Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ecclesiastes: Eat, Drink, and be Merry? Is this "Bible?"

He was the wisest, richest, most admired and most powerful king Israel ever knew. His reign represented the high point of the Hebrew empire. Unlike his legendary father, the teen-aged giant killer who came from nothing to become Israel's first great king, Solomon started at the top, and went up from there. Entire books of scripture are attributed to him, and they range in subject matter from war and politics to child rearing and sex. Structures he built in Jerusalem are still standing today. His reputation for wisdom is of mythic proportions. It's hard to believe such a man ever really existed.

Until you open the "Book of the Preacher": Ecclesiastes. This is not the frightened young Solomon, newly crowned, asking God for the judgment to be a good king. Nor is it the handsome devil who won the Queen of Sheba's heart with a glance. This is a man who has done it all, seen it all, has it all, and finds it all to be meaningless. "Vanity of vanities," he mourns again and again, "all is vanity."

What do we accomplish with all our work? People are born and die. Seasons come and go. The sun rises and sets and nothing ever happens that hasn't happened a thousand times before. Nothing we do changes anything, and we will all be forgotten when we die. In the first of many chilling passages, Solomon grieves,
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered.
 All the wise king's pursuit of knowledge has taught him is that wisdom brings grief and knowledge increases sorrow. It changes nothing. It is meaningless. He calls it "grasping for the wind."

Adding to the vanity of life is the absence of justice. Good people suffer while evil ones thrive. Some live for pleasure, others for wisdom, but all end up in the same cold grave.

Next comes the strange hymn that many of my generation probably think was written by these guys.

In the jingle-jangle of 'Sixties Pop-Folk, the words seem sanguine as if to say, "it's a big world. There's room for everything, man. Things may have been bad, but they're going to get better." But in Solomon's mouth, the words lack the sweet smell of Patchouli and leather jackets. The preacher seems to hold up the absurdity of a life where everything is equal. We are born and we die. We plant and we pull up. We gain and lose, tear and sew, love and hate and there is a time for all of them. There is no virtue strong enough to eliminate the vice it mirrors. No peace lasting enough to prevent the next war. We work and strive and none of it makes a damn bit of difference.

And here the Preacher repeats a theme that will echo throughout the book.
Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.
A modern reader can't help but trip over the passage. Is this really "Bible" I'm reading? Do the scriptures really tell us to quit worrying and be happy? Enjoy life and stop banging your head against walls that you can't break? How many sermons have you heard preached on Ecclesiastes? Not many, I'll wager. There are some pretty radical ideas in here.
I said in my heart, "concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them that they may see that they themselves are like animals... Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity.
We want to know we are important. We want to be the center of the universe. We want to mean something. But here is Solomon telling us that our lives have no more meaning than an ox or a mosquito. He also savages what we contemporary folk might call our "Puritan work ethic."
Again, I saw that for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind... There is one alone without companion: He has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end to all his labors, Nor is his eye satisfied with riches. But he never asks, "For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?" This also is vanity and a grave misfortune.
 Then comes a strange little passage about something that is not meaningless at all: companionship.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. for if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls. for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Where can we find our treasure, then? In wages stored up after labor? In books we have written or the people who work for us or the "legacy" we build in a futile attempt to live on after we are dead? Vanity! Our one true pleasure comes from enjoying the company of the people we love, and who love us. There is no "meaning." There is only delight in the world God has made. Everything that exists is going to perish one day. There is no tomorrow. There is only today. At last, Solomon comes to a phrase that I have to confess I did not know came from the Bible.
So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor for all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun.
The first question and answer from the old Westminster Catechism was, "What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Solomon is much more terrestrial in his conclusion. He seems to be saying that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Creation for as long as we are allowed to be a part of it.

The meaning of life, it's purpose, our reason for being is Joy.

I could go on and on, but even in this, the wise old king has a warning.
Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.
It's just not that complicated...
Fear God, and keep His commandments, For this is man's all. For God will bring every work in to judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether Good or evil.
And how should we live?
It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage.
Joyful obedience. Grateful delight. A life dedicated to the pleasures that come from sharing God's creation with one another. That's why we're here. The rest? Riches? Glory? Status? Meaning?

... All is Vanity.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Home to the Mountains

I've been out of town for a couple of days, shooting commercials in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. God but I love them. It's been a rainy summer, and the Appalachians are just verdant. I don't know if I've ever seen such greens.

It's a very different experience than the Rockies. Among the giants of the west, I felt awe: such a sense of smallness. Standing atop the peaks of Colorado, you are struck by what a tiny, insignificant speck you are in the universe. Your troubles seem to fade in comparison to the indescribable scale of a world where your eyes are not powerful enough to reach the horizon. There were times when I felt myself disappear in the Rockies, like a drop of water in the ocean.

The Kentucky mountains do not empty me. They fill me. Where the Rockies are jagged stone fingers pointing my eyes toward heaven, the Appalachians are round, soft breasts drawing my heart toward the earth.

