which we forget is a habit needing cultivation) of seeing the world through others’ points of view. Proceeding slowly, this line of development would not have been far along at the beginning of the 20th century, and the invention of cinema would serve to hasten it. Thus, the humor of this early movie seems to have been designed to entertain a more callous audience, and yet it has had a lasting impact, an impact transcending its time, perhaps because of the way the object of callousness is the very hero of the story the audience is invited to revel in and follow.

And we see this character fall in love. If I am correct in borrowing Pinker’s view to theorize that the movie audience of nearly 100 years ago was harder and hasher to some extent, and less inclined to imagine the inner life of another, then that theory reaches its limit when it comes to the romantic yearning of this character. The story takes it for granted that the audience could fully recognize and appreciate this silent movie’s portrayal of the intensity of meeting, falling for, becoming captived by, and pining after an object of one’s heart.

In other words, the movie seems to expect the audience will be cavalier and unsympathetic to the Little Prospector as the victim of suffering and torment, but it also seems to expect the audience will recognize and fully appreciate the experience of falling deeply in love.

In this contrast, is there any sense of a trade having been made?

I don’t know that the following is true, but I feel that less of our art and fewer of the products of our popular culture today are about falling in love and experiencing romantic love. If I looked at the top of the pop music charts from a given week in the 1950s or 60s compared to a week within the current decade, wouldn’t I find that this topic—the strange but common fact that people find themselves falling in love—is less a focus of our art now than it was in the past? (Superficially at least, the answer seems to be yes, based on an internet search of pop music charts and what I able to infer from the titles of songs I don’t recognize.) And if indeed our culture has come to this—valuing one another more but being moved by romantic love less—then likely there is some cord of explanation that connects the one development to the other.

Perhaps it is this: If we are more safe now from material need, and if we are more safe now from the psychic trauma of mockery, could it be that the desire is quieted that might otherwise pine more ardently for a soulmate?

I live in the most fortunate part of the world. That is, I live in the modern world that is experiencing the most gentle times there have ever been. In this world, have we been spared the blows that would otherwise soften our hearts into crying out their deepest yearnings?

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)—A Broad-Shouldered Melody?

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

There is a ballet built into Singin’ in the Rain. The ballet’s title, according to the characters in the film, is “Broadway Melody.”

Singing’ in the Rain is the story of actors and a film studio head making a movie in the 1920s. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagan portray two superstar silent movie icons, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont. For public consumption, the two pretend to be in a romance. To Lockwood, this is entirely a fiction and he seeks to keep distant from Lamont. But Lamont both presumes and expects an actual romance with him, and she is willing to advance schemes in order to have this. Meanwhile, a disruptive new technology has appeared: movies with sound. Lockwood is able to adapt into the medium but Lamont cannot. Unknown to her fans, her voice is shrill and her dialect uncouth. Therefore, in the talking movie these characters are preparing to make, Lamont will lip-synch the lines and the singing delivered by a new discovery, Kathy Selden, portrayed by Debbie Reynolds. Lockwood (Kelly) loves Selden (Reynolds), and the movie’s tension turns on Lamont’s efforts to sabotage Selden’s hope of being with Lockwood or having a career beyond being the famous star’s hidden voice. There is, of course, a happy ending in which Lamont’s machinations are gloriously defeated and Lockwood and Selden go forward together happily, Selden becoming a screen icon whose romance with Lockwood is no fiction.

That is the movie. But inside the movie, as I say, is a ballet. I call it a ballet because, though some of its songs have simple lyrics, its story is told almost entirely through dance. This segment is a portion of the movie the characters are producing as part of the real movie’s story, and we get to see this much of their movie as they intend for it to be seen. In other words, there is a ballet within the movie within the movie. Got that?

The ballet within the musical. Charise
as the woman in the green sequined
dress and Kelly as Lockwood
portraying the hoofer.
Here is the story told by that ballet, “Broadway Melody”:

A young “hoofer” (dancer) portrayed by Lockwood (who is portrayed in turn by Kelly; still got it?) comes to New York City from far away to pursue a career in dance. He is awkward, and dressed strangely. In stylized encounters, he finds his way to one talent agent after another. To each he proclaims in song, “Gotta dance!” To each he gives a demonstration of his talent. One agent ultimately accepts him, rushing him into performing in a club, which—we soon come to realize—is run or controlled by crime figures. We learn this when the hoofer comes upon the woman in the green sequined dress, portrayed by real-life actress Cyd Charise.

