Good Stories from Galadriel to Galilee to Grandpa

Soni Alcorn-Hender

*minor spoilers*

“Schemes and plots are the same thing.” Story and plot are not.

Story is how we make sense of life. Plot is the illusion we can know where it is going.

Plot is what happens when you try to plan your life. Story is what happens when you live it.

It is unnecessary, but perhaps unavoidable, to put the first season of House of the Dragon (the “prequel” series to Game of Thrones) and the first season of Rings of Power (the “prequel” series to The Lord of the Rings) in conversation with one another. Despite the obvious nature of the connection, it’s a conversation rich with potential so long as it’s defined by juxtaposition rather than opposition. How they are alike and how they are different are compelling in equal measure, and the comparison is one that yields implications for each text and applications well beyond them.

In other words: yeah I’m gonna talk about the dragons and the elves, but also yeah I’m gonna be an English major about it, and I’m going to go far off trail (but hopefully not alone). Whose blog did you think you were reading?

Both series took on a certain set of burdens of storytelling by being prequels to beloved works based on existing source material. In each case, the source material is hardly comprehensive. One is based on an in-universe history text compiled by one scholar based on numerous differing accounts across hundreds of years, and the other grows out of brief summaries of thousands of years of legends dancing around copyright law. Despite the many gaps to fill in, both series will culminate in key, well-known events in their respective worlds – The Dance of Dragons and The Last Alliance. And, beyond that, each must build a suitable foundation for their respective “original” texts.

Ah, surely then each show must be carefully, meticulously plotted in order to hit all the key points in grand narrative arcs, getting our characters from place to place and event to event so they get where they need to go, all while maintaining suspense when the fate of so many of these characters is already known. Neither show could succeed without a writers room filled with charts and visualizers like the Always Sunny meme or a Mike’s Mic recap. All the millions (billions?) spent on each show would be for naught without some sure-handed plotting.

Or, well, maybe not.

House inherits from Game of Thrones the imperatives of plot. The rewards of good plotting and the devastation of bad plotting has hardly ever been more clear than in the original series. As its successor, House is obliged to steer straight into the complexities of personal and political rivalries in a world that is also governed by legends, prophecies, and magic. Just as Thrones built to the epic arrivals of Daenerys and the Night King to the Realm, House must build to the climactic Targaryen Civil War.

It’s turned out to be about the least interesting aspect of the show. It’s not that the twists and turns of the story aren’t interesting, it’s that it doesn’t really seem to matter what they’re building towards in a macro sense. We know there’s a major civil war on the horizon, a key historical era in the long arc of the Targaryen story in Westeros that goes from major event to major event: Aegon’s Conquest, The Blackfyre Rebellions, The Great Councils, The Dance of Dragons, Robert’s Rebellion. Ostensibly, everything in House is meant to build up to and support those capital letter happenings.

Yet, despite the show’s clear commitment to those events, those destinations in the long arc of its fantasy world and the world of prestige TV, they don’t matter so much as the moments, the scenes, and the images that make up each episode. Okay there’s a conflict in the Stepstones no one in universe or at home cares about, and sure there’s a civil war with a bunch of dragons on the way, and, alright, I guess the Targaryens are holding onto some prophecy that connects this story in a very unsubtle way to Thrones, but I’m actually more interested in the complicated character of Viserys I Targaryen (brought to life by a stunning performance by Paddy Consadyn) and his relationships with his daughter, his teenaged wife, his plotting advisors, and his reckless younger brother. I’m interested in the fracture between Alicent and Rhaenyra, and the burdens they bear as young women in a world built on sexism.

It’s these things, and many more, which make the show compelling, and some of the best moments in each episode are when a scene or conversation is given room – much more than is normal even on Thrones – to meander to and froe. Yes, these scenes are, in their own way, building towards something Big, but the weight of that Big thing isn’t felt. These scenes can just be for what they are in the moment without us fixating on where they’re going.

Some of the biggest problems for the series, actually, are when the need to eventually reach the Big event results in massive time jumps and time compression. The only reason a show that has built up such interesting characters and compelling conflicts would suddenly jump years ahead between episodes is to serve the purpose of reaching some fixed endpoint, and this creates a jarring effect that always requires a certain amount of reset and suspension of disbelief.

This is, in retrospect, precisely when Thrones started to unravel. Thrones was at its best when we were squarely in the midst of the chaos of The War of the Five Kings. Once it was clear everything was building to this cataclysmic arrival of Winter and the Night King (and Daenerys), the show started to fall apart. The true genius in the plotting of Thrones was when what seemed like the logical endpoint of a storyline was suddenly subverted, and we realized that the endpoint we did reach was what we should have seen coming along (The Red Wedding is the best example of this).

In short, House is really good in spite of its insistence on being a part of a larger arc. It wants all the pieces to fit together, but is never so good as when we can examine each piece and fit them together as they may.

Rings of Power has taken up the challenges of plot with both hands in an effort to meet the expectations of modern streaming audiences. There is an imperative to reach the major events in the legendarium that we already know something about, while also supplying the show with mysteries that take time to unravel, thus building tension and stoking discussion.

