Art, heart, and mind

Last week our parish invited a special speaker to give talks about Art and the Christian faith. In one talk he went through various categories, calling out examples he liked as especially powerful and well done. I made notes of some names that were unfamiliar to me, to check out later. He also mention a movie I remembered hearing about a few years ago but had not seen.

Since it’s release in 2011, The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terence Malick, has slowly gained respect and kudos. It was not a great success at the time but since then has been voted onto lists of the “100 best films of all time” and “one thousand movies to see before you die.” It is not a plainly Christian film, but draws much from the viewpoint and structure of the book of Job in the Old Testament.

It begins with a quote of God’s response to Job:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4, 7)

The movie’s end is just as “disappointing” as Job. Malick resorts to a symbolic wrap-up that seems to indicate all is finally well with the broken and distraught characters in his story. But that very retreat to symbolism leaves the painful questions raised during the story unanswered, at least in the language in which the questions were posed. This may be why the film has come to be seen as “deep.” Critics can walk away, thinking, “Deep questions!” while ignoring a lack of answers provided for those questions because the vision is so beautiful. (The film got the Oscar for Best Cinematography and Malick won for Best Director.)

Bishop Robert Barron does an insightful film analysis that suggests the answer to all these questions is beyond us. Reaching for it is like Adam and Eve reaching for an ability to know Good and Evil apart from God’s direction, and thus having the Tree of Life put out of their reach. (Genesis 3:22-23)

Some of my irritation may be inherent in the necessarily required “change of language” that usually accompanies any foray into art. It is not typically the case that one can speak art’s language, much less understand what it is saying back, trying to use the language and templates of other disciplines. Meanings are expressed in new symbols. Art will seem obscure, if not pointless, if one doesn’t let it speak in its “native tongue.”

Melanie and I watched the extended “director’s version” of The Tree of Life which runs three hours. She got up to go do other things several times during the film and I thought she was bored with the glacial pace of the story. It was worse.

Regardless of the issue of learning a given artwork’s particular language, I think The Tree of Life has the same problem Stephen Spielberg faced when he went back to release an extended version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the original version of that sci-fi hit, we see Richard Dreyfuss happily being led on board the flying saucer to go visit the alien worlds. The end.

In the expanded version, Spielberg had the money to create more special effects and show us the inside of the flying saucer. Dreyfuss is all wide-eyed before they take off. It was not impressive or an improvement. The peek inside was not satisfying to viewer curiosity. By the end of the movie we wanted to know much more about these friendly little aliens than what the dashboard of their car looked like. And there was no way to satisfy that curiosity with pictures or dialogue or narration or anything the film format could provide for our minds to process.

As I pondered this, a Bible verse flashed into my mind that I had been misunderstanding for years without realizing it.

“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him….” (I Corinthians 2:9)

I had always taken that as a statement about the limits to what our natural minds could understand when it came to supernatural realities. Now I looked it up to see if that was all it said.

No! There was that reference to the heart as well as the mind! Paul was using a Jewish idiom not found in Isaiah 64:4, but which spoke of the human experience of perceiving information. He was saying there are things God has planned that we cannot comprehend with our intellects or our feelings.

Malick embodies those two viewpoint channels in the father and mother of the family in his movie. They are hurt, confused, troubled by the “normal” events of life unfolding around them. These things cannot be controlled by either knowledge or feelings. Their children (especially the oldest son) also get scarred along the way, collecting their own hurts and dissatisfactions. The only resolution, hinted vaguely at the end, is seeing the oldest son (now grown) dropping to his knees and kissing the bare feet of a figure who comes up to him in the surreal “after life” scene.

It is impossible, at the normal story-telling plot level, to be satisfied with this. In real life, Christians will end up with a transcendent level of understanding that is impossible, at present, for us to grasp. Tears and questions will fade away. But for the story-teller or movie-making artist now, there’s a problem. Nagging questions are still on the table.

