The first telling of the story of Adam and Eve is one of the more expertly crafted stories in the history of literature. It follows a circular pattern of narrative, for the first chapter alone is a collection of statements presented as irrefutable fact. All of these statements begin with a repetitive structure, a technique used commonly in the ancient world, and still used today by story-tellers- a rhetorical device called Anaphora. Anaphora (Greek for “Carrying Back”) is used at the beginning of phrases in literature to give power and emphasis to the statements made. An example of this in more modern terms would be Martin Luther King Jr’s., I Have A Dream speech.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of George the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state, sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
Anaphora, to use an illustration, is a steam train that builds with the beginning of each successive statement serving as fuel to the boiling power of the sentiment being expressed.
Take a moment to read the first section in Genesis 1, see how it begins with the phrase, “Then God said,” and it is by the use of Anaphora that this very simple statement, repeated over and over again, gives power to the text.
In the simplest of terms, the anaphora used in the first section of Genesis’ first chapter tells us this:
When God speaks, all cosmic mechanisms shift and bend to His softest whisper.
When God speaks, life is poured out into the world.
When God speaks, things happen.
It is with a deep sadness in the story that when God speaks to Adam, with the same planet-birthing power announced in the previous sections, His words fall on Adam’s deaf ears. He commands Adam alone, “Do not eat of this tree.”
Adam hears but doesn’t listen.
He does not allow the command of Yahweh to affect his actions.
We know how the rest of the story goes.
We are asking ourselves about sin with this year’s mountain camp theme, an examination of what gives life and what ushers in death. Kevin and I talked for hours about the nature of Adam and Eve’s sin.
Was it greed?
Was it coveting God’s divine power?
Given some time to think it over, I think that this story serves as a kind of Meta-Anaphora – God speaks in all our beginnings and like Adam and Eve, we don’t listen. This deaf insurrection is a running theme through the entirety of the Old and New Testament.
God keeps heralding forth life-giving statements about what direction we should go. In times of pain or joy, plenty or want, winter, summer, fall, or spring of life, God keeps speaking to us. His hope is that we listen and heed his Word, for it is the voice from which flows true deathless power and the measure of all wisdom.
Adam and Eve’s refusal to listen to God is not a problem only found in the stories of the fathers of our faith. It is not a cautionary fairytale of God’s wrath on those who refuse to listen in times long past. It is not a fantasy dreamed up to scare us into obedience.
It is the story of us, a story as new as a child birthed tomorrow and as old as the rock that slew Abel. God is speaking now, actively participating in our lives, His voice as powerful as a supernova and as soft as the whispering pulse between the half-beat of the human heart.
So when attempting to discern what is good and what is evil, to choose life over death, we must heed God’s counsel. His Word for us is character-changing, chain-breaking, and life-giving. If we are trying to break the cycle of choosing life over sin and God over the world, our story must begin with the Anaphora:
“God spoke and I listened…”
Imagine the time of the birth of the first second son. Eve out of the painful throws of childbearing is sleeping quietly in her recovery. Adam, wiping the condensation of worry from his brow, calls to his son, “Cain! Cain, come quickly.”
Peeking out from behind the folds of a dusty, wool covered flap, we see a young boy peer into the shadowy depths of the tent he calls home, and there he finds his mother holding a tiny, pink mass.
“His name is Abel.”
Cain asks why his mother was screaming while Abel was being born. Adam tells Cain the story of the Garden and the casting out, the choices they made that brought pain into the world.
Adam tells Cain that he and Abel are the first brothers, and that their bond is unlike anything else in the world; neither the wolf pack, nor parliament of owls can boast to have such as what Cain has been gifted in his little brother. They will toil as their father has toiled, and one day, they will find their own suitable helpers and have sons of their own, whom they will teach of Yahweh, of the Garden, and of the Fall.
“Your mother and I failed to uphold the promise we made. But you, Cain, you and Abel will walk with God, and in you He will find something more new than He has known in your mother and me. One of you I will trust with our garden, the other with our herd, and one day-” he says, smiling and wrapping his strong arms around the baby as they watch him sleep, “One day you will make sacrifices together. And it will be good.”
We know how the rest turns out.