We awoke each morning to fog that would make a claustrophobic whimper. The dew-kissed black top rolled under our vehicles as oncoming headlights glowed toward us in the opposite lane. The hollows seemed reluctant to waken, keeping their covers pulled up tight to prevent the morning light from poking in and interrupting the night's final dream.

We crossed over the dam that holds back Paintsville Lake and parked our cars in the brightening mist. Mountain Homeplace is a working farm, run as much as possible like it was when David Mackenzie and his family built it in 1860. You step over the split rail fence and cross into a world of unpainted log buildings and old wooden gates held closed with grass string. Later, guides dressed in authentic homespun will walk the grounds, sharing the history of the place with the visitors who happen by. At this early hour though, we are welcomed by the scolding goats who expect the first humans in the morning to bring breakfast, not cameras and make-up cases.

While the crew set up for the day's first shot, I wandered from pen to pen, greeting the neighbors. In the goat pen, a pair of kids butted their mothers insistently till the teat was offered, then the little ones sucked while the rest of the community eyed me suspiciously. A pair of tiny cows came to the fence curiously, and allowed me to scratch them between the ears till it became clear I had nothing more than friendship to offer. Nearby, but always out of reach, the sheep gathered close, one brave soul after another bawling out at me to either start serving some vittles or move along. Closer to the barn, a piggy couple were downright belligerent, huffing and snorting indignantly that I had interrupted their sleep for no better reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. Across the yard, the ladies in the hen house stirred nervously, and an unseen rooster crowed out a warning to anyone who might try to disturb his happy
harem. As I peeked into the barn, I was greeted by a little gray mother and her kitten. The cats bounded warily around my feet like folks who were used to avoiding being stepped on. And there at the back of the barn were Sunny and Ted, the only animals on the place who I ever heard being referred to by name. Sunny is a beautiful buff horse with a friendly, trusting nature and just enough of a glint in his eye to make you think he might find his way into some mischief from time to time. Ted is the undisputed king of the place. He magnificent: broad chested and black with shoulders and hips that ripple with muscle. He seems to be the animal they had in mind when they came up with the word "horsepower." Watching him chomping quietly on grass in the pasture, it's easy to imagine him in medieval dress with a knight astride his stout back. But here in the barn, he condescends to give me a nod and a nuzzle with his enormous head. I offer a scratch and a short massage in return. The lesser inhabitants made me feel like an intruder. Ted greets me like an honored guest.

Back up on the porch, I find an ancient, cane woven, ladder back chair and park myself on it to wait for the light and watch the curtain of morning burn away in the rising sun. Gently, the sides of the valley in which we are sheltered begin to appear, first in soft focus, then in greater relief as the daylight warms each leaf and dries the dew-soaked grass. A flock of pigeons circles from the roof of the barn to the side of the hill where the sheep are grazing. A few brave souls light in the hog lot where the pigs have left a few morsels of corn in their trough. The surly inhabitants usually indulge them, but now and then an angry snort will send a cloud of gray wings exploding up from the mud as the flock rises out of harm's way.

I wish I were enough of a naturalist to tell you about the music of the mountains: the millions of insect and bird voices that join together to create an Appalachian symphony that Aaron Copeland could not even dream of. This isn't just background music, it is the heartbeat of the hollows and it fills every lonely corner of your soul with something so holy that no human artist could ever hope to imitate it. It is the rhythm of life. It is the song of Creation. There under the cedar shake porch roof, I breath it in, smiling without meaning to. Feeling welcomed into a place I've never been, and where I couldn't survive on my own for more than a week, I am filled with silent prayers of thanksgiving, even as the  among the actors and crew turns toward the tasks at hand, and the work of the day begins.

Shooting commercials is easy for an actor. You only have to learn a few sentences of dialogue, and the shots are short and quick. The crew's job is to sweat the details. Your job is to hit your marks, say your words, and tell the truth. Most of this group has worked together before, so the mood is easy. We trust one another and joke between takes. What could be a day of tedium is actually several hours of down-right fun. It's almost embarrassing to call it work, especially when the people whose job it is to keep the farm running are around. But they are friendly and hospitable. We aren't the first bunch of Lexingtonians to make our way down the Mountain Parkway to interrupt their day, and we enjoy one another's company like new neighbors. Stories are shared. Lies are told. We all admire the way Ted's ebony sides glow in the sunshine and we all groan and cuss when the wind changes and blows the aroma of the hog yard in our direction.

The final shot on the last day was in the church-house where Kentuckians have been worshiping for 150 years. The pews are old and hard, roughly crafted from the same trees as the barn and the well head. The log walls are clad with white painted wainscot, and the light ripples through the ancient glass of the sash pane windows. We work with the same joy and fun as we did in the barnyard, but there is a kind of gentle reverence to our presence here. Yes, our mission is more profane than sacred, and no, I don't imagine that many of the pastors who have presided here would approve, but I can't help but notice that most of the fellows have instinctively removed their hats at the door. As father of the "bride" in this scene, I am seated in the front pew, and next to me is a beautiful lady who looks to have spent 80 or so winters in these mountains. She starts with a complaint about how long the shoot is taking, but soon we are chatting easily about her health and her life, and her pride in the place where we are gathered. The people who hate life in these mountains leave as soon as they can, by any means available. But the ones who love them stay and grow roots as thick and deep as any tree on the hillsides. She has raised and buried children and grandchildren, survived strokes, heart attacks, falls and storms. She is stronger than I will ever be, and when we part, I feel as if I have been in the presence of royalty. I suppose I have.