It’s a noble attempt that did not succeed in its first season. The show committed to multiple mystery boxes, and leaned on them far too much for dramatic effect. The big events in the show feel forced at times, based on reasoning that seems flimsy or silly or arbitrary. And some of the big moments we’ve had a pretty good idea about for most of the season, even as the series seems committed to making these revelations the source of the excitement, the reason for coming back.

And it doesn’t matter. The show’s good. And I say that as someone who has some major problems with some aspects of it.

Why and how the characters move from place to place doesn’t matter so much because these characters are fantastic and portrayed by some astonishing performances. They inhabit breathtaking settings and are accompanied by a beautiful score. Nowhere is all this more clear than in the Khazad-dûm storyline. The particulars of the plot are a little silly, while being a compression of the timeline and a clear means to getting to certain predetermined events. But Durin IV and Elrond are terrific – two of the standout characters and performances in the show. Khazad-dûm looks amazing. The Dwarven culture feels so fully realized, helped immensely by the character and performance of Durin’s wife, Disa. These scenes overflow with themes of friendship, love, and the weight of legacy. They depict the wonder and depth of Tolkien’s world. They are funny, heartbreaking, and totally immersive. It doesn’t really matter that the reason for Elrond being there is – for the moment – nonsense and we all know that eventually we’ll delve too greedily and Khazad-dûm will fall.

Basically, Rings is at its worst when it’s trying to adhere to the expectations of an exciting, tense, binge-worthy series. This might at times make the show seem almost boring. If we’re judging it on early Thrones or late Breaking Bad or Season 4 of The Wire, maybe it does lack a certain amount of excitement. But you could also say the same thing about large portions of Tolkien’s original works. There are millions of us who can’t get enough Tolkien, but I think most of us are aware that his works are not page-turners in the same way Stephen King’s or Gillian Flynn’s are. For instance, he is notorious for spoiling major aspects of his works in the first chapter. But that’s because the suspense of who lives and who dies, or what actually ends up happening, wasn’t his chief means of entertaining. And as much as his works are filled with Big events, those events are not so all-important, so supreme that every little detail has to contribute to setting them up.

Rings wants to be a cleverly-plotted series where each episode builds suspense leading towards big moments. It’s not particularly good at this. And that’s okay. The finale demonstrated this pretty clearly, as the two big mystery boxes finally opened. Even though we had pretty much figured them both out, the way in which they opened was compelling – in fact, I think they were some of the best moments of the season (recall that we all knew in Thrones that R+L=J, but the reveal was no less thrilling for it). The ins and outs of the story, the little details here and there, don’t always add up in Rings, but it winds up at the right answer much of the time anyway.

So what’s the point of posting for the first time in nine months, other than providing defense and praise for two flawed but impressive first seasons of new streaming?

We gotta stop worrying so much about plots and just let things be.

We find ourselves conflating story and narrative with connecting the dots. Drama becomes the grand flight from endpoint to endpoint made up of careful steps along the way. This is not inherently problematic, but it becomes so when we decide we know where those endpoints are. We decide we’ve mapped it out and have an idea of what this story is supposed to be, of where the characters are supposed to go, about what sort of thing is going to eventually happen. From this point of view, every piece along the way matters, and everything in the journey should be acting in service of this trajectory.

The canons of narrative art do put some unique strictures on television/streaming, but I don’t think we need to be so committed to making this view of story one of them. Other forms of art can do extremely well without them. Many of my favorite authors (like Per Petterson, Sally Rooney, and Amy Mrotek), are largely uninterested with plot, and so too are most of my favorite filmmakers (such as Hirokazu Koreeda, Jia Zhang-Ke, and Kelly Reichardt). Your mileage may vary, of course, and you may prefer tightly-plotted stories in both art forms, but a review of award-winning (and popular, for that matter) literature and film will return many examples of stories unbeholden to the same types of expectations we place on television/streaming.

We can, and should, be more permissive of series that don’t thread the plotting needles, both those that intentionally flout the rules, and those that try and fail.

But we can go further than this.

I’m speaking for myself, but I’ll use we: I think we’re always trying to make the stories in our lives all pieces of something more meaningful, while deriving too much meaning from what sense we can make and experiencing too much anguish when we can’t fit the pieces together.

I know for me this comes in part from my Christian worldview, both the one I was raised in and the one it has evolved into. I’m sure it’s the same for millions of others. There’s this imperative to make everything fit into God’s Plan, established in the Bible and the grand narrative arc it lays out. Most Christians depend upon the notion that there is a God who is in control and has a Plan. It gives them hope and helps them make sense of things that are too awful or confusing otherwise. I have neither the time nor the interest in diving into the notion of God’s Plan here; for now I just want to suggest that our instinct to contextualize anything into the Plan has some negative effects.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as my church has been exploring the Gospel of John, which has led me to listen to it myself a number of times. We’re in the fourth chapter, and so far I have been particularly moved by the sermon on the wedding where Jesus turns water into wine and the series of sermons on Jesus’ encounter at the well with the Samaritan woman. The pastors have approached these texts with special attention placed on the historical and cultural context of the stories to gain a greater appreciation of what Jesus does, while also emphasizing the humanity in Jesus’ actions.