Cain, with a single, mighty stroke, bloodies the human timeline. His brother Abel’s breath is stolen away, and for the first time in the narrative of humanity, a soul is cut from the mortal coil and banished to Sheol to sleep – alone. And so it is fitting that Cain, like his brother, is cursed, to wander in a hellish, unfruitful life, watching the time pass, with only the seeds of evil that he sowed to grow. He is never given a chance to repent, or look into his brother’s eyes and say, “I was wrong.” Cain is given nothing but all the time in the world is left to his guilt, a suffering given to crush an already broken man.
It’s pretty scary story in my eyes.
However, the story of Abel and his brother Cain is not a horror story. Cain is not some brooding monster waiting in the darkness to slake a bloodlust in his heart. Nor is Cain completely a villain, though his acts are certainly villainous. The death of Abel by his brother Cain is a tragedy, the second act in the oral history of the Fall of Man.
Picture this: these first brothers ran in fields together, laughed together, toiled and shared in love for their parents together. They were united against all manner of wolves, darkness, and warned each other of a deceiving Serpent their mother told them bedtime stories about.
Imagine these boys sleeping beside one another, sharing the animal skins their father had tanned and tooled for their warmth when they felt the first winter. Allow yourself to picture Cain hushing Abel as the younger boy tries to overcome the clutches of a nightmare. Watch that picture in your mind further still to see how lovingly Cain wraps his tiny arms around Abel’s shoulders, telling him, “Shh, brother. It’s okay. I’ll protect you.”
It is easy to see Cain as something monstrous at the end of his story, but Cain was first a boy; a boy filed with an inconsolable first love for his brother. He later became a man filled with wrath when all his work and toil went uncelebrated. The writer of Hebrews suggests that Abel is picked over Cain because Cain didn’t work as hard as Abel in his sacrifice, but (as Walter Brueggemann asserts) there is nothing in the Genesis text to suggest this is the case. No, there is only a fall. A furious tumble occurs inside the throne room of Cain’s heart – love is usurped by wrath. The wisdom taught by Adam is overthrown by jealousy.
So before we label Cain as a murderer, though he certainly is one, it is essential to first remember this – Cain loved Abel.
Cain loved Abel.
His wrath caused him to forget that love.
And so, like all reasonable and loving people before wrath overwhelms them, Cain sins when he stops loving his brother as he loves himself. The fear that comes from not being chosen by God leads to anger. That anger swells inside of him, until it becomes a rushing tide that drowns love out of Cain’s heart. Love pushed aside leads to selfishness, leaving Cain’s jealous mind to think-
“Didn’t I try hard enough?”
“Why isn’t my offering enough?”
Cain covets the favor God has shown Abel, thus planting a jealousy inside of Cain that flowers immediately in the eldest son. The fruit of Cain’s envy is the blood of his brother – he is bathed crimson wet. Abel’s breath robbed away.
The first bloodstain is splashed on the tapestry of life God has only recently set upon the loom.
The first second son, the first little brother, is given a death lower than his father’s cattle at the hands of someone who once loved him.
The first son, heir to all the creation his father first named, abrogated from his inheritance, his family, and his God.
What a tragedy Wrath hath wrought.
I’m not really a “crier”, but I turn into a blubbering baby when I watch the original Star Wars films. There are only a few films that can do this to me: Lonesome Dove, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring are probably the only other two.
In a previous post entitled The Incorruptible Son, I touched the tip of the iceberg of the sentiment I feel when I watch Luke Skywalker take those fabled steps out of his home- a dusty, sci-fi hovel on that famous desert planet Tatooine. The first time I saw that moment, sitting in the back room of my late Grandmother’s house in Snyder, Texas, I was nine years old and it filled me with an inexhaustible longing that has shaped my life. You see, this was a story about a boy who looked out into a desolate horizon and saw all the adventure waiting for him among the stars. His gifts, all of his natural talents are completely wasted in his current station in life. And so, we are allowed this short and powerful glimpse into the heart of a boy who, more than anything, wants to get past the yellow sands of a mundane life and find all the miraculous things floating above him in that star filled galaxy. He is the child orphan who remains talented but unused. A revolver always cocked but never fired or a sword expertly crafted that impatiently remains sheathed. In that moment, we see the longing in Luke’s heart, because he knows, as so many of us have known in our own lives, that life is less when the special things about us are jailed away because of circumstance, but that existence is grand and filled with wonder when our gifts are given means by which we may exercise them.
