Dignity

The scene is an magnificent throne room, resplendent in marble, cloth-of-gold, etc.  An elegant young queen sits in state upon the throne, clothed in purple garments and resplendent jewels.  Two stoic looking, silent servants are positioned by the doors at the end of the hall.  A few feet from the dais stands a somewhat ruffled-looking knight in amour, clutching his helmet.

THE QUEEN (pursing her mouth):  My dear Sir Reginald, We wish for an explanation of your conduct…  (she pauses for an instant, then almost imperceptibly shrugs)  Actually, I really want to know what in the world you were thinking…  (she regains her composure, and clears her throat)  You will give us an account.

SIR REGINALD:  I…ah…um…well  (makes an unintelligible noise)  …ah…three weeks ago, your majesty had a feast.

THE QUEEN: We are aware of it.

SIR REGINALD:  And…I…um…

THE QUEEN:  Sir Reginald, I would advise you to make this explanation phenomenal…  (gasps in frustration)  But, if it would make it any easier, let us very well begin at this beginning.  For whom did We hold a feast?

SIR REGINALD:  (brightening)  This particular one was for the closest members of your majesty’s court, about one hundred fifty people, I believe.

THE QUEEN:  Why did We hold a feast?

SIR REGINALD:  It was in celebration of the fifth year of your majesty’s reign.

THE QUEEN:  Indeed.  And what transpired at that feast that brought on so extraordinary a method of conduct from you?  (she purses her mouth again)  Sir Reginald, what does this have to do with anything?

SIR REGINALD:  (cringing)  Ah, yes, well your majesty was seated at the head of the table…

THE QUEEN: As is my wont.

SIR REGINALD:  …and was in conversation with two of your majesty’s closest friends.  Um, the Lady Marianne and the Lady Geraldine.

THE QUEEN:  Halt a moment.  (she motions to the two servants)  Fetch the ladies Marianne and Geraldine.

The ladies arrive, curtsy to the Queen, and nod to Sir Reginald.  The Queen motions them beside her.

THE QUEEN:  Ladies, Sir Reginald declares that three weeks ago there was a feast for one hundred fifty members of my court celebrating my fifth anniversary as Queen, and that I sat at the head of the table in conversation with both of you.  Is it so?

LADY MARIANNE:  It is so.

LADY GERALDINE:  Assuredly.

THE QUEEN:  (a trifle sarcastically)  Good then!  Continue, Sir Reginald.

SIR REGINALD:  Well…in the course of that evening your majesty declared that your majesty would award your majesty’s best castle on the banks of the Nile to the one who brought the Crown Prince of Lumonia trussed up like  chicken to your majesty …

The faces of the ladies have been growing more and more extraordinary. 

LADY MARIANNE:  (laughing)  What?

THE QUEEN:  (torn between amusement and outrage)  I did no such thing!

LADY GERALDINE:  (outraged)  What in the world?

SIR REGINALD:  (eagerly)  Oh, it is quite true, you majesty.  And so I summoned a few of my friends and we rode straightway to Lumonia and ambushed a hunting party…

THE QUEEN:  What!?!

SIR REGINALD:  But unfortunately, it wasn’t the Crown Prince’s hunting party, it was his younger brother’s .  But we ambushed it anyway, figuring once we returned to your majesty we could use him for ransom or something.  But hoping to find extra favor in your majesty’s eyes we trussed the Prince up like a chicken anyway to present to your majesty!  I hope I have pleased your majesty!

THE QUEEN:  WHAT!?!  (half laughing, half hyperventilating)  Pardon my inattention, but what was that again about me saying something at the feast?

SIR REGINALD:  (smiling)   Your majesty said that your majesty would give your majesty’s finest castle on the Nile to the man who brought back the Crown Prince of Lumonia to your majesty trussed up like a chicken, and I have done my best.

THE QUEEN:  (almost laughing) What!  What?  I would say no such ridiculous thing!

Lady Marianne has been looking a bit embarrassed, chewing on her lip.  At this point she taps the Queen on the arm.

LADY MARIANNE:  (murmuring)  Well, your majesty, you know, we did get a bit…tipsy that night…

THE QUEEN:  (face falling)  Oh dear…

LADY GERALDINE:  Yes, you both were.

THE QUEEN:  (very downcast)  Oh dear…  (she motions to one of the servants)  Morold, you were near me that evening…can you…can you recall me…saying…anything like that?  (she puts her face in her hands)

MOROLD:  Ah, yes, your majesty, I believe it was…  (he stops, uncertain)

THE QUEEN:  (resignedly)  Don’t worry; proceed without fear.

MOROLD:  I believe your majesty’s exact words were:  “By all means!  If a King may kidnap his bride, then why not a queen her husband?  I shall gift my finest castle on the Nile to the one who brings me the Crown Prince of Lumonia trussed up like a chicken!”