It’s not that this is the first time I’ve heard sermons on these passages or heard a pastor approach a text this way – not at all. But I’ve been particularly struck this time around by how much can be gleaned from each story about the nature of Jesus and what it means for his followers when each story can – more or less – be scrubbed from the larger surrounding narrative. Notably, both are only found in John’s Gospel, the last of the four Gospels to be written. The wedding at Cana is Jesus’ first miracle, but it doesn’t fit with a lot of the other recorded miracles; he doesn’t heal anyone, or go toe-to-toe with demons, or dunk on Pharisees, or make declarations about his ability to forgive sins. He just helps out a couple in an embarrassing predicament. John could’ve told the story of Jesus’ ministry and proclaimed the Good News without it. And the Samaritan woman? It’s basically a side quest where Jesus breaks the Billy Graham Rule.

These stories have so, so much to teach us, but I fear that Christians might sometimes miss these things that don’t fit so neatly into the Bible’s main plot and the biggest narrative arcs. To varying degrees, Christians cleave to God’s Plan and their convictions of who God is, and this informs how they make meaning out of the stories of their lives.

It’s not just Christians, of course, and even Christians seeks to make meaning out of things outside their religious templates. “We” are “all” managing this tendency. But, again, I’ll try just to speak for myself here.

I have been working on allowing my life just to be. I have often found myself viewing the events and conditions of my life as fundamentally connected to what has happened and what may happen. My past – failures, success, all of it – informs how I understand the present, and guides how I predict what will happen in the future. And that future – my hopes, fears, and expectations – dictates the consequences of the present even as it unfolds. So if something bad happens – maybe I have a bad day, or I fail at something – I might see that as canceling out the good days that came before it or the things I’ve succeeded at, and looking ahead I might decide that this means that I will continue to have these kinds of days, or will continue to fail in the same way.

There’s a lot wrong with thinking this way. I’m presuming to have a clear understanding of my past and my future, and because I feel I understand those things, then I delude myself into thinking I have more control over the unfolding present than I really do. I’m also setting up standards and expectations that shouldn’t be there, as I believe I should always repeat my past successes and avoid my past failures, and that everything I do should be in service to the idealized future I have in mind.

Basically, this tendency is to always put the little details of my life into their proper place in the larger story, one that I want to have some control over. Everything ends up holding some greater significance for the part it plays in the meaning I’m trying to make.

I’m trying to unlearn this, and I’m making progress. I hope to get to a place where I can let things just be, a place where I can better regulate how and when I bring the past and future to bear on the present. With sober-minded reflection, it is good and right and helpful to consider the big pictures, but in the moment, things just are. Es muss sein.

In the time I’ve been working on this post, my grandfather – my father’s father – fell into a wakeless sleep, and a few days later passed beyond the circles of the world. I’m going to finish this post writing about him, because I really think he understood all of this as well as anyone I have known. He was, like so many people in my family, a pastor, and he believed in God’s Plan, but when I think back on the things he said, I think he figured out how to let things be without forcing them into a plot he could pretend to have figured out.

My grandfather was a storyteller, whether he was preaching, recounting the story of Good Friday from multiple characters’ perspectives, or just having a conversation with anyone that lasted any more than a few minutes. He’d recall his serious illness he had in high school, and how the first time he walked in weeks was to the Thanksgiving table. He’d tell you about his special relationship with two brothers, both baseball prodigies. He’d show you the bent nail hanging on his wall and ask you to try to unbend it; his friend Norman bent it that way when they were in high school.

He told the stories to you even if he’d told you before. I’ve heard about the baseball brothers four or five times, the Thanksgiving table about that many times too. It was an inside joke among the family, something he did we could roll our eyes at, the kind of thing you allow the elderly to do because they’ve earned it.

He experienced his fair share of grief, from his own complicated upbringing to the death of his wife and granddaughter in two tragic accidents two decades apart. He would tell stories about them, too. The same stories, sometimes, over and over again.

One time we were visiting him, and my grandmother – my mother’s mother – was with us. Grandpa was talking about one of those taken too soon, and saying how much he missed her and wished he had more time with her.

My grandma is a straight shooter with a faith so strong I wish I had a mere fraction of it. She likes to present questions with answers grown out of experience, sound logic, and the Truth. And so sometimes she uses truisms, which can be handy ammunition when calling it like it is. And she has needed this to cope with her own loss. She lost a teenage daughter in an accident. Years later, her sister and brother-in-law were murdered by their son. She has buried two husbands after years as caretaker.

“We don’t know why, but God had a good reason for letting it happen,” she said.

It’s the sort of thing one Christian says, and then another Christian nods and says, “Yes, that’s right.” I may have even nodded when she said it.

But my grandfather didn’t say anything. He didn’t even really acknowledge what she had said, and I knew he had heard her. 

The conversation moved on, but my thoughts dwelt on that moment. If Grandpa was always talking to people about the ones he lost, he was probably hearing responses like that all the time. Didn’t he tell stories – about his wife, or about his granddaughter, or about Norman, or about Pontius Pilate – to be able to return to the same pleasant, or cathartic, or humorous template? Why would someone who tells so many stories react that way to such a common way of audience response?