There are moments within Luke’s narrative that touched me deeply when I was young and honestly they cut me deeply these days.Those who know me best understand that Sherlock Holmes is my favorite fictional character, but Luke Skywalker is the one who I identify with the most. I remember the first time I saw Luke walk out of his home, alone and among the falling suns of that fictional world, while watching him and being absolutely crushed by John Williams’ score, I thought, “You’re just like me.”
Is that silly? Probably.
But it’s true.
I identified with the loneliness of his longing and now firmly believe that longing and loneliness are inescapably married within the human heart. That scene, seen by a nine year old boy of an oil-field worker, and later by a thirty-one year old father of two, pulls at my soul. When I see Luke looking at those twin stars, I cannot help but remember the desire that Luke’s narrative put into me. This was primal as a boy, influential as a teenager, and even now as a grown man I cannot help but be moved by the power of the singular notion behind what this scene represents. It pulls on the viewer’s need to matter in their world.
Our need to have measurable weight in our lives and the lives of others. That none of us are just the sum of our parts. It elicits the hope that our lives are not dictated by our circumstances.That despite the disbelief of others, we do matter. Though we might be orphans to a cruel parent, citizens of derelict places, or consistently told that our lives are just candles edging toward their own extinction – this scene of a falling sunset, this piece of art, communicates that hope is worth holding on to. What we do in our own narrative changes the stories of others. While you may feel like a child, who has only changed the world in the amount of sand he’s kicked up on the dunes to which he is relegated, you can actually be heroic. With the heart and hope of a child who houses a longing heart, you too can escape the desert of your circumstances. It all starts by walking out of the prison huts either we, or others, or the world has built for us, being courageous enough to take the steps necessary to crest the top of the hill of our doubt, and then braving to look toward the stars. Amid that, dusty twin sun horizon is where dreams are waiting.
Dreams, which are of course, the infant beginnings of transformation.
See the Child. He is born unto us, the breaker of all chains. For within this tiny vessel resides usurping power of the wholly divine. His first earthly cries stretch out in echoes that usher away darkness, pain, and invite all living creation to partake in a new genesis. A fresh baptism for all the world.
Darkness that has made an empire over man all these long millenniums, trembles now at the sight of the infant candle of the incarnate splendor of God. In only a span of thirty-three years from this moment, Death, who has sat monarch over all man since his inception, will be made a ruined king; his voice muted, his decree no longer sovereign.
The baby crying is the anthem of a new supremacy.
The man, holding the tiny messiah is a carpenter whose blood reaches back to the ancient kings of a chosen people. The baby, impossibly normal and immeasurably beautiful, is cloaked in the blood of humanity; crimson wet in the livery of God Almighty. The father’s name is Joseph and he cries tears of joy. Yeshua, the boy’s name is Yeshua, and as proclaimed by Gabriel, he has inherited the house of Jacob, will mend the Throne of David, and alone be known as the Son of the Most High.
Joseph’s adopted son, wrapped in burlap blankets dusted with mule hair, is viewed by his earthly father with a satisfaction all fathers have known, but none this fully.
Mary, a child of thirteen years calls for the baby. Her husband slips the child into her tired arms, then quickly stacks more wood on the fire. The mother looks into her son’s brown eyes and sees within him the tabernacle of God made vulnerable flesh. The magnificat of the birth she gently cantillates.
She loves him.
Cattle calls out. The moon peaks above the horizon. Stars portend the cosmic shift of power.
All the world is changed.
~Published by South Main Baptist Church in their 2014 Advent Book.
My pastor Steve Wells has been going through the story of Joseph in Genesis, his series of sermons revolve around the idea of, “God’s dream for your life,” and how that can often times put you in conflict with yourself, your family, and the world around you. Last week Steve preached on how Joseph suffered through an incredible journey of trials ultimately to end up where he could serve God in a place where his innate talents and the culmination of his life’s experiences found their true purpose. Before he was Pharaoh’s highest counselor, Joseph was beaten, betrayed, enslaved, imprisoned, disowned, harassed; keeping his integrity in all these moments helped refine Joseph into a man that could be trusted. Joseph is not a brilliant man. Joseph is not a wholly capable man.
But Joseph is reliable.
And it is his reliability in the use of his gifts which propels him forward in his story.
Steve says, “God has a dream for your life.”
And I want to believe Steve; all of me to the depth of all I have the potential to be, wants me to believe him.
