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A Time Out in Doubting Castle

There’s this novel called by John Bunyan called Pilgrim’s Progress, and a passage in it has been weighing on my mind fairly heavily recently. For a brief recap for those familiar (and a brief intro for those unfamiliar), Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical tale a man named Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. For two centuries after its original publication in 1678, it was the second-most published book just under the King James Bible. Even today, however, this nominal work has a powerful effect.

Doubting Castle: a Summary of the Scene

The scene that hasn’t left me since my second reading of Pilgrim’s Progress a couple of weeks ago is a dark one, so brace yourself. The protagonist Christian and his companion Hopeful are on their way to the Celestial City when, after trying to correct a wrong turn, they take refuge in what seems to be an abandoned castle. Little do they know that this castle is Doubting Castle, and it is home the Giant Despair, who captures them and shackles them in his dungeon.

The Giant Despair goes down to the dungeon to beat Christian and Hopeful with his staff. He beats them to an almost unrecognizable pulp and then leaves to let them heal just a little only to return the next day to do it again. Christian and Hopeful can’t do anything to defend themselves, and they can’t escape, so all they can look forward to is another beating from the Giant Despair.

After a couple of nights, the Giant’s wife Diffidence suggests that Christian and Hopeful kill themselves to escape the pain of Despair’s beatings, so the Giant gives his prisoners two knives. Christian picks his knife up and after much contemplation prepares to go through with it. Hopeful, however, steadies his friend’s hand and reminds him of all the times in the past that the Lord of the Celestial City has rescued them in the past and encourages him that He will do so once again. Hopeful then encourages Christian to be patient and pray, and Christian lowers his blade and falls to sleep.

He wakes up to the Giant Despair beating them again even harder because neither of them killed themselves. After he finishes, the Giant assures them that their destruction is coming soon, and if they wouldn’t take care of it themselves, he would. As the Giant walks back upstairs, Hopeful reminds Christian once again to remain patient and to keep praying. Christian does so, even though he still thinks it would be better to die at his own hand instead of the Giant’s staff.

The next morning, in the literal pit of Despair, Christian suddenly remembers that upon his initial exit of the City of Destruction, he was given the Key of Promise. He reckons that this Key will unlock any lock in Doubting Castle, including his shackles. Lo and behold, it does. Christian and Hopeful escape quickly and quietly just before the dawn of their last day and make it back to safety on the King’s Highway. Before they leave that spot, though, they leave a sign for future travelers urging them to not make the same mistake they did by staying in Doubting Castle.

Time Out: a Dark Night of the Soul

What the fictional characters Christian and Hopeful allegorically undergo is not unlike what every Christian goes through at some point or another. Maybe you’ve been in that dark pit before and have escaped, or maybe you’re still there. Maybe doubting God provides just enough refuge from the pressures and struggles of your reality, or maybe you know the bruises, scars, and whelps of Despair all too well. Maybe a shyness, modesty, or humility due to a lack of self-confidence (definition of diffidence) is keeping you content to stay in such a horrible dungeon, or even worse, making you second-guess the value of your own life.

Times like these are nothing new to the Christian faith; heck, times like these aren’t even new to Jesus himself. Early in his ministry, while he was in the desert, he was tempted to throw himself off a ledge. Later on, before his crucifixion, he prayed that he wouldn’t have to drink from the cup of God’s wrath.

Jesus isn’t the only one in Christianity to deal with this. Church fathers called this phenomenon dejection. In the 16th Century, St. John of the Cross wrote a poem called “The Dark Night of the Soul” which expressed the idea that getting lost in spiritual darkness is a sure-fire way to find the light of Jesus more quickly. There was even a hymn written in 1854 that called “Night, with Ebon Pinion“; the title means “Night with Black Wings,” and it describes Jesus’s last night alone and in the garden.

As I use the phrase “time out,” I use it with great reverence. I’m not saying that God is making us go through these periods as a form of punishment for anything that we’ve done. I’m simply using the phrase to show what it feels like: time away from everyone else…time without everyone else…time out of the light.