As a story-telling problem, I think Sydney Pollack (director) and Judith Rascoe (screenwriter) found a better, more candid, resolution in the 1990 drama Havana. The film was not too successful. Still, I have found few as stunning as this one in dramatizing the distance of contrasting philosophical points of view and how they complicate things.

In the days just before Fidel Castro took over ruling the island of Cuba, a gambler comes to Havana simply looking for one last big poker game that would enable him to retire on his winnings. He crosses paths with a beautiful woman whose husband is participating in Castro’s effort to overthrow the Cuban dictator Batista.

The woman is an idealist intent of delivering her people from a corrupt ruler. (Ironic, I know. But let the story tellers go with it for the moment.) The gambler is a hard headed calculator of odds, looking for whatever winning edge will immediately benefit him. Dreamy ideals can’t be calculated. He has no interest in them. But the woman is beautiful. He can’t forget her even though he can’t understand what drives her.

The movies has several wonderful encounters between them where their philosophically mismatched views of “how life works” are explored. I have admired the script for years for the way their seemingly casual conversations deftly sketch these conflicts of viewpoints.

I have also been amused at the irony of seeing a conflict I know in Christian-vs.-secular debates played out here as an apologia for a deadly Communist revolution. I admire what Judith Rascoe accomplished in outlining such a philosophical contrast of viewpoints while suspecting she would be mortified to know I was rereading the socialist vision in terms of a spiritual one.

But the point I wanted to make by bringing up this film was how the film makers brought their conflict to a “satisfactory,” if melancholy, end. The Castro revolution has succeeded. One last time the woman meets with the gambler. She finally recognizes a huge risk and sacrifice he made to protect her. The gambler takes the final flight out of the island after realizing the woman he loves is determined to stay there with her revolutionary comrades.

In the final scene, three years later, he drives up to a beach in Key West. He looks out across the waters toward the island. He voices his hopes. And they are expressed in his old, odds-calculating way of thinking.

“It’s not that I expect her. But I watch the entrance. You never know whose gonna walk in.  Somebody blown off course…

“This is hurricane country.”

Strictly in story telling terms, satisfying the human head and heart and their questions, that gives back something in their own language. It’s not a bad artistic achievement, even if it bites off a bit less than an exposition from God on His plans for Creation.

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Baptism In the Holy Spirit

The other day a friend who was born within a few days of me wrote that he was giving thought to seeking the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” He was raised in the Roman Catholic church and now serves as part of a prayer team at his Episcopal Church.

I was raised in the Assemblies of God, a 20th century Pentecostal denomination. I grew up with the Charismatic Renewal that ecumenically reintroduced the Pentecostal experience to the Protestant and Catholic churches. I experienced the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” with speaking in tongues as a young man.

But I think it has taken my whole life to really understand it. Or understand it better. My friend and I have never discussed it. Now I offer my reflections.

I don’t remember anyone saying so in so many words, but I realize now that for years I understood “being filled with the Spirit” as a kind of power connection, one where I assumed I would stay mostly in control of my life. I often heard speakers at my churches tell stories of wonders, miracles, healing, and other answers to prayer. I became familiar with Jesus’ promise in John 14:14:

If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

It was easy to conclude that the point to a Holy Spirit driven life was to spread amazement that would reflect glory on God and the Bible. I did, in fact, see some remarkable healings when I prayed for people. But there were plenty of the people I prayed for who did not appear to have any change take place that they could notice. For me this was better than nothing. I had no trouble suspecting my own faith had to grow stronger for my track record to improve.

I was somewhat relieved to hear Fr. Frances MacNutt candidly report that when he and his wife, Judith, prayed for groups at their meetings and then when they asked for a show of hands, they regularly saw a response of something like 10% saying they could tell they were completely healed, another 80% or so would report “some” improvement or change, with the last 10% saying nothing had changed for them at all.

John Wimber adopted this step of asking for feedback after praying with people. This reassured me I was on the right track. I just had farther to go to reach the consistency Jesus saw when he prayed for people….