Suffering six months of unemployment cuts through my trust in that statement. For the last decade I have been striving to become an author who could support himself and his family through the written word. Up to this point in my journey, I have failed to attain that goal.
And so, I think that it is appropriate to ask the question, “What is God’s dream for my life?” What is the purpose of the hard work into the gifts of rhetoric, oratory, and the written word if I cannot ferment these gifts to a livable wage. These tens of thousands of hours I have put into being an effective storyteller and I have yet to reach a sum of monetary value on my work that allows me to do anything more than pay an occasional water bill.
I am lost on an aimless journey. My circumstances took me out of vocational ministry and God planted in my heart this truth -That I am a storyteller. I am a writer.
I’m not a writer because I chose to be. I am a writer because when I’m not writing I feel worthless.
When I’m not writing or working on writing I feel like I’m failing. Failing to be as good as I can be. Failing to provide for my family. Failing to work harder than others.
Writing is the foundation of my self worth. The act of storytelling allows me to believe that I matter.
My life journey is propelled forward when I move you (the reader) with narrative. Your joys and sorrows in my work, they are what give me value.
That isn’t a healthy perspective of self-value. I know that. I know that the journey of life is meant to be experienced, not just lived. But I cannot change that within me rests an inconsolable need to shape the world around me. To help you feel the great enthusiasms of my heroes, to be wounded by their pain, and experience life at its top when they triumph.
I’ve always wanted to be a champion. I’ve always wanted to inspire people. But mostly, I want my work to matter. I want it to matter to you. And I can’t make you like it. I can’t make it move you. All I can do is show up every night, after my children and wife are in bed, to a place where I have no one to keep me accountable but myself, and get to work stringing words together. I don’t have a boss who will dock my pay if I don’t hit those thousand words a night. I don’t have a manger who will take me through my writing and say, “Hey, this is good, but let’s stay away from this.” It’s all up to me to succeed and because I am not succeeding, I have only myself to blame.
I don’t have a compass for my life’s journey. Navigating this career is a lot like trying to find water in the desert with a divining rod – I’ve seen people do it, but it looks like a magic trick when they do – and as I’ve already said, I’m no magician. I want to be great and I’m pretty sure I’m not there yet.
A writer’s competition for greatness isn’t found in his peers, it’s found in the dead.
Shakespeare, Bradbury, Steinbeck, Melville, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Cormac McCarthy, Updike, just to name the greats you’ve heard of. Their phantoms are ever present on the mind of the aspiring writer.
“If I could only write in a beautiful simplicity like Steinbeck…”
“If I could only paint an October tragedy like Bradbury…”
“If I could only dare like Melville…”
“…craft beauty with language like Shakespeare. Then I’ll be good enough.”
If I could only support my son’s college tuition with royalties…
If I could only pay the mortgage with that novel advance…
Would those things make me happy? Probably not.
Would they give the weight to my work that I’ve always wanted? No.
Because to me, ashamedly I admit, nothing is ever good enough. The heart of my writing is split between a burning desire to be great and an unshakable dissatisfaction in the work I produce.
I think that Steve is right. God does have a dream for my life- a dream rooted in faith, hope, and love toward the service of others in the name of Christ Jesus. A dream that will satisfy this mind and soul of mine which have been forever discontent toward anything but the very best. So I suppose that like Joseph, I will simply keep striving. I’ll keep working through my self-doubt.
Right now I’m wandering, though putting one foot in front of the other each day. Striving. Seeking. Hoping to find the place where I’m called to serve with the gifts I’ve been given. Doing all of these things with an unyielding dedication that is simply content in this – If I fail as an author, it will be because I lacked a high enough talent, not because I refused to throw myself into the furnace of dedication.
I’m wandering right now, on a seemingly alien landscape, and I’m clinging to the notion that Steve mentioned of Joseph – that while all these things are happening, “The Lord was with him.”
I hope the Lord is with me. I trust that He is, but the razor of doubt is cutting away at that all the time.
I am wounded by doubtl. In this way, confessed to you, I am infirm and lame.
But, I rejoice in this: “love covers a multitude of infirmities.”
Yours and mine.
