St. George and the Reluctant Dragon

St. George and the Dragon is an old story. I mean, it’s really old. It’s the conglomerate of all the stories we know where a dragon is terrorizing the country and a knight risks life and limb to save them all and do away with said dragon. It’s rather marvelous in the way of classic fairy tales, and stands up brilliantly whenever someone tries to allegorize it.

Then along came Kenneth Grahame in 1898 and wrote another, delightfully askew version: The Reluctant Dragon. (To be accurate, it was originally a chapter in his book Dream Days. It horrifies the purist in me a little bit that a book would be dissected, but that’s neither here nor there. The whole thing is available for free here. You’re welcome.) Disney turned it into a short film at some point, but that was in 1941 and not many people are acquainted with it now. Allow me.

A smart little shepherd boy who reads books (his parents don’t) isn’t at all afraid of acquainting himself with a dragon when it moves into the neighborhood because he’s read about them and he knows. Very soon, the village knows about the dragon and a knight, St. George, is enlisted. He is armed with all sort of horrifying tales of the dragon’s evil deeds to spur him on to victory. Except none of them are true.

The dragon will not, has not, nor ever does wish to fight. The knight fights for a living but has been lied to. The boy becomes a mediator between the two of them to come up with a solution to the problem that now faces his two friends: everyone expects them to bow to convention and duke it out.

“Oh, you’ve been taking in all the yarns those fellows have been telling you,” said the Boy impatiently [to St. George]. “Why, our villagers are the biggest storytellers in all the country round. It’s a known fact. You’re a stranger in these parts, or else you’d have heard it already. All they want is a fight. They’re the most awful beggars for getting up fights—it’s meat and drink to them. Dogs, bulls, dragons—anything so long as it’s a fight. Why, they’ve got a poor innocent badger in the stable behind here, at this moment. They were going to have some fun with him today, but they’re saving him up now till your little affair’s over.”

Upon re-reading this little story, I had a pause over those lines. It felt a little like the story-teller talking to the audience just then. It was like it wasn’t the Boy so much as Kenneth Grahame talking about people. Everyone wants a fight. Anything, so long as it’s a fight.

But it’s still a children’s tale. It soon becomes clear that there must be a fight. The villagers will keep calling for one until they find a knight who will make it happen, and anyway, the dragon wants to join society, and in the current state of things, he can’t. He must be defeated first. But the dragon simply doesn’t want to.

“Believe me, St. George,” he [the dragon] went on, “there’s nobody in the world I’d sooner oblige than you and this young gentleman here. But the whole thing’s nonsense, and conventionality, and popular thick-headedness. There’s absolutely nothing to fight about, from beginning to end. And anyhow I’m not going to, so that settles it!”

“But supposing I make you?” said St. George, rather nettled.

“You can’t,” said the dragon, triumphantly. “I should only go into my cave and retire for a time down the hole I came up. You’d soon get heartily sick of sitting outside and waiting for me to come out and fight you. And as soon as you’d really gone away, why, I’d come up again gaily, for I tell you frankly, I like this place, and I’m going to stay here!”

He’s right, of course. No one can make him fight. In the end, though, they convince him that it really is the only way for everyone to get what they want. St. George and the dragon set up the choreography for a grand mock battle. They duke it out with a wonderful bit of staging, pretend stabbing, and writhing of scales. Then the dragon pretends that the wound has tamed him so as to join society and he, St. George, the Boy, and all the villagers have a grand feast after. We are led to believe that just perhaps, the dumb, duped villagers become a little better. Maybe they are a skosh less fight-oriented.

But it is still an excellent fairy tale. It is not meant to be allegory and let’s not muss it up by pretending that it means a lot more than what it says. But a thought for the new year. Let’s you and me not be villagers, yes?

P.S. The badger is set free.

Back-to-School: January Edition

close up of girl writing

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I’d like to know who started the Back-to-School sales traditions. It was smart; they started a good/helpful thing. In early August, absolutely no one can forget to buy pencils, notebooks, folders, planners, lunchboxes, pencil cases, locks and other student paraphernalia. Backpacks go on sale, special deals on computers for students reel people of all ages in, and everyone decides they need new clothes. At least first-day-back-to-school clothes. (This is true for teachers, too.)

But the sales in August have conditioned us to think that we only need to do it then, when in fact, if you have kids, you might need to do some back to school shopping, again. Right now. In January.

