Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Turtle and the Snake

I recently made a presentation on teaching at a professional conference in Austin, Tex. My wife went along, since she has three brothers living in the area and she was able to spend a lot of time with them. I had some time one of the days of the conference, so I went to lunch with them and did a tour of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Park. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place, perfectly laid out with wall-to-wall flowers and butterflies. We got a bonus that most visitors to the park don’t get. We saw a great drama unfold before our eyes as soon as we entered the place. A nice-sized and brightly colored ribbon snake was writhing desperately in a little wetlands pond. At first we thought the creature was tangled in the lilies; after thinking about it awhile, a snake getting tangled up in anything didn’t make much sense. Then, as the struggle intensified, we noticed that a big turtle had that snake by the end of the tail. The only strategy the snake had was to wiggle and squirm and thrash, vainly attempting to swim away from the predator. The turtle’s only strategy was to hang on until something came loose. And something did indeed come loose: about four inches of the ribbon snake’s tail. The beautiful but slightly diminished snake then shot down amongst some brush in the edge of the pond, out of sight to turtle and human alike. A moral to that little episode occurred to me as we walked through the park. All of us get caught in terrible situations from time to time and all of us exert great effort to escape. When the turtles of our lives have us by the tail, we struggle, writhe, thrash about and try everything we know to escape or otherwise solve the problem. And it has been my experience that with every struggle, we leave a little bit of ourselves behind. What the snake left was a piece of itself that would supposedly regenerate. He might miss a bit of his physical makeup for a day or two, but nature has it worked out that he will be whole again in not too long. In our bouts with difficulties, we must gain the confidence that though we have a lot of ourselves invested into the struggle, and though we will hurt awhile after the problem, we, too can regenerate. Time is a great healer and, as they say, if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger. I have heard many people say they learn from mistakes and problems and grow from them. A life without difficulties would be dull and static. To be human means to be resilient. Psalm 34: 19 (NIV) “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” As to that turtle, I guess we can learn from him, too. You may not win the whole prize, but hang on; at least you will get a little something out of the struggle if you are tenacious.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Perfect Freedom

There are several versions of Aesop’s fable of the hound and the wolf. Different cultures tell it in different ways, but it is basically the same fascinating tale. I wanted to tell a version of it here from memory because it has such an interesting and thought-provoking moral to it, one that we do well to visit from time to time, especially in uncertain economic times such as these. Now, I’m sure it will surprise you that I may have embellished the tale a bit and put a Dan spin on it, but it is essentially Aesop’s story: A lame and patchy old wolf, so hungry that his belly button was rubbing a blister on his backbone, came to an opening in the forest where he saw some light and evidence of human habitation. As he approached the clearing thinking he might find a scrap of garbage to eat, he saw a nice, sleek, well-nourished hound relaxing in the yard. “Hey, you,” said the wolf, (This, of course, was back when animals could talk) “how do you stay so fat. I’ve been hunting for something to eat all day and there is not a rabbit stirring anywhere in the forest.” “Oh, hello,” the hound replied, “I don’t have to hunt for my food. The humans in that house there bring me delicious victuals twice, sometimes three times a day. I’m so full from the last feeding; I still have some left here in the dish. I’ll be happy to share with you if you’d care to come visit a spell.” The wolf began salivating at this and crept cautiously towards the obese canine until he stopped short in his tracks just as he had come into the light. The hound said, “Come on. It’s fine. Just come on into the light and join me here.” “What’s that on your neck that trails down and glistens in the light?” “Oh,” the hound replied, “That’s my chain. The humans keep me chained up back here. They don’t want me wandering around. They need me here as a watchdog.” “Good-bye,” said the wolf, as he crept hungrily back into the darkness of the forest. Aesop’s moral here is obviously that it’s better to be hungry and free than satisfied and chained up. Applying that moral to our own lives can be somewhat worrisome. Many of us don’t mind a few chains as long as they give us security. As we grow older and more civilized, we see ourselves increasingly chained to the societally dictated “good life.” People who break away from the norm are considered foolish at worst and eccentric at best. If we take our Christianity seriously, though, it is as if we chain ourselves to freedom, which is a good thing. There is a statement in the Book of Common Prayer that “His service is perfect freedom.” To some the words “service” and “freedom” seem contradictory. Only when we experience the freedom that comes from faith can we say that losing our lives is a way of finding them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Berkeley Bumpkin