This past Sunday I taught a bible study lesson for a wonderful group of people via South Main Baptist Church. The title of the lesson was, Comic Books: An American Mythology. It started out exactly like you’d expect –
“Hi, My name is Seth, I write comic books and here is how they have affected us in the history of our society and also how they have affected me. ”
At first I was a bit nervous, mostly because I used to teach four bible studies a week in my early twenties, but I haven’t taught adults in over a decade. Doubt and self-criticism pick up the microphone in my head and they start orating Ad nauseam all the old rhetoric of a self-defeating man.
“You know you’re doing this for the spotlight. You aren’t doing it for them, you’re doing it for yourself.”
“Who are you to give a discussion on anything? Do you really think these people want to hear about comic books? You’re a loon.”
And yes, my inner critics use words like ‘loon’, probably while smoking pipes, lifting snifters of brandy, and pretentiously kicking their feet up in some metaphysical Victorian era gentleman’s social club. My intelligence may not be broad or deep, but it is very fancy.
Once I get past the introduction I can feel all the old enthusiasms start to wake back up. When this happens, it’s like an internal reformation- like my soul is stretching out of fetal position, the warmth of love putting marrow back into spiritual bones, and taking a strong but forgotten posture. The teacher in me is re-birthed. Born again. And like all resurrection moments in our lives, be they grand or wonderfully tiny, it came out of nowhere. And while I was teaching about Superman as a Messiah character, inside my head all I could think about was the scene from Pulp Fiction when Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) says –
“Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt God’s touch, God got involved.”
Then going forward it wasn’t like using old muscles I hadn’t stretched in a decade, rather as I moved on into Batman as a narrative of the ‘Suffering Servant’, it started to feel like there was a machinery in me, sputtering and chuffing to life at first, but then heat and steam and smoke and power and motion come whirling De Anima. I can see on their faces that I’m telling them a story, and they are with me on that journey. We’ve stopped being a group of adults sitting in a beautiful living room having a discussion. At that point we are travelers on a road, a company finding fellowship in the narrative birthed out of funny books people once designed to keep the minds of children suspended in wonder.
We get to Spider-Man.
That’s when the story starts weighing down harder.
I try my hardest to not get choked up by that page every time I see it.
“Why?” you ask. Peter Parker isn’t real. The weight crushing him down isn’t real. Power-imbuing radioactive spiders aren’t real.
Here’s why – Because the character being crushed by the machinery isn’t Spider-man, it’s me. It’s you. The machinery pressing down on his shoulders isn’t some large engine, it’s the weight of life. It’s the tremendous task of living, yoked over a man who in the face of oblivion doesn’t wilt to the pressure. He’s a man who says, “I can and I will.”
Peter Parker is a man who has lost, and lost, and lost and still chooses to care about the world that will ultimately destroy him. Because carrying the massive weight of life is worth the reward of the journey. To harbor great enthusiasm, to swing from metaphorical heights and smile in the face of absolute calamity and dare to win the day.
And not to yield.
And then just when I think I’m going to make it through this bible study, which is already a renaissance to my love for teaching, I come to the hero that I most identify with – Captain America. I identify with Steve Rogers on a primal level because I grew up a smaller kid. I was furiously picked on by the cowards they call bullies and I always wanted to be more than what my genetics afforded to me. I wanted to be fast; I am slow. I wanted to be strong; even at my strongest I’ll never come close to what nature has gifted to other men. I wanted to be brilliant; what I am is intellectually average. But more than anything I wanted to be capable.
I wanted my life to matter.
But mostly, what I wanted was to be this guy:
The problem is that I was this guy:
Yeah. The one holding the trashcan lid.
So, back to Sunday, I’m talking with these folks about Captain America and I say that we all have felt like Steve Rogers; intellectually frail, physically weak, or emotionally incapable, we’ve all known days where we were 97 pounds soaking wet. We’ve all felt weak. Steve Rogers, a man whose story teaches us about what an indomitable will to do good can accomplish, taught me about myself: no matter the bullies, or the doubts, or the weaknesses given to me at birth, I can take all the punches. I can keep thrusting myself in to the bloody fray. Though I may know defeat time and time again, I will take the blows life has to offer and with a resolute heart, unconquered I can look my oppressors in the eye and say-
“I can do this all day.”
And I can.
Not because Captain America is real, but because the anthem of perseverance in the character’s voice is true.
And I manage to make it through that without my voice breaking, without my eyes tearing up (just barely) and then I realized that in order to tie it all together all I had to do was show the single most Gospel comic book page in the history of sequential art.