Allow me to paint a grade-school picture for you: on the first day of school, the students arrive flush with pencils, paper and new notebooks and folders. The pencils are kinda like lottery millions; they are generous and free with their “dollars” flinging them all over, to anyone and everyone (all but the most discerning and careful of students). Most teachers could easily collect 10 pencils from their floors at the end of every period. They rarely have to loan pencils because there are always more. The wise teacher squirrels these away for the lean days of January and February, not to mention April. In May, there is an utter famine of writing utensils. But in the sunny days of plenty—August—the paper is flowing, the notebooks are new, and the folders are not yet turned to Swiss cheese by multiple pencil-stabbings and thousand-times-retraced doodles.

But now it’s January.

Your student had dropped, chewed, snapped, loaned, or otherwise lost 95% or all of her pencils. Any student who is an exception is hounded by all the others for loans. Teachers, in spite of all their squirreled stores, not to mention what they’ve bought with their personal money, find themselves loaning pencils. Every. Hour. Pencils they never see again. Every. Day. To kids who lose them in between classes. No child has any paper left; if they do, it lasts them two weeks into the semester. Lined paper has to come from somewhere. Computer chargers are broken, actively dissassembled, or lost. Binders and folders are requiring Duct Tape on their spines (which most teachers have). If there are still things like glue sticks, they’ve lost their lids. Some kids ask every day for everything. Some kids will never ask for supplies. They’ll simply do nothing until they’re noticed. Just in time for winter flu, sneezes and other such loveliness, the teachers are dipping into the dangerously low stash of tissues and sanitary wipes for their classrooms. By March, if the classrooms have anything to blow noses on, they’ll have a roll of toilet paper on a shelf somewhere. So, sneezing kiddos have to be sent to the bathroom…lose classroom time…etc.

So this January, may I offer you a little Back-to-School Shopping List? Believe me, it’s necessary.

  • 2 packs of pencils
  • 1 pack of lead (if necessary)
  • 1 pack of erasers
  • 2 new lined notebooks
  • 2 pack glue sticks
  • 3 boxes of tissues
  • 2 pack of Clorox wipes
  • Send an email to teachers; they might make a few suggestions as well.

If this looks just like the list you fulfilled back in August, you’re not wrong. That is frustrating for some parents. But if it helps, think of it as grocery shopping; you’re just covering their needs for the longer, harder haul from January to May (or June, in some cases.) Students spend seven hours every day at school; that’s the equivalent of 52.5 entire days by the end of the school year. They need equipment for all that time. No teacher can meet the needs of 100+ kiddos for 52.5 whole days from either their small classroom allowance or their personal savings. So perhaps it makes more sense for some families to make these things stocking-stuffers or Christmas gifts rather than yet another shopping trip post-Christmas. Maybe these can be requests from aunts and uncles at the holidays. Maybe you can start a tradition of a school-supplies gift-card to make it more fun.

Whatever you do though, if you send your student back to school in January with a fresh store of supplies, they will be more prepared, less stressed, and your teachers will bless the ground you walk on.

close up photography of colored pencils

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A Christmas Celebration

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We have spent a fair amount of time in our house this year thinking about, writing about, singing about, and planning for Christmas. That’s what writing a Christmas program will do; in September, we were playing Christmas carols while we edited. We planned, we shopped, we called upon other people and their talents for painting, instruments, and singing. We practiced, discussed, and practiced some more. We spent months preparing to celebrate. Then last weekend, we threw open the doors and celebrated in earnest. We told a dramatic story, sang together sometimes and sometimes listened while others sang. Such a shared experience makes people vulnerable and more willing to share their thoughts and their hearts, and we did that too, over cookies and punch. We gave gifts and stayed out late, and when we finally got to our beds, I’m certain it took a fair number of those who were most involved awhile to unwind.

That’s what it is to celebrate. We happened to do it through drama. But in large part, all of those elements are part of any good celebration. We become extravagant in our joy; we “open our shut-up hearts more freely” as Charles Dickens’ Fred told his uncle Scrooge.

Maybe we’re closer to getting celebration right around Christmas. The best thing the planet has known since we were banished from Eden happened at Christmas: our Reconciler was born. So of course, we celebrate! There can be peace between our souls and God. We should celebrate! Is there any wonder that the whole world still celebrates such an occasion hundreds of years later? We buy gifts and attend feasts even if we don’t fully understand why. Maybe there is too much “stuff”; but then again, maybe we should all be part of a giant musical number belting out our joy in celebration. Maybe we should pull out all the stops we have on a feast in preparation for the Feast that is coming. I am quite sure that Feast will be more extravagant than anything we could dream up in our celebrations. Maybe if we were all passing around the dishes while we sang that musical number, with no difference between audience and stage, we would be the closest we’re going to get to that great Feast day.