With this post, I only want to say this: be patient, keep praying, and hang in there. I’ll end with Hopeful’s words to Christian while in the pit:

“My brother,” said Hopeful, “rememberest thou not how valiant thou hast been heretofore? APOLLYON could not crush thee; nor could all that thou didst hear, or see, or feel, in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What hardship, terror, and amazement, hast thou already gone through – and art thou now nothing but fear? Thou seest that I am in the dungeon with thee, a far weaker man by nature than thou art! Also, this Giant has wounded me as well as thee, and hath also cut off the bread and water from my mouth; and with thee I mourn without the light: but let us exercise a little more patience. Remember how thou playedst the man at Vanity Fair, and wast neither afraid of the chain nor cage, nor yet of bloody death; wherefore let us – at least to avoid the shame that becomes not a Christian to be found in – bear up with patience as well as we can.”

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Jim Croce, Communication, and Social Media

I will rarely ever get political on social media anymore. There is just so much to communication that gets lost between the transmitter and the receiver when the only medium for that which is being communicated is the printed word. I can type something with the intent of it meaning one thing, and you or anyone else could read something entirely different. It happens enough when I post something as trivial as a Seinfeld meme; I can only imagine how it much worse it would pan out if I tried to posit my unsolicited political opinion into the mix.

It’s because social media lacks the other, more qualifiable elements of communication. Elements like vocal intonation and body language and even the very pretextual relationship between the transmitter and the receiver – anything from barely being acquaintances all the way to being the best of friends for years – just aren’t there. And since those elements – the vessels of communication in general – are lacking, the true communication of the message is in jeopardy.

One time, I tried. I really did. It involved a blog post that I have since deleted, but I tried. I wrote one of those “open letters” that contained my unsolicited political voice to a certain group of people. I took it down for three reasons: one, because I did not know the full situation until after I had published my post; two, I was publicly shaming other fellow believers – something Jesus himself was totally against (heck, He was against publicly shaming people in general); and three, deep down, I just did it for the clicks.

Nowadays, I just stick to the finer things in life: family pictures, theological maxims, brief but pertinent social quips, movie reviews, podcasts, Seinfeld memes, and the occasional pun. Of course, I’ll also share any creative endeavor via this blog – like poetry, short stories, and what not – but not much else. Not much else intrigues me anyway, so.

It saddens me, though, to see others fighting on social media. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, high-school friends (former and current), religious and non-religious, everyone is at odds with someone. I know it’s just the way things are; people are people, and “you do you” and all that, but it doesn’t excuse the maliciousness, vitriol, and disrespect on either side.

Then again, if there really is no moral arbiter, then who am I to say who’s right and who’s wrong? In both their messages and the words through which they send them?

Either way, here’s some Jim Croce.

 

I Didn’t Understand the Need for Pop Culture—Until I Read the Bible

Christians who don’t want to engage in popular culture for fear of “conforming to the world” might want to read this (bearing in mind Paul’s advice in “becoming all things to all people so as to save some.”)

TIME

Brian Grasso, a freshman at Duke University, started a discussion this week when he published an op-ed in the Washington Post defending his decision to not read Fun Home, a critically acclaimed graphic novel included on the school’s recommended reading list for incoming freshman. One of several students who refused to read the novel, Grasso explains his decision by quoting the Bible:

Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” This theme is reiterated by Paul who warns, “flee from sexual immorality.”

The problem with this argument is that it equates Fun Home, an award-winning novel written by Alison Bechdel, a MacArthur Genius Award recipient…

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Stories

Here’s a collection of my original stories (if you couldn’t guess that by the title).

The Parable of the Content Man

Written in a folktale style (and intended to be performed with a live audience), this story is about the lives of three men: one who is rich and wants everything, one who is poor and wants anything, and one who is content and needs nothing.