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I believe that my grandfather lived through the telling, and indeed the retelling, of stories. He would remember something important, or funny, or strange, then perfect the way of telling it, and then tell it. And in telling it, he lived it, he submerged himself in the feeling he was chasing, and he brought you with. It wasn’t about finding answers.

Perhaps privately I thought Yes Grandpa I know about Pilate/Norman/my grandma/my cousin, and though he wouldn’t ever say it I imagine him exclaiming “Yes! That’s the point! I want you to know about it, and I want you to think about it not just once, but again, and again, and remember. You don’t have to learn – you just have to remember.”

He didn’t talk about the hard things looking for answers, easy or complicated, and I think that’s why he didn’t acknowledge what my grandmother said. The point was in the telling. I’m not at all saying my grandmother’s response was wrong. It just wasn’t how he chose to arrange the pieces of his life.

Now I wish I could listen to his memories of people like my grandmother and cousin again, keeping them alive in mine.

Finally, I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again, because it might be the most important thing my grandfather ever said to me, and it’s the greatest proof that he understood everything I’ve just been kicking around for the last 3700 words.

We didn’t talk often on the phone, something I’m regretting now. But a couple years ago, I got a call from him out of the blue. I mentioned I was unsure about why some of the things in my life were going the way they were.

“But God has his reasons, and I’m just waiting to learn what they are,” I said.

“Yes, well,” he said, in his slow way of beginning a sentence that builds momentum for his carefully crafted phrase, “Sometimes we never do.”

Sometimes we never do.

That was enough for him. I’m trying to make it enough for me.

I will keep telling stories all my life, Grandpa. And you will be in some of them. I’ll make sure they remember you.

Namárië, Grandpa.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Total Eclipse of the Son

Little details in familiar stories can make a big difference. Consider the story of Paul’s conversion.

Caravaggio stays undefeated.

I’ve read or heard the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-19) many, many times, but noticed something new this time that I’ve been thinking about.

The voice of Jesus tells Saul, “But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul, now blind, goes to the city and waits. And waits. And waits. “For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

I’ve never had a Damascus Road experience, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would expect things to start happening pretty quickly. I would not expect to wait three days in the dark.

But God waits three days before giving Ananias his vision to go find Saul at a house on Straight Street. That’s assuming, of course, that Ananias went right there. I have this somewhat irreverent habit of turning Bible stories into dark comedies, so I imagine Ananias waking up three days later like “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” or spending multiple days wandering around Damascus saying “Straight Street? They’re ALL straight!” But let’s assume Ananias is both punctual and well-oriented. So it wasn’t his “fault” for the time lapse. It was God’s. It would have been no thing at all for God to arrange for Ananias to meet Saul right as he entered the city.

(While this is the first time I’ve noticed this detail, I have noticed Straight Street, and it has always bothered me. It sounds like what a ten-year-old does when they’re trying to write a fantasy novel and they have to make up a name for a street. I say this as a former novel-attempting ten-year-old.)

So why did God make Saul wait? It was so agonizing for Saul that he neither ate nor drank, and I wonder if he found himself questioning whether or not he had really heard a voice at all. Imagine being newly-blind, unsure if the voice you heard was the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and unsure if you would hear that voice again.

There is one potential answer in the text: God tells Ananias, after Ananias objects to God in a pantheon “I’m going to tell God how to do God’s job” moment, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Perhaps Paul’s three days of no food or drink (which would have, by the way, almost killed him) was the beginning of this school of hard knocks. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Paul lists his hardships in 2 Corinthians 11, where it’s clear that this suffering was a lifelong deal. I think God would’ve gotten the point across without the three days of blindness. It’s a little reckless of me to parse the language, not knowing Biblical Greek (maybe my brother can help me out), but I wonder, too, if Luke would’ve recorded God’s words as “I myself am showing him how much he must suffer,” rather than the future tense, “I myself will.”

So if we don’t know what the point of making Saul wait was, I’ll suggest three things we can learn from this.

It was part of the conversion process. Our shorthand reference to Saul’s conversion is The Damascus Road, but the conversion is hardly done en route to Damascus. When Ananias finds Saul, Ananias lays his hands on Saul, filling him with the Holy Spirit and triggering the major WTF “something like scales fell from his eyes.” Saul’s sight is restored, and he declares his faith through the sacrament of baptism. Conversion for Saul wasn’t, it seems, done in an instant.

We often imagine and recount our lives as series of life-changing moments, perhaps nowhere more so than religion, faith, and spirituality. But the Bible, full as it is of holy shit moments, reminds readers again and again that God is in the still small voice, the gleanings of grain, the holding of hands. Perhaps we will, at some point in our lives, have a Big Moment, or receive a Sign, or witness a Miracle, but those things are means – not ends.