That single page is about a deity interacting with a broken human being and choosing not to simply swoop down and remove her from harm, rather it’s about meeting both her physical and emotional needs at the same time. The point of Superman isn’t that he is powerful. Lots of people think he is because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. But Superman is about having the ability to dominate another person and choosing to serve them.
To say to the hopeless, “Dare to dream a man can fly.”
To say to the powerless, “Goodness is all the power you’ll ever need to change the world.”
And that’s what makes all of these characters heroes – not their super powers or costumes, not their ability to save their world from various monsters and madmen.
What makes a hero truly super is that he loves his fellow man higher than he loves himself. That he places himself in the arena of life and puts his hands to the work of making the world a better place.
That he strives valiantly.
That he dares to try, though it may cost him everything.
What makes our American comic book gods so very special, is that they do not reside on some high mountaintop and judge us from far away; they need no pantheon because they are in the streets with us. They are even on the rooftops with us when jumping into destruction seems easier than walking the road of life set before us.
What makes our superheroes special is that they look into the face of tyrannical forces, forces fully capable of destroying them, and with a mighty heart utter a phrase which encapsulates the spirit of human fortitude – “I can do this all day.”
And we can.
In the first act of Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker takes nineteen steps toward the desolate horizon emblazoned by a binary sunset.
The audience, ushered forward by John Williams’ score, sees a longing in Luke that the more elderly viewer knows is afforded to only the very young. As time passes in our lives, the reality of the mundane world chips away at our sense of the miraculous. Time is corrosive to both the body and the soul, through that corrosion our experiences re-shape us. With experience comes wisdom, and sadly, wisdom oft times replaces wonder.
Wisdom is important though, it is the timeless teacher which keeps us from making the same mistakes we stole away with as children. Wisdom is the sword of the mind. It guards us against those who might seek to treat us like sheep and shear us…or slaughter us.
But wonder, oh wonder – that burning belief inside the tender heart which roots itself in the fantasies and magic of tremendous and far away places. Places that can only be reached by bridges of great and indeterminable working. Workings that transform wardrobes into doorways and turn mirrors into silver windows. They take us to realms where an orphan slave can become a messiah. Where a farmer boy can become an incorruptible redeemer. Where a princess can become a capable freedom-fighter. And where a mercenary can become a Captain of the Guard.
And that farmer boy, the son of a prodigal father. The father, who had the power to bring an entire galaxy in harmony, wasted it all on his own vainglory.
For Anakin Skywalker, whose tale is a cautionary yarn of the corrupting influence of power, nothing proved more powerful than the love of a son.
A boy he’d never met named Luke.
And while it may seem silly to emotionally wax over Star Wars at the age of 31, I cannot help but still be moved by this singular notion – That no matter who our fathers are, no matter how all their flaws come to light as we age, there will always be a yearning to see them as we did when we were young.
As good men.
This feeling bubbles up inside of me every single time I watch Star Wars: Return of the Jedi- When Luke surrenders himself over to the very person standing in the way of his own personal triumph (becoming a Jedi Knight), the patriarch who has murdered millions (including Luke’s foster parents), and maimed Luke by cutting off his hand; Luke still works toward his father’s salvation.
Through all the bad Darth Vader put upon the galaxy, not a single person living among the stars of that universe would feel poorly for Darth Vader’s life to end in a horrifically painful fashion. But to Luke, Vader is worth the pain of salvation.
To everyone else the Dark Lord of the Sith is the scourge of the galaxy. But to Luke, he is a conflicted and broken man who can be redeemed.
To everyone else Darth Vader is a monster. To Luke Skywalker, he is a father.
And it is true that the sons of monsters need not be monsters themselves.
And it is in that moment, Luke manacled and helpless without his one tool of protection, looks to his father – that black knight of death and destruction; Luke this time takes two steps not nineteen, turns with that same youthful hope in his eyes and says, “Come with me.”
Because no one else matters to me but you.
Because I’ll love you no matter what you’ve done.
Because I’m incorruptible.
Because I’m your son.
Everyone goes away.
In our lives we are forced to deal with death. Death – when the strings of a human instrument are cut loose, and all the music from that glorious vessel suddenly ceases to harmonize with our own melody. And for the rest of our lives we think on how sweet the lifesong with those long since passed players used to be. So the rapturous joy we once knew sours to ashes, and eventually the warm, golden light of memory mercifully seasons our sorrows into a palpable bitter-sweetness.