The Queen lets out a groan.

LADY MARIANNE:  (whispering) I seem to recall several large bouts of laughter that evening.

LADY GERALDINE: Yes, indeed.

The Queen rouses herself.

THE QUEEN:  Morold, please relay to the Prince of Lumonia my request that he join me here in the throne room, along with my sincere compliments and apologies (again) and my hopes that the sores from the ropes may have healed.  (Morold retires)  And now, Sir Reginald, I must confess that I was only joking in my request for the Crown Prince of Lumonia trussed up like a chicken.  Neither do I not own a castle by the Nile, wherever that is…  (Sir Reginald opens his mouth, but the queen raises her hand)  However, your loyalty to the crown is admirable.   Therefore you will be awarded ten thousand crowns…  (she motions the other servant close and whispers)  Ronald, get him out of here, I don’t care if you have to gift him an estate as well (is ten thousand enough?)  I don’t want to see his face around here again.  (Does he know he could start a war?)  The same with his companions.  Shut them up.  I don’t care how you do it, I don’t want word of this going farther than can absolutely be helped.

Sir Reginald is led off, beaming, as the Prince of Lumonia is led in.  The Queen looks rather nervous, and foolish, but pulls herself together.

THE QUEEN:  (hurriedly)  My lord Prince, let me once again express my deepest apologies and…

THE PRINCE:  No apology necessary, my lady, I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.  Anyway, I’ve had worse done to me.

THE QUEEN:  (brightening)  Oh?  Well, that’s a relief.

THE PRINCE:  Yes, in the Second Penem War…but that’s another story, anyway, after the ridiculous explanation Sir Reginald offered me upon my capture I was sure it was all a misunderstanding.

THE QUEEN:  (still embarrassed)  Yes well, the fact of the matter is, I still owe you an explanation.  You see, it was one of the many feasts celebrating my fifth year as queen, and this one was a more “private” one, and I (and my ladies) got a bit…what was the word, Marianne?…ah…tipsy, you see, and we were talking about how I would need to be married soon and all, and someone  (Lady Geraldine coughs)  mentioned how your brother, the Crown Prince of Lumonia, was very handsome and all, and…one thing led to another and I…I assume you know what I said?

THE PRINCE:  (waiving his hand)  Think no more of it, my lady.

THE QUEEN:  (regaining her dignity for the first time in a long time)  Well, this shall serve as a lesson to me to always retain my royal composure…and now, Lord Prince, would you care for some refreshment?  I personally am rather tired out…

They exit, arm in arm…

Tolerating Mediocrity

Below is a brief excerpt from a story by actor Charlton Heston about the making of Ben Hur (for those who don’t know, Ben Hur was one of the biggest movie epics of all time). One evening, after a particularly difficult day of filming, Heston and the director, William Wyler, found themselves alone in the hotel’s bar, and they discussed the day…

Willy drew circles on the bar with his beer glass. “You know,” he said, “I really like to be a nice guy. It is easier to be nice, actually.”

“Yeah, I know that, Willy.”

“The problem is, you can’t make good pictures that way.”

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Truthfulness vs. Kindness?

A couple months ago my brother and I had our pastor over for dinner (a delightful event that included grilled pork chops, green beans, and chocolate chip cookies; but I digress). In the course of our conversation we talked about innovative leaders—we mentioned Steve Jobs, and great movie directors—the William Wyler mentioned above, for one, and we discussed how these men produced great “products” (Jobs his iDevices and Wyler his movies) yet were by all accounts hard to get along with—they insulted and criticized and deceived to achieve their goals.

William Wyler
William Wyler

Well, since this conversation, I’ve been wondering: why were these leaders like this? Previously, I would have assumed they were just mean. However, the story about Wyler above gave me a clue that there might be more to these men than that.

Now, clearly deceiving people is wrong, and insults are also out. However, many great leaders, despite their flaws, tend to have one thing in common: intolerance for mediocrity. Put another way, they will not praise what isn’t praiseworthy. They won’t politely ignore a weakness—they point it out and demand it be fixed.

Many people today (and Christians especially) are far too tolerant of mediocrity. Even of myself this is true. When I see a short film that an aspiring filmmaker makes, or listen to a piece of music by a budding musician, or read a short piece by a young writer, I’d far rather focus on the positive—encourage the person and point out what they’re doing right than what they need to work on. For one, encouragement can provide motivation for that person to continue what they’re doing. But secondly, this approach is easier. I don’t have to worry about hurting this person’s feelings. And compliments always sound more polite than frank criticism.

But deep down, doesn’t pure encouragement only show that I don’t care enough about a person to inform them what they’re doing wrong so that they can fix it?