I was most conflicted if nothing seemed to happen when I prayed for the person I loved most (my wife). I seemed to get no answer to my prayers, at least not what I asked for. I began to ask others to pray for her rather than face further personal disappointment at my own “failure.”

John Wimber gave me a key. In his Five Steps of Prayer, he began with asking anyone approaching him for prayer, “What do you want Jesus to do for you?” There were certainly plenty of examples where Jesus began with that question. John Wimber made the obvious observation that this question took a lot of pressure away from us. We didn’t have to read minds or guess. We didn’t have to start by offending people with some kind of superiority judgment over them (“What did you expect? Didn’t you know you shouldn’t do that??”) Asking the question showed attention and respect. It also was a way of recognizing that I wasn’t in charge of the moment. I needed to learn something before I could go forward.

John’s next step directly expressed that fact and it actually shocked me the first time I heard it. John taught that after asking the person what they want, we should ask God what He wants! Doing that removes the last hint that I am in any kind of final control, no matter how “filled with the Spirit” I am. I am there to announce the promises and love of Jesus to the person. I am there to speak with faith in Our Father, Whom it is impossible to please apart from faith in Him, no matter if I have enough power in the Spirit to clang every cymbal in the world.

I recently got one more rivet in to fasten that insight into my brain.

Writing a commentary on the Gospel Of John, I was reviewing Chapter 17. I saw the request Jesus made there in verse 5.

Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”

Questions began rattling through my mind. When Jesus prayed for people to be healed, did he ever have to wait for it to happen? No. Over and over, the results were immediately seen. Did the glory Jesus had “before the world existed” belong to him? I would think so. It was his by right. He was asking the Father to return what belonged to him.

He didn’t get an answer to that prayer for at least three days. What was wrong?

I remembered something else Jesus said, something that stunned me when I first paid attention to it.

The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing… I can do nothing on my own.” (John 5:19, 30)

Jesus seems to have come to grips with that fact one final time, soon after, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

After many years, I have concluded (at last) that “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is not to empower me to stay in control and do what I think is right and good in God’s eyes. Even “filled with the Spirit” I can do nothing on my own. I can only do I am only to do what I see the Father doing, and then only if I am paying attention. It is His will that is to be done on Earth as in Heaven.

Holy Spirit baptism is not a promotion to a place of personal power or control. It’s more like shifting into a forward drive gear, so the Driver can get to where He wants.

Tongues

The Assemblies of God grew out of the remarkable Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in the first years of the 20th century. “Speaking in tongues” was a prominent part of this revival. When the Assemblies organized in 1914, as part of their statement of fundamental beliefs they asserted that speaking in tongues was the “initial, physical evidence” of baptism in the Holy Spirit (reflecting the pattern at Pentecost reported in Acts 2).

Fifty years later when charismatic renewal swept through churches around the world, the “gift of tongues” became a point of contention among Christians. Some rejected it as a heretical fraud (“no such gifts continue in modern times”). Others accepted tongues but did not want to go so far as to say tongues were the only or necessarily initial physical evidence of being filled with the Spirit. I heard some calm observers in those days remark that the only Christians who had trouble with tongues when they were “filled with the Spirit” were those who had been taught to reject it. Those who came without such prior indoctrination usually received the gift immediately, often without any prior coaching telling them to expect it.

It is a mysterious gift, to be sure. But there are Biblical explanations for its purpose in a Christian’s life.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

Language-symbols are a tool of our minds. We grasp concepts of the reality around us by using these symbols to represent the parts. The Tower of Babel, where God changed mankind’s language symbols, showed the separation of “the real” from such mental constructs. God didn’t abolish speech and language. He just reset the symbols. Language can carry meaning even when our brain doesn’t understand or control it, or has not yet learned the correspondence of a new set of symbols with reality. God did not “change reality” at Babel. He just messed with the symbols men used to communicate ideas about it.