The Gray Lady

A newlywed couple has moved into a new house, but a past resident doesn’t want to share anything, especially a specific golden locket. (WINNER of an annual ghost story contest hosted by our newspaper the Shelbyville Times-Gazette.)

Hold Your Breath

Two kids explore a graveyard only to find that Old Lady Dour – buried days ago – isn’t staying down for long. (Submission to that same contest on another year…this one didn’t even place, but I think it’s okay.)

The Image We’re Made In


What good is a prophet when his words aren’t inspired
by the God that he wants us to know?
He tells us that, one day, we’ll burn in a fire
that roars in the caverns below.

But that’s not the image we’re made in,
the image of suffering and shame
’cause our God, He loves us, and wants us to claim Him
so one day, He’ll call us by name…
and one day, He’ll call us by name.

What good is a watchman when he loses his focus
on enemies approaching the door?
His thoughts are obsessed with the system that broke us
and not on the incoming war.

But that’s not the image we’re made in,
the image of worry and doubt;
our God knows the burden of all of our questions,
and with Him, we’ll figure them out…
and with Him, we’ll figure them out.

What good is a family when everyone only
cares for nobody else but themselves,
when brothers and sisters are cast out and lonely
and all they ever needed was our help?

But that’s not the image we’re made in
the image of being alone;
His death is the binder that brings us together,
and one day, He’ll call us back home…
Hallelujah, we’re going back home.

This is a picture from WOOLFIE by Sybil St. Claire as produced by the Fly Community Theater.

Proclaiming the Gospel Through Live Theater

This past weekend saw the opening and closing for the children’s play at the Fly Arts Center here in Shelbyville. On the whole, it was a great run complete with all the triumphs and hiccups – and all the drama on and off the stage – one can expect from children’s theater. The super-critical side of me is butting heads with my other side that believes it’s nothing a few more weeks of rehearsals couldn’t fix. But the audiences really got into it and the kids enjoyed themselves, and that’s really all I wanted in the first place.

I can’t help but to feel somewhat proud because this was also my first time serving as an assistant director, and that’s what’s really special for me with this production. I’ve enjoyed getting to learn the mechanics of working with a director who’s been there and done that professionally (and has even been paid for it). I essentially count it as a stepping stone that will bring me closer to a career of my own. Directing scenes in school definitely helped me out in understanding how a director should prepare (keyword should), and being able to finally use those skills in a public setting is great.

I also loved getting to work with such cool kids. Siblings abounded in the cast, and it was very interesting to see how family ties stood out in the crowd at first but then opened up to allow healthier bonds of teamwork. That’s where the real magic of theater is, I think: taking complete strangers and uniting them with a purpose.

Most importantly, however, I got to see first hand how art can be used to bring people closer to God. Consider this my testimony.

The Message In Woolfie

The Fly Community Theater’s children’s production was Woolfie by Sybil St. Claire. As the action starts, the reputedly “Big, Bad” Wolf – whose real name is Woolfie – is being prosecuted for crimes including, but not limited to, “impersonating grandmothers, blowing down other people’s houses, and gobbling up little girls.” As it turns out, Woolfie is not as “big” and “bad” as everyone believes he is. It’s essentially a morality play that proves that you can’t judge a book by its cover nor a wolf by his fur…and his big eyes…and his big arms…and his big teeth…

Ultimately, the play taps into the universal law of Truth and how everything works out when we cling to the Truth instead our own misled notions. Woolfie is sentenced to death and would have died had not the Truth been revealed and set him free from those chains. Sounds a lot like Jesus own words, right?

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

Of course, we all like to let pretense get in the way of understanding the Truth because pretense is the path of least resistance. In other words, it’s a lot easier to believe a lie than it is to accept the truth. And one of Old Scratch’s favorite tricks is using our own momentum against us. But we can battle this by not being swayed by this or that and focusing on God’s Truth – that He loves us and wants us back home with him.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

Here’s looking to the next time this all happens again…either in this life or the next.