Death steals the spark of life, but it can never snuff out the fires the spark set alight while it burned brightly. Our lives may end, but the effect our life has on others, that is something that can endure long after we are less than dust.
Death is natural.
We understand it.
We walk hand in hand with it as an eventuality, though brooding and terrible it may be.
But there is a more terrible calamity than death and its name is abandonment.
Abandonment is the monstrous brother of death.
Death is a circumstance – Coming sometimes in the form of the midnight robber and other times in the guise of a metaphysical tax collector.
Abandonment is a choice – a mask of conscious delinquency that we choose to wear when love appears all too exhausting.
Do you struggle with the thought of people leaving you?
I know I do.
Every since my heroic, and beautifully hospitable Uncle Sonny died in 1993, I started coping with death and the emotional poverty it inflicts. When Sonny died I saw how it destroyed my mother, casting her into a depression that still has the ability to diminish her today.
When she talks about him now, over twenty years later, the wound still seems fresh.
I saw how his death wounded my Grandparents, Nanny Joy and Pa Lee. Nanny would talk to me about it sometimes while she sat on her enclosed porch while smoking a cigarette. This warm woman of incredible mirth would cast her eyes in some strange and distant fashion toward the ever lowering waters of Lake Leon – the pain of losing her son flowing out of her like an inexhaustible wellspring.
I saw how death changes people. I saw how it steals a portion of us away from ourselves when it robs us of those who help give us identity.
Human beings don’t have a choice in death. It’s why we do not hold dying against the dead.
We do, however have a choice in the effort we place in loving those around us. Which is why it hurts so very badly when the people we love choose not to love us in return. That’s why abandonment is one of the most powerful tragedies we can inflict on someone else.
And if I’m not being clear enough about how abandonment and death are different, let me use a visual aide on what abandonment looks like.
I could have shown you the vast garbage mountains in India where first world nations have abandoned their care for their fellow man, and turned their home into a trash pile. I could have shown you the plains in Africa where a child with a swollen belly is dying of edema.
Instead, I wanted to show you that a parent chose booze over a child they created – a person abandoned love for the contents of a whiskey bottle. Because to them, their child stopped mattering more than the drink.
Human beings are their most cruel, not when they say “I hate you,” but rather when they say, “You don’t matter.” When we decide someone is irrelevant.
Irrelevant. What a horrific adjective when applied to the noun: human.
And it’s that arsenal of weapons, the weapons of dereliction that I am most afraid of. I’m afraid that people, no matter how hard and valiantly I try to love them, won’t love me back.
Not because I’ve wronged them, but because I’m irrelevant.
As human beings we need to matter. Belong.
We need to know that someone is waiting on us. Hoping to commune with us soon.
That there is a community with a hole cut into its fabric that is in our shape, and that only our unique form can fill it.
But when we tell someone that they don’t belong, we impose exile.
We wound them with the the knives of detachment.
We uncouple them from the connection that helps give them shape and purpose.
We neglect them.
We stop loving them.
And that’s where this infirmity of mine is chiefly rooted, because I feel loneliness and abandonment very deeply. It may have something to do with being the son of an alcoholic or having a clarity in solitude that I can’t find in the company of others most times. I am so afraid that if I’m not throwing my full affection at others they’ll forget about me. I worry that that the novelty of me will fade, and I’ll just be another mundane face in the crowd of faces my friend used to so dearly enjoy the company of.
A faded echo of a friendship.
Or that like the picture above, I’m afraid they’ll pick something else over me. Or worse, someone else, because I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t matter enough.
I know this is the part of the essay where I am supposed to make the hard right turn and bring you back into the fold of assurance. I’m supposed to tell you that no matter the height, or width, or depth of our troubles and anxieties, nothing can separate us from the love of God. That there are communities out there for us to fetter ourselves to, and find our deep purpose there and discover relationships which will keep abandonment in his cage.
The problem with that notion is this – everyone has a key to the monsters cage.
Abandonment is the nuclear option for human relationships and all of us have the capacity to push the button and rend a conflagration of hurt so tremendous that the emotional landscape might never harbor love again.
With that in mind, I suppose, I can only say that I’m going to love you, and that so long it is my power – I’ll show you that you matter. I show you that you mean something to me. I’ll try to remove my armor of vainglory. I won’t drink a poison of loneliness. And I won’t raise the weapons of dereliction on you.
