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Only Jesus

This is a song by Casting Crowns, and it bothers me on a visceral level every time it comes on the radio. Yet, if I read the lyrics, there is nothing wrong with them. They are truthful. Mostly.

Make it count, leave a mark, build a name for yourself
Dream your dreams, chase your heart, above all else
Make a name the world remembers
But all an empty world can sell is empty dreams
I got lost in the lie that it was up to me
To make a name the world remembers
But Jesus is the only name to remember

[Chorus]
And I-I-I, I don’t want to leave a legacy
I don’t care if they remember me
Only Jesus
And I-I-I, I’ve only got one life to live
I’ll let every second point to Him
Only Jesus

[Verse 2]
All the kingdoms built, all the trophies won
Will crumble into dust when it’s said and done
‘Cause all that really matters
Did I live the truth to the ones I love?
Was my life the proof that there is only One
Whose name will last forever?

It’s this repeated line that subtly shifts the song into banality for me: And I-I-I, I don’t want to leave a legacy. It’s a predictable modern trope, a lie we’ve bought into, that human lives don’t matter. They don’t matter enough to reproduce. They don’t matter enough to build up wealth or property for. We’ve sunk into austerity measures, down-sized, and decreased our “footprints” on this earth. The Christian version of this lie contains a strange duality: humans don’t matter — only Jesus matters. But Jesus was God in the form of a man who sacrificed himself for other men. Why did he die for us if we don’t matter? Surely, his sacrifice wasn’t merely for himself.

It’s a conundrum. But it doesn’t have to be, if we understand how valuable a human legacy can be. We all leave legacies behind us; it’s inevitable unless we’re living on an isolated mountain and doing nothing but surviving. Still, that’s a legacy, isn’t it? Leaving nothing for the future and breaking the chain of descent our parents and grandparents created is an empty type of legacy. Familial descendants of other branches will speak about it, but probably not in a good way.

In contrast to an empty legacy, a broken chain, is a bad legacy. This is the one in which the sins of the fathers are passed down throughout the generations because the children don’t have the wherewithal to step out of the pattern of alcoholism, abuse, poverty, or crime. It’s what they know; it’s the easiest route. And it hurts many, many people unless somebody is willing to make an effort and break the chain. Leaving an empty legacy, by contrast, takes a bit of effort and a steeling of the soul. It’s not that easy to leave family connections behind and survive without other humans. Scrooge is a classic literary example of an empty legacy…until the end of the story, in which he discovers that his life should matter. When he’s presented with the grave, his soul quails at what the spirit of the future is showing him: emptiness. He’s a forgotten man, except by those who despise him.

I talk about Scrooge a lot. I identify with him, I guess. He’s the spirit of nihilism and stinginess wrapped up in a human who doesn’t want to feel because feeling brings pain. Also, by contrast, leaving a positive legacy is the hardest road a man can take. Years ago, I wrote a series of stories about a LifeMap that would highlight steps an individual could take toward their future. There were three paths: the path of least resistance, the middle road, and the high road. A correlation could be made with these three types of legacies: the path of least resistance is the negative legacy; the middle path is the empty, broken legacy; and the arduous road is the positive legacy. There is no exact correlation, obviously. Sometimes, it’s hard work to have children and maintain an impoverished state. Some people work very, very hard at doing all the wrong things in life.

A positive legacy is always going to be difficult, though. This is the one in which people are actively engaged in raising honest children and building up wealth and/or property to pass on to them. For Christians, this would mean also passing on the legacy of the gospel to their children, as well as to those they interact with. When the Bible talks about the wealth of the righteous man, it’s clear by biblical/historical example that it means both worldly wealth and the wealth inherent in the Kingdom of God. I know some will protest at this because there are many missionaries who’ve given up all their worldly possessions to pass on the gospel — also, obviously, not all Christians are wealthy. Some are impoverished due to circumstances outside their control. And don’t forget the words of Jesus, that it’s very, very difficult for a rich man to inherit the most important wealth, the Kingdom of God.

The problem is there is no either/or. Both the poverty gospel and the prosperity gospel are true. We don’t have ultimate control of outcomes, however. We only have control over what we do with the assets and talents that God has given us. He wants us to work hard and strive for greatness. He is not a mediocre God; he spews the lukewarm from his mouth. He chastises those who bury their talents instead of investing them. We will be judged by our actions and by how we raise the next generation. When we encourage our children to win trophies, it’s because we understand that hard work and “running the race before us” is vital to the soul. That trophy is an image of the spiritual life, as well as an object that our children can be proud of and pass on to their children and say, “See? Look at what we can achieve when we work hard!”