The “gift” of speaking in tongues, a change of the symbols of language, is a way to tame our pride of mind used to control our steps. The gift is a way to take steps of faith and learn they’re not fatal. The Holy Spirit knows what to say. He knows what he is saying. With the gift of tongues, he is just saying it in partnership with us. Partnership with God is the whole purpose of redemption and restoration.

What Jesus said in prayer at Gethsemane showed that a personal agenda can be surrendered to Another. Praying in tongues is like that. We act (speak) but do not originate meaning. It demonstrates surrender of control by our mind. It lets us experience “Trinity relationship.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each have mind and will. They could act independently. They have chosen not to. They each submit to the others. It manifests their mutual trust and love, qualities that would otherwise be invisible, with no evidence to confirm them.

Although I was raised in the Assemblies of God, late in my life the Lord led me to fellowship in the Episcopal Church, where I was eventually ordained as a Deacon. I have not lost my gratitude for my spiritual upbringing. I consider myself a Pentecostal/Charismatic/Liturgical/Ecumenical believer in Jesus Christ. I still pray in tongues. And my understanding of what a pilgrimage means when accompanied by the Holy Spirit, supplied with his gifts for the journey, has deepened.

The gift of tongues is a “starter gift.” It is the only gift from the Spirit that can be exercised in private. As such it can provide practice for further gifts given to be exercised for the benefit of others and, thus, publicly. A “starter” gift but not always required in order to exercise other gifts. I think it is silly to argue that Christians who do not speak in tongues are not “filled with the Spirit.”

On the other hand, which gifts would you like to practice first, cold, out before onlookers? Raising the dead? Healing lepers? Expelling demons? (Matthew 10:8) The gift of tongues is a very kind and gentle gift offered by God to help us get used to a new level of relationship with Him.

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Facts

John 12:17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” 

John tells in loving detail about several confrontations the Pharisees, scribes, and Jewish leaders had with Jesus. They tried to corner and trap him with the logic of their interpretations of Scripture. They consistently failed. The study of God’s Word is certainly good and worth doing. But we need to keep in mind that there is always a distinction between the facts God has revealed and our interpretation or understanding of those facts.

You can’t argue with facts.

But there is no end of argument and opinion about facts. (Let me introduce you to men who heard Jesus say he would die and rise from the grave, and who did not believe the first reports that his tomb was empty. Welcome to 40,000 Protestant denominations all claiming to believe the Bible… in their own way.)

This should reassure us when our Christian testimony meets with a skeptical or hostile reception. The fact of our personal experience of forgiveness, of drawing close to the Lord’s presence in prayer, and at the Holy Altar for Holy Communion in Church, cannot be denied even when we cannot explain it in intellectual or theological terms. Our nervousness in a debate with others never can overturn the fact of these facts.

“We believe in One God…” even if His ways are so high above us they exceed our ability to explain them to others.

Facts are sometimes treated as annoying obstacles. They are, in fact, opportunities to go forward.

Jesus has not come primarily to make us brilliant scholars. He came to make us servants. Servants do not let obstacles stop them from reaching their assigned goal. God’s Word itself overcomes all opposition to it. That’s the word we have to spread. It’s one even children can grasp.

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Nathaniel and Nicodemus

St. John remembered two interesting early encounters people had with Jesus.

John 1:45  Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.
47. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
48. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49. Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
50. Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.”

A little later, Jesus received a nighttime visitor from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council in Jerusalem.

John 3:1  Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.
2. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3. In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. ”
4. “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

9. “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
11. I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.
12. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

Nathaniel was relying on what he could see and drew a conclusion. Jesus did not deny Nathaniel’s conclusion but criticized the way he had reached it.

Nicodemus stumbled over conclusions that seemed preposterous to him. In the slang phrase, he “couldn’t see it.”

Jesus asserted that he was only talking about something he himself had seen. His criticism of Nicodemus was that Nick didn’t believe what Jesus told him. He trusted only what his eyes could tell him. Jesus was making the point again that there was much more to be seen, and he was not lying when he talked about it. For Nick, depending on what Jesus said was better than depending only on what had been seen already.

John ended his Gospel and returned to this theme by telling about Thomas doubting that Jesus was alive again.