Because you’re worth it.
This is Brad Ellison –
Yeah. Drink up all that ferocity for a minute.
Don’t worry if you feel like he’s kicking your courage in the teeth, it’s okay, that’s the normal mammalian reaction to such a predatory visage.
Take comfort in this, dear friends: The first time I met Brad was at the Karaoke meet and greet that the Freshman of Hardin-Simmons University are asked to attend during their orientation week on campus. And I know what your thinking, a man such as this must have stood above all others, wearing a crown stitched together by the foreskins of weaker men, and demanded that we all bow before him and collectively sing mighty rock anthems of the 1980s. I can see how you’d think that when you look at that picture. Hell, I’ve known the man for over ten years, and when I see that picture even I get a little nervous, like he might show up at my house and demand that we machete fight to the death while naked and covered in the war-woad of our fathers.
Those things did not and have not happened (YET!) , no the first time I met Brad Ellison he approached me while wearing black cargo pants, a Led Zeppelin t-shirt all slathered in a leather trench coat, and said, “Hey, you wanna do this thing?”
My first reaction was to ball up my fists and get ready to rock and roll with this mountain of tremendous flesh in a brawl that would have brought down the walls of Valhalla itself. But then I realized that he was actually asking me if I wanted to sing a song with him. I smiled, nodded, and chose the song which would cement our friendship for the rest of time.
I picked, The Great Pretender by The Platters –
Because that’s how I (lamely) roll.
Four months would pass before we’d see each other again, when we were introduced to each other again by our mutual friend Will Clapp.
Over the next three years we build a friendship which helped him survive loneliness and me conquer my bigotry, racism, fundamentalist ideology. It is easy to say that I would not be the man I am today without the calm and taciturn nature Brad ushered into my life. I was an untempered piece of iron that Brad Ellison helped (along with others) to forge into something sharper, something more beautiful, and something more useful to the world around me.
Brad Ellison, and I say this with no hyperbole, is the single, shining reason that I became a capable writer. Upon reading an incredibly bad Batman short story that I wrote, Brad looked at me and said, “I don’t even know what’s going on here. I mean, Seth, you know I love you, but I’m not even sure if this is American English that I’m reading.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen is how Brad Ellison elicits care to the people he loves. An unbridled honesty that cuts right through all the games ‘friends’ play with each other. He could see that at the root of me I was a storyteller, but that I had no freaking clue what the parts of speech were, how to put them together, and fuse together a narrative that engaged a reader. It was on that day that Brad clapped his gigantic hand on my shoulder and vowed that if I was willing to do the hard work it was going to take, he’d teach me.
I told him that no one outworks me.
He said, “We’ll see.”
Over the next four years he put me on a rigorous reading regimen: Les Misérables, Musashi, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Shining, Always Out Numbered, Always Out gunned, those were the first five novels and short story collection that I ever read. And upon doing a tally of all the works he required me to read, I have counted seventy-one novels, forty-eight short stories, and seven collected anthologies which I took into my brain. All of this was tacked onto me settling into a two-thousand word a night writing routine that I’d email to him every single day for the first year of our student/teacher relationship.
I won’t lie to you, those first few years I was terrible. I was an adjective addict. Tenses punched me in the face. And the gerunds, my Lord the gerunds.
But slowly, with each plodding step forward this mind of mine began to transform into something sharper.
Through Brad Ellison’s patient tutoring I went from being someone who lies on paper to someone who fills empty, white pages with stories that move people.
Without him, I wouldn’t be a published author. He was there through all the doubts, reminding me every so often that I once said, “Brad, no one outworks me.”
Above all his wonderful qualities, the best and most endearing aspect of my friend is that he believed in me.
I’ve suffered his best right cross. And he is the only person to stuff my single-leg wrestling take down that I’ve used to take men bigger than him to the ground. We’ve wrestled with one another physically, emotionally, and intellectually; and we’ve both come out stronger men for it.
The Reverend Kevin Sinclair is Sir Bedivere.
Brad Ellison is Sir Gawain.
A man, such as I am, has been afforded friends of the highest caliber and none can say that they are higher than my friend and chosen brother, Brad Ellison.
I was the best man in his wedding, and he is one who makes the world a stranger and more miraculous place. He is my favorite author, and you can buy his fantastic short story, The Devil’s Right Hand here. It’s worth every penny.