Saul’s humanity acts within God’s sovereignty. There’s a little detail, a little clue, at the end of this story that helps illustrate my point here. “Then [Saul] got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Saul regained his strength after taking some food, which happened after he was baptized, which happened after the scale things, which happened after he was filled with the Holy Spirit. So, what, does the packaging for powered Holy Spirit have a disclaimer “Does not restore strength”? He was filled with the Holy Spirit, which is, mind you, literally God, and he was still hungry?? Apparently. Maybe this is Luke being a skeptical physician and making sure to include this detail because surely the Holy Spirit is low-cal and low-carb, and, well, he’d be right. We don’t live on bread alone…but we still need bread. This is not to say God can’t grant humans superhuman abilities at times – there’s that Samson fella, and Jesus fasted for 40 days and still beat Satan in a rap battle – but it appears that God works in humans through our humanity. We see this in Saul’s physical need for food, but I think also in his spiritual metamorphosis.

Perhaps Saul needed the three days to do some soul-searching, find himself, and whatever other somewhat useful cliché applies. He needed three days to think of the people he had arrested, to remember Stephen’s face as he was stoned to death, to reexamine all his vast knowledge of the scriptures to see if he had missed the point. I imagine these sorts of things are all he really thought about – I don’t get the impression he was into sports or sex or fine dining. Maybe tents. He might’ve thought about tents. Whatever it was, he had plenty of time to think and to feel without hearing the Voice. Perhaps in Saul’s own human agony, his ruminations, his meditations, his heart was being prepared to accept Jesus as Lord.

I am not getting into a free will debate today, but I do think that we might be, at times, a little too rigid in our notions of God’s irresistibility. God might not zap people into belief without their consent so much as set up events around them to make sure they get to God, kinda like how Bart-Eye engineered Harry Potter’s victory in the Triwizard Tournament, yah know? Maybe God doesn’t just go around shooting people with Cupid arrows to make them fall in love with God. Maybe God at work in the world and in our hearts looks surprisingly human sometimes.

Saul had to search for God in God’s absence. After his supernatural encounter with the voice of Jesus, Saul would have suddenly felt God’s absence in those three dark days. By day three, he might’ve wondered how long he was going to have to wait before hearing or feeling God so acutely again. Based on his letters, it’s clear that for much of his life he felt a very strong connection to God, and probably received divine revelation more often than just about anyone in the history of the Church, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he writes that after a divine encounter, he received a “thorn…in the flesh,” and while debate abounds about what this was, it’s clear that, for a time, he was held at arm’s length from God, suddenly unable to access visions and revelations from the Lord. Though he appealed to the Lord three times to have this thorn taken away from him, God would not. I would guess that, during his three days of blindness, Saul repeatedly reached out to the God of his people – the Jewish people – and to the voice that identified itself as Jesus, begging for revelation.

Feeling God’s absence – though God is never really absent – is part of faith. Examples abound in the Bible and in Christian history, the most famous example probably being Teresa of Calcutta. God made Saul go three days in the dark, and if that could happen to Saul, it could happen to us. And that’s okay. We should continue to seek God, even in the grief – the agony – that can come when not feeling God like we once did. It’s the lesson of Holy Saturday, and while the hope of Easter Sunday should, ultimately, be the rock on which we stand, life is maybe more often than not more like that Saturday of uncertainty. It is often a dream deferred, a birth overdue, a sleepless night. One day, if our eschatology is true, we’ll be totally satisfied by God every moment of every day. We’re not there yet. We can’t be.

I came to the above conclusions because I thought a little more about a verse I’ve read a dozen times but hadn’t – until now – really thought about. So my final thought here is that rereading is a good thing to do, and not just with the Bible (but, of course, especially with the Bible). Works of great complexity (which are sometimes also works of great length) reward rereading as readers find something new each time through – sometimes because a text can resonate differently depending when in life we read it. I reread The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion about once a year for just such reasons – I will not ever cease to find new things. I’ve read every book of the Bible at least once, and there are some passages that are so familiar that sometimes I roll my eyes at reading or hearing them again. But there’s always something more, and experiences like I just had reading Acts 9 remind me of this. Those scales continue to fall from my eyes and I’m drawn towards the Lord who sometimes seems so distant.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Doxology | Benediction

Being a writer sometimes means staying in on New Year’s Eve with your cat, pouring an imperial stout, writing a few hundred words, then going to bed before The Ball drops.

When you and the squad like to praise God but also day drinking

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

W.S. Merwin, “To the New Year”

This is not the end of year post I had intended to write.

My first choice would have been a review of my favorite films of the year, like I did last year. Unfortunately, I am well behind on the year’s cinema, which is causing me undue anxiety and envy of everyone with HBO Max. My second choice would have been a look back on the only day that really mattered in America’s 2021, which was, of course, January 6, a day that so perfectly captured America in 2021 in all of its absurdity, its violence, its delusion.

But, instead, I’m writing about doxology, a word that comes our way from Greek and medieval Latin that basically means to sing praise to God. “Doxology” is also the name of a song that I happened to listen to on my drive today from one side of Wisconsin to the other on that meandering hellscape of uncultured ignorance known as Wisconsin STH 21 (except for you, Wautoma, you blessed oasis of sense and sensibility). It’s not in my nature to dunk on an entire swath of my homeland, but you can only drive by so many pro-hate yard signs before making that trip with a permanently raised middle finger. And maybe this undercuts everything I’m about to write, but I hope taking that risk – if nothing else – underscores how much I hate Wisconsin STH 21.