Through dance, we understand that the hoofer falls in love with her. Or is captivated by her. We do not know precisely; a ballet’s beauty is realized partially in our own inferences. But she is less devoted to him. The scarred gangster whose signature move in the dance is to methodically flip a coin leads her away by laying riches (jewelry) before her, as two silent henchmen, also flipping coins, bar the hoofer from going after her.

In vignettes, we see the hoofer’s career advance. He gives essentially the same performance in one setting after another that is better than the one before. He becomes a star. At a stylish and elegant party, he is the toast of all in attendance.

The imagined dance between the
hoofer and the woman last seen
in the green sequined dress.
And he is heartbroken. We see this when the woman in the green sequined dress appears at the party. There is an expression on her face; what are we to infer there? She feels something: regret over her choices, or remorse for hurting him, or resentment toward those who drew her away. And then there is a dance between the hoofer and her, with the audience understanding that this dance is being imagined by one or both. The imagined dance is the enactment of the characters’ recognition of what might have been and what now cannot be. Dejected, the hoofer returns to the street, the streets of New York City.

And this is what he finds: He finds a young hoofer, awkward and strangely dressed, who has just arrived from far away to pursue a career in dance. This familiar stranger proclaims in song, “Gotta dance!”

There is a notion that lavish Hollywood musicals date from a simpler time. A contrived and superficially upbeat story such as Singing’ in the Rain could only appeal to simpler audiences ready to be fed on simple themes. Or so the thinking goes. But inside of Singin’ in the Rain is “Broadway Melody,” a shadowed story speaking poignantly about human longing, disappointment, love, and hope. That allegedly simple audience for the film must not have been so simple at all, because they were the same audience prepared to receive this ballet.

In “Broadway Melody,” Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood also portrays the singer introducing the ballet’s story. The lyrics of the introductory song offer a clue to why we might misperceive what the audiences were seeing when they were witness to a movie like Singin’ in the Rain. That song says:

Don’t bring a frown to old Broadway
Ah, you gotta clown on Broadway
Your troubles there, they're out of style
'Cause Broadway always wears a smile

Those lyrics shock today. Your troubles are “out of style,” meaning unacceptable to others? And therefore we should not frown, but instead we are to “clown” and “always wear a smile”? This sounds to us like repression. This sounds to us like being false about what we feel. Maybe it is.

Or maybe not. There is this passage from scripture: We are to “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” but at the same time, and just as importantly, “each person will have to carry his own load” (Galatians 6:2,5).

Perhaps people at the time when this movie was created had a different sense of which portion of their lot was their load rather than their burden. Perhaps they had a different sense of what it was that was theirs alone to carry, smiling rather than imposing onto others. They knew pain; the ballet could not have spoken to them if they did not. But perhaps they also appreciated the lightness of the musical as a counterweight to the pain, a welcome rest against the various loads that each of the audience members—in all the seats within the darkened theater—were exerting the strength to carry.

Some Like It Hot (1959)—Almost

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Women’s clothes are frequently impractical and uncomfortable. Even more uncomfortable is the experience of being the object of the covetous attention of men.

These were some of the points raised and illustrated by Some Like It Hot. But the movie took notice of these points as humor. They were happening to men.

In the end, the two main characters of the story—men hiding from pursuers by dressing as women and joining an all-female band—escaped their predicament by revealing their identities. The movie never quite made the leap of acknowledging all the other characters in the movie, the women, who were left still living with the challenges these men had fled for lack of a similarly effectual escape.

Rear Window (1954)—What Limits You Is What Empowers You

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Jesus said to love your neighbor. He went on to explain who your neighbor is. A neighbor, he said to a critic who was looking for a loophole, need not be someone you have known or seen. Your neighbor might just as well be a stranger from far away. The teaching still applies to us today, of course. But today, I wonder if there isn’t an extent to which we need the opposite message. Who is my neighbor? What if he is, well … my neighbor?

To be a believer in Jesus Christ is to have been chosen. We can succumb to exalting ourselves over this, as in: He chose ME. But that exalting places the emphasis in the wrong place. The truth is, He CHOSE me, because I could not have chosen for myself. The Lord renewed my mind; he gave me eyes to see. He called me out of darkness because I couldn't find the way.

