The Earthquake on the Earth

Nuclear BombEven after all these thousands of years, each generation that comes along keeps thinking there will be a new thing, a better ideal, a revelation, don’t they? The world doesn’t make sense yet, so there must be something more to be discovered.

Wouldn’t that be something? If all the ages of the past were full of darkness and misery just because the philosophy that cracks the code hadn’t been uncovered yet? And of course, mine will be the generation to decipher this mystery. No doubt we are the people, and wisdom will die with us.

The young are strong, and want to do great things, and stand apart from the gloomy masses on the earth. They want change, and no one can deny it’s a gaping need. The thing is, it always has been, and all the striving towards new philosophies has ended in the quagmire of old sins.

The great century that brought us jet engines and helicopters, brought us death camps and gas-showers. It gave us the band-aid and penicillin – and Aryan eugenics. It gave us a glorious civil rights movement – and abortion.  The same era that gave us the radio and the air conditioner, and sliced bread itself, gave us the mushroom over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The truth is, all our imaginings of radical change fall short in one very crucial respect: we fail to recognize that the truth which is, always has been. The moral mandates that are, aren’t new.

What would be a really new thing, would be obedience.

Says Chesterton, in What’s Wrong With The World:

“There is no new ideal imaginable by the madness of modern sophists, which will be anything like so startling as fulfilling any one of the old ones. On the day that any copybook maxim is carried out there will be something like an earthquake on the earth.

The Times Are Nightfall

Dover Beach
Well, the dark is coming on. It has been for some time. But these days the sinking of the sun seems accelerated, and many who have not been noticing are noticing at last. We are living in the twilight of many good things, and it seems shall soon be plunged into the deep night.

SyriaWoman

We see it in the unfree world, where the crest of rage has come down over the countries and desolation goes racking up the corpse count. Where all fences and fortresses are torn down, and the unspeakable has become the undeniable. In the vile cruelty all sides are performing on each other, we see that the times are nightfall indeed.

SyriaChild
And oh, Dover Beach got some things right, for

we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Syria rebels
We see it in the once-free world, where the liberty to love righteousness is slowly sinking to the status of a thing of the past. Where a great web of lies has entangled all the peoples and a trail of deceits has broken all trusts. Where when a man gets up before a body of legislators and speaks truth, he finds himself standing all by himself.

Marriage

Oh, these are the times that try men’s souls. Their light grows less. And a man may judge as he has ever judged. But what is a man to do?

What is a man to do when all his striving and resistance is like so much dust on the wind, and availeth nothing? What is a man to do when the world must, must change, but won’t? What is a man to do when he can’t change the world?

Congress

Hopkins has a few good words on this, the wintertime of the world:

THE TIMES ARE NIGHTFALL
(by Gerard Manley Hopkins)
The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.
And I not help. Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.

Or what is else? There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal.

Dragon Aslan

When a man can’t change the world, he should change. For this is the highest adventure of all.

On Heroism: A Letter to my Children

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. How will I explain to them what to do with the deep-seated, grasping longings they have in them and don’t understand? How will they know they aren’t alone with their wants, that all of humanity pulses with the same passions? – passions that can raise the sinking ship from the waves, or drown it utterly? How will they know that I too know the press of their heartache? I will write a letter… ]

Titanic

My Dear Children,

You want to save the world. God bless you.

How it does need saving! How like it is to an overbold ocean liner, broken on the bergs of the deep and going down. How you want to dive under it and uphold it! How you wish your hands were great like those of God, that you could seize the smokestacks of the terrorized Titanic and take her out. How you want to dispense a thousand lifeboats into the cold darkness. How you want to hang on the heavy bell-ropes of the planet and set up a clamor for help that combs the stars.

This ambition to be a hero is one of the grandest things about the kingdom of youth. Never let anyone belittle it in your hearing, as long as you live. You are wise to let it run in your veins and impassion you. You are wise to look beyond your little self and into the great world, and hurt for it. You are wise to nurture your longing to heal the ravaged globe. Young people, never stop.

There is something you need to know, though. You should know it now, while you are still young, for though it will surely dawn on you when you are old and full of days, it may be too late, then, for much good that might have been. Oh, it may be too late.

You need to know that you are not the caped savior but a passenger on the ship that is going down. The world’s only hero has already been here, and you can add nothing to what He has done. The scared crowds lining the decks are not in need of you, but of something else entirely. And you can only offer it to them if you are sure you have got it.

Know your poor self as deeply as you can bear to. Know your own frailty and your own frame. Know how to laugh at the joke that is you. It is a very good joke.

Come more time, and a little age on your shoulders, you will want to die for something. Maybe you already do. God bless you.

I know the feeling. How small and ultimately insignificant is your little life in the scheme of things. How you ache for the picture to be bigger, for the story to be wider, for something to put it all together, and make it all make sense. How you want to go down fighting for a greater cause. How you want your tiny, rather wretched self to be swallowed up in something ineffable and all-consuming. How you want your one, precious life to be spent on the very best thing.

RussianSoldierWWIIFor this cause men leave all that is dear and familiar and hard-won, and fling themselves recklessly into battles that can’t be won. For this cause a boy will put all his hopes into the barrel of a gun and fire it into the nothingness and fall into the dirt with his life ebbing out. For this cause little bands of brothers will break themselves against the impossible fortresses of tyrants. For this cause young women in new bloom and old women with happy memories and strong, able men and small children have endured slow deaths and dismemberment and decades behind iron bars and gone out singing, singing.

All down the ages the world has been going to war. Because a man needs a thing higher than himself to spend himself on.

This is the one essential condition,” says Dostoevsky, “of human existence: that man should always be able to bow down to something infinitely greater. If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair.”

This ambition to be given up entirely to something entirely beyond you is one of the dearest things about you. Never let anyone poison your mind with myths about your own importance, murmurings about your individual rights and your individual grievances. You are wise to know your own poverty and insufficiency. Never stop knowing it.

There are some other things you need to know, though. You need to know them before you spend yourself on what is not worthy of you. For only one thing is.

The first thing you need to know is the way that evil men can take your best and noblest ideals and exploit them to the detriment of everything you honor and admire. Are men filled with a hunger to be sacrificed grandly? The kings of the earth are eager with ideas for grand sacrifice. They are eager to utilize your goodwill and your humility and your willingness to offer unquestioning obedience, and a man who will be guided by them may soon find himself blowing away the brains of toddlers in a pool of blood in a rice paddy, caught in a war that no one wants to win.

You do not owe your unquestioning obedience to that. Be sure you never offer that kind of allegiance to any of the rulers of the earth. A man may be weak and small, but his life, once he has given it up, is of great value, and may bring great ruin.

Nevertheless, you must not become less humble or less loyal because of this. You must not become embittered. The hunger in you is good. You have but to satisfy it with the thing that is right. You must offer your humility and your loyalty to a worthy commander. There is only one.

There is a second thing you need to know. It is the most important thing of all.

Ultimate heroism does not consist in dying for a thing, but in living for it.

Anyone can die. There is hype and adrenaline and suddenness and the strong, present sense of significance. The significance of death is rarely lost on anyone who comes to meet it face to face.

But to live something out, day in, day out, every tedious, monotonous, fearful, dull minute? Every morning to wake to the same alarm clock and fill your mouth with toothpaste and wear clothes you’ve worn a hundred other days and do the same tiresome work, and brush with the same tiresome people and greet all of this wearisome business with the same quiet joy, and seek in it the end that is higher than you?

Oh, that takes a hero. Oh, that takes a truly mighty man, a truly strong woman. Oh, that takes a power that is higher than you.

Yet that is the heroism that is before you, the bleak road through the thick darkness that severs everything from everything else and veils your eyes to what is occurring on every side. Will you go out without knowing? Because this is the satisfaction for the hunger in your heart and the only preparation to make you fit for the kind of dying that you want to one day do.

Tolkien on the Dark Age

TolkienThrough the recent overwhelmed and overbooked days of summer, in little clusters of free minutes, I have been working through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters and they are fascinating, worth recommending very highly indeed, and worth marking up and taking down for the days to come; for the perilous days that are coming, that are not far off, that will soon be upon us. Indeed, that have already dawned.

In the darkness of his own time, in the war for the soul of the world, from the ravaged British Isle, he wrote to Christopher Tolkien many long and anxious, aching letters. His son, who was young, was away in the war and each thing that was written to him might well be the last thing he would ever read, the last goodbye they would ever say. John Tolkien, who was old, had seen his war-days already, knew to his core the misery of the thing, and, left behind, was filling up his days with the lingering wait. Well, well, did he understand the heartache of his own hero’s saddest song.

And he wrote,

You and I belong to the ever-defeated, never-altogether subdued side…Well, cheers and all that to you, dearest son. We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us). But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water. Also we have still small swords to use.

‘I will not bow before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.’

On Ringbearing & Abiding & 2013

The Lord of The Rings - Bryana Johnson - Having Decided To StayYesterday was the seventh time that my house has welcomed the New Year with the sounds of the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith thundering in the living room. Yes, we watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy into the morning of every New Year’s Day. We have done it on two continents and in three houses and always heralded the event with much jubilation and adrenaline and hype and this is a practice that has blessed my life in probably more ways than I even know.

My history with Tolkien and his colossal epic goes back about nine years, to when I read the books at the age of twelve, along with my sister, and came away from watching The Fellowship of the Ring to find that the whole world felt different. And the world has never been quite the same since.

Cloak - Having Decided To Stay - LOTR - Bryana JohnsonAt first it was the sheer wonder of the story and the way that it opened doors on a world unlike and apart from this one – a fairytale of cosmic proportions. We were children, and our own world was still such a small place to us. The stories were bigger and told of a bigger world. We wanted to incorporate that world into every area of our own. We played the movie soundtracks day and night and read and reread the books. We crafted costumes and wore them unashamedly. At 6:00 AM on cold mornings we slipped out to the woods alone to walk among graceful, imaginary elves and ambush orcs. Also, we worked hard to construct a place where we could convey our experience to the world. It was all just a little ridiculous – in a delicious and enchanting way.

Later, though, those things began to change. We began to grow up and to grow into this poor, old, glory-haunted world. It was not that our love for the stories grew less, but that the love morphed into a different thing, a deeper, stronger, realer thing. We no longer loved Middle-Earth because it was set apart from and better than the world we happen to inhabit. We began to love it because it is the world we inhabit. Just as Tolkien always intended it to be. And we must inhabit it more and more and more.

As I keep growing up, walking more erect, putting away more of the childish things, I find I love these stories deeper in my marrow every year. Every year I find something new to marvel at, and every year this fictional world has something new to tell me about this very real world, every year this fictional war seems to have even greater bearing on this very real war that is closing in on every side. Every year the stories seem just a little more like truth.

Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one,” wrote the German poet Novalis. This sentence has been utter nonsense to me for most of my life. This year, though, I wish to shake the man’s hand quite heartily and congratulate him on his good sense in making such an admirable statement.

The thing about The Lord of the Rings (so I thought, last night, when we were just a few minutes into the first movie) is that it takes place in a world that looks very like the way the real world really looks.

For instance, Tolkien has crafted some people who are very much enamored of the light and of the truth and of beauty. They have strong power at their disposal, because the Ruler listens to them. We have such people in our own world also, and it is to be hoped that we are all aspiring to be among them, but – alas! – to my eyes and to your eyes they don’t all walk with a steady and measured tread and silver in their hair and a tangible grace seeping from their fingertips.

Perhaps, however, they do walk this way in the eyes of God. And the view from the eyes of God is the only definition of reality. Perhaps Tolkien was attempting to force this reality onto our own sight. Perhaps his intention was to fashion a world where the realest things are visible. Whether he thought of it in those terms or not, in some measure, at least, he succeeded in doing that very thing.

I believe it is this that makes these stories like a dream we are waking into, like a reality that is realer than all of the real around us.

In some circles it seems that New Year’s resolutions are going out of style. A number of very intelligent and godly people are writing about how they are not writing out any New Year’s resolutions this year. We are all going to stumble some this year, is part of their reasoning. We are all going to crash headlong in the dirt and fail to keep our promises and look back disappointed at the end of 2013. The important thing is to keep going forward, to keep growing stronger, to keep growing closer to Christ, to keep growing up. They have a point there.

I have been naming my new years since 2008. It is a sort of open-ended New Year’s resolution, like a flag-planting before a battle. There was the Year of Great Awakening first, and the Year of Victory came close on its heels. There was the Year of Glory after that and behind it the Year of Prayer and Shadowfeet. There was the year of Adoration. There has been a host of spectacular titles in my history.

But the only words that really matter are the ones we really live, and mostly my years have not been overwhelming successes but have been a series of little awakenings, a process of growing up, of coming to understand things, and coming to accept the fact that I cannot understand everything. And while growing up is a miracle all in its own right, it is not wrong to be dissatisfied with this sort of life, to insist on pressing in harder and to keep making promises, even though we are far too small and too frail to see them through.

We serve a God of grand promises and great expectations and the issue of our frailty is not a hindrance to Him. Indeed, it is almost a requirement.

God creates out of nothing, so until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him,” wrote Martin Luther. How much of our disappointed history is a result of the fact that we are not little enough, not helpless enough, that we must become less if Jesus is to become great?

It is all too easy to fall prey to the temptation to expect less of God, to make His promises less than they are, to forget that we who are lowly and uninitiated and powerless Halflings have been summoned to walk like Elven queens and princes, trailing glory and holding authority on our tongues. But sometimes the source of our doubting is our refusal to accept that we are those impotent and childish little hobbits, that it is only His grace which can pour out of our fingers, roll off our tongues, lift our eyes.

For this reason I am not afraid to name another year by another splendid and lavish title, to declare again that great glory shall be worked out of my days. Because the title I have chosen this year is one which I hope lowers me into the place where I belong, which invites Him to occupy preeminence.

I have named my new year The Year of Abiding.

To abide is to dwell, and I wish to abide this year, and forever after, in some things which are easily forgotten, and which the epic of The Rings always underscores with brilliance. I wish to abide in the clear and present knowledge of the war that is all around, to abide in the royalty that has been gifted to me, to abide in the dream that is realer than the world itself, the dream that is coming true.

I will not do all of these things all the time, however much I wish it at this moment. I will be stopping short sometimes in thick woods and owning myself thoroughly lost. I will be falling sometimes into puddles, lakes, and quarries. I will be sometimes huddling in a forlorn heap and saying no, I am done with this. When these things come about,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Such is my own prayer for the year we are just stepping into, like the carol over the cradle of the Christ,

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

But it means something else also. The abidan, gebidan words in Old English carried a meaning of waiting, of remaining behind. To abide is to wait. And so the supplication of abide with me is a prayer that cries

stay with me, live with me, OH! might you please wait with me?

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known. (-1 Corinthians 13:12)