Anyway. “Doxology.” It’s the name of a song by Portland rap group Beautiful Eulogy. The verses from Braille and Odd Thomas are ensconced in Latifah Alattas’ beautiful rendition of a traditional doxology that they sing every Sunday at Trinity Church in Portland, First Baptist Church of Sturgeon Bay, and many more churches around the nation and the world. It goes like this:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all creatures here below
Praise him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

I’ll get back to the main thread in a sec, but I had to do a quick Google search to double check the name of Beautiful Eulogy’s church, and I’m just now learning that Thomas Terry (Odd Thomas) is now lead pastor because former lead pastor Art Azurdia turned out to be an abuser. Art, the most gesticulative preacher I have ever seen, could really bring it from the pulpit and has been a spiritual inspiration to many. The fact that he, too, has been a wolf in the pasture is, well, really fucked up, and maybe also undercuts what I’m about to write. And if the fact that I just wrote “the f-word” is what really upsets you about that sentence, then I have to ask right quick if your mailing address happens to be on Wisconsin STH 21.

I’ve shared “Doxology” multiple times on Facebook, and I usually get 2 or 3 likes. I know sharing a YouTube song link on Facebook without a lengthy or pithy comment is basically like jettisoning an escape pod into deep space and hoping it crash lands on Tatooine. Then again, in a pretty well-connected galaxy far far away, seems like an awful lot does happen to land on Tatooine. Maybe I’m just too squarely in the target audience for the song, since I grew up singing those words every Sunday and those three men changed my life, but I’m going to keep sharing it (and, tonight, writing about it) because I think it’s a perfect work of art that continues to make me think and feel in the direction of God.

So, here it is again:

But why this song, now, on the Eve of 2022?

Well, because doxology – the act – as described in “Doxology,” is something for each and every occasion, which is why “we” sing it every Sunday (regrettably, we do not sing it at my current church). (Side note: (which is a parenthetical side note instead of a footnote because I’m in a rush and also too buzzed to format the footnotes) “20 Something,” by SZA, just came on while I’m writing this and that song really hits me at this time in my life, and is also kinda on the nose for what I’m writing). Doxology – to sing praise to God – is a beautiful act engendered by hope in the Triune God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The act of singing in praise of anything – your love, your country, your football team (European, mind you (we don’t sing so good in the sports over here)) – requires a certain amount of satisfaction, of joy, of pleasure in that thing. Try singing your favorite football team’s song after they get trounced by their rivals, or a sexy love song after you and your S.O. have just had a fight, and you’ll find it difficult. But God is not like your favorite football team or your S.O. (and thank God for that), and should always be worthy of songs of praise.

The problem is that we don’t always feel satisfied, joyful, or pleased because of God. That’s okay. Really, it is. If you don’t feel like singing joyfully to God, you’re in good company with at least a couple different people who wrote the Bible – EVER HEARD OF IT!? But the sad songs, the anxious songs, the agonized songs, still get sung, and, eventually, they turn back to praise.

A portion of Braille’s verse encapsulates this very nicely:

I exist for your glory, never for mine
I never would shine if it wasn’t for your Spirit inside
You made me alive when I was dead in trespasses
The passion of Christ left my sin in the past tense
Every good and perfect gift comes from your hand
You set me back on course when I run from your plan
No excuse to refuse to lift my voice
Because the gospel is true, there’s always reason to rejoice
And that don’t mean that my sorrow is inconspicuous
But when I grieve, I got a greater joy in the midst of it
The joy of knowing I will see you face to face
And it’s all to the praise of your glorious grace

There will be times we don’t feel at all like praising God. But we should sing anyway for two reasons: first, because there is always something to praise God for, and second, because through the singing, our hearts and minds may be turned from despair to hope, from sorrow to joy.

2021, like 2020, was a real shitshow for many. For some people I know, it was the hardest year of their life. It is standard Christian practice to prescribe a double dose of God for times like these. God is the best medicine for a shitty year.

But the same can be said for a year like mine, which was, on the whole, kinda meh.

There’s been plenty of bad, sure. I didn’t get a dream job in Oregon which I thought was in the bag. My step-grandfather died. My paternal grandfather is in poor health. Some of my most meaningful relationships were strained and painful. My cat got ringworm. I just found out while writing this the restaurant with the best French Toast I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot) closed.

And there’s been good! I adopted the above-mentioned cat who is snuggled up against me right now. I got to teach again. I joined a young adult Bible study at my church and have found friendship and community. I did the dating app thing and met my girlfriend who makes me feel like I’ve been struck by lightning, which is what Roy Kent says I deserve.

But there’s also been a lot of meh. I’ve written a little, but not as much as I’d like. I’ve got a novel in the hopper but I don’t know how close any of you are to reading it. I turned down a job offer in Shanghai that would have changed my entire life. It was the right decision, but it doesn’t feel great to turn down one of the few offers I’ve gotten out of myriad applications. I dabbled in freelance copywriting, and while I just sent my first invoice last week, it hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to. By and large, the meh has been a constant. From an outside perspective, all of this might sound like not such a bad year, but it has been, from a mental health point of view, a challenge much of the time. The good is too often canceled out by the bad and/or muted by the meh.