I applied for a summer Humanities grant to study ethnographic documentaries and write a paper at The University of California at Berkeley in 1989. They were supposed to call me by a certain date and let me know whether or not my proposal had been accepted, but that date came and went and I got no call, so we started making other plans for the summer. But about a week after the notification date I got a letter informing me that my proposal had been accepted and that I should call the graduate assistant to get housing set up for my family and me. We were all shocked that my proposal was accepted, because it was a “reach” to be considered anthropology, the subject of the seminar. I proposed to research African influence on Southern preachers and to apply my results to a “sermon” depicted in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” But, for some reason, the committee liked the idea and I joined 11 other scholars from across the country for the summer. The grad assistant found us a hippy pad about a half block from People’s Park for a rental fee that blew our minds. When I mentioned that the rent seemed high, the reply was always, “This is California, Dr. Ford.” I wanted to say “duh” but I just tried to be a good statesman and replied, “sure enough?” Except I said, “sure nuff?” So, even before I arrived I had the reputation of a bumpkin, a sarcastic one. I liked the seminar a lot, though. There were a couple of other English professors in the group of 12, a film-maker or two, some genuine anthropologists, a historian from Puerto Rico and an education professor from Alaska. Thus, the discussions were lively and wide-ranging. We watched and discussed hours and hours of documentaries and tried to forge some conclusions about what it means to be alive on the planet. One of the film-makers from Northern California showed us a film she had recently produced about teen pregnancy. She was, of course, advocating the availability birth control devices in schools, which I found objectionable. I guess it showed on my face, because the director of the seminar called on me to respond. I further nailed down my reputation as a bumpkin by saying that there were other measures to reduce teen pregnancy that the film should at least acknowledge. The film-maker’s response was testy, “If you are talking about abstinence, Dan, you must remember, this is California, not Arkansas.” I felt duly rebuked; though I did point out that in 1989 Arkansas had a higher teen pregnancy rate than California. But that remark only gave her fuel for touting her somewhat narrow ideology. I didn’t want to argue, so I didn’t. It’s better to remain silent and be thought a bumpkin than to speak and remove all doubt. Anyway, while I was there, I wrote a paper and it was published in Southern Literary Journal and I established a friendship with the director that lasts until this day. We got out of there just after the Exxon spill and just before that bad old earthquake in July of 1989.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Metaphors be With You

