On Binary Sunsets

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.

A Multitude of Infirmties, Part IV: The Aimless Journey

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.

A Captain Indomitable: On the Importance of Heroes

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.”
or
“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.

spider-man

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.

To strive.
To seek.
To find.
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:

CaptainAmerica

 

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.

supermanrooftop

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.

Captain2