I absolutely do want to leave a legacy. That’s what my life’s work is — raising children and investing in property and creating products that can be sold. My life’s work is also passing on the name of Jesus to others. That’s why this song bugs me; it deflates me when I’m trying to keep my energy up. It’s one of those songs that’s almost true, but not quite. It would be a lot easier to follow the advice of the song than to do what I’m doing. Honestly.

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Jared and Jerusha Hess

They’re weird and funny filmmakers. Together, this husband and wife team pulls together the craziest tales with the best actors. I relate to their films. In my fantasy world, I collaborate with them to turn The Minaverse into a hilarious screenplay, complete with funky visual comedy and sympathetic characters. And my chosen actor for Oso would be one they’ve cast repeatedly in their films (lucky): Jemaine Clement. This is, as I said, my fantasy. Another one is to actually have an audience who appreciates my book. But that’s another subject altogether.

From Napoleon Dynamite to Austenland, their weirdness knows no bounds except in the realm of morality. Yes, that’s right. They’re what writer Daniel Eness used to call the good weird. Their weirdness doesn’t rely on nakedness or gross sexuality such as incest, or whatever the current literary “exploration” is these days that wins kudos and awards from the hot-air establishment of films and books. I suppose this is because they’re Mormon by way of religion. I’ve long wondered why certain religious groups encourage a flourishing art community and others don’t; in the case of Mormons, they are generally an intact and monetarily well-off culture, which lends them the freedom to be creative. That’s my best guess, anyway.

Last weekend, I watched Austenland for the first time, which was Jerusha Hess’s directorial project. While it’s ultimately a standard romance plot, the concept of a Jane Austen theme park is bizarre, and it gets points for casting Jennifer Coolidge in a supporting comedic role as a modern-day Mrs. Malaprop. Coolidge plays the role perfectly. But it’s not just that. Jane Austen’s writing was inspired by the comedies of her day, which included plays like The Rivals (Mrs. Malaprop’s origin). The inclusion of a Malaprop character demonstrates the kind of intelligence found in Hess films; this film wasn’t just written by a fan of Mr. Darcy, but by people who understand the life and times of Austen. Before this starts sounding too much like an undergraduate essay, I’m going to cut it short. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film showed up in Jane Austen survey classes for undergrads to analyze. If I taught JA, I’d play it just so I could snigger at Coolidge before I had to listen to the students’ serious interpretations. This is, by the way, why I don’t teach. I don’t take life seriously enough. Because it’s weird. And there are people in the world who would go to a JA theme park. Just like in the film. People are weird, and this movie made me laugh.

Next up: I’m going to write a review of another great Hess film, Don Verdean.

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The Bookstore Adventure Memoir

After a particularly bad bout of insomnia, I’m rising up again to wax poetic about bookstores. If you live in a large city, you might not notice the complete dearth of bookstores in many towns across America. Large cities will always cling longer, catering to the hangers-on of niche stuff, the cult-followings.

In places like New Mexico, you will find veritable book wastelands. This is, I suppose, why I was an early ebook user. I could buy books, cheap books, and have them delivered instantly to my reading device. No travel required. No insanely slow media-shipping required. Books! Books! Books! Don’t think about it: just feed the addiction for knowledge! Knowledge! Knowledge!

But sometimes, dammit, I want to visit an actual bookstore, a physical place where I can browse stacks of unruly books. My patience with Roswell, where I’m stuck living for the time being, wears thin. We have no bookstore. The culture here doesn’t support a bookstore. There used to be a Hastings that sold skateboards and coffee, as well as renting videos, but now even that has disappeared with a whisper to the grassland, deserty wind. The smell on the wind here is cattle, not literature. And furthermore, education and book knowledge is not heavily valued in New Mexico, hence our status at the bottom of the states for our school system. Government bureaucrats will tell you this is from a lack of funding, but throwing money into education when nobody cares about it has never been proven to work yet. Rather, they get more after-school programs and food programs. In some areas, they have to continue the school breakfast and lunch programs throughout the summer because kids weren’t getting fed once school was out. That’s a different subject, but it does demonstrate that monetary funding doesn’t inspire people to care, even about fundamentals like feeding their kids, let alone encouraging their kids’ education.

Deep breath. I digress. I love New Mexico. Spaniards used to be big on education, as Catholic culture has historically been big on education. But that’s the same for Anglos — they used to care. They still do, in some areas of the country. New Mexico isn’t one of them. And Roswell, at heart a ranching and farming community, has no pretentions about being high culture.* This regularly frustrates me because the nearest big city in any direction is three hours away. That means the nearest Barnes & Noble’s is three hours away.