John 20:29  Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30. Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.
31. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

In the final chapter there is a statement that sounds like a testimony of one of the early Christians who preserved and handed on John’s manuscript.

John 21: 24  This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
25. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. 

God’s facts are true before we verify them with the witness and approval of our eyes. God is not communicating to us only, or even primarily, by what we can see. If our understanding starts and stops there, we’re as good as blind.

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Free will

Penn and Teller have been entertaining audiences with their magic act on stage and TV for forty years. They have their own show and theater in Las Vegas. The last few years they have been doing a TV show whose purpose is partly to let them recover the enjoyment and surprise that drew them to magic in the first place.

On their TV show Fool Us they invite magicians from around the world to perform a trick on their stage before a full audience, with Penn and Teller sitting on the front row. The challenge is to fool them so well that they cannot guess how the magician did it. After each one Penn and Teller comment on the performance with Penn making cryptic remarks to the contestant, speaking insider magicians slang, to signify how they think the trick was accomplished without revealing those secrets to the audience. In spite of their life-long and encyclopedic knowledge of magic acts, on nearly every show someone does bamboozle them and they are delighted to admit it and award them a trophy.

The TV show appears to be a continuous hour-long string of acts. But I recently read the TV show is actually edited together from guest shots made at different times. I started looking for evidence of this and found it hidden out in the open, right before my eyes. I had been fooled with one of the basic techniques of magicians: distraction that kept me from noticing anything else but what the performer wanted me to focus on. What I now noticed was that with each new trick, when the TV cameras turned to Penn and Teller as they commented on the performance, the faces of the audience sitting around them changed from one trick to the next.

I recognized a principle I had learned in the discipline of centering prayer. One of the dilemmas everyone meets when they try to sit quietly with the Lord is our busy minds keep running off chasing one train of thought after another. I intended to pay attention to listening for the Lord’s voice and instead would find myself planning for tomorrow, or remembering something that happened yesterday, or last year. Fr. Martin Laird, in his book on contemplative prayer, Into the Silent Land, calls this distracting noise the “cocktail party of the mind.”

The method Fr. Thomas Keating and others teach to resist this distraction is the use of a “centering prayer” word or phrase that you deliberately repeat, particularly when you realize your thoughts have drifted away from your intention of listening to the Lord. It is a way of choosing over and over what you want to focus on. Fr. Laird points out that God made our minds to be busy thinking about something. It is up to us to choose what that will be.

We cannot easily pay attention to two things at once. When I deliberately began paying attention to the faces of the people sitting behind Penn and Teller, I realized I could no longer remember what they had said about the magic acts. The choice was mine, freely made. They were sharing their comments and I missed them completely because I was distracted, looking at something else.

The other day a friend told me that they were struggling with being patient waiting for a decision to be made about their business. When we prayed, I heard myself encouraging him to deliberately praise and thank the Lord for the blessings and direction he had already seen each time the impatience bothered him. Afterwards I realized I had given him the simple “centering prayer” tool-key. We are free to choose what we will focus on. So choose. The cocktail party noise or what the host is saying to you.

Another friend recently asked me if we really had a free will. Wasn’t God sovereign? Could anyone really resist God’s Will? Doesn’t the Bible speak of our predestination by Almighty God? It is a question that theologians have wrestled with.

I thought again about watching Penn and Teller. I don’t have any choice about what the TV show director has decided to show me on my screen. They want me to hear what Penn and Teller have to say. The camera places them full frame, center  view. I do not control what they have to say. Nothing hinders me from hearing them.

Unless I choose to let my attention wander to something else and I miss it entirely. I have a free will to choose that. And no one else to blame for the results.

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Evangelism at the cross

One thief crucified with Jesus found mercy because he was paying attention in the midst of his own misery. Insults and vengeful retaliations by Jesus’ adversaries were not the fruit of humble hearts. Jesus was the one modeling that pattern even as he was nailed to his cross. It got one thief’s attention.