As a direct result of exalting ourselves over the fact of having faith, we overcomplicate the question of what the purpose of our redeemed lives should be. We seek exalted missions for these presumably exalted selves. But what if God is giving simple assignments? What if the creator of the universe, the creator of your purpose and mine, has arranged the universe so that we are near to the purposes he has for us? What I am suggesting here is that the purpose you have the means and opportunity to fulfill right now, quite possibly the one you are already fulfilling, might be the work or the role God has in mind for you in advancing his kingdom. And I am further suggesting that the people near you right now—your neighbors, maybe—are the people God has given you to serve.

The movie Rear Window is about a man who discovers something like this. He discovers his neighbors, both literally and in a sense near to what Jesus meant. L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photojournalist accustomed to traveling the world, but a broken leg in a rigid plaster cast has trapped him in a wheelchair and in his small apartment. To pass the time, he watches his neighbors out the window that faces a courtyard into which many other neighbors’ windows open. And through one of these windows, he believes he sees a crime. The plot and drama of the movie turn on this.

But more broadly, Jefferies sees people. He comes to know them, comes to love them, comes to care about them. And in the case of that one scene in one of those apartments, he becomes personally involved and sees something he can do.

It is not hard to discern the message in all of this. Stewart’s portrayal of the adventurer suffering and bored because of the injury that traps him in a chair gives me an image I can summon the next time I am afflicted, the next time I feel I am stifled because of a development that keeps me from progressing the way I would choose. When I am halted in this way, brought down by circumstance or setback, I can wait, as this character waited. I can watch. I can ask what—or whom—the Lord has for me to see.

*   *   *

A few other observations about this film. I have been watching movies and writing this series of posts to infer what the 20th century was all about. This movie dispels two assumptions I might have made about the people of that century who lived before me:

1. I thought the phenomenon of not knowing the people who live in close proximity to us is a modern strangeness, something we have come to only recently. However, this movie accepts that state of affairs as a situation that all of the audience would have known well. One of the characters at one point (railing to the community about her dead dog, the cause of death she suspects one of her neighbors of knowing) delivers an impassioned speech about the selfishness of people not caring whom they live near. This speech would have fallen flat unless theatergoers then were as guilty as I am of living close to people and knowing little about them.

2. I might have been tempted to think that the practice and awareness of Christian faith were more common and more public in the past. But no, when the verse about “love your neighbor” is mentioned in this movie, it is not as a biblical verse. Female lead character Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) says, “Wasn’t there an old saying about ‘love thy neighbor’?” Of course, to me and to others who feel as I do, this verse amounts to more than an old saying; it is a teaching of the incarnate God. But I think this line delivered by Kelly’s character hints at how there were more churchgoers in the past, which is something apart from there being more lives renewed by faith. Her “old saying” line reveals scripture having been taught as literature, blending in with other books taught to this character as a schoolgirl. The instruction stuck with her sufficiently that it was recalled to mind, but it had no impact on her except as a curiosity that seemed to fit the occasion. Since the movie did not aim to make any point about faith or scripture, this detail from the character strikes me as credible. In the past, there was a larger share of the populace who had heard scripture and more who had attended church, but then as now, the Lord was choosing for faith those whom he would choose.

And one more observation that seems worth making about Rear Window:

3. The premise of the story could never work today. It could not have worked just a couple of decades after the film premiered. The reason is air conditioning, which would soon become commonplace. In the heat of the summer, people would no longer open their windows. Today, we speak of the problem of technology isolating us, but we tend to have in mind the technology in our pockets. Technology having this effect is actually a much older problem than our electronics. In incremental steps, it has been sealing us off. Beginning with control over our personal climates and the way that this removed us from our windowsills and porches, the advance of technology has steadily been taking us away from one another.

Stay in the Boat: Rereading Peter’s Walk on Water

Here is a fact from scripture that is relatively well known because it is often discussed: Jesus was not the only one to walk on water. Famously, Peter did, too, for the span of what would appear to have been a few halting steps. The scene is familiar to many, as it is practically a staple in contemporary writings and teaching aimed at Christians. And (in my view) the scene is widely misconstrued.