But tonight, at the end of 2021 and on the eve of 2022, I’m thinking that part of my problem has been a lack of doxology, a lack of praise to God. This is not to say that if only I had praised God more I would have had more good things or fewer bad things, because that’s not how God works. What it means is that my outlook on each day, from the worst ones to the most ordinary ones, could have been made better by a more consistent heart of praise. On my worst days, I sometimes resent God for what God puts me or someone I love through. On my meh days, I sometimes forget I’m a Christian for hours at a time. What I should have been doing, on the bad days and meh days (and good days!), was turning my heart and mind back to God.

And, as I contemplate the state of my own heart, mind, and soul, I wonder if maybe Christians need, in this new year, a renewed commitment to the practice of doxology. There are many ways in which our faith can be displayed in public, and many of them are not helpful, not honoring to God. Many of them are pointed with a very specific purpose, or poisoned with ulterior motive. Some are tone-deaf, and some are just noise. Maybe we need, as we move from this year which was so hard for so many, to focus at least a little more on just praising God in private and public ways. Our prayers don’t have to be subtweets. God’s name doesn’t need to be accompanied by “guns and glory” or “family and football” or “America.” You can, of course, continue to tweet incessantly about the connection you see between Christian faith and outlawing abortion, because I’m going to continue to scream and yell about how critical race theory goes hand in hand with a Biblical worldview, as I believe faith must apply intentionally to our specific context, and I believe we must – clearly and repeatedly – articulate this. But maybe we need to be a little less selective, less utilitarian, about our declarations of faith. Maybe we just need to make a habit of praising God for being God and all that entails. Doing so will turn our hearts and minds to God while redirecting the eyes and ears of others from these images of God to God, from creatures to Creator.

Christians are, after all, one of the main reasons so many reject religion. “We” had a chance to do great things during the pandemic, and we kinda fucked it up. Tomorrow is a new beginning. Maybe a renewed focus on praise is the way to start healing our world, starting with our own weary selves.

Anyway, that’s what listening to “Doxology” today made me think about.

Happy New Year

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

Peter

Pastor’s Kid

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1

Sunset baptism, 2014

How many times have you seen your dad cry? One? Ten? One hundred? I’ve got you beat. I’m sure of that.

He cries easily. He married someone who does, too. As kids, we’d look over at Mom during the sappy part of a cheesy movie and see her crying. “Mom!” we’d groan as she sheepishly shrugged. Well what goes around comes around. All three of us turned into criers. My brother choked back tears giving his senior research presentation about fish in a lake, which I assume is uncommon. My sister just let us know she was weeping listening to the heartfelt message from Steve from Blue’s Clues. And I cry every time rewatching certain parts of movies, most reliably Shoplifters, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Shrek 2 (of course).

I’ve seen my dad cry after someone prays something especially heartfelt, and when his daughter gets married, and when he delivers bad news, and when he hugs me goodbye. There’s a certain way his voice cracks, a way his face tenses, a way his eyes water that I know so well. Sometimes as I hug him I can feel it before I see it. I know what’s inside and forcing its way out.

But, unlike most people – maybe you, for one – I’ve seen my dad cry in public. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of times. I see that same tension in his face, that same way his mouth opens part way in anticipation of the next painful word.

Many years ago, I was in London’s Hyde Park, and there was a street preacher, delivering a fire and brimstone sermon off the top of his head, citing scripture after scripture. All the while he was heckled by two young men, saying “What does it say, Jimmy? What does it say?” But he continued, undaunted. After listening for a little while, my companion and I turned to leave, expressing our admiration for his preaching ability. A stranger, who had been listening nearby, said to us: “But was he speaking the truth in love?” And then he walked away.

My dad is a preacher. No, a pastor. There’s a difference. Maybe what I write here will help you see that.

He cries when he preaches because he is a man of deep faith who feels what he says. He cries when he preaches because his sermons are drawn straight from the holy, sacred scripture, which he believes is the very word of God. He cries when he preaches because his teaching is not just for the edification of curious minds, but for the nourishment of panting souls. He cries when he preaches because he is the first to recognize his own shortcomings and he is always preaching to himself. He cries when he preaches because he knows his very next breath is never guaranteed.

And he cries when he preaches because he knows the people in the pews. And he can never, ever be away from them.

If he was a preacher, then he could, maybe, leave the Church in the church when he goes home. They might not be there when he comes into the office. There might be one or two middle managers between him and the supplicants.

But he’s a pastor, and they are his flock. When he goes home, they follow him. When he comes into the office, they’re waiting for him. And when they bring their supplications, they bring them straight to him. He can never, ever be away from them.

And how could he? He has seen them born and seen them die. Married and divorced. Succeeded and failed. Sinned, and sinned again. Repented, and repented again. Sickness and health. Rich and poor.

A number of us future pastors were in a discussion group, sharing our vision for ministry. One of the others spoke of his great ambitions for his church. In five years his church would be this, in ten years his church would be that. He was very sure of himself. And so I asked him: “What if that’s not what God has planned for you?”