It makes for a curious lesson in evangelism. Jesus never said a word to either of the thieves by his sides while they just echoed the crowd and reviled him. It would be understandable if Jesus had been absorbed completely with his own pain. But John reported the instructions Jesus gave him about taking care of his mother. Jesus had time to think about others and to speak about them even from his cross.

But there were two lost, dying souls right next to him. Jesus, who had come to save the world, apparently never said a word to them, never invited them to repent while they still had a few moments of breath before dying. It seems a perfect moment and audience for evangelism. Jesus didn’t speak to it.

This may be the clearest demonstration of all that God intended to honor the gift of free will that He had given to mankind. At the high and privileged end of the social spectrum, King Herod had heard the gossip about Jesus. We could assume that poor, street-level thieves had also heard such stories swirling through Jerusalem. And here he was, now in earshot.

But at first both men just joined the hectoring mob filling the air with scorn for Jesus. Jesus didn’t respond to any of it. One thief finally noticed.

If he knew nothing else at all about Jesus that day, he had heard the derision from the crowd mocking the idea that Jesus was anyone special. And there was that strange sign Pilate had written to be posted over Jesus, specifying the charges that explained why Jesus was being executed.

The thief became the first follower to accept and believe the simple words written about Jesus. He spoke to Jesus in terms that accepted what those words said about him. Only then did Jesus finally speak to the man directly. He had waited until the Holy Spirit brought the thief to the right moment. He then made the man a promise.

And Jesus counted up one more follower before the ordeal of Good Friday had ended.

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Tongues and marigolds

I’m thinking about what to do when we’re afraid to think about whatever it is before us or we just don’t want to. It involves story telling. Let me start with one.

All of a sudden, in the last few days, I’ve been reading up on the great alternative computer operating system that competes with Windows and Apple called Linux.

I’ve never been curious about Apple or Mac computers and never used one. I had my first serious introductions to PC’s in the early 1990’s, the days of Windows 3.0 and 3.1, with some limited exposure to DOS 6. I stayed on the Windows wagon for Windows 95 and, finally, XP. In my church work I eventually got moved along to Windows 7 (and wasn’t completely happy about it).

At home, I kept my computer running XP even after Microsoft announced they were abandoning support for the system in 2014. And I began holding my breath against the day some hardware failure on my home system would force me (crying and screaming) to finally pay for an upgrade.

My body failed me before XP has. A stroke in the fall of 2014 made it nearly impossible for me to scrabble around with floor cables and connectors under my desk as I had happily done in years past. The stroke left me with double vision. I was grateful I could still see the monitor at all, or read from it. My retirement from work had come early. I fretted about the cost of newer Windows versions. I fretted silently about trying to read instructions for the learning curve waiting for me in what seemed like the major changes in the way Microsoft techs were “improving” their product every year.

I don’t know what prompted me to go searching for how-to videos about Linux on You Tube. But I found a lot of them. I have been seeing demos of the various Linux desktops and discovering the burgeoning list of Windows-alternatives that Linux will run for writing, for graphics creation, for video editing. Programs that Microsoft and others sell to do those things don’t work on Linux. But Linux alternatives are mostly available for free.

So is the basic Linux OS software itself. And it apparently works just fine on computers that started life with Windows on them. Except Linux is faster, even on older machines. The growing Linux family of fans enjoys helping others discover what they have.

I haven’t jumped yet. XP isn’t broken for me, yet. But I know I should jump before I am forced to. I’m looking carefully, holding my breath again.

You hold your breath, too, because it will look like I’m about to completely change the subject. I’m not.

Last week I stumbled on a short video review of Steven Spielberg’s early blockbuster movie, Jaws. In his comments, the reviewer voiced the same thought that crossed my mind when I first saw the movie in 1975. I realized Spielberg had grasped the same techniques that Alfred Hitchcock had mastered in his career of suspense-filled thrillers.

On this video review, the narrator included a clip from an interview with Hitchcock where he discussed the principle. Imagine a table in a restaurant with a group having dinner, Hitchcock said. For five minutes, as they enjoy the meal, they all talk about baseball.

Suddenly, a bomb under the table explodes. Hitchcock predicted the audience reaction. “They have ten seconds of shock and surprise.”

Then he did a rewind. “Now, lets say you start the scene by showing the audience that there is a bomb under the table that will go off in five minutes. The scene proceeds as before. The people are eating and laughing, talking about baseball. But now the audience is on the edge of their seats. They’ll be wanting to shout, ‘Forget about baseball! There’s a bomb under the table!’ ” 

That is the difference between surprise and suspense. And Hitchcock had one more thing he had learned the hard way. [Spoiler alert] In his 1936 film Sabotage, a young boy is given a package to deliver. The package contains a bomb. He takes it on a bus and soon the bomb explodes, killing the boy.

The scene drew angry criticism at the time. “You must never let the bomb go off,” Hitchcock concluded. It forces people think about things they don’t want to think about.

Spielberg made a similar mistake in Jaws. There is a scene where another small boy is swimming in the ocean… well, Steven admitted later he was stupid for doing the scene! But it is a masterpiece of suspense, because you know something scary is going to happen soon. And it was still awhile before Steven learned the lesson.

I always thought Spielberg repeated the error in the final scenes of his film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfuss has followed an inexplicable urge to go to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where scientists have gathered to greet aliens arriving in a space ship. The aliens pick Dreyfuss out of the crowd, inviting him to come aboard and fly back to their home with them.

When this movie first came out in 1977, it showed Dreyfuss walking up the gangplank into the spacecraft, but did not follow him inside. It was a bit frustrating. But the film was so successful Spielberg was allowed to shoot some additional scenes for a re-release in 1980. One scene he added showed Dreyfuss looking around inside the spaceship at the end.

What did we get to see then? That it was big. But what could we have expected to see? What could Spielberg show us that would be satisfactory?? No bomb going off would be big enough. There was no way to satisfy us successfully no matter what we were shown.

(By the time he made Jurassic Park in 1993, Spielberg had learned to avoid the problem. In this movie, young children are chased by giant dinosaurs, but they get away safely!)

When I watched the reviewer’s video, Melanie and I had just seen the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), and the sequel, Second Best Marigold Hotel. (I do love the sequel’s title!) The movies are about a group of elderly British retirees who seek out a retirement center in India, because it is much less expensive for them on their pensions than staying in England.

There are several amusing moments when the eager young Indian manager awkwardly admits there is an “elephant in the room,” (an apt metaphor in these films) the fact that his guests have come to live there until they die.

“This elevator takes you up, until the time for you … to go up.” Everyone tries to ignore the gauche moments, with British good manners. It’s funny, but I became aware that the subject created an unresolved melancholy that hung over both films.

The second film ends with a close up of Maggie Smith, sitting in a stone fence, staring at the others riding off together down a busy city street on Vespa scooters. She is facing the only trip left for her, alone. The camera lingers on her expressionless face. The the screen goes black. The film makers have nothing more to show, nothing more they can say. Yet there will be something more, obviously. The world just can’t stand to think about it.

And we Christians have difficulty knowing what to say about it that can possibly relieve the pain.

All of a sudden, I realized why one of the first gifts offered to us by the Holy Spirit is the gift of tongues. God invites us to speak to Him, and when we don’t know what to say, The Counselor and Guide helps us. God wants to hear our voice even if our human understanding is too limited to give shape to any worthwhile words. God has made it possible to pray to Him even when we don’t know what to say.

In the same way, the Lord guides and enables me to go forward a day at a time, even when I am uncertain what that day will hold. Whether it’s a day for the learning curve of a new computer program, instructions to be read through blurry eyes, or prayers offered for those suffering with pain and loss. My mouth can still offer words of praise and intercession, whether I understand them at the moment or not.

I don’t have to know ahead of time exactly what will happen next, or even what is happening now. God knows. I’m not in charge. So I don’t have to be.

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