I have heard it pointed out that the angels didn’t “sing” their Advent Song to the shepherds on the hillside. At least, the Bible doesn’t actually say that they sang. But how on earth could such an announcement of grace, brought straight from Heaven to a broken earth NOT sound like a song? I suspect the most casual words spoken in Heaven would sound like music to us who have only ever known brokenness. When a song is begun in earnest There…I suspect we couldn’t handle the sheer joy of it’s rhythm.

Were we celebrating when we were hashing out the plot in January and February? What about when we were going through the exhausting work of editing? (Hours, I tell you.) Were we celebrating then? What about when we sorted and gathered props; were we celebrating then? What about when we actually did the program? And the refreshments afterward? I think we were; in the same way that celebration now prepares us for celebration Then. For now, all of these celebrations are just practice. Holidays are special; a happy reprieve. But one day we will not wait for special days to come; we will only ever go “further up and further in.” Each wonderful day will be better than the last–even though there will be no distinction of days; no sense of anything good ever ending.

Celebrate!

Jesus was Younger than Me

References from Colossians 1.

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Jesus was my age when He died.

Assuming I live to be 34, I will be older than He got the chance to be. I don’t know why the timing was perfect when He was 33, but in any case, it was right for Him to be fairly obscure until age 30, and then to have a world-shattering ministry for only three years. He was so young when He died–but all our lives depended on it.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

But Jesus was also there at the beginning. He is intimately associated with the creation of the world. I can’t count the years back to the beginning; no one with certainty can. But He was there. He was there before that. He initiated time; He is so ancient I can’t quite fathom it.

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Yet Jesus is utterly perfect. The stream of time is constantly breaking you and me apart. We are sick, tired, stressed and broken. We worry, suffer, and struggle and despair. We are in danger of dying from the moment we come into existence. But in His perfection as God, Jesus could offer perfection to us. He offers the benefits of His perfection to us now when He tells us not to fear, but rest in Him; to bring our burdens to Him; to pray. One day, we will know what He has known from the beginning: holy perfection. No sin. No breaking. My God, in His perfection, is eternally younger than me.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.

When He resurrected, He proved, among other things, that He didn’t belong to our timeline. He stepped into ours to make Himself be known, to show us immense love, and to make a way for us to get Home. So it is that my God has been younger than me, older than me, and yet utterly timeless.

Gratitude doesn’t begin to describe it. But it’s a good start.

 

The Struggle Against Artistic Pride (or, the brave little artist)

*Deep breath*

When I was first really starting to think about being both creative and a Christian (I think I was 11(?)) these were the kinds of conversations I wanted to have. That’s what this is: a conversation. It is not a conclusion; it’s on the list of things I want to talk about with other creatives who also seek to order their lives after the Bible (albeit uber-flawed) through the grace of the resurrected Christ. Of course, we all realize that it isn’t a conversation until you talk back or carry it on. So there’s that. Prologue finished.

adult art artist artistic

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He was talented musician, but he had stopped sharing his music in church. I don’t know if he still did gigs, performed as local talent, or just reserved his music for time at home, but he had stopped sharing it in worship scenarios. He explained it something like this: “It was becoming too much of a point of pride for me. It wasn’t about worship or God’s glory in the music; it was about me.” So in order to avoid the temptation to take too much pride or think too highly of himself, he stepped away from music performance, specifically in church.

When I first heard the explanation, his choice seemed respectable and even rather noble. I understood it. The Bible has a lot to say about being prideful; none of it good. If you’re seeking to honor God with your life and your gifts, part of the artistic and performative process is a constant reordering of your mind; assessing who is more important—you, or God. That’s no small thing; it’s an unending question. It’s a minute-by-minute sort of question.. And according to scripture, it’s eternally significant.

“Pride comes before a fall” is a well-known Proverb; all artists have met someone (maybe ourselves) whose opinion of themselves is so high that when the inevitable fall comes, it’s going to hurt. A LOT. No matter what you believe, people tend to respect a down-to-earth quality, and kind professionalism. Divas are no fun to work with, no matter how good they are. But then there are less-quoted Proverbs (I paraphrase): “Let someone else praise you, rather than you praising yourself.” Bragging is unattractive. It also makes you look dumb. (There is a difference between bragging and marketing, so sometimes that’s reeeeeealllly subtle. However, humility is a virtue; marketing is not.) Then there’s that slightly scary thing that Jesus said in Matthew 6. Apparently, there were people who did good deeds professionally, hiring a trumpeter to announce that they were giving money to the poor and praying beautiful, public prayers. Jesus said that they weren’t getting a reward in Heaven for it; their reward was what they wanted: public approval. Their work was fully paid for; there would be nothing later.