For over 30 years he has been walking into the same small office, pouring coffee in the same kitchen, gashing his hand on the same pulpit. That’s uncommon. His father, a pastor sometimes and a preacher others, moved to a new church at about the rate of a presidential term. Many pastors do the same, for any number of reasons. Some of them are good. My dad has had opportunities to go elsewhere. Somewhere bigger, with more resources, a higher salary, a clean slate. He’s never taken it.

It is not a normal job. The cliché is to say that it’s not a job at all; it’s a calling. And that’s true: the writing was literally on the wall as my dad scraped chalk against blackboard on the first day of his high school teaching job. This is not what I’m supposed to be doing. But let’s call it a job – he goes into an office and sits at a computer and gets a paycheck. That’s a job. But it’s not like other jobs. There is no schedule, no timeclock. Many weeks he will go in seven days a week, and be there from sun-up to sundown. He is a professional with a post-graduate degree, which usually means you’re safe from people dropping by the office for a chat. You wouldn’t go to your dentist, doctor, or lawyer expecting them to set aside their work to have a cup of coffee with you and answer a few questions. But you can do it to a pastor. It’s part of the job. And when he goes home, he’s got a cellphone that is his work phone too, and it is always primed to receive an unexpected question or terrible news.

Maybe some of this burden is of his own making. There’s not any reason he has to be the one to rearrange the chairs in the sanctuary, or shovel the sidewalks in the winter. He could go home at 5 every night. He could have an “emergencies only” policy about his phone. But that is not what the job means to him. It wouldn’t really be the job if he did it that way. The coffee doesn’t drink itself.

“And we’ve decided that, considering our circumstances, it’s really just best for our family if we move on somewhere else. You know what I mean?” “No, frankly, I don’t know what you mean.”

The decades at his small church have gifted him with many friends. Fierce friends. People who would drop everything if he needed it. People who would die for him. People who feel comfortable bringing their pain and sorrow to him, but who will also go to him to celebrate their greatest joy. And it has also brought him face to face and heart to heart with many who have come and gone, and, in doing so, ripped him to shreds.

You can change your doctor, dentist, lawyer. You can leave your country club or sports club or pick a different bar. No hard feelings. Leaving a pastor is different. You’re not just leaving them – you’re leaving their church, their Church. You are leaving brothers and sisters. People do it all the time, and, sometimes, there’s a good reason. And sometimes there isn’t.

I’ve seen my dad carry this, time and again. Tears are not his tell these times. It’s in his sighs and his silence. As kids, we’d badger him to tell us what was going on, to give us the church gossip. But, most of the time, he wouldn’t. Some things are just for the pastor and his wife. And maybe some things are not even for her. Anyone’s dad can bring things home from work, seem a little worn down or broken. But it happens in a peculiar way for a pastor. Often I forget my dad’s experience is unique like that. Often I forget that our experience as his kids was (and is) unique like that.

“I want to be the guy who leads people in the Lord’s Prayer and then says to the others, ‘Let’s roll!’… By God’s grace, when I face the sword, so to speak – or really – I will be preaching Romans 8, and Second Corinthians 4, and Ephesians 2, and John 10, and Psalm 23, and Revelation 22 because I know how it all turns out in the last chapter of the book!”

Perhaps I’ve made it sound like my dad’s life is one long work of misery, years spent in Teresa’s Calcuttan limbo. This is not so. His work brings him great joy and satisfaction. He is a happy man. And God has provided him with stalwarts in the church, with a loving, devoted, sympathetic wife, and, in perhaps his darkest hours, a little black poodle with kind brown eyes. “Garbage and Grace: a lot of both in my line of work,” as he says.

And maybe some will say that I’m biased, that, as his son, I will be sympathetic to him and harsh on those who have caused him pain. This is not so. I am – privately, and sometimes publicly – one of my dad’s harshest critics. I’ve been angered by things he has said and done as a pastor. Forgive me, Dad, but I don’t know – I honestly don’t – if I would go to his church if I wasn’t his son. And if I did, I don’t know if I would be one of the ones who would leave.

My dad has faced trials and tribulations in his work, and while he is in the twilight of his career – even if he goes on as long as his dad did – there are many more ahead. It hurts to know my dad will face that, and I fear for what might happen if the ending is not as graceful, not as dignified, not as satisfactory as he would want. As he, I believe, deserves.

But this is the life he chose. And it is the life, full of profound joy and pain, that all pastors – whether they know it or not – are choosing. It’s not normal.

And neither is being part of a church.

Church participation and membership has become just another part of life that so many of us take for granted, making so many churches indistinguishable from the rest of our culture and giving us the belief that the next church is always better than the last. The uncommon nature of church community has lost its power, and the indwelling, uniting spirit of that community loses too many battles to the petty concerns we are all so ready to wield.

Being a part of a church is weird, and it is messy, and it is difficult. And in every one of those weird, messy, difficult communities stand men and women who have taken up the missive to bear so much of that weirdness, that messiness, that difficulty. You may have one major problem at church. If that’s true for everyone there, what do you think that means for the person who is the common denominator?

Extend them grace. You don’t know how badly they need it.

I love you, Dad. I’m praying for you.

 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17 

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter