Hope in the Darkness

Since college, the last two months of each year have held a special place in my heart. Part of what has always made holidays helpful for me is how they offer the opportunity to derail from the train-track of everyday existence. By doing so, I can examine the road that has gotten me thus far in a way that is hard to accomplish amid the activities of daily life. Below is passage that I spent some time pondering this past week and found very helpful and timely given the Thanksgiving holiday:

“Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.” Micah 7:8-9

Much like David in Psalm 51, the prophet expresses a hope seated firmly in the goodness and ability of the Lord. Amid his trials, Micah has no problem rectifying his own sinfulness with his status as God’s child -he knows he has committed evil, and with penitent heart submits to the discipline of his father, but all with the forward-looking hope that God will ultimately deliver him and Israel.

Life is easy to live in the weeds: to spend day after day slogging through the routine and grind without giving a thought to the “why’s” of life. Even if we know the hope of the gospel, sometimes darkness can descend: anxiety, depression, shame, recurring sin, broken relationships, broken bodies, and the thorns and thistles of life; however, even when we forget, Christ does not cease to reign. When we sin and wreck our lives, we can stand in hope, even as David and Micah did, knowing that our debt is paid, and deliverance will come. When life is hard and full of pain, we can cry out to God, trusting in his promises, as we remember the words of the Lord to Moses: “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant” (Ex. 6:5).

The last two months of each year are a great time of rejoicing for some, and full of loneliness and hardship for others, but no matter which we are this year, or next, Christ remains unchanged: a deliverer of light on a cold and stormy sea.

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.” Micah 7:18-20

How Victor Hugo Writes Transitions

Writing effective, natural transitions is difficult, as anyone who has ever written an essay, agonizing over how to move from “Firstly,” “Secondly,” “Thirdly,” and “In summary,” to more original expressions, knows.

So how does a classic writer approach paragraph transitions?

I am reading (slowly) Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, right now – the 1976 Norman Denny translation – and think it is interesting how Hugo tackles transitions (aside: Norman Denny seems to have updated some of the English to be more readable to a modern audience, but cross-checking the below excerpt with Isabell Hapgood’s 1887 translation seems to confirm that the paragraph structures are still similar). Below is a passage, and alongside the passage I have explained my understanding of how the transitions function.

Hugo Transitions

What we see is that Hugo uses ideas to transition. The progression of thought between paragraphs is apparent—the topic or concluding sentence of the previous paragraph can be used as a springboard to guide the reader into the following thought (the topic of the current paragraph). Focusing on transitioning between not the bare words on the page but the underlying thoughts make the paragraphs blend together more naturally.

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Addendum

This transitioning technique is on display in the quoted excerpt, but I also chose the passage because of Hugo’s insight here into the realities of being a thought-worker. My profession as a software developer is very much a thought-worker position. I do write, and there are real outcomes to the work, but unlike roofing a house or fixing a toilet, the real brunt of my profession is done in the mind. This is true of writers, scientists, and many other vocations in today’s society. As a result, this passage from Hugo – also a knowledge-worker (or “brain-worker” in Hapgood’s translation) – is apropos.

How I Cook These Days

Watching my Mom and me in the kitchen back in the day must have been quite the contrast: there was Mom, freestyling seasonings with utter abandon; and then there was me, obsessively devoted to adding precisely ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, and not a particle more, because that was what the recipe said.

Well, here I am today, grown and out of the house, in my own kitchen, making my own food, just as I like it. And now it’s my turn to frustrate starry-eyed recipe requests with my inability and unwillingness to precisely measure ingredients, and my general penchant for going off book when it comes to recipes. So, whenever folks ask how to make my fish tacos – which, as they are pretty tasty (no false modesty here), most people do ask – I always convey my apologies for the vagueness of the list I send them.

Said recipe was originally from some unremembered website, which I visited one college weekend when boredom and my love of fish tacos collided. It’s mutated a bit over the years, as the result of various twists of fate. (For example, the use of “ground annatto” is only because I accidentally grabbed the wrong red powder at HEB one time, kicked myself, then read that it was used in Latin American cuisine, particularly in the Yucatán Peninsula, figured, eh, waste not want not, and it’ll probably taste all right, and then it did, so now I just use it all the time.)

However, the basic outline is still much the same, and I still refer to the original draft I wrote on a #10 envelope, which I did for reasons that are unfathomable to my current self. I think the envelope is stained with water, but can’t be sure, because admittedly there is a cocktail recipe scrawled on the other side.

Basically, you’ll need:

  • Corn tortillas
  • Your choice of fish for putting on the corn tortillas; I use frozen tilapia because it’s the cheapest, and I have anti-fishy-flavor friends who I only got to try the tacos by assuring them tilapia was basically flavorless; not to worry, you’re adding so much spice you don’t really need a fishy-flavored fish anyway.
  • Coleslaw, for putting on top of the fish. Also, surprisingly, on top of white rice, if you feel the urge to make that too.

For the corn tortillas:

  • Buy cheapest available at your choice of grocery store; mine is Kroger

For the fish:

  • Lots of paprika
  • Lots of cumin
  • Some chili powder
  • Lots of garlic powder
  • A little cayenne pepper
  • Some salt
  • Some regular pepper
  • Some ground annatto
  • Olive oil

Shake appropriate proportions of spices onto both sides of fish, then cook until done in olive oil. I generally chop the fish in half lengthwise after cooking, thus getting two tacos for every one fish.

For the coleslaw:

  • ¼ cup green onions (or less, if you’re using chives; I vaguely remembered my mom saying something about using less of dried stuff, and I just looked it up and it’s true)
  • ¼ cup cilantro, or more (roughly one bunch, although really I’ve yet to find the limit to the amount of cilantro I can add)
  • 3 tbsp mayo
  • 3 tbsp sour cream
  • 1 tsp-ish-I-usually-end-up-adding-more lime juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 garlic clove or equivalent jarred garlic

Mix all that together in a nice big bowl, then add one bag coleslaw cabbage ‘n’ carrot mix and combine. It doesn’t look like the mayo/sour cream mixture will be enough to coat it all, but trust me, it is. Speaking of mayo and sour cream, you may have to add a little more of each; it really shouldn’t taste predominantly like either; add more lime juice concurrently, until it tastes like it should. If you’ve had some version of fish tacos or are a general connoisseur of Tex-Mex, you probably know sort of what it should be like. If not, I cannot help you.

As mentioned, place this on top of the fish, which are on top of the corn tortillas, and then NOM NOM.

Standing

In the movie Bridge of Spies, Russian character Rudolf Abel tells the protagonist James Donovan a story.  Abel describes how, when he was young, border guards came to his house, beating his parents and his father’s friend.   “Every time they hit him,” Abel says, his father’s friend “stood back up again.  So they hit him harder.  Still he got back to his feet.  I think because of this they stopped the beating.  They let him live.  ‘Stoikiy muzhik.’  I remember them saying.  Which sort of means…‘standing man’” (“Bridge of Spies Quotes”).  This simple story has so much power, yet little do people think about the significance of merely standing.  Standing sounds passive, but it can represent defiance, taking a stance, respect, serving, or waiting expectantly.

Loki and German man in The AvengersAnother movie contains an example of how standing can symbolize defiance.  Partway through The Avengers, the Norse god and villain Loki is in Germany.  A terrified crowd is before him, and Loki commands all the people to kneel.  One by one, they do.  As Loki is exulting in his show of power, though, one old man rises to his feet.  This simple act of standing quietly demonstrates defiance.  Without yelling, without weapons, this old man displays his defiance.  His mere standing up carried a weighty message.

Almost five hundred years ago, another man quietly defied the power before him.  Martin Luther, however, did more than display defiance when he spoke his simple words “here I stand” before the church council at Worms.  By speaking these words, Luther took up a position.  He maintained that he believed that what he had written and spoken was true and that he was going to continue to hold to his beliefs in spite of the Roman Catholic church’s call for recantation.  In the book Democracy in America, French author Alexis de Tocqueville also calls upon his readers to take a stance, this time in defense of true liberty.  Alexis de Tocqueville writes,

There is a liberty of corrupt nature, which is affected by both men and beasts, to do what they list; and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint;… But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good; for this liberty you are to stand with the hazard of your very lives (42).

In addition to taking a position, many traditions around the world connect standing with respect.  When royalty enters a room, people stand to demonstrate respect.  Waiting until the hostess at a dinner has sat down before taking one’s own seat is another tradition associated with good manners and politeness.  People stand when their national anthem is played.  After a musical performance, a standing ovation is the highest form of praise.  Interestingly, some historians think that the tradition of standing during the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s The Messiah originated when King George stood up during the concert to stretch his legs, forcing the rest of the audience to stand because it was impolite to remain seated in his presence.

The Pilgrim's ProgressStanding can also mean that one is serving.  British poet John Milton became blind at a young age, and in a poem he contemplates the purpose of his life and his inability to work because of his blindness.  He concludes the poem by writing, “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts…Thousands at his bidding speed / And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest: / They also serve who only stand and waite” (Milton).  John Bunyan, another famous British author also touched upon the idea of standing and service by naming one of the most remarkable characters in the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress Mr. Standfast.  This character valiantly resists temptation and is one of the strongest Christians characterized in the allegory, ranking up there with the more warrior-like Mr. Great-heart.  A further example appears in the first season of The Crown, the 2016 Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II, where one episode emphasizes how oftentimes the monarch helps most by not doing anything, and sometimes standing firm, resisting the pressure to act, and serving by inaction is the right response, though the hardest task of all.

A final meaning that standing can have is of readiness and waiting with expectation.  In Ephesians, Paul describes the armor of God and calls upon Christians to don this armor.  He concludes the passage by writing, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:13-15).

In a world which constantly calls upon people to do something, to protest, to write, to speak up, Christians sometimes forget and devalue the Mr. Standfasts and stoikiy muzhik.  Sometimes it feels easier to follow the call to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1) than to “stand firm in the faith” (1 Corinthians 16:13).  However, God calls Christians to do both—to pursue holiness and to resist Satan—and promises help in times of need (1 Corinthians 10:13).  While standing firm may lack the glamour of running a race, I think it is important for the church to remember that, just as secular vocations can be as much a form of service to God as pastoral ministry, so running and standing for the LORD are different but integral ways in which Christians serve and obey God.


Works Cited

Bridge of Spies (2015) Quotes.”  IMDb.com, 14 Jun. 2016, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3682448/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu.

Milton, John.  “On His Blindness.”  Poetry Foundation, 14 Sep. 2017, poetryfoundation.org/poems/44750/sonnet-19-when-i-consider-how-my-light-is-spent.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001.  Print.