Back in Lexington, I feel a kind of sadness. I'm glad to be home. Close to the Y and the people I love. But sad, too. Sad that I couldn't share those beautiful moments with Martha. Sad that as a city boy, I will never really be at home in the mountains. Mum sent me a message this morning. "Back to reality." She's right, I guess. I'm back to the reality of  bills and debts and housekeeping and insurance payments. But there is also love here. Friends. The people who come to my exercise classes. The kids who run with me. The healing work that continues in my mind and soul. Reality isn't all bad.

But there is reality in the hollows, too. There is light that melts away darkness. There are fences to maintain and lives to honor and care for. And always there is the land, the rich earth that covers the mountains and feeds every living thing in them. The Appalachians are the breasts of God. They feed me and inspire me like no other place in this beautiful world. One of our actors, a beautiful young woman whom I've had the joy of watching grow up for most of her life, was leaving the shoot to board a train to move to New York City. She is following the dream that so many of us have followed. Talking with her, sharing her excitement and nervous anticipation, I remembered my own move to "The City," many years ago. When we parted, I kissed her forehead and blessed her, and before I left, I gave her my only advice.

"Hold this day in your heart. This is a special place. Sometime, you're going to need it."

I hope she has the sense to listen to a foolish old man. Days in the mountains are worth holding onto.

I know I'm sure going to try to hold onto mine.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Healing Begins at Home

"Arthur" ~ Steven D. Fleshman

Lonely. That's what I'm feeling these days. I am almost always by myself, and I find I am not very good company. And that is a problem.

For as long as I can remember, I have brought home trophies. "I'm singing a solo." "I won an award!" "I got the part!" "I kissed a girl."

I have carried these things home to parents, lovers, friends. "Look!" my heart was saying. "Look what these strangers think of me!" Why did they matter so much to me?

Because I believed they were wrong. Where they saw talent, intelligence, strength, and compassion, I saw only luck, fear, and selfishness. I crafted myself like an essayist, working every day to guide the reader in the direction I wanted them to go. See how funny I am. Look at how much I know. Laugh at me. Learn from me. Admire me. But for God's sake, don't look too close. 

Don't see how afraid I am to get out of bed some mornings, knowing that sooner or later, you're going to discover that I'm faking it.

Don't see the hours it takes me to finish reading a paragraph or memorize a scene because my mind just can't hold onto words.

Don't hear my sobs of self pity for the choices I've made and the consequences I never thought through.

Please turn out the light so you don't notice that after all this running and writing and dieting, I'm still ashamed of how I look naked. 

Please pretend with me that the judges and the bosses and the audiences and the reviewers are right and I am wrong. Love whatever you imagine is lovable about me, but please, God, please don't look close enough to see all the things that are not.

All these years, trying to prove something I didn't really believe. Trying to build an image of the man I wished I was. Longing to be loved for being someone I knew didn't exist. I became convinced that every failed relationship, every lost job, every faded friendship was because of a hole in the wall I had built around myself. Sooner or later, if they looked closely enough, they would see the things that were wrong with me, and they would hate them as much as I did. And they would hate me.

And now I am lonely.

A few days ago, someone posted something on Facebook that really rattled me.

Do I want my marriage back? I'm not sure. Do I want someone else? I can't tell. But out of the fog of my loneliness, something is becoming more and more clear. The relationship that needs healing the most is the one I have with myself. 

Fifty-three years old, and I'm just now getting around to figuring out who the hell I am. 

I know the vices. I can recite them like a litany. But somewhere in me there are virtues, too. The facade I build didn't come from a vacuum. The man I wanted people to see was built out of the best parts of me. That's the man they loved and respected. But I couldn't believe in him because I had treated him like an artist's palette, picking each color carefully. I need to see him too. I need to nurture him.

I've been using my strength to hide my weakness. Using the judgments of others to contradict my own self blame. Using my pride to disguise my shame.

It's time to open my arms a little wider. God has more in mind for me than this.

I am lonely. But in my loneliness, there is an opportunity that I've never really had before. For maybe the first time, I have a chance to look at my whole self with open eyes. There is no one here to fool. No one to hurt. No one to impress. No one to lose. I have a chance to receive the thing I have tried and failed to earn... unconditional love. To lay myself all out on the table, good and bad, sins and graces, and wrap my arms around the whole package and say, "I love you, you big beautiful messy man." 

That's not going to happen today. Or tomorrow. But it has to happen. Because I long to touch someone again. But I've spent half a century building a wall to hide half a man from the people I want to love. And it's going to take a whole man to tear that wall down.

It's time to start making this man right. With himself.

This is going to be a lot harder than running a marathon.