Last Sunday, with a desire to get out under the blue skies and hike, we drove to Cloudcroft, a mountain town sitting at 9000 feet elevation. Our plans were quickly derailed, not by the expected cold of the high elevation in February, but by icy, gusty winds. The cold is bearable in New Mexico because the sun is almost perpetually shining, but the winds of late winter and early spring are biting, to say the least. Instead, we ran in the nearest shop, where we bought lukewarm beverages (some coffee shops think 120 degrees is normal) and wandered up a set of twisty stairs because a sign informed us the bookstore was open.

Bookstore! Small, two rooms, piled with books. At the entrance, there were a number of photographs with the proprietor and George R R Martin. How did we know it was the proprietor? The old white-bearded man was glaring at us from behind the glass case that housed collectible books. In fact, most of the shop was filled with collectible books: old Edgar Rice Burroughs and Raymond Chandler with original dust jackets. This place was a treasure house. I was like a kid in a candy store; I wanted to buy everything. There was just one problem. He only took cash, no credit, debit, or checks. And he was not interested in conversation. Or sales, it seemed. This was his domain, a domain of books high up in the mountains. He was the archetypal Mountain Man.

I was disappointed, to say the least, because I had no cash. None of us did. And it got me thinking about everything I’d always wanted in life: this minus the beard and photos with George R R Martin. No need to sale — not even a desire for it, but a space of my own surrounded by unruly books, where I could glare at the world. And then cackle gleefully when the people of the world were unable to buy my coveted collectibles

But before I could express this sentiment, my husband chuckled a little and said he thought I should have a shop like that upon retirement, a place for me, his misanthropic wife. At least he understands me.

*New Mexico has a thriving art community, and Roswell isn’t exempt. For a town lacking almost everything, there are two very high quality art museums. Artists are attracted to the light and landscapes here. There’s really no place like New Mexico.

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On Human Suffering

Much of what we do in this world is meant to eradicate our own suffering. All humans are like trapped and wounded animals at some point, even those who’ve cultivated an image of polish and success or fortitude. It’s impossible to avoid pain. Physical, emotional, mental: one of these, maybe all of these, will eventually find us.

While some are content to wallow in it alone, far too many will cause others pain in order to avoid their own. They’ll step on others, steal from them, bear false witness against them, and in more extreme cases, take others’ lives. They do this out of primitive or base self-preservation, or perhaps because of deep envy that doesn’t allow for the empathetic understanding that the beautiful person or the wealthy person actually feels very deep pain, too.

I began thinking of this last week when I was suffering. I was suffering from a lack of sleep and a church-wide Daniel fast I was taking part in. I engaged in the fast willingly (brought on my own pain, in other words); it just happens that my digestion can’t handle a vegan diet. My digestion can’t handle much of anything, I’ve learned throughout my life. By the end of the fast, my whole body was on fire with inflammation, achy joints, and intestinal distress. And I was exhausted from chronic lifelong insomnia and digestive pain, and begging God to take it away, just as I’d been doing from childhood. God has not done this. Instead, he’s sustained me through it and given my insight into human suffering. I know my suffering isn’t as bad as so many others’, and in fact, it’s the way I’ve lived my life and is, therefore, the only normal I know. I hate to admit that I’m suffering at all, but that is a stupid egotistical stance that causes stinginess toward my fellow humans. More on that in a minute.

In my determination to take control back from where I’d let my mind slip, I put suffering out of my head and took care of business. Some people binge eat for comfort; I forget to eat in my quest to accomplish, accomplish, accomplish! That’s my crack. And then this morning, I found myself watching a speech by a man with Down syndrome, John Franklin Stephens, who spoke of how much he valued his life. To be honest, I started crying. And my “deep thoughts” of human suffering worked their way to the fore again. They had to be thought through instead of avoided in the same way that suffering itself can’t be avoided.

Stephens’ speech was given to the United Nations, and it was an appeal to consider people like him as humans and not disorders. Consequently, the video has been making its rounds through the pro-life internet. See, his message is very relevant to the issue of abortion because abortion is ultimately a response to human suffering. Women who have abortions want to avoid their own suffering, and they want to avoid giving birth to babies who suffer. They are very much like a trapped and wounded and animal, who would chew their own foot off and make-believe this will ease their pain — because at the moment of their pregnancy diagnosis they don’t see their baby as a baby, but a condition. And if the baby has its own condition, that’s what they see. They see suffering and not humanity, and their primary goal is to end this suffering by any means possible.