But we’re SO PRONE to self-worshiping pride. How in the world–?

(Here’s where I need to take another deep breath.)

*BREATHE*

Unlike my musician friend, I don’t think that the right solution is to stop doing art—at least it’s not a completely Biblical solution.

First, it’s impossible to be pride-less; sin-less. That’s the point of the Gospel; we cannot save ourselves from ourselves. To believe that we can escape the sin of pride by NOT doing what God gave us to do amounts to a kind of artistic monasticism. As if we could move into an artless monastery of sorts, take a vow of silence and poverty and still escape the sin that comes from within us. Jesus pointed that out, too. We are defiled by within; not without.

Second, it seems to often be a fear of the struggle itself; fear that we will lose against pride and fail to honor God with our good. But while the sin itself is certainly not good, the struggle is. Our conscience is alive and wriggling; even healthy. What we should fear is to cease struggling against pride. When your heart stops beating, you’re no longer alive. If you stop struggling against pride, you’re giving into it. Humility is dying.

Can I speak of an art form as a calling? I think I can. If God gifted you, and wrote your name in His book as one who has accepted grace, then He doesn’t expect too much that you now “ work” or create for Him rather than just yourself. Perhaps we could say you were always “called”; you were born with your gift and the desire to work your tail feathers off to perfect it. By all means work for your food and living, but ultimately, you create for Him. These are not separate things. But this calling carries with it the vulnerability for great pride. Don’t believe me? Ask someone to critique/edit a work of yours and give suggestions. Is your heart suddenly and protectively aflame? We long to be congratulated and told our work is excellent. Many artists are people who at least at some point in their work would gladly do it for free. Our pay is easily laughter, delight and praise of others. Like Babette noted in Babette’s Feast, the most fulfilling thing is really just doing it. But if you’re like me, you’re always surprised at how unsatisfying that is. At some point, the focused discussion and critique of others became what my pride coveted. But when you get it…it feels like leaving the restaurant right after the appetizers. There must be something more.

And this is what I’ve been trying to get to…more deep breaths…

Yet ultimately, it is also pride, I think, to NOT create because we are afraid. We are afraid it will not be good enough. Our pride helps us make all kinds of excuses: family, work, daily responsibilities, not being good enough. But really, you know it’s a choice. It’s pride. We can’t win against pride. In a fight, we’ll always lose. We like to be right, a genius, the master. Yet like every other form of pride, there is one antitdote: our good God. If He called us, He will also give us strength to do it and not fail or faint in the fight against pride.

To summarize and conclude (I’m breathing more normally, now): 

If we fear pride itself and so do not create, then we’re still trusting ourselves, as if you and I could simply sidestep sin. We cannot be artistic celibates; are we then not guilty of both pride and—much like the servant who didn’t invest his one talent, but buried it–failing to use what we’ve been given? We are called to war and work, so we take our Commander’s hand, pick up our pens, our paints, our tools of the trade, and war and work for Christ with our art. That will look like all kinds of things: stories, pictures, music, mosaics, poems, fashion, gardening… Maybe it’s not overtly salvific or evangelistic, but it takes you to places Jesus intends for you to find souls and make Him famous.

Be an artist.

The Art of Loving People

I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. ~Vincent van Gogh

photo of sunflowers in vase against black background

Photo by Magda Ehlers

I am a task-oriented introvert. This is a terrible combination.

Task-oriented: give me a job and I’ll do it. I might have a hard time stopping, actually. I occasionally get so involved in a task that I forget to eat. Introvert: I gain energy from being alone. People exhaust me; social situations cause various levels of anxiety.

This combination means I love doing a task…and find it very easy to forget about people entirely. This combination once found this teacher leading the charge on a field trip only to turn around to discover that she had out-charged her students in her sheer zeal to get there. My one-track task-oriented mind completely forgot about the long line of geese I was leading in my excitement about getting to the pond.

But it is absurd to think that I am an utter slave to these natural arrangements of my mind. This the glory of practical theology and the kindness of the Comforter whom Jesus sent after His ascension. He must have been teaching me to love people long before I knew He was; but I do remember when He first made me aware of the work He was doing. He made it clear to me that people, themselves, are the joy that I was neglecting rather than the work. I could excuse myself by reasoning that the work I do is for people, but that reasoning also gives me the excuse to mow them over if they get in the way of the job. That’s hardly love.

I love crafting emails, designing posters, creating projects, making things. I get a great deal of satisfaction from the completed task; an end result that you can hold in your hand. But people are never done; you don’t have anything to show for your work, so it doesn’t feel like anything is being accomplished.