Warner Sallman (1892-1968) was a Christian artist famous for several paintings including “Head of Christ,” “The Lord is My Shepherd,” “Christ at Heart’s Door,” and “Christ Our Pilot.” He grew up in Chicago and showed an early interest in and aptitude for art, especially religious art such as stained glass windows that told Bible stories. He graduated from the Chicago Art Institute and went to New York but didn’t take to the art scene there, so he returned to Chicago and enrolled in seminary. While there, one of his professors wanted to know what an artist was doing enrolled at such a school and Sallman explained that he wanted a deeper understanding of the Bible. The professor then uttered some life-changing words to the young artist. He said, Sallman, I hope that when you paint Christ that you won’t make him the soft in-doorsy portrayal we see so often, but that you will more accurately show him as a rugged outdoorsman he obviously was. So in all Sallman’s depictions, Jesus has a certain tenderness about him, but he is nonetheless rugged. I am fond of “The Lord is My Shepherd” because of the balance between this vigorous outdoorsman’s demeanor and his gentle look as he comforts the lamb in his arms. The painting literalizes the metaphor Jesus himself used to describe his compassion for people. Of course the Lord was never a shepherd but we find Sallman’s realistic painting of Him as such non-blameworthy because it does show an earnest compassion in the character of Christ that may not have been possible in more literal scenes from the Bible. A lot of people even in Jesus’ day took him literally when he spoke figuratively, didn’t they? The woman at the well wanted some of that water that would last forever, thinking Jesus was talking about real instead of spiritual drink. Even the highly educated Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus’ “You must be born again” statement, taking it literally to the absurd. And, you would think the disciples would “get it” when Jesus spoke metaphorically, but they often didn’t. At the well after Jesus had talked with the Samaritan woman, the disciples came up to him and wanted to bring him lunch. He replied that he had food to eat they knew not of, speaking of spiritual food, and they concluded that someone had given him a bite to eat. But it’s fine with me if Sallman wanted to make Jesus into a literal shepherd to express Our Lord’s caring nature. And, it’s fine with me if the artist painted Christ knocking on a literal door with an anticipatory look on his face to show eagerness to gain entrance into people’s hearts. Further, in “Christ, Our Pilot,” Sallman makes up his own parable, creating a scene of a man piloting a ship in a stormy sea with Christ behind him to protect and guide. Metaphors help us understand ideas, concepts and spiritual matters by showing the familiar to clarify the unfamiliar. Sallman certainly succeeded. Anytime I’m tempted to take the figurative language of scripture too literally, I hear resounding in my mind’s ear, “Metaphors be with you.”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Competing Cousins

My cousin Calvin lived three doors down from Charlie Murphy himself, that oil giant who founded Murphy Corporation, producer of all that gas Wal-Mart sells today. Calvin’s daddy, my uncle Otis, worked for the competition, Lion Oil Company, as a salesman and apparently did very well indeed. Calvin and his friends had swimming privileges in Charlie Murphy’s lovely, cool and well situated pool on top of the hill behind the Murphy mansion and we spent many a hot summer day there splashing around, getting our appetites up for Baby Ruths and Cherry Phosphates, our snacks of choice. My mother used to think kids needed plenty of sugar for energy. Calvin didn’t like our other cousin, Monroe very much. In fact, he avoided him as if he had cooties. I liked both cousins, but Monroe didn’t have a free luxurious swimming pool in his neighborhood, so I preferred to spend time with Calvin and that bothered Monroe. To be honest, Monroe was a bit overbearing. He bragged a lot and tried to make himself look superior to Calvin every chance he got, but ended up looking petty. He hated it when he called to invite me over to his house and I was up at Charlie Murphy’s swimming pool with Calvin. Monroe’s daddy, my mother’s brother, was a “keep-up-with-the-Joneses” kind of guy. If Uncle Otis bought Calvin a model train, next thing you knew, Monroe had one a little better, putting out real smoke and making the realistic noise of a locomotive. If Calvin received model airplanes for Christmas, Monroe got better ones for his birthday. When Calvin set up a tropical fish tank, Monroe’s dad helped him fill his room with an extravagant aquarium containing the most expensive and beautiful fish you can imagine. When Otis bought a boat with twin outboard motors, Monroe’ daddy bought an expensive speedboat. I tell all this to point out that I was stuck in the middle of this rampant and complex competition. I only had a sick gold fish and I only had one of those hornet airplanes with a rubber band you wind up and the rubber band was broken. I only had a Lionel train, the cheapest model on the market. And, I had a boat, a toy one I treasured, a little tin boat you put a birthday candle in to make a tin membrane vibrate for locomotion. It could really scoot. One summer afternoon I was playing with my little boat in a number two washtub when Monroe came by my house. He said somewhat snarly, “Why ain’t you swimming in the big pool?” I replied that I was enjoying playing with my boat. “How does that thing work,” he wanted to know. I showed him and he took it out of the tub and stomped it flat. So I guess he was jealous of expensive things as well as humble ones. After I retaliated physically and he went home unhappy, I called Calvin. “Are you going swimming today?” “Heading out. Come on over.” Thus I was drawn to wealth but not to greed and its ever-present ally, competition.