Tag Archives: Myth

Running and Return

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.
Jonah 1:2 (NIV)

Running away is a common theme throughout the Great Story. It takes many different forms. Call it running, hiding, fleeing, wilderness, or exile…

  • Adam and Eve hid from God in their shame.
  • Cain was doomed to be a restless wanderer.
  • Abraham was called to leave his home and people.
  • Jacob fled after deceiving his father and brother.
  • Joseph was sold into slavery and exile.
  • Moses fled to Midian after committing murder.
  • David fled to the wilderness from Saul.
  • Elijah fled to the wilderness after defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
  • The Hebrews were taken into exile in Babylon.
  • Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted.
  • The prodigal son took the money and ran to a distant country.
  • The disciples fled to Galilee after Jesus’ crucifixion.

Today we start back into the story of a prophet named Jonah. He is called by God to go to Nineveh, a provincial Assyrian city about 550 miles to the northeast of Jonah, and prophesy against it. Instead, Jonah books passage across the Mediterranean to Tarshish, a city on the southern tip of what is now Spain, 2500 miles to the west. At the time of Jonah, Tarshish would have literally been considered the end of the world and as far away from Nineveh as one could possibly get. Jonah was running from his calling. He was fleeing his destiny. He went on the lam from God.

I have found that a great many people have periods of their life journey in which they flee something. It’s part of the human experience. There are things one learns, experiences, finds and/or acquires only in the wilderness. Perhaps that is why wilderness is a part of every mythical heroes journey.

I have my own period of self-imposed running earlier in my life. I ran from a lot of things for a lot of reasons. I wandered to places I should never have been and did things I should never have done. I now consider that stretch of my life journey “the dark years.” And yes, looking back with hindsight I see how it was critical for me to experience it.

In Jonah’s case, we find him trying to run away from God. I couldn’t help but hear King David’s lyrics in my spirit as I read the chapter today. Lyrics, by the way, with which Jonah would likely have been familiar:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about both the pain of my dark years and once again grieving the injuries I caused to those I love. I’m once again reminded that I was always aware of God’s presence, even in the darkest of places. I’m also thinking about the purpose that the dark years served in the long run of my spiritual journey.

You see, just as the wilderness is a consistent theme, so is the return.

…and a Time to Return

Set up road markers for yourself,
    make yourself signposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Jeremiah 31:21 (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I had the privilege of watching as a play I wrote was produced a couple of different times on stage. Having spent most of my life journey in the state of Iowa, I’ve observed a repetitive theme of those who leave our rather quiet, fly-over homeland for more exciting places. Yet, eventually, most every one returns home. The reasons for return are as varied as the individuals who leave, but for most every one who leaves there comes a time to return.

There is a good story there,” I thought to myself. And so, I sat down to write a play and tell the story of a small town Iowa boy who is forced to come home. In his returning he must confront his past and the reasons he left in the first place.

Over the past few chapters in the anthology of Jeremiah’s messages, I’ve mulled over the way the themes of wilderness and exile play into life’s journey. There’s a corollary theme in the return from wilderness and exile. Just as the hero of every epic spends time in the wilderness, so that same hero must return to carry out the purposes for which he/she has been prepared.

In today’s chapter, the theme of Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to the exiles living in Babylon is all about their homecoming. “Drop breadcrumbs along the road to Babylon,” he tells them. “Mark the way because the time will come for your return home.”

Sometimes on this life journey I’ve observed that the return home is long awaited and desired, just as Jeremiah describes in today’s chapter. Other times, like the prodigal son, one’s homecoming is filled with remorse and repentance. Then there are those times when the return home is part of a larger story about the necessary confrontation required in order to progress yet further on life’s road. And, I suppose, there are times when coming home is a cocktail of all these.

As this morning dawns, the little town where Wendy and I live is preparing for our annual Tulip Time festival. As happens each year there will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of individuals who will return home to participate in the festivities (we’ll have some of them staying in our house!). I’m thinking about their respective life journeys, the varied stories they represent, and all of the emotions (and perhaps confrontations) that these homecomings will entail. There is a time to leave home, and a time for those living in exile to return.

I’m whispering a prayer in the quiet this morning for each of them, and for God’s goodness and mercy in each of their respective stories.