Specifically, when Peter walked on water, it is widely held that he did something laudable and important, something you and I ought to emulate. There is a Christian book whose title makes this suggestion: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (John Ortberg). Yet if we do indeed desire to “walk on water”—whether in reality or in the symbolic equivalent of stepping out into some similarly great action—is this a desire we should act upon?

In examining the details of this passage of scripture, I would like to point out that we are in fact not called by this passage to attempt to walk on water the way Peter did. And therefore we also are not called by this passage to pursue some symbolic equivalent of this act in our lives.

We are not called to do what Peter did, because in this story, Peter was disobedient.

I’ll develop this. First, here is the complete passage of scripture describing the scene:

Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After dismissing the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. But the boat was already over a mile from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them. Around three in the morning, he came toward them walking on the sea.  When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. 

Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter answered him, “command me to come to you on the water.”

“Come!” he said.

And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid. And beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand, caught hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those in the boat worshiped him and said, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

—Matthew 14:22-33

This incident occurs only once in time and once in the Bible. After the scene above, never again in scripture do we hear of Peter or any other disciple attempting to walk on water. And only thanks to one gospel writer do we learn of this scene. While Matthew, Mark, and John all recount the same incident of Jesus walking out across the sea, Matthew alone mentions Peter’s similar act. In all this, we see that the people who were witness to Peter’s act and knowledgeable about it do not seem to have responded as though Peter did something exemplary or even significant. Why?

I believe it helps to highlight seven points:

(1) At the start of the passage above, Jesus gave his men a command. He wanted them to get into the boat; he wanted them to travel to the other side of the lake.

(2) When Jesus walked out onto the water to meet the boat a mile from shore, his disciples thought he was a ghost. When they heard their Lord’s voice say, “It is I,” they knew differently.

The text does not state explicitly they knew differently, but we hear no more about their fear after this point. And Peter knows, because he now addresses Jesus as “Lord” and he asks something of him, a call and an empowerment, that he could only expect Jesus to grant.

However....

(3) Peter apparently chose to forsake this knowledge, not accepting Jesus’ statement of identification. In the hope of something more, some special treatment, he asked the Lord to prove himself. If it is you, Peter asked, then give special notice to me.

Again, Peter knew this was Jesus. And Jesus had already given a command (point 1) that Peter now chose to ignore.

And yet....

(4) God honors our choice to be disobedient. He does not wreak vengeance when we go our own way. He even sustains us through the peril of the way we have chosen. Thus, Peter asked the Lord, “Command me to come.” And as requested, though it was contrary to what Jesus had previously commanded, he gave Peter this new command.

But look what happens:

(5) As soon as Peter found himself in perceivable danger, he embraced what he knew all along. That is, as soon as he was sinking, his words were no longer, “If it is you.” All of a sudden, his words became, “Lord, save me!” The truth of Peter’s willfulness was revealed.

(6) Look who gets rebuked in this story. Once the rescue has been made and the story is done, who gets scolded? Answer: Just one person. Contrary to the premise of the book title mentioned earlier, Jesus has no criticism for the people who stayed in the boat.

(7) At last, when Jesus got into the boat—that is, when Jesus joined his disciples in the place where he asked them to be—there was peace. As scripture says, the wind ceased.

Peter in this scene was disobedient. He sought to practice something like the power of Jesus for the sake of his personal glory or thrill. We are not called to this personal exaltation. Peter fell. Jesus saved him. Thereafter, Peter was never seen to attempt something like walking on water again. Much later, when Peter was at sea and he saw the risen Jesus on shore, Peter jumped into the water and swam (John 21:7).

We consider Peter’s action to have been exemplary because he performed a miracle. However, Jesus cares nothing for miracles, at least not in and of themselves. To the ones who claim to belong to him because of the miracles they have done in his name, Jesus says, “I never knew you; away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23). In the incident of walking on water, Peter’s miracle was self-aggrandizing and vain. The call of the Lord is not like this. The Lord calls us into faith because of the power our transformed lives will have in advancing his kingdom, whether that happens by miracle or not.

Thus, the way of Jesus is potentially very simple. It might even be peaceful in the midst of the storm. The Lord has work that he leads us through. He has places he assigns us and he has roles for us to perform. Our time within these places and roles is brief, amounting to just a short journey, a little time within a boat. If the Lord calls you into such a vessel, how do you come to believe the better choice is to step out of it?