As a Christian, what is, or what should my response to suffering be? This is perhaps the most crucial of all questions. While I was going through that Daniel fast and suffering from pain and chronic insomnia, we had prayer meetings at church, in which the pastor specifically prayed over people with insomnia (he doesn’t know me at all, so he had no idea then and still doesn’t know this is my biggest struggle). My insomnia didn’t abate, but others’ did, and it was hard — I mean, really hard to listen to their testimonies without feeling that God had forgotten about me. There are many Protestant sects that instill in their congregants the idea that if God doesn’t heal them, it’s because their faith is lacking. This might be unwitting, as in, not the actual doctrine, but to people who are suffering, listening to others talk about their miraculous faith healings is a thorny rose to cling to that is like the dog chewing off its own wounded foot. Focusing on having enough faith for our pain to disappear doesn’t help us through it. Catholicism doesn’t skirt the issue of suffering, and this is possibly why I find it attractive.* This is taken from The Divine Mercy, where there is also a link to the full apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II on human suffering, which this summarizes:

The Pope said that there are two basic attitudes that we should have toward human suffering. We should do what good we can for the suffering, and we should try to do what good we can with our own sufferings.

First, we should try to relieve the sufferings of others (and our own) as much as possible, with compassionate care. The Pope recalls for us the importance of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in this regard. But where our own crosses cannot be taken away, we can still offer them up, in union with the Cross of Jesus, for the good of others. United with His Cross, in the Holy Spirit, our sufferings can thereby become a source of blessings and graces for the Church and the world. The chronically ill and suffering are therefore not just to be objects of our pity: they have an important vocation in the Church.

That last part is very important: Those who are suffering have an important vocation in the church. But first we have to acknowledge suffering for what it is: an inevitable part of being human. Once we’re able to work through our own suffering — not avoid it or smother it with pleasure or feigned strength — we’ll be better equipped to allieve the suffering of others, even those we hardly recognize as suffering, such as women who are ready to abort their own offspring. Earlier, I said that my disavowal of my own suffering causes me to be stingy towards others. This is because it forces me to quantify how much suffering should actually be considered valid, rather than just accept that it is all valid. All humans are in need of compassion and help, including me. All humans are in need of the divine model of suffering, Jesus, to walk with them through their pain.

*It seems to fit with how hard it is to become Catholic in the first place. If frustration with the moving goal posts of confirmation is a type of suffering, the Catholic church sure knows how to dole it out. đŸ™‚

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Reader Burnout

I’ve often wondered how long this fad for quickly written pulp fiction will last before burnout occurs. While it’s true publishers in the early 20th C cranked out cheaply made books for the masses, they were working with a smaller pool of authors and didn’t, obviously, have ebook technology. Even the term “pulp” refers to the cheap paper they printed their books on. Pulp is a product from a different era, when poor people didn’t have expensive Netflix accounts to sate their thirst for entertainment. That’s the irony of our modern technology; the janitor at the local grocery store scrolls on an expensive smartphone on his break. Quite often an iPhone — which is out of my reach monetarily, and I’m not that poor. Just of a generation that doesn’t care. Or a member of the Apple-hating crowd. Snort. I’m kidding. But I still have an expensive phone I could waste a lot of good reading hours on.

Entertainment is everywhere, and much of it is free. Despite that, readers are readers and will always come back to books as their refuge. However, if they’re anything like me, they can’t keep up with the dizzying publishing schedules of their favorite authors. Not only can’t, but in my case, there’s a definite won’t in there. But my curmudgeonly spirit is meant in the most generous way. See, I don’t want to get burnt out on my favorite authors. I want to feel the joy of finally, finally obtaining the newest book in that series I love so much. I used to have a number of those series I waited for, and the new books in each rarely came out at the same time, which meant constantly having a coveted new read. Those were exciting and heady days for me as a reader.

Now the market is saturated with the ebook versions of pulp: books that are cheaply edited rather than cheaply printed. What’s more, these are mostly indie authors — millions of them, far too many of whom are cranking out books. This might be a current fad, but there’s no longevity in it. A saturated market is not good for individual sellers. In fact, the opposite (scarcity), while probably an equally bad marketing choice, psychologically tricks the buyers into thinking the product has a higher value than it actually does. Flooding the market overwhelms your audience as well as their precious bank accounts.

I’ve gone through burnout on some of my favorite living authors. I just can’t be compelled to buy into their latest series. It’s sad, but it’s the truth. I have a brain wired for change, new ideas and voices. So perhaps I’m at the extreme end of the intolerance spectrum for too much, too much, too much. Eventually, the rest of the readership will catch up to me. I’m positive; I actually think it’s already happening.

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