Heroes and Fatal Flaws

But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, because she pleases me.”
Judges 14:3b (NRSV)

Wendy and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Saturday. As we were driving to the theater we got into a great conversation about the building blocks of story. Stories and myths from ancient Greece to contemporary cinema have overarching themes that authors, playwrights, and movie makers recycle time and time and time again because they resonate with us and our common human experience.

Our heroes have fatal flaws. From ancient myths we learn of Achilles the mighty warrior who had one fatal weakness – his heel. The force was strong with Anakin Skywalker, but he was angry and the dark side fed his anger until he became Darth Vader. One of my favorite moments in the Force Awakens (don’t worry – no spoiler here) came from the writers introducing an interesting twist. The Dark Side fears for one of the evil characters, because this person appears to have a weakness (a fatal flaw in reverse) for the Light.

In God’s Message there is, perhaps, no greater example of a great hero with a fatal flaw than Samson. A handsome, strong, and rugged warrior of miraculous birth, Samson’s fatal flaw was that he was driven by his appetites. Samson sees a pretty Philistine girl (lust of the eyes) and demands that his father arrange a marriage despite the fact that it goes against all religious and cultural rules of the day. Samson is hungry (lust of the flesh) and his appetite drives him to eat honey out of the dead carcass of a lion, despite the fact that it was against God’s rules. When Samson gets humiliated by his bride’s people (pride), he goes into a homicidal rage and breaks troth with the girl he’d been so driven to marry.

This morning I’m reminded that stories of great heroes with fatal flaws resonate with us because we all have blind spots. No matter how heroic I attempt to be in this life, there is always a chink (or in my case, chinks) in my shining armor. Like Samson, I am driven by my appetites. I know the rules. The right thing to do is perfectly clear, but I so often choose to do the very opposite – the things my appetites crave. It reminds me of Paul’s rumination in his letter to Jesus’ followers in Rome:

What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

In the quiet of this Monday morning, this pitiful hero aware of his fatal flaws is reminded that he needs a savior “who will act to set things right in my life of contradictions.”

And that, is what the Christmas story is all about.

These Cubs Aren’t Following the Narrative

This Cubs team is not sticking to the narrative. The narrative is legendary. It is mythical in proportion, and as a long time Cubs fan you begin to trust the narrative like the you trust the impending arrival of winter.

Our friends Kevin and Linda experienced the narrative when they made a pilgrimage to Wrigley Field this past summer to watch the Cubs play the rival Cardinals in the friendly confines. The Cubs had a 5-4 lead in the rainy 9th inning. Two outs. Two strikes. Wrigley was rocking and the fans were pumped to take the mid-season series at home. Then the narrative kicked in. Jhonny Peralta belts a two run homer off Pedro Strop. Once again, our hopes are dashed at the moment we were about to experience eucatastrophy.

Soaring hopes tragically dashed. That’s the narrative. The ’84 Cubs get to the postseason for the first time since 1945 then watch Steve Garvey take our hopes away. The ’03 Cubs up 3-1 in the NLCS and the Wrigley faithful preparing for our first trip to the World Series since World War II. Then the narrative kicks in with a fly ball to left, an angry outburst from Moises Alou, and it all unravels before our eyes as the Marlins take three straight and go on to win the World Series. The ’07 and ’08 Cubs packed with all-stars and raising our hopes with stellar regular season play. Then the narrative kicks in early we couldn’t eek one postseason win in either year.

“That’s the Cubs,” Cardinal fans laugh with smug arrogance as they smooth out the wrinkles on their latest World Champions t-shirt. That’s the narrative and this is our lot.

Last night Wendy and I stood in our living room and watched Hector Rondon take the mound against the rival Cardinals in the 9th inning. Up two runs and here we are again. We’re just a few outs away from going to the NLCS. We’re just a few outs away from beating the dreaded Cardinals in the postseason for the first time in history. This is when the narrative kicks in. This is when the meltdown happens. This is when Peralta homers, or a Cubs player trips on a shadow, or a black cat appears and steals the eucatastrophic moment from us all.