This is why those who do recognize problems need to be bolder about “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4.15). There are two sides to this, two wings to this process (these wing analogies are great, aren’t they?), and both are necessary for flight. First is truth—all the love and all the peace in the world won’t help if a person is about to drive their car off a cliff, or if a person believes that they’re going to heaven when they have never received Jesus. In both situations, something needs to be done or said.

Second of all is love, and this part is equally important. There is a wrong way to speak the truth, the confrontational “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach to speaking the truth that disregards the fact that every human being is created in God’s image. Because of this, everyone, no matter how wrong their beliefs or ideas may be, is worthy of at least modicum of courtesy (that’s understatement, by the way!).

My guess is that most people tend towards one of these extremes—either speaking the truth devoid of love or simply being kind and offering content-less encouragement. It is this second extreme that breeds our culture’s toleration of mediocrity. Counteracting this tendency will require a greater faithfulness to what Scripture says: speak truth, and speak it with a caring attitude.

Works Cited:

Heston, Charlton. Charlton Heston’s Hollywood: 50 Years in American Film. New York: GT Publishing Corp., 1998. Print.

Ideas Have Consequences: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

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Recommendation 1: The Brothers Karamazov is not light, fluffy, turn-off-your-brain beach reading. I would recommend having a zippy book on hand for the day you’re stuck on page 792 or 936 and need a break. Still, the work is completely worth it!

Recommendation 2: Unless you do not particularly care about having the main plot spoiled, avoid commentaries or lists of characters. All the ones I have found give away the murderer.  Boo.  Hiss.  Etc.

The Brothers Karamazov action is rather straight-forward. Alexei, his brothers Dmitri and Ivan, and Fyodor, his father, reunite in their hometown. Within a week, Fyodor has been murdered. Who killed him and why? Well, the “why” part on one level is pretty straight-forward: Fyodor lived as a complete &*$# towards everybody in his life; no tears were shed here. The reader needs to explore and answer the “why” from the worldview aspect and the novel’s main theme: ideas have consequences, not only for that one person, but for the rest of the world.

Dostoevsky doesn’t care about physical descriptions or the everyday interactions of ordinary lives; the first scenes with the characters hanging out together will make you think everybody needs to be on psychiatric medication. They all immediately and completely tell their life’s story and soul’s state to one another. Please remember that this character may not be a realistic individual, but he is a completely consistent type of person or thought. Indeed, sometimes you’ll feel like Dostoevsky creates both a deadly serious argument and a parody at the same time. Maybe he understands life is both a tragedy and comedy. Laugh, but keep thinking!

Though he draws his main characters as people we genuinely care about, Dostoevsky primarily uses these characters as embodiments of ideas and worldviews. Dmitri, the eldest brother, is the uncontrolled sensualist. Ivan, the middle brother, is the careful, independent intellectual. Alexei is the self-giving and childlike believer of his God. Through these and other less important characters, Dostoevsky directly forces his readers to confront different views about…

  • whether a person can ever find personal peace or happiness – and what worldview might lead to it, the life of unbridled passions, the life of carefully-considered, logical ideas, or the life of loving religiosity
  • what duty a person has to the rest of human society and the physical world
  • what moral and legal guilt the people surrounding a criminal bear for his crime
  • whether God exists and what human suffering tells us about this God

…just to name a few. Heavy material to work with, but Dostoevsky makes each character’s struggle with his worldview and reality so engrossing and moving you are compelled to see what happens next. There’s a reason he is still read 150 years later in the USA, a country he himself despised; Dostoevsky’s just that good!

This is not to say The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t have problems. Hubby, poor dear, had to listen to a tirade once I got to a certain plot point. Also, Dostoevsky clearly promotes one of the worldviews while remaining completely silent on some of the frightening implications. But that is for another day…for making you examine your personal worldview, few books have it beat. Hugely recommended.

Quotes

This book has fantastic psychological insights. Initially I tried to write down the great quotes from the book…and then realized I was transcribing whole chapters. Here are two of my favorites:

  • “Anyway, what does it mean, being ridiculous? There are so many different ways a man may seem funny to someone else. Especially these days when everyone who has any talent seems to be morbidly afraid that he may appear ridiculous. That’s why so many gifted people are so unhappy” Alexei to Dmitri (744).
  • “Listen to the rest of it then; let me bare the other half of my soul” (1029). Dmitri says it, but it could have come from any of the characters. Hee.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Andrew R. McAndrew. 1880. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.

Conquering the Skies

Arctic Tern“On the whole page, there was only one picture.  Of a bird.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea.  His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he was trying to turn but couldn’t.  His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water.  The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.  This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.  It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.  The most beautiful…He was so alone.  He was so scared” (19).

In Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, Doug Swieteck knows that feeling of terror, and his life feels like it’s plummeting, especially when his father loses his job and the Swietecks move from their small, dilapidated house in Camillo, New York, to The Dump (as Doug calls it) in Marysville, New York.  In Doug’s eyes, the future doesn’t look so great in “stupid Marysville, New York.”  Nevertheless circumstances catch Doug by surprise and take him on a flight that involves some plummeting, but a lot of soaring as well.

At the story’s start, Doug is disrespectful, proud, and stubborn.  His first experiment in living involves mouthing off to his elders and being as mean as possible, landing him in After School Detention multiple times.  All in all, he imitates his eldest brother Lucas, whom he despises, quite well.  However, after he meets Lillian Spicer, a brown-haired twelve-year-old who loves reading and haunts the public library, and Mr. Powell, an elderly librarian, Doug’s life changes forever.  He tries a new experiment in living.  The experiment doesn’t proceed smoothly, and despite relapses to former behavior, Doug’s character changes.  He learns that there is more to people than meets the eye.  His teachers, almost of all of whom shun him at first because of his bad family (his brother Christopher is suspected of theft), turn out to be sympathetic and helpful instructors after Doug gives them a chance.  The same happens with the acquaintances Doug makes in town.  Gradually, the people of Marysville stop seeing Doug as a Swieteck or as Christopher and start seeing him as himself.

Okay for Now

Gary D. Schmidt shows how friendship can make a difference in a wrecked life and messed-up family.  Friends can build each other up, bring out the best in each other, and believe in Possibility, seizing it with their eye and overcoming obstacles to grasp it with their hand.  Okay for Now, in a tale that makes you laugh and cry, tells how a broken boy in a broken family with a broken life becomes whole, no longer plummets, and is no longer terrified, but conquers the skies, faces the storms ahead, and flies.

An Evening Writing Project…

Last Autumn I set a goal to try and improve my ability to write by setting aside some time to write every night, and although I am not currently following this routine, here is a short story I wrote one of the nights last fall. I wrote it using a “stream of consciousness” approach where I jumped in with just a basic idea (proud blacksmith) and tried to write the whole thing in one go. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to drop any comments or critiques below.

Clang. Tang. Bang. The hammer blows fell in measured time. A shower of sparks exploded with each impact of the hammer’s cold face on the red hot iron. As each blow fell, the muscles of the blacksmith’s arm could be seen to ripple with energy beneath his soot weathered skin. His hair was black, and he wore a thick beard that nearly hid his mouth from view. Bushy eyebrows overshadowed eyes which shown like coals. Called Jakall, he was the great smith of Amverdale, known for creating the arms and armor of such heroes as Merasmus, Ophis, and Bilthar: men who were known for great skill with sword and spear.

It so happened that on this particular day in early spring, before the heroes went out for the summer campaigns, that a certain stranger came to Amverdale. He wore a rough tunic that had once been white, but was now soiled by the dirt and grime of the road. His only possessions were a haggard looking horse, meager rations of food, and a sword at his side.  He approached Jakall, and Jakall, assuming the stranger to be a penniless knight of little worth said:

“Ye may as well pass on stranger, for you’ll find no labor here that can be hired without any coin.”

“Well,” replied the stranger in a dry and raspy voice, “I have no money to pay at the moment, but in some short time I should be in a situation to repay you ten times over.”

“I don’t do work on credit for men of no reputation,” Jakall said, spitting into the fire as he turned away from the stranger.

During all of this interchange the stranger had been bringing out a parcel wrapped in heavy cloth, and begun to unfold it upon Jakall’s bench. After he was done, he drew the hilt of his sword from its sheath and set it on the bench top, saying:

“And what makes you think that I am a man of such little renown? Is it my garb? Or the fact that my horse is worn and thin?”

“Sir…” began the blacksmith spinning toward the stranger angrily, but he was cut off in mid-sentence as he viewed the sword –or more precisely “pieces of the sword” –that lay on his workbench. The hilt and handle were intact, but the blade had been broken above the point of balance, and lay in several shards across the workbench. However, this is not what caught his attention, but rather the insignia that the pommel of the blade bore: a leaping leopard. Only one knight bore that insignia, and he had not been home from the crusades in the wilderness for many years.

“Sir Hector,” the startled blacksmith blurted out, “please forgive my impudence and my harsh words. But sir, please let me forge anew your sword to repayment the hurt that I have done your name.”

“The slur you have cast cannot be rescinded my good sir. Your fiery tongue makes you most unjust and will do you much harm if not kept in check. I wish to have my sword repaired. Can you do it? I am willing to pay you as I said before, no different; but if not, I shall have to find a better blacksmith than yourself who can do the work for me.”

“I will do it, and all else that my Lord commands, should my Lord forgive my rash and disrespectful speech.”

At this the stranger turned to go and said,

“You were forgiven before you asked. Now bear no guilt in your mind about past wrongs, but go forward a better man. Forgiveness heals all wounds, but anger only creates new ones.”