If your goal is their gratitude, you seldom get it, and when you do, you know that wasn’t what you were after. It’s curiously…unsatisfying.

When you say one thing, they hear something else.

They will ask much of you, and it might feel like they are asking something quite unreasonable, either because they know more than you, or because they know much less.

According to the way Jesus taught, my job is to love them, no matter who them happens to be. My job is to see them as better than myself no matter age, size, experience, etc. When I don’t, my impatience outstrips my kindness. I leave the people behind for the sake of getting to the pond.

This is hard. No…this is impossible for me. This is impossible unless Someone teaches me what love looks like. Sometimes, this means putting down the very thing I thought I was doing for them in order to be with them. Sometimes, in theatre anyway, that means sacrificing a step toward excellence for the sake of the person who made a mistake, was trying to help, isn’t ready for correction, wants control…whatever. Whatever my response, if it isn’t motivated by love for the person, then I’m really loving my satisfaction in a well-done job more.

Many great art forms have traditions in long training. Years go into making a great chef, an excellent painter, a hypnotic dancer, an exacting architect. Each of these artists will tell you that their work is never “done”; every performance of their art is training for the next; every rehearsal further exploration and preparation. You never arrive. To be an artist is to be extravagantly patient.

To love people is to be lavishly persistent.

Perhaps this is why Vincent van Gogh considered loving people to be an art.

Freak Out Thou Not: Take 2

This is a reblog from November 13, 2016. I find it needful to say these things again.

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I once sat in a room with an assorted group of pastors, their wives, missionaries and church members. It was informal, for the moment, and the conversation, as it so often does, turned to current events. And one after another, everyone in the room took turns expressing their frustration and as far as I could tell, their fear. They shook their heads hopelessly and used words like, “scary,” and “I’m afraid that…” And I won’t kid you—looking around at the pedigree in the room, I felt like they must have been right. I wanted to say something like, “But what about verses like, “Be not afraid”?” I went to Awana and VBS; I learned my verses pretty well. But no one else was saying it, but I was the youngest person in the room and so I felt like I shouldn’t. The absence of those words felt palpably hopeless and empty. And I’m quite sure that a gathering of Believers in Jesus shouldn’t feel that way. After fifteen minutes of this, one of the pastors gently spoke. He offered God’s promises of security in Him and of His control over the world and its events. And my heart breathed in the promises and settled its feathers.

In the last year, I have several times found myself in conversations with friends who don’t share my faith. And the conversations, as they so often do, would turn to current events. And one after another, everyone would take turns expressing their frustrations and as far as I could tell, their fear. They would shake their heads hopelessly and use words like “scary,” and “I’m afraid.” And I would want so much to say that my God had promised peace to those who believe, but they didn’t want my Jesus and found no comfort in Him.

In both cases, it seemed like speaking fears aloud somehow brought comfort. If we were all politicians and law-makers, maybe our conversations would be practical. If decisions of any kind need to be made, I suppose the expression of concerns would be wise and useful. But otherwise, we’re just sort of spreading the fear around like mud on the clean floor. It is time to stop making messes. It doesn’t matter what the topic is–it public restrooms, equality of any kind, or closer to home, your job and your family–if you call the God of the Bible your Father, then you can claim not only peace, but joy. So why don’t we?

If social media was a room where all my friends of all beliefs gathered, it would an awfully sorry party. All the videos and memes and some of the the articles may be good, but they’re not great. They don’t substitute for those who know joy and peace truly expressing it, and expressing it in person and in voice and in belief. As a former professor of mine put it once while commenting on world events: “Freak out thou not.”

So as fellow Believers, when we get together to pray, our conversations about the state of the nation should be as faith-filled as the prayers that follow. When we talk about what we hear on the news, perhaps we should talk about our Father’s power instead of encouraging each other to worry. Speaking the truth of our Father gives us the ability to be compassionate with those who are different from us; and believe me, you’ll need it. When we worry aloud about our families and friends, our children growing up in this world, and the complications of daily life, we only prove that our God is not particularly powerful. We are frankly declaring that He is impotent. When we listen to our own voices and our own words instead of speaking His, we prove that we prefer our own. And I don’t know about you, but there is nothing particularly potent about mine.

Someday, we will not have to work so hard to infuse Heaven into our lives. We will have the Word Himself visibly present; we won’t just be quoting He who is present but whom we cannot see. Here, we have to learn and relearn and relearn again; There, we will wonder why we didn’t “get it”. I trust Him that He completes me now and I will better understand that There.

Regardless of the broken place we call our temporary home, we are taken care of. Our Father hasn’t forgotten us.

Freak out thou not.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

~Psalm 103