Then, a strange realization creeped into my conscious thought as I stood stood there behind the couch and felt the adrenaline rush I have not experienced since 2003. This Cubs team is not following the narrative. This batch of talented youngsters and their aged hippie Manager seem to know nothing of Billy Goats or curses or mythic narratives. This is not our father’s Cubs teams running from the past and feeling the pressure of the ages. With the death of Ernie Banks this past spring, his spirit seems to have been freed to descend on this group of boys. These young men in Cubbie blue pinstripes are playing with joy. They are living in the moment. They are rewriting the narrative.

Swing and a miss. Strike three. Cardinals vanquished. Cubs win!

I make no predictions. This young, inexperienced team may yet fall short to the Dodgers or the Mets. The Cardinals are not the only team who know the Cubs’ narrative. Nevertheless, I wake up this morning and look out the window to see the “W” flag wafting over Vander Well Manor. We beat the Pirates in Pittsburgh. We beat the Cardinals at Wrigley. It’s the first time we’ve beat the Cardinals in the postseason in history. It’s the first time a Cubs team has ever won a postseason series at Wrigley. It’s the first time a team with so many rookies has won so many games, made it to the postseason, and hit so many home runs. And on, and on, and on it goes.

These 2015 Cubs appear to be rewriting the narrative. I can’t wait to find out what kind of story we get to experience in the coming week.

The Point Amidst the Myth

Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
    Everything under heaven belongs to me.
Job 41:11 (NIV)

The description God gives of the great Leviathan in today’s chapter is one of the most intriguing passages in all of God’s story. Having just watched The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies in 3D a few weeks ago, I have to tell you that Leviathan appears to be a dead ringer for Smaug, the dragon who destroys Lake Town (watch the video, above):

Who can strip off its outer coat?
    Who can penetrate its double coat of armor?
Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
    ringed about with fearsome teeth?
Its back has rows of shields
    tightly sealed together;
each is so close to the next
    that no air can pass between.
They are joined fast to one another;
    they cling together and cannot be parted.
Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
    its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
Flames stream from its mouth;
    sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from its nostrils
    as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
Its breath sets coals ablaze,
    and flames dart from its mouth.
Strength resides in its neck;
    dismay goes before it.
The folds of its flesh are tightly joined;
    they are firm and immovable.
Its chest is hard as rock,
    hard as a lower millstone.
When it rises up, the mighty are terrified;
    they retreat before its thrashing.
The sword that reaches it has no effect,
    nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
Iron it treats like straw
    and bronze like rotten wood.
Arrows do not make it flee;
    slingstones are like chaff to it.
A club seems to it but a piece of straw;
    it laughs at the rattling of the lance.
Its undersides are jagged potsherds,
    leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.

I have heard this passage interpreted many different ways. As John mentioned in his comment on yesterday’s post, we sometimes get so darned literal these days that we fail to appreciate the nature of poetry when we see it. In the spirit of poetic device, which we discussed yesterday, perhaps Leviathan is simply hyperbole layered over a description of an actual beast (i.e. crocodile, komodo dragon, or etc) and used for dramatic effect. We must remember that the epic poem of Job comes out of early human history which was very different than our post-enlightenment age of advanced science and modernity. Mythical beasts in epic poems were threads in the fabric of ancient society (i.e. Grendel in Beowulf). Perhaps there are extinct creatures that resemble the description more aptly than we know or can appreciate. It’s certainly fodder for spirited discussion over a pint.

Amidst the fun debate over the description of Leviathan, however, I don’t want to lose sight of the point of today’s chapter. I am constantly finding that people like to debate the jots and tittles of obscure textual references (e.g. prophecy, the Nephilim, Eden, angels, demons, heaven, hell and etc.) while ignoring the larger point of the overarching story. Let’s make sure we essentially get the point, and then I’ll buy you a pint and we can haggle over the non-essential question of what Leviathan actually is.

I found “the point” of  today’s chapter in verse 11 (pasted at the top of this post). God’s point to Job in His description of behemoth and leviathan were that these great beasts were created by Him and were under His dominion, which by contrast reveals how impotent Job’s authority and dominion are. God declares that everything, from mythical beasts to Job himself, belong to Him.

Today, I thinking about dragons and unicorns and Pegasus. I’m thinking of Grendel and Smaug and Faery. I’m mulling the intersection of human myth and spiritual reality, and how beautifully layered it all is